Recently in Science and Media Category

Polar Bears In A Snowstorm

Part III: "Do The Inuit Know Something That North Carolinians Don't?"

Polar bears are the largest carnivorous land mammal, yet they can look so cute in pictures -- fuzzy cubs playing in the snow, peering out with little black eyes -- or majestic adult bears floating on pieces of iceberg, fearsome yet vulnerable. Long part of the Inuit culture, the bears live on the polar ice and hunt seals - for decades, the Inuit hardly ever encountered polar bears. But these days they've become dangerous nuisance in villages. Scientists predict that two-thirds of the polar bears will be gone by 2050 due to rapidly melting sea ice. Concerned about their plight, conservation groups have taken them on as cause. Coca-Cola has made the polar bear a mascot as friendly-looking as Winnie-The-Pooh.

Polar Bear

Polar Bear
by Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1920)
(via Wikicommons, Public Domain).

In March, polar bear trade will be a subject of the 40th anniversary Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Scientists in the U.S., Russia and other countries argue the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) should be up-listed as "threatened to extinction", which would impose greater restrictions on trade. But the proposal has its opponents. Once the inconspicuous lone hunter roaming vast stretches of the deserted Arctic, the polar bear is now swept up in world politics.

In our last two posts, we compared the Inuit nations' acceptance of climate change to the attitude of North Carolinians in the United States. The state's leaders dogmatically deny science, then depend on federal and state money and technology to help them recover quickly after frequent hurricanes. The Inuit, on the other hand, can't order-up big Arctic snow-makers and magical Zambonis to build-up and resurface collapsing tundra. They've long been adapting to environmental changes, from DDT in their food sources to the effects of climate change that cause ice and fish and elk and berries to disappear before their eyes. Unlike U.S. politicians, the Inuit joined scientists in force last year to urge stricter carbon emission regimes at the Doha talks.

The Inuit refer to anyone south of the Arctic as a Southerner, as in: "Southerners tell us our food has mercury, slow down eating it... If our food is contaminated we will be affected, but we have little choice." To them, North Carolinians are southerners, most scientists are southerners, and in fact we're all southerners. Imploring us to change our carbon emitting ways, they'll say: "We cannot exist purely by making money, if we do not have our environment we do not survive..."

Southerners' Impositions

But it's not as it appears, a fairy tale about the wisdom of the doomed natives versus the cavalier ignorance of southerners, strip-mall blazing our carbon emitting ways across earth. As we pointed out about the Tuvulans in a climate change story years ago, it's never so simple. It's true, North Carolinans ask Congress to roll back the law that says buildings erected on beaches can't be covered by federal insurance; and it's true that the Inuit sometimes agree with scientists. But ask the Inuit about the polar bears.

Actually you don't have to, the Inuit will tell you. For background, in 2008 The US Fish and Wildlife Service put the polar bear on the Endangered Species list as a "threatened species" based on studies of polar bear population counts and rapidly melting Arctic ice. But the Inuit consider themselves custodians of the polar bears. Part of their heritage, the bears also feature in lucrative hunting businesses. The Inuit reject scientists' predictions of the polar demise. "Southerners often have a narrow perspective, based only on studies..", one man said. Others say the polar bears are endangered by the scientists themselves:

  • "It's Southerners, meddling with caribou, polar bears and whales that endangers animals. This handling and tagging is what harms animals. Wildlife biologist are the ones endangering wildlife."
  • "The bears are entering our communities because they can't hear. Helicopters are damaging their hearing and now they hunt by smell alone. That draws them into our villages."
  • "Bears that are tampered with and handled or tagged will act aggressively, break into cabins and destroy snowmobiles."

Hungry Polar Bears

Males polar bears weigh 1,000 - 1,700 pounds (250-771 kg), so encounters in villages can be frightening. One man out on his snowmobile checking his fox traps one day, when, as it seemed: "a snowdrift alongside the trail reared up and became a large polar bear...". The bears will stalk children and kill sled dogs. Residents of Hall Beach, Nunavut, Canada grapple with this problem on a daily basis, as a local paper recently reported. The mayor explained that bears wander hungrily into towns when they smell walrus meat stored underground to age and ferment. After reading the article, citizens from other Inuit towns wrote in offering suggestions like building community storage lockers. One commented: "We are seeing bears everyday here also (Arviat). Lots of bear patrol and lots of rubber bullets. Put your meat caches away, pick up the seals from your yard. The bears will eventually move on."

Polar Bear Sign

Polar Bear Warning, Longyearbyen, Norway, via Wikicommons.

So while some Inuit blame the scientists for the disappearing bears, the presence of all the marauding bears has other Inuit doubting the scientists about polar bear population decreases.

In their insistence that polar bear populations are healthy, the Inuit are joined by people who don't accept the science on climate change. Denying the polar bear is in danger goes hand in hand with denying climate change, as in, the ice is not melting therefore the polar bears are not disappearing, or vice versa. Frequently, they'll say that populations have increased since the 1950's or 60's or 70's'. But scientists point out that polar bear counts back then were unreliable and that laws curtailing hunting helped sustain populations. In addition to making up their own polar bear counts based on mythical estimations of previous counts, they make up other "science" too. The say the polar bear will adapt, for instance, as if adapting was more like shedding a sweater than evolving over thousands of years.

It's fair to say that getting accurate counts of bears is challenging. The same features that allow bears to sneak up on seals and lunge at unsuspecting snowmobile riders also make them difficult to count by some methods. Last year the Nunavut government did an aerial survey that many claimed showed bear populations growing, and the Nunavut government also increased their hunting quotas. But they used different survey method from previous surveys, so no comparison could be made. Further adding to the complexity of it all there are 19 subpopulations of polar bears in five nations, not all equally imperiled.

Regardless, scientists don't disagree about the species' fate. Ice that's disappearing faster than scientists predicted means that climate change will catch up with today's already shrinking polar bear populations. Scientists estimate that there are about 20,000 bears left. Each year about 600 are hunted by the Inuit in addition to what's taken by poachers.

Polar Bear Economics

With predictions that two-thirds of the population will be gone by mid-century, prices for polar bear hides have skyrocketed. Of course, as demand increases and supply decreases, the Inuit see opportunity.

In their quest to deal with the polar bears on their own terms, the Inuit have found some odd bedfellows, as people usually do in these situations. For example in Alaska U.S., when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated 187,000 square miles of land as protected critical habitat for polar bears, Alaska's native groups (not Inuit) joined oil and gas interests and the State of Alaska and successfully sued to stop the plan.

As for the Inuit, to protect their hunting interests, they vehemently oppose up-listing the bear in the CITES regime, contrary to what his recommended by the U.S., Russia, and other countries. They say: "the Inuit have been directly witnessing the effects of climate change in the Arctic...and are observing more Polar Bears than ever before..." Scientists dire predictions about polar bears, they say, are "claims not based on reality and fact but on misinformation and fear mongering." Joining them, the World Wildlife Fund doesn't support the CITES ban, calling it a distraction from the main goal of mitigating climate change.

In addition to protecting their hunting businesses their also trying to keep hungry bears out of their villages, with the help of some big companies. The town of Arviat, Nunavat (pop. 2,800) has built a fairly elaborate system for bear control. Electric fences help keep bears out of places like dumps and chained sled dog areas. The town pays someone to ride around the perimeter from October to December on an ATV from 12AM to 8AM every day to chase away polar bears. The program is a World Wildlife Fund initiative funded by Coca-Cola. The company has put millions of dollars into various polar bear conservation initiatives. So when it comes to climate science and economic self-interest, do the northerners and southerners have more in common then they would think?

Do The Inuit Know Something That North Carolinians Don't?

Part I: Our Way of Life

When scientists predicted that the sea-level would rise 39 inches along the East Coast by 2100, North Carolina lawmakers promptly drafted legislation instructing state coastal development planners to ignore that science. The legislators said climate change was a "phobia" of scientists that would "quite frankly kill development on the coast". As one lawmaker put it, "nothing proved to me that they can prove those astronomical sea-level rises".

The audacious denial of science caused an uproar from aghast researchers and citizens. So North Carolina lawmakers revised the bill slightly, asking for further study, very slow study, with a report due in 2015. In 2016 they will consider the report, and until then North Carolina towns can act as if there's no tomorrow, as if the seas aren't rising. North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue commented that she thought each town should be free to draw from their own science studies. She allowed the new law, AB 819, to pass without her signature.

This year scientists also studied the effects of climate change in two vast Inuit regions, Nunavik, in northern Quebec, and Nunatsiavut, in Newfoundland and Labrador. They published their findings in a 300 page report: "Time For Action To Deal With Climate Change In Nunavik and Nunatsiavut". The report, aimed at Inuit policy makers and citizens, was featured in the region's Nunatsiaq News, where the summary of findings and recommendations filled the entire front page of its online edition.

Inuit Regions Map
Inuit Regions Map (by Statistics, Canada 2007 w/ permission)

The Inuit Way Of Life

The Inuit seem to take a different approach to dealing with climate change than the North Carolinians - for one, they don't doubt it. The report describes how scientists work with Inuit of all ages to exchange knowledge and plan for climate change, although for years, while other nations argued the reality of global warming, the Inuit were busy adapting, because they had to.

They've been living through global warming changes since the 1990s, so the results of climate change are a fact of life. Spring arrives earlier each year, fall later. Berries that the Inuit harvest are being crowded out by other shrubbery. Caribou herds shrink as the once abundant animals migrate north or starve. Glaciers have lost significant mass, and the ice that the Inuit traveled over safely for generations is melting in unexpected places, sometimes killing unsuspecting hunters. The Inuit believe the climate scientists' predictions, that precipitation will increase 10-25% and temperatures will rise of 3-4 degrees Celsius.

Perma...frost

For generations, the Inuit hunted and fished - caribou, seal, Arctic Charr, narwhal, and game birds. Children were taught to read and understand the clouds, the snow, the ice floes, the glaciers, and the animals. Through to the mid-20th century, the Inuit were nomadic, as this 1959 piece dryly depicts, and as one man recounts in the film "Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change": "As we were traveling my mother went into labor, and my father quickly built an igloo...that was the way of life".

Their way of life changed in the mid-20th century, when they established permanent communities. They still hunt, know their ice floes and live close to the environment, but they're no longer nomads, building igloos of frozen snow blocks in the winter and erecting tents in the summer. Instead they build homes in towns, often on permafrost. Permafrost was once a sound foundation, but it's now affected by climate change, as residents of Pangnirtung, Nunavut were abruptly reminded one spring.

A river runs through Pangnirtung, and one morning residents awoke to thunderous rushing water that tossed boulders ahead of it, raucously carving channels through the permafrost down to bedrock, causing river banks to cave in, and taking out two bridges that connected the town. As one person described the chaos:

"Every single night there was a new event. There was a new crack opening, stuff collapsing. It was amazing to see, just fascinating. It looked like an earthquake. There were a lot of elders down there, and they were really upset. There is a lot of history in pieces of the river for them. They would clean sealskins there and polar bear skins, and they would remember people being at those places, and those places don't exist anymore. There were elders in tears."

Kids in Pangnirtung wrote about that event, the melting glaciers, the falling bridges, the sewage that had to be dumped into the ocean.... The kids don't wonder why it happened, don't ask whether this particular event is from global warming, they write: "This is what happened in Pangnirtung...because of climate change. We really need to stop what we are doing to this planet."

The Royal We...Who Suck It Up

In the US, climate change seemed to sneak up on us more slowly. Many people live and work inside and only glance occasionally at the weather out their windows. We've always had storms, so it was hard to say whether any one was a harbinger of climate change or not. Hurricane Andrew in 1992? Hurricane Katrina 2005? Irene, 2011? Sandy, 2012? The fires in the West, the floods in the Midwest, the tornadoes in the Southeast?

AnsgarWalkBabyCarriage

Mother with Baby Carriage
Cape Dorset (2002) by Ansgar Walk (WikiMedia Commons)

Although we've had plenty of warnings from scientists as well as obvious weather changes and events, the US has been disastrously slow in acknowledging climate change. Maybe this is why the extreme weather of the past few years has seemed abrupt and shocking to citizens as well as to politicians surveying the damage with pathos. When North Carolina was hit by 92 tornadoes one Saturday afternoon in April, 2011, devastating towns and communities, Governor Bev Perdue told the New York Times that she was "nearly in tears touring damaged areas".

Legislators like those who lead North Carolina argue their right to ignore science. They help constituents ignore science too, by facilitating efficient mop-up and rebuilding in the wake of ever more severe disasters. After the tornadoes Governor Perdue assured people via the New York Times that, "she had been in contact with President Obama and anticipated that a federal state of emergency would be declared by week's end"...and had also "met with the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)..." Many farmers lost their crops and machinery and buildings and may not have had insurance; many families' lost their homes when tornadoes blew them to bits. But North Carolinians were stoic, Perdue said: "We understand how to face adversity and suck it up".

The Inuit may be in an even more precarious position, sucking-it-up-wise, than North Carolinians. As one Inuit said: "We cannot exist purely by making money, if we do not have our environment we do not survive...." The Inuit cannot control the carbon emissions of Canada and the US, or those of burgeoning emitters like China. They must muster whatever mitigation measures they can, such as those suggested in one government pamphlet: "The Homeowner's Guide to Permafrost".

They can also cajole and plead, as they did at Doha, for reduced carbon emissions and compensation from emitters to help with mitigation. Inuit leader Mary Simon has said: "If we think small, our actions will be small, like decisions made by children. But now, our world has to think like adults. We must act more intelligently. Our world leaders must do the same."

---------------

(To Be Continued...)

World AIDS Day, 2012

Today is 25th World AIDS Day, so more people than usual spent time last week reading about the world's progress conquering AIDS. In good news, deaths from AIDS have declined. In Sub-Saharan Africa they have declined by 32% in the last 5 years, continuing an excellent trend. But how do we perceive the progress? We wrote on World AIDS Day, 2009 about how Google tried to correct our search "HIV infections decrease", to "HIV infections increase".

The first search phrase, ending with "decrease", yielded only 1,940,000 results in .22 seconds, whereas the second, ending with "increase", gave 3,550,000 results in .18 seconds.

If Google was tracking a trend, they were wrong, because by 2009 HIV infections had decreased by 15% in 10 years. But we in the world were very accustomed to bad news about HIV infections and AIDS, as Google documented. Today, three years later, there's even better news for HIV/AIDS - on the drug development front, as well as on detection, treatment, and prevention fronts. That was an example in 2009 of how false bad news overwhelmed positive news (via a Google algorithm)

Today, the bad news is that people still die of AIDS all over the world - in Russia, China, Asia, Africa, and the US, where public health officials recently recommended that people ages 15-64 be tested for HIV. African countries, especially in Sub-Saharan countries, still have the most cases of HIV infected people, and many of people aren't being treated for what is basically affordably treatable. But how should we talk about this bad news? That is the subject of this post.

But the Bad News, How Shall We Put It? Shalll We Ignore It?

In the past few years an interesting conflict has arisen about news in Africa. Critics complain that Western media can't take its eyes off the cliched, ailing, and violent aspects of the African continent, thus giving an inaccurate, un-nuanced and harmful view of its many countries. Nicholas Kristof is a popular target.

The group Radi-Aid released a parody video urging Africans to give money to send radiators to Norway ("frostbite kills too"). Produced by Norwegian students, it mocks this so-called "poverty porn" in the style of the 1984 Band-Aid fund raiser. It's a charming video and relays a potent message. But realize that the Radi-Aid video mocks something that's 25 years old - as in, what can't you mock from 1984?

But beside that minor quibble, of course, I see their point, I think anyone can. If you've ever traveled, you've probably run into inaccurate media portrayals of your country that are just crazy. I remember reading an English paper in Asia that had only bizarre stories about the US, things like - Woman in Tennessee Found Herself In Closet Stomping Beetles. What? You had no idea where they found it -- could they have just made it up? Based on American TV shows, little kids would ask me if I ever got shot in a gunfight - NOO?

Cultural misconceptions are legion and universally perpetuated. I'm sure small towns in the Mid-West that occasionally get besieged by floods and tornadoes feel betrayed by the mainstream media too - Hey wait! we have great potlucks here and there's the most amazing other stuff too! New Orleans must have felt that way during and after Katrina. C'mon! Shot after shot of all those people in the stadium? It's not only Africa that's the subject of inaccurate, negative media portrayals, it's every other country, town and borough, and all subjects too - science, math, economics, election polling, women...they all have their bad day via the media and press.

Aid Solicitations, In the Eyes of The Beholder?

For African countries, a lot of so-called poverty-porn starts with international non-governmental organizations (INGOs). INGOs do use sympathy for fund-raising -- large-eyed children dragging teddy bears, or gathered around looking up at the camera pathetically, or forlorn in barren, monochromatic surroundings. To me it gets a little gross, but they use what works, what gets people to reach into their pockets and give money. These images get picked up or pushed upon the media and used as news. Here's a clear example of how deceptive this imagery can be. But these stories don't comprise all the news of any country.

Some commentators have pointed to what they say are "better" portrayals of Africa that could be used to fundraise. In one, a cute kid in a video acts out an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, interspersed with the movie's gunfight where "2000" people get killed. The video describes him as smart and articulate, without mentioning or questioning as far as I could tell the especially violent part of American culture that the ~5 year old is copying so very, very accurately. So clearly, different people find different solicitations using kids appealing. Some people take offense to a small child holding a bowl up, but have no problem with a small child acting out extreme violence with a pretend gun followed by a plea for donations. Personally, I have as much problem with the second as the first, and would also ask while we're at it -- shouldn't we question the ethics of using a child for fund-raising at all? Or is it ok as long as the child is wearing a shirt and not holding a bowl? (Then there are whole factions of international development that abhor aid altogether and they also have some good points that I'm not going to talk about here.)

Maybe News About Malaria Shouldn't Focus on Africa, Where 90% of All Cases Occur?

To their point, many other countries, India, the US, China, have crushing poverty, but aren't necessarily defined by it, as critics claim Africa is by Western media. That may be true, but when it comes to preventable infectious disease, 99% of people who die from AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis (TB) live in the developing world, and the center of the HIV/AIDS epidemic is still in sub-Saharan Africa, where 70% of all new infections among adults and 91% of new infections among children occur. Malaria kills about 780,000 people each year, and 90% of malaria cases are in Africa.

Such illness and death devastate families, workers, and economies. When mining companies in South Africa started treating workers for AIDS and malaria, they had a business goal, stop lost productivity. Similarly, in our global economy, Asia's and Africa's problems and successes affect the world. That means that how African nations attend to public health influences our own public health and impacts our companies that invest in Africa.

Reporting on Africa is not just about Africa, it's about us in the West too. Reporting is not a selfless endeavor. We absolutely should be reporting on Africa's "bad" news (not exclusively of course). Our public health problems (e.g. infectious disease, antibiotic resistance) derive from and are dependent on not only our own public health systems, but also those of developing nations. Our health depends on the policies, laws and regulations all nations produce and uphold for preventing and treating disease, and for drugs and pharmaceutical companies.

We understand that Africa knows investors want stable countries to invest in. African nations naturally want to discourage negative foreign media. But is it the job of responsible media to protect the image of nations? Or is it the job of responsible media, say American or European media, to report on issues that might impact (or interest) its citizens - like public health environments in countries like Africa or Asia or wherever that might promote pharmaceutical regimes that foster antibiotic resistance for instance, or public health environments that allow pandemics to spread for example?

Progress of International Development

For close to a century, international development has sought to raise basic standard of living the world over, not just Africa, but South America, Asia, Central America and parts of North America. Driven by various agendas and business interests and research, we've compiled a long history of what has worked and not worked. For many reasons, what seemed to work in Asia, South America, Central America, etc. didn't work well in Africa. In addition, various national tragedies bogged down progress there. No sooner was apartheid defeated in South Africa, for instance, then AIDS struck. Journalists weren't wrong to cover these events.

Journalists reporting these stories have also sometimes brought needed attention that often benefits the subjects. For instance media outlets reported on the 39 pharmaceutical countries that sued South Africa when it tried to import affordable AIDS drugs at the height of the AIDS epidemic. The companies eventually dropped the suit. When President Mbeki refused to acknowledge that HIV caused AIDS, the media was there. The media now has more opportunity to report positive AIDS news.

Prosperity To Spare

Recent prosperity in the west gave people the means to donate money and ideas for aid organizations. Take the Gates Foundation, founded in 1994. This 2001 Seattle Post Intelligencer article writes about how Bill Gates started slowly learning about international development and health needs in 1998:

"I had no idea," the Microsoft co-founder said. "I learned a lot about the whole vaccine miracle, about how effective they are and yet millions were still dying from these diseases.

"So we decided, jeez, the impact we could have by getting vaccines to these children and getting more funding for research into new vaccines could be just incredible."

That was only about fifteen years ago. A world business leader "had no idea" about preventable diseases in Africa. It's easy not to realize how many advances have been made in the past few decades, in part because what was unheard of in 2000 has now became common knowledge to everyone. Globalization of business has brought increasing attention to development issues that are no longer "a world away". But make not mistake, most of these ideas have been around for decades, like the fact that women's education is key to development. Vaccines have long been (albeit controversially) considered the ideal solution to diseases.

What's new is that foundations like the Gates Foundation are increasingly media savvy, and the media is increasingly in tune with the goals of development. This environment made it possible for Kristof to start writing what he did, and in many ways his articles were in synch with US development goals and rhetoric. (Part of the rational for invading Afghanistan, for instance was women's education.) But many of the most popular articles, for instance Kristof's, also opened readers' eyes to both positive as well as alarming stories outside of their mostly elite, privileged self-indulgent New York Times world view. Not a bad thing. Increasingly, global connections have eased people's ability to travel to different countries, increased curiosity about different cultures, and along with that, encouraged inclinations to want to help (I'm not going to argue whether the burgeoning aid industry is good or bad, but some of the 'wanting to help' inclinations, are selfless).

So Does Media Portray Africa Too Negatively?

A recent BBC program asked the question at a conference in Kampala, Uganda: Is media propagating negative stereotypes of Africa? The opinions were very interesting, ranging from a couple of people who that said African leaders themselves inflate problems in order to get foreign aid, to those who said that Africa was seen not as a problem but as an investment opportunity for many countries.

Of course there should be positive stories about African countries. But don't ignore the good that comes publicizing problems. While South Africa struggled with its AIDS crisis with the world advocating for its citizens, countries like China for years suppressed news of its AIDS epidemic. Other alternatives exist also, reporters and columnists who ignore and glaze over tragedy, and focus only on business that privileges the elite, and ignore those who are not in the elite. You can find those stories anywhere, if you would prefer them.

"Black Tuesday" and South Africa's Secrecy Bill

On October 19, 1977, the apartheid government of South Africa banned 19 news publications and organizations who stood with the Black Consciousness Movement, including, The World, the Sunday World, and Pro Veritas.

ANCWikipedia.jpg

The National Press Club called on sympathizers to wear black clothes, ribbons, and armbands, and since then, October 19th has been referred to as Black Wednesday.

Black Tuesday

Now, 34 years later, some South African media groups refer to Tuesday, November 22, 2011, as "Black Tuesday". Why? That was the date the lower house of the South African Parliament controlled by the African National Congress (ANC) approved the Protection of State Information Information Bill, 229-107. The bill will allow the state to classify documents as "secret" in the name of "national interest". Anyone caught possessing such a document would serve 25 years in jail. The bill will be debated and voted at the upper house of parliament, the ANC controlled National Council of Provinces, before it goes to President Zuma to sign. [The Wikipedia page for South Africa's ruling political party the African National Congress (ANC) was temporarily "censored" in protest of the secrecy law, shown here]

When Governments Aim to "Own" The Media

South Africa's National Editor's Forum chairman, Mondli Makhanya, said the press corps were devastated
"watching the bill become law." As he put it:

"We never thought we would come here dressed in black to witness the Constitution of our country being betrayed by those who built it."

The motivations behind the bill are of course suspect. The media has been avidly covering the antics of the wife of the ANC's State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele, convicted of running an international drug ring. We previously covered President Mbeki's threats against the media for their coverage of his AIDS and public health policies and corrupt public health minister. Two years ago, we wrote on President Zuma's successful bid to get the National Prosecution Authority (NPA) to drop 16 charges against him related to several billion dollars in bribes for arms deals, also well-covered by the media. More recently, the Sunday Times reported that Zuma's government spokesperson Mac Maharaj sued newspapers reporting about the 1.2 million French francs paid to his wife to facilitate arms deals. In the two years of Zuma's presidency, the press has fairly well documented this steady stream of allegations and misuse of official funds.

Hypocrisies of the Powerful

Perhaps there's no reason to ask then, if Zuma will sign the bill. Acronym Required has checked-in on the ANC's continued attempts to censor the vibrant South African media over public health issues over the years. Former President Thabo Mbeki expended hundred of thousands of spoken as well as written words typed into his weekly reports excoriating the media for covering the horrific conditions in hospitals, corruption, the lack of public infrastructure, the broken promises of his administration, and his twisted logic for not dealing with the AIDS crisis.

President Zuma seems to be taking it one step further by backing up rhetoric with more publicly forceful maneuvers. Last year we told parts of journalist Mzilikazi wa Africa's story of being kidnapped by the police as he was investigating ANC corruption in "South Africa'a Media Crackdown."

The officers who kidnapped wa Africa pestered him about his investigation of ANC officers in the Mpumalanga province. They tried to extract his sources. They trumped up charges accusing him of fraud, forgery and passing forged documents that were later dismissed, and tried to force him to sign an admission of guilt. Under the new law, the documents that wa Africa received about the corruption and murders in Mpumalanga would be illegal for him to possess.

President Zuma has vigorously put down widespread outcry against the secrecy bill. He said that concerns were absurd and proclaimed the ANC to be a vigorous defender of the constitution. He continually accuses journalists of trampling the rights of others, who must "have recourse through legitimate institutions". As Zuma said in weekly address (August, 2010):

"The media has put itself on the pedestal of being the guardian. We therefore have the right to ask, who is guarding the guardian? All institutions, even parliament, has mechanisms in place to keep them in check."

Zuma accused the media, as did Mbeki before him, of not "reflecting the society it claims to protect and represent". Worst of all, he said, deploying the usual ANC strategy, the media defames the ANC party that worked so hard against apartheid. This isn't just Africa's problem, he pointed out, using Russia as an improbable example:

"Let us move beyond the hysteria, let the real debate begin. Our first point is that before looking at what they regard as external threats and perceived external threats, the media should conduct introspection first. During our State visit to Russia a week ago, Russian television was running a promotional jingle saying: 'How dependent is the independent media? Who pays for the news?'"

There's hardly a need to point out again, as we did last year, that using Russia, where investigative journalists and state critics regularly get murdered, to bolster professed ANC benevolence seems cynical and sinister.

Rebukes From Those Who Know

Many see the bill as a harbinger of more serious curtailments of freedom that the country has struggled to overcome in the 17 years since apartheid. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said in an address about the Chinese suppression of Tibetans that the current ANC government was worse than the apartheid government, when "at least you could expect to eat." He said that by now you should expect a South African government to be "sensitive to the sentiments of the constitution", and continued:

"You, President Zuma and your government, you do not represent me. You and your government represent your own interests. I am warning you, as I warned the [pro-apartheid] nationalists, one day we will start praying for the defeat of the ANC government."

A strong independent media (if there is such a thing), and investigative journalism are keystones to democracy, in South Africa, America, and everywhere else. A strong democracy is critical to science, to commerce, to health, to welfare, and to all of civil society. South Africa's Bill of Rights supposedly supports these ideas, supports:

"freedom of expression, which includes freedom of the press and other media; freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; freedom of artistic creativity; and academic freedom and freedom of scientific research".

It also gives anyone the right to:

"Any information held by the state; and any information that is held by another person and that is required for the exercise or protection of any rights."

Constitutional scholars lay out excellent arguments why this bill is unconstitutional2, and the opposition party has said that if Zuma signs the bill, they would push for constitutional review in the Constitutional Court. Zuma's highly political evasion of charges against him, as well as other irregularities, have shown that the judiciary and other institutions are increasingly in the grip of the ANC. Snuffing out investigative journalism will accelerate that trend.

---------

1 I should note that the move is not endorsed by smaller press who think that "Black Wednesday" should not be conflated with "press freedom" by major newspapers dependent on advertisers in their battle with the government over advertising spend. (Here's an article on that.)

2 The website Constitutionally Speaking has an excellent discussion of this issue, that I found unfortunately, after this was post was written. Go there for a thorough presentation of that scholar's reasoning and for the comment discussion that follows.

The 1987 movie Cry Freedom offers a look at a South African reporter muzzled covering the anti-apartheid movement and the suspicious murder of activist-hero Steve Biko. I liked the movie when I watched it a couple of years ago, although I have to warn you that the mainstream media reviews called the movie a watered down version of the real story, with Robert Ebert saying it was: "sort of a liberal yuppie version of that Disney movie where the brave East German family builds a hot-air balloon and floats to freedom." I'm sure it would be fascinating to compare their harsh criticism of the movie to the MSM watered down coverage of years of South Africa's apartheid, but I'll leave that for another time.

Earthquake Prediction in Oklahoma and L'Aquila

If you look at the USGS earthquake map of the US, it all seems fairly predictable. The West Coast has earthquakes, - mostly in California. The rest of the country - not so much. Until recently. The 5.8 East Coast earthquake last August left people unharmed but "rattled". Last month, Oklahoma of all places, had a slew of earthquakes, including one that was 5.6.

Sparks, Oklahoma - Redefining Red State

That particular area of Oklahoma, around where the pipeline is slated to go through, has had over 1000 earthquakes in the past year, but historically had only 50 earthquakes a year. The biggest of the latest series of Oklahoma earthquakes measured 5.6 on the Richter scale. It was pretty scary, as the San Francisco Chronicle, reported: "'WHAM!', said Joe Reneau, 75, gesturing with swipes of his arms. 'I thought in my mind the house would stand, but then again, maybe not.'"

There's speculation that recent fracking activity is causing the spike in earthquakes. The way the media has it, fracking might precipitate earthquakes -- or it might not. IEEE Spectrum weighs in on the issue noting that yes, human activities like fracking and dam-building definitely cause seismic activity along established faultlines. Indeed, the USGS put out a report earlier this year linking fracking in Oklahoma to an increase in smaller temblors. Other experts say that fracking could only cause small earthquakes.Oklahoma.jpg A Stanford geologist characterized it: "as if you knocked a gallon of milk off the table".

The spate of activity had Oklahoma residents worried. If you've ever been through a series of earthquakes you understand the skittishness. Reeling from the earthquake and aftershocks, their unease became ripe breeding ground for rumors. One of the rumors said officials knew of another impending earthquake even larger than the 5.6 earthquake, but weren't telling residents. In response, officials held a meeting to quell both the rumors and the fears a couple of weeks ago.

Apparently 400 to 500 people attended the two hour meeting organized by the American Red Cross, and officials presented from the Oklahoma Geological Survey, state Emergency Management Department, Lincoln County emergency management office, state Insurance Department, Salvation Army and other groups. They moved the meeting to a bigger facility to accommodate the huge turnout. They wanted to dispel the rumors. As Newsok.com reported: "There should be no bigger quake coming, said G. Randy Keller, director of the OGS" Officials assured people they most likely wouldn't feel the aftershocks, and that governments were prepared for whatever happened. All things you would expect them to say.

Nothing's Too Different in Oklahoma

Officials thought the Oklahoma audience was perhaps frustrated by the experts inability to explain the spate of the earthquakes, though they were reassured. And that nervousness in Oklahoma is just the same as nervousness anywhere -- except Japan, I guess where they've had hundreds of aftershocks in the 5-7 range since Fukushima, including a 5.9 earthquake today, and they all just seem ho-hum about it.

In San Diego, California, the Juanita Faultline has recently caused a series of small earthquakes, leading SignsOnSanDiego to interview a local geologist about the likelihood of another earthquake. The article, "Should We Worry About Shaking on San Jacinto Fault?" illustrates the difficulty geologists have predicting the next earthquake. Foreshocks and tiny shocks called microseismicity sometimes precede earthquakes, but often they don't. The geologist spent most of the interview, citing the history of earthquakes along known faultlines to answer questions about the "next earthquake".

In Berkeley, California last month, a series of earthquakes along the Hayward fault led to similar nervousness in the Bay Area about the possibility of a larger temblor. Speculation abounded, and again geologists worked to get the facts out based on what they know about "hazard probabilities" along Califonia faults. Small earthquakes don't relieve stress they said. Mathematically, they noted, there's a very small chance that on any given day after a series of small earthquakes.

This all seems slightly analogous to a doctor predicting your likelihood of getting a particular disease by looking at your family's medical history. They can tell you that you too, are at risk of a heart attack. The insurance company might be more precise. And along some faultlines, geologists know the history and other details enough to say in the next 30 years, the probability of and earthquake larger then 6.5, say, is 65%.

And in L'Aquila?

Now a good part of the US knows what a temblor feels like, and many people have been told by experts to not worry. We can then imagine how the situation erupted after scientists reassured citizens of L'Aquila in March, 2009, that an earthquake was unlikely. In addition to the earthquakes, Italian citizens were subjected to the prognostications of a fellow citizen with no scientific knowledge who busied himself making dire predictions prior to the earthquake (similar to the earthquake soothsayer we recently blogged about, featured on FOX News.)

The next week, a 6.3 earthquake killed 309 people. A group calling themselves "309 martyrs" sued seven scientists. They accused the scientists of not providing enough evidence about both the hazardous buildings and risks of an earthquake. The town is also suing for about $68m in damages.

In Oklahoma and L'Aquila, multiple officials met with hundreds of people and the press. The press later noted cheerfully that scientists "calmed" peoples fears and "reassured" them. Through all that communication, it's clear that there might be a possibility for misinterpretation?

The trial has been delayed multiple times and according to people who know the Italian court system, will most likely drag on for years. The episode chills earthquake scientists, who constantly grapple with how to relay risks in ways that people understand without freaking them out. It's a science in progress.

Hurricane Irene Disaster Management

Just Like 1908?

After Hurricane Irene, some people joked that the media sees hurricanes as a grand opportunity to dress up in the newest outdoor gear and brace against the howling wind, downed trees, and rain driving sideways (although sometimes pranksters steal the show.) Hurricanes have all the right elements for media profiteering too - drama, death, destruction and lots of "human interest". But to build drama, you need to build up the storm. On Friday night, August 25th, we linked to these four news stories in successive Tweets:

  • Hurricane Irene could be the most destructive hurricane to strike New York City since: 1903 (Published August 26, 2011) 25 Aug tweet acronymrequired
  • Hurricane Irene could be the most destructive hurricane to strike New York City since: 1908 (Published August 24, 2011) 25 Aug tweet acronymrequired
  • Hurricane Irene could be the most destructive hurricane to strike New York City since: 1938 (Published August 26, 2011 10:28 p.m. EDT) 25 Aug tweet acronymrequired
  • Hurricane Irene could be the most destructive hurricane to strike New York City since: 1985 (Published August 26, 2011 1:23AM) 25 Aug tweet acronymrequired

Not only can't forecasters predict with 100% accuracy the power or path of a storm, but certainly, as we showed, newspaper reporters can't. The media can't necessarily be faulted though, after all a hurricane is a moving target. In fact, as long as everyone tunes in, the media actually plays an helpful role public safety role, that is by creating more drama on television then any one person can witness outside, over-the-top media coverage can actually aid public safety officials.

The list of East Coast storms throughout history is extensive, but reporters plucked somewhat random mix of historical events out of the hundreds available: The so called Vagabond Hurricane of 1903, produced 65mph winds in Central Park; the deadly New England Hurricane of 1938, was a Category 3 at landfall; and Hurricane Gloria in 1985 struck as a Category 2 hurricane. It's unclear what storm in 1908 the Lehigh Valley Morning Call reporter was talking about, since none of the storms that year amounted to much, and on August 24th 2011, when the Morning Call published, most reporters were comparing Irene to Hurricane Katrina, not some random storm that blew out to sea in the Caribbean. Maybe the reporter hadn't had their morning coffee.

But there you have it, taken together, it's clear that storms can go many different ways and we don't have the technical or intuitive abilities to predict them exactly accurately, or at least to the degree that audiences seem to be demanding after the event.

That Healthy Cry, The Complainer - Alive and Well

When Irene actually hit, the hurricane created lots of flooding and destruction not to be trifled with. But as the New York Times reported after the storm, some New Yorkers were peeved at the pre-storm hype. New Yorkers expressed anger at the cops on bullhorns telling people to go inside, anger at the storm itself for not living up to its potential, and of course anger with Mayor Bloomberg. One person complained Bloomberg made people spend too much money: "The tuna fish and the other food, O.K., we're going to eat it. I don't need all this water and batteries, though."

But lets compare this outcome with the great bungling of Katrina in 2005, to see how things can easily go the other way. At least 1,836 people died in Katrina and property damage was estimated to be $81 billion 2005 USD.

FEMA took most of the fall for the Hurricane Katrina management disaster, along with FEMA administrator Michael Brown ,who appeared utterly useless despite fervent support from George W. Bush. As we wrote at the time in "FEMA- Turkey Farm Redux?", FEMA had failed US citizens in multiple hurricanes during the administration of George H.W. Bush in the 1980's, and had been expertly revived and made useful during the Bill Clinton administration under the leadership of James E. Witt. Then George W. Bush decimated the revived FEMA, using it as his father had. As the House Appropriations Committee reported in 1992, FEMA had been used as a "political dumping ground, 'a turkey farm', if you will, where large numbers of positions exist that can be conveniently and quietly filled by political appointment". (Washington Post July 31)

So given the recent history of Katrina, and the debacles of several state and city governments in last winter's multiple blizzards, it seems inane that so many people who lived through those disasters now fault Bloomberg as "the boy who cried wolf". But then people might complain no matter what, and given the somewhat unpredictable path of storms, I think everyone would agree that it's better to be alive complaining, than dead and swept out to sea because of lack of government warning.

Assuring Future Disasters are Worse

Of course we don't know how the government would have fared in a worse disaster. And while people complain about the lack of a bigger hurricane, FEMA is currently hindered from helping with Irene. Why? Apparently, a FEMA funding bill is being held up in the Senate while politicians with idiosyncratic proclivities indulge their hypocritical "family values" by meticulously delineating all the organizations that can't be paid with FEMA money.

To our detriment, we ignore larger issues while we complain. FEMA's role takes a role not only during and after a hurricane, but in adequately preparing people ahead of time, as we wrote in "FEMA and Disaster Preparedness". Neither FEMA nor state or local governments adequately helped prepare for Katrina, as we detailed in: "Disaster Preparedness - Can We?". Although states and cities didn't play as large a role in the the federal government failings as G.W. Bush would later say, rewriting of history, their role is important.

Of course, disaster preparedness means not only motivating citizens to buy supplies and stay inside, not only mobilizing a deft response, but shoring up infrastructure ahead of time. In the wake of Katrina, we all heard about the failure of governments to build adequate New Orlean's levees, an issue Acronym Required wrote about in "Levees - Our Blunder". However before Katrina, few people realized just how flagrantly officials ignored warnings about the weak levees. When the hurricane breached the walls, politicians acted surprised, that surprise masking the blunt unwillingness of politicians and US citizens to support and fund infrastructure.

We wrote about more widespread infrastructure failings in 2007, in "Guano Takes the Bridge, Pigeons Take the Fall". But infrastructure is easy to ignore. Just as vociferously as citizens complain about the hype preceding Hurricane Irene1, they remain stunningly silent on the lack of infrastructure preparedness. In fact there's loud clamoring to dismantle the very agencies that assure our safety. Obama has tried in some ways to address the infrastructure problem, not without criticism.

In the case of the New Orleans levees, the New Orlean's Times-Picayune reports that although $10 billion has been spent upgrading the levees, the Army Corps of Engineers is giving them a failing grade. The report says that the refurbished levees might stand a 100 year event, but a larger event will result in thousands of deaths and billions of dollars in property damage. This was exactly the criticism of the levees after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

----------------------

1 Here's an interesting analysis of the hype-factor of news relating to Hurricane Irene. The author uses a quantity of publications analysis to argue is that the storm was not hyped.

Autism and the Internet, Drugs, Television, Rain, the Victorian Era & the Media

New Scientists Who Don't Do Science

Every so often, actually with disturbing frequency, claims about the underlying cause of autism spring up like fungii in manure after a rain. It's practically required that claims of this genre be built on false premises or make invalid conclusions, like this week's link between internet use and autism. Oxford personality Baroness Susan Greenfield breathed life into this rumor in an interview with New Scientist, then defended herself by saying provocatively: "I point to an increase in the internet and I point to autism, that's all." But where's the evidence, and why is this stuff being published?

Greenfield's been popularizing science for decades, and recently popularizing science at the cost of science itself. In 2008 she warned the children's brains were being destroyed by technology in a book reviewed by the Times of UK:

"As it happens, her new book, ID: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century, digresses all over the place in little flash floods of maddening provisos and second thoughts. It's as if she dictated it while bouncing on a trampoline, fixing an errant eyelash and sorting her fraught schedule on a BlackBerry."

Back in 2009, before the UK's Royal Institution fired Lady Greenfield, she argued that the total immersion in "screen technologies" was linked to a "three-fold increase in prescriptions for methylphenidate" (prescribed for attention deficit disorder). She told the paper that people were losing empathy and becoming dependent on "sanitized" screen dialogues. She also complained that packages of meat in supermarkets had replaced "killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat".

It's hard to criticize people who distort science without seeming to deride all science popularizes. Greenfield falls in the former camp as many people recognize. 254 people commented, on a recent Guardian article saying that the internet changes peoples brain:

  • "That's exactly what my mum said about reading 'The Beano' [A British Comic Strip]."

  • "I hear it gives you cancer as well""

Guardian readers know how to take a piss, but Oxford's Greenfield knows how to get publicity, so she's long engaged in trying to scare people about technology. To her latest, scientists online responded briskly, with vitriol, meaning that in terms of popularity, Greenfield had a field day. We've been following false arguments about autism for a few years, so we wanted to look more closely at how Greenfield's latest claim about the internet causing autism differs from the claim that some economist's claim that television caused autism, which we covered back in 2006. For one, back in 2006 they actual did research -- well, economics research.

But Who Needs To Do Research When They'll Print the Stuff You Make Up?

Greenfield ups the ante from her general technophobia of two years ago by appealing not just to fuddy-duddy technophobes but to all parents and their worst nightmares. One day the child seems fine, then something mysterious happens and the child is no longer themselves. What happened? Doctors and scientists have no clinically actionable idea. Greenfield knows.

Perhaps it makes life easier for some autism suffering families to attribute changes in their child to some outside agent. It's also common to say that a crime has been perpetrated by people from another state or town or country. We've seen autism blamed on vaccines, television, rain...Uncomplicated agents that can be controlled by parents are especially attractive - TV. But where's the evidence? When the New Scientist asked that, Greenfield replied:

"There's lots of evidence, for example, the recent paper "Microstructure abnormalities in adolescents with internet addiction disorder" in the journal PLoS One...There is an increase in people with autistic spectrum disorders. There are issues with happy-slapping, the rise in the appeal of Twitter - I think these show that people's attitude to each other and themselves is changing."

How nimbly she links computer use, with "internet addiction disorder" (IAD) that is not recognized by US psychiatrists, with brain change, with behaviors, and even with attitudes. But the paper didn't say anything about attitudes; didn't prove "addiction", didn't prove detrimental brain changes, didn't prove behavior changes.

Can You Compare the Cognition of Chinese 19 Year Olds Playing Games 12 Hours A Day To 1 Year Old Cooing Babies?

The PLoS One paper deserves more comment than I'm going to devote here. But though PLoS One depends on the community for peer review, and although this paper has over 11,000 views (14/08/11), not one person has peer-reviewed, or "rated" - the paper. Nevertheless, it's cited all over the internet as proof that "internet use" does bad stuff to the brain, it "shrinks it", "wrinkles it", "damages", "contracts", "re-wires" it... But the paper is not about "internet use". It's about on-line gaming.

The PLoS One authors write that the research is particularly important to China because unlike in the US, in China, IAD is recognized and often cited as a big problem. The Chinese vigorously treat the "disorder" with strict treatment regimens including until 2009 shock therapy.

The PLoS One authors used addiction criteria (i.e. "do you feel satisfied with Internet use if you increase your amount of online time?") and asked the subjects to estimate how long they had had the addiction. They then used brain imaging to show that brain changes correlated with self-reported duration of online game playing. There were 18 subjects, 12 males average age 19.5 years, and presumably 6 others (females?) who the authors do not characterize.

The subjects played online games 8-13 hours a day. I can't evaluate the data, I don't know enough about voxel based morphology. But I'm not surprised someone "playing online games" 8-13 hours a day, 6.5 days a week for 3 years is different than the controls, who were "on the internet" less than 2 hours a day. Likewise, I would expect a soldier engaged in street patrol in Afghanistan 10 hours a day, 6 days a week for three years to be different than someone who walked their dog around the block in sunny suburbia 3 days a week for the last month. (If I were in a joking mood I'd say that kids playing online games 13 hours a day 6 days a week must have extraordinary abilities to actually still be in college.)

Even if you believe in IAD, the authors acknowledge the study's limitations. They say they don't prove IAD caused changes; don't prove that the subjects brains weren't different to begin with; acknowledge the "IAD duration" measurements (self-assessment) are crude; and the data aren't rigorous to conclude negative changes.

None of these caveats slowed Greenfield, who cited this paper and linked it to all sorts of unrelated things like "Happy-slapping", an awful British fad. But there's nothing inherently sinister about using Twitter, or the internet - it's not related to autism. What makes a lot of her assertions puzzling is that Greenfield trained as a neuroscientist. Does she not know this stuff? In 2003, she mocked people who attributed anything to "scary technology." So why is she now popularizing the opposite message? Her PLoS One example is nothing more than pulling some study out of thin air and linking it to her own machinations about technology. Claims such as hers provide ripe fodder for quacks, crazies and zealotry.

How Does Technology Change Us? Research Shows Beneficial Effects in Online Gamers

Here's the second instance of "proof" Greenfield gives in the New Scientist interview, and note that again cites an academic paper and links it incongruously to her own made up stuff. She says:

"...A recent review by the cognitive scientist Daphne Bavelier in the high-impact journal Neuron1, in which she says that this is a given, the brain will change. She also reviews evidence showing there's a change in violence, distraction and addiction in children."

But the Bavelier et al review says something different. The scientists specifically warn that no research predictably links brain changes to behavior like violence, distraction or "internet addiction" to technology - TV, video games. The authors cite studies showing the research remains too confounding, as they say in their conclusions:

  • "the interpretation of these studies is not as straightforward as it appears at first glance"

  • most reports tabulate total hours rather than the more important content type, therefore are "inherently noisy and thus provide unreliable data."

  • technology use is "highly correlated with other factors that are strong predictors of poor behavioral outcomes, making it difficult to disentangle the true causes of the observations"

  • Perhaps "children who have attentional problems may very well be attracted to technology because of the constant variety of activities."

Bavelier et al stress that the effects are unpredictable, for instance "good technology" like the once ballyhooed Baby Einstein videos can turn out to have zero or negative effects. Conversely what is assumed to be "bad technology" can be good. They write:

"action video games, where avatars run about elaborate landscapes while eliminating enemies with well-placed shots, are often thought of as rather mindless by parents. However, a burgeoning literature indicates that playing action video games is associated with a number of enhancements in vision, attention, cognition, and motor control."

This point from Bavelier et al is quite interesting because it appears to contradict the general conclusions of the PLoS One authors we cited above concerning online gamers -- assuming the study subjects played comparable games. Exploring these different results is potentially more interesting than a rhetorical sleight of hand tossing a science study citation in to falsely bolster gobbledygook.

To wit, the studies Greenfield uses don't support her points. That technology's effects are still unpredictable is widely acknowledged. Greenfield herself used to promote a computer program called MindFit which claimed to improve mental ability. The game didn't work. But it also didn't make kids pick up knives and murder each other. It's hard to understand Greenfield's motivation for denouncing technology as anything other than provocation.

Greenfield says: "It is hard to see how living this way on a daily basis will not result in brains, or rather minds, different from those of previous generations." But "hard to see" isn't science. A "brain", is not a "mind", nor is it "behavior", nor an "attitude". That's not to say brains don't change, or that technology couldn't affect us. Brains show changes during many activities, often temporarily. It's just to say that technology is not inherently, as she called it, "chilling".

I Point to Television and I Point to Picnics, To Family Dinners, To Teens Doing Charity, To Children Building Sand Castles on Sunny Days

As she is now vilifying the internet as a physiological change agent, Greenfield previously claimed that television changes the brain deleteriously. Now she dismisses the notion. When New Scientist asked her: "What makes social networks and computer games any different from previous technologies and the fears they aroused?" she responded:

"The fact that people are spending most of their waking hours using them. When I was a kid, television was the centre of the home, rather like the Victorian piano was. It's a very different use of a television, when you're sitting around and enjoying it with others..."

Nice image, the innocent television, like the innocent Victorian piano. Happy family times of the Victorian Era, singing around the piano, food aplenty, spirits flowing, enlightened, goal oriented well adjusted children unhindered by repressive social situations. Oh wait, it wasn't always like that? We learn more about the good 'ole days by venturing dangerously out on the internet where you can find the following first hand accounts:

Isabella Read, 12 years old, coal-bearer, as told to Ashley's Mines Commission, 1842: "Works on mother's account, as father has been dead two years. Mother bides at home, she is troubled with bad breath, and is sair weak in her body from early labour. coaltub.jif "I am wrought with sister and brother, it is very sore work; cannot say how many rakes or journeys I make from pit's bottom to wall face and back, thinks about 30 or 25 on the average; the distance varies from 100 to 250 fathom. I carry about 1 cwt. and a quarter on my back; have to stoop much and creep through water, which is frequently up to the calves of my legs."

Sarah Gooder, 8 years old, trapper, as told to Ashley's Mines Commission, 1842: "I'm a trapper in the Gawber pit. It does not tire me, but I have to trap without a light and I'm scared. I go at four and sometimes half past three in the morning, and come out at five and half past. I never go to sleep. Sometimes I sing when I've light, but not in the dark; I dare not sing then. I don't like being in the pit. I am very sleepy when I go sometimes in the morning."

Greenfield's current glorification of TV defies the fact that TV has been roundly implicated for causing all sorts of unsocial behavior and not only by Greenfield before she changed her mind.

The Autism TV Link: "Why Not Tie it To Carrying Umbrellas?"

In 2006 Acronym Required used a study by economists linking autism and television to write a satirical ten step tutorial on how to publish bad science and get lots of media attention for it. The authors proved that a theories popularity, if brought to the attention of a non-critical media was independent of clearly stating no link between autism and television in your study. You didn't even need to be a scientist.

After reviewing those economists' work, Joseph Piven, director of the Neurodevelopmental Disorders Research Center at the University of North Carolina, weighed in on the autism television-watching idea, asking the Wall Street Journal "[W]hy not tie it to carrying umbrellas?" And so the researchers did! And in 2009, in "It's Back! The Rain Theory of Autism", we described how the same researcher group that blamed autism on televisions decided that it wasn't television causing autism, but rain.

The nice thing about making up "science" or just leveraging your status for narcissistic purposes, is that you can change, chameleon-like, at will. If your aim is to generate a headline in mainstream media rather than research, it doesn't matter what the science says. Most people don't remember headlines from one day to the next and they aren't that curious to dig further.

I believe a natural response to Greenfield's wild claims is humor and sarcasm, the same response the Guardian readers had. To Greenfield's latest foray, Carl Zimmer started an amusing twitter exchange with this: "I point to the increase in esophageal cancer and I point to The Brady Bunch. That's all. #greenfieldism".

A string of #greenfieldisms followed, like "@carlzimmer I point to Alzheimer's and I point to cheese doodles. That's all. #greenfieldism". (Of course this territory is risk ridden, because of the prevalence of actual real random "studies" like the one about mice who eat fast food and get Alzheimer's.)

When challenged, Greenfield didn't back down, instead she spewed forth with more analogies, like a clogged toilet if test-flushed. Asked for a response to the fact that there's not evidence claiming detrimental effects of technologies, she scoffed that you wouldn't see effects for 20 years. With just as absurd a distracting non-sequiter she once asked someone who challenged her on the technology-is-bad assertions if they denied smoking causes cancer.

Flexible "Theories" Make For Good Publicity for Scientists, For Newspapers...

I think it's cathartic, funny and educational to diffuse Greenfield's claims with humor. Wicked-fast coordinated Twitter de-bunking of such people is of course useful and could be made even more useful. Unfortunately the issues aren't always as simple as a Greenfieldism. And debunking the rhetoric of individuals seeking publicity on the backs of science is only one angle.

I think it's important to note that it wouldn't be news if there weren't ready and willing news outlets. The New Scientist printed all her assertions about links between technology, brain structure, autism, and behavior. BabiesLaptop.jpg They didn't ask questions. They didn't challenge. They didn't say: wait, isn't autism diagnosed at ages 2-4? Who's propping their 6 month old up in from on the computer to play war games? Why?

The Guardian, like most papers, publishes articles that range in quality. A Guardian comment on the 2009 article about Greenfield's theories, that called the article "absolute nonsense", and wrote I am surprised that the Guardian has published this..."sloppy journalism"..."absolute drivel", pulled in 160 "approve" votes, far more than any other comments. So even if readers hate the article, they'll still read it. Media succeeds because of advertising and hundreds of comments translates to how many hundreds of thousand of hits?

The media is quite capable of selective coverage. They ignore important scientific, political, and economic stories that they consider politically sensitive. But is anti-science coverage ever "censored"? Not if it can drive traffic, and sell ads - provide economic benefit to media outlets.

But to what extent can we accept this concession to the market if it gives us in return uncritical readers, uncritical patients, and uncritical citizens? Does it create an atmosphere amenable to medical quacks? Might it prime a population to be more receptive to political efforts to curb real free speech via social media technologies? Too bad so many potential critics (even bloggers) are involved with or depend on mainstream news outlets, which makes them understandably hesitant to bite the hand that feeds (or might feed) them.

---------

1 Bavelier, D., Green, C.S., & Dye, M. (2010). Children, wired - for better and for worse. Neuron. 67, 692-701, Volume 67, Issue 5, 692-701, 9 September 2010 Copyright � 2010 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. 10.1016/j.neuron.2010.08.035

Acronym Required writes frequently on the diffusion and distortion of science in politics. We've written about individuals mixing religion with science, art with science, for instance here

Science Blogging: The Better Journalism?

Science Journalism Debauchery

Has anyone aside from science bloggers had so many rules imposed on them? OK, maybe science journalists. In the 1990's, when the debate over genetically modified (GM) seeds motivated the headline: "MUTANT CROPS COULD KILL YOU" (Express February 18, 1999), the British government attempted to correct the fear-mongering headlines. That didn't work, so to stem future journalistic liberties of that sort, the Parliament tried to subdue the culture that propagated such rumors.

They issued a a lengthy report warning of further journalistic depredation from "the approaching era of digital TV" and the "increasing ghettoisation". (No mention of the internet.) More journalists needed to be "scientists", they said, after surveying GM stories put out by all of eleven UK publications over two days. Only 17% of the stories were written by science journalists, they found, and not any of the commentary came from "science writers". The Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons, the Royal Society, and SmithKline Beecham suggested punishing future misbehavior, especially for getting the facts wrong:

"media coverage of scientific matters should be governed by a Code of Practice which stipulates that scientific stories should be factually accurate. Breaches of the Code of Practice should be referred to the Press Complaints Commission."

Of course an editor at the Independent responded describing how writers could conquer the facts but still mislead the reader. Thankfully, there's often a compelling counterargument. So in the end, the report's authors settled for a rather bland collection of guidelines dealing with Balance; Uncertainty; and Legitimacy.

And of course while the Parliament fretted about the fate of genetically engineered crops, over at News of The World...

Digital Science Journalism - Publishing Freedom

When science blogging came along it seemed to offer an alternative to the maligned mainstream media science journalism. But despite its growing stature, it too has been besieged by criticism. Some of this came from mainstream media, especially in the beginning.

But interestingly, while traditional science journalism often gets attacked from the outside, online science journalists indulge in lots and lots of self-flagellation. Perhaps this is to be expected from people who labor at the frontier of the often masochistic bench science, replete with high rates of experimental failure. Or perhaps self-criticism makes it easier for science bloggers to generate conversation? Work out their identities? Get traffic?

Of course there's much more to online science journalism then blogging, but I'm going to limit my comments to that. Acronym Required started about seven years ago, and from the rather echoey halls of 2004 science blogging, the medium exploded. Now it impressively fills some of the gaping holes in other science journalism.

We last commented on the state of "science" television programming in 2007 -- and why comment further? The science blogging world offers an amazingly vibrant alternative, filled with witty, reflective, analytical, smart, and generous writers -- especially considering the frequent debauchery of mainstream journalism. Which makes the persistent whine of self-criticism all the more puzzling. Is it some evolutionary thrust gripping science bloggers to impose governing rules on their peers?

This is especially amusing in the context of how blogs started, to augment search. Search itself started in a era that included the (albeit, totally unrealistic) perception of internet as free of boundaries, regulations, and governments. Consider this piece from early 1996:

"We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth. We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity."

Radical, but the philosophy is actually alive and well among quite a few technologists today.

Search back then was pretty rudimentary, thus the role of blogs. To understand just how rudimentary, look at this old Yahoo page with its awesome user interface. (Accompanied by the great ad with a winking person who looks photo-shopped from two different faces, asking awkwardly: "So, My Yahoo! or yours?".)

My point is, the world in which blogging started was simple. For one, an early blog was often not much more than some geek saying -- "hey I found this cool site": link -- so I'm cool too, right? These "trusted links" made a prehistoric stab at "community" and "personalization" -- because who could trust something called the "World Wide Web", with its random collection of and unknown "links"?

Secondly, through innovation if not mindset, the Internet and blogging celebrated independence from tradition. As the internet expanded, many bloggers took to the medium in defiance of the exclusive world and onerous rules of offline publishing. The audience for blogs in the beginning was a very small group of internet users, frontiersmen strongly connected by their independence, who were by default "the community".

Page Views

As the originators of the real commercial internet intended, soon people realized they could make advertising money on the internet, and "pageviews" became an all important metric. The number of people publishing on the internet grew and bloggers were then advised to "keep it short". This advice about post-length was couched as insight about readers short attention spans. But it was as much about drawing pageviews and revenue. "Keep it short" and the unspoken "make us money" became compulsory over 'make it interesting'.

When Tumblr and Twitter arrived on the scene with truly short-form platforms, some of the same organizations then suggested that blogs could actually be a venue for "long-form" writing. Finally, just as the fashion industry moved away from dictating skirt lengths sometime in the 1980s, people eventually stopped dictating ideal post length. Of course they still told people what to do, they just moved on from making demands on post length.

To Join Or Not To Join

It's my impression that science bloggers find more rules to bandy about than others, but granted, I don't have enough data to swear that economists, say, are really more laissez-faire. I couldn't possibly document all the various rules that science bloggers have proposed for other science bloggers over the years, but to illustrate my point, I'll mention a few.

First there's the question of where to host your blog. Some insist that science bloggers should join a science blogging network. This came about when the number of online science bloggers reached a point where they could actually form a group. Those advocating joining offer compelling reasons -- traffic, exposure, "community". Now, the number of such science blogging "communities" has surpassed our ability to keep track of them. There are still pros and cons to joining of course, depending on your goals, technical abilities, impressions of the different online venues, how your schedule might accommodate blogging, etc. But your agreeable answer to join is existentially far more critical to a potential host than to you. After all, the hosts wouldn't exist without the bloggers.

Of course the notion of "online community" includes many possibilities. Communities can be collaborative, nurturing, educational - great; or, if you've observed them in action, joining such an online science community can be like joining the military, where participants -- "travel to exotic foreign lands, meet interesting and exciting people, then kill them."

Proving Your Worth

Once the blogger decides where to put their blog, a barrage of other considerations and demands will follow. For example, in 2007 bloggers for peer-reviewed research reporting (BPR3) emerged, proposing

"to identify serious academic blog posts about peer-reviewed research by offering an icon and an aggregation site where others can look to find the best academic blogging on the Net."

While interesting as a business aggregation proposal, the blog "Peer-To-Peer" diplomatically commented on the idea, saying it would be impossible for such an icon to assure the "quality of the blog post itself". Or, we might add, to insure the quality of the writer's analysis, the quality of the science journal, the quality of the science research, and so on.

Questions of ethics in science blogging are constant, carrying on from earlier discussions of ethics in blogging and science journalism. Way back in 2003, bloggers started wondering whether they should adopt journalists' standards. Perhaps journalism in 2003 was wrapped in mystique that shrouded realities like "MUTANT CROPS COULD KILL YOU", but the drumbeat of ethics has since trailed science bloggers. I can't see how this could be useful people have written strong arguments noting that blogging wouldn't exist if bloggers weren't ethical. Nor has the whole ethics thing really led to changed behavior as far as I can see, but those who push "ethics" will forever peer over our shoulders.

Still other people demand, as the Parliament did 1999, that science bloggers/journalists only blog about things they know. Quite a qualitative statement considering variations in breadth and depth of knowledge among both scientists and journalists. A comment here provides a good rebuttal to that idea. You could also reason that writing solely about what you know at any moment, like the biomechanics of kangaroo tendons, for instance, despite how interesting that may be to you, might be a good way to become a lazy, narrow minded, outdated, and one bored stiff writer to say nothing of your readers'.

Recently the subjects of anonymity and pseudonymity re-emerged and preoccupied many science bloggers. I'm not going to weigh down this post talking about that, except to note 1) that the discussion has largely revolved around the value and necessity of a particular type of individual authentication, and 2) that the discussion has largely ignored the politics and economics driving such individual authentication.

Other people try mark out precise roles for science bloggers/journalists. Science writers should be "educators", they say, or "explainers", or priests of "how things work". Each such suggestion is an invitation for extensive discussion and cogitation, and naturally other people will vehemently disagree with every proposal. So then why don't bloggers just do what suits them best? Or does the constant criticism and re-definition create "community" (and pageviews)?

Getting The Details Right

We've touched on some general instructions to bloggers about how to blog about science. There are more detailed demands too, aimed at all of science blogging and journalism, as the divisions between online and offline media blur. For instance:

  • 2005: Don't use the word "Global Warming": Thus implored some scientists reasoning that people would confuse climate change with their local weather.
  • 2006: Don't use big words: So lectured the film "Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus". The version I saw at Tribeca, 2006 highlighted words used by scientists in dialogue that were "too big", while characterizing Intelligent Design folks as small word people, i.e. comparatively approachable and understandable. It employed character assassination on all fronts by advising scientists to drop their testy, pompous attitudes, while basically infantilizing people who were religious. Some scientists took this whole thing to heart, overlooking how the movie slyly played to both audiences. People who knew the fairly simple polysyllabic words could be secretly smug that they knew the words when the definitions flashed on the screen like some weird spelling bee; and the other side of the audience could be smug about the portrayal of scientists as surly and smug.

  • 2007: Don't publish on Fridays: The IPCC panel and hundreds of scientists took flack from the communication "framers" for publishing their 2007 report on a Friday (link accessed 04/11) because 'any veteran journalist would know better'. The same post chastised the report for lacking "drama" like portraying "polar bears on melting ice". The authors gave another paper kudos for "reframing the IPCC report" with a "corruption angle" that gave it "more legs". In other words, said the framers, don't be scientists or reporters be PR ringmasters.
  • 2008 "Don't use the word "denial", "denialist", or "denier": Some scientists said that labeling climate change denialists as such was pejorative.

At the time, each of these instructions drew passionate discussions. But times change -- or don't change. Today it's fine to use "global warming" and "denialist". Science Friday still airs to large audiences on Fridays, and Science Magazine successfully publishes, Friday, after Friday, after Friday.

As charming as "Flock of Dodos" was - do big words really make science/scientists extinct? If we believe that message, should we then be discouraged that in 4 years, the Flock of Dodos trailer has 13,376 views on Youtube, while Hoax of Dodos, the Discovery Institutes pathetically best response, has almost as many -- 11,405 views? OK true, the "Pulled Punches" video (cut scenes from Flock of Dodos) has 18,605 views. But for perspective on what 18,605 views means on YouTube, the video "Emma Watson Punches Interviewer" (Jan 19, 2006), has 4,159,895 (all view numbers as of 05/11). Despite the fact that "Punch" is a catchy keyword to put in your comparatively boring science video, what does all this mean for science and science journalism?

"Blogging" is Worthy

What if none of these rules and instructions make science blogging "better", whatever better is? What if people still deny climate change for example, no matter what the facts and no matter what manner we convey them? While pursuing better communication is incredibly important, as is presenting ideas compellingly, how much of science knowledge lost by miscommunication is really any responsibility or fault of scientists and journalists (online or offline)? How much should be attributed to the political inclinations, personal distractions, and various passions of our audiences?

In reality most science journalists have zero time to write stories, whether or not they have generous deadlines. Those stories must always be very compelling just to get read. The extreme example of this fact, illustrated by a UK journalist, applies to most writing:

"You are writing to impress someone hanging from a strap in the tube between Parson's Green and Putney, who will stop reading in a fifth of a second.

We may not like this. We may wish readers didn't prefer reading science only when it's infused with sex or violence or something that 99% of the population have some opinion on. We may wish that journalists really comprised some "fourth estate", or could make a difference, or could educate readers. What if science writers could just all write about their own fascinating interest, rather than about something dictated by advertising? And what if the audience would just read, and not worry about about ethics, badges of legitimacy or whether education was happening as they read?

But until science journalists make a lot more money or have a lot more time, that won't happen on any large scale basis. But most science bloggers write for free or pittance. And if you write mostly for free on a blog, shouldn't you just write? Or does it have to be for some higher purpose (agreed upon by the consensus of one of many "communities")? Because wasn't that the whole purpose of blogging?

Science bloggers should keep in mind what their up against. The lifeblood of mainstream media consists of headlines the likes of this week's "GM Blunder Contaminates Britain With Mutant Crops", about "Frankenstein" crops.

So I'm sure whatever you write, dear blogger, will stand up just fine. And until "offline" journalism reaches different standards, can we stop insisting/demanding/pleading that bloggers "ARE journalists too"? Maybe science blogging could stand on its own apart from journalism if the community of science bloggers trusted themselves.

NRDC Founder on Why the US Fails to Take Action on Climate Change

Gus Speth, NRDC founder, book author, law professor, and former academic dean, discusses the root causes of the collective lack of action on climate change and the environment in an interview with Bulletin of Atomic Scientists1. He starts by pointing out that the United States, one of the world's wealthiest countries is losing economic ground. He points out that this applies only to Gross Domestic Product but on on other quality of life indicators -- economic equality, life expectancy, and the environment. If the world continues its current path, he says, climate change will inevitably get worse. Importantly, the impact of continued environmental degradation is entwined with economic decline -- but not in the way that prominent messengers would have you believe.

True, climate change is difficult for individuals to come to terms with, especially if it's not directly impacting them. But misunderstanding of the problem is amplified by what he calls "manufactured reaction". While some people frame it as a science conundrum, it's insead politics and lack of leadership that's paving the path to continued calamity, Speth says:

"Anxiety about acting on climate change was successfully injected into the Tea Party movement; and, as a result, a large percentage of the Republicans who came into office after the 2010 election were people who were on the record as climate deniers, and now the Congress is full of these people..."

Speth points out how the difference between politics now and the 1970's hampers action:

"American politics since, say, 1980, has gone seriously downhill. The level of public discourse on issues has deteriorated; the willingness of politicians to take up tough issues has deteriorated; and it's just a very different scene today in our country....

In the 1970s we passed a host of environmental measures, almost always with serious bipartisan support. There wasn't really a polarization on environmental issues between the two parties, certainly not like what we have today. Politics was far more civil, and it was far more bipartisan. For example, Senator Edmund Muskie, a Democrat, was a champion of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, but that legislation was also made possible by people like John Sherman Cooper, a Republican, and Howard Baker, also a Republican, and others. I think we've lost a lot of ground politically since that time."

He notes that the Tea Party is a force because of their ability to communicate ideas to the public. On the other hand, effective to communication about climate change and the environment has suffered because no one is communicating the most important ideas to the public, not the media; not the president, not environmental groups. On the media, he says:

"...the news media, when they report these events, aren't taking the time to talk to climate scientists about what's going on. The most they do is ask a meteorologist to comment, rather than digging in to get the real story...The coverage of these issues in Europe and Japan is much better, but the US mainstream media won't get into it. I think they're scared of losing viewers, frankly."

On what Obama needs to do:

"I think that he has got to find a way of using the scientific community, and the extraordinary strength of American and international science on climate change, to go to the public and talk about it. He's got to bring out what has happened in terms of this denial syndrome and expose it."

On policy, he says:

"We should establish a declining cap on the carbon entering the economy, sell the allowances for the carbon that does enter, and rebate the proceeds to the American public on a per capita basis."

Speth notes that major environmental groups have become close to Washington, so they now take an incremental approach constrained by what they think politicians can bear. Rather than to setting goals based on what really needs to be done, for instance, on climate change action, action and money today focuses on not losing ground from previous actions. Speth says that environmental law in its current form exists in a silo. Instead, it needs to become incorporated with tax law, corporate law, and laws that impact consumers.

Speth also discusses the "growth imperative" - the fact that politicians and corporations focus on growth, but what they're really talking about is profits. Talk about "the economy" is usually based on the crude GDP measure. However it's a myth that profit creates jobs. In fact our current cycle is one of skyrocketing profits while swaths of workers are laid off. By muddling growth and profits with individual well-being, politicians and corporations can continue to reject investments in clean energy and regulatory attempts to force cleaner manufacturing and production.

There's much more to the interview. Some points are quite obvious to you or me perhaps, but what I like is how the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and Speth cut through the morass of excuses, hand-wringing, and finger-pointing that clutter discussions of climate change and the environment. They clearly focus on the underlying problems with law, economics and politics that smother critical change -- change not as a promise but as action.

1 Gus Speth: Communicating Environmental Risks in an Age of Disinformation" doi: 10.1177/0096340211413559 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists July/August 2011 vol. 67 no. 4 1-7 Article highlights here; full article (subscription) here

---------------

On Communicating Climate Change: "Communicating Climate Change"

On Climate Change denial: Sea Change or Littoral Disaster

Business and Climate Change: "Carbon Emissions Disclosure Project"

Ice core research to study atmospheric conditions 650,000 years ago: "Holocene Days"

Politics and climate change: "Will Loose Lips - Or Global Warming - Sink Ships?".

Carbon emissions regulation after Katrina: "The Environment & Katrina-Slick Oil Fallout"

Drought in the "Amazon", and in "Australia".

Science research communication and climate change: "Research, Politics and Working Less", and "Science Communication".

Bisphenol A Bill Killed with a Pow-Wow and a Bottle of Chardonnay

| Comments

A Republican state senator in Oregon cleverly killed a state bill to ban bisphenol A when he reneged on a deal he made with Democrat senator. The bill to ban bisphenol-A in baby bottles (SB 695) had received bipartisan support in a 20-9 vote in April. With such support, people predicted it would continue to committee, but the GOP had other plans.

Oregon Senator Jackie Dingfelder, D-Portland, recounted an agreement she had made with Oregon House environment committee co-chair, Representative Vic Gilliam, R-Silverton. Apparently the two worked out that he would initiate a work session on SB 695 in exchange for committee action on some other bills. According to Dingfelder, Gilliam ditched his end of the bargain and effectively squashed the bill. Gilliam then sent Dingfelder a bottle of Chardonnay and a scrawled note that read: "After all I put you thru yesterday - it is a tribute to your character that you would keep the 1st and 2 parts of our pow-wow inspite of it all."[sic]

Dingfelder told reporters that Gilliam's reasons for dropping the bill were unclear - he indicated the GOP pressured him. One Republican lawmaker offered: "it's not because I want to kill children".

Plastics industry lobbyists had also campaigned against the bill. For instance the American Chemistry Council wrote a letter in early May to Ben Cannon and Vic Gilliam, co-chairs of the state House Energy, Environment and Water Committee. In the letter, ACC used isolated quotes from government agencies about research on canned and packaged food to argue incongruously that polycarbonate baby bottles shouldn't be banned. The letter also misrepresented the US FDA position. The FDA is especially concerned about the endocrine disrupting effects of BPA on babies, and advises parents to avoid using bottles with BPA. It advocates alternatives to BPA lined food containers. Yet the ACC letter stated "optimistically" that the FDA said BPA is "not unsafe" (safe).

Representative Gilliam also voted against a plastic bag ban, noting he thought they should be recycled instead. He said he was disappointed Dingfelder had released their personal correspondence to reporters.

------------

follow us on twitter!

Archives