Wednesday, January 27, 2021

3. Upholding the Role of Science


Scientific integrity must be defended, our planet depends on it

To conserve Earth’s remarkable species, such as the violet sabrewing, we must also defend the importance of science. Jeremy Kerr, Author provided
Euan Ritchie, Deakin University; James Watson, The University of Queensland; Jeremy Kerr, L’Universit√© d’Ottawa/University of Ottawa, and Martine Maron, The University of Queensland

Science is the best method we have for determining what is likely to be true. The knowledge gained from this process benefits society in a multitude of ways, including promoting evidence-based decision-making and management. Nowhere is this more important than conservation, as the intensifying impacts of the Anthropocene increasingly threaten the survival of species.

But truth can be inconvenient: conservation goals sometimes seem at odds with social or economic interests. As a result, scientific evidence may be ignored or suppressed for political reasons. This has led to growing global trends of attacking scientific integrity.

Recent assaults on science and scientists under Donald Trump’s US administration are particularly extreme, but extend far more broadly. Rather than causing scientists to shrink from public discussions, these abuses have spurred them and their professional societies to defend scientific integrity.

Among these efforts was the recent March for Science. The largest pro-science demonstration in history, this event took place in more than 600 locations around the world.

We propose, in a new paper in Conservation Biology, that scientists share their experiences of defending scientific integrity across borders to achieve more lasting success. We summarise eight reforms to protect scientific integrity, drawn from lessons learned in Australia, Canada and the US.

March for science in Melbourne. John Englart (Takver)

What is scientific integrity?

Scientific integrity is the ability to perform, use and disseminate scientific findings without censorship or political interference. It requires that government scientists can communicate their research to the public and media. Such outbound scientific communication is threatened by policies limiting scientists’ ability to publish, publicise or even mention their research findings.

Public access to websites or other sources of government scientific data have also been curtailed. Limiting access to taxpayer-funded information in this way undermines citizens’ ability to participate in decisions that affect them, or even to know why decisions are being made.

News of the rediscovery of the shrub Hibbertia fumana (left) in Australia was delayed until a development at the site of rediscovery had been permitted. Political considerations delayed protection of the wolverine (right) in the United States. Wolverine - U.S. National and Park Service. _Hibbertia fumana_ - A. Orme

A recent case of scientific information being suppressed concerns the rediscovery, early in 2017, of the plant Hibbertia fumana in New South Wales. Last seen in 1823, 370 plants were found.

Rather than publicly celebrate the news, the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage was reportedly asked to suppress the news until after a rail freight plan that overlapped with the plants’ location had been approved.

Protecting scientists’ right to speak out

Scientists employed by government agencies often cannot discuss research that might relate to their employer’s policies. While it may not be appropriate for scientists to weigh in on policy recommendations – and, of course, constant media commentaries would be chaos – the balance has tipped too far towards restriction. Many scientists cannot publicly refer to their research, or that of others, let alone explain the significance of the findings.

To counter this, we need policies that support scientific integrity, an environment of transparency and the public’s right to access scientific information. Scientists’ right to speak freely should be included in collective bargaining agreements.

Scientific integrity requires transparency and accountability. Information from non-government scientists, through submitted comments or reviews of draft policies, can inform the policy process.

Although science is only one source of influence on policy, democratic processes are undermined when policymakers limit scrutiny of decision-making processes and the role that evidence plays in them.

Let science inform policy

Independent reviews of new policy are a vital part of making evidence-based decisions. There is room to broaden these reviews, inviting external organisations to give expert advice on proposed or existing policies. This also means transparently acknowledging any perceived or actual vested interests.

Australian governments often invite scientists and others to contribute their thoughts on proposed policy. The Finkel Review, for example, received 390 written submissions. Of course, agencies might not have time to respond individually to each submission. But if a policy is eventually made that seems to contradict the best available science, that agency should be required to account for that decision.

Finally, agencies should be proactively engaging with scientific groups at all stages of the process.

Active advocacy

Strengthening scientific integrity policies when many administrations are publicly hostile to science is challenging. Scientists are stuck reactively defending protective policies. Instead, they should be actively advocating for their expansion.

The goal is to institutionalise a culture of scientific integrity in the development and implementation of conservation policies.

A transnational movement to defend science will improve the odds that good practices will be retained and strengthened under more science-friendly administrations.

The monarch butterfly, now endangered in Canada, and at risk more broadly. Jeremy Kerr

Many regard science as apolitical. Even the suggestion of publicly advocating for integrity or evidence-based policy and management makes some scientists deeply uncomfortable. It is telling that providing factual information for policy decisions and public information can be labelled as partisan. Nevertheless, recent research suggests that public participation by scientists, if properly framed, does not harm their credibility.

Scientists can operate objectively in conducting research, interpreting discoveries and publicly explaining the significance of the results. Recommendations for how to walk such a tricky, but vital, line are readily available.

Scientists and scientific societies must not shrink from their role, which is more important than ever. They have a responsibility to engage broadly with the public to affirm that science is indispensable for evidence-based policies and regulations. These critical roles for scientists help ensure that policy processes unfold in plain sight, and consequently help sustain functioning, democratic societies.

The authors would like to acknowledge the contribution of Dr Carlos Carroll, a conservation biologist at the Klamath Center for Conservation Research.The Conversation

Euan Ritchie, Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University; James Watson, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland; Jeremy Kerr, Research Chair in Macroecology and Conservation, Professor of Biology, Chair of Department of Biology, L’Universit√© d’Ottawa/University of Ottawa, and Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

2. The uneasy Relationshp between Science and the Media


Way off balance: science and the mainstream media

When a relationship goes off course, it can be hard to refocus attention. Digitalnative
Stephan Lewandowsky, University of Bristol and Steven Sherwood, UNSW

THE STATE OF SCIENCE: Has there been a communication breakdown between science and the media and, if so, is the damage terminal? In the concluding instalment of our series, Stephan Lewandowsky and Steve Sherwood take the pulse of a troubled relationship.

Some marriages are made in heaven, others end in divorce. And then there are those that drag on until both partners have One Foot in the Grave.

What about the marriage between science and the media?

Few would think it was made in heaven. And parts of the media probably deserve to be divorced for reasons that have already been discussed on The Conversation.

That leaves most of science and much of the media in an uneasy and never-ending alliance much like the Mildrews. There is considerable mutual misunderstanding but somehow there is never more than one foot in the grave.

What contributes to the uneasy relationship between science and the media?

Volumes could be written on this issue, and here we focus on only one factor; namely, the implications of the different conversational “frames” that apply in science and in the media.

Science proceeds in a frame of scepticism. Scepticism means we are prepared to give up ideas that are unsupported by evidence. In graduate school we learn to distinguish carefully between what is supported by evidence and what we merely suspect. Scientists operate in an environment of deliberation and rigorous mutual cross-checking.

Only those ideas that survive peer review are published in journals. Some have likened peer review to a gladiator being thrown into a den of lions: only the very fittest survive.

By contrast, most commentators in the media are not held to the same standard: they have not had the habit of caution and scepticism beaten into them by their Ph.D. supervisor. Some editors may pursue an agenda, and most journalists count on people to forget and move on quickly. The media thrive on conflict, and at least tacitly believe conflicting opinions usually have equal validity – quite the opposite of science, which is built on the weeding out of bad ideas.

These diverging conversational frames can produce perverse results in public discussions of science.

There are several core belief systems with which journalists approach their work, but a common approach is to present “every side” of the story irrespective of how likely it is to be true and irrespective of the credibility of the source.

A scientific expert is no more privileged to be heard than, say, the representative of an industry whose profits are imperilled by scientific findings. The public, after all, should be able to weigh those two opposing positions appropriately.

What could possibly be the problem with that?

An analogy helps to show what can go wrong. Suppose your doctors and your plumber volunteer differing medical advice. Every doctor you ask urges you to have surgery to save your life. But your plumber learns of this and tells you everything is fine except you should perhaps smoke a little more to lose some weight.

Most of us would ignore the plumber and follow the doctor’s advice.

But what if we learned what was going on only through the media? First off, they would probably present the two views on a nearly equal footing, perhaps by arranging a debate between the doctor and the plumber.

If that sounds far-fetched, remember that Australia’s Channel 7 recently dragged a connoisseur of cat palmistry in front of the camera to opine about climate change. Yes, this actually happened …

In principle the public may be able to decide whether the plumber is credible. But what if people are told only that each individual has some (unspecified) professional qualification? Or are not told that doctor bills might put and end to the patient’s plans to replumb the bathroom?

Or that the doctor’s opinions were sought, while the plumber jumped in on his own? Alas, with the exception of The Conversation, which insists on competence as well as declarations of vested interests, the Australian media routinely fail to reveal relevant background.

But there is another problem.

While the media tends to treat all views as equal regardless of who holds them, huge disparities lurk in the background and tilt the tables. The forces of scepticism are still at work, but only for the expert.

If the doctor commits an error in any way, you can sue for malpractice. But the plumber’s plumbing license is at no risk whatsoever, no matter how outrageous his medical advice. And the cat palmist can say anything he wants about any field of science because he is accountable to no-one.

This creates the strange phenomenon of asymmetric warfare: while the media grant equal time to both sides, they tend to hone in on errors by members of mainstream science, however minor, while leaving egregious misstatements by others unexamined.

For example, an incorrect citation buried in one IPCC report as to the year by which Himalayan glaciers are expected to melt made global headlines, notwithstanding the fact those glaciers are melting, with potentially adverse consequences for millions of people, and that the error was irrelevant to the broader debate.

At the same time, Australian mainstream media continue to give space and airtime to climate contrarians with little if any mention of their serial errors, which dwarf the sole typo of the IPCC into utter insignificance.

Science can thus suffer a “double-whammy” in the media: first, media often “balance” scientists with people whose opposing views arise out of incompetence or vested interest, without providing the background information necessary for the public to adjudicate between the individuals. Second, while the media scrutinise scientists (as they should!), there is often little or no accountability of the plumbers and cat palmists.

This means doubt can be cast on just about any scientific conclusion, whether relating to HIV and AIDS, the dangers of mobile phones or immunisations, the dangers of smoking or a host of others.

The net result is that the media can fail a country, as they have failed Australia in the case of climate change.

What can be done about this?

On the side of science, there is every reason for scientists to speak plainly.

On the side of the media, there must be recognition that not all opinions have equal merit, but that all opinions deserve equal scrutiny so that they can be presented in their proper context.

Those issues are best illustrated by the conclusions of a recent BBC Trust review of the impartiality and accuracy of the BBC’s science coverage: “The BBC needs to continue to be careful when reporting on science to make a distinction between an opinion and a fact.”

“When there is a consensus of opinion on scientific matters, providing an opposite view without consideration of ‘due weight’ can lead to ‘false balance’, meaning that viewers might perceive an issue to be more controversial than it actually is.”

The report also determined that: “For at least three years, the climate change deniers have been marginal to the scientific debate but somehow they continued to find a place on the airwaves. Their ability to do so suggests that an over‐diligent search for due impartiality – or for a controversy – continue to hinder the objective reporting of a scientific story …”

Not all opinions have equal merit, and if opinions are balanced without first being equally scrutinised, the public – by which we mean everyone – is misled.

This is the fourteenth – and final – part of The State of Science. To read the other instalments, follow the links below.The Conversation

Stephan Lewandowsky, Chair of Cognitive Psychology, University of Bristol and Steven Sherwood, Director, Climate Change Research Centre, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Monday, January 18, 2021

1. Why scientists are no longer speaking out



                                                                                                     -Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay  

Brian Martin, University of Wollongong

The 2017 March for Science was a powerful political statement by scientists. The marchers opposed political interference, budget cuts and lack of support for science at a government level.

More commonly, though, scientists stay in their labs and avoid the public political spotlight.

CSIRO scientist John Church – who initially acted as an individual (not a representative of his research institution) to “stand up for science” in 2015 – is cited as a recent example of the career ramifications that can flow from public activity.

Actually, he’s not alone. For years, outspoken scientists have encountered career difficulties and personal repercussions.

But climate science and the advent of digital and social media shape how scientists speak publicly about science now.

Decades of attacks on scientists

Science, an effective system for generating knowledge, is inextricably linked with economic, military and political activity.

For decades, scientific research has been shaped by the agendas of the most powerful groups in society, primarily governments and corporations. The period following World War II has been described as the era of “big science” with generous funding for research.

Periodically though, research findings connect with emerging social movements.

In the early 1970s, CSIRO scientist Peter Springell reported that he was blocked from publishing articles on environmental topics using his CSIRO affiliation, after he criticised CSIRO’s lack of environmental research.

According to Springell, he was targeted with a punitive transfer and recommended for dismissal. To my knowledge, there has been no public response from CSIRO to this claim.

Claims have also been made regarding repercussions after scientists spoke up about hazards from nuclear power, genetic modification, electromagnetic fields or using treated sewage sludge on agricultural land.

In several scientific fields, there is a pattern of suppression of dissent. In many of these cases, scientists have challenged either the orthodoxy in the field or policy positions.

Whether these challengers are right or wrong is not the focus of this analysis. Rather, the point is that their claims should be evaluated scientifically and that the scientists should not be subject to unfair treatment.

A survey of Australian environmental scientists undertaken in the mid 1990s contained 70 participants. Over half of respondents believed that scientists who spoke out about environmental issues could jeopardise their research funding or career prospects.

Surveys conducted in 2002/2003 in “a sample of researchers drawn from prestigious U.S. academic departments” reported that “nearly half the researchers felt constrained by explicit, formal controls, such as governmental regulations and guidelines codified by universities, professional societies, or journals”.

And then came climate change

In the past two decades, the usual pattern of scientific research shaped by social interests has been challenged in several ways. A key factor is climate science. The scientific orthodoxy today – that global warming is occurring and largely due to human influences – is contrary to the interests of the fossil fuel industry.

Because climate change is the world’s most prominent environmental issue, this causes unprecedented tensions in countries such as Australia and the US, where some politicians appear sympathetic to climate scepticism.

Under the US administrations of George W Bush and Donald Trump, this tension has been exacerbated by concerns about overt political interference in research agendas.

Removal of references to climate change on the White House website is cited as one of the triggers for the global March for Science movement.

Control and trust

The emergence of open access research published online, plus social media has changed how scientific findings are distributed and read, and who drives dialogues about science. Scientists, governments and other groups can’t control conversations about the implications of research in this environment.

Action groups can more readily access research findings, and use them to support their causes. This occurs in all sorts of fields.

Public trust in authorities is in decline, including those in government, science and health.

Yet another factor is the increasing role of whistleblowing. Speaking out in the public interest occurs in all sorts of areas, including schools, police, the military, the public service, churches and businesses. So why not in scientific fields?

Public interest leaking — or anonymous whistleblowing — has received enormous attention due to WikiLeaks and the spectacular disclosures by Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. It’s an option some scientists may choose to take.

Group and anonymous activity

Systems of power have always led to attacks on scientists who are seen as a threat by governments, corporations or (in recent decades) members of identity groups such as transgender activists. Most of these cases involve both power and a clash of worldviews.

There is safety in numbers, and this is why the March for Science is so important. Reports say that thousands of scientists across more than 600 cities stood up for science on April 22, 2017.

It remains risky to speak out as an individual, so the option of leaking information to the media or to action groups may become increasingly attractive.

However, in Australia surveillance and data retention may make it more difficult to maintain anonymity.

Individual scientists may still choose to become advocates to support informed public debate and policymaking. Because of the risk of reprisals, such scientists would be wise to learn media skills, campaigning techniques and how to be more effective when speaking out.The Conversation

Brian Martin, Honorary professorial fellow, University of Wollongong

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Why aren't our Scientists shouting from the Rooftops?


-Image by Robert Jones from Pixabay  


People from overseas have been asking why we aren't doing more to protect our koalas, why there hasn't been more action about bushfire prevention and why our policies don't reflect the urgency of Climate Change. Just when Climate scientists could be saying, “Nyah, Nyah, told you so," the majority are strangely silent. This is a great tragedy since most of the progress humans have made over the last 500 years or so – in health and sanitation, in technology and in mobility and communication, we owe to the work of scientists, yet now when our own lives, not mention that of almost every other species depends on them, we hear very little.

 If you have also been scratching your head as to why there is such a disconnect between what is coming out the lab and the field and why a surprisingly large number of people who ought to know better, including many of our policy makers, are still in denial about Climate Change, even when the evidence is staring them in the face, then you will find some of the answers in the following pages kindly reprinted from “The Conversation.” We are not alone in this either. Reports coming out of the USA in 2014 showed that only around 50% of the population believed climate change was real with things getting decidedly worse under the Trump administration and as more and more people turn to the internet for their information, which has, to put it mildly, less rigorous standards of proof and peer review than the scientific community.

It makes me fear we are entering a new Dark Age where myth and superstition will once again replace knowledge based on testing and facts while we fall deeper into environmental crisis and just when we need scientists most. The following won’t be strictly in order because I want to end on a more optimistic note. 

  1.   The first is about what happens to scientists if they are too outspoken
  2.  The second is about how the commercial media, dependent as it is advertising revenue is complicit in creating doubt about Climate Change
  3. The next is about defending scientific integrity against huge waves of disinformation
  4. And finally it is about the enormous role of science in the future if we wish to mitigate against the worst effects of climate change.

Although some of the articles are now a couple of years old, these issues have been going on for decades. Even back in 2000 when I was doing Environmental Journalism as part of my degree, I was warned that my career would be very short if I focussed only on what was wrong or what needed doing.  It was. Self -censorship in both science and the media is also common. 

If you want to support our scientists, then demand continued funding for public interest research and universities and for the protection of whistleblowers.  Defunding of areas such as Environmental Protection, Protection of Endangered Species and Public Lands must also stop too if we are to have anything left at all.  

PS  “The Conversation,” is a great read if you want to hear directly from people doing research in many different fields.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Interim Report

Mug Library at boho


Thanks for checking in!

Just wanted to touch base with you quickly as I’m now rushing through a course on Solid Waste Management and have a test tomorrow. I know it doesn't sound thrilling, but it has a lot of good ideas I hope to share with you later. In the meantime, just so you don’t go away completely empty handed, let me tell you about a nice little place I visited just before Christmas.

What caught my eye initially about boho, one of many little coffee shops near the beach in Kingston, was the mug library (see above) out the front.  If you haven’t brought your own cup, you can borrow one of theirs and bring it back later instead of using disposable cups. This works especially well when you have regulars.


Looking out the window at the rain outside - definitely not a beach day!


The other thing I liked about the place apart from the excellent coffee, the roaring fire and the interesting collection of goods for sale – clothing, jewellery, housewares, fragrant candles and so on, was the use of recycled materials in the courtyard –assorted chairs, old window frames, weathered tables, and lots of plants which gave it a rather casual, intimate air. It also enabled us all to keep our distance. 

Loved all the plants and the crazy furniture

A woman after my own heart -proprietor boho Jo

Heck, I even liked the writing on the wall! (and No, I didn't get a free cup of coffee! I am zee secret squirrel)

Friday, January 01, 2021

The Wake for 2020

I'm sitting here with my headphones on and a (small) wineglass in my hand. I’m rushing to catch up on some of the courses I‘ve started and waiting for the fireworks to begin. As far as the courses go, I have bitten off more than I can chew, but they all sound so interesting - some from Harvard, some from Oxford and a lot of other interesting establishments too, all online and free unless you want accreditation. Check them out here

I have just finished Amnesty’s  Digital Security and Human Rights Course. It's an issue which is becoming more and more important with so many journalists being killed (50 in 2020 according to the bbc), others being gaoled or harassed, our governments becoming more secretive and our news media either being muzzled  (abc) or becoming little more than propaganda machines. As even democracies are starting to employ tactics we once associated with repressive regimes, we need to be aware and informed in order to protect our own human rights especially if we wish to protect those of others. Did you know that digital rights were a part of Human Rights Law under The Right to Privacy, Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Information? This course also mentions how to deal with malware, phishing and other kinds of attack.

It also talks about surveillance, which is becoming more and more intrusive. We were only a little uneasy about what we assumed to be benign surveillance and only moderately alarmed by all the information being fed back to marketers so that they can target their wares more precisely, but we became decidedly more touchy when it came to sensitive health information, political interests and associations at a time when trust in government generally is declining. Even in Australia, ours has taken more and more rights unto itself, without debate or public consultation, and with neither an opt out clause nor judiciary oversight. The laws rushed through under cover of Covid have few safeguards and even the COVID app has already been used to "incidentally" scoop up data, though law enforcement swears it hasn't been utilised. If you want to know more about protecting yourself or even just how to get rid of those pesky ads, follow the instructions in this recent article in Wired magazine or those in the Advent Calendar by the Electronic Frontiers Foundation. See also the excellent article in Digital Rights Watch about all those nifty gadgets you might have gotten from Santa or smart appliances you might have at home.

Now, the fireworks are done and dusted and it’s 2021. The New Year won’t have to try very hard to be better than the last one. There’s even a bit of good news already with Germany is standing up for Julian Assange. When I finish this I am going to light a candle for him and all the others who have stood up for the truth or who have lost their lives for something greater than themselves. That includes healthcare workers and the firemen who perished in last year's fires. Have a great New Year!


Images by Free-Photos from Pixabay 

If you can, please support any of the organisations mentioned including Amnesty which are fighting for all of us.