Psychologist Nigel Latta has a new show running on TV One: Nigel Latta Blows Stuff Up.
It is great TV, science-related but presented in a very pop-science format, with shades of Mythbusters and the types of science shows you’ll see browsing the Discovery Channel – plenty of explosions and slow motion photography.
The first episode kicked off on Sunday night with a bang – or a series of them, as Latta explored what it might be like to be struck by lightning.
The bulk of the show saw him visiting the University of Canterbury’s High Voltage Laboratory where a number of pretty cool looking experiments were undertaken involving blowing up potatoes and sausages, a life-size dummy of Nigel and even zapping a small car with him sitting in it.
There was a Faraday suit and a Faraday cage and celebrity chef Michael Van de Elzen being zapped with low-power shocks as he tried to make a tart. All good fun and seemingly over in a flash – its a half hour show, which with adverts goes by very quickly.
It successfully gets across some interesting concepts about basic science.
The Herald called the show “educational broccoli hidden in a deliciously entertaining tart”. Fair summary.
The demonstrations work as they are fronted solely by Nige, rather than a dowdy old “expert”. Like the audience, he is seemingly learning as he goes and relishing the revelations.
Really? Is that the perception of scientists?
Latta is a great talent, no doubt, but I can think of half a dozen scientists who would have been equally great fronting that show and would definitely not have fallen into “dowdy old expert” territory.
Which made me wonder about the celebrity host versus scientist fronting popular science shows. Granted, Latta has the scientific credentials. This interesting Herald profile notes that he obtained a BSc in zoology at the University of Otago then a masters in marine science. At the University of Auckland he did a masters degree in psychology gaining first class honours, then topped it off with a diploma in clinical psychology.
As the Herald piece indicates, a lot of people wonder why the hell we should listen to Nigel Latta when he roams far and wide beyond his main area of expertise – psychology. He’s basically become a TV celebrity as his books and TV shows have explored an increasingly wide range of subjects, that no doubt feed his curious mind.
I don’t have a problem with him going from serial killer psychology to the breeding habits of penguins, to our alcohol consumption . Latta is what they call in the TV world “compelling talent” and his science background gives him an appreciation for evidence and the process of science. He is basically a science-savvy journalist exploring issues in a very relatable way. Fair play to him.
I think by and large, he’s done the TV watching public a service and his wide appeal has allowed shows on topics as diverse as Antarctica and inequality to be produced that probably wouldn’t have got the green light in other types of formats.
However, I don’t think Latta is the only one with a science background who can do this, even if it sometimes seems to be the case.
We’ve got others with a science bent that could front prime time TV shows as effectively. But my worry is that Latta is now so ubiquitous that he is now our go-to front person for popular science of any shade.
Will we see Nigel in his next show talking about earthquakes, or climate change? Maybe. It will rate well and could have cut through with people who wouldn’t otherwise watch a show on earthquake probability and seismic risk.
But it is also time for other budding communicators and science talents to step up. We need a diversity of science communicators who can appeal to broad audiences. My sense is that we have them, but that they need our support to break through and ultimately make the short list when production companies run down their list of “compelling talent” and potential hosts.
A few weeks ago, for the first time ever, I took a complaint to the Press Council against a newspaper.
Times-Age on homeopathy
I’ve been the subject of a Press Council complaint in the past, one that wasn’t upheld. I know it is time consuming and stressful responding to a complaint, so I didn’t make my own complaint lightly.
But I was so dismayed by the lack of balance, accuracy and fairness in the Wairarapa Times-Age‘s report on homeopathy and the editor’s unwillingness to discuss it constructively, that I felt I had no choice but to complain.
I’m not going to pick through the finer details in this post.
I fully accept the Press Council’s ruling and thank it for considering it.
But I am nevertheless concerned by it.
The 1st principle of the Press Council looks to uphold the core values of journalism – accuracy, fairness and balance:
1. Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission. In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view.
But there’s an important exception to the above:
Exceptions may apply for long-running issues where every side of an issue or argument cannot reasonably be repeated on every occasion and in reportage of proceedings where balance is to be judged on a number of stories, rather than a single report.
That exception to the principle resulted in our complaint being thrown out.
Here we had a really bad piece of journalism which the Press Council admitted was unbalanced and deficient. Several astonishing claims about the efficacy of homeopathy made by practitioners of homeopathy and family members of people treated with it, went totally unchallenged. The reporter acknowledged she’d tried to obtain balancing comment but that no one had gotten back to her by deadline.
The impression the reader is left with is that homeopathy has real potential as an effective treatment against serious diseases like cancer. The massive problem is that there is no scientific basis for the efficacy of homeopathy. People who use it to treat serious diseases and conditions offer false hope to people. This is potentially a threat to public health, so you’d think a paper looking after the interests of its readers would give pause before publishing it.
But I went through the Wairarapa Times Age archive and discovered that every story I could find back to 2010 were similarly unbalanced and gave uncritical coverage to homeopathy and its practitioners. The editor wasn’t able to produce any stories to the contrary. So the newspaper has effectively been giving homeopaths a free ride for years to make their unfounded claims. No one has ever thought to balance out those claims with some views from actual experts who know how shonky homeopathy is.
But here’s the rub – the paper doesn’t have to provide any balance because homeopathy and its lack of credibility has been discussed extensively elsewhere in the media.
The paper effectively doesn’t ever have to provide balance as long as say, TVNZ, the New York Times and Google News features decent science-based coverage debunking homeopathic treatments. As the Press Council pointed out:
The complainant in this case raised the important question of whether the exception can be invoked for an article in a newspaper that may not itself have covered both sides of the debate. The Council considered this point closely and came to the view that the exception has not been applied as narrowly as the complainant contends and should not be.
A newspaper, even if it is the sole newspaper of its locality, does not exist in a vacuum. Its readers, meeting an uncritical story on the supposed popularity of homeopathy and natural remedies, are likely to be aware the efficacy of these treatments is strongly contested by medical science.
So where does that leave us? Take ongoing, contentious stories – climate change, child poverty, GST on web purchases – literally whatever you like. The ruling suggests that you can repeatedly publish unbalanced reports on any issue, as long as some other, maybe more responsible media outlets, do their job properly and deliver balanced journalism.
So balance can be the exception, not the rule. Unless its an obscure or new issue that hasn’t been widely discussed somewhere else in the media, you can get away with consistently only ever telling one side of the story, as the Wairarapa Times-Age has done for years when it comes to homeopathy.
So there it is. I lecture at journalism schools all over the country. What am I going to say the next time I stand up in front of a group of aspiring young journos?: “Don’t worry about balance or accuracy or fairness, as long as you can Google some coverage of the issue somewhere else out there on the internet that covers the contrary view, you are home free!”
No. Because balance is still actually really important and most outlets get that.
The exception makes sense when you can at least show sometime in the past you attempted to provide some balance on an issue. But its interpretation in this case seems to me to suggest that a publication can abdicate its responsibility to provide fair and balanced journalism to its readers again and again as long as other publications do their job.
In a week when much angst has been voiced over the state of the media, precipitated by the prospect of Campbell Live going off air, that’s certainly something to give me pause.
Science communication bodies have criticised a UK Government code for civil servants requiring ministerial approval before they talk to the media.
The UK’s Civil Service Code was updated this month requiring the pre-authorisation, which in theory also applies to scientists working for the government in units such as the Met Office and the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control.
In an open letter to cabinet secretary Francis Maude, the UK Science Media Centre, the Association of British Science Writers and Stempra, a science PR and communications network, wrote that the minor wording change could have a major chilling effect on government scientists speaking to the press on controversial issues.
Fiona Fox UK SMC director Fiona Fox told the Guardian: “What we need are messages from on high that are supportive and back scientists sharing their evidence and expertise to better inform these debates. Unless the situation is clarified, this will have a chilling effect. Scientists will keep quiet to be on the safe side.”
In an editorial on the issue, science journal Nature said changes to the Civil Service Code may not become a topic of debate in next month’s UK general election, but that scientists should “find their voices again” and question its meaning.
“Any block on transparency and openness is a step backwards. The government that takes over after the general election should clarify what it wants from its scientists, and how the rule change alters that. It should consider an exemption for researchers talking to the media about their work in acknowledged areas of public interest, such as climate or health.”
The New Zealand situation
Government-employed scientists working in New Zealand’s Crown Research Institutes generally can speak to the media as long as interviews are approved by their institute’s communications staff. But major controversial issues are often dealt with by senior ministry spokespeople, so scientists are told to defer to the officials. Many CRIs also undertake contracted work for ministries so are contractually obliged to refer all media queries to the ministry they are working for.
The New Zealand Association of Scientists will explore the issue next week in its Wellington conference Going Public: Scientists speaking out on controversial issues. The conference will feature journalists, scientists and the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman, who is developing a scientist’s code of conduct for public engagement with the Royal Society of New Zealand.
“Wooo, there’s New Zealand did ya!” Wrote one commenter on the Facebook page “I F*cking Love Science” last week.
Okay, hardly the most articulate response to a story, but one that expressed the pride in seeing New Zealand science receiving exposure and recognition on a global scale. The story attracting attention was about researchers from the Wellington-based Malaghan Institute who made the remarkable discovery that a particular type of DNA can move between cells in an animal. As IFLScience reported it:
Not only could these important findings help further our understanding of cancer and other diseases, but they raise the tantalizing possibility that one day, it might be possible to replace faulty, disease-causing genes with synthetic, custom-designed mitochondrial DNA in a bid to fight a wide variety of illnesses.
The research was published in the journal Cell Metabolism last week. It was picked up by IFLS, the less than three year-old Facebook page founded by Elise Andrews, which attracts a staggering 45 million unique monthly visitors and 150 million page views.
After a few days on IFLS, the story had racked up:
87,000 Facebook likes
26,000 Facebook shares
132 Upvotes on Reddit
Malaghan reported that in the wake of the IFLS exposure it had experienced a “1200% increase in web traffic, especially from America, Canada and Australia”. Professor Mike Berridge, the Malaghan Institute’s Cancer Cell Biology Group Leader was quoted in a press release as saying,
“I am hugely encouraged by this recognition by the international community, and hope it can lead to further development of our work here in New Zealand. The ultimate goal of cancer research is to stop the suffering many people experience with this disease, but cellular research often surprises. It may be that this new understanding offers future treatments for some of the many other debilitating diseases caused by defective mitochondria.”
Social news and science
Other New Zealand science stories have also achieved significant traction recently via new media channels.
In May, 2014, NIWA reported that the tiny marine animal Protulophila, that was thought extinct for the past four million years, had actually just been found living in New Zealand waters. IFLS picked up the story which resulted in 89,000 Facebook likes.
An article sourced from Te Papa Museum and AUT University inviting people to view a live dissection of a colossal squid received 31,000 Facebook likes on IFLS in September.
Impressive stats, and a quick look through the comments suggests it is mainly overseas Facebook users reading and sharing these articles.
But how valuable are all those ‘likes’ really? On that point there is heated debate.
Some marketing experts estimate an individual like can be worth $200 or more, while research giant Forrester puts the value at zero – it claims a like represents just the potential to undertake an action, not an action itself.
For a not-for-profit that relies on donations and grants to do its research, a major boost in internet traffic is very valuable for the Malaghan Institute. Even if a tiny number of those website visitors decide to donate money as a result of seeing the post on IFLS, that’s a big positive for Malaghan.
Other marketers argue that you can’t look at Facebook likes in the way we do other forms of media promotion, such as advertising in newspapers. Likes can represent a much greater engagement with readers and supporters which has significant longterm value. In this slightly outdated (2010) presentation from Facebook’s Justin Osofsky, he notes that:
- Facebook likes means increased referral traffic to your website as articles containing links to your site are spread through the friend networks of everyone clicking the ‘like’ button.
- People who like articles visit 5.3x more websites than those who don’t like articles.
- People who like articles have 2..4x more friends than those who don’t, so attracting those likers has a positive knock-on effect.
- Users who click like have a median age of 34, compared to 51 for newspaper subscribers, so creating content that attracts Facebook likes can be a good way of attracting a younger audience.
So if people are liking your page, they are providing a valuable amplifier for your content that could help you reach a younger audience. This is why Facebook has proven to be a useful platform for promoting science content.
The Australian science news site ScienceAlert has achieved significant success by leveraging Facebook, exactly the same way IFLS has. It promotes Australian and New Zealand science news and has attracted 6.3 million likes.
Scientists are achieving success on other platforms too, including Youtube.
In the run-up to Christmas, AUT University Professor of Applied Ecology and Sciblogger, Steve Pointing, released a light-hearted video explaining the science of Christmas. It has accumulated over 100,000 views on Youtube.
The team at the University of Nottingham behind the hugely successful Periodic Table of Videos know the value of leveraging social media. Their short videos have amassed 260 million views on Youtube.
What seems to work?
It doesn’t take long, browsing the posts on IFLS and science-related videos on Youtube to get an idea for what gets that viral effect:
- Unique and novel stories with well written headlines and introductory blurbs that genuinely flag something new and important.
- Eye-catching and novel images – some of the most-liked posts on the IFLS Facebook pages are simply beautiful images of nature.
- Short videos (2 – 3 minutes) that explore a science-related concept in a slightly quirky or unusual way.
At the Science Media Centre, we’ve been undertaking a study of how New Zealand science-related institutions use social media which we will be publishing in the next few weeks.
It was another big year for science capped off with the successful Rosetta mission to land a probe on a comet. But as usual, there were also plenty of quirky science stories that captured our attention too. My colleagues at the Australian Science Media Centre rounded up a list of the some of the quirkiest.
Sorry hipsters, we hit peak beard
In April, Australian researchers delivered a cutting blow to hairy male hipsters – theirresearch found that beards are only attractive to women if they’re a rarity. The bald truth is that, when too many people conform to bristly non-conformism, it quickly becomes a turn-off. But there was good news for men who’ve resisted rejecting their razors in the current sea of beards – a smooth chin is considered more attractive when everyone else is sporting facial fuzz. The researchers said their findings reflect patterns seen in other animals – females tend to find rare features attractive in potential mates.
There was a bigfoot-step forward in yeti research
July brought abominable news for mythical animal fans; a detailed analysis of 30 tufts of hair from around the world thought to be from yetis, bigfoot and other extraordinary ape-like creatures showed they all came from ordinary, decidedly non-mythical animals. Ten samples turned out to be bear hair, while others were from dogs, cows, horses, and there was even one from a person. However, some of the results were out of the ordinary; two of the samples – from the mountains of India and Bhutan – didn’t match any living animals, but did match an extinct species of polar bear thought to have died out around 40,000 years ago.
Eeeeeuuuugh! A snog transferred 80m bacteria
Watch out under the mistletoe this year – in November, Dutch researchers took bacterial samples from the mouths of 21 canoodling couples and found that a ten second snog transfers as many as 80 million bacteria. They also noticed that partners who kiss nine times a day or more share similar communities of mouth microbes. But don’t be too grossed out – a regular game of tonsil tennis is good for our health, priming our immune systems to fight off any infections we pick up from our partners later, they say.
‘Women’ with willies made us wince
Scientists announced the first example of an animal where the female has a ‘penis’ and the male a ‘vagina’ – the bizarre Brazilian cave insect Neotrogla – in April. During sex, the aggressive female penetrates a vagina-like opening on the male’s back with a barbed penis-like organ, grappling the couple together. You might want to cross your legs for this next gory detail – the pair bond so tightly that, when separated by the scientists, the male’s body ripped apart, leaving his genitals behind. And, to top it all off, these females put male lovers to shame – mating can last up to 70 hours. I think we all know who wears the trousers in that relationship.
Life imitated art as TV’s Dr House cured a real-life patient
In February, German doctors who were stumped by a tricky case were struck by some remarkably familiar symptoms while watching an episode of US TV medical drama ‘House’. Their patient was suffering from seemingly inexplicable severe heart failure, as was the fictional physician’s. The medical misanthrope diagnosed his patient as suffering from cobalt poisoning caused by a metal hip implant, and when the real-life doctors replaced their own patient’s metal hip implant with a ceramic one, he rapidly recovered.
Robopenguin rolled into our hearts
In November, researchers introduced the world to a rather cute remote-controlled rover disguised as a baby penguin, designed to monitor real penguin populations in the Antarctic. The bogus bird certainly had the real ones fooled – even notoriously shy emperor penguins tried to communicate with it and let it join a crèche of chicks. The pretend penguin will allow scientists to monitor the effects of climate change on wild populations without stressing the birds out or disrupting their natural behaviour.
The oldest fossilised sperm was found, and it was enormous
In May, scientists revealed supersized sperm fossils they’d found in Queensland, which are at least 16 million-years-old. The gargantuan gametes are ten times as long as the animals that produced them – crustaceans called ostracods – and 20 times the length of human sperm. The scientists used X-rays to figure out how the giant sperm fit inside the bodies of animals a tenth of their size, but just why the sperm are so large remains a mystery.
Female hurricanes were deadlier than males
Rudyard Kipling probably wasn’t thinking about the weather when he penned his poem‘The female of the species is more deadly than the male’, but in June, US scientistsclaimed it may be true of hurricanes. Comparing the death tolls of hurricanes with male and female names between 1950 and 2012, they found the females have, on average, killed more than the males. Further experiments suggested the assumption that males are the more aggressive and dangerous sex may lead people to underestimate the danger posed by female hurricanes. The result is a reluctance to evacuate, increasing the number of fatalities. But the research was not without its critics – other scientists said the facts that all hurricanes were ‘female’ until 1979, and that average fatalities have generally decreased over time, rendered the results meaningless.
The oldest human poo revealed Neanderthals made friends with salad
In June, scientists announced the results of picking through some 50,000-year-old fossilised faeces they stumbled upon while studying an ancient Neanderthal fire-pit in Spain. Analysing the crystallised crap, which is the oldest human poop ever discovered, they found evidence of plant matter as well as meat, revealing that our ancient cousins enjoyed a side of berries, nuts and other vegetables with their mammoth steaks. The petrified poop also revealed the Neanderthals were infested with various types of parasitic worm, enough to make a modern human very sick indeed.
Scientists found a shocking way to induceInception-style dreams
In May, German scientists said they’d found a way to induce lucid dreaming – the state in which you are conscious during a dream, aware you’re dreaming, and able to control the dream’s plot. Delivering a mild electric current to the frontal and temporal brain regions of 27 dreamers altered their neural patterns. A particular type of brain wave activity called gamma activity increased, and the subjects became aware they were dreaming, and were able to exert greater control over the dreamworld.
The latest Nielsen survey to gauge New Zealanders’ attitudes towards science and technology is the largest and most thorough one yet and reveals much to be positive about but also several areas of concern.
Nielsen surveyed a representative sample of 3,004 New Zealanders over the age of 15, (2,504 online and 500 by phone), asking them a series of questions about their views on science and technology.
Similar surveys were done in 2002, 2005 and 2010 and the bulk of the 2010 questions have been retained for continuity. However, this survey has a couple of significant differences – it focusses on how Kiwis engage with science, so as to give us insights into the best ways to reach different audiences, and it lines up with Eurobarometer survey questions and 2014 the ANU University study into Australian attitudes towards science, to allow us to more easily compare our attitudes towards science and technology to other countries.
So what did the latest Nielsen research find?
- Broadly speaking, Kiwis are interested in science and technology and think it is important not just for them personally, but for society, the environment and the economy.
- 90% of those surveyed agreed that science is an important subject for people to study at school and 83% agreed that it was a worthwhile career to pursue.
- Kiwis are more engaged with science and technology than they were in 2010. Compared with 2010 the “science follower” group survey participants identified with has increased, while the “mainstream” and “disengaged” segments have decreased. That means more people identify themselves as enjoying following science and less people have a lack of trust and interest in it. That’s a very positive trend.
- Engagement with science and technology via the media is very high (87%) which shows that despite the proliferation of social media and fragmentation of media channels, the population in general still has high exposure to science and technology via TV, online news reports, newspapers and magazines.
- 44% of those surveyed said they had donated money to support scientific research, showing healthy support in the community for such causes.
- When it comes to how interested in science Kiwis profess to be, we do very well compared to European countries (81% of New Zealanders are interested, compared to the best European country Sweden at 77%)
- Kiwis feel much better informed about science than people in European countries do (we rank second 62% behind Denmark 65% in this measure).
So all of that is very positive. We are more engaged with science and technology than we were five years ago, we compare really well internationally and overall, Kiwis value science and consider it important to study at school and pursue as a career.
The not so good
- Only 59% consider science important to their daily lives.
- 42% of people say they get too little information about science, a fair chunk of the population, suggesting there is still a significant deficit in knowledge based on lack of access to information about science and technology in a suitable format.
- A reasonable proportion (35%) agreed that science and technology are too specialised to understand and 51% agreed that there is too much conflicting information about science and technology “making it hard to know what to believe”.
- Young females are less into technology as an important topic to study at school.
- 62% agreed that scientists need to listen more to what ordinary people think, suggesting a bit of a disconnect between the work scientists are doing and the priorities of average New Zealanders.
- Only 39% agreed that Mātauranga Māori (traditional Māori knowledge) has a role in science. This is an area that has been targeted for promotion by the Government and increasingly by iwis, so that’s not an encouraging result.
- Males feel significantly better informed about science than females.
- There is low engagement with science-based products or practices at work. Only 15% had undertaken additional scientific training for work.
- In some cases Māori and Pacific Island people are less likely to agree that science is really important.
So there’s plenty of room for improvement. The survey gives us a good base to work from in terms of figuring out ways to more effectively engage New Zealanders with science and technology.
What is really useful, is that the survey gives us a decent baseline for the formats via which we engage with science and shows how different demographic groups access science and technology information in different ways.
Source: Public Attitudes Towards Science and Technology 2014
There’s been much debate about the forthcoming Code of Conduct on Public Engagement the Royal Society of New Zealand is developing.
This piece of work is part of the Government’s Science in Society Strategy and is laid out in Annex 4 of this document, which outlines initiatives that will be rolled out as part of the Strategy including:
“The RSNZ will lead development of a code of practice on engagement for scientists. To begin 2014/15.”
I was involved in a expert reference group for the Science in Society project so I heard about the proposed code early on.
From my perspective, it would be useful to clarify the type of interactions with the public scientists can engage in. I manage the Science Media Centre, which collects and publishes commentary from scientists often at short notice and often on controversial issues. As such, we rely on the ability of scientists to be able to speak freely on issues in their areas of expertise that are of importance to society. We quote more university scientists than Crown research institute scientists because the former group has more freedom to comment – and turn things around quickly for the media.
The situation varies by organisation – some university departments tightly manage access to the media, particularly if the scientists are involved in industry collaborations. Others would rather journalists deal directly with scientists and have little interest in monitoring what their scientists are commenting on. Some CRIs require all media-related queries to go through a central communications unit. Others let scientists use their own judgement and talk to the media without prior authorisation – according to pre-agreed ground rules.
We navigate all scenarios, not always successfully. The point is, there is no one way of engaging with the public or the media. I’d love more clarity around what scientists can and can’t say and when.
From the answers to the New Zealand Association of Scientists’ most recent survey, if appears scientists would also like the ground rules clarified.
When asked in the survey: “Have ever been prevented from making a public comment on a controversial issue by your management’s policy, or by fear of losing research funding, the results were as follow:
Source: NZAS Survey 2014
So that is around 40 per cent of survey respondents who have been prevented from making a public statement, either because their management said they couldn’t or because they feared having funding cut.
The anonymous comments collected as part of the survey and published on the NZAS website outline numerous examples of this. They include:
[redacted] terminated my employment because of unauthorised media comment
We are expressly prevented from making any comment to the public without prior approval. On contentious issues such as GMOs and plant import we are not to make any comment at all under any circumstance. That role is now exclusively the mandate of management.
In my university there have certainly been attempts by the senior leadership team to place constraints on academics speaking in public on controversial issues or on issues that might impact on the reputation of the institution itself. These attempts have been in breach of the principle of academic freedom and undermine our statutory duty to act as critic and conscience of society.
This mirrors the sort of anecdotes I regularly hear as scientists sheepishly tell me why they can’t contribute to one of our SMC expert round-ups on an issue in their area of expertise.
On the other hand, there may be good reasons why it is inappropriate for a scientist to go public on an issue. Maybe a colleague is far better qualified to talk about it, is more media savvy and better at communicating risk and uncertainty.
When is and isn’t it legitimate for management to instruct scientists not to speak out on an issue relevant to their area of expertise?
This is the sort of thing I hope the consultation around the development of the Code of Practice will flush out. The NZAS survey is a helpful precursor to that.
If the covertly organised smear campaigns and secretly-funded attacks on public health experts outlined in Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics seem more suited to an episode of House of Cards, that’s because they could easily be lifted from the dirty politics of Washington D.C. that inspired aspects of the show.
As I blogged about earlier this week, Nicky Hager alleges in Dirty Politics that Cameron Slater has been paid by a lobbyist to run pre-written blog posts on the Whale Oil website under his own name, posts that attack individuals raising concerns about alcohol, tobacco, sugary beverages and obesity. The main accusations have been largely left unanswered by the key protagonists, people such as lobbyist Carrick Graham and Food and Grocery Council chief executive Katherine Rich.
Meanwhile, we get an insight into what lobbyists in Washington D.C. will do on a much larger scale to influence discussion on health-related issues in the US. The Center for Public Integrity’s Wendell Potter, an insurance industry executive turned whistleblower, writes today about secret payments from a major health insurance lobby group to fund a TV ad campaign:
America’s Health Insurance Plans, the big lobbying and PR group for health insurers, secretly funneled US$1.593 million to its longtime ally, the National Federation of Independent Business, to pay for a TV ad targeting Democratic senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas. The ad blames Pryor for making it harder for small businesses to make a profit as a result of his vote for “Obamacare.” The ad didn’t mention that the funds to pay for it came from health insurers or that the spot was part of a continuing effort by AHIP to get Congress to eliminate a fee that was imposed on insurers to help offset the cost of expanding coverage to the uninsured.
The payments only came to light when the New York Times queried tax records which revealed the payments and the parties involved. It turns out that the US$1.6 million for the TV ads was a relatively modest spend.
As the National Journal reported in 2012, AHIP funnelled more than $100 million to the Chamber to finance it’s campaign to shape the health care reform debate in 2009 and 2010. As with the Times’ disclosure of the AHIP-NFIB alliance, the AHIP-Chamber of Commerce relationship was discovered only after a couple of reporters checked tax filings.
Then, more broadly, there is this type of carry on…
Earlier this year, the National Republican Congressional Committee created several fake Democratic candidate websites. The organization’s latest effort is a brand new set of deceptive websites, this time designed to look like local news sources. The NRCC has created about two dozen “faux news sites,” the National Journal reported, all of which feature articles that “begin in the impartial voice of a political fact-checking site, hoping to lure in readers.” After a few such paragraphs, the articles “gradually morph into more biting language.”
Now you see where Whale Oil and his collaborators get their inspiration from… Dirty Politics details numerous points where the protagonists looked to US political tactics to inform their efforts here. Read the book or Google “rat f*cking” for more on one such tactic drawn from the Republican Party play book.
That’s the way the game is played in Washington, where ethical principles that apply elsewhere are blatantly flouted. And where the consequence of getting caught in a lie or deception is rarely more severe than a bad PR day.
A bad PR day indeed for those implicated in the leaked emails.
Next week is going to be science-central in Auckland – literally thousands of scientists will be in town for a number of major conferences, many of which are accompanied by public events.
World New Zealand Science Week groups together everything from the SCAR Antarctic research conference to the ICSU General Assembly.
I’m even hosting my Science Media Centre colleagues from around the world who will be meeting in Auckland for the first time ever, a proud moment for me and the SMC team.
The Royal Society of New Zealand has a detailed breakdown of the events that will be running next week.
Here are a few of the highlights…
The 31st triennial General Assembly of the International Council for Science (ICSU). Established in 1931 and based in Paris, ICSU represents more than 121 national science academies and 31 scientific unions. 25th August – 3rd September
The annual general meeting of the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs (COMNAP). Symposium Auckland 25 August, AGM Christchurch 27 – 29 August
The 4th biennial United States – New Zealand Joint Committee Meeting on Science and Technology Cooperation (JCM), a joint dialogue on areas such as natural hazards and resilience, climate change, and oceans. 25th -26th August
The Science and Diplomacy Symposium, focusing on how scientists can input into foreign affairs. 27th August
Inaugural Science Advice to Governments conference involving the world’s most eminent Science Advisors. The conference will focus on the practice of providing policy-relevant science advice to governments. 28th – 29th August
The 2nd APEC Chief Science Advisors and equivalents meeting, a forum for informal discussion on the science and policy interface amongst science advisors to the highest level of government within APEC economies. 30th August
The Chief Scientists gather
Sir Peter Gluckman will be bringing together scientific advisors from all over the world for a two-day summit that I’ll be present at and live blogging from. Check out the line up of guest speakers – it will be a high-powered event and highly relevant to some of the big science-related issues we are grappling with in New Zealand at the moment.
Negotiating science communication minefields
Also head along to listen to myself, Dr Susannah Elliot and Fiona Fox, the founders of the NZ, Australian and UK Science Media Centres respectively, talk about some of the big science-related controversies we’ve worked on over the last decade.
It is a public event organised by PRINZ, the Public Relations Institute. There’s a cover charge, but there will be booze and nibbles…
Nicky Hager’s new book Dirty Politics appears set to colour the whole tone of the current election campaign and have some impact on the election’s outcome.
It has also given us a window into the tactics of rightwing bloggers, lobbyists and political strategists intent on discrediting scientists who present evidence that conflicts with their political and commercial interests.
Nick Naylor, the unscrupulous lobbyist in Thank You for Smoking
The movie Thank You for Smoking gets several mentions in Dirty Politics. It follows the exploits of Washington D.C. big tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor and his efforts to use pseudoscience and spin to defend the tobacco industry. Nick meets regularly for lunch with a collection of lobbyist colleagues who represent the alcohol, fast food, firearms, oil drilling and hazardous waste industries. They call themselves the MOD Squad – the merchants of death.
Dirty Politics, based largely on emails and chat transcripts hacked from the Gmail and Facebook accounts of Cameron Slater, founder of the Whaleoil blog, reveals that we have our own MOD Squad, who coordinate attacks on scientists and public health researchers and funnel money from big business to the bloggers willing to uncritically push the corporate line.
Some will shrug and suggest that it isn’t news that this sort of stuff goes on here in New Zealand. That may be true. But for the first time, we are able to connect the dots between some of the main players and their financial backers and the way they attempt to discredit scientists commenting on major public health issues such as obesity and smoking.
Whale Oil and the “troughers”
Lobbyist Carrick Graham
The scientist most targeted by the MOD Squad in Dirty Politics is Professor Doug Sellman, an expert in addiction treatment and Director of the National Addiction Centre at the University of Otago. Sellman is an outspoken advocate of greater alcohol control. With other public health experts, he set up Alcohol Action NZ, an advocacy group aimed at providing evidence-based solutions to New Zealand’s drinking culture. It’s tagline is: We need more than just tinkering.
The majority of us enjoy drinking alcohol, but all are alarmed about the way alcohol dominates many social situations and the scale of unhealthy and dangerous drinking in contemporary New Zealand – a crisis that enriches the liquor industry while causing immense harm to individuals and society as a whole.
This advocacy has put Sellman on a collision course with the MOD Squad, and in particular Carrick Graham, a lobbyist who worked for British American Tobacco for 10 years and is the son of former National Cabinet minister Doug Graham. Hager alleges that Carrick Graham, still in business as a lobbyist for hire, pays Cameron Slater to run blog posts critical of people endorsing efforts to tighten up alcohol and tobacco regulation.
From Dirty Politics:
“Slater earns his living by putting articles on his website written by Graham, and others, as if they were his own work. Graham and others send Slater the completed articles, with the heading already written and often the pictures supplied, and he simply pastes them onto his site and publishes them at the specified time. As the country’s largest audience political blog, it is a potent platform for planting corporate messages.
“For this, Slater is paid $6,500 each month, for what in total would be about an hour of work.
“On 26 February 2014, for instance, Slater received an e-mail from Carrick Graham, which contained the finished text of a snide attack on Professor Doug Sellman, head of the National Addiction Centre. The next morning, pre-set for 8.a.m. publication, the post appeared on the Whale Oil site headed ‘Confirmed: Doug Sellman Gone Mad’. It said by ‘Cameron Slater’ but every word, and the headline, had come from Graham or perhaps Graham’s client. It is for this that Slater gets paid.
“Carrick Graham is the main person, year after year, who has paid Cameron Slater most of his income.”
That particular attack on Sellman was in response to a news story Sellman had commented on about alcoholics stealing bottles of hand sanitizer from Waikato Hospital so they could drink the liquid, which is high in alcohol. Sellman commented that this is the sort of thing you’d expect in a society like New Zealand’s with a heavy drinking culture and “excessive alcohol marketing”.
The Carrick Whale Oil piece went for the throat:
“If there was ever a case of demonstrating once and for all that Professor Doug Sellman is mad, this article ‘Drunks steal sanitiser for alcohol’ proves it… any ounce of credibility that this guy once had has long-since evaporated.”
This is one of numerous attacks on Professor Sellman that usually result from him being quoted in the mainstream media on some alcohol-related story. But Professor Sellman isn’t alone in being targeted by MOD Squad hits. Epidemiology and biostatistics expert, Professor Boyd Swinburn of the University of Auckland, also gets regular mentions, as well as Professor Janet Hoek, marketing expert at the University of Otago.
As with climate change deniers’ attacks on climate scientists, the framing of the attacks is to label scientists “troughers” – living off the taxpayer, obsessed with amassing research funding by playing up risks to society to enhance their own research careers. A very cynical view of science indeed.
For Christmas of 2013, the MOD Squad even went to the trouble of creating an animated Christmas card featuring the faces of Doug Sellman, Boyd Swinburm and others dancing as Christmas elves with health minister Tony Ryall. The video was posted to Whale Oil’s Youtube channel, but who created it is hard to tell – Slater, Graham… or a woman called Katherine Rich??
The KR “hits”
Carrick Graham is a middle man. Who is he actually working for? Hager alleges that the client behind the Doug Sellman attack outlined above was Katherine Rich, the former National Party MP who is chief executive of the New Zealand Food and Grocery Council, which represents companies selling alcohol, soft drinks, tobacco – everything you can buy at a supermarket. Rich is also on the board of the Health Promotion Agency, which is supposed to, well promote health!.
Many emails are outlined in Dirty Politics that include the reference to “KR hit”, in other words, a pre-packaged blog post commissioned by Katherine Rich and sent to Whale Oil via Carrick Graham.
Hager asks rhetorically: “But why would a respectable person like her be involved in a snide attack on a university professor? The obvious answer is because it was in the interests of the big companies she represents, and could be done secretly.”
Other KR “hits” destined for Whale Oil all related to food and public health – there’s one outlined about Fonterra’s recall of bottles of cream in January due to E. coli contamination.
Hager: “Graham sent an e-mail to Slater with the subject line ‘KR – Fonterra (first thing in the morning)’ The prepared text, headed ‘Calm down, move on’, said, “Better circle the wagons… Fonterra is recalling a few thousand bottles of cream. Nothing strange about that, yet, as typical of most lightweight MSM journalists you’d think the plague had hit New Zealand… People need to calm the f**k down’. It appeared on the blog word for word first thing the next morning.”
Rich led the charge on behalf of the industry against mandatory fortification of bread with folic acid, cherrypicking scientific experts to support the industry view that fortification was unnecessary and potentially dangerous. This flew in the fact of a strong body of evidence to support the case for fortification, which is undertaken in numerous countries and which reduces neural tube defects. The Government opted not to require mandatory fortification, a big win for Rich.
Rich was interviewed last year for the New Zealand Herald’s 12 question series. Her answer to question 10 should definitely be read in a different light now…
10. Do lobbyists get a bad name?
They shouldn’t. New Zealand has a wonderfully open democracy, everyone can have their say. There’s no secret about the sort of issues industry associations work on. If it’s a consumer goods or food issue, I’ll be working on it.
To what extent big beverage companies are involved in funding the likes of Slater isn’t clear from the emails quoted in Dirty Politics. But the email exchanges between Slater and Carrick Graham suggest these companies were at least involved in coordinating some of the “hit” material. Take this exchange, which followed a TV news item featuring calls for a ban on energy drinks in schools.
Hager: “Slater sent an e-mail with a link for the news story to Graham, who replied ‘Yes, have forwarded to KR and Frucor.’ He said that Frucor would not do anything (‘they’re useless’) but ‘Coke keeps sending stuff to KR expecting her to do something (where we come in). Hit pending.”
No Joy in Dirty Politics
Carrick Graham has pay masters other than Rich, claims Hager, a situation that results in some rather funny contradictions. For instance, as Graham was lining up the hit on Professor Sellman, he was also allegedly working for Dominion Breweries undertaking a ” IL hit” against rival liquor company Independent Liquor, which sells ready to drink mixers. A series of posts slamming RTDs followed on Whale Oil, all ghost-written by Graham who as also had a go, via the blog, on plain cigarette packaging and anti-obesity efforts. Just to strengthen the facade, Carrick Graham maintains numerous anonymous commenter profiles, chipping in on the Whale Oil blog posts he himself has authored with such pearls as:
“Cigarette companies don’t kill New Zealanders. Which part of that don’t people understand. Anyone who thinks breathing smoke into their lungs is a good idea is a complete loser. People have a choice and the ability to think about this. Oh, and don’t try the pathetic line about children not having any idea what they are doing – that’s crap.”
According to Hager, Graham posted that under the name “Naylor” with the email address A tip of the hat to the anti-hero of Thank You for Smoking.
Surprisingly, there isn’t a coordinated hit-job identified for another common punching bag of the right – freshwater scientist Dr Mike Joy. That’s likely because no paymaster was there to write a cheque specifically to go after Joy. But that didn’t stop Slater from engaging in some pro bono work for his MOD Squad buddies. Here’s what he wrote in November 2012 on Whale Oil when the New Zealand picked up on the fact that the New York TImes had interviewed Dr Joy about the state of our rivers:
Of course the Herald Tribune cites Massey’s Eel Man Mike Joy who sucks on the tit of taxpayers as a paid up member of Massey’s academic Green Taliban.
My response is f*ck all this Green PR spin and crap. It ain’t worth a cent to NZ apart from giving santimonious pricks something to bang ourselves over the head with. It is all a 100% Pure Wank.
Three days later, PR man Mark Unsworth totally undermined Slater’s chance to earn a retainer for attacks on Joy, when he released an email he had sent Joy, attacking him directly. There was no pay day for Whale Oil but he covered it anyway:
Does it make a difference?
So is it worth it? Do Slater’s not-so-secret-anymore clients actually get value for money? After all, anyone reading Whale Oil probably knows what to expect on issues like tobacco and alcohol control, dirty dairying, climate change and the obesity epidemic. Most of the attacks on Professor Sellman were in response to quotes he made in the mainstream media. He had already had his say and the mainstream media continue to quote him widely. So efforts to discredit him seem to have failed.
However, what the strategy does do, something learned from Republicans in the US apparently, is that by feeding highly partisan stuff to the blogosphere, it makes the likes of Katherine Rich look so much more moderate when she submits her op-ed piece to one of the major newspapers – which she does on a regular basis. She comes across rational and evidence-based compared to the Whale Oil rants.
It also allows any little tidbit – the fact a scientist is going to a conference in an exotic country for instance, to be turned into a “trougher goes on taxpayer-funded junket” hit on a blog, something that wouldn’t be likely to get traction in the mainstream media.
Ultimately, we are better off for knowing some of the tactics used by these people and the linkages between them. Next time someone orders a “hit” to run on Whale Oil, it will be that much easier to trace back the chain of command and see where the money is coming from.
The impression I’m left with I having read Dirty Politics, is very similar to that expressed by Andrew Geddis and Danyl McLauchlan - that these are toxic people who seem to revel in the nastiness of what they do – just like Naylor’s MOD Squad did. I get that these are quick-witted, cynical, occasionally funny people. I used to chuckle form time to time over the blog posts of Cactus Kate, another Slater hit collaborator who has been outed in Dirty Politics. But this isn’t just about ego and winding up their opponents. It is about an ideological campaign to attack anything that stands in their way, with money changing hands along the way to sustain the attacks. I think we always had a sense this sort of stuff probably went on, but the reality of it laid bare in these leaked emails is jarring and disturbing all the same.
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