Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: Science: it's complicated

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  • Ross Mason,

    Bryan Walker on Sciblogs has writ a piece that links to a BBC report by Prof Steve Jones on

    CBBC Trust review of impartiality and accuracy of the BBC’s coverage of science

    "He was asked to assess the impartiality and accuracy of BBC science coverage across television, radio and the internet. "

    He (Prof Steve Jones) reports “widespread concern within the scientific community that in News and Current Affairs undue attention is given, when certain subjects are discussed, to oppositional views of received results.”

    Bryan ends with this cracker:

    On a much humbler level than the BBC I can’t leave the subject without pointing to a recent example in New Zealand’s newsprint media of where the provision of so-called balance can lead an otherwise sensible and serious coverage of a climate change issue. Under the heading Climate change evidence ‘undeniable’ Kiran Chug reported the comments of prominent climatologist Dr Kevin Trenberth, Professor Lionel Carter of Victoria University’s Antarctic Research Centre and Professor Martin Manning, of Victoria’s Climate Change Research Institute. They all pointed in the same direction – that extreme weather events, warming oceans and Antarctic ice melt are signs that global warming is under way and its consequences are global and serious. Then suddenly, in a final brief paragraph, the reader was informed that ACT candidate and agriculture spokesman Don Nicolson sees it all as a matter of natural variations in climate: “No-one can give me conclusive proof that mankind is actually having an effect on the weather.”

    What happened? It’s an obvious add-on. Did the writer think, “Gee, I’d better get an opposing opinion in before I finish”? Or did someone up the editorial chain say to her, “You need a balance. Give Don Nicholson a ring”? Either way it’s patently ridiculous and a good local example of exactly the false balance that Professor Jones points to in his BBC report.

    Upper Hutt • Since Jun 2007 • 1590 posts Report Reply

  • Islander, in reply to Joe Wylie,

    I've been researching & writing a small book on birds (specifically with the huia as its focus )for the past 4 years: one of the things I've found totally fascinating is the flux, the waxing & waning of birds & other beings.

    I esteem Flannery but he's way out with that "60 million years" figure - our islands have been below the sea in that period. And, about 16-18 million years ago, proto-flamingoes stalked the shore on the inland sea - St Bathans was a midpoint! - avoiding the crocodillians....

    Big O, Mahitahi, Te Wahi … • Since Feb 2007 • 5643 posts Report Reply

  • Ian Dalziel,

    High Mass… the God Particle is closer!

    there are relatively few complaints about the vast cost of the Large Hadron Collider

    Both Fermilab and Cern have made interesting discoveries within days of each other – can the singularity be far behind?

    What the Frack!
    Here’s the Fracking article Islander was talking about… Great to see Vicki Anderson branching out from Rock writing in the Music pages to, er, Rock writing on geological processes, she also edits the ’Ask an Expert" section in the Press which explains mostly earthquake related queries – but it is a great public science initiative by Fairfax.

    Hope she’ll also mention, that Contact Energy which hopes to do some offshore drilling in the Canterbury Bight, is 52% owned by Origin Energy in Australia, who are in partnership with ConocoPhillips, and they are responsible for a huge oil slick from their offshore drilling near China, this slick is only about as big a singapore at the moment – nothing to worry about there then…

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 7943 posts Report Reply

  • Ian Dalziel, in reply to Sofie Bribiesca,

    Higher ground...

    I just saw Saturn's rings...

    Fantastic ain't it, and humbling, once ya start thinking about the sheer size of it all...
    I remember my first backyard occultation, watching Jupiter (you can almost see its moons move) when this freaking great mountain got in the way, and it was on the moon!

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 7943 posts Report Reply

  • Sophie Fern,

    NZ is lucky (sensible) enough to have the truly wonderful "Our Changing World" on RNZ, and I believe that all of the team were trained scientists before they got into communicating it. Here in Australia we have Catalyst, which is a science news/magazine show. If we could have science always there in the media, like background scientific noise, it would normalise it, and make it not just something which people bring out to trump an argument. It'd just be part of culture. Appreciating great art and music would be the same as appreciating an elegant experiment.
    In my ideal world at least!

    Hobart, Australia • Since Jun 2011 • 7 posts Report Reply

  • Carol Stewart,

    You're right, Sophie, Radio NZ National deserve a huge pat on the back for their commitment to science coverage.
    As for TVNZ - gah.

    Wellington • Since Jul 2008 • 825 posts Report Reply

  • Sophie Fern,

    Can I cheer for NHNZ too, even though we don't get to see their stuff on terrestrial TV in NZ? They have piles of talented scientists working there (as producers, researchers, on camera) and although their style doesn't always work for me, they are communicating science daily.

    Hobart, Australia • Since Jun 2011 • 7 posts Report Reply

  • Carol Stewart,

    Having made that snide comment about TVNZ above, I've just realised that they do in fact produce some rather good series such as 'Ever Wondered' on TVNZ 7. Credit where due, etc.

    Wellington • Since Jul 2008 • 825 posts Report Reply

  • linger,

    A recent This American Life radio documentary featured fracking in Pennsylvania.

    Tokyo • Since Apr 2007 • 1923 posts Report Reply

  • Richard Grevers,

    The fracking article in the Press is a classic example of a politician attempting a scientific argument and getting it wrong. Hekia Parata said "Fracking produces a crack with little or no lateral movement, while an earthquake is movement of rock along a fault". Um, faults are formed as a result of earthquakes - stressed rock releases the stress by rupturing. And I'd say that events of the past 11 months have shown that we don't have a sufficiently thorough knowledge of what's down there in terms of faults and stress.
    Furthermore, research (I had and lost a reference) has indicated that the size of the initial rupture in a large sampling of earthquakes (up to M9) is fairly consistent and remarkably small - in the order of 100 square metres - which is easily achievable via fracking.

    New Plymouth • Since Jul 2011 • 143 posts Report Reply

  • Richard Grevers,

    I was at a meeting on Fracking and oil exploration in Taranaki where one of the oil industry reps pointed out that the contamination depicted in Gaslands is from shallow fracking of layers near the surface. The fracking which was carried out in Taranaki was at a depth of 4000m, way below any groundwater sources, and a depth at which any water is already poisonous. (that's when I brought up earthquakes).

    However, what's proposed in Canterbury does appear to be shallower, and the aquifer which is 100m deep at the coast might be 1000m down inland.

    New Plymouth • Since Jul 2011 • 143 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Sophie Fern,

    Appreciating great art and music would be the same as appreciating an elegant experiment.

    That would be cool, but I do think it's a way harder thing to appreciate. I've looked at great art and heard great music, and appreciated, but I can't even think of a coffee table treatise on chemistry that I've grasped more than a very small fraction of. There's not a great deal of science that's going to knock your socks off that doesn't come out of the collected efforts of a massive team of people these days. There's no real parallel to artists, authors, musicians who create quite specifically in part to communicate their ideas to a wide range of people. In science only a small number of people getting it at all is really relevant to the progress. It's not a business of generating wide appeal, it's about seeking truth.

    But yes, I agree, people having a broader understanding of science as basic knowledge is a good thing. It's just such a damned broad field that it's hard to get more than sweeping brush stroke understanding of vast tracts of it.

    I think to some extent art is imitating this trend, that the study and appreciation of plenty of art is becoming more of a specialization, that there are whole worlds of appreciation within subgenres. Yet I also think in art that the ability to generate appeal outside of the specialized discipline of training characterizes true genius, and is noticeably appealing even to laypeople. I'm not convinced this is so in science. It's quite likely the greatest discoveries of our time won't sweep the world like a pop star, but will carefully and slowly build with time.

    The rock stars of science aren't, in my opinion, necessarily closely related to the good science.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10650 posts Report Reply

  • Cushla McKinney,

    Hi Ben,

    The rock stars of science aren’t, in my opinion, necessarily closely related to the good science.

    I think we are moving closer to the point where 'good science' incorporates the ability to communicate scientific ideas to a lay audience. The Science Communication course at here at the University Otago being a case in point. Because as scientists we operate within a wider society and what we do will have effects on that society, it is important that we discuss what we are doing, why we are doing it and the implications of our work.
    I would like to think that both ethics and communication will become core components of science education in the near future.

    Dunedin • Since Nov 2006 • 14 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Stewart, in reply to Cushla McKinney,

    I think we are moving closer to the point where ‘good science’ incorporates the ability to communicate scientific ideas to a lay audience.

    Well...yes and no. Good science is good science. That it can be and is communicated to the lay public is important, but that's a different thing and a different skill. Not everyone who does good science is going to be a great communicator with the lay public - I know good scientists who aren't great communicators with people outside their specialist field. That doesn't devalue the work they do.

    Ethics and communication could definitely stand to be emphasised more in science education (the number of students who show up with the idea that they don't like writing, so they'd like to do science is kind of terrifying). I think, though, that telling people that they can't do good science unless they can also be good at science communication is ultimately counterproductive. It's okay to need a bit of translation. What's not okay is not realising you need help communicating, or not trying to do it better.

    And I kind of have to agree with Ben about the "rock star" thing; there are plenty of examples of scientists who are very, very good at engaging with the public and media, but whose actually scientific achievements are...not as great as their media presence, especially when you take into account the collaborative nature of modern science. We need those people too, but let's not pretend that every scientist is going to be Carl Sagan, or, moreover, that we *need* every scientist to be Carl Sagan.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 2105 posts Report Reply

  • andin, in reply to Hilary Stace,

    Tikanga
    The primary indigenous reference for Māori values and ethics are the creation stories which highlight specific relationships deemed fundamental to the sustainability of life.

    Kind of a major stumbling block right at the beginning there. (there are others littered throughout the document.) Are they actually claiming some kind of legitimacy for creation stories? If they can, can everyone else?
    And we're screwed......

    raglan • Since Mar 2007 • 1890 posts Report Reply

  • Sophie Fern, in reply to BenWilson,

    You're right that science is incredibly broad and that grasping it all is just impossible, but what if there was more of it out there for people to enjoy? Then people can find their thing, and in exploring that have a boarder appreciation of science in general.
    "The rock stars of science aren’t, in my opinion, necessarily closely related to the good science."
    So true!

    Hobart, Australia • Since Jun 2011 • 7 posts Report Reply

  • dc_red, in reply to Yamis,

    Re: the Australian miner and his volcanoes -

    Humans produce ~130x more CO2 than volcanoes.

    Re: Geog101

    Not my specialty, but I would have thought if there was so much as a single lecture (i.e., 50 mins) devoted to climate, it should be on anthropogenic climate change?

    Oil Patch, Alberta • Since Nov 2006 • 706 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Stewart, in reply to andin,

    Are they actually claiming some kind of legitimacy for creation stories? If they can, can everyone else?
    And we’re screwed……

    I don't think so. Creation myths have a legitimate cultural aspect, and tell you a lot about how people perceive the world around them. Taking that into account when dealing with the ethics of scientific sampling and practice is quite different from the intrusion of myths into the framework of science.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 2105 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to andin,

    If they can, can everyone else?

    You mean like how Christians have laid claim to universal human values?

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19706 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Lucy Stewart,

    That doesn't devalue the work they do

    I wonder what our nation's woeful private sector contribution to research and development does for science's perceived value?

    And for the relationship between that value and the funding of particular work. The current government is more explicitly focusing on applied research - or in other words, what business thinks is valuable rather than what scientists might choose to pursue. Government and business decision-makers seem like relevant audiences to consider as well as the general public.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19706 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Stewart, in reply to Sacha,

    Government and business decision-makers seem like relevant audiences to consider as well as the general public.

    Oh, believe me, you don't get through a PhD without learning how to address those audiences. They should run seminars: How Your Research Can Be Related To Climate Change, Curing Cancer, Quantum Computers, Or Better Yet, All Of The Above.

    Personally I find this approach unhelpful to the pursuit of science in general - you can't write a grant application to look for something you don't know is there yet - but it's how it is.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 2105 posts Report Reply

  • Sophie Fern, in reply to Lucy Stewart,

    re having to justify your research in science. I gave a great justification of my PhD research, (PhD is in English, but I'm a biologist by training), at a departmental seminar and my first comment, from the HoD was that no one had ever justified their research in the department before!

    Hobart, Australia • Since Jun 2011 • 7 posts Report Reply

  • Ian Dalziel,

    That's magma, mate...

    Re: the Australian miner and his volcanoes -
    Humans produce ~130x more CO2 than volcanoes

    Wouldn't that depend on how many volcanoes were going off?

    That mining magnate may get a chance to quantify this, if these reports in The Australian and The Age are correct...

    ...and this is the kind of science that just makes me go - bugger!

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 7943 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Stewart, in reply to Sophie Fern,

    I gave a great justification of my PhD research, (PhD is in English, but I’m a biologist by training), at a departmental seminar and my first comment, from the HoD was that no one had ever justified their research in the department before!

    Now, convincing businesspeople to fund research in the humanities, that's a trick. (Ones who aren't Bob Jones, anyhow.)

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 2105 posts Report Reply

  • Ian Dalziel,

    This is interesting...
    Power Ring found in the Milky Way...
    (looks more like a Möbius strip than an infinity symbol, to me...)

    ...and it ends with the understatement of the year

    "There's still so much about our galaxy to discover," he said.

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 7943 posts Report Reply

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