SciBlogs

Archive August 2011

Chronic fatigue research sparks death threats Peter Griffin Aug 22

1 Comment

Since I’ve been in the science sector, I’ve heard about scientists in the UK involved in animal testing receiving death threats as well as Australian climate scientists being intimidated.

Source: The Observer

Source: The Observer

I’ve also heard unconfirmed reports that at least one genetic modification scientist in New Zealand left the country a few years ago because of intimidation from anti-GM protestors.

So the heavying of scientists who work in controversial areas of research isn’t new – but now you can add chronic fatigue to the professionally high-risk reseach areas.

The Observer reports that scientists in the UK are receiving death threats from activists who claim they are covering up the real causes of chronic fatigue syndrome, a debilitating illness that scientists have been seeking to understand for at least 20 years.

One researcher told the Observer that a woman protester who had turned up at one of his lectures was found to be carrying a knife. Another scientist had to abandon a collaboration with American doctors after being told she risked being shot, while another was punched in the street. All said they had received death threats and vitriolic abuse.

In addition, activists — who attack scientists who suggest the syndrome has any kind of psychological association — have bombarded researchers with freedom of information requests, made rounds of complaints to university ethical committees about scientists’ behaviour, and sent letters falsely alleging that individual scientists are in the pay of drug and insurance companies.

Source: Observer

Source: Observer

One scientist, Professor Simon Wesseley, said he felt safer doing research into Gulf War syndrome and similar conditions in places like Iraq and Afghanistan than he did in Britain researching chronic fatigue syndrome.

Other scientists are installing panic buttons and having their mail x-rayed.

So what is it about chronic fatigue research that is stirring up the type of hatred usually reserved for vivisectionists?

Well, chronic fatigue syndrome, or myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) is bloody horrible. It can leave you in a permanent malaise of exhaustion, pain, befuddlement, that for some results in total incapacitation. At best it can be like mild, but lingering jet-lag. At worst – you’ll end up being fed through a tube. The annoying thing is that the cause of it is unknown. It is thought to be a condition that affects the nervous system, but scientists don’t really know for sure.

But it is the suggestion that the condition may be at least partly psychological that has people baying for the scientists’ blood. As the Observer explains:

The antagonists hate any suggestion of a psychological component and insist it is due to external causes, in particular viruses.

Insurance company Southern Cross estimates between 10,000 and 20,000 New Zealanders suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome. A survey of general practitioners back in 1993 showed wide a 90% acceptance rate of chronic fatigue syndrome as a clinically valid diagnosis. The survey followed controversy when the small Otago town of Tapanui in the 1980s appeared to be the site of a cluster of cases of chronic fatigue syndrome, which became known locally as Tapanui flu. In 1984, Tapanui GP Peter Snow was the first to describe an outbreak of an illness characterised by chronic fatigue. In 2002 he published this piece in the New Zealand Medical Journal reflecting on the cases. He writes:

Since that period, much research has been done and published. However none have been able to implicate a single all encompassing aetiology…Unfortunately chronic fatigue syndrome has become a convenient dumping ground for the difficult to diagnose. Fatigue is a presenting symptom of many disorders.

One thing is for sure – it is crucial that research into this condition continues and that scientists we allowed to pursue their research unmolested. My colleague at the Science Media Centre in the UK says it best in the Observer article:

Using threats and intimidation to prevent scientists pursuing specific avenues of research or speaking out is damaging not just science. It harms society.

It seems that

Big Pharma: We don’t want to kill Pharmac Peter Griffin Aug 22

5 Comments

A flurry of newspaper columns and editorials in the last few months have looked at New Zealand’s efforts to strike a free trade deal with the United States and the impact that might have on our drug-buying Government agency Pharmac.

You see, the US apparently considers Pharmac as anticompetitive and limiting the ability of US drug companies to sell their products in New Zealand.

According to University of Auckland law professor Jane Kelsey writing recently in the Herald:

The challenge to our pharmaceutical purchasing agency is an obvious second crunch point. The big-pharma lobby in the US and here has declared Pharmac ‘an egregious example’ of what it considers unfair practices. Leaked US and New Zealand texts reveal an initial standoff between the two parties. Yet the Key government has refused to take Pharmac off the table, raising concerns about what Trade Minister Tim Groser means by protecting the ‘fundamentals’ of our affordable medicines regime. Significantly, the Labour Opposition has broken the previous bipartisan consensus on free trade agreements and made Pharmac a red line issue.

Writing in the Herald, seasoned trade commentator Fran O’Sullivan puts it a bit more bluntly:

…we would have to sacrifice Pharmac before the United States will let our dairy farmers in.

This morning I received a letter from Medicines New Zealand, which represents the likes of Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, Roche and Merck Sharpe & Dohme – some of the biggest drug companies in the world.

“The medicines industry is NOT advocating for the abolition of Pharmac”, writes Medicines New Zealand general manager Kevin Sheehy.  Our industry works with agencies similar to PHARMAC all around the world. The central approval or funding agency model is fast becoming the norm”.

So what do the drug companies actually want if it isn’t seeking an end to Pharmac? “Some reforms to the Pharmac model,” writes Sheehy.

“These reforms stem from a long held and on-going concern that New Zealanders are not gaining access to best-in-class and first-in-class medicines.”

He then goes on to list what exactly the industry does want:

- Better transparency around funding applications and the Pharmacology and Therapeutics Advisory Committee (PTAC) as well as for the scientific evidence on which decisions are made. More transparency? Seems reasonable.

- Establish a timeline for processing applications and make decisions (“don’t sit on PTAC recommendations for many years”). Again, fair enough.

- Clear definition of decision criteria and how they are applied. Yep, makes for better decision making and transparency.

- Direct stakeholder representation to the clinical committees. Hmm, could be problematic – not sure about that, surely the clinical research should speak for itself and input should be independent?

- All health technology investment decisions made on similar grounds. Assuming that it is reasonable to make health technology investment decisions on the same terms, sounds reasonable.

- Intellectual property regime brought up to international best practice. This is the big unknown – what exactly does this mean? The IT and creative sectors are already struggling with this on copyright and software patents and it is a hugely factious issue. It could be enough to undo everything listed above. More info from the industry is needed here.

Sheehy goes on to claim that a free trade agreement with the US would not result in price hikes for drugs.

“Following Australia’s Free Trade Agreement with the US, Australia has benefitted from access to more innovative medicines, a flourishing generic market and the growth of their medicines expenditure has reduced. Any changes are highly unlikely to result in increased costs for medicines currently available in New Zealand.”

So, if not totally reassuring to proponents of the Pharmac model, certainly a different stance to what has been implied in the media – that the dismantling of Pharmac is a condition of us getting a FTA with the US and is a high priority of the drug companies.

We are satisfied… so why the high suicide rates? Peter Griffin Aug 18

2 Comments

Take a look at the graphs below, from the Mental Health Commission’s National Indicators 2011 report that uses 15 indicators to measure the mental health of the population.

The top graph shows the results of a 2006 international Gallop poll that measured life satisfaction among participants in OECD countries.  New Zealand came out looking pretty good – we are above the OECD median when it comes to a measure of life satisfaction, a statistic that is backed up by the 2008 New Zealand General Social Survey, which found that 86 per cent of New Zealanders are “satisfied with their life”.

Now take a look at the second set of graphs, which the media has seized on today. They show that New Zealand has relatively high rates of youth suicide compared to OCED countries, and that New Zealand has the highest rate of suicide across the OECD for women aged 15 – 24.

Source: National Indicators 2011

Source: National Indicators 2011

Source: National Indicators 2011

Source: National Indicators 2011

So we are generally satisfied with our lives, but our young people are taking their own lives at a rate much higher than the OECD median and at a rate that sees us claim the dubious distinction of leading the OECD for youth suicide in young women. So what’s going on here?

Well, even the scientists aren’t sure.We asked respected researcher Professor David Ferguson, from the Department of Psychological Medicine at the University of Otago what he made of the data sets released in the report. He responded:

“The reasons for countries like New Zealand and Finland having high rates of suicide despite high reported satisfaction are by no means clear. The things that links these countries are that they are small liberal democracies with high rates of alcohol consumption but whether these factors have any bearing rates of suicide is also unclear. There is no intrinsic paradox in a country having a high rate of suicide and high life satisfaction bearing in mind that life satisfaction refers to the views of the majority and suicide to the behaviour of a very small minority.

“While there have been a number of speculative comments about New Zealand’s high rate of suicide,  there are no generally accepted explanations for this. One possibility that needs to be considered is whether national differences reflect differences in reporting accuracy.

Key findings of the report included:

• The majority of New Zealanders (86%) report feeling satisfied with their life as a whole

• People less likely to report feeling satisfied are middle-aged, Mäori, Pacific and those from low socio-economic neighbourhoods

• The suicide death rate has improved since the mid-1990s. In 2008 the suicide death rate was lower than in the mid-1980s

• The proportion of the population accessing secondary mental health and addiction services has increased from 2.2% in 2002/03 to 2.7% in 2008/09

• Overall, people with symptoms of mental illness or addiction feel less included in society

• Young people appear to be the most socially excluded of all groups among people with symptoms of mental distress

Snow from space Peter Griffin Aug 16

No Comments

Satellite images of New Zealand snapped right now looks rather impressive as parts of the country are layered in snow.

UPDATE: Latest satellite images of New Zealand from NOAA are available here and a nice NASA image showing the weather pattern responsible for the snowfall is available here (H/T Sciblogger Chris McDowall and Scilbogs reader Ross Petherick).

Credit: NOAA/Landcare Research

Credit: NOAA/Landcare Research

These images of the US and the United Kingdom taken from space during last winter in the north are certainly impressive. Here are some of them…

The US monster winter storm

A massive winter storm affecting 30 states from Texas and the Rockies to New England blasted the US with snow, sleet and freezing rain in January. NASA satellites captured images of the storm systems and the snowbound country.

Three images from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard NASA's Terra satellite were combined to create this image of the storm system. The images were captured on Jan. 31 at 10:30 a.m., 12:05 p.m., and 1:45 p.m. ET (15:30, 17:05, and 18:45 UTC). Diagonal lines across the image show the boundaries between the overpasses. White gaps are areas where the sensor did not collect data. The image has a resolution of one kilometer per pixel. Credit: NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team

Three images from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard NASA's Terra satellite were combined to create this image of the storm system. The images were captured on Jan. 31 at 10:30 a.m., 12:05 p.m., and 1:45 p.m. ET (15:30, 17:05, and 18:45 UTC). Diagonal lines across the image show the boundaries between the overpasses. White gaps are areas where the sensor did not collect data. The image has a resolution of one kilometer per pixel. Credit: NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team

This NASA satellite image from the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument on NASA's Aqua spacecraft, taken Jan. 31, 2011 at 18:47 UTC (1:47 p.m. EST), shows the early stages of a developing storm in the plains and Midwestern states. This image highlights a preponderance of cold air in Canada and the northern US (green and blue colors). Credit: NASA JPL, Ed Olsen

This NASA satellite image from the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument on NASA's Aqua spacecraft, taken Jan. 31, 2011 at 18:47 UTC (1:47 p.m. EST), shows the early stages of a developing storm in the plains and Midwestern states. This image highlights a preponderance of cold air in Canada and the northern US (green and blue colors). Credit: NASA JPL, Ed Olsen

This visible image was captured by the GOES-13 satellite and shows the low pressure area stretching from the Colorado Rockies and Texas east to New England. The image shows the storm on Feb. 1 at 1401 UTC (9:01 a.m. EST) by the NASA GOES Project, located at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The GOES series of satellites are operated by NOAA.  Credit: NOAA/NASA GOES Project

This visible image was captured by the GOES-13 satellite and shows the low pressure area stretching from the Colorado Rockies and Texas east to New England. The image shows the storm on Feb. 1 at 1401 UTC (9:01 a.m. EST) by the NASA GOES Project, located at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The GOES series of satellites are operated by NOAA. Credit: NOAA/NASA GOES Project

The UK’s icy winter blast

European Space Agency satellite instruments observed the the icy blast in the UK from their vantage points in space last November and December.

Leicester scientists used two instruments, MERIS and AATSR, which returned stunning images of a snow-bound UK from observations on November 29th and December 1st.

This is an image of snow-bound UK from space by MERIS on Nov. 29.  Credit: MERIS 29 November 2010. Credit: MERIS data @ ESA, and University of Leicester

This is an image of snow-bound UK from space by MERIS on Nov. 29. Credit: MERIS 29 November 2010. Credit: MERIS data @ ESA, and University of Leicester

This is an image of snow-bound UK from space by AATSR on Dec. 1.  Credit: AATSR 01 December 2010. Credit: AATSR data @ ESA, and University of Leicester

This is an image of snow-bound UK from space by AATSR on Dec. 1. Credit: AATSR 01 December 2010. Credit: AATSR data @ ESA, and University of Leicester

This is an image of snow-bound UK from space by MERIS on Dec. 1.  Credit: MERIS 01 December 2010. Credit: MERIS data @ ESA, and University of Leicester

This is an image of snow-bound UK from space by MERIS on Dec. 1. Credit: MERIS 01 December 2010. Credit: MERIS data @ ESA, and University of Leicester

Report reveals New Zealand science’s gender gap Peter Griffin Aug 15

6 Comments

The furore over sacked Employers and Manufacturers’ Association boss Alasdair Thompson’s comments about the productivity of working women has receded, but newly collated figures reveal the extent of the gender gap in the New Zealand science system.

According to a study released by the Association for Women in Science:

  • When science is compulsory at school, female students do well across the board but routinely choose the biological sciences above physics or chemistry when given the option.
  • Women with a BSc or PhD earn $30,000 less on average than men with the same qualification level, due to an over-representation in lower paid jobs.
  • Women are still under-represented at higher levels of University employment (Professor/Associate Professor/Senior Lecturer) although they are gaining ground at lower levels.
  • Women are also under-represented at the level of decision making and funding allocation.
  • Women scientists are not gaining the same degree of recognition as males with few awarded the top prizes in New Zealand science.

Check out the graphs below – it starts out promising with women well on top in terms of enrolments in BSc degrees and in many cases individual BSc disciplines. But you’ll notice in the following graphs that the power in New Zealand science is held predominantly by men, with women under-represented among university department heads, recipients of research funding and Fellows of the Royal Society. See the full report here.

awis 1
awis 2
awis 5
awis 6
awis 9

awis 10

Bent spoons galore for coverage of “charlatan” Ring Peter Griffin Aug 15

2 Comments

The Skeptics Society has roasted several media organisations, collectively awarding them its annual Bent Spoon award for “journalistic gullibility” after they gave “Moon Man” Ken Ring largely uncritical coverage in the wake of the Canterbury earthquakes.

Vicki Hyde

Vicki Hyde

The story is one close to the hearts of Skeptics spokeswoman Vicki Hyde, whose neighbourhood in Redcliffs, Christchurch was hit hard by the earthquakes, spurring Hyde to set up an emergency information service that fell back on notice boards  and flyers when electricity and internet services were knocked out.

“We believe that it is the business of the professional media to ask pertinent questions on behalf of the public when presenting material as factual. We even have broadcasting standards which call for accurate reporting. Many, many media outlets and journalists failed the basic standards of their profession in failing to ask ‘where is the evidence?’ in the face of Ken Ring’s claims to predict earthquakes. They did us all a disservice,” said Hyde as she singled out several organisations in particular.

Since the winners of the Bent Spoon were revealed late last week, there’s been very little coverage of them by the media, which isn’t surprising, given that most of the major outlets are Bent Spoon recipients. The Bent Spoon awards follows a Media7 special in which you, the Sciblogs readers and the Science Media Centre, assembled a list of the best and worst science stories of the last year. Suffice to say, there was at least a bit of overlap with the Bent Spoon awards.

What the Skeptics quite rightly criticise in the coverage of Ken Ring’s earthquake predictions, is the media’s treatment of balance. Several journalists I have spoken to have defended their media outlets’ coverage of Ken Ring by citing the public interest in his predictions and therefore the need to get both sides of the story in evaluating his claims. While the concern among the public raised by Ring is certainly worthy of a story, the media fell over itself in airing at length the views of Ring, often without much in the way of critical scientific analysis of them. The upshot was that the media outlets cited below by the Skeptics, gave Ring free coverage, thus exacerbating the problem.

Those attracting the ire of the Skeptics include:

Radio Live’s Marcus Lush: “for giving great and unquestioning publicity for Ring’s claims that Christchurch would have a major earthquake — ‘one for the history books’ — on March 20th, and continuing to support Ring’s promotion as an earthquake predictor and weather forecaster.

TVNZ Close Up’s Mark Sainsbury: “for giving Ring another platform to air his ideas with very little in-depth critique (Ken Ring Breaks His Silence, July 12,2011)

“The best thing about Ken’s failure on March 20 was his long silence afterwards. Yet here he is back on what is supposed to be credible current affairs show with more vague pronouncements and self-justifications. Surely Closeup had another Kate-and-William clip they could have played instead to maintain their level of in-depth journalism,” said Hyde. Ouch!

Herald on Sunday’s Chloe Johnson: “provided uncritical publicity for Ring which continued long after his failures“.

“It’s been sad to see the Herald name devalued by the tabloid approach of the Herald on Sunday, especially when the lower-quality spin-off can sometimes do good stuff such as its hard-hittingeditorial headlined ‘Charlatan Ring merits contempt‘,” noted Hyde.

Also hammered with the Bent Spoon award was media commentator Brain Edwards, who runs a popular blog on the local media scene.

Brian Edwards: “described by one commentator as providing ‘banal and rigourless equivocations’, along the lines of such gems as ‘the evidence that the moon has some contributory influence on earthquakes seems slight…however, it is not impossible that it does’.

“We’ve seen Edwards cogently skewer sloppy thinking in the past, so it was surprising to see just how wishy-washy he was in this particular case,” said Hyde.

John Campbell, Campbell Live: The notorious interview with Ken Ring that resulted in Campbell issuing a televised apology to Moon Man received nominations for the Bent Spoon award as well as the Bravo Award for critical thinking, but in the end the Skeptics decided it worthy of a Bent Spoon.

Said Hyde:  “We appreciate what John was trying to do — introduce a little evidence and call into question some very dubious claims — but we knew he’d blown it as soon as he started to talk over the top of Ken.”

But it wasn’t all bad news – this year’s Bravo Award winners included:

Janna Sherman, Greymouth Star: “for her item ‘Sceptics revel in Hokitika ‘earthquake’ non-event’.

“In science, a lack of evidence or a failed prediction can tell us a lot; in the media, we rarely see any stories about a non-event. That’s why it was great to see Sherman and the Star cover Ken’s failure — pseudo-scientists and psychics alike will only trumpet their sucesses as part of their self-promotion. To get the real picture, you need to hear about their failures too,” noted Hyde.

Philip Matthews, Marlborough Express: “for a great article on 1080 that actually says there is really only one side to the story rather than introducing an alleged controversy with token ‘balance’.”

Said Hyde: “We don’t ask the Flat Earth Society to provide balance for a story on the International Space Station orbiting a spherical Earth. Why should we give a false impression of evidence-based “debate” in other areas such as 1080 or immunization? If there truly is controversy based on evidence, let the evidence speak for itself, but don’t give us misleading balance based on opinion and hearsay.”

The Skeptics also commended Dr Jan Wright, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, who “while not in the media itself, did a great job of evaluating the evidence and presenting a report [on 1080] clearly outlining the evidence.

The best and worst science stories revealed Peter Griffin Aug 04

1 Comment

The Media7 science special just screened on TVNZ7 and included the section on the best and worst science stories of the last year – as decided by the Scibloggers and you, the Sciblogs readers.

Thanks so much for your submissions – many of the stories won’t appear in the lists below, but we gave due consideration to all entries and had to be ruthless in getting down to the top 5 in each category.

Congratulations to those reporters and media organisations that ended up on the “best of” list. For those on the “worst of” list, hey, we all have our bad days. I was a journalist for long enough, I had enough of my own. The key is to look at what went wrong and what can be learnt for the future. What it shouldn’t mean is to put science stories in the “too hard” basket. If you are doing the story for the right reasons and applying the proper journalistic rigour, the audience will appreciate that.

Best of…

1. Too hot to handle – An excellent New Zealand Listener cover story that looks at the scientific evidence on vitamin D and our health balanced against the need to avoid skin cancer by limiting our exposure to the sun. A wide range of views are canvassed here. A n excellent summary of a complex science-related issue. November 13, 2010 (Ruth, Laugesen, New Zealand Listener)

2. Ken Ring’s quake theories – how scientific are they? – An effort to put things right after the disastrous Campbell Live interview and a good example of how science can actually be explained properly with the right dose of “balance” achieved, in a relatively short TV piece. March (Tristram Clayton, TV3)

3. Animal death toll ends cloning trials – A story that looked at the discontinuation of cloning trials at an Agresearch facility. Not only was it a great front page scoop that relied on the reporter seeking documents under the Official Information Act, but the science-related details were dealt with carefully and were well translated for a general audience. February 21, 2011 (Kiran Chug, Dominion Post)

4. The Climate dissenter holds his ground – An in-depth piece looking at University of Auckland scientist associate professor Chris de Freitas, and the seemingly skewed nature of his teachings on climate change. A piece that highlights the issues that emerge when scientists reject the consensus view of science and do so under the banner of ’academic freedom’. July 16, 2011 (Chris Barton, New Zealand Herald)

5. The case for vaccination – A thorough, absorbing read in North & South that looks at the science behind vaccination, the commonly held beliefs around the lack of safety of vaccines and the impact of diseases such as measles and meningitis which are to a large extent avoidable through vaccination. Thoroughly researched and well-written. June 2010 (Joanna Wane, North & South)

Worst of…

1. Living Proof - 60 Minutes piece on the treatment with high dose vitamin C of a King Country farmer struck down with swine flu – A woeful piece of journalism where the crucial questions remained unanswered because the reporter failed to ask anyone with a scientific or medical background equipped to answer them.   August 16, 2010 (Melanie Reid, TV3)

2. Ken Ring – Moon man interviewed. John Campbell Campbell Live interview with earthquake predictor Ken Ring – not only an awful interview, but one where the presenter’s attempts to lay out the scientific evidence was flawed to the extent that it just served to confuse the audience – and win sympathy for Ken Ring. February 28, 2011 (John Campbell, TV3)

3. Fruit juice, apples linked to fetus harm – The findings of a Liggins Institute paper were misreported giving the alarmist impression that pregnant mothers could be harming their babies by drinking too much fruit juice or apples containing fructose – a natural sugar. In fact, the research really raised concerns about fructose contained in processed foods that had been artificially sweetened. Led to public confusion and a backlash from pregnant mothers. February 12, 2011 (Isaac Davison, New Zealand Herald)

4. Gassing fakes meat freshness – An alarmist front page lead story in the Sunday Star Times that raises concerns about meat preservation techniques that are widely used by the meat industry – but fails to get include any sources with scientific expertise who can actually explain what meat gassing is. A shonky story that sparked the Science Media Centre to actually find out from experts what the real risks there were, if any, from using this technique. February 6, 2011 (Lois Cairns, Sunday Star Times)

5. Two sides to a story – US quake predictor Jim Berkland was interviewed by Mark Sainsbury on Close Up just a few days before Ken Ring’s March 20 earthquake prediction. While Sainsbury followed up the interview with a live cross to a seismologist and psychologist in Christchurch, the interview with Jim Berkland saw many numerous points go unchallenged. It was inadequate interrogation of major claims, with the science completely sidelined, despite Berkland’s status as a former USBS scientist. An oft-repeated flaw in the treatment of science stories where psuedoscience is put up against established science with talking heads ’duking it out’.  March 17, 2011 (Mark Sainsbury, Close Up)

Leighton Smith, Monckton melt down over climate Peter Griffin Aug 04

7 Comments

Talkback listeners were in for a rare occurance this morning as Newstalk ZB host Leighton Smith introduced fellow climate change sceptic Christopher Monckton onto his show for a ninety minute discussion on climate change.

Leighton Smith & Christopher Monckton

Leighton Smith & Christopher Monckton

When you take out the incessant commercials and advertorials, which Smith has to voice himself, and the news breaks, it was more like a 45 minute discussion. It didn’t really cover any new ground and was only remarkable for two things – Smith’s extraordinary rant about the media which kicked off proceedings, and Monckton’s insulting and patronising comments towards Balinese women (and climate scientists in general – but the gibes at the latter was to be expected).

First, Leighton Smith’s rant about the media:

Smith: The cowardice of the media in this country is appalling, it is a disgrace. You should all go and hang your heads in shame, hang up your shingle, give up on the media you so, I presume, proudly represent or think you do, because you are not, you are incompetent. You are useless and I make no bones about this. That applies to producers, to reporters, to people I’d have to describe as living in Fantasia, to borrow the phrase and are just plain ignorant.

What was he on about? Well, stories like this and this, which catalogue Monckton’s failures on this trip to New Zealand to use the media to grandstand about his beliefs on climate change. Smith called the Herald story a “hit job” on Monckton. So the media is “living in Fantasia” because it won’t roll out the red carpet for Monckton, who has no climate science credentials whatsoever, and give him swathes of air time like Smith did.

Moving on to the Balinese women and climate scientists. After a bit, Smith opened up the lines for questions, resulting in a a question from talkback listener Tony, who said he believed what Monckton was saying and wanted to know why climate scientists were deceiving the world.

Tony: What is actually driving these guys to actually, um, push this climate change. What…

Monckton: Yep, okay, got you. Money, power, glory. Those three, just as it always is. These people are making fortunes. Al Gore has made, certainly, several hundred million on it, the scientists are getting status, they’re getting trips all round the world to places like Bali to interface in a meaningful way with the ladies in grass skirts. They all have a lovely time doing this…

“Interface in a meaningful way with the ladies in grass skirts”? Monckton’s reputation for being mad as a snake clearly remains intact.

As for jetsetting scientists, I’m sure Monckton was thinking of them as he descended on the ivy-clad Northern Club for lunch with a room full of business people who had paid to see him and those supporters who had shelled out good money to fly him across the world only to be denied the glory he anticipated and the power he expected to wield. Money, power and glory indeed…

Media7 science special, best and worst stories Peter Griffin Aug 03

No Comments

It’s turning out to be a fairly science-heavy week what with the visit of famed British scientist Lord Winston, the Monckton side show on climate change and TVNZ7′s hour-long special on science, which airs tomorrow night.

Russell  Brown

Russell Brown

As you’ll know as a reader of Sciblogs, Media7 host Russell Brown asked us to ask you what you thought were some of the best and worst science stories of the last year, with a view to doing a David Letterma-esque countdown on the Media 7 show which screens tomorrow night at 9.05pm on TVNZ7 (available on Sky and Freeview).

After picking through a list that included some of the stories that attracted the most heated debate on Sciblogs (did someone mention that Ken Ring interview?), we dutifully submitted the list.

A friendly cameraman called by last week to film me giving a bit of background to the best and worst five stories. So check out the show tomorrow night and head back here to let us know what you think, what we missed and what you thought of the rest of the show.

Lord Robert, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, Dr Mike Joy (trhe scientist dumped on by the Prime Minister in that HARDtalk interview) are interviewed on the show.

Media7: Spotlight on Science special

9.05pm Thursday, August 4th

TVNZ7 (on Freeview and Sky, on TVNZ website and Youtube after airing)

The good in Robert Winston’s bad ideas Peter Griffin Aug 03

No Comments

The three-tiered Opera House in Wellington was packed out last night as people flocked to see Lord Robert Winston present the ideas from his 2010 book Bad Ideas?

The lecture was the culmination of a trip that saw Winston lecture in Nelson and take part in the 90th anniversary celebration of the Cawthron Institute which is based there. Winston also took time to visit a school in quake-ravaged Christchurch and to spend time with Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman. Winston is a patron of the Liggins Institute which Gluckman founded 10 years ago.

Given Winston’s profile as a scientist and presenter of popular science documenataries such as The Human Body you would expect him to be a cheerleader for science. Indeed he is, but in Bad Ideas? – the book and the presentation on which it is based, Winston looks at the dark side of science and catalogues numerous instances where scientific progress has been accompanied by unforeseen consequences, ethical atrocities and detrimental impacts on society.

His talk spans genetics, the oil industry, the rise of agriculture, the internet and mobile phone technology to name just a few subjects. The overall message is that science can’t remain aloof from society, that scientists must engage and better understand the needs and concerns of society as they introduce new technologies that could bring about profound changes.

The most interesting part of the talk for me was Winston’s warning on the malign role governments can play in science as illustrated by the case of Trofim Lysenko, a Russian “peasant scientist” who won the admiration of Joseph Stalin to the extent that his unorthodox experiments on crops in Russia became the official policy of the communist state – which distrusted conventional science.

Lysenko (left) watched by his admiring leader, Comrade Stalin source: Wikipedia

Lysenko (left) watched by his admiring leader, Comrade Stalin source: Wikipedia

After the devastating crop failures and famine of the 1930s, Stalin was looking for scapegoats and scientists were among his targets.

The results were disastrous for Russian science – and for crop management. It became illegal to criticise Lysenko who was given his own journal to espouse his views on vernalization – views that were discredited only after Stalin’s death when it was safe for scientists to air their doubts about Lysenko’s fraudulent science.

After dwelling on Lysenko, Winston went further displaying a chilling slide showing SS officer and Nazi doctor Dr Josef Mengele posing casually at Auschwitz with slave labourers toiling in the background. The ultimate example perhaps of what can happen when science is perverted by the unethical.

An interesting part of Winston’s lecture was when he listed what he considers to be the ten most significant scientific advances of the last 50 years. We weren’t allowed to take photos or record the proceedings so alas, no podcast of the  lecture – or photos of his slides.

But it seems his list has changed a fair bit from when he first put it together last year:

# Stem cell research
# Bio-mechanics
# The Contraceptive Pill
# Decoding the Human Genome
# The Internet
# IVF
# The laser
# The microchip
# MRI scanning
# Increasing Evidence for the Big Bang

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3oH6apmb6sY

Last night, Winston had dropped decoding the human genome from the list, as well as bio-mechanics and had added the invention of the atomic clock to his top ten. He dealt with genetics seperately, suggesting that the sequencing of the human genome had been over-hyped and hadn’t really delivered much value to science.

Winston finished with his 14 point science manifesto, which is reproduced here.

But as science minister Dr Wayne Mapp suggested at a cocktail function for Winston at parliament after the lecture, the first point of the manifesto pretty much sums up all of the others:

We should try to communicate our work as effectively as possible, because ultimately it is done on behalf of society and because its adverse consequences may affect members of the society in which we all live. We need to strive for clarity not only when we make statements or publish work for scientific colleagues, but also in making our work intelligible to the average layperson. We may also reflect that learning to communicate more effectively may improve the quality of the science we do and make it more relevant to the problems we are attempting to solve.

Network-wide options by YD - Freelance Wordpress Developer