Daryl Ilbury

Posts Tagged ‘media’

Why context is still King Kong

In Eish!, media on May 26, 2016 at 11:18 am

Kong_oldWhen I was a journalism student, I embraced the mantra ‘content is king, context is King Kong’. This is especially the case in science journalism. Today, as I watch the world of the media mercilessly upended, the essence of context seems even more important, but for a reason possibly lost on many people.

‘Content is king, context is King Kong’ has several meanings – all connected:

  1. The accuracy of content only emerges when examined against the backdrop of the associated context;
  2. Whereas content may be powerful on its own, the significance only emerges when examined against the backdrop of the associated context; and,
  3. If you dig around in the context, you may find more stories.

In essence, it underscores the value of the journalist as a creative but disciplined storyteller, someone who sees the big picture and can therefore present a more comprehensive and accurate portrayal – something that is lost when compressed into a simple soundbite thoughtlessly shared by those not schooled in the rigours of the journalistic regimen.

However, it’s a mantra that’s sounding increasingly faint and anguished. In his excellent book Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News, Jeff Jarvis, head of Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York, paints an excruciatingly frank picture of an industry undergoing dramatic change. In brief, the era of vertically-structured powerful media organisations being the sole creators and gatekeepers of copyrighted content, is collapsing; the organisations desperately scrambling around in the debris for a viable business model.

Stepping in to take their place are myriads of smaller collectives, comprising former consumers hastily generating and sharing their own bite-sized content. Jarvis sees an opportunity for media organisations to tap into that content to learn more about their consumers so they can better serve them. ‘Serve’ is the key phrase here, because Jarvis insists that as content creators, media organisations separate themselves from the public while creating that content before making it public. If they are to survive, they need to adapt to providing a service that taps into, rather than competes with, those collectives.

However, I believe there is still a need for journalists to provide context, because without it these ‘new’ media generators and disseminators remain, to varying degrees, in what I call ‘content generation servitude’. Here I draw a distinction between content generation and content creation.

Let me explain through the example of a weather forecaster standing before a map of where you live, and telling you about the weather. You are interested in what the forecast is, so you can generate content, e.g. tweet, “Another sunny and warm day today!” You rely on the forecaster for you to generate that content. However, if the forecaster explains the context of her forecast – why the weather is going to be as it is – it can empower you. You begin to understand the bigger picture, and could get to a stage where you examine the local weather conditions – wind direction, air moisture content, barometric pressure – and forecast the weather yourself, and share that with others, with increasing authority and depth. Your content can become more creative.

Being able to fire off a tweet or share a story in a couple of lines may make you a content generator and disseminator, but it will keep you reliant on other people for content. Being able to see the big picture – knowing and understanding the forces at play – will help you be a better content creator, to tell a richer, more accurate, bigger and more powerful story.

And that’s why context is still King Kong.

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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.]

Could a return to freeform radio be the answer?

In Eish!, Free-thinking, media on March 24, 2016 at 12:14 pm
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Legendary radio DJ Meg Griffin, from the documentary ‘I Am What I Play’

As radio stations battle an ever-crowded media space to remain relevant to an increasingly ‘connected’ media consumer, could an answer to their predicament lie in the return to an early concept of radio entertainment now considered ‘radical’?

It’s called ‘freeform radio’, and it’s a style of radio that recognises the host* as a music authority and therefore qualified to dictate the music content of the show. Importantly the music played is interlaced with speech that, together, provides the show with a narrative. This is critical, because without a narrative the show is simply a random collection of songs. The added advantage of a narrative is that it holds the attention of the listener, as any good story (and radio show) should.

Freeform radio was the foundation of today’s commercial radio. It started in the U.S. and parts of Europe in the late 1950s and early 60s, and typically featured radio DJs (as they were called then) playing singles and album tracks of their choice, and adopting the role of music authority. Importantly, they helped expand the music experience of their audiences.

Unfortunately many of these DJ’s became vulnerable to the approaches of record companies and their packed wallets. The resultant payola scandal in the U.S. devastated freeform radio in that country. Programming measures were put into place to wrest control of the music from the DJs. However, freeform radio did continue at certain stations, and their key hosts became ‘legends’ of the medium, mainly because they ‘bucked the system’. There’s a film out at the moment (but on limited release), titled ‘I Am What I Play‘, which salutes four of these legends and the importance of freeform radio.

The very idea of freeform radio is anathema to today’s radio industry, packed to the rafters as it is with hyper-formatted music stations, where presenters stray from the music scheduling at the risk of immediate suspension. However, this strict programming is now running the risk of becoming redundant. The core content – music – is now available and easily accessible elsewhere beyond competing terrestrial radio stations – think online radio stations, YouTube, Vimeo, SoundCloud, iPods and MP3 players, smartphones, etc. These can all provide expanded selections of music, mostly without advertising.

It’s a foolish programme director that thinks listeners still believe traditional radio presenters choose the music they play. Listeners are now shopping around, looking to have an experience with the music they consume, and the best way to do that is for them to believe there is a purpose behind every piece of music a radio host plays on his or her show.

I believe there’s an opportunity for the reintroduction of freeform radio. The question though is, do we have the radio talent with the discipline and authority to champion it?

*Although terms are often used interchangeably, generally a ‘host’ is normally someone who ‘anchors’ a ‘show’ (which has a defined structure); a ‘presenter’ is someone who provides links and content between scheduled songs on-air; and the term DJ is now more commonly used to refer to someone who plays (recorded) music in clubs.

The irresponsibility of media framing around race

In Eish!, Scoundrels on August 12, 2015 at 11:29 am

Militarised policeIs highlighting race in the recent emotionally charged, media-covered riots and arrests in the U.S. newsworthy? The media would have you think so…and that’s highly irresponsible.

I have been following, with more than a little disquiet, how the media, especially in the U.S. frame recent events where police officers have been involved in what developed into high-profile engagements. Examples are the shooting of 18 year-old Tyrone Harris following protests commemorating the death of Michael Brown; the arrest of Sandra Bland, who was later found hanged in her cell; and the shooting of Walter Scott.

In each case, attention is drawn to the race of either the officer, the victim, or both; which is necessary, right? The answer is no, because it’s not necessary for reporting purposes. However, it is necessary if you want to frame the story for maximum impact.

I have been framing media content across different media platforms for over almost 30 years. There’s a secret to doing so successfully, and it’s the key message whenever I train media professionals: get a reaction. That’s because when your audience react they engage, and when they engage, you have a window of opportunity to develop a relationship with them; i.e. encourage their involvement, connect with advertisers, etc. If the audience is not reacting, the content is passing them by. And that’s not good, especially – and this is important – in an era where mainstream media is under pressure from social media.

Getting a reaction is easy – swear on air, show a naked picture on the front cover, and you’ll get a reaction – but there’s a more challenging caveat in mainstream media: you have to do so responsibly, intelligently and, if you’re very good, subtly.

And there’s that word: subtly. In the coverage of the stories listed above, the subtle subtext is the following: this is all about race, people.

Except it’s not. Police officers arrest people (if they started arresting animals, that would be newsworthy). White police officers arrest people who happen to be black. They also arrest people who happen to be white (and hispanic, Indian, Asian, etc.) Black police officers arrest people who happen to be black. They also arrest people who happen to be white.

Importantly, in the U.S. police mainly arrest white people. According to the FBI, in 2012, 69.3 percent of all individuals arrested were white, 28.1 percent were black, and 2.6 percent were of other races; white individuals were also arrested more often for violent crimes than individuals of any other race.

However, the media would have you believe otherwise – that white police officers target black people for arrest, often forcibly, and that this is part of a larger issue – hence the subtle – but purposeful – framing by referring to race whenever a suitable occasion presents itself. This, the media knows, will get a reaction; and in an era of active social media that can quickly whip up often violent sentiment, that is irresponsible.

“What the f…, Daryl?”

In Eish!, Politics, Science, Scoundrels on April 23, 2014 at 4:51 pm
Fodder for the South African media consumer. Image: The Guardian

Fodder for the South African media consumer. Image: The Guardian

It took a tweet from @ScienceWTF quoting British biophysicist and X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin to jolt me back to writing – that and a full six months in my current position as Media Coordinator at SAASTA. I have over that time come to realise that the only way to get more science into the public domain is not with a gentle nudge but with a silk-enrobed sledgehammer.

That may sound a little blunt, but in my travels across the country and in my interaction with South Africans – both creators and consumers of media content – I have noticed two things: the relative lack of imagination and maturity in the South African media landscape, and a lack of critical thinking in the typical South African media consumer.

I am not surprised given that I am intimately familiar with the editors’ mantra “our readers/listeners/viewers don’t have an appetite for science”. This is of course highly inaccurate because we are all voracious consumers of science (albeit largely unknowingly so). But more about that later.

So what does the average South African media consumer have an appetite for? If we are to judge by the content currently peddled by the conventional media, it’s the following: Oscar Pistorius, politics, crime and – trailing at the back somewhere – sport.

Let’s examine those one by one by asking a couple of basic questions about their relevance:

Oscar Pistorius

Who will be directly affected by the outcome of the Oscar Pistorius trial and therefore has a proper reason for following it? Outside of Pistorius and his family, the family of Reeva Steenkamp, and the prosecution and defence teams, few, if any. So why are so many people glued to it? For the same reason Romans used to pour into the Colosseum to watch Christians being eaten by lions. There’s a word for it: schadenfreude – and it represents a particularly nasty side of human nature. Therefore the deafening coverage of the trial in the media actually speaks unflattering and uncomfortable volumes about the (lack of) humanity of the South African media consumer. So therefore why cover the trial to such an extent?

Politics

Who is directly affected by the detailed coverage in the media of the actions (or more accurately inactions) of politicians? Outside of the politicians who rely on remaining in the public attention in order to remain relevant, few, if any. Unless, of course, by their actions (or inactions) being covered (uncovered?) in the media, they receive their justified comeuppance. However, in South Africa such accountability is virtually absent, otherwise half the players in politics would be in jail. So therefore why cover it to such an extent?

Crime

There’s no denying crime, especially violent crime, is rampant in South Africa; so much so that rape and murder hardly make the headlines any more. That’s a shocking state of affairs, but not so much as the fact that it’s not considered sufficiently so by the Government to warrant any decisive intervention (see point above on inaction). It’s fair to say the typical South African media consumer has become inured to reports of crime. So therefore why cover it to such an extent?

Sport

There’s also no denying that South Africans have a passion for sport, especially football (that’s real football by the way, where players actually put foot to ball, not American ‘football’, where they don’t). With so much passion, you’d think South Africans are good at playing the game; however, a quick glance at the FIFA rankings would show otherwise (hint: we’re buried on page 3). Granted, we are good at other sports, like rugby and cricket; but let’s face it, sport’s hardly a matter of life and death (and please don’t quote Bill Shankly is if to prove it is). So therefore why cover it to such an extent?

However, there isn’t a single element of our lives that isn’t examined by science – not one; and it’s usually with the purpose of improving our lives. Science isn’t 18th Century Greek architecture – the domain of specialists with niched scopes of interest! We consume it – it’s in the food we eat, in the technology we use, in the clothes we wear, in the natural and built environments in which we live, in the medicines we use, in the air we breathe, in the behaviour we display, in the way we think and in the way we move. We are also the very embodiment of science – in the chemistry of our blood and organs, in the physics of our limbs and in the electricity that courses through our brains; and we exist in a universe that is composed of the very same chemicals that are the building blocks of our bodies.

In short: science is the core of our very being.

The discipline of science also encourages critical thinking. Let’s not forget South Africa is a country where an ignorance of science is fuelling rampant levels of HIV infection, and where the belief in spirits and untested ‘traditional’ medicine is fuelling a plethora of miscreants offering everything from miracle cures to “bringing back lovers, lengthening penises and winning the lottery”. Don’t laugh – have you read your stars today? Do you really believe swirling balls of high density gas thousands of light years away move with the specific aim of determining when you should buy a lottery ticket? Of course not…and you don’t believe in fairies, either but you’d buy a lottery ticket and pray to some mythical god to help you win.

“Our readers/listeners/viewers don’t have an appetite for science”? What utter bollocks! They NEED science.

The post-Madiba circus in full swing

In Eish!, Politics, Scoundrels on June 24, 2013 at 1:21 pm
Nelson Mandela image: Wikipedia

Nelson Mandela image: Wikipedia

As I write this, the latest media reports list the condition of Nelson Mandela as ‘critical’. Let’s be brutally honest: the former South African president is dying, and the world seems to be reacting with a mix of disbelief and denial. They cannot believe that at almost 5 years short of 100 years old, after 27 years of incarceration, and thereafter 23 years of being smothered by people wanting to press up against him and tap into his wisdom, his body has the temerity to want to pass on.

Twitter is all abuzz with chatter using hashtags such as #prayformadiba, #Mandela and #Madiba, wishing he’d get better, many praying that he will.

Why pray? Will it do anything? Let me remind you, when Pope John Paul II was ailing, virtually the entire Catholic diaspora held vigil and prayed for him…and he still died. Perhaps they were praying for his soul? Interesting seeing that the Catholic church believed he was second only to god, and possibly the nicest, most kind-hearted man on the planet; so you’d think if anyone would have VIP access to heaven, it would be him. If there was doubt whether the pope would go to heaven, it doesn’t bode all that well for the average sinner, does it?

Let’s stop beating around the bush and face reality: Nelson Mandela is going to die – we all die – and he will pass on shortly. What we should concern ourselves with is what is going to happen next…because when the post-Madiba circus kicks into gear, some things are going to take a turn for the decidedly distasteful.

Firstly, as a veteran media man, let me assure you that every major mainstream media organisation – radio/TV/print/online – is putting the final touches to their ‘Mandela Tribute’ package that has been humming quietly in a state of readiness for the last couple of years. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of those closest to Mandela have been contacted for a fresh soundbite. These organisations have also just made sure that everyone on the team has been reminded of the protocol/course of action when Mandela dies.

Trust me on this: his death announcement has already been prepared. This may sound unbelievable, almost distasteful, but it will be such a major media event, the words would have to have been chosen very carefully. It will also be an occasion to hold the world’s attention, so expect some senior figures within the ANC to use it as an opportunity. They will want to milk it.

When his death is announced, all the main media organisations will race to have their package appear before the media consumer first. Whether or not that’s distasteful depends on how you judge the commercial imperative of the media.

Aaaahhh…always follow the money. Expect, over the day or two that follows, a rush of very public print, online, radio and TV messages of condolences from companies and organisations, exalting Mandela and the work that he did, most likely claiming some measure of connection with him. They will make sure their logo is attached to the message. Obviously. As for the message…as you read this, there are advertising copywriters busily penning the lines of honest condolence…in the most effective way possible for their clients. Obviously.

Newspapers, especially, are anticipating his death with a certain degree of relish. Not only will it sell papers, but it will sell advertising, and no organisation will want to be the one that buys a small space near the classifieds. Oh no. They’ll want to go big. Expect the government departments, especially, to pull out all the stops in their publicised messages of grief and condolence…with the ever-present pictures of the respective department leaders displayed even more prominently. This will be one of the rare moments when public emotion can work in their favour.

Over the months that follow, expect a rush by provincial and municipal authorities to request the renaming of streets, parks, buildings and other public places and amenities, to honour Mandela. These have already been identified, the authorities have just been biding their time.

And this leads me to what will be the biggest opportunity for distasteful behaviour, because the true value of Nelson Mandela is not his presence when he’s alive, but his legacy once he’s dead. Once the funeral and commemorations have passed, expect a particularly nasty fight for the right to his legacy, to use his name and image (and the serious money it will generate), and to invoke and take ownership of everything he stood for.

The post-Madiba circus won’t be all distasteful, but I can imagine a lot of it will make him turn in his grave.

Beautiful = good, and ugly = bad, apparently.

In Eish!, Fools, Scoundrels on June 5, 2013 at 1:02 pm

camilla vs diHere is an interesting exercise: ask a group of friends to list the words that come to mind when they think of the former wife of Prince Charles of England – the late Diana, Princess of Wales. I’d imagine ‘Diana’ words would include ‘princess’, ‘fairytale’, ‘beautiful’, ‘caring’, ‘mother’, ‘tragic’, and ‘humanitarian’.

Then ask them to do the same for the current wife of Prince Charles – Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall. I can imagine Camilla words would be ‘Rottweiler’, ‘ugly’, ‘fox-hunting’, ‘frumpy’, ‘cheat’, etc.

I doubt very much if this impression would have evolved through their actual meeting and interacting with the two women in question. Therefore it would have to have come from that mass interface between people and society – the media.

And who’s ultimately to blame? We are – the consumers. We have supplied the demand. We’ve helped create the environment for a beautiful/good versus ugly/bad polarity by telling our children stories of beautiful princesses and wicked witches. Princes are handsome; they tend to slay the occasional dragon or two and then live happily ever after in a majestic castle with the beautiful princess as their queen-to-be. They are supposed to do that because it is their destiny and because they are both incredulously good-looking. Anyone who interferes with the plot – such as the wicked witch – is evil. And ugly.

As a sidebar, the reality behind fairytales is, of course, somewhat unflattering. The complete absence of internal plumbing in castles in the days of the knights meant that bathing was probably a two-weekly or even a monthly affair – so princesses would have always smelled more than a little ripe – and female hygiene products were completely non-existent. Dental care amounted to little more than prodding a twig between the teeth, so rampant decay would have taken more than a little sheen off any pearly-whites. But then who are we to rob our children of a little fantasy by rubbing their faces in the harsh realities of life?

Of course we eventually grow out of fairytales. Or do we? Don’t the good guys always win in the movies and invariably ride off into the sunset with the beautiful maiden? It seems Sleeping Beauty is alive and well, just living in L.A! That’s right – we’re still getting sucked into the fairytale plot. We are continually inclined to root for the good guys because they are generally handsome heroes, and the maidens aren’t half-bad either. To affiliate with the bad guys is to affiliate with ugliness. We aspire to be good because good is half of good-looking. Professor Howard Stein, editor of the Journal of Psychoanalytic Anthropology once summed up this polarity nicely when he commented ‘there is no “us” without there being a corresponding “them” to oppose’. (If you have time to kill, you can compare those actors in the Digital Dream Door list of 100 greatest heroes, with those in the 100 greatest villains. You won’t find many names on both).

This is so wonderfully evident in the burgeoning ‘morphing’ entertainment industry that was kickstarted by the likes of Extreme Makeover, The Swan, Queer Eye for a Straight Guy and Idols, that show how ugly can be morphed into beautiful; how a woman with pumpkin hips can become a princess and a plumber become a pretty-boy pop star (did you honestly think the guy in wheelchair had a chance?) – and look how happy they are! By showing viewers what they look like after the morphing they separate them from what they looked like before – a bit like us. How’s that for irony?

There’s no denying Diana was beautiful. Editors of women’s magazines were well aware that simply putting Diana on the cover would assure them record sales; and in her death the cover-image of Diana is the one cemented in our minds. Prince Charles’ second wife will always be measured against that. She finished second; she’ll always be second-best. She also interfered with the fairytale plot, which makes her the wicked witch against the people’s princess. Poor Camilla.

The reality of the tale of course is that Diana was flawed. We all are; and no amount of nip and tuck and panel beating of cellulite is going to change that. We should realise that just as Camilla may be a little off the media-dictated beauty chart, so are we all. And whereas neither she, nor we, will ever win a shallow beauty contest, perhaps she and Charles should enjoy what years they have left together, free of the interference by the tabolid media and its shallow, wretched consumers. It’s the closest the Prince and his princess will have to living happily ever after.

Tornadoes: science vs religion

In Eish!, Fools, Science on May 24, 2013 at 11:30 am
Oklahoma tornado

Image: PAUL HELLSTERN/AP

As a journalist who writes about the interface of science and society, and how it’s covered by the media, there are few better events to cover than natural ‘disasters’.

Of course, there’s no such thing in nature as a ‘disaster’. ‘Events’, maybe, but not ‘disasters’. Even then, what is an ‘event’? Tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and volcanic eruptions are part of nature, and are as much of an ‘event’ as a flower opening its petals to greet the early morning sunshine.

However, given the scope of the impact of tornadoes on the natural, built and social environment, it seems fair to refer to them as ‘events’. What I do find interesting though is that we only use the phrase ‘disaster’ when such events impact on humans in a way that we consider them ‘disastrous’.

The tornado that swept across the city of Moore, in Oklahoma on Monday 20th May is a wonderful example, as it unearthed a typical social reaction to such a part of nature, as well as the role the media usually plays in shaping such reaction.

As news broke of the tornado, various (mainly Western) media outlets scrambled to collect information and disseminate it in a balance of fact and emotion that would (hopefully) unleash a torrent of consumer reaction without sacrificing what’s left nowadays of ‘journalistic integrity’. News anchors (feigning dramatic shock) attempted to get closer to the action and grab increasingly qualified commentators with the hope of breaking a story before their competitors; while TV news cameramen and photographers captured visuals that would hopefully carry a suitably impactful emotive tone, all the time praying to be there when a rugged fireman plucked a quivering puppy from the debris of a destroyed home. CBS managed to capture the closest to this.

And there is that word: ‘praying’. There seems to be a lot of referring and appealing to a god during such events, and the media – both mainstream and social – capitalise on it; from witnesses of the tornado saying on the TV news how they prayed to be spared; to survivors who claimed it was because they prayed that they were saved (even though their home was utterly destroyed); to amateur video footage of the tornado on YouTube, complete with shocked ‘Oh my God’ commentary; to the inevitable Twitter follow-up hashtag #prayforOklahoma.

So what’s wrong with this? Everything really.

Firstly there’s the claim that there is some form of sapient god – even though there’s absolutely no evidence thereof outside of the wildly divergent and irreconcilable claims by a broad spectrum of warring religions – and that this sapient god is omnipotent and therefore the guiding hand behind all events in the world – including tornadoes – and therefore he/she/it requires constant subservience/respect through prayer. The danger of this unquestioning and uncritical belief is that it is easily hijacked by religious zealots with twisted agendas and pliable followers.

Secondly, there’s the assumption by survivors that because they were not killed or injured by the tornado after they prayed, it is evidence of a god, and his/her/its benevolence because they prayed. However, to quote a cornerstone of scientific research: a perceived correlation is not evidence of causation. And when survivors of the Oklahoma tornado look to the sky and claim they were ‘spared by God’, I just hope they will have an opportunity to repeat it to the families of the children who were killed, and whom, it’s fair to say, would also have prayed.

Furthermore, I find the embracing of such selection-by-a-god logic by supposedly critical individuals such as seasoned journalists unbelievable (if you excuse the pun). Cue seasoned CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer getting his graceful comeuppance.

Thirdly, the proponents and supporters of #prayforOklahoma seem to think that tweeting a message is going to help somehow. Outside of providing a bit or moral support to those who need it and who are for some reason biding their time on Twitter, firing off a free tweet doesn’t actually do anything. It may be a very public portrayal of an act of caring, but it certainly doesn’t help the survivors. Donations of money, food and supplies do. And if you think praying (through Twitter) is going to encourage a god to help heal those who are injured; remember what happened when Pope John Paul II was ailing and millions around the world prayed for him – he still died!

Finally, and this is what really angers me, there’s the seemingly complete denial by such god-fearing people of the real evidential role of science in mitigating the possible catastrophic impacts of tornadoes. Here’s the wake-up smack: The only reason more people don’t die from tornados is because of the work of scientists studying tornadoes to understand how they form and move; the tracking of tornadoes by the incredible technology of weather-monitoring systems and the experienced teams who operate them; the active role the media (including social media) has in disseminating information about tornado activity and any necessary warnings;  the myriad official (and unofficial) evacuation systems put in place by various authorities; and of course the hundreds of trained medical professionals who treat the injuries of those who are injured.

‘God’ has nothing to do with it.

A troubling week for South African science journalism

In Eish!, Fools, Science on December 8, 2012 at 11:39 am
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Batman was shocked with the ignorance amongst the youth of the basic principles of science

It has taken a rather troubling, I’d venture to say ‘bizarre’, week in the media to shake me from my blogging passivity. The week has captured, quite succinctly, two components of the dire condition under which science journalism in this country finds itself.

In the past week, the following has happened:

  1. Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announced at the release of the annual national assessment results that the average score in maths for Grade 9 learners (approx 14 years of age) is 13%. No, that’s not a typo, that really is thirteen percent;
  2. The Times Media Public Editor Joe Latakgomo published his opinion that it should be the press’s responsibility to remove from their pages the personal ads from people masquerading as doctors and who offer (to a very willing and receptive consumer) a combined portfolio of services normally including penis enlargement, cleaning dirty money, fixing broken marriages, and winning the lottery;
  3. The Business Day, South Africa’s leading financial daily newspaper, announced that it was shelving its weekly Health News supplement (for which I am a regular contributor), quoting budget cuts; and,
  4. The Sunday Tribune announced it was shelving all input from external writers for its Sunday Magazine supplement (in which I have a regular column writing on psychology), also quoting budget cuts.

The following is clear: on the one hand we have a desperate need for the media to help create a learning environment for South African youth and to educate adults about the dangers of pseudoscience; and on the other hand the mainstream media is stifling the science journalism needed to do just that.

On the plus side, it all segues very nicely into a piece of mine that will appear in the 21 December edition of Mail & Guardian: an adaptation of the main project I wrote for my Masters, entitled ‘The Quest of Prometheus: the state of science journalism in South Africa’. I will provide a link to it on my website on the 22nd December.

Read it. Unless of course you’re going to hide under the duvet because you believe the world will end on 21 December; in which case, like Robin, you deserve a serious smack around the head.

Fracking – it’s not just about the economy, stupid

In Eish!, Politics, Science on September 28, 2012 at 8:19 am

Billy-Bob suspected his borehole had tapped into some methane reserves

Every so often an issue takes root in the South African national psyche that demands intense debate, at the very least some earnest navel-gazing. Invariably such an issue is political in nature, which is not surprising given the fractious intensity of our political heritage. But then occasionally, perhaps a little too infrequently, such an issue emerges from my neck of the woods – science – and sometimes, just sometimes, it opens up a wealth of opportunities for diverse research and analysis.

South Africa’s successful bid to co-host the SKA project is, unfortunately, not such an issue; the reason being is that its main focus is on astronomy; and whereas gazing back in time through the stars in the hope of discovering the origins of the universe may give astrophysicists a wonderful tingling sensation in their loins, it’s way out of the conceptual reach of most people.

But there is something else scientific that is inviting all manner of attention, a lot of it very emotional: hydraulic fracturing, or to use its more common name – fracking. For most people aware of fracking, it has two seemingly incongruent perspectives – one economical, the other environmental.

According to a Shell-sponsored Econometrix assessment, fracking in South Africa has the capacity to secure access to 485 trillion cubic feet of shale gas; create 704 000 jobs; inject billions of Rands into the national economy and completely change this country’s energy profile. Volumes of estimated data has been submitted as proof.

According to environmentalists, wide-scale fracking in the Karoo (under which most of the South African shale gas reserves are situated) will both release tonnes of toxic hydrocarbons into the air and contaminate groundwater. They have as their proof their own data, as well as some video clips of tap water bursting into flames.

However, to summarise the fracking debate as essentially an economics versus environmental divide is to miss the opportunity for a broader discourse around the myriad avenues for examination it throws up. Read the rest of this entry »