Daryl Ilbury

Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

How to turn science into a bestseller

In Free-thinking, media, Science on August 31, 2017 at 10:22 am

IMG_2731One of the problems with writing about science is that few people care; it’s something all science writers have to contend with.

It’s still puzzling though, and more than a little frustrating. If I was writing about something that doesn’t really affect anyone, it would make sense; but science affects everyone.

In fact there is no part of anyone’s life that isn’t examined by science. But that doesn’t seem to make any difference; people would prefer to live in a land of make-believe where events are defined by spirits and fictional characters given life by centuries of wild storytelling. There’s another word for that fairytale place: ignorance.

Science, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, is a candle to the darkness of ignorance; but ignorance is also a state of bliss for those uncomfortable with the thought of delving into the unknown. The job of a science writer is therefore to hold their hand and show them the wonder in the unknown; and the best way to do that is to hook it onto the known.

This is why after the publishing of my first book with Penguin Randomhouse – A Fox’s Tale – and I was asked by my publisher what was next, I immediately suggested a book about a controversial scientist with a high public profile: Professor Tim Noakes. They loved the idea, obviously: controversy sells. But for me it was an opportunity to write about science, specifically the context within which the controversy around Professor Noakes has played out: how media consumers make sense of science in a highly disrupted media landscape.

My strategy was simple but difficult: get a book about science onto the Current Affairs section of leading bookstores in South Africa. According to my research, this has never happened.

When the book was released, what I hoped would happen happened – there was a flurry of media attention, and a series of interviews with various radio and TV stations where I used the opportunity to talk about the main issue of the book. I had also prepared a series of excerpts from the book my experience told me would resonate with the media. That made my publicist happy and helped get the book enviable cover in the press and online media. Here’s an example from the Saturday Star, and here’s one in the Sunday Times where they asked me to write more about my shrewd idea to get people to read about science.

The result: passing by a leading retailer the other day, I noticed Tim Noakes: The Quiet Maverick sitting on the bestsellers shelves, in the company of two authors I admire – Richard Dawkins and Thomas L. Friedman.

And that’s cool.

 

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Science and prejudice

In Free-thinking, Science on August 28, 2017 at 10:45 am

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I’ve been asked by a number of people about the suspicion towards science taking root in Donald Trump’s America, especially around vaccination and climate change. As an explanation, here is an excerpt from my latest book Tim Noakes: The Quiet Maverick, from the chapter titled ‘Newton, we have a problem’:

“We are not born distrustful of science, we are taught it. Like racism, homophobia or any other prejudice, it is the outcome of the opinions – or ignorance – of parents, teachers and communities, and the complicity of religion in this regard cannot be overemphasised. The shaping of attitudes towards science is not limited to the community-level preaching in churches, temples and mosques, or the propaganda taught in the schools they control, it’s in their continued influence at state level.

This can be overt, as in the control of Iran’s Islamic theologians over the election of their Supreme Leader, the deceptively quaint symbiosis between the British monarchy and the Anglican Church, or the more dissembling claims of separation of church and state in the US while the command ‘In God we trust’ still holds court in their legislative chambers and courtrooms. Or it can be covert – on a subtler level, acquiescence to the dictates of religions lies in the national celebration of religious holidays and the invocation of deities in national anthems, South Africa’s Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika being a case in point.

Yet, science is the only way of accurately understanding our natural world, anything else is make-believe. The unequivocal proof thereof is in the replicable application of science: technology. So much of what we take for granted as part of our modern world has been realised only by using science to understand – and thoroughly test – the underlying hypotheses. Bolts of lightning, formerly considered portents of doom or the designs of sorcerers, can be recreated in a laboratory. Heavier-than-air craft take to the skies daily because of our clear understanding of pressure differentials produced by the shape of a bird’s wing, not because those aboard all pray to the powers of an omnipotent being.

Despite Christian Scientists believing that a child’s fever, headaches and stiffness of the neck emanate from that child’s impure thoughts, modern medicine’s understanding of germ theory, and the technology it has produced, means we can do a simple test for meningitis, and if that is proved the case, treat the child with antibiotics. Of course the parents would probably disagree, refuse medication in accordance with their beliefs, and let the child die in excruciating pain while they stand beside his or her bed, their heads bowed in deference to the imaginary.

In his book The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan explains this with typical eloquence: ‘Microbiology and meteorology now explain what only a few centuries ago was considered sufficient cause to burn women to death.’”

Another sad day for science journalism

In Eish!, Fools, media, Science, Uncategorized on March 30, 2016 at 11:47 am
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Where the nasty little fekkers like to play

I was recently faced with two events that animated the science journalist in me, opportunities to write compelling stories for the South African media consumer; but instead I chose to walk away. Actually I used another phrase; but more about that later.

The first was when I recently caught an Uber to the airport. I always make a point of chatting with the driver, and on this occasion he was a final year software development student. Interestingly, he had just won a competition to secure an internship with Google at their Googleplex HQ in Mountain View, California. He had designed a piece of software for the iOS platform that could help identify when people using a certain dating site were lying (“I’m an astronaut, nearly 2m tall and built like a Greek god”). My head almost exploded as the story started to scribble away amongst my synapses. In the 15 minutes it took to get to the airport I pommeled him with a barrage of questions.

He was generous with his answers and seemed genuinely excited that a journalist was interested in his story. Importantly for me, he was humble about his achievements. I started making a mental note of people to contact to verify and develop the story, how the narrative could be framed, what emotive triggers I could use to help the reader connect with it, etc. All I had to do was get his number and start with a proper interview over a cup of coffee. But I didn’t ask him for his number; instead I thought, “Nah, fuck it”.

The second was more recent. After my family (including our two dogs) were rendered ‘man-down’ with a rather virulent bout of gastric nastiness I suspected something was amiss, and interrogated a local pharmacist. If this was a bigger issue, there would be a run (‘scuse the pun) on diarrhoea and antispasmodic medication. She confirmed that suspicions were about that a pathogen – possibly an algal toxin – had found its way through Cape Town’s water-supply filtration mechanisms, and was running amok within the gastric passageways of the city’s citizens.

My mind started running like a fishing rod reel feverishly releasing line to a hooked marlin (I do so love my analogies). This was a big story. The implications, if the suspicions were true, were vast. Thousands of people – especially the elderly and very young – were at serious risk: diarrhoea can be a killer. I knew I’d have to contact the local health authorities, speak to a couple of specialists I had in my contacts list, and…then I thought, “Nah, fuck it”.

The unfortunate truth is that I have lost the promethean spark of science journalism that used to burn in my brain. The gradual evisceration of science coverage in the South African printed media*, which I have touched on previously, and which reached a nadir in September last year, has effectively extinguished any interest I have for contributing to the intellectual evolution of the South African media consumer. It seems the lifestyle choices of mindless celebrities and the self-serving machinations of political half-wits are their preferred fodder.

I know this is part of a bigger picture – the evisceration of highly skilled and experienced journalists from mainstream media; but where pseudoscience and misrepresentation of science is spreading like a virus through social media, there’s an urgent need for qualified science journalists to calm things down and provide evidential insight. I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

So, if such stories as the two I have mentioned here pop onto my radar in the near future, begging to be written and shared, unless there’s a sign mainstream media have changed their minds about science, I know what I’ll say to myself.

[*Before I left my position as Media Coordinator for SAASTA, I facilitated a meeting with Combined Artists (the producers of Carte Blanche), which is one of the reasons for the increased coverage of science on the programme. Most credit must go to them for grabbing the ball and running with it.]

The newsroom as an ER

In Eish!, media, Science on March 8, 2016 at 11:50 am
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“Give it to me straight doc, where’s my final edit?”

To understand why the evisceration of newsrooms is dangerous for public health, it helps to think of a newsroom as a hospital’s ER.

Like an ER, a newsroom is staffed by specialists, it never sleeps, and its main function is the provision of critical, specialised services to the community it serves. This is as true for a small town newspaper as it is for a global brand such as The Financial Times. A newsroom’s role is to quickly analyse what comes in – information – assess its condition and then process it; in effect provide the information version of triage. Occasionally a dedicated team works together on a story that requires deeper investigation, because it is considered significant. This is the hospital equivalent of being bumped up to intensive care.

You may smile, but the analogy of an ER is realistic for two reasons:

  1. A newsroom performs a watchdog function; i.e. it protects the interests of the community it serves by investigating and exposing ill-practices by government and organisations that could harm the community; and,
  2. The people who do this are specially qualified, disciplined and experienced.

It’s the last point that’s so important, because without it the first point is moot. Without properly qualified, disciplined and experienced journalists in newsrooms, the result is the same as equipping an ER with people who only know how to apply plasters to paper cuts.

And yet that’s where we are. Social media – the so-called democratised media – has flooded the media space with people who are not qualified, disciplined or experienced enough to do the job of trained journalists. People with cellphones are opting themselves into an unaccountable corps of so-called ‘citizen journalists’. It’s like calling a chef a surgeon because she can hold a knife.

Creating and disseminating content may empower the former media consumer, but, power without responsibility and accountability invites either chaos or control, neither of which is in the best interests of communities. Journalists are schooled in the discipline of responsibility, around issues such as libel, the difference between reportage and opinion, and the inviolate status of sources.

As newsrooms bleed experienced journalists, they expose the communities they serve to all manner of hazards, too many and too serious for a layperson with a cellphone and a box of plasters.

South Africa takes a further step back into darkness

In Eish!, Science, Scoundrels on September 17, 2015 at 12:02 pm

CandleWhat do the following have in common: cheese, butter, coffee and oral sex? If you’re a science journalist you’ll probably know. The answer: they’ve all been ‘linked’ to cancer. The word ‘link’ is contentious at best.

The list is by no means complete. It’s a long one and includes such gems as air fresheners, bras, hot dogs, talcum powder, and…well, Ross Pomeroy, the author the blog Real Clear Science, has attempted to track them all down.

I was reminded of this because of two recents events, coincidentally linked. The first was the Mail & Guardian’s decision to drop its science desk as part of a series of retrenchments in the face of a cashflow crisis. I learned about this – the day before it happened – when chatting with the title’s (now former) science editor, the award-winning journalist Sarah Wild. It couldn’t have come at a more absurd time – Sarah has just published a book that champions the work of South African scientists, expertly putting science into context for ordinary South Africans.

The second was a piece in the Daily Maverick by one of the few journalists still bothering with employing an investigative eye – Ivo Vegter.

Ivo’s point, and it’s an oft-ignored one, is that science doesn’t know everything (if it did it would stop), and that it’s not so much a repository for knowledge as a process for learning about our natural world. More importantly science acknowledges this (as opposed to religions that claim to know the absolute truth), and so it’s quite comfortable with making mistakes along the way – after all, as I’m sure your mother told you, ‘we learn by our mistakes’.

Now this wouldn’t be the problem if more people knew this when reading the paper or going online. Instead they’ll read a ‘science story’ and just believe it, because a) it’s in the news, and b), well, it’s science.

Editors know this, which is why they like ‘science stories’ that ‘link’ something everyone fears (cancer) with something that everyone consumes or does (coffee…sex…etc.). It’s also why science journalists – real science journalists, not inexperienced journalists given a science ‘beat’ – are sorely needed. They can expertly cut through the research clutter and correct the claims (the ‘links’) editors want to make. That’s how they get in the way of tabloid content dressed up as ‘science’, and why they’re often the first to go in any title’s shake-up.

But in South Africa there’s an added reason why science journalists are needed, but paradoxically not: We’re a nation that still believes in spirits, ‘throwing bones’ to diagnose maladies, and that a man who calls himself ‘Doctor’ can help you win the lottery while making your penis bigger. This would be quaint if it weren’t culturally protected under the title ‘traditional healing’. So any journalist that forces uncomfortable questions about the merits of cultural claims, is, in such a politically and culturally sensitive media environment, bound to get in the way.

The Mail & Guardian’s decision to drop the science desk – claiming the decision is a purely economic one – risks dragging the country deeper into ignorance; and that’s not only short-sighted, it’s wholly irresponsible.

Anti-vaxxers make science journalists rabid

In Eish!, Fools, Free-thinking, Science on August 4, 2015 at 8:47 am

Handicapped with polioThe science journalists I know are not prone to violence, but I wouldn’t trust many of them around an anti-vaxxer, especially when there’s a blunt instrument nearby.

Science journalists like myself  hope that when presented with sufficient evidence humans will tap into that sliver of common sense they should have running through them and develop a better understanding of the world around them. I know it’s a little naive, but it’s what keeps us digging into science and presenting it for human consumption.

However, what anti-vaxxers (people who oppose vaccination) teach us is that often otherwise intelligent people will reject clear, scientific evidence to embrace absolute nonsense. In retrospect the proof of such ridiculous behaviour is continually punching us in the face: the propensity for humans to desperately hang on to a religious belief despite the fact that such a belief competes with thousands of other religious beliefs for any claim to legitimacy; oh yes and that fact it is based on zero evidence.

So what makes anti-vaxxers the focus of so much journalistic ire? After all, are they not entitled to their beliefs, no matter how bizarre they may be? The answer is cradled – increasingly sickly – in their arms: their children. Immunisation is designed to give children the immune tools to fight off up to 14 diseases that would otherwise cripple or kill them; and a parent depriving them of that right is tantamount to child abuse.

According to NPR thanks to a reduction in parental willingness to immunise children, vaccine-preventable diseases are on the rise. Last year, for example, the U.S. witnessed three times as many measles cases as the previous year. It’s becoming increasingly clear that people propelling this resurgence in child-maiming diseases are not responding to common sense.

Research seems to support this. According to IFLScience, providing information that attempts to undermine misbeliefs about the supposed dangers of vaccination can actually backfire and strengthen negative attitudes. The solution it seems is to use more emotive cues including images of infants with the infections; hence the image above of a beautiful child handicapped by polio.

I live in a country with a shockingly low level of understanding of science, and so ignorance of science can – to a certain degree – be forgiven. However, if you live in the U.S. or U.K., where you should have a better understanding of science, not immunising your children is not unforgivable, it’s criminal.

My responsibility as a journalist is such that I am expected to present something of a balance. So here it is: http://howdovaccinescauseautism.com

Food can kill you!

In Eish!, Fools, Science, Scoundrels on April 14, 2015 at 4:49 pm

Derp of the DayI have followed with detached interest the rise and fall of Vani Hari (yes, as in Mata Hari), a.k.a Food Babe – ‘detached’ because to engage with her and her doting acolytes would send my blood pressure sky high, and ‘interest’ because what she’s doing worries me. For those who don’t know, Hari is an American self-appointed arbiter of food safety. Her qualifications for such are zero.

OK, that’s a little harsh; she does digest food. The point is she has no academic qualifications. She’s certainly not a dietician. [This is a good point to emphasise the difference between a dietician and nutritionist: essentially dieticians are registered and belong to a regulated body; nutritionists not necessarily so]. She calls herself an ‘activist’. Translated: she makes a lot of noise about something; and you know the saying about what makes the most noise…

The thing about lots of noise though is that attracts attention, and as traditional media battles social media for the minds of media consumers, lots of noise on social media tends to be picked up by a reluctant traditional media. And that makes food companies scared. Hari’s ’cause’ for activism is what’s in food, specifically food that is prepared or packaged for consumers. For her, unless it’s organic it probably contains poisons, and she presents as evidence the varied scientific-sounding additives and preservatives found in most prepared foods. One of her biggest nemeses is azodicarbonamide (sometimes referred to as ADA), a chemical substance approved for use as a whitening agent in cereal flour and as a dough conditioner in bread baking. She has made a noise about it also being used in the manufacture of yoga mats. True, but then the zinc found in spinach is used in the manufacture of car batteries (we’re made of chemicals, people!) She selects as a source the website of an organic food disciple, Max Goldberg, who in turn quotes a WHO report that “links ADA to respiratory issues, allergies and asthma”.

So let’s go there: The report says: “Evidence that azodicarbonamide can induce asthma in humans has been found from bronchial challenge studies with symptomatic individuals and from health evaluations of employees at workplaces where azodicarbonamide is manufactured or used”. Sounds scary. Loosely translated: people who show a sensitivity to it should avoid it, especially those who work with it.

But this is true for any chemical, including something found in almost all prepared food – a chemical so dangerous that symptoms of toxicity to it can include dizziness, changes in blood pressure, abnormal heartbeat, convulsions, coma and eventual death. It’s called sodium chloride – yes, common table salt.

At long last science is beginning to stand up to Vani’s narcissistic (she presents herself as evidence her activism works) scaremongering. Mainstream media is finally getting the message. But what has really made my day is to see scientists take her on via her media platform of choice: blogging – meet Science Babe.

The dangers of anti-science

In Eish!, Fools, Science on April 13, 2015 at 11:52 am

NGM2015_MAR_CV2-275x400When I turned 10 my estranged father (my parents were divorced when I was young) bought me a science text book – Science For Your Needs (yes, I still remember the title). 

I devoured each page, revelling in the images of explosive geysers, giant crabs and all manner of scientific artefacts. I didn’t understand a lot of it, but the fascination it inspired held true for many years thereafter. In fact, it was the seed of my current passion for science. 

I have to take this into account whenever I try to understand why so many people, it seems, are distrustful towards science. Are they really against science, or am I just overly enthusiastic towards it.

This wouldn’t matter if a resistance towards science was unproblematic, such as a resistance towards, say, football. But football doesn’t examine and affect every single element of our lives. Science does. So when people are against science I find it puzzling; when they employ anti-science rhetoric to negatively influence the lives of other people, I get angry. Here are some cases in point:

  1. The anti-GMO lobby who sit in their cosy homes, shrilling about rural African farmers who choose to embrace safe, tested GM seeds to bolster their harvest;
  2. The rapidly dwindling club of climate-change denialists who steadfastly refuse to accept the vast multidisciplinary research that shows climate change is a reality, because they believe to do so invites interventionist regulation by big government, which is anathema to their political beliefs;
  3. Anti-vaxxers who continually quote a discredited research paper as evidence of the dangers of vaccinating their children, in the process endangering not only their children’s lives, but those of others;
  4. Blind devotees of the myriad different religions who each claim sole verity, but reject scientific certainty, claiming because they are religious they have that right. They don’t, especially if it affects other people. If you reject a blood transfusion for your child and that child dies, you should be charged with homicide. If you condemn the use of contraceptives because you believe every sperm is sacred, you sentence the faithful poor to a life in poverty.

Special mention must go to those who cherry-pick from science to suit their needs but aggressively reject the same science when it nullifies their fundamental religious beliefs. Example: ‘Answers in Genesis’ (AiG) creationists who’ll rush their children to hospital for an emergency medical procedure, but brainwash those same children into believing that Adam and Eve shared paradise with dinosaurs. If you’ve got a bit of time, here’s the famous debate between Bill Nye and AiG’s Ken Ham. National Geographic carried a feature piece in its March 2015 edition called ‘The War on Science’. Here’s a brief snapshot. 

Science doesn’t know everything. If it did, as I’ve said before, it would stop. But science is defined by evidence, so if you’re going to challenge it, bring the evidence.

Will local radio survive social media and the smartphone?

In Eish!, Science on April 8, 2015 at 3:15 pm

John Maytham

567 Cape Talk’s John Maytham – holding the key to compelling radio

It hurts me to say this, but I no longer embrace something that was my life’s passion – local radio. The reason is two-fold: there has been a dramatic change in the media landscape, and local radio is failing to adapt.

Few industries have been affected by advances in technology more than the media. In my 25 years in radio I wrestled with analogue (vinyl, reel-to-reel and carts) and digital hardware (CDs, DAT and minidiscs) and the varied PC programming software now used on radio stations. I have turned and pushed sliders and clicked many a mouse. As a writer and journalist I have worked in print – newspapers and magazines – and later online. I have even combined media formats by integrating radio and online content. But the relationship with the consumer has always been the same – I created the content and then shared it with the consumer, with the occasional feedback from calls and SMSs.

But things are different now. Social media has empowered the consumer. They’re no longer passive; they produce content as well as consume it – they are content ‘prosumers’. Importantly, the hardware used is not in a radio studio, it is in their hands – it’s the smartphone. And if radio stations aren’t there, they risk being nowhere.

Let me give you a snapshot of how I ‘prosume’. See if you can spot where radio fits in:

  • I wake each morning and, over a quiet cup of coffee, check my Twitter feed on my iPhone for any breaking news. I tweet/retweet what I find compelling. I then click on the apps for BBC News, The Economist, Reuters, RT, News24, and EWN.  I don’t turn on the radio for news.
  • I check the weather forecast via my weather app. No radio for weather.
  • I then sit at my computer, with a second cup of coffee, and access Feedly for non-current news. Using Hootsuite I schedule messages across my Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn profiles. If I feel like listening to music while I do this, I access one of the hundreds of free online stations on iTunes, few of which carry any advertising. So I don’t turn on the radio for music.
  • However, I do enjoy talk radio. So when I feel like listening to really good talk radio in the morning I tap the UK Radio App on my iPhone and select LBCSteve Allen is wicked and the breakfast show host Nick Ferrari is one of the best in the business. I select the airplay settings on my iPhone and listen to them through my hi-fi speakers. Alternatively I use the UK Radio Player. So, no, I don’t turn on the radio.
  • In my car I have a 32GB USB with a selection from my iTunes library plugged in to my sound system, which is set to break into the music with radio traffic reports if broadcast. So….radio?…only briefly.
  • And when I am relaxing with an afternoon drink, looking for specialised on-air content I access the US Public Radio app on my iPhone and select any one of the many stations that carry specialised content – jazz, rock, blues, classical or folk music, or news and talk – with little or no ad breaks. I hook it up to the hi-fi and chill. Again, no turning on of any radio.

There are now so many options for immediate access to the diverse content I want, at no point during the day do I switch on my radio in hope that it will give me that content.

Well…there is one occasion. In the afternoons, if I am in my car. Then I listen to John Maytham on 567 Cape Talk. Why specifically then? Because John Maytham creates the one thing that can save local South African radio from its current mundane menu of music sweeps, insipid waffle (even our talk radio is too nice), and packed ad breaks: tension.

John is highly intelligent and uncompromising, even brutal at times; the result is radio rich in tension and intellectual rigour. When someone grabs you by the neck and tells you stuff, it’s hard not to pay attention.

So wake up, South African radio. There are apps without your name on them.

The malignancy of the wasted brain

In Eish!, Fools, Free-thinking, Science on March 5, 2015 at 3:03 pm

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I shed a silent tear when I heard of the death of Leonard Nimoy. He was no relation and I never knew him, but his passing was tragic for me. As Spock, my favourite character in Star Trek, and as an actor and poet, he displayed a wondrous capacity for balancing logic and creativity, and a remarkable empathy for his fellow man. He also unveiled the vagaries and limitations of human thinking.

If you’re looking for evidence of such vagaries, you only have to follow the rapid rise in Islamic fundamentalism; and before Christians and Muslims say “yeah, exactly”, let’s not forget that they’re just as guilty. The fact that religion hasn’t been pushed to the fringes of human frivolity to hide alongside astrology and the belief in fairies, is not only puzzling, from an evolutionary perspective it is downright worrying.

Let’s for a minute use just a smidgen of logic: religions are different belief systems that influence – or control – a lot of human thinking and behaviour. They all differ in their fundamental constructs. Each different belief system is furthermore riddled with internal competitive dissension, with each offshoot claiming to be the correct interpretation of its parent construct. This is not only highly illogical, it is obviously impossible; ergo they are all flawed.

Being religious therefore requires the continued suspension of disbelief. It means that contrary to all obvious reason that central tenets of a belief system are irrevocably flawed, people still adhere to them. From an evolutionary perspective, the inability of individuals within the human species to understand this and therefore reject such nonsense shows their inability to adapt. It is a weakness.

However, such illogical religiousness is so widespread it’s fair to say that this is not a failure of individuals, but of the human species as a whole; especially when you consider the remarkable capacity of the human brain – as displayed in extraordinary individuals such as scientists – to boldly pursue the depth and level of thinking made famous by Nimoy’s Spock. If it weren’t for religion, just think how advanced the human species would be.

Religion is indeed a malignancy of the wasted human brain.