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Archive April 2012

A partial victory for reason Peter Griffin Apr 30

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Last year, Wellingtonian Don McDonald, a stickler for accuracy and a statistics whiz, took a complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority over a basic factual error in a TVNZ news report about the discovery of a supernova.

It was a only a 37 second piece, but it had at least one factual error in the script, which went as follows…

(Presenter)

A 10 year old Canadian girl has won herself some star power, becoming the youngest person to discover a supernova.

Amateur astronomer Kathryn Aurora Gray, yes that is her middle name, won what experts are calling ‘The Astronomy Jackpot’ when she spotted the exploding star.

(Kathryn Gray)

A supernova is a star at the end of its life actually. It’s actually a star blowing up, ripping itself to pieces.

(Presenter)

Finding a supernova involves checking old images of star fields against new ones, and ruling out asteroids and known supernovas.

The Canadian Astronomical Society says Kathryn’s supernova was in a galaxy 240 light years from Earth.

The last sentence should read “240 million light years”.

TVNZ admitted the mistake – over the distance the supernova was from Earth, but claimed it wasn’t material to the item and declined to pursue Don’s complaint. Don went to the BSA, which threw out his complaint and to add insult to injury, charged the beneficiary a $50 fine.

Don, understandably, wasn’t happy so he appealed to the High Court. The resulting judgement overturns the decision to fine Don $50, but dismisses the other, more substantive part of the court case – Don’s appeal to have the BSA’s decision to throw out the complaint overturned.

You can read the judgement here: Mc donald v television nz

While it is nice that Justice Simon France recognised the inappropriateness of the fine, its disappointing that the court has, like the BSA, failed to grasp the concept that facts matter and getting the facts right is an important part of disseminating news and is material to the meaning people take from news items.

In his judgement, Judge France noted:

It seems reasonably clear that the Authority does not accept that all errors of a statistical nature, or arising in the field of science, meet the Accuracy Standard threshold of materiality. Mr McDonald may not agree with this viewpoint, but it is one the Authority is entitled to take. If Mr McDonald were to focus, when referring a matter to the Authority, not only on the error but on why he considers the error is material to the programme in which it has arisen, then all parties may be assisted.

Okay sure, maybe Don should have made it clear why he thinks it is a material matter, but doesn’t it seem a tad obvious? Of course it is material to the story and to the audience’s understanding of distances in space and the Earth’s place in the universe. Are people considered to be that stupid that accuracy doesn’t really matter – that a few mistakes here or there don’t really count as “material” in the big scheme of things?

I disagree. I can understand Don’s desire to let the facts speak for themselves and for TVNZ to recognise its errors and own up to them.

Judge France continues:

It is a formidable task to try and establish the Authority was plainly wrong in such an assessment, and I do not consider the appellant has overcome that hurdle. One can obviously point, as [McDonald's lawyer] Mr Edgeler did, to the inclusion in the story of associated facts such as the distance of the supernova from the Earth. But the addition of these matters does not change the essential characteristic of the story which is, as the Authority says, a short human interest piece on the remarkable achievement of a ten year old.

The problem of course being that a large and growing portion of the media’s output is made up of these types of human interest stories. Essentially the judgement is confirming the BSA’s view that its not about all things you learn (or are misled about) along the way – it is the overall impression you’re left with.

I supported Don at the time he was knocked back by the BSA. I continue to support his quest for the media to admit to its mistakes and correct them. The judgement is useful in that it emphasizes the need in a complaint to prove that a point is in fact material. this will help Don and others hone their arguments when they complain about the not insubstantial number of errors that litter broadcast news reports. But the bigger point should be taken by the broadcasters – that fixing up your mistakes quickly will avoid the sort of hassle that goes with having to defend your decisions in court. The BSA will hopefully learn a thing or two about when it is and isn’t appropriate to ask an unsuccessful complainant to get their cheque book out…

NZAS conference – what the politicians said Peter Griffin Apr 19

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There has been some good discussion following this week’s Association of Scientists conference in Wellington and also some media interest in what the two politicians who addressed the conference said.

Find below audio recordings of the presentations from the politicians. Other podcasts will be added soon…

Minister of Primary Industries, David Carter

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Labour leader, David Shearer

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Do emerging researchers have a future in NZ? Peter Griffin Apr 17

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There’s a lot of angst in the scientific community about the apparent whittling away of opportunities for emerging scientists in New Zealand as a result of the dismantling of the FRST postdoctoral fellowship scheme.

Dr Massaro - concerned about postdocs

Dr Massaro - concerned about postdocs

This manifested itself late last year in a letter being circulated that was signed by 560 scientists which complained that the the lack of postdoctoral opportunities for the “vast majority of New Zealand early career researchers adds to the ‘brain drain’”.

Numerous issues with the newly established Rutherford Discovery Fellowships were identified by scientists, who were chiefly concerned that the fellowships were available to scientists more advanced in their careers, potentially shutting out early and mid career scientists who need financial support from beyond a scientific institution while they establish themselves in research.

All of this was under the spotlight yesterday at the New Zealand Association of Scientists conference in Wellington. if you weren’t there you can pick up the thread by searching the #nzas and #nzasconf hash tags on Twitter, which several of us were using to tweet throughout the day. Podcasts of many of the presentations will also be posted on the NZAS website over the coming days.

The Rutherford fellowships

Mindful of the vocal opposition to the make up of the new fellowships, the government late last year embarked on some consultation with scientists over how they might be improved. that resulted in an update from Science and Innovation minister Steven Joyce last week outlining some changes to the scheme, which were also outlined by the MSI’s Chief Scientist Prue Williams at the conference yesterday. They include:

• Focussing the award process on selecting excellent researchers who have leadership potential

• A priority on the repatriation of talented New Zealanders

• Reducing the application period to 3-8 years after receiving the PhD (previously 3-10 years)

• Allowing a broad range of leadership qualities to be supported by removing the distinction between Tier 1 (leadership potential) and Tier 2 (demonstrated leadership) researchers

• Changing the expectation that Fellows receive permanent employment from their associated institution, to an expectation that they be contracted for employment over the full term of the fellowship

’One of our priorities is to develop New Zealand’s skill base for innovation. MSI will do further work with the Ministry of Education and the Tertiary Education Commission to ensure post doctoral researchers within NZ have sufficient opportunity to stay in the country and contribute to the New Zealand economy and society.

Dr Williams explained, rather apologetically, that issues remain with the fellowships that are outside the control of the MSI, hence the undertaking outlined in the last bullet point above.

How did scientists react yesterday? The general tone seemed to be that the changes were merely tinkering at the edges and that don’t address the deeper issue that opportunities for emerging scientists – including those wanting to come back to New Zealand to continue their careers, are very limited and that we underspend on postgrad fellowships to the detriment of the science system. However some saw the changes as a sign that politicians are willing to listen and engage and make change based on consultation with the science sector.

Academic overheads

One well-gnawed bone of contention yesterday was the issue of academic overheads and the impact they have on the affordability of postgrads for scientific institutions.

As University of Canterbury environmental researcher Melanie Massaro pointed out in that letter last year:

Given the high overheads associated with salaries for postdoctoral fellows (~120% at most NZ Universities), it is not economically viable to include postdoctoral fellows in grant applications. This raises the question, where do all these highly‐trained and talented early career researchers exercise their skills after completion of their PhDs?

She repeated her concerns yesterday, pointing out that in the US, the overhead rate sits at around 50 per cent and is even lower (between 30 – 40 per cent) in some European countries. This claim met with outright denial from at least one researcher, who has received funding from the US National Science Foundation and claims the overhead rates are in fact comparable.

One thing became obvious yesterday – a lot of scientists are confused about the status of overheads, how they are calculated and the impact overheads have on the attractiveness of hiring postdocs. indeed, it appears there could be greater transparency or at least clarity in this area. I managed to find this explanation of the overhead calculations on the University of Auckland website

The calculation is undertaken as follows:

  1. The total indirect costs of the institution supporting Externally Funded Research are determined as A.
  2. The total direct salary component associated with Externally Funded Research is determined as B.
  3. The Research Overhead Recovery Rate is then determined as the ratio A/B, expressed as a percentage. The rate is thus a function of both indirect costs supporting Externally Funded Research and researcher salary levels.

In the period 2003 to 2007 The University of Auckland overhead rate has been 121% of the direct salary costs of doing the research. Because salary costs have been increasing at a greater rate than the indirect costs of doing research, the overhead rate for 2008 has been recalculated at 114% of the direct salary costs.

Does New Zealand’s academic overhead rates discourage postdocs from being employed? Probably, in some cases, due to the inherently greater cost of hiring postgrads. Why hire an expensive postdoc when you can get two cheap and keen PhD students?

Academic burnout

There was a lot of discussion at the NZAS conference about the pressure on emerging scientists to be masters of all trades – not just good at science, but savvy at communicating their science, as well as networking and understanding the needs of the business community.

Speakers throughout the day expressed differing views on this. Those in business professed a desire for scientists to develop these skills and to see the ultimate outcome of their science as having a beneficial impact on the economy. Others suggested it was unrealistic to suggest all scientists could – or should – develop these skills. Phil O’Reilly, of Business New Zealand, surprised many by saying that he didn’t expect all scientists to gear up to work with the business sector. That would be like trying to make them “drink from a fire hose”, was the way he put it.

But with the influence of scientist and entrepreneur Sir Paul Callaghan looming large over the conference, the theme seemed to be that scientists benefit greatly from upskilling in these non-science areas. GNS Science’s Dr Kelvin Berryman, questioned the level of supervision support for PhD students, which can typically be as low as two hours a week. If scientists were expected to be multi-skilled, more time was needed to work with them and it wouldn’t always be appropriate for their science leader to be dishing out commercialisation tips.

Most of the old hands on the bill – IRL’s Dr Richard Furneaux and Izon’s Hans van der Voorn, suggested that science was hard work any way you looked at it, and if you have an entrepreneurial bone in your body as a scientist, you simply had to gather the skills you could, where you could, to get ahead.

Certainly, I put in an appeal at the end for all scientists to spend some time honing their communication skills which not only help scientists engage with business, government and the public, but makes them more effective in articulating their requests for more money!

One thing that became clear during the day is that there are now numerous organisations representing emerging researchers – Chiasma, Stratus, MeSA, Creative HQ, Spark, Entire and Audacious among them. This is great to see – but there needs to be some co-ordination among them – perhaps via the NZAS.

Science leadership

The conference kicked off with the politicians – primary industries minister David Carter standing in for Steven Joyce, who was overseas, and David Shearer chipping in on behalf of Labour. I received a fairly muted response when i asked participants on a panel discussion at the end of the day, what they thought of the messages coming from our political leaders.

Some seem jaded with the focus on innovation, while others who have been through countless economic transformation programmes and initiatives see the current policies as more of the same. David Carter addressed concerns that the word “science” is missing from the title of the new Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, saying it was impossible to reference everything in the title, but that science would be a valued part of the mix. He also suggested, that the existing MSI may be largely ring-fenced and kept intact within the new ministry.

Carter didn’t take questions which was a shame, but David Shearer did. While he went over his usual points about following the examples of Nokia and Israel, he didn’t reveal what Labour would do differently – other than referring people to Labour’s science manifesto.

The upshot

It was a genuinely productive and informative day. Emerging researchers face a lot of challenges in securing a future for themselves in New Zealand. Money is tight, competition for a small number of fellowships is fierce. The momentum is swinging towards commercialisation and applied science.

But i got the sense that there is great science going on here, we have bright and ambitious scientists and, on a small country, the benefit of being able to get the ear of the people who can bring about change. I look forward to the NZAS kicking along all of these issues. If you are a scientist join up with the NZAS – membership, I’m told is free if you sign up in the next few weeks.

Emerging researchers most definitely do have a future in New Zealand and the more engaged they are in the issues and in articulating the value of their science, the more likely they are to see change that will help secure their futures here.

Did dodgy rivets sink Titanic? Peter Griffin Apr 15

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In Belfast and Southhampton there have been celebrations this weekend to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.

The last few weeks have also seen the Titanic story revisited from every angle. Last week, film maker James Cameron appeared in a National Geography documentary in which he and a team of naval engineers and historians attempted to reconstruct exactly what happened as the ship began to sink.

The Olympic under construction at Harland & Wolff, Belfast

The Olympic under construction at Harland & Wolff, Belfast

Admirably, he concluded by admitting that the most dramatic scenes he depicted in his blockbuster 1997 movie Titanic, showing the sinking ship raised almost vertical in the water, as passengers clung to it for dear life, weren’t realistic. The ship’s incline would only have been a maximum of 23 degrees or so before it broke in two and sunk.

Other analysis has revisited the collision with the iceberg and what exactly happened that cause the “unsinkable” ship to be lost in a matter of a few hours. One area of scrutiny I’m particularly interested in is the Titanic’s rivets.

My great grandfather, James McClarnon (1875 – 1956), was a head rivetter on the Titanic. He worked most of his life at the Harland & Wolff shipyards in Belfast and was overseeing a team of half a dozen men or so in 1910 – 11, when the Titanic was being build.

He was immensely proud of the Titanic and wept when the news reached Ireland that the ship had sunk, according to my mother. The consensus during the bulk of the 20th century was that the Titanic sunk because an attempt to turn away from the iceberg caused the ship to be hit along its side, breaching numerous watertight compartments and flooding the ship.

Numerous other things exacerbated the problem – chiefly the decision to keep on sailing rather than stop the ship immediately, which only made hastened its demise. Another theory that has been floated is that the Titanic was constructed with inferior rivets and/or employed inexperienced people to rivet the ship together.

Paul Holmes touched on this theory at the end of his Herald column yesterday, having seen a naval architect outline the theory in a documentary that screened on TV last week.

…but [the naval architect] notes that during construction, the riveting machine was unable to get to the lower bow section so the riveting had to be done by hand. To make the work easier a slightly softer rivet was used. When the Titanic hit the iceberg the hull received about 9000kg of pressure. The rivets he made could take less than 2200kg of pressure.

In other words, the impact of the iceberg sheered off thousands of rivets because they were of inferior quality, allowing massive amounts of water to enter the ships hull and rapidly sink it. The theory was laid out by a team of scientists in 2008. They pored over Harland & Wolff archives, constructed models and even examined rivets taken from the Titanic wreck site, finding them to be of low quality and high in amounts of slag – which can grow brittle and make rivets prone to fracture. The New York Times explains:

The scientists say the troubles began when its ambitious building plans forced Harland and Wolff to reach beyond its usual suppliers of rivet iron and include smaller forges, as disclosed in company and British government papers. Small forges tended to have less skill and experience.

Adding to the problem, in buying iron for the Titanic’s rivets, the company ordered No. 3 bar, known as ’best’ – not No. 4, known as ’best-best,’ the scientists found. Shipbuilders of the day typically used No. 4 iron for anchors, chains and rivets, they discovered.

Harland & Wolff, not surprisingly, dismiss the theory. They point out that the Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic, sailed for decades without any issue with rivets failing, before being retired.

Harland & Wolff, now an engineering and design firm, flatly rejects the notion that its rivets were weak. Tom McCluskie, the company’s retired archivist, points out that Olympic, Titanic’s sister ship, was riveted with the same iron and served without incident for 25 years, surviving several major collisions, including being rammed by a British cruiser. “Olympic deliberately rammed a German submarine during the First World War and cut it in half,” says McCluskie. “She was plenty strong.” The Britannic sank after hitting a mine during World War I. Both ships were strengthened after the Titanic disaster with double hulls and taller bulkheads, but their rivets were never changed.

Could the Titanic have been stronger? Certainly. Higher-quality rivets or a thicker hull might have kept the ship afloat longer. But ultimately, the Titanic was designed to be a passenger liner, not a battleship. “[The ship] was built to the best of their knowledge at the time and to the proper standards. Nothing could have survived what happened to it,” says McCluskie.

But the scientists did come across documented evidence in the ship maker’s archives of concern over the levels of rivetting expertise among the Titanic’s builders.

The company also faced shortages of skilled riveters, the archives showed. Dr. McCarty said that for a half year, from late 1911 to April 1912, when the Titanic set sail, the company’s board discussed the problem at every meeting. For instance, on Oct. 28, 1911, Lord William Pirrie, the company’s chairman, expressed concern over the lack of riveters and called for new hiring efforts.

It is hard to know what the role of the rivets in the tragedy may have been. The inferior workmanship theory has certainly been getting renewed airplay lately. We may never know for sure.

But I’d love to have heard my great grandfather’s reaction to the criticism of the Titanic’s rivet jobs. He was a no-nonsense, hard-drinking ship worker, proud of and passionate about the vessels he worked on. One thing is for sure, whoever questioned his rivetting skills would have definitely got short shrift from him!

Incidentally, my father Patrick, was a merchant navy radio officer for the Blue Star Line in the 1960s working for Marconi, the radio company. He would be contracted out to ships and travelled the world as a radio officer on container ships, tankers and cruise liners. It was Marconi officers aboard the Titanic that made the first SOS sent in a major maritime disaster (though not the first SOS ever). Guglielmo Marconi himself was waiting for the Titanic in New York to take the return trip…

Hatchet job on GM pine trees Peter Griffin Apr 13

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Police are investigating a break in at a radiata pine field trial facility in Rotorua after hundreds of genetically-modified year-old trees were slashed and uprooted over Easter.

The intruders were clever – they not only cut through perimeter fences but tunneled under a monitored security fence to get to the trees, which were planted about a year ago. Scion, the Crown research institute undertaking the trial, reckons the damage amounts to around $400,000.

Potato man Tony Conner

Potato man Tony Conner

It will put back the research – which involves two trials testing herbicide resistance and methods of growing denser woods, but Scion has vowed to carry on the research. Nevertheless, the successful attack is a blow to the already depleted research into genetically modified organisms underway in New Zealand.

Anti-GM activists have done a good job here in their attempts to eradicate this area of research using legal means and illegal “direct action” to target the organisations involved in GM research – and in some cases individual researchers themselves.

Some scientists now fear that our ability to undertake GM research is so depleted due to the well-orchestrated attacks against it and the fear and doubt this has raised in the public consciousness, that we risk losing our edge in agricultural science.

Associate Professor, Jon Hickford, who is President of the New Zealand Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural Sciences, told the Science Media Centre:

GM is a major area of research internationally, but one that NZ is apparently not allowed to be involved in. While we might think we can bury our heads in the sand and not be involved in GM research, this is unlikely to convince anyone outside of NZ.

It will quite obviously further damage the morale of scientists, who as a professional group are demonstrably poorly paid and who suffer poor job security as well.

GE Free New Zealand – the main opposition group lobbying against GM research in New Zealand, has denied its members are responsible for the attack. So who did it? We may never know, but this New Zealand Herald piece from 2004 gives an insight into the preparations anti-GM campaigners were making to destroy GM field trials back then:

This month [the People's Moratorium Enforcement Agency] held a camp with the express purpose of “training activists in direct action techniques”. After Erma approval for a field trial of GM Roundup-resistant onions, 150 people descended on Mountain Valley School in Motueka, an independent institution running outside direct government control.

People attending were a mix of punks and anarchists, older alternative lifestylers and urban students. There were workers from Greenpeace, GM campaigners from Christchurch, Auckland, Wellington and Tauranga, and a fair contingent of backpackers from Europe. Most were new to this sharp end of the movement, but there was a hard and vocal core of veterans.

The mood was blunt, expressed succinctly by Penny Bright of Auckland. “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty. If you plant it [GM crops], we’ll pull it.”

The Scion incident over the weekend has close parallels with what happened at Crop & Food Research back in 2002, where destruction of a potato trial resulted in the ruin of three years of research. in 1999 GM potatoes were again the target of activists, in this case the “Wild Greens” who broke into a facility at Lincoln. Security was boosted for GM trials in the wake of the 2002 breach, and Scion had upgraded its security in Rotorua.

But anti-GM campaigners are noted for their attention to detail. It was spot checks from GE Free activists in 2009 that uncovered a GE brassica plant sprouting where it shouldn’t have been, effectively killing another piece of research. And activists regularly visit, monitor and photograph the perimeters of the few GM facilities left in New Zealand.

The impact on science – and genetics researchers has been devastating. many scientists have moved off-shore. The story of Tony Conner, a former Crop & Food researcher who is now employed at Agresearch, illustrates the frustration scientists working in this area feel:

Conner points out most other countries don’t have these kinds of controls imposed for field trials and the risks are overstated – especially in the case of onions which would not survive in the wild without human cultivation.

He says 20 years experience with GM crops worldwide has shown very little evidence of environmental harm. Conner also believes it’s possible to overcome concerns from organic growers through coexistence management schemes that keep GM and organic crops separate. He hopes, too, that pest-resistant crops, allowing them to grow without the use of agricultural sprays, can be seen as a benefit to organic growers.

As a former member of Greenpeace, he says that reducing pesticide sprays in the environment is what motivated him into GM research.

Other scientists have also pointed out that incursions into field trial facilities may also do more harm than good for the anti-GM cause, increasing the risk of GM material being spread into the wild.

In other countries, where GM crops have been commercially released, slash and burn parties in fields are regular events. Check out this compilation of crop destruction events from Europe…

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Thankfully no tsunami – this time Peter Griffin Apr 12

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People living along the coast of Indonesia and indeed around the fringes of the Indian Ocean will have had a spine-tingling moment last night as they felt the vibrations from the magnitude 8.6 earthquake that struck off the west coast of Northern Sumatra.

Source: USGS

Source: USGS

Many will have had flashbacks to 2004, and the Boxing Day tsunami, which also had its epicentre of Sumatra’s west coast. The tsunamis resulting from that earthquake killed 230,000 people in 14 countries. It goes down in history as the 6th most deadly quake on record.

Thankfully, there was no repeat last night as tsunamis were not triggered by the seismic activity. Media reports indicate that authorities in Indonesia, Malaysia and coastal areas of other countries bordering the Indian Ocean responded efficiently, evacuating low-lying coastal areas and sounding the alarm.

Scientists were quick to provide analysis and we rounded up their initial observations at the Science Media Centre. Professor  Pennsylvania State University’s Kevin Furlong, who did such a good job helping the media with expert commentary in the wake of the Canterbury quakes when he was a visiting academic at the University of Canterbury had the following to say:

The 11 April 2012, Mw 8.7 earthquake west of Banda Aceh, Sumatra, Indonesia is a very large earthquake within the Indo-Australian plate. Although it is within the plate, its occurrence is almost certainly linked to the plate interactions between Indo-Australian plate and Indonesia (part of the Sunda segment of the Eurasian plate). This earthquake reflects a style of faulting (strike-slip) which involves principally horizontal motion, and thus is unlikely to generate a significant tsunami; although very strong ground shaking would be felt on Sumatra. This is also an extremely large magnitude earthquake for this style of faulting, meaning that it likely involved substantial fault movement, and the fault likely extends for 200+ km.

This earthquake is of the same style of faulting and in approximately the same location as a Mw 7.2 earthquake on January 10, 2012. Although this earthquake was within the Indo-Australian plate, any earthquake of this size will change the stress regimes acting on the nearby plate boundaries. The result is that stress conditions on the subduction plate boundary beneath Sumatra have changed, although the implications of that change are uncertain.

Hot on the heals of last night’s earthquake, came another this morning – a magnitude 7 quake off the coast of Mexico. It’s easy to believe that we are having more and stronger earthquakes than in the past, but as the British Geological Survey’s Dr Bruce Malamud told the SMC, that’s not supported by the science.

One of the questions that has been asked by many is whether there have been more frequent large earthquakes in the last few years. Let’s take as a ‘large’ earthquake one with moment magnitude 7. The number of earthquakes per year with moment magnitude greater than or equal to 7 varies certainly, year to year, but the average from 1900 to present is about 17 magnitude 7 or greater earthquakes per year (compared to about 1 magnitude 8 or greater earthquake). If we just look at 1990 to 2010, then the average was about 15 magnitude 7 or greater earthquakes per year. And if we look at the last three years, then the average is also 15 of this size earthquake per year. So, no, the actual number of very large earthquakes is not increasing over time. It fluctuates year to year, with some years less and some years more.

Greenpeace slapped for ad overstating Rena birdlife deaths Peter Griffin Apr 04

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Nearly six months after the Rena ran aground off the coast of Tauranga spreading oil and debris along east coast beaches, the damage from the marine disaster continues to spread.

Bad weather today caused more containers to fall from the ship. Sentencing of the Rena captain and crew members, who pled guilty to mishandling the vessel and altering ship documents after the crash, is set down for May 25. The cost of the disaster clean-up has spiralled to $130 million.

Ghost Bird

Ghost Bird

Now Greenpeace has been censured by the Advertising Standards Authority (click for judgement) for running an advert that the authority considered exaggerated the loss of birdlife that resulted from the Rena oil spill. The ad doesn’t appear to be online, but this Ghost Birds Greenpeace video will give you an idea of the type of impact it was attempting to make.

An ASA complaint by vocal climate sceptic Bryan Leyland and others has been partially upheld under Basic Principle 4 and Rules 2 and 11 of the Code of Ethics in the advertising standards. A second aspect of the complaint was not upheld.

What did Greenpeace do wrong? It created an ad that “misled and or deceived” the audience and which wasn’t prepared with a “due sense of social responsibility”.

The hard-hitting advert prepared by the NGO featured the following titles:

’Over 20,000 birds were killed by the ‘Rena’ oil spill’

The next screen reads:

’Deep sea oil drilling could be 1000 times worse’

The closing screen then appears which reads:

’GREENPEACE Sign the petition.  Txt you name to 5806’

Leyland and others pointed out that publicly available sources suggested that only 1300 or so birds had died as a result of the Rena oil spill and complained that:

20,000 has to be a gross exaggeration which is putting to create [sic] an atmosphere of fear.

They also took issue with the “1000 times worse” claim Greenpeace made as a warning call against allowing deep sea oil drilling in New Zealand waters.

This amounts to 20,000,000 seabirds!  I doubt if there aren’t that many seabirds around the whole of the New Zealand coast,  let alone in the Bay of Plenty.

Leyland, understandably, asked Greenpeace to document the claims made in the advertisement produced by ad firm Publicis Mojo. Greenpeace responded, though not cinvincingly enough for the ASA. It pointed to  figures supplied by Dr Brett Gartell, manager of the National Oiled Wildlife Response Centre based at Massey University, who was on the frontline of treating animals affected by the oil spill and identified 2,000 birds as having died as a direct result of it. But then Greenpeace went on to state…

The estimated figure of 20,000 birds is based on UK and US research which has found that in instances of oil spills, bird carcasses recovered represent only approximately 10% of actual fatalities.

Unfortunately Greenpeace doesn’t cite the specific UK research, so doesn’t help its own case. In fact, it appears as though Greenpeace came across the claim in this TV3 story. Instead it points out:

It is never possible to calculate wildlife fatalities resulting from disasters of this type with any great precision.

Why feature the figure prominently in a hard-hitting advert then?

1000 times worse

Rena's oily mess

Rena's oily mess

Next the ASA considered the issue of the impact of a Deepwater Horizon-type spill in New Zealand waters being 1000 times worse than Rena. On the face of it, this sounds much more reasonable. We know Deepwater Horizon was a major disaster impacting the Gulf of Mexico and releasing vast amounts of oil. Greenpeace argued that it wasn’t talking here about bird casualties specifically, but the general environmental impact of a major oil spill.

If you look at the relative size of the spills – 350 tonnes from Rena versus four million barrels from Deepwater Horizon, they’d appear to make a valid case. But is that really an accurate way of explaining things? Who knows, Greenpeace didn’t do any solid research on that:

Whilst the sheer numbers of birds killed in a New Zealand oil blow out might not be 1000 x 20,000 it is the overall extent of the harm caused to a diversity of species, to ecosystems, over a much greater area of coast and ocean and the ability for ecosystems and species to recover and the time span over which harm would be caused which “could” reasonably be 1000 times worse with an oil blow out of a scale similar to the Deep-water Horizon disaster.

Greenpeace convinced the ASA that it was presenting the claim as opinion, so avoided censure on the “1000 times worse” claim, but was stung for overstating the bird casualties figure. It also took a potshot at Leyland personally:

Greenpeace is concerned as to the motivation behind B. Leyland’s complaint. B. Leyland is well known for his commentary as a climate change denier. He is a founding member of the Climate Science Coalition, New Zealand’s leading climate change denial organization. There is a very clear and direct connection between oil campaign work and climate change.

All of the above may well be true, but the facts should speak for themselves and in this case Greenpeace weren’t able to back up their claims with robust evidence.

It helps no one – Greenpeace, the scientists, the media, the public – to overstate environmental disasters and the potential risk and impact of future incidents.

It is disrespectful of the science, misinforms the public and erodes the trustworthiness of Greenpeace, which does a lot of genuinely good work, but doesn’t do itself any favours by stretching the truth to further its own ends.

Just stick to the science. Both Greenpeace – and the climate sceptics, would be more convincing if they did so – and the public better informed of the true seriousness of the issues.

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