Posts Tagged Science

Finding the right balance on Seven Sharp Peter Griffin Dec 20

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The TVNZ current affairs show Seven Sharp has been criticised this year for dumbing down current affairs. A shake-up of the show is coming in the New Year, with seasoned broadcaster Mike Hoskings to anchor the show when it returns.

Dr. James Renwick on Seven Sharp

Dr. James Renwick on Seven Sharp

But while the frivolous banter of the Seven Sharp presenters, social media pop-ups and soft news stories may put some off, Seven Sharp hasn’t abandoned current affairs entirely. Many of its stories are actually quite solidly put together. Take Gill Higgins’ piece in March that imagined a world in 2100 and examined the projected impact of a three degree temperature increase. Higgins interviewed Victoria University climate scientist Dr James Renwick on the potential environmental impacts of a three degree increase, while the University of Auckland’s Alistair Woodward, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics, looked at the potential impacts on human health.

All of what they said is backed up by models and research published in the peer reviewed literature.

Seven Sharp did quite an innovative treatment of the story, graphically re-imagining  Raumati Beach without its beachfront houses and a dairy farm re-cultivated with terraced rice paddy fields. Overall, a pretty informative and entertaining use of five minutes of prime time TV I thought.

However, Seven Sharp viewer Mario McMillan wasn’t happy. He complained to TVNZ then to the Broadcasting Standards Authority.

alleging that the claims made in the item about the impacts of climate change were presented as ‘fact’ and ‘inevitable’, which he argued was misleading because they represented ‘extreme projections… with a very low likelihood as actual outcomes’. The omission of ‘less alarmist’ viewpoints misled viewers to believe the projections were ‘uncontroversial or incontrovertible’…

The BSA recently threw out the complaint:

These claims were clearly framed as predictions and analysis and sourced to the experts interviewed in the item. Guideline 5a says that the accuracy standard does not apply to statements which are clearly distinguishable as analysis, comment or opinion. The reporter mostly used terms such as ‘could’ and ‘might’ throughout the item and the presenter used open-ended language in the introduction (see paragraph [6]), indicating that these were theories only, which by their very nature are disputable.

The judgement makes for interesting reading and while I think it was the right one, I’m a little concerned by some of the BSA panel members’ thinking. Consider this:

…We note that the parties pointed to a range of conflicting research in support of their respective arguments, indicating the complexity of the issue and that climate change is not a black-and-white topic, but one which attracts a wide range of views and a divergence in scientific opinion. In light of this we think it was acceptable for the item to take a deliberately simplistic, light-hearted approach, and to deal solely with the predictions of the scientists referred to. It was presented in an entertaining way, in an attempt to distil one contribution to a complex debate down to basics and to engage with the audience.

So if the issue is extremely complex, just opt for a simplistic, light-hearted approach, eh? Really? Then there is this…

In our view, given the nature of the programme and the topic reported on, reasonable viewers would have interpreted the predictions with some scepticism. Climate change is a highly contentious issue attracting a wide range of differing opinions, meaning viewers were unlikely to draw any solid conclusions solely from the information presented in the item, particularly taking into account the light-hearted and jovial style of presentation.

So because the tone isn’t super-serious, viewers shouldn’t draw any solid conclusions? If that’s the case, we’ve got a bit of a problem in the age of news-lite where the tone is increasingly “light-hearted and jovial”. Just where are news consumers supposed to get information they should take seriously? Isn’t this what we rely on our public broadcaster to deliver in prime time current affairs shows?

This sort of logic opens the door for decisions that could just as easily go the way of climate sceptics in future. Heck, its all so complicated, what’s the harm in having the Climate Science Coalition on to explain how the climate scientists don’t really know anything? Viewers can go somewhere else to get the full story!

False balance

The BSA board agreed on the issues of responsible programming and accuracy, but wasn’t unanimous on the decision relating to coverage of controversial issues – there was a differing minority review that suggests the piece was not balanced:

In the Seven Sharp item there was no acknowledgment of any opposing viewpoint. While asking the question, ‘Is it just a sign of things to come? the programme presented only the views of the particular experts being reported. There was no acknowledgment that there is disagreement or that there are alternate views. This programme portrayed an unbalanced, and at times, overly simplistic view. That the issue is complex and attracts a wide range of views and a divergence in scientific opinion cannot in my view justify an unbalanced, deliberately simplistic, light-hearted approach.

Here again we find a broadcasting standards body struggling to apply the all-important balance requirement to a science story. For climate change, vaccination or mobile phone radiation, the important thing is the balance of evidence. Reflecting that balance is what is important. In the case of climate change, the projections for temperature increase have been endorsed around the world by scientific bodies and by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Are they certain to happen? No, but the uncertainty was acknowledged in the piece.

TVNZ was confident in where it was coming from. It’s complaints committee wrote that it:

…does not agree that the issue of human caused global climate change is a controversial issue. Most governments of the world accept that global climate change is occurring and have taken steps to address the issue.

TVNZ made the right call, in my view, in resisting the temptation to go to a climate sceptic token comment about how the models are flawed and the scientists are being alarmist. However, if we turn it around, lets say Seven Sharp does a one-sided interview in a funny, informal way with a climate sceptic. Would the BSA deem this to be okay, because viewers wouldn’t be expected to take it seriously and it should be assumed they can find elsewhere the information endorsed by the vast majority of experts?

If that is the case I think we are in for trouble ahead. After all, the BSA can’t rule on the accuracy of the science so can’t really take into account the fact that climate change predictions for 2100 are widely endorsed by scientists and peak bodies.

I’m not arguing for false balance – climate scientist given equal time with climate sceptic. I’m arguing for the balance of evidence to be properly reflected. That should be the same no matter what angle the news show is approaching the story from.


Demonizing Wifi is dangerous to your child’s health Peter Griffin Dec 19


The death of Horowhenua child Ethan Wyman from a brain tumor is tragic news. A family is grieving, the students of Te Horo School have lost a friend and classmate. 

As opposed to free Wifi

As opposed to free Wifi

Ten year-old Ethan apparently slept with an iPod device beneath his pillow, likely listening to music or playing games on it after hitting the sack like a lot of us do. According to his dad, Damon, Ethan was just like his other siblings.

“The only difference was, Ethan had an iPod”.

Ethan’s iPod had a Wifi chip in it to communicate with a wireless router to access the internet. Most computing devices do these days.

Damon and another Horowhenua father are now spearheading a campaign to have Wifi hotspots removed from Te Horo School requesting that internet instead be delivered via wired, Ethernet cables.

The Te Horo School Board of Trustees has written to parents, surveying them on their views about the removal of Wifi from the school and will make a call on it in the new year.

Damon can be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that wifi signals were responsible for the brain tumour that killed his son. The problem is, as scientists often put it, correlation doesn’t imply causation. There is no evidence to suggest Ethan’s tumour was the result of exposure to electromagnetic fields.

More importantly, there is no evidence anywhere in the peer-reviewed literature to suggest Wifi signals pose an elevated risk of developing brain cancers.

What the research does say

The current scientific consensus on the health impacts of Wifi signals is perhaps best summed by the United Kingdom Government’s Public Health England:

There is no consistent evidence to date that exposure to radio signals from Wi-Fi and WLANs adversely affects the health of the general population. The signals are very low power, typically 0.1 watt (100 milliwatts) in both the computer and the router (access point), and the results so far show exposures are well within the internationally-accepted guidelines from the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP). Based on current knowledge and experience, radio frequency (RF) exposures from Wi-Fi are likely to be lower than those from mobile phones. Also, the frequencies used in Wi-Fi are broadly the same as those from other RF applications such as FM radio, TV and mobile phones.

Public Health England came to this conclusion in part after reviewing the results of a study it commissioned that looked at EMF emissions from Wifi-equipped laptops used in schools. The results were published in Health Physics:

…the main finding of this study is that the power densities around Wi-Fi devices are well within the ICNIRP reference level at distances of 0.5 m and more

A study undertaken at the same time, looked at the absorption of radiation from Wifi-equipped devices into the body, specifically looking at children. The results were published in the journal Physics in Medicine and Biology in 2010 and found:

…the highest localized SAR (specific energy absorption rate) value in the head was calculated as 5.7 mW kg−1. This represents less than 1% of the SAR previously calculated in the head for a typical mobile phone exposure condition.

So exposure from Wifi is much less than exposure from mobile phones, which are typically held next to the head.

But Ethan effectively kept his iPod next to his head because he slept with it under his pillow. Maybe his exposure was greater than if he was using a laptop connected to a Wifi network? So what does the peer-reviewed literature say about mobile phones and brain cancers?

Again, nothing that points conclusively to mobile phone use leading to an increased chance of developing brain cancers. A few years ago, scientists published the results of the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC’s) Interphone study, a major 10-year international study that focussed on the two most common forms of brain cancer - glioma and meningioma. The study included New Zealand and at the Science Media Centre, we did a press briefing with some of the scientists involved.

Here’s how Martin Gledhill, then senior advisor at the National Radiation Laboratory summed up Interphone:

“While the full Interphone results overall do not suggest that cellphone use is associated with increased risks of brain tumours, the detailed analysis shows a small increased risk for the heaviest users (where use is quantified by hours, but not when it is quantified by the number of calls), but not for anyone else. The researchers caution against interpreting this as a cause and effect relationship as there is evidence that it could have arisen from biases in the data. The fact that laboratory research, including lifetime studies of animals, does not suggest that radiofrequency fields play a role in cancer development also weakens the likelihood that there is a causal relationship.”

Interphone is being followed up with another in-depth study that is seeking more conclusive results based on the increased usage of mobile phones since Interphone took place. Given the pervasive nature of mobile and wifi technology in society, this research is incredibly important.

Cherry-picking studies

Concern about Wifi has been whipped up of late by a New Zealand-based lobby group also opposed to its use in schools.

I can’t decide whether Greg Kasper’s train wreck of an interview on Breakfast TV on the subject two weeks ago is a win for science or not.

The chairman of the lobby group Safer Wireless Technology New Zealand Incorporated aka Ban the Tower, failed to coherently articulate the group’s concerns about Wifi technology and had to be rescued by sympathetic TVNZ host Raudon Christie several times. Just as well TVNZ hadn’t asked a scientist to sit on the couch and tackle Kasper’s claims – it would have been a bloodbath.

Kasper is a semi-retired accountant who lives in Howick and apparently “has had first-hand experience with unwanted cell towers”. If you are wondering where the scientific expertise in this group lies, its in Dr Stuart Reuben, a retired cardiologist and Toa Greening an ICT engineer. Yep, not an electro magnetic field (EMF) expert in sight.

What’s interesting about them however is that they have engaged a public relations company Passion PR to gain media exposure for a campaign they are pushing. They are not attempting to have Wifi routers banned, though the more you dig around the Ban the Tower website the more you realise they are determined to get rid of celltowers, smart meters and Wifi in schools.

Its press release says it wants the Government to undertake research into the “health impacts of wifi”. It quotes a September study published in the peer-reviewed journal International Journal of Oncology and which looks at use of cordless phones and cellphones and suggests a link between malignant brain tumors and use of mobile phones and cordless phones. Again, we went out to experts, including Gledhill, for commentary on the findings. He said:

Several analyses which pool the results from all study groups have been published. While these do not include the latest data from the Hardell group, this probably does not have a large effect as Hardell’s latest paper only adds 73 cases to the 243 covered in a previous publication. The most recent pooled analysis concluded that:

“Overall, a causal association between mobile phone use and incidence of glioma, meningioma or acoustic neuroma is not supported by the current study [ie the Lagorio pooled analysis]”.

It would be unwise to take the Hardell findings in isolation: they should be evaluated in the context of similar research, which is generally interpreted as providing no clear indication of an increased risk of brain tumours for periods of wireless phone use up to about 14 years. On the other hand, because of the possibility of long latency periods (the time between the exposure and the development of a tumour), health bodies recommend continuing research in this area.

The Hardell study didn’t even mention Wifi – but it didn’t stop the Ban the Tower group from heading their press release: Govt urged to fund research into health impacts of wifi.


Media adds heat, not light

Dominion Post

Dominion Post

Wifi and celllphones and the alleged link to brain cancer is back on the media’s radar – I’ve had conversations with around a dozen journalists on the subject over the last month. That’s largely down to the Ban the Tower group’s PR campaign to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt.

However, research shows that increased media coverage of the issue leads to more people reporting feeling the effects of exposure to EMF. As the study in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research found:

Media reports about the adverse effects of supposedly hazardous substances can increase the likelihood of experiencing symptoms following sham exposure and developing an apparent sensitivity to it. Greater engagement between journalists and scientists is required to counter these negative effects.

Schools as Wifi blackspots

The Te Horo school example is a legitimate news story for the media. A school is seriously considering switching of its wireless internet coverage. I don’t need to throw any studies at you to show how important wireless access is to education.

Many of the devices kids are using at school can’t even be plugged into a wired internet connection. If you turn off the wireless network, you make it harder for kids to go online to find the learning resources they need.

For those with laptops, it means that kids have to sit near a wired connection which a typical classroom will have a limited number of – that means less time accessing the online learning resources they need. Educational applications are increasingly being targetted at the mobile phone and tablet – all of which are dependent on Wifi or mobile reception.

Without an evidence base to justify it, turning off the Wifi is therefore a regressive move that could hurt the development of children.

Damon Wyman may think he is doing the students of Te Horo School a favour. In fact, he is helping to generate the sort of hysteria that could lead to wifi networks going dark in schools across the country.

That would be a disaster.

Top 10 science stories of 2013 Peter Griffin Dec 13

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From the first vat-grown hamburger to the discovery of the world’s largest volcano, scientists pushed back the limits of human knowledge in 2013 and developed technologies that could radically change how we live our lives. 

Over at the Science Media Centre, in conjunction with our colleagues at the AusSMC, we assembled the top 10 picks for the most significant science stories of the year. Contact the SMC if you would like more information about any of these stories, including copies of the research papers associated with them.

It was also a big year for New Zealand science with researchers publishing studies in some of the world’s most influential journals. See below for our Top 10 list of New Zealand science stories that captured the public’s attention in 2013.

Top 10 international science stories

Screen Shot 2013-12-13 at 5.46.09 PM1. Space sounds revealed Voyager 1 had boldly gone: In September, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft became the first man-made object to leave our solar system and venture into interstellar space. The probe, launched in 1977 with the aim of reaching Jupiter and Saturn, is now over 19 billion kilometres from the sun. Scientists listened in to vibrations in the plasma surrounding Voyager – the sound of interstellar space – after it was hit by a massive solar wave in April. The vibrations allowed them to calculate the plasma’s density, which differs between our solar system and interstellar space, confirming Voyager was no longer in our solar system.

2. Carbon dioxide hit a new peak and human influence on the climate was clearer than ever: In May, levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere reached a symbolic milestone, passing 400ppm (parts per million) for the first time in human history. Just a few months later in September, the leading international body for the assessment of climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), found that human influence on the climate system is clearer than ever -we are now 95 percent certain that humans are the cause of global warming. Climate scientists from New Zealand were among the more than 600 scientists and researchers who worked on the IPCC report.

3. Scientists created human stem cells using cloning techniques: In May, researchers used therapeutic cloning tocreate human embryonic stem cells for the first time. The process involved taking the nucleus – which contains the genetic material – from a normal cell and transferring it into an unfertilised egg with its own genetic material removed. While this approach had previously been used in monkeys and mice, it had never succeeded using human cells. This discovery, described by Australian scientists as “a major breakthrough in regenerative medicine”, could help develop personalised therapies for a range of currently untreatable diseases. However, the process requires human donor eggs, which are not easy to obtain, and raises a number of ethical issues.

4. Do you want fries with that? The world’s most expensive burger was grown in the lab: The world’s first lab-grown burger was cooked and eaten at a news conference in London in August this year – generating headlines around the world. The burger patty – which one food critic described as ‘close to meat’ – was developed by scientists fromMaastricht University in the Netherlands through research funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Starting with stem cells from a biopsy of two cows (a Belgian Blue and a Blonde d’Aquitaine), the scientists grew muscle fibres in the lab. The fibres were pressed together with breadcrumbs and binding ingredients, then coloured with beetroot juice and saffron, resulting in the most expensive hamburger in history at a cost of around NZ$400,000.

5. Doctors stopped HIV in its tracks in the “Mississippi baby”: A child born with HIV and treated with a series of antiviral drugs for the first 18 months of its life was found to be free of the virus more than 12 months after treatment ended. When the infant was 30 months of age, HIV-1 antibodies remained completely undetectable. However, the big question of whether this child, known as the “Mississippi baby”, has truly been cured of HIV remains unanswered. “The best answer at the moment is a definitive maybe”, HIV expert Scott Hammer, wrote in a New England Journal of Medicine editorial which accompanied the research.

6. Redefining mental illness: In May, the new version of the diagnostic reference manual used by clinicians in the U.S. and around the world to diagnose mental disorders was released. The fifth revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is the first update in nearly 20 years and followed a decade of review and consultation. It’s publication met with widespread controversy. One of its major changes is to introduce a graded scale known as Autism Spectrum Disorder combining the former four autism-related disorders: autistic, Asperger’s, childhood disintegrative, and pervasive developmental disorder. Elsewhere, several new disorders were added, new suicide risk assessment scales were introduced and the threshold for diagnosing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was lowered. Critics of DSM-5, including New Zealand experts,  argue that it will lead to the over-diagnosis of mental disorders, stigmatising millions of people who are essentially normal.

7. Human liver grown in mouse: Scientists successfully transplanted tiny ‘liver buds’ derived from human stem cells into mice with disable immune systems, staving off the deaths of the animals. The preliminary results, published in Nature, will need years of follow-up research and trials, but hint at a potential solution to the worldwide scarcity of human livers available for transplant. Major technical hurdles have to be overcome before the treatment is useful for humans, including mass-producing the trillions of human iPS-derived precursor cells to even replace even part of a human liver.

8. A king turned up in a car park: In February the bones of Richard III were discovered in the inauspicious surroundings of a car park in Leicester, England – more than 500 years after he died. Radiocarbon dating, radiological evidence, DNA and bone analysis all helped confirm the identity of last Plantagenet king. As if the indignity of being dug up in a car park wasn’t bad enough, further research revealed Richard was infected with roundworms in his intestines.

9. The croaking dead: An Aussie frog was resurrected: Australian scientists announced in March that they had succeeded in growing early stage embryos containing the DNA of an extinct frog. The research is the first step of Project Lazarus, which aims to bring the Australian gastric-brooding frog back to life. The scientists took nuclei – which contain the extinct frog’s DNA – from frozen tissue samples collected in the 1970s. The nuclei were injected into donor eggs from a distantly-related frog, and some of the eggs went on to divide and grow into embryos, reviving hopes for an animal that has been extinct since 1983. The research was listed as one of Time magazine’s top 25 inventions of this year

10. The world’s largest volcano was discovered: In September, scientists discovered the largest single volcano on Earth under the Pacific Ocean. The megavolcano spans 650 km – similar to the distance between Melbourne and Canberra – but don’t worry, it’s been slumbering for the last 145m years. Scientists had thought the volcano, known as Tamu Massif, was a series of volcanoes, but the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program – of which Australia is a partner – showed that it is in fact a single, immense volcano, constructed from massive lava flows that emanated from the volcanic centre to form a broad, shield-like shape.

Top 10 New Zealand science stories

1. The big dry: The year started with incredibly dry conditions that soon had farmers throughout the country struggling to feed their animals. The entire North Island was officially declared a drought zone and ongoing water restrictions were imposed in many regions. A comparative study on the 2013 drought released by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) confirmed it as one of the most extreme on record for New Zealand and the worst since 1945-46. Scientists also concluded that farmers would have to employ more extensive catchment infrastructure to prepare for a future of more frequent droughts as a result of climate change.

From the SMC: Briefing – drought, soils, rivers, climate outlook

2. Viagra for pregnant women?: Researchers from Gravida and the University of Auckland embarked on the world’s first clinical trial of a new therapy that adapts a well-known drug – sildenafil, the generic form of Viagra, for use in pregnant women whose babies have been diagnosed with intrauterine growth restriction. Growth restriction in utero is a potentially serious pregnancy complication with no current treatment options. The New Zealand trial is the culmination of 15 years work and part of a coordinated international effort to translate promising preliminary results into tangible benefits for pregnant women.

From the SMC: Briefing – Viagra trial in pregnant women may save underweight babies

3. Capital rattled by earthquakes: A magnitude 6.5 earthquake beneath Cook Strait in July and subsequent aftershocks reminded New Zealanders of just how active a seismic region we all live in. The earthquakes caused damage to buildings in central Wellington and in Seddon, close to the epicentre. The quakes also posed a puzzle for scientists who are still getting to grips with what exactly happened on what faults beneath Cook Strait. Unlike the Canterbury earthquakes however, the Cook Strait series were not unexpected. As GNS Science seismologist Ken Gledhill commented: “It is something that happens every few decades if you actually look at the historical record. These things happen periodically. What we know about this series of earthquakes and particularly the one last night, was that they were in the overlying Earth’s crust”.

From the SMC: Update on probability of future earthquakes

4. Fluoridation in the spotlight: Hamilton City Council’s decision in July to suspend fluoridation of the town water supply sparked widespread debate about the use of the compound to combat tooth decay. The move went against Ministry of Health and World Health Organization guidelines and was widely condemned by dental experts who reviewed claims around the risk of fluoridation and found them to be unsubstantiated. An injection of scientific reality into the discussion came via the University of Otago’s Dr. Jonathan Broadbent who fronted numerous media interviews to explain the body of peer-reviewed literature that overwhelmingly supports fluoridation at recommended levels. A subsequent public referendum held in October saw 70 per cent of Hamiltonian voters opt for a resumption of fluoridation. The Council has reserved its decision on whether to do so until it hears the outcome of a High Court case in New Plymouth, where the right of the local authority to fluoridate the water supply is being challenged.

From the SMC: Hamilton opts for water fluoridation – expert responds

5. Fonterra’s food scare: New Zealanders became acquainted with the microbe clostridium botulinum when dairy giant Fonterra revealed its milk powder may have been tainted with the potentially deadly bacterium. Fonterra quickly moved to recall shipments of infant formula, sparking a trade crisis for the Government and diplomatic tensions with the likes of China, Russia and Sri Lanka. Further testing of milk powder samples revealed that it wasn’t clostridium botulinum that had been detected, but the similar but inoccuous clostridium sporogenes, which can lead to food spoiling but is essentially harmless. The episode, which has cost Fonterra tens of millions of dollars, sparked several inquiries, the first of which has called for an overhaul of Fonterra’s crisis management practices and better procedures for using external scientific testing.

From the SMC: Fonterra’s false alarm – Clostridium sporogenes explained

6. Sugar babies research: A study of babies born at Waikato Women’s Hospital in Hamilton between 2008 and 2010 found that a cheap and easy-to-administer dextrose gel should be used to treat low blood sugars in newborns, a condition that affects 5-15% of newborns and, in severe cases, can lead to brain damage. The study, carried out by researchers from the University of Auckland and Waikato Hospital, was published in leading medical journal The Lancet. Babies who developed hypoglycemia were randomly assigned to one of two groups, receiving either 40% dextrose gel or a placebo gel for up to six doses over 48 hours – in addition to standard care. The babies who received dextrose gel were half as likely to exhibit further substantial drops in blood sugar levels and less likely to be admitted to intensive care for hypoglycaemia. The study received widespread international attention.

From the SMC: Study finds sweet solution for neonatal condition

7. Understanding the kiwifruit blight: The genome of Psa-V, the causal agent of bacterial canker of kiwifruit, was sequenced by a team of scientists at the University of Otago, with the resutls published in PLoS ONE. The study confirmed a Chinese origin for the bacteria and revealed genetic clues about why this variant of the plant diseasedevastated New Zealand kiwifruit crops. They also found distinct genetic ‘islands’ encoding traits that may make the disease more aggressive. These appear to have been transferred from bacterial strains attacking unrelated plants on at least three separate occasions, and may have triggered the virulent outbreaks seen.

From the SMC: Psa origins mapped – experts respond

8. Distant neutrinos detected: The international IceCube research team, which includes several New Zealanders working with scientific instruments buried two kilometres down beneath the South Pole, detected for the first time, neutrinos from outside of our solar system. The research published in the journal Science detailed the observation of 28 very high-energy particle events that constitute the first solid evidence for astrophysical neutrinos from cosmic sources. Billions of neutrinos pass through every square centimeter of the Earth every second, but the vast majority originate either in the sun or in the Earth’s atmosphere. Far rarer are neutrinos from the outer reaches of our galaxy or beyond, which have long been theorised to provide insights into the powerful cosmic objects where high-energy cosmic rays may originate: supernovas, black holes, pulsars, active galactic nuclei and other extreme extragalactic phenomena.

From the SMC: IceCube catches interstellar prey

9. No patch on e-cigarettes: The first ever trial to compare e-cigarettes with nicotine patches found that both methods result in comparable success in quitting, with roughly similar proportions of smokers who used either method remaining abstinent from smoking for six months after a 13 week course of patches or e-cigarettes. The study, undertaken by researchers from the University of Auckland, was published in The Lancet and presented at the European Respiratory Society (ERS) Annual Congress in Barcelona, Spain. The researchers noted that trial participants who took part in the study seemed much more enthusiastic about e-cigarettes than patches.

From the SMC: E-cigarettes comparable to patches

10. Genetic diversity and the Wairau Bar: University of Otago researchers sequenced the mitochondrial DNA from several human samples extracted from the Wairau Bar burial site in the Northern South Island, revealing there was a greater level of genetic diversity than expected in the early settlers of New Zealand. The results, published inProceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, cast doubt upon the theory that New Zealand was settled via small accidental or unplanned voyages. Such a settlement pattern would have eliminated much genetic diversity, the researchers said. New Zealand is believed to be the last major landmass to be permanently settled by humans.

From the SMC: DNA reveals diversity among first New Zealanders

Lessons from the courtroom for scientists Peter Griffin May 03

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What do jury members ultimately base their decisions on when the evidence is laid out in court?
Charlotte Shipman
Charlotte Shipman

That depends on how compellingly the evidence has been presented says Charlotte Shipman, a Wellington-based 3 News reporter who covered the murder of Scott Guy and the subsequent trial of accused Ewen Macdonald, who in July was found not guilty of Guy’s murder.

In court each day following the trial, Shipman says she saw meticulously gathered and presented forensic evidence from ESR scientists overwhelmed by the showmanship and compelling presentation of Macdonald’s lawyer, the late Greg King.
Forensic evidence in the trial centered on analysis of footprints found around the body of Guy, which were ascertained to have been made by a certain type of dive boot.
ESR presented 960 pages of forensic analysis and four hours of expert testimony in court.
“Defence counsel Greg King did one thing to undo all of that,” says Shipman, speaking as part of a panel discussion this week in Wellington organised by the Science Communicator’s Association.

“He just counted the number of ridges on the sample 9 boot that the Crown had. That had 29 ridges. These three partial impressions around the body had 32 or 32 ridges. The impressions could not have been made by this sample size 9 boot.”

“It was this ‘aha’ moment for the jury. You watch them in court for hours. It was like a penny dropped for them and they thought ‘I can understand this, I’m gonna go with this’.”

“I believe that the jury then disregarded that science, simply because Greg King’s method was easier to understand.”

Shipman said there are valuable lessons in that courtroom anecdote for scientists attempting to communicate to the public.

“If you have an analogy or something you can work with for the layperson, it makes a world of difference.”

Adversarial system

ESR forensic scientist Keith Bedford said the “adversarial system” used in our courtrooms meant the perception created by how evidence and testimony is presented, can have a bearing on case outcomes.

“In the theatre that is the criminal justice system, if you have a report of what the prosecution says on one day, it can sound like an open and shut case. If you have a presentation on what the defense is putting up on another day, it can sound like a potential miscarriage of justice.”

These perceptions were often carried over into the media, which he gave a “mixed scorecard” for its coverage of the science of crime.

“Particularly in the current environment when increasingly the media are looking for soundbites, that sort of tabloid style, quick headlines, its very difficult to effectively and fairly provide a balanced account of the processes of the criminal justice system.”

“Many people get their concept of the guilt or innocence of somebody just from the TV news headlines.”

Shipman said the format of primetime TV news meant the need for decent science communication was even greater.

“What is the alternative when you have a news bulletin that is an hour long and has 25 stories in it?”

Full audio from the SCANZ panel discussion on the science of crime and how it is communicated is available here.

Can Obama turn rhetoric into action on climate change? Peter Griffin Jan 22


I just stood in the cold on the National Mall in Washington D.C. along with 600,000 people to listen to Barack Obama’s inauguration speech.

The National Mall in all its glory photo: Peter Griffin

Factions of the media have analyzed it as a very “progressive” or “liberal” speech. I didn’t take that away from it. For me it was a very American speech. It was full of references to Dr Martin Luther King, the founding fathers, 1776, the Constitution, the military, the greatness of America. It was clearly a fairly liberal crowd surrounding me, but Obama was tugging the heart strings of all Americans with his words.

It also, refreshingly, paid tribute to science and technology and urged America to harness both to reclaim the country’s position as a leader in innovation.

We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries. We must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure, our forests and waterways, our crop lands and snow capped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.

There’s a dark hint in that first sentence that the US feels its technological lead has been wrested from it by illegitimate means. Its attempts to tighten up intellectual property law, its distrust of Chinese technology giants like Huawei, are testament to that partly justified paranoia.

But before it came something more fundamental and universal on an issue that got hardly any play during the election campaign.

 We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.

The cheer that went up around me almost drowned out the following:

Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But American cannot resist this transition. We must lead it.

The overwhelming judgement of science.

I haven’t listened to many inauguration speeches but I doubt such a strong statement about science has ever been made by a President on such an occasion.

Now the reality bites. As the fiscal cliff negotiations illustrated, US politics is more partisan than it has been in a long time. The economy is not growing, America is spending beyond its means. Many will be asking what Obama is going to do in the next four years about these immediate problems. Climate change mitigation doesn’t enter those discussions, it is considered a cost, a nice to have, something we can do when they lower the deficit, return the economy to a path of growth, return the US to a position of hegemony in the world.

Obama’s challenge, and if he can rise to it, he deserves another Nobel, is to change the thinking so that the issue of tackling climate change is central to all of the above. He is jubilant at this moment, he has avoided becoming a one-term president, his place in history is secure. But the real judgement of him will be measured by what he does in the next four years, where he has a mandate to pursue the agenda he laid out in the election campaign.

With several precious moments of his inauguration speech devoted to science, technology and the effort to mitigate climate change, there’s a strong hint he will pursue the issues in this space that were left on the table in his first term.

Science, suicide and open access – RIP Aaron Swartz Peter Griffin Jan 18


What a mess the US Government has got itself into over the Aaron Swartz affair. The heavy handedness that the US attorney’s office pursued the hacker, entrepreneur and Reddit co-founder has shades of the efforts to extradite Kim Dotcom to face copyright infringement, money laundering and racketeering charges in the US.

Aaron Swartz

But this is a different deal altogether given the outcome – Aaron Swartz, 26, who had previously suffered depression, committed suicide in New York a week ago. He was facing a federal indictment in Boston for wire fraud, millions of dollars worth of fines and a possible sentence of 35 years in jail. What did he do?

The indictment papers say Swartz broke into a wiring closet at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and gained access to the JSTOR database of academic articles, downloading millions of them which he allegedly planned to distribute for free on the internet.

Swartz was, to put it mildly, an open access advocate. In 2008 he wrote a bit of a manifesto, proclaiming:

“The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our own copies and share it with the world.

Many scientists would endorse his statements, even if they themselves wouldn’t go to the lengths he allegedly did to unlock the academic content for all to read freely.

The irony of Swartz’s death is that more official efforts are underway around the world to achieve the exact end he had in mind. Many US institutions and the UK Government have demanded that research funded by the tax payer be made open access, freely available for all to read via the internet. In a decade’s time, Swartz’s manifesto will be official, Government-mandated practice for academia in most countries.

Swartz, like Dotcom, was a disruptor. Also a hacker, he was part of the team that developed RSS – Really Simple Syndication, which is used by millions of websites, including Sciblogs, to effortlessly share and update information on the internet. He was 14 when he worked on RSS. With Reddit, his mantra of openness was again evident as the website set out to aggregate news sources from all over the world and rank them based on their popularity among the Reddit community.

There will be a lot of soul-searching over this case. Were the prosecutors too heavy-handed in pushing for Swartz to spend time in prison. Did they indeed have a “humanity deficit” in brushing asides concerns about his mental health? What role did MIT play in all of this? After all, JSTOR had declined to press charges against Swartz, so the momentum for an indictment came from elsewhere. Looking at it cynically, you could say that it was simply in line with the US Government’s desire to send a message to those who attempt to unlawfully take intellectual property.

The US has lost one of its great, young innovators. In all likelihood, the conviction would only have added to Swartz’s credibility and reputation, in the same way that Kim Dotcom’s early brushes with the law, helped build the mythos around him. but we can’t imagine what was going through his head as he faced the immense pressure of a federal indictment. All we can do is continue to discuss how we can make Swartz’s vision a reality, legally, ethically and for the benefit of those who pay for it – tax-paying members of society.

Scibloggers clean out science communication awards cupboard Peter Griffin Nov 29

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I spent an enjoyable morning at the Prime Minister’s Science Prizes where the glow of last night’s premiere of The Hobbit was obviously still buoying attendees – particularly the Prime Minister, who at one stage suggested there were “cauldrons of opportunity” in science.

Professor Shaun Hendy

The PM’s Science Prizes spell the end of the science awards season, following the New Zealand Association of Scientists awards and last week’s Royal Society of New Zealand Research Honours awards. They also represent the most lucrative of the prizes, with one million bucks going to the recipients collectively.

Full details about the award-winning scientists, science teacher and remarkable student winner Helen Ng are here.

But it was particularly pleasing to see Sciblogger Professor Shaun Hendy pick up the PM’s Science Media Communication Prize. Professor Hendy divides his time between Industrial Research and Victoria University and until recently was Deputy Director of the MacDiarmid Institute. This is Shaun’s second win – he picked up the Callaghan Medal for science communication at the RSNZ awards last week.

Aside from his blogging at A Measure of Science, Shaun has been prolific in the media. He is a regular contributor on Radio New Zealand and is often quoted in science-related news articles, TV and radio pieces. I learnt this morning that the book he is publishing next year will be called Get off the Grass, (great title!) and will carry on some of the ideas first explored in Sir Paul Callaghan’s well-received and through-provoking book Wool to Weta.

Both awards are well deserved and hard-earned. Like Sir Paul, Shaun is able to relate science to the big picture issues facing the country. He understands the needs of journalists. And he isn’t reticent about standing up for what he believes in. Amid the controversy this week over Dr Mike Joy’s comments in the New York Times about the state of our environment, Shaun, in his capacity as President of the Association of Scientists issued a statement defending Joy and attacking a heavy-handed Herald editorial about Joy.

Standing up for science

“The clear statement is that the potential damage to New Zealand’s reputation, and economic benefit of ‘big-spending American tourists’ outweighs the need for truth in  public debate,” the NZAS release stated. “This is an issue that the Association takes very seriously, and emphatically refutes criticism of Dr Joy on this basis.”

I had a chat with Industrial Research Ltd. CEO Shaun Coffey at the PM’s prizes this morning, a man who has been instrumental in giving Shaun the time and freedom to engage with the media. Coffey is running a very successful experiment in science communication himself, having amassed nearly 130,000 followers on Twitter. His updates and links to interesting articles on R&D, science, economics and agriculture are addictive reading for me.

Dr Siouxsie Wiles

Picking up the NZAS Science Communicator’s Award was another Sciblogger, Dr Siouxsie Wiles who blogs at Infectious Thoughts. Currently you can see Siouxsie fronting a national TV ad campaign for the National Science Challenges. She is also active on the media front and has been successfully testing out crowd funding of scientific research through the Rockethub platform.

What is great to see is that we have a growing number of scientists who are skilled communicators, willing to engage with the media, conscious of the news agenda and the interplay between science and the issues of the day and proactive about getting the science out to the public. Others such as Dr Mark Quigley, last year’s PM’s Science Media Communicator’s Prize winner, and Professor Chris Battershill have quickly had to hone their media skills when demand for their expertise put them in the media spotlight. In the case of Quigley, it was the Canterbury earthquakes, for Battershill it was the Rena oil spill.

The better scientists are at communicating their science, at relating its value to society the better the public’s understanding of the importance of science will be. And those who recognise that science communication is an ongoing endeavour, an investment, rather than an obligation tied to the need to promote research findings or secure funding, will ultimately better serve the people who are indirectly paying for their science.

Dominion Post unveils new weekly science page Peter Griffin Sep 03

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The concept of the newspaper science section pretty much died a death in New Zealand a few years ago as the squeeze on newsroom resources saw specialist sections ditched in favour of running science stories in the paper’s general or “A” section.

The Dominion Post’s new science page

Some saw that as a good thing, suggesting that cramming science stories into a “ghetto” in the paper meant it was just too easy to flick past that page and miss the science altogether. However, I’m of the view that devoting a fair amount of newspaper real estate to science each week is an acceptance of the importance of science to society and of the desire of the public to read about science-related issues.

That’s why I applaud the Dominion Post’s editor Bernadette Courtney for including a weekly science page in the re-vamped Dom. There will also be a technology page featured later in the week which I consider a similarly well-thought out move given the pervasiveness of technology in our lives.

The Dom’s science page will be anchored by long-time science columnist Bob Brockie who writes this week on Dr. Rebecca Priestley’s new book Mad on Radium – a history of “nuclear New Zealand”. The main piece is a thought-provoking wire story originally run by the Washington Post. Hopefully a good dose of local content will feature on this page – there are certainly enough science-related issues worthy of attention from the Dom’s own writers.

The move follows a push to expand and revamp science coverage, one that started shakily, but seems to have found a consistent stride. i expect to see similarly increased attention to science coverage from APN with the launch of the “compact” New Zealand Herald next week.

It’s great to see the media recognising the importance and relevance of science to society in these sorts of moves and its also confirmation that science stories rate well, something online editors have been telling us for years as they seek to supply a mix of articles that generate maximum eyeballs and clicks.


When Brockie goes rogue Peter Griffin Jun 11


Bob Brockie has been writing for the Dominion Post for years as the paper’s science columnist and regularly delivers up entertaining comment on the state of science and what is filtering out of the peer-reviewed literature.

He also creates his own cartoons which adds a nice personal touch. Bob is a biologist, one of a small handful of columnists writing for the mainstream media who do in fact have a science background. But Bob’s Dom Post column today goes seriously off track. Have a read yourself… (its not online, but I’ve excerpted it below).

Screen Shot 2012-06-11 at 4.14.04 PM

Bob may well be right in his claim that we have not lost a single native plant or animal species since 1992. There may well have been an overall increase in the number of known and identified species in New Zealand’s territory – an expedition to the Kermadec Islands last year uncovered some fish species that are thought to be novel – and further international examination will determine so.

But this really is a simplistic way of looking at the state of biodiversity in New Zealand. Surely the health of our various species is as important  as the number of them and on that count, there is plenty of evidence to suggest many are under threat and in the case of some, such as Maui’s dolphin, populations are at critically low levels. Bob completely misses the point that overall, the health of our biodiversity is in decline and further pressure on the environment exacerbates this issue. It’s not like it is a disputed trend – countries the world over are struggling with this!

When the WWF released its report looking at how well New Zealand had done in honouring its original Rio pledges, we approached a wide range of scientists to run their ruler over it and see if its conclusions were supported by the science. On the issue of biodiversity, there was little dispute:

Assoc Prof John Craig, School of Environment, University of Auckland:

’New Zealand has a real biodiversity crisis as the Report states and as a country there is a need for serious debate about policies and mechanisms that leads to effective change if there is going to be a more positive WWF Report after the next Earth Summit.’

Assoc. Prof Dianne Brunton, Ecology & Conservation Group, Massey University:

The Department of Conservation (DoC) 2011 annual report from which these findings originate states that ’Most changes result from improved coverage of groups previously not assessed, and improved knowledge and changes in definitions of categories’ the DoC report goes on to state that ’57 species have declined sufficiently to trigger a change to a more severely threatened category, and 7 species have recovered under management sufficiently to move to a less severely threatened category. i.e. 50 worsened.’

Prof David Hamilton, Professor in Lake Restoration at Waikato University:

‘Beyond Rio’ leaves us with no doubt that NZ must urgently rectify its broken promises from the 1992 Earth Summit or else become a case study for some of the highest rates of biodiversity loss on the planet in recent times.

Ironically, Bob’s column is published two pages away from a write-up on the Pure Advantage report “Green Growth for Greater Wealth” which argues, among other things, that our biodiversity is under threat and needs preserving, which use of greener energy sources would go some way to help achieving.

Bob is right in that the Department of Conservation should be commended for the work it has done in bringing back several species from the brink of extinction and sheltering many others from pests and disease. But to suggest that biodiversity in New Zealand is in better health than ever goes against the science. The number of species in an ecosystem gives you no accurate indication of the health of those species and those who work in the field suggest the overall state of biodiversity is deteriorating. Come on Bob, you should know better!

Science no vote winner Peter Griffin May 23


On the eve of the 2012 Budget with the word “austerity” ringing in our ears, the Stuff website has done a poll asking readers what they see as priority areas for the Government.

Of the six categories listed – health, education, welfare, taxes, business and science, guess which area comes in as lowest priority.

That’s right… science.



It is not a scientific poll, but its results aren’t surprising anyway. Few will be excited if, as TVNZ predicts, tomorrow will see a major allocation of funding to boost R&D efforts and establish the so-called Advanced Technology Institute. Some of that funding had previously been flagged, so its yet to be seen what “new” money we’ll see – if any. Education comes out top in the Stuff poll, which is heartening, suggesting Kiwis are concerned most about preparing the next generation to make the most of their potential – in whatever field they choose.

Keep an eye on Stuff, Scoop and Herald Online tomorrow for Budget 2012 coverage.

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