By Sarah-Jane O'Connor 31/08/2018 1


Spring is just around the corner which means the Science Media Centre team have been enjoying late winter vacations.

Here’s a double-issue instalment of the great science journalism we’ve enjoyed during July and August. Seen, read or listened to anything you think we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments below.

High Hopes: Who Will Benefit From NZ’s Legal Cannabis Industry?
Tess McClure, Vice

Legal cannabis is big money, Tess McClure writes in this feature, but who will benefit if an industry kicks off in New Zealand? This one’s particularly timely given Hikurangi Industries has just been granted the first New Zealand licence to cultivate cannabis for medicinal research purposes.

The ark, the algorithm and our conservation conundrum
Charlie Mitchell, Stuff

How did a stinky, ugly plant become a higher priority for protection than the iconic Kauri tree? In a two-part series, Stuff’s Charlie Mitchell investigates how we spread our conservation budget and decide which species to protect. Part two is available here.

MPI lab’s struggle under weight of M.bovis
David Williams, Newsroom

Newsroom’s David Williams has been doggedly following the Mycoplasma bovis story, as seen in this story outlining how the outbreak put immense pressure on the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Wallaceville laboratory.

Can Ray Avery turn promises into reality?
Eloise Gibson, Newsroom

And in another Newsroom investigation, veteran science journalist Eloise Gibson checked out some of the claims prominent Kiwi Sir Ray Avery has made about his low-cost incubators that he plans to send to developing countries and finds not everyone is cheering him on.

Bad Vibrations: The implosion of a New Age cult
Steve Kilgallon and Tony Wall, Stuff

In this long read by Stuff, the Auckland leader of a group known as Kosmic Fusion uses quantum physics terms to explain how she ‘heals’ people. Massey University Physics Professor Bill Williams says it’s ‘bollocks’.

Maraenui: The suburb swallowed by synthetics
Anusha Bradley, Radio NZ

It’s a scene common to many of New Zealand’s poorest suburbs: empty lots where state housing once sat, unemployment and a dependence on drugs. In this long-form feature, Anusha Bradley visits Maranui, Napier’s poorest suburb, which has fallen into the grip of synthetic drugs.

The Big Leak
Steve Kilgallon, Stuff

Leaky homes are an issue New Zealanders can’t seem to get away from, but the messy court battle at the centre of Stuff national correspondent Steve Kilgallon’s three-part series has three parties claiming they have been wronged.

Mould, sweet mould: inside New Zealand’s damp housing crisis
Ethan Donnell, The Spinoff

Ethan Donnell, director of Sick Homes, writes about some of the people he met while producing the documentary on New Zealand’s damp homes.

Lie of the Land
Ellen Rykers, New Zealand Geographic

Ellen Rykers’ ancestors were among a small group of colonists who tried to make a home on the Auckland Islands – she traces their tale in this feature article.

Overlooked No More: Beatrice Tinsley, Astronomer Who Saw the Course of the Universe
Dennis Overbye, The New York Times

It’s only a few decades late … New Zealand-raised astronomer Beatrice Tinsley has been recognised by an obituary in the New York Times, as part of its ‘overlooked’ series that seeks to address the imbalance of historic obituaries.

Tide of lies
Kai Kupferschmidt, Science

Three New Zealand researchers have played a role in uncovering fabricated data across dozens of clinical trials published in international journals.

The obsessive search for the Tasmanian Tiger
Brooke Jarvis, The New Yorker

It’s right up there with the dodo and passenger pigeon as an icon of human-driven extinction, but some people still think the Tasmanian Tiger lurks in the wilderness.

Anti-Vaxxers Are Targeting a Vaccine for a Virus Deadlier Than Ebola
Brendan Borrell, The Atlantic

The Hendra virus can spread from horses to humans, but anti-vaxxers have been targeting this disease as well, giving scientists concern that the virus could turn into a major problem.

A semicolon in the arts
John Back, Lateral

There have long been established guidelines for discussing suicide in the news media, but the rules for fiction are far less clear.

The Nastiest Feud in Science
Bianca Bosker, The Atlantic

A Princeton geologist has endured decades of ridicule for arguing that the fifth extinction was caused not by an asteroid but by a series of colossal volcanic eruptions.

The secret in my blood
Jon Kelly, BBC

Matt Merry was eight when he was infected with HIV after being treated for haemophilia with contaminated blood in the UK. This two-part series coincides with the launch of a public inquiry into the NHS scandal. The first part covers the tragic tale of a woman who lost two husbands to contaminated blood.

The Revolution That Rewrote Life’s History
David Quammen, The Atlantic

What even is a species anyway? The more we use DNA to examine the world around us, the more we find that organisms trade genes with no concern for our human concepts of species. In this excerpt from his new book, The Tangled Tree, science writer extraordinaire David Quammen delves into the nitty-gritty: what is an individual?

I was deluded. You can’t beat fake news with science communication
Jenny Rohn, The Guardian

As the Guardian shutters its science blog network, the bloggers have been writing their final sign-offs. In this piece, Jenny Rohn tells of her frustrations in the “dangerous era of untruth”.

The last two months on Sciblogs

100 years ago today – the likely first NZ death from the 1918 influenza pandemic
Nick Wilson, Jennifer Summers and Michael Baker, Public Health Expert

This week marked 100 years since the first likely Kiwi death in the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Official information kept secret too long
Mark Hanna, Honest Universe

For the past few months, Mark Hanna has been gathering data on 12 government agencies and how they handle requests under the Official Information Act: his full article is available here.

Slick propaganda has no place in science classroom
Alison Campbell, BioBlog

Unless it’s being used to develop critical thinking skills, propaganda has no place in the science classroom, writes Alison Campbell, and certainly not when it teaches creationism.

Critically endangered but not lost: the fight to save Te Papa’s collections from extinction
Nic Rawlence, Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives

Ancient DNA expert Nic Rawlence writes a passionate defence of museum collections and questions a proposed restructure of our national museum.

What are the possible psychological effects of being stuck in that cave?
Sarb Johal, Psychology Report

It probably seems like an age ago that 12 children were trapped in a Thai cave – in this article, Sarb Johal speculates on what they might have been going through prior to their dramatic rescue.


One Response to “Cults, leaky houses and a belated obituary – great journalism from July and August”

  • There is some criticism that David Quammen’s book over-sells its over-arching claims. There’s this from at least one evolutionary biologist who reviews the reviews (heh): https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2018/09/02/another-uncritical-review-of-david-quammens-new-book/

    Coyne is critical of the reviewers, and notes that while there is good history of science in the book, and that most of the individual points in themselves are fine, feels the overall conclusions are over-sold.

    Over-simplifying or over-sold? Food for thought?

    Anyway, my impression is that his lesson for book reviewers (and writers!) might be that it helps to be (very) familiar with the subject material. A rule of thumb I like is to ask ‘Can I critique this?’ Or, perhaps, ‘what of this can I critique?’ (and make that clear).

    While I’m here, it was great to see the New York Times late obit to Beatrice Tinsley’s, a good effort too. We can at least say Sciblogs had a earlier heads-up on her 🙂 I left the cosmology to cosmologists (I try to stick to biology, where I’m familiar with the material), but covered her in early 2016 as a consequence of being reminded of her from a Google Doodle, and pointed to earlier-still efforts to give her credit, etc.: https://sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/2016/01/27/breatrice-tinsley-cosmologist/

    ————
    * I’m unlikely to review Quammen’s book unless I get a review copy. If the excerpt linked here is anything to go by, things could at least be put (much) more clearly in my opinion.

    Like always, the time scale is important context. Horizontal gene transfers from one species to another do occur, but they’re only ‘common’ over long time scales. We see more of them from genome sequencing than was previously thought, and that’s worth noting, but evidence (thus far & generalising) is that they are only ‘common’ or ‘continuously occurring’ in the context of the vertical scale of these evolutionary trees being millions of years. A passage clarifying this for readers might help.

    I wrote briefly about one example in Sciblogs – that kumera are transgenic: https://sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/2015/04/21/kumara-are-transgenic-2/

    There’s also that viral DNA—including syncytin-2, a gene co-opted from a retrovirus, repurposed to enable human pregnancy. The fact that DNA from endogenous retroviruses constitutes 8 percent of the human genome certainly complicates our sense of Homo sapiens as a species of primate.

    The last bit doesn’t make sense to me (as a biologist), or he’s not making himself clear. Endogenous retroviruses (ERVs) don’t complicate our sense of any one species being a species. Viral hosts acquiring the use viral genes does mean how they came to be what they are is more complex that ‘simple’ vertical lineage.

    ERVs have been useful in tracing lineages, and in cases they contribute to create new types of lineages. Syncytins, for example, are common in mammals, where they have acquired a role in placental formation. (You might suggest they played a role in the ‘formation’ of mammals. There are different syncytins in different mammals.)

    Several passages in the excerpt read to me as confusing different concepts, and I’m left feeling he’s over-thought (or over-sold) his conclusions. Perhaps it just reflects condensing a chapter too much with needed context having been cut. Who knows, I’d need the book itself.

    Syncytins and ERVs are part of a fascinating wider story that I’ve meant to return to. (My fault: I try cover too many things… Part of the reason I’m interested in this is that I applied to research in wider scene of this space: there is a connection between the proteins that I studied as a PhD student, genome architecture, repression of ERVs in early development, speciation, and other biology. It’s a great unfolding story, but I never seem to have any luck with funding in NZ.)