Daryl Ilbury

Posts Tagged ‘Scientists’

The anti-GM hypocrisy

In Eish!, Fools, Politics, Science, Scoundrels on January 15, 2015 at 6:05 am

figure6I am both fascinated and frustrated by people who use advances in science and technology to object to advances in science and technology – it reeks of hypocrisy; and I reserve a special frothy ire for those who use all the scientific and technical means at their disposal (such as social media) to object to biotechnology, especially around genetically modified (GM) food. 

The recent decision by the EU to allow its member states to decide for themselves whether they should allow GM crop cultivation, has shaken the anti-GM lobby from their slumber, and they’re beginning to make a noise again.

Unless you’re someone who understands the science of biotechnology and the context within which the research and development takes place, the chances are you’ll sway towards, at least, being cautious towards GM food, your head swimming with warnings of contamination, or fears that if you eat GM food you’ll give birth to a child with three heads. 

And yet, you still want the right to have children. Yes, GM food and your right to have children are linked.

First of all, as I’ve said before – content is king, context is King Kong; so first, a little context: Scientists suffer the popular misperception that they:

  1. Like to tinker with nature – they just can’t let it be;
  2. Think mechanically – they just can’t stand back and respect the aesthetics of nature;
  3. Like to play God – they just can’t let nature be;
  4. Like to retain an aura of exclusivity and mystery – they think they’re better than everyone else;
  5. Have evil designs on the world.

Every scientist I’ve interviewed – and I’ve interviewed a lot – does research for the same reason: they are deeply fascinated with the natural world (especially their focus area) and wish to contribute to the greater public understanding and appreciation of it; and where it’s applied to usable products (technology), how it can improve the human condition. And whereas one or two of the scientists I know may lack the social graces of writers and artists, they’re certainly not evil!

And yet the anti-GM lobby would have you believe scientists are evil, because it serves their agenda to drill into you one thing: fear (here’s a typical example of more tempered fear-mongering).

The reality is that you’re already eating food that has been genetically modified, but over thousands of years – it’s called evolution; and the developments in GM food – such as increased pest-resistance – would more than likely happen naturally, but eventually.  

That would take time, time that a rapidly growing, eternally hungry, increasingly urbanised human population, with limited resources at its disposal, doesn’t have. The anti-GM lobby – and I’ve met a lot of them – seem ignorant of this fact (and are certainly ignorant of the science of biotechnology) and are happy to live their own precious lives enriched with all the trappings of science and technology, content to denigrate the very same science and technology that has an eye on feeding the future.

King Kong and the eagles on stilts

In Eish!, Science on January 9, 2015 at 6:38 am

flat,550x550,075,fThere’s a saying that spins in my head every time I work with scientists: ‘You can lead a horse to water, but if you can get it to float on its back, then you’ve really got something’. In a way it sums up the challenge – and rewards – of getting scientists to tell their stories, and that’s a lot to do with the veracity of the scientific method.

I have spent almost 30 years in the media – as a breakfast-show broadcaster, writer, columnist, editor and science journalist – and now I use my expertise to help scientists communicate more effectively with the media. It’s not easy, but when it works out and we’re able to unlock the insights from their work, the results can be magical, as you will soon see.

But first, some background: That broad field of research known as ‘science’ is the collective input of hundreds of thousands of scientists each focusing on an incredibly specific area of research. For example, a biologist won’t just study a single virus; they will study a single component of the virus’s DNA.

The veracity of the scientific method demands that when they each publish their research it is critically examined and picked apart – sometimes shredded – by other scientists looking for errors. So, scientists have to be meticulous in their research. This is helpful – and not – when they sit down with a journalist. And here’s why:

  1. Because the scientist is a specialist, they will use specialised language, most of which will be completely foreign to a journalist. The journalist will therefore need to ‘translate’ the language into something the media consumer can understand.
  2. The scientist is focused on the specifics to do with their area of research; the journalist wants to know what the big picture is – why the research is important to the general media consumer.
  3. The scientist is ‘bound’ by the exacting, mathematical, demands of scientific integrity; the journalist has at their disposal the unfettered creativity of language.
  4. The scientist is interested in specific outcomes; the journalist is looking for a narrative.
  5. Before the story ‘goes live’ it’ll be clawed at by a sub-editor with no knowledge of the content, much to the frustration of the scientist and journalist.

The result evokes the most common complaint I get from scientists: ‘journalists always get what I say wrong’.

The solution as I explain to scientists is for them to take ownership of ‘translation’. They can do this by giving the media what the media wants, not giving the media what they want and relying on the media to tell it accurately. I drum into them a journalism mantra: Content is king, context is King Kong; and one of the best ways to provide context for the media consumer is to use imagery or analogies – this provides the journalist with a creative way to tell their story, helps the media consumer visualise the research focus, and often gives the sub-editor a catchy headline. So, if the scientists can provide accurate analogies, it reduces the risk of mistranslation.

And so it was when I worked with post-docs (scientists who recently completed their PhD) of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Cape Town. After I had guided them through the various ways of using imagery I asked them to select one key component of their research and explain it using a simile – they had to use the word ‘like’. They all looked at me blankly – I was taking them right out of their comfort zone – so I gave them some examples, and 20 minutes.

One of the post-docs was doing research on how the habitat of the secretary bird – a voracious raptor with a sweet tooth for snakes – can be used as an indicator of environmental degradation. When it was her turn to present her simile, she took a deep breath and said: “Like an eagle on stilts the secretary bird patrols the African grassland, jealously guarding its territory”. There was a brief pause as her colleagues looked at her with shocked admiration before exploding into cheers and applause. A grin burst onto her face as she saw the grin on mine. She had hit the nail on the head.

As I said: ‘magical’.

Science under siege…again

In Eish!, Fools, Politics, Science on October 23, 2012 at 12:45 pm

The authorities hoped the Italian scientist was getting the point

I certainly wasn’t going to let this one slide by, especially after the fight I had with my family.

Last night while my family was watching ‘The Good Wife’ on TV, I (sick and tired of the plethora of formulaic American cop/lawyer/doctor angst TV programming) consigned myself to scouring the news feeds from science sites for stories of what was happening in the reality of the modern world. Little did I expect to uncover a news story fresh from the Dark Ages.

You’ll possibly know of the story by now. If not, here it is in brief:

Six Italian scientists and a government official have been sentenced to six years in jail on charges of multiple manslaughter in a watershed ruling that found them guilty of underestimating the risks of a killer earthquake that struck the town of L’Aquila in 2009.
I know what you’re thinking: “Huh?” Welcome to the team.
I had been following the story on and off since the trial began, all the time knowing that a conviction would be ludicrous; after all, even given all the data available, no seismologist would be able to give a wholly accurate prediction of the possibility of an earthquake. Mother Earth has her own agenda. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: science doesn’t know everything; if it did, it would stop. More importantly, it knows it doesn’t know everything, so it tends to err on the side of caution and tempers its language appropriately.
The real shock came not when I read the report of the sentencing, but in the reaction of my family when I told them: they supported the notion that the scientists were at fault and therefore should be held liable. These are no intellectual slouches: they have multiple degrees and are students of philosophy and politics, and yet I battled to get them to understand that even if the scientists had said there was only a small chance of an earthquake, the threat of an earthquake still existed; and therefore, even if a major earthquake occurred the very next day, it would still fall within the mathematical parameters presented by the scientists.
So where’s the problem? For a clue, we have to turn to radio. Now  if there’s one thing I’ve learnt in over 20 years in commercial radio, it is this: listeners…don’t. What this means is that listeners only hear what they want to hear.
In this particular case, the fault lies in human nature and its selective interpretation of science. If scientists (whom people feel can be trusted) say “there’s only a small chance of a major earthquake”, people instead hear, “…so you don’t have to go to any cost or bother to protect yourself against a major earthquake, because it’s not going to happen.”
My sketchy knowledge of Italian precludes me from understanding the specifics of the judge’s findings, but if what I read in the reports of the more reliable news services is correct, then the convictions against the Italian scientists invoke images of medieval paranoia and aggression towards science.
Combine this with the upswell of religious fundamentalism in the Middle East and the United States, and science is under siege…again.

“‘Science’? Isn’t that what scientists do?”

In Eish!, Fools, Science on July 2, 2012 at 6:14 am

“My jar of hair gel is this big”

I write for the only daily newspaper in South Africa that has a dedicated science desk. It’s the Business Day, the country’s top business daily. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing.

It’s a good thing because it gives me the opportunity to write about science knowing that it’s going to be read by some of the country’s most influential thinkers, but it’s a bad thing because science is not only for influential thinkers.

Unfortunately most people who think, don’t think that.

Here’s an eye-opening exercise: Go online and visit some of your country’s leading newspapers. Look at the various sections. I can imagine what you’ll find will include the following: Business, sport, fashion, entertainment, lifestyle, travel, jobs and opinion.

What’s missing? Science, obviously; and invariably the justification for that is held in the public opinion that ‘science’ is what scientists do.

But then surely that logic can be applied equally to other sections – ‘Business’ is what ‘businessmen’ do; ‘sport’ is what ‘sportsmen’ do; ‘fashion’ is what ‘fashionistas’ do; ‘enterntainment’ is what ‘entertainers’ do; and…well, you get the picture. In reality, the argument for the inclusion of these different sections is not that they are designed solely for those who ‘do’ it, but for those who ‘consume’ it.

We don’t all play premier league football, but we love to watch it; we’re not all models, but we like to be fashionable; and we’re not all actors, but we enjoy going to the movies.

And so the same should be said for science. The reality is that we not only consume science, we embody it; and everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, we do is examined, scrutinised and attempted to be improved upon by science. And here’s the kicker: every single one of those other sections that are covered in the media (excluding the pseudoscientific crap such as horoscopes, obviously) would not be possible without science.

Here’s your other exercise for the day: pick your favourite section of your favourite newspaper, and imagine what the topic of coverage would be like if it were stripped of science. Imagine conducting business without the tools of communication; imagine the world of entertainment without films, TV, radio, and the internet; imagine fashion without the science behind materials; and imagine professional football without Christiano Ronaldo’s hair gel.

No, science isn’t just what scientists do.

[Tomorrow: The frightening, unintended consequence of technological innovation]