tip off

An attack on arts, and science

A nose tickling correction:

The Power Index’s Matthew Knott writes: Re. “Neil Chenoweth: News Corp’s tireless tormentor” (Tuesday, item 16).

In Tuesday’s piece on Neil Chenoweth, I described the veteran Australian Financial Review journalist as having a “bushy moustache”. Chenoweth informs me that — although The Australian ran a photo of him earlier this week sporting an impressive mo — he has been clean shaven for several years.

Chenoweth says that, despite threats of legal action from News, he will continue to write about alleged piracy and hacking at former News Corp subsidiary NDS.

We are continuing to pursue a very strong story. News Corporation and NDS have not responded to any of the questions we have put to them, many times, over many months. At some point I hope they will.”

The Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards:

Stephen Luntz writes: Re. “Can-Do economy: $244k saved on arts awards in $4.6b deficit” (yesterday, item 3). Campbell Newman’s decision to shut down the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards isn’t just an attack on the arts. It is an attack on science as well.

The Queensland awards were unique in Australia in offering a prize for science writing. In other states, popular science books are eligible to enter the non-fiction awards, but seldom win. Until this year the only other major prizes for science writing were among the Eureka Prizes, but books and magazines are specifically excluded. The creation of the Bragg UNSW Press Prize for Science Writing may fill the gap to some extent, but it is unclear if the Bragg judges are looking for the same thing as those in Queensland once did.

Does it matter if there is no specific prize for science writing? As a science writer I’m naturally biased, but I think it does. Popular science writing fulfils an important role in society, beyond that of many other areas of non-fiction.

Science enrolments are plunging. Even if you think that Australia’s economy should depend almost entirely on mining for our exports, we are still going to need plenty of talented geologists to find the deposits, as well as engineers to work out how to access them. This may prove difficult with fewer and fewer students seeing a reason to study physics or mathematics. If your vision for our future is a little broader, the lack of interest in science amongst high school and university students should worry you all the more. Science writing has an important role in inspiring future scientists.

A democracy in a high-tech world confronted by environmental challenges also requires a population with some level of scientific literacy. It’s not just a matter of understanding the facts about climate change or broadband, some understanding of scientific processes would be a huge assistance in weighing up competing expert claims.

It’s also fair to say that a more scientifically aware population may be less prone to buying $80 bits of plastic advertised as “building core body strength” or consuming modern snake oil.

That’s in addition to the less tangible benefits of being exposed to the beauty of scientific theorems and the nature of the universe.

Good popular science writing can address all these directly, and may stimulate an enthusiasm for science that will lead to further inquiry.

It’s hardly surprising that a party that doesn’t believe in climate change, and contains many members who’d like to see creationism taught along in preference to evolution would be particularly happy to see a prize for science writing go.

I’ll admit to a personal stake in this. In 2008 my Cool Scientist column for Australasian Science was shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Science Writer Award. I lost out to Fred Watson’s Why is Uranus upside down? And other questions about the universe, but the endorsement of making the short list inspired me to revive attempts to find a publisher for a book. Without it Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists might not have been published.

I heard about the axing of the prizes while in Canberra to give two talks on scientific careers at the CSIRO Discovery Centre. The audiences confirmed my suspicions — one of the things holding back enrolments in science, and general scientific awareness, is a lack of understanding of what ordinary scientists do. People are aware that the representations of scientists in films and on TV are not very accurate, but they have little idea of what the truth really is.

Popular science writing is an important tool for addressing this, but one that, in Australia at least, will be largely without support.

Jackie French writes: Australia subsidises the car, mining and coal-fired power station industries, for dubious economic benefits. Before more arts money is slashed, I do hope the slashers do their sums. They may be surprised that:

  1. what percentage of jobs are in arts related fields; and
  2. what percentage export income is earned.

The fact that many in the arts have low incomes gives the false impression that the entire industry is marginal. Defence of the arts is usually based in the argument that they enrich our culture.

No argument there, but the enrichment of the economy is mostly ignored.

Purchasing property:

Stephen Condylios writes: Re. “Households paying mortgages faster doesn’t mean they’re feeling the pinch” (29 March, March 1).  The last two sentences of Glenn Dyer’s article yesterday read:

They have been making these claims for years, while home mortgage holders have been doing the opposite: paying off their loans rather than suffering and going into arrears. It seems many home mortgage holders are smarter than the alarmists think and are really investing more into their houses, rather than less.”

I believe the last sentence is factually incorrect.

Taking out a loan to buy property involves two transactions:

  1. going short in money, and;
  2. going long in property.

When someone holds these positions (as every mortgagee does), and they are “paying off their loans”, it means they are lessening their short position in money, but it certainly doesn’t mean they are increasing their long position in property (or “investing more into their houses”).

To increase their long position in property, it implies that they would be increasing their property holdings, which paying off their loan does not do (only by purchasing more property would they achieve this).

The Falklands:

Niall Clugston writes: Re. “Crikey Clarifier: why we’re all talking about the Falklands” (yesterday, item 11).  I don’t think the Crikey Clarifier clarifies anything.

The issue is very simple. For many people the British Empire was an empire on which the sun never rose. But for the people on the Falkland Islands (and Gibraltar etc), it is where they want to be. Claims by Argentina (and Spain, etc) based on historical and geographical grounds are trivial compared with the democratic self-determination of the local population.

We may all wish we were Argentineans. They don’t. Leave them alone.

Farmer’s famous sea ice charts:

Glen Fergus writes: Re. “Richard Farmer’s chunky bits” (yesterday, item 10). “Make of them what you will,” says Richard. Well, that’s obvious enough.  The Arctic sea ice shows a clear and rapid downtrend (even in winter), much bigger than the little annual wiggles. That’s what’s meant by statistically significant. The Antarctic sea ice shows no significant change, with any longer term trend hidden by large year-to-year variations.

The difference is mainly geography. The northern ice floats on a small ocean surrounded by large continents, while the southern sea ice floats on large oceans surrounding a small continent. That has two main effects. First, the southern ice is fully exposed to great ocean storms which can spread or compact it, randomly changing its area from month to month and year to year.  (The graph is of ice extent, not total tonnes of ice present.) Second, the huge southern oceans moderate the rate of Antarctic warming, making it slower than in the Arctic.  (A similar effect keeps Brisbane summer temperatures lower than Birdsville’s.)

None of that is remotely surprising. What is surprising is the very rapid decline in Arctic sea ice; much faster than climate models have predicted. For once Tamas Calderwood seems to be right; the modellers got it wrong.

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