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Environment

Jul 11, 2017

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Last week, Chris Kenny and Andrew Bolt broke a story that Kenny said deserved to be on front pages everywhere. But the story didn’t make a front page anywhere. Because the story didn’t exist.

With knowing nods, winks and half smiles, Kenny told his exclusive band of viewers of his “Heads Up” segment on Sky News to prepare for something momentous. This was, he told us breathlessly, a “very, very dramatic story” about “serious science”.

“There’s been quite a dramatic paper released by some of the world’s leading climate scientists,” Kenny went on, pausing for effect.

Kenny was referring to a new paper published in Nature Geoscience journal — “Causes of differences in model and satellite tropospheric warming rates” — by several eminent climate scholars, including lead author Benjamin Santer, as well as the extensively awarded Michael E. Mann.

The Nature Geoscience paper is about the difference between observed and modeled temperature rises, analysing “global-mean tropospheric temperatures from satellites and climate model simulations to examine whether warming rate differences over the satellite era can be explained by internal climate variability alone”.

But Kenny knew better, cleverly revealing the real story: “a global warming pause”.

Wrong. There is no global warming pause, as has been widely and repeatedly made clear, for example, here, here and here. Even worse, the paper he referred to said nothing of the sort.

About five seconds into Kenny’s TV, ahem, “report”, he decided to stop being even slightly accurate. “What they’re saying here is that the warming they have on their graphs, on their modelling, is much higher than the warming that has actually occurred.”   

The paper didn’t say this either.

Kenny then went on to quote repeatedly and triumphantly from the paper’s abstract, not the paper itself. Which is a bit weird. It’s like quoting from the back cover of a book, not the book itself. (The abstract of academic papers is typically publicly available, whereas the papers themselves are usually restricted to researchers or universities.) For such a huge, serious science story, wouldn’t you cite the actual paper? Unless, of course, you don’t have access to the paper. And if you don’t have access, have you actually read the thing?

Kenny quoted the last line of the paper’s abstract:

“We conclude that model overestimation of tropospheric warming in the early twenty-first century is partly due to systematic deficiencies in some of the post-2000 external forcings used in the model simulations.”

This, he said, meant that scientists were overstating temperatures. Hence the momentousness of his”story”. Problem is, the paper didn’t say this at all.

If he’d read the last line of the paper itself — and it’s questionable as to whether he read the paper at all — he would have read this:  

“Although scientific discussion about the causes of short-term differences between modelled and observed warming rates is likely to continue, this discussion does not cast doubt on the reality of long-term anthropogenic warming.”

Kenny didn’t report this, though. If he had, he wouldn’t have much of a story. However, he did claim that the paper showed that climate scientists’ models were wrong, that temperatures were overstated and therefore climate change wasn’t such a problem.

Kenny is the earthly representative of his spiritual mentor, Andrew Bolt, who misreported the same story, but went one further, saying that the paper’s lead author, “leading alarmist Ben Santer, now admits the world isn’t warming as predicted by global warming models”.

Not only is Bolt’s report as untrue as Kenny’s — if not more so — but Santer has been at pains to make clear the opposite is the case. For example, he published a fact sheet to accompany the paper Kenny and Bolt reported on. Wait a moment, I here you say, there was a fact sheet? Indeed. As Santer explained to me:

“The aim of the fact sheet was to reduce the likelihood of misinterpretation of key findings of our paper. But no matter how carefully or cautiously a paper is written, it is impossible to guard against wilful misrepresentation of results. Sadly, such wilful misrepresentation is now an expected outcome after each paper I publish.”

Funnily enough, the fact sheet completely contradicts what Kenny and Bolt reported. For example, it says this:

Do the problems in representing these external cooling influences point to systematic errors in how sensitive the models are to human-caused greenhouse gas (GHG) increases?

Answer: No, not at all. We are talking about known, well-studied problems with some of the external, climate-influencing “forcing factors” that were used in the model simulations. These problems have nothing to do with the issue of how sensitive models are to GHG increases.

The fact sheet also discusses cooling and, also rejects the notion that there’s been a pause that Kenny and Bolt reported, saying this:

In a recent paper in Scientific Reports, you find that satellite measurements do not show any signs of “leveling off” of tropospheric warming over the past two decades. Aren’t those findings at odds with the findings of the Nature Geoscience paper?

Answer: No. The findings of the two papers are entirely consistent. The Scientific Reports paper compares the satellite tropospheric temperature trend over the past 20 years with many samples of 20-year trends obtained from model simulations of natural internal climate variability. Even though the most recent 20-year warming trend is smaller than in earlier parts of the satellite record, it is still significantly larger than the range of 20-year trends caused by internal climate variability alone. From our Scientific Reports study, there is no evidence that satellite data show “levelling off” of tropospheric warming in the last two decades.

Despite a fact sheet accompanying the scientific paper they claim to be reporting on, Kenny, Bolt and a bunch of other climate sceptics have reported the exact opposite — Bolt in particular, who is syndicated internationally, especially on a host of foetid climate-denying blogs. His sloppiness — and perhaps dishonesty — in reporting this paper has already been widely disseminated.

This is but one example of what regularly happens if there’s a difference between complex climate models and reality, a difference regularly exploited to suggest climate change isn’t happening or is in doubt.

But take a step back for a moment and think about modelling anything: how you will brush your teeth compared to how you did brush your teeth; modelling economic outcomes versus actual economic outcomes; or modelling visitor numbers compared to actual visitor numbers. There will always be differences because models and reality aren’t the same thing. This is despite the fact that climate models are actually accurate (for example, see this, this and this).

Climate change should be in the headlines every day, and so should all the other problems that constitute the Anthropocene era we’re living in, but they rarely are. The only front page Kenny’s story should be seen on is that of a Press Council adjudication.

Australia

Mar 6, 2017

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A group of researchers publishes an article based on their taxpayer-supported research. The article is full of analysis, graphs, charts and statistical comparisons. But none of the underlying “raw” data is in the report or anywhere in the public domain.

An interested and informed researcher thinks something is odd in the observations or the analysis, or sees a way to possibly extract more results from the data. He emails the researchers and asks to see the data. The request is refused.

What next? Well, in Australia, it’s the end of the story. The national policy guideline only “recommends” data generated with public funds and used in a publication be given to anyone making a reasonable request. In Britain, Canada and the US, it is the “expectation” — and, in some cases, the obligation — that researchers meet the request.

Open access to already-used data has two benefits. First, it allows any reader to check the calculations made by researchers in a published article. Although scientific articles are reviewed by other knowledgeable scientists prior to publication, these peer reviewers almost never ask for the original data to see if the data support the reported calculations and relationships. They just take the calculations on faith.

This state of affairs might suit some researchers, as it works to hide errors. Other researchers in the field might sense something is wrong and just avoid giving too much credence to the result. But this leaves other researchers and the general public none the wiser. The publication on the CV continues to look as robust as any other.

Without open access to the data used in a publication there is, in effect, no way to verify the researchers’ claims, and they can use their unchecked and effectively uncheckable claims to advance their careers and seek additional public funding.

The second major benefit of open access to used data is that a reader may see a better way to do the analysis or see another interesting consequence of the data. A further insight may embarrass the original researchers, but the protection of a few egos hardly outweighs the benefits to society of another researcher squeezing additional value out of the data society paid for in the first place.

Occasionally, there may be a legitimate need to withhold the data used in an article. Perhaps a second article is planned or a patent is pending. But, if so, this could be stated in the article and an embargo period — say, no more than a year — specified. In reality, however, second articles are rarely based exclusively on the original data set (why not let it all hang out at first go?) and, when blended with new data, are protected from pre-emption by the rightly privileged new data.

There is now much talk about encouraging innovation in Australia. A policy of open access to already published data would increase the quality and productivity of Australian science and lead to the greater innovative use of that science.

*Allen Greer is a biologist who writes about nature and science. He became interested in the issue discussed here when he was refused a small data set from a published article based on research supported by private donations and two Australian Research Council grants worth a total of nearly $1 million.

Environment

Nov 18, 2016

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No, not a gay double date at a Chernobyl rave. In fact, the answer is two-fold: the first is a neon turtle and the second is a poison-spraying millipede. And the exciting thing is that these are some of the less weird animals recently discovered.

milipeed

Credit: Paul Marek, Virginia Tech

1. Illacme tobini — a millipede with 414 legs, 200 poison glands and four penises

With tiny hairs that secrete silk and 200 poison-spraying glands, illacme tobini is an ambidextrous creature. Four of its legs secretly double up as penises for extra reproductive ability.

2. Phyllodesmium acanthorhinum — the double-headed psychedelic sea slug

Talk about being in two minds, this double headed neon slug possesses both male and female sex organs.

Apart from looking like God created it on LSD, the slug also squirts toxic goo to fend off potential predators.

giantchicken

 Credit: Mark Klingler / Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

3. Anzu wyliei — the super-sized chicken

A three-metre, 250kg chicken-like dinosaur was recently discovered to have existed in North America. With feathered wings, a bony head crest and a beak, the Cretaceous-era creature resembles a super-sized chicken. We’re kind of glad it died off millions of years ago.

4. Dendrogramma enigmatica — mushrooms that are animals

So weird scientists can’t even figure out how to classify them, the body of these things has a stalk and a mouth. The mushrooms are a deep-sea mystery, which resemble some kind of jellyfish-mushroom hybrid and hang around off the coasts of Victoria and Tasmania.

5. Eretmochelys imbricate — a glow-in-the-dark turtle

The bioluminescent turtle joins a number of acid trip-like underwater creatures including a neon shark. The divers who discovered the turtle reported that it came over to them to “say hi” — attracted by their blue lights. “It was just hanging out with us,” one of them said.

wasp

Credit: Tony Wills

6. Deuteragenia ossarium — a wasp that uses ant corpses as weapons

The wasp collects dead ants and weaves them into a nest, which protects the wasp from outside predators. While dead ants are known to have an ominous odour — IFL Science online magazine describes the smell as blue cheese and pina coladas gone bad — these wasps don’t seem to have a problem with that. Oh, and it also eats spiders several times larger than its own body mass.

7. Lasiognathus dinema — an anglerfish that lives in darkness under crushing weight and has a fishing rod on its head

This recently discovered species of anglerfish, found off the gulf of Mexico, lives between 1000 and 1500 metres underwater. A fleshy stalk acting like “bait” protrudes from its head to attract prey, like a fishing rod would. What’s special about this species? Well, according to US oceanographer Dr Tracey Sutton, the finding confirms how vastly incomplete our knowledge of marine life actually is.

8. Proneotermes macondianus — a termite named after One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The German scientists who discovered the species used the Spanish-Columbian word “macondiano(a)” in naming it because the word refers to an event so incredible, rare or surprising that it could only happen in the fictional, supernatural universe of the novel.

The termite is not considered a pest and lives only in the wild, preferring tropical rainforests.

9. Leucothoe eltonithe Elton John shrimp

The shrimp is a tiny 7-8mm and is believed to have travelled  from the Philippines to Pearl Harbour in the US by a Navy vessel.

American oceanographer Dr James Thomas named the creature after the English singer-songwriter Elton John because Thomas enjoyed listening to his music in the lab.

“When this unusual crustacean with a greatly enlarged appendage appeared under my microscope after a day of collecting, an image of the shoes Elton John wore as the Pinball Wizard came to mind,” he said.

10. Litoria bellarainbow-coloured tree frog that growls

Why be green when you can be multi-coloured? Also known as the “graceful tree frog” this species has orange hands and bluish-purple thighs. Its low-pitched croak has been described as a growl, which doesn’t entirely fit the image of “graceful”, but we’ll let the scientists decide.

Media

Nov 15, 2016

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We were made fools of in our millions last night over the so-called “supermoon”.

People thronged to vantage points on beachside cliffs and sands to see the full moon rise at the very moment it was closest to the Earth in a coincidence not seen since 1948, and not to recur until 2034.

But that the exact moment didn’t occur until about 53 minutes past midnight in Sydney or Melbourne, or seven minutes to midnight in Queensland, and given the speed with which the moon moves in its orbit toward its fullest fullness, everyone saw a nice, typical, bright but non super full moon wherever the skies were clear, and were probably home in bed by the time the most over-hyped astronomical event of the century actually occurred.

Not that it would have looked any brighter. This is the second of three supermoons of 2016, the last being next month. Back when supermoons were called perigee full moons, no one had hysterics about them. Perigee full moons occur at or close to the moment when the moon also happens to be nearest to us, measured as the distance between the very centre of one heavenly body and the very centre of the other.

Perigee isn’t a sexy word. Super anything is. It became guaranteed sucker bait last night that had the virtue of getting much of the country out of the house and into a traffic jam at some otherwise romantic moonlit locations where lovers might find peace and privacy from the madding crowds, anytime but last night.

The whole piss-take quickly got out of hand. So much so that the ABC did an interview with Dr Brad Tucker of Australian National University, in which he talked with ill-concealed mischief about the supermoon being something like the “superist, dooperist super supermoon of all”, and it went right through to the keeper.

We’d like to consult the ABC transcript of that interview, but as part of the dumbing-down of the broadcaster, it no longer does transcripts. On this occasion, this may be just as well.

It has been instructive to watch the various “science commentators” appear in the media to discuss “supermoons” with alarmingly uninformed reporters or program anchors. Some like the good Dr Tucker heroically resisted the king tide of hyperbole that the supermoon pulled up, but maybe he was too subtle in his approach.

The closest gap between the very centre of the Earth and the very centre of the moon is 363,104 kilometres, and the widest possible gap for the elongated orbit the moon follows around the Earth is 405,696 kilometres.

These distances between us and the moon have to be reduced by the sum of the radius of each body, and those values come with significant variations. The closest you can be while standing on Earth to the surface of the moon would be on the summit of glacier-covered 6310-metre-high Mount Chimborazo during a lunar perigee because the Earth isn’t a perfect circular body but an oblate spheroid. This puts the lofty volcano in Ecuador further from the centre of the Earth, and thus closer to the vagaries of the lunar orbit, than Everest (almost 2000 metres higher) in Nepal, even though the Goddess Mother of the Snows of the Himalayas is Earth’s highest peak measured by its altitude above mean sea level.

“Supermoon”, a name invented by an astrologer in the ’70s and seized upon by the boys or girls in NASA PR, is even sillier than it first seems because the moon always passes through its closest distance to Earth at least 12 to 13 times each year. It’s an orbit thing.

Maybe the lunatics who latched onto the “supermoon” will realise that sometimes when the moon is closest to the Earth it can obscure the sun and cast its shadow across the lands in a total solar eclipse, thus providing us with the “scariest moon” of all, if the population is sufficiently ignorant to fall for a label the way it did last night. (Note that solar eclipses depend on other factors as well.)

We’ll see such a “scarymoon” cross the benighted United States next year in a total solar eclipse, and one will no doubt terrify the susceptible laity of Australia come one fateful day in July 2028 when the black moon swallows the sun right across a diagonal swathe of the continent, including much of Sydney, and part of the south island of New Zealand.

The new ignorance of the 21st century could be fun.

PS. The wilful ignorance in the ABC newsroom continues, with a statement this morning after the mass hysterics that the moon was the closest to Earth than at any time since 1948. The moon comes this close to the Earth during every orbit of the Earth. But it’s the first time in 68 years that it touched that point of its orbit when it was also “full”. How hard is basic factual journalism for the ABC?

*This article was originally published at Crikey blog Plane Talking

TV & Radio

Nov 3, 2016

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Only one thing is clear about what the ABC’s Catalyst program will look like in 2017: not much is likely to stay the same.

The program, which has been the subject of a review started earlier this year after several shows were found to breach editorial guidelines, will return in 2017 as an “internally commissioned program”, but the format will be dramatically changed. The ABC commissioned 34 half-hour episodes of Catalyst this year. In 2017 it will air 17 hour-long documentaries using “leading expert subject presenters, rather than a fixed ensemble of science reporters”. The program will rely much more on external commissioning, overseen by an internal production team. ABC director of television Richard Finlayson told ABC staff today that the changes were “not a cost-saving expertise”. “In fact, we plan to invest more in Catalyst than we have in the past,” he wrote.

Nine of Catalyst’s permanent staff are likely to have their roles significantly changed, if they stay with the ABC at all. Another eight staff will not have their contracts renewed, according to the Community and Public Sector Union. Crikey has been told the ABC is not seeking a set number of redundancies from the program’s existing staff base, but the public broadcaster seeks to offer redeployment to as many of the program’s current reporters as it can. Catalyst in 2017 will have an executive producer — something it hasn’t had in the past — and will be located with the science teams in radio and online. A “small production internal production team” will also deliver “short-form content around each issue” to be aired on the ABC’s various platforms. This team will consist of six roles, including the EP.

The new format has garnered a mixed reaction from Australia’s scientific community. Outspoken public health expert Professor Simon Chapman — in the past a strong critic of some of the program’s reports — described it as a “black, black day. “Try showing hour-long docs in classrooms,” he tweeted.

But others Crikey spoke to, mostly before the changes were announced, said the show was in need of a revamp.

Dr Bryan Fry, who is a venom expert from the University of Queensland, says by striving for ratings, Catalyst fell victim to a cheap, consumerist culture.

“It was once very high quality, but there’s definitely been a corporate cultural creep towards sensationalism and a pretty blatant attempt to grab ratings. It may as well be Today Tonight — the stuff that grabs the headline for all the wrong reasons,” he said.

“If you’re going for ratings you’re going for the McDonald’s level of television. It’s a sign of the times and a battle of a much larger cultural war. We need it to be saved, not killed. The worst possible outcome is for it to be axed completely. Reset it with a nice clean mission statement. The solution really is that simple.”

University of Melbourne astrophysicist and science communicator Dr Katie Mack, who watches the show and has twice been a guest, says cancelling the show would be a real tragedy. “There have certainly been some missteps in a couple of its episodes, but in general I think it’s been great, and having science on TV every week is a really good thing.

“I’ve worked with [Catalyst reporter] Graham Phillips on both the shows I featured on, and I think he’s a fantastic asset — it’ll be a shame if the ABC loses him,”

Dr Alice Gorman, a space archaeologist from Flinders University, says having science content on free-to-air TV is important. “If Catalyst is to go, where will people be driven to get their science content? And what provisions will there be for adults, given there so much aimed at children? It’s also important to cater to a curious adult market.

Catalyst had a broad interpretation of what counted as science. I think from that perspective, it was a really good framing of what science is and what it can be.”

Lecturer in science communication at the University of Melbourne and Triple R radio broadcaster Dr Jenny Martin says the Australian public is hungry for science content. “We know the Australian public wants access to more, not less science. And who else is going to tell stories about Australian science?

“Also, to the best of my knowledge, [Catalyst reporters] Dr Graham Phillips and Dr Jonica Newby do an excellent job of reporting science accurately. It seems this whole situation has come about because of one rogue reporter.”

The “rogue reporter” Martin is referring to is Dr Maryanne Demasi, who was recently found by an internal ABC review to have breached the ABC’s impartiality guidelines through an episode of Catalyst she presented, on the potential dangers of wi-fi. Demasi has been suspended since the finding. In an email to staff this morning, Finlayson said “recent editorial issues were considered as a part” of the recent review, but were not the “only reason” for the changes announced today.

abcatalystconsultation

The ABC’s internal report into Catalyst found staff had “low” morale and felt “unsupported by management”

The review the ABC commissioned into Catalyst was also released on Thursday. The review was conducted by the ABC’s head of non-scripted production Brendan Dahill and head of factual Steve Bibb, and aided by a number of internal and external advisers. It made a number of recommendations, most of which were adopted by the ABC. It said changes were needed to “respond to declining audiences” on the program. It recommended a shift to the hour-long “documentary” format the ABC has adopted, as well as the shift to a “more flexible production” model using outsourced talent.

That review included consultation with the Catalyst team, who said they felt they were under “enormous pressure” to deliver with “inadequate resources”. It also revealed the team felt “unsupported by management”, and that “team morale is low”.

Perhaps in a bid to counter the inevitable criticism of the changes, the review cited the feedback of many internal and external stakeholders giving in-principal support for the shake-up, with reference to many of its key components. Radio National’s Dr Norman Swan, of the Health Report, said Catalyst should be more fully integrated into ABC Science. Former ABC board member and emeritus professor Dr Fiona Stanley said Catalyst’s isolation from the rest of ABC science was “the biggest problem that needs to be addressed”. She also made the point that the program’s current “magazine” version — meaning several short ten minute stories in the same episode — was hard to sell to international broadcasters, who gravitate towards 60-minute documentaries. Jonathan Webb, the content director for Science and Health and Radio National, is quoted saying Catalyst shouldn’t be “looking to uncover scandals”:

“We have other shows that specialise in that and have the journalistic rigour. In a collaborative One ABC, then if we suspect a scandal then we should hand the story over to 4 Corners.

The review also quotes Professor Stephen Simpson, of the Charles Perkins Centre at Sydney University, describing the magazine format of the show as “tired”. “No subjects were given enough time to be covered well or in depth,” he is quoted as having said.

Companies

Mar 16, 2016

5 comments

It’s the industry at the heart of the government’s economic agenda, the sector feted by Malcolm Turnbull as exemplifying the agility, entrepreneurship and innovation he wants to see spread throughout the economy, an important source of Australian jobs and growth of the future.

It’s also an industry that has a huge problem with women. And it’s getting worse.

Australia’s technology industries, particularly information and communications technology (or ICT), have been growing rapidly in recent years. In the last five years employment in the ABS industry category “Computer System Design and Related Services” has expanded by 25% and now employs nearly 200,000 Australians; in the late 1990s it barely employed 80,000 people.

But nearly all of that growth in employment has been among men. Despite a rise last year, according to the ABS figures, women only make up just over one-quarter of those jobs. And the Australian Computer Society, which examined the challenge of diversity in ICT in a report last year, quotes an Access Economics study that found women make up 27.8% of the ICT workforce. This reflects the tech sector more broadly: ABS data for employees in the telecommunications services category show that women were 30% of that workforce at the end of 2015. Another 2015 study from Professionals Australia reported 28% female representation in all science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related professions. These numbers are about on par with US data, according to both media reports and US Department of Labor data.

Naturally these are just averages — different companies have different levels of representation. Last year Melbourne company Envato revealed that it had lifted the number of women in engineering roles from 7% in 2014 to 17.3%. About 25% of its overall management were women. Tech darling Atlassian — which has assiduously cultivated the media to project an image as the great Aussie tech success story — is even worse. The company recently admitted its entire workforce is just 25% female, and less than 15% of its technical teams are women. “Brolassian” was at the centre of a storm over a sexist presentation by one of its developers in 2014.

But despite industry rhetoric about “moving in the right direction”, the proportion of women in tech is getting worse, not better. The ABS data shows that, even with a rise in 2015, the proportion of female employees in computer design areas has fallen as the sector has expanded.

stem

And the problem isn’t going to improve anytime soon. On one of the critical factors determining how many women enter tech industries — the number of female STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) students — Australia is going backwards, and fast. Governments, tertiary institutions and many within the industry have for some time been worried about a noticeable decline in students opting to study STEM at school, but the decline has been much more noticeable among girls than boys. The number of girls not studying either maths or science in NSW, for example, has increased from 5.4% in 2001 to 14.6% in 2014, while the level for boys has only risen from 2.1% to 5.9%.

At the tertiary level, the problem is now at crisis point for IT-related degrees. While the number of women studying engineering in recent years has steadily increased, the number of Australian-born women studying IT-related degrees has collapsed: in 2013, the number of Australian female IT students was little more than a third of its 2001 level. A large proportion of female IT students in Australia are foreign students.

Both sides of politics have committed funding to programs to try to reverse the slide, and the Turnbull government’s innovation statement included funding for programs to increase the participation of girls and women in STEM studies. But even if successful, for the next few years, the tech sector will face a smaller pool of women with a STEM education. Already, people in the sector complain that they’re unable to get female applicants for jobs. “My business partner and I are in the process of recruitment, and through our personal networks we’ve been unable to find any female candidates for our technical roles,” Michael Lim, managing director of network services provider Anticlockwise, told Crikey. “The situation is alarming.” “We would love to hire more women in these roles,” another (female) manager said, “but women do not often come to us for jobs.” “In three years I’ve had one female applicant, who pulled out for something more customer-facing before hire,” another woman in the sector told us.

This isn’t just about female employees. The City of Sydney’s draft Tech Startups Action Plan points out that just 4% of Australian start-up founders are women. As one woman in the sector told Crikey: “There is a lament in the start-up community that there are not more female investors.” A Sydney female tech sector managing director recalls a US investor telling her “it’s going to get harder and harder for women to raise money, they’re just not aggressive enough and they don’t succeed often enough”.

What are the consequence of having so few women in tech? After all, some occupations — like nursing and childcare — are even more massively skewed the other way in terms of workforce. Some women say they have no interest in being identified as a “woman in tech” (and whatever stereotypes come with that label), they just want to do the work they enjoy in a welcoming environment. But there are three key reasons why the lack of women is a serious problem. Firstly, it’s a problem for the industry itself. With less diversity, companies are less productive and more likely to engage in groupthink, and earn less revenue. The industry’s workforce has little resemblance to the community that uses the products it designs, creating the potential for disconnection between industry and customer.

It’s also a problem for women, because the tech sector and particularly ICT is growing rapidly and presents a huge range of entrepreneurial opportunities and economic growth potential (increasingly facilitated by governments). That means less female participation will lead to greater economic inequality, in a way that, for example, the low level of female participation in traditional manufacturing isn’t a problem, given that industry’s decline.

Most of all, it’s a problem for democracy. The tech sector, from the mass surveillance complex it enables and the encryption tools it develops to help us evade it, to the big data assault on our privacy, from its capacity to disrupt more traditional areas of the economy to the emergence of powerful multinational companies that operate unimpeded by national borders, is supplanting the media as the economic sector with the greatest impact on the quality of our civic life. That this sector is controlled by a subsector of the population, white males, has profound ramifications for the rest of us and reflects the need to diversify the controllers of that sector to make it more reflective of the society it has such an impact on. As I argued several years ago, men in tech who are concerned about issues like surveillance can learn a lot from a group that has been subjected to intense scrutiny and social control from long before the internet: women.

But the sector’s problem with females isn’t only in the decline in girls and women studying STEM subjects. It’s not just a supply-side problem: as the Australian Computer Society report details (and reflecting the US experience), the tech sector suffers from a “leaky pipeline” problem — it loses female employees at much higher rates than it loses men as people move from study into employment and then make their way up the career ladder. Tomorrow, we’ll examine the specific factors that are driving women out of tech.

Federal

Oct 27, 2015

5 comments

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Chief Scientist Alan Finkel

Science is at the heart of the government’s agenda, according to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. If he’s serious about it, here are some Abbott government policies he can reverse to show his is a government of more than just nice words.

Turnbull presented this somewhat odd word salad at a press conference at Parliament House this morning:

“Science and in particular science as part of innovation is at the very heart of this government’s policy. If we are to remain a high-wage, generous social welfare net economy in the years to come, if we are to remain prosperous, seizing the enormous opportunities that are available to Australians, now more than ever, we need to be more innovative, more technologically sophisticated, more scientifically alert and aware and adept and we need to be able to combine science with industry in an innovative way that enables us to stay ahead of the curve, always ahead of the curve, technologically sophisticated, scientifically advanced, innovative, clever, [and] imaginative.”

Turnbull announced Dr Alan Finkel as the new chief scientist after Dr Ian Chubb’s five-year term comes to an end at the end of this year. Finkel is the outgoing chancellor of Monash University and president of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering. Finkel also founded the Australian science magazine Cosmos with his wife, Elizabeth. He left academia early in his career to pursue entrepreneurial work in founding Axon Instruments. Although reportedly the selection process for the chief scientist job had closed in July and was not re-opened when Turnbull became Prime Minister, Finkel’s roles in both university and in entrepreneurship both fit in with Turnbull’s new approach towards leading a government focused on innovation and science.

Finkel said at the press conference:

“I never anticipated a business career, but then I saw an opportunity to build on the skills that I’d developed there, combined with my electrical engineering to develop a new type of instrument for that research, and I took it over the fence and went commercial, starting a company. So for many, many years I worked developing instrumentation for scientists, and that was successful. Since then I have seen the importance of this translation from the pure to the applied across the fence into the commercial world as being key to success in other countries, and there are wonderful pockets of success in this country as well.”

Turnbull said Finkel would be brought on to help bridge the “Valley of Death” faced by companies between funding for technology and research and when a project becomes commercially viable.

But while Finkel’s contribution will no doubt be substantial, the hangover from the Abbott era means that for all the talk about making science the heart of government policy, there are several policies that will need to be changed in order for that to actually be more than just buzzwords.

Fund CSIRO and NICTA

In the 2014 horror budget, the government announced it would cut CSIRO’s funding by $111 million, leading to the axing of more than 500 jobs in the research organisation. The National ICT Australia (NICTA), the government agency most responsible for spinning off university research into commercialised entities, did not get an expected $42 million in funding in the same budget. NICTA was ultimately forced to merge with CSIRO to form a new entity, Data61, headed up by entrepreneur Adrian Turner. There is still no word on the fate of the 200 staff employed by the former entity known as NICTA.

Restore funding to the Co-operative Research Centres program

The program, which CSIRO participates in, had its funding cut by $26.8 million over four years in the most recent budget. Some of the promised $730 million has come through in subsequent announcements from the Science Minister, but so far the two programs funded for $74 million are for optimising resource extraction and innovative manufacturing.

Address science and research funding

In May’s budget, the government announced a “one-off redirection” of sustainable research excellence funding of $300 million over four years. The money is normally granted to universities to meet the indirect costs of research that cannot be met by existing competitive grants programs. The money is instead to go to the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, to “address issues raised” in the controversial National Commission of Audit. The NCRIS funding is welcomed, though, because the former government had threatened to withhold the funding unless the Senate passed its university deregulation legislation, but it has been referred to as “budget cannibalism“.

The Australian Academy of Science has said that there was a “reprieve” in science funding the 2015 budget from the 2014 budget, but there were still around $290 million in cuts to science overall, largely from the university grands, and the research centres funding.

Labor has also suggested there still exists $144 million in cuts to the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Geoscience Australia, and Defence Science and Technology.

It’s time to address climate change

There is also the delicate matter of climate science. While Turnbull, in the past, has backed strong action on climate change, as part of his ascendancy to the top job he has adopted Abbott’s “Direct Action” policy and low emissions targets. The former head of the Climate Change Authority, Bernie Fraser, who resigned in September just before the leadership change, has co-signed a letter with 60 other public figures asking for there to be a negotiation for a global moratorium on new coal mines at the United Nations climate talks at the end of November.

Finkel said today that his vision for Australia was for a country that didn’t use coal, oil or natural gas. Finkel himself has 100% green energy in his home, from wind power and solar energy. Turnbull isn’t as optimistic, saying, as he does with the NBN, that it will be a “mixture of technologies” supplying energy and coal is needed to raise Third World countries out of poverty. He said that a moratorium “would not make the blindest bit of difference” to global emissions, and arguably would increase emissions if Australia stopped exporting coal because Australian coal was “cleaner”.

Turnbull said that people should be “rational” with their approach to what energy sources Australians use. Coal is cheaper but has higher emissions, nuclear has low emissions but is expensive to construct and has environmental problems with it.

“The appropriate — the way to deal with this is to be thoroughly rational about it and to say the object is to make sure we have access to all of the energy we need at the cheapest possible price because energy is a major input. So we have to be cost effective. And be able to use whatever energy mix is appropriate.”

But stuck with existing policy on climate change, for now, Turnbull is still all talk and no action about making science the heart of the government’s agenda.

crikey15

Mar 26, 2015

5 comments

In shocking news recently and less recently and, really, since there was scholarly response about the nutty matter to hand, the Paleo Diet might not be evolutionary perfection on a plate. The meat-rich eating plan might increase, and not decrease, as is claimed by its profiteering advocates, the risk of colorectal cancers, and despite cheerleading by its slender celebrity squad, it’s about as sustainable an energy source as coal. You don’t endorse a commercially popular “movement” that relies on the mass-farming of beasts and get to claim you’re getting back to nature. It doesn’t matter how artisanal or grass-fed your steak is, it remains, rare or well done, a product with an immense carbon hoof-print.

But let’s set aside the irritating matter of the planet and ignore the claims of pseudo-sustainability for meat made by the I Quit Sugar cult and others. Popular diets, however compassionately they choose to market themselves, are rarely designed to save the world and appeal almost exclusively to an idea of individual “wellness” — the new and acceptable term for thin. But we’ll make-believe for the sake of argument that this caveman bunkum — and all promotional urging to nature from Belle Gibson to Atkins — is commercially responsible and that increasing the demand for artisanal meat can only end well. Let’s agree with the proposition that 7 billion stomachs, nearly all of them on a direct IV to the free market, can be sustainably filled by kilos of meat every week produced by small and responsible farmers, who enrich the land and do not brutally slaughter their stock but simply bore them to death by reading them passages of Sarah Wilson’s swill.

Continue reading “Paleo is a stupid cult, and it is killing people”

Politics

Feb 13, 2015

5 comments

Somewhere in the stacks of university libraries — if libraries still have stacks, if universities still have libraries — there must be volumes upon volumes of the old post-structuralist critiques of sciences from the late ’80s and ’90s. Wasn’t that a time! Rolling its way through literature, philosophy, etc, post-structuralism — the argument that there is no neatly definable relationship between text and world, and that no text has a stable meaning — had finally got to the discipline that gave us reliable methods for acting upon the world.

When it got there, it met a weird anarchic strand of philosophy of science pioneered by a student of Karl Popper’s named Paul Feyerabend, who suggested that any one research program was as good as another. There were useful aspects to both approaches, in examining how science was constructed, distorted, badly done, etc. But in that “social constructionist” era they went too far, denying any notion that science was discovering usable laws of an external world.

The Feyerabendian stuff faded pretty quickly, the post-structuralist stuff hung round for a while longer, part of an era when highly educated people were willing to adopt a plethora of alternative therapies and New Age ideas, absent of all evidence. That came to a pretty sudden halt when the crisis of the global environment became highly visible in the late 1980s, the “greenhouse effect” became global warming, and understanding the real external laws of the biosphere became pretty damn important.

Science, once again, became the thing that the Left did, and irrationalism returned to its traditional home on the Right, where it has now become so powerful that it can consume whole governments that would otherwise be able to pretty much write their own ticket. Post-structuralist science critique became a bit of an embarrassment, and there are some vociferous advocates of “the science” around who are hoping no one checks their early writings in student newspapers. (As a (post)-Marxist I never drank the Kool-Aid, my cup being full, as a Marxist-(post), of the bitter dregs of the century).

Now, indeed, a direct and somewhat unreflective attitude to science and power has become the hallmark of large sections of both the “cultural” and “materialist” Left. A type of ebullient rationalism, redolent of the 19th century, has taken over. It’s part of a more general trend that takes in the new atheism, same-sex marriage, as things that are “obviously” correct. It is far less patient with the notion of the high multiculturalist period of the late 20th century, that cultural difference is a complex thing to be negotiated, and far more willing to say that non-Western “communities” within Western societies are simply patriarchal, etc. That’s hardly surprising. Quite aside from the movement of thought, such a renewed belief in thinking that makes things happen is the obvious position of a new and rising class of knowledge producers who have rapidly acquired substantial power and cultural dominance. Yet, in the enforcement of this, a simplistic position is being advanced.

Take vaccination, the anti-vaxx movement and the anti-anti-vaxx movement, for example. No, this is not about to be a plea for considering the truth claims of the anti-vaxx movement. There was a time to genuinely consider the possibility that the MMR “triple jab” had a role in autism onset, and other conditions. That time was more than a decade ago, the question was considered and investigated — and should have been dismissed. Disastrously, however, the Lancet published a piece by a doctor, Andrew Wakefield, suggesting a connection, with some evidence to back it up. The evidence was later shown to have been falsified and misconstructed, but the balm could not be squeezed back into the tube. Hundreds of thousands of children got the triple jab at an age that was a few weeks or months before the median point of autistic symptoms becoming visible. For some parents, succession became causality.

For a few years, that sort of anti-vaxx movement was confined to the UK. But there was a parallel movement — or two movements — in the United States. One emerged from New Age culture and notions of inherent bodily wholeness and self-correctivity. The other emerged on the Christian Right, as a suspicion of mass medical programs, and the abrogation of parenthood by the state. When the UK anti-vaxx movement leapt the Atlantic, the US anti-vaxx movement became supercharged with a “strong hypothesis” (albeit a discredited one). The New Age political subcultures — pretty much cultural leftist, and the conservative Right — became a host body transformed by a friendly parasite. It’s this powerful combination that has allowed the anti-vaxx movement to spread, in utterly different populations, to the point where it has become a clear threat to public health and a cause of the return of measles and other diseases.

“Vaccination has become a vehicle for the expression of a set of social taboos around purity and danger.”

In response to that, there has been a full-court press to refute the anti-vaxx message and movement, as there should be. Yet that pushback is less effective than it could be, partly because of the simplicity of that “rationalist” attitude to the question. For many pushing that, wariness about vaccination is nothing other than ignorance, an absence of knowledge. Yet the resistance is coming from people, not because they are unaware of what vaccination does, but because they are working off a different framework of ideas about risk, knowledge and the world. For every reason, it’s worth trying to work out what is really going on.

One might begin by stepping back from the process of vaccination to mark what a serious act it is. This is the injection of a series of chemicals into a healthy small child, by the agent of the state, applied to a population who have no more than a vestigial understanding of how they actually work. To know and understand why they are good demands a vast amount of abstract knowledge, a whole framework applied to everyday life, and accepted without question. Yet to do so uncritically is to be as irrational as those who believe that measles are from Jesus. The history of medicine is a history of treatments applied without benefit and with positive harm — forced unannounced sterilisations, black people dosed with syphilis as part of grotesque society-wide experiments, poorly tested medications rushed to market, multiple-needle use in a vaccination program that has made things immeasurably worse in Africa and elsewhere. In the US, that scepticism has been worsened by the way in which the market and Big Pharma have corrupted the drug approvals process, so that the TV is now full of ads by lawyers for class actions by victims of drugs whose munificent effects were being advertised two years earlier.

Vaccination is thus an act of violence with a mystery process at its core. As such a critical attitude to how it is being managed seems wise. The anti-vaxx movement has gone beyond that, however. Vaccination has become a vehicle for the expression of a set of social taboos around purity and danger. As the anthropologist Mary Douglas observed in her book titled, er, Purity and Danger, every culture imposes arbitrary regimes of what is safe and what must be excluded, as part of a wider process of making a meaningful world. Anti-vaxx culture connects neatly with the given American settings in that area — a Puritan ideal of striving towards individual wholeness and goodness, bodied forth in hygiene rituals (such as the American obsession with mouth management, the regime of brushing, flossing, rinsing, gum-painting, etc, etc, ceaselessly elaborated), of which vaccination resistance becomes an aspect. Hence the agreement of New Agey-groups in New York and California, with Christian communities in the South — they are simply the Left and Right wings of the one, deeply embedded Puritan cultural-political movement, now in its fifth century.

No amount of evidentiary science quoted will shift the core of such movements, because they are rejecting the idea that the scientific framework should be the form of knowledge that has primacy. The anti-vaxx movement contains a kernel of healthy scepticism about uncritically signing up to imposed knowledge systems, and rejecting a more concrete sense of risk, and a critical attitude to power. But it swathes that in a — what’s the bit around the kernel? Oh, the nut — nut of mysticism. I can’t say I have any answers as to how that insight should change the campaign against anti-vaxx, but it’s pretty certain that simply insisting on the science will only detach a few people, and will harden the attitudes of a whole lot more, many of them with substantial media power. That actresses and actors tend to be at the heart of many of these campaigns is not by chance: their social power is charismatic and irrational, and they are feeling squeezed sideways, as a sub-class, by the rise of “tech” as a dominant heroic element of the culture. You might find a few tech people among the anti-vaxx movement, but not many. By and large, anti-vaxx has become a rallying point for a powerful form of pseudo-knowledge, and the social group that wielded it, that had power before science returned in force.

That caution about how one tries to reduce and minimise the power of the anti-vaxx movement should apply double-plus to the idea of mandatory vaccination. We might well conclude that that is necessary at some point, but that’s not a decision made lightly — and it certainly shouldn’t be “obvious” to anyone, progressive, liberal or conservative, that the uncontroversial best thing is to override parental wishes around the injection of children. If it is going to be a non-consensual use of force against a minority as a necessary part of universal public health, it should be regarded as that — not as the application of plain “common sense” against which all dissent is irrational. There is a ghost of a totalitarian attitude in such a position. Such moves need to be understood at all times as political acts.

Nor should we reject continued investigation of the complex effects on vaccines, just as we should still have research that explores alternatives to the anthropogenic global warming climate change hypothesis, and current best forecasts. But that openness to the possibility of new findings from dissident research programs is the exact opposite of treating public debate around such issues as a “for and against” debate, as if it were equivalent to the question of whether there should be a new roundabout put at the end of Tobruk Road.

Science is not a set of increasingly more accurate opinions about the world. It is an increasingly effective set of practices on the world, which yields a picture of the world. We’ve been using electricity for nearly 200 years, but our picture of what it “is” has changed several times. Thus it is crucial in public debate that scientific questions be handled distinctively by journalists, editors and producers. Defaulting to the sceptic position of having a pro- and anti- person on a program, in an article, etc, regarding evolution, climate change, vaccination, etc, etc, is a cop-out to a pre-scientific position — David Hume’s scepticism, an approach that makes useful science impossible. We need to make this recognition of science as a truth-yielding practice a concrete part of journalist training, the ABC charter, media codes of conduct and the like.

That would also hedge against illiberal acts, such as the attempt to have the Australian government refuse entry to the wacko anti-vaxxer Sherri Tenpenny, a mini-movement that showed how comfortable people from once-dissident groups are becoming with using state power to control discourse. Particularly ironic that many vocal same-sex marriage advocates adopted the argument — since it was state power that was used for decades to enforce the idea that homosexuality was an illness. If editors, etc, have an understanding that there is no need to feature Tenpenny simply because she is here and has a point of view, let her come in and speak to whoever she likes. Even the more political practice of trying to get such people’s venue bookings canceled — reasonable enough for abhorrent speakers such as Nazis, etc — is  thuggish, illiberal and counterproductive.

We may well defuse the anti-vaxx movement over the next five years and reduce it to a micro level. But whatever its specific features, its general process arises from deeper cultural strains and the impossibility — and undesirability — of having a fully rationalised culture. There will be a movement after this that will be, comparatively speaking, wackness on stilts. The more that scientific processes become abstracted, rationalised and imposed on the entire culture, the more such anti-systemic movements will flourish. Better to understand now how that happens in order to deal with the ones that are to come — and to use that critical thinking to address the equally dangerous illusion of a simple and self-revealing rationalism. Today’s common sense is tomorrow’s dead trees, yellowing in the stacks.

Politics

Nov 20, 2014

5 comments

Dietary peccadilloes have been a fact of the middle-class brunch for some years now. To be honest, I myself have dabbled in the voluntary “intolerance” of gluten and been seduced by the easy scientism that holds that modern grains are lethal. While it is absolutely true that there are people to whom gluten is toxic, it is also true that I and many others just enjoy making a pseudo-scientific fuss in restaurants and that the real poison inheres in our belief in the power of nutritional “healing”.

Of course, any consumer trend that steers me away from cream cakes can only have a good personal and public health outcome, and on the face of it, there is no lasting harm in people saying in restaurants “I can’t have fruit! It’s a liver loader!”. They sound ridiculous, just as I did when I once fretted to a waiter that quinoa might be “questionable” as a true gluten-free grain. The worst that can come of this next-level wankery is that staff spit, as they should, in our food.

But all this expensive posturing and all these Pete Evans-led diets are not the worst symptom of the disease of nutrition. Nor is the growth of consumer interest in one’s self-diagnosed intolerance, although the popular Paleo diet doesn’t do much for sustainable agriculture. Things start to become a bit more of a worry when the Healing Power of Nutrition is advocated for by ostensibly respectable science journalists. This was done with a numb force on a Catalyst program last year that prompted health broadcaster Dr Norman Swan to warn that people may die from misunderstanding.

Half-baked quasi-science is funny in a restaurant or the feverish pages of Nexus. But it’s not so funny when ideas about “good fat” or “compulsory medicine” kill people. But, death-by-motivated-reasoning aside, there’s another place we can look for evidence of the harm of Healing Food. And it is in the writing and the broad cultural influence of Sarah Wilson.

Before being reborn, like activated almond Pete Evans, as a “health coach” thanks to a course at a New York business that thinks exploring “more than 100 dietary theories” is a good thing and not a recipe for unscientific chaos, Wilson was a women’s magazine editor. Under her reign, Cosmopolitan snagged the Guinness title for the world’s biggest bikini photo shoot, a record that remains unbroken.

Via her blog, then an e-book and a multi-platform lifestyle smash I Quit Sugar, Wilson popularised a diet based in part on the “findings” of a man she describes as her mate, David Gillespie, a lawyer with no formal qualification in dietary science but some expert critics.

Wilson’s urging for us to desist in eating sugar, which she describes as more addictive than drugs, might not be a bad thing. Her reported tolerance of anti-vax crackpottery might be the thin edge of her sugarless wedge, but the awful abuse of science is not what struck me in a recent post in her immensely popular blog.

Could female self-hatred be the real cause of autoimmune disease?” she asks, and the answer is yes. She goes on to describe the “grassland” of the feminine self that has been over-tilled by what we must presume to be masculine forces of sugary evil. Anyhow, the essence of this rot unleavened by the air of thought is that if you are sick, you have done it to yourself.

This idea of emotionally self-inflicted disease is so woeful and woefully popular that the best book countering it has already been written. Cancer patient and marvelous critic Barbara Ehrenreich tore positive thinking a new one with Smile or Die.

Ehrenreich attacks with great force the grasslands inhabited by Wilson and all My Little Pony advocates for wellness from a medical science standpoint: she challenges the nonsense of happiness from its rainbow foundation and reminds the idiots who tell her to smile to improve her immune system that improvement to an immune system is the last thing any cancer patient wants. It’s a great and fascinating book. But what has become just as interesting to me of late is the political force of thinking such as Wilson’s.

Even if we reject the creationist-lite ideas of Paleo etc, we can all probably agree that eating has an impact on our health. But the notion that bad moods can cause, say, multiple sclerosis, which is largely held by neuroscience to be genetic given its historic occurrence in very particular ethnic groups, is almost fascistic. Like racial science, it holds that low moral character produces poor health.

Prescriptions for commitment to “well-being” are, if not actually fascist, then certainly neoliberal. There’s an easy and observable alliance between right-wing activists and the Health Freedom Movement, which suspects science of liberal apologism and promotes “choice” above anything including expert advice. The consumer-focused model of health, as advanced by Wilson, dovetails nicely with an industry that sees supply per demand as more important than supply per need.

When I am ill, I do not know what I need. That Wilson is encouraging me to look to my internal “grassland” is a hateful trend.  And not just because this is mumbo jumbo with a patina of “scientific” credibility but because it is neoliberalism with the fragrance of quinoa.