Daryl Ilbury

Posts Tagged ‘Science’

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.’”

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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.]

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.

“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.

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.

South Africa’s shameful science #epicfail

In Eish!, Politics, Science on September 27, 2012 at 9:45 am

South Africa sits in the science corner

The latest World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report makes for interesting reading, especially if you have anything to do with South Africa.

It essentially assesses the competitiveness landscape of 144 economies, providing insight into their productivity and prosperity. Countries are ranked according to how they perform in terms of drivers such as infrastructure, labour market efficiency and financial market development.

So what has this go to do with science, I hear you ask. Good question. Outside of the obvious economy-linked drivers, the WEF includes the levels of health and primary education, and higher education and training. Specifically included as a measure of a country’s global competitiveness is the quality of maths and science education. This makes sense as they are not only two subjects that cross all language and cultural differences, but they also drive innovation and development.

And this is where South Africa hangs its head in shame. In terms of the quality of its maths and science education, South Africa is ranked 143rd out of 144 countries; i.e. second-to-last.

Yeah, sure, it’s a developing country and all that; but that’s no excuse; especially when you examine the other figures. In terms of the strength of its auditing and reporting standards; the efficacy of corporate boards; the regulations of security exchanges; and the legal rights index, South Africa is ranked 1st in the world. First. It also does pretty well when it comes to the protection of the interests of minority shareholders, where it is ranked 2nd in the world.

It’s in the protection of the quality of education of its children that South Africa fails utterly. The term ‘disconnect’ comes to mind. [There’s an interesting caveat here: not all the education is bad. We’re ranked 15th in the world in terms of the quality of our management schools].

So who’s to blame? Obviously the gloriously inefficient Departments of Basic Education and Education and Training need a ruler across the knuckles; but so do the various mainstream media organisations for stripping science from their traditional and well-worn offering of politics, crime, sport, business, and celebrity shenanigans.

But here’s the twist: the Minister in the Presidency for National Planning – the well-respected Trevor Manuel – has made it clear that the focus of the Government over, especially, the next two years includes the following:

  1. Food security, water security and rural development
  2. Adaptation strategies and environmental resilience
  3. More effective models of black economic empowerment
  4. Exercise, diets, nutrition and other preventative health areas
  5. Social cohesion and language
  6. Disability policy and
  7. Partnerships for innovation.

Now go back and read them again, and this time think which would require a firm grasp of science.

The reality is that ‘science’ for South Africa is not about major kick-ass endeavours such as SKA or CERN, neither is about the charming minutiae of the sex lives of newts. It’s harsh and it’s very real, and it’s tied in with matters of social and economic development; and the mainstream media need to understand that.

For an excellent example of this in the media, check out SciDev.net

The problem with science…and Science

In Eish!, Science on September 11, 2012 at 2:04 pm

My old chum Ed Yong* – one of the few to crack the nod.

…so there I was looking at one of my favourite science journal websites, deservedly and authoritatively simply called ‘Science‘, when my attention was caught by the section titled ‘Careers‘. Seeing I had committed myself to a career as a science journalist and writer, and I was armed with over 20 years in commercial media, nine as a journalist, and a Masters in Science Journalism under my belt, I thought “let me see what opportunities await me”.

Imagine my surprise, nay shock, when a search under ‘Writer’ left me with the following message: “The specified search produced no results. Try changing your criteria or use the form below to save your search and create a Search Agent”

Thinking I must have filled in the multitude different fields incorrectly, I tried a different combination. The result was the same. My journalist instinct kicked in and I went straight to the source, and inquired of Tracy Holmes, the Worldwide Associate Director of Science Careers, if there was any need for science writers in the world of Science (capital intended), or if I was just filling in the search field incorrectly.

Her reply (within an hour I must add) was the following:

Hi Daryl,

We don’t publish many ads of this type on sciencecareers.org.  The majority of our ads are for more traditional research careers.  Typically we do run ads for science editors, we publish our own editorial vacancies this way and both Elsevier and Nature have advertised for editors on our site. Kind regards, Tracy.

And that, in my opinion, is what’s wrong with science (no capital intended): a reluctance to accept science writers into the ‘fold’ as it were; the refusal, it seems, to acknowledge the specialisation needed of a journalist/writer to write about science; and the reluctance to share its research and endeavours with the great unwashed – an aloofness, if you like.

The reality is that science needs science writers; because without them, the world would be more distrustful of science and its intense specialisation; because science research needs funding, and funding is directed where there’s a need or a public fascination; because science writers give real purpose to what science does; and because, at the end of the day, scientists, just like like everyone else, sit down to take a crap.

So come on science…and Science…give science writers a break.

*You can read the work of Ed Yong on his excellent Discovery blog Not Exactly Rocket Science

How do you tell if a doctor is Jewish?

In Eish!, Science on May 15, 2012 at 11:57 am

How do you tell if a doctor is Jewish?

No, it’s not a joke, it’s a serious question, because it seems to be an issue.

There’s a great article in the New York Times about an exhibition called “Trail of the Magic Bullet: The Jewish Encounter With Modern Medicine, 1860-1960,” and it’s on view at Yeshiva University Museum in Manhattan. I can’t get there because I’m busy swotting for a media law exam, but if I could I’d imagine I’d see evidence that has been kept from public view.

As someone who has been brought up within a Western culture with a subtle but unavoidable Christian undercurrent, I have had to search for alternative viewpoints on everything from science to economics. Very little was presented to me that didn’t make Western culture the centre point for advancements in just about everything.

This is not only biased, it is wholly inaccurate. The foundations of the language in which this is written and the mathematics that makes it possible originate not from London, but from the Mediterranean, the Middle East and China.

Similarly, the true history of medicine is only replete when it pays respect to the experimentation philosophies of the ancient Egyptians, the developing evidential methodologies of the medieval Islamic world, and the medicine of the ancient Jews.

However, Western culture would have us believe that modern medicine was founded primarily upon the brilliance of Western science. If there’s any element of truth to that, it’s because for centuries Jews who wanted to study medicine at Western institutions were either prevented from doing so or surreptitiously (often not even) discouraged.

The reason? Because Jews apparently killed Jesus all those years ago. Of course – and here’s the irony – science, the very foundation of medicine, has yet to prove that any Jesus ever existed.

Back to my question: how do you tell if a doctor is Jewish? He’s the one volunteering his services in a Western hospital on Christmas Day.

Dog sushi anyone?

In Eish! on October 5, 2011 at 1:41 pm

Pass the soya sauce

Shocked by the picture?

Don’t be…it’s not real. It comes from the creative talents of a man called Adjuh; and he does for Photoshop what Ranulph Fiennes does for strolling in the park.

A number of years ago when I was still in radio, with Adjuh’s permission I reposted a number of pieces of his work as interactive elements on my BIG Breakfast Blog. I used them to encourage listeners and viewers to provide commentary and opinion. With each post I included a link to his website. My blog went on to win 3 SA Blog Awards – the most of any blog – and Adjuh received thousands of new fans.

What I like about his work is that it often – through shock – encourages debate and revision of opinion. And that’s what makes it true art.

You can see more of his work here: Adje’s Fotosoep