Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: Science: it's complicated

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  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Sacha,

    No dog in the fight.

    Sorry, I overreacted.

    At the time, 25 years ago, when allergies were raised as an issue they were taken very seriously by the community and a lot of research was done. Sadly most of it is buried in the applications for release of GMOs which makes it very hard to dig out.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3114 posts Report Reply

  • Joe Wylie,

    If anything it is this kind of "scientist" vs "scientist" conflict that is one of the most complex to understand when you are outside the specialist field being debated.

    In other words, STFU, and you may touch the hem of my garment in order to ward off that awful Sue Kedgley. You're such a charmer Bart.

    flat earth • Since Jan 2007 • 3291 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    Sorry, I overreacted

    All good. Passion about science is a valuable commodity.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 15741 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Joe Wylie,

    In other words, STFU, and you may touch the hem of my garment in order to ward off that awful Sue Kedgley. You’re such a charmer Bart.

    OK I'm obviously not communicating well this morning, sorry.

    I can't refute all of Heinemann's objections because it isn't my field of expertise. But it is the field of expertise of the scientists at AgResearch, they say he's full of shit, politely of course. I trust them, in some cases because I them.

    You can choose to believe Heinemann or believe the researchers at AgR.

    OR you can learn enough about the field and intricacies of the debate to know for yourself.

    If you choose to believe one or other scientist then be very careful about the motivations of that scientist.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3114 posts Report Reply

  • andin,

    Oh and another thing that really really fucks me off is this Hillary.

    For pakeha in NZ this mainly means the Judeo Christian tradition

    Well you make it sound like pakeha are one big fat amorphous blob and one wobbly flank is exactly like the wobbly arse. Well we ain’t all right!
    Sometimes I feel like all the Waitangi disputes are an extension of the old English Pakeha/Maori conflict which is still being tussled out. And I wish you guys would just take it outside.
    Oh whats the fucking point no one’s listening anyway.

    raglan • Since Mar 2007 • 1149 posts Report Reply

  • Joe Wylie, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    Bart, I appreciate information being made available, particularly in a form that's intelligible to non-specialists. Obviously it's rather more complex than Heinemann being on the side of the angels, and AgResearch's Jimmy Suttie being in the likes of Monsanto's pocket. If you're really so wedded to the dedicated civil servant's view of the public interest as a nuisance factor, perhaps you should be questioning the motivation for Russell's show.

    flat earth • Since Jan 2007 • 3291 posts Report Reply

  • giovanni tiso, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    If you choose to believe one or other scientist then be very careful about the motivations of that scientist.

    Yes. I mean it's not as if scientists who work at AgResearch could possibly be biased on this subject.

    Wellington • Since Jun 2007 • 7315 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    The sad thing I experienced when competing with other specialists for the trust/money of non-specialists was that it came down very often to non-rational things. Better presentation. A more exciting story. More prestigious reputation. Nicer suits, spankier toys. More cunning tactics, and a ruthless milking of cheap shots. Better relationships with the people you were trying to convince. A broad political agreement. Secret deals.

    Which pretty much suggests that coming to a decision on something you are not a specialist in is hard work. It's really no surprise that so many people don't know the truth about a lot of science.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8027 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to andin,

    Sometimes I feel like all the Waitangi disputes are an extension of the old English Pakeha/Maori conflict which is still being tussled out. And I wish you guys would just take it outside.

    It is. And outside where?

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 15741 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to BenWilson,

    More cunning tactics

    sadly, yes

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 15741 posts Report Reply

  • Steve Reeves, in reply to BenWilson,

    Absolutely!

    I am currently trying to convince people in industry that my research group has something to offer them. We've shown certain processes to work in the lab, and now we want to see if they work outside the lab.

    We have peer-reviewed work that supports our goodness, and international collaborators that have succeeded in industrial settings overseas.

    But even getting to talk to people who manage projects in the companies we're interested in proves to be really difficult.

    Perhaps we should put a price tag on---it really does seem that if you are suggesting something that is, to the company concerned, free (in terms of money), they have little respect or time for you!

    And we're not even competing with anyone else--just, it seems, a lack of awareness that things could be done far better than they are, with all sorts of benefits, we believe.

    The fact that, under current government policies, being able to show some link to industry can mean getting or not getting a further grant also means that come the end of this year the research will stop here in NZ, and talented people that the country has put years and years of money towards for their education and their employment as researchers will lose their jobs and move overseas.

    A common story, I know, but a very upsetting and frustrating one.

    Near Donny Park, Hamilton… • Since Apr 2007 • 93 posts Report Reply

  • Danielle, in reply to Sacha,

    It is.

    Yeah, that's kind of what historical claims are about. You know: *history*.

    And outside where?

    +1. So terribly sorry if it makes you uncomfortable, andin, but where on earth do you suggest claims should be heard?

    Charo World. Cuchi-cuchi!… • Since Nov 2006 • 3583 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Steve Reeves,

    But even getting to talk to people who manage projects in the companies we're interested in proves to be really difficult.

    This is where the great science communicators come in. The natural story tellers. Also, just out and out salespeople and marketers. I have a lot of respect for people who can generate interest in something, even if their own knowledge of that something is not deep. It's really hard work. Once you're in the door, you bring your boffins.

    These ideas are quite formalized in software, the gradual blur from the people marketing the company to people analyzing whether they could do something for a client to people actually designing it, to those who have to make it, and test it, and support it. Everyone should be able to do some of all of it, but people do tend to specialize. I've noticed that the closest to the front end of the project you get, the more experienced and better paid the people tend to be. The very front, the face of the organization, are people that might not have done any actual coding for a very long time.

    I don't know if the same goes for more conventional science. Are project leaders typically experienced older scientists, who will seldom be found in the lab actually playing with the rats or peeping down the microscope, or working the spreadsheets?

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8027 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Joe Wylie,

    If you’re really so wedded to the dedicated civil servant’s view of the public interest as a nuisance factor

    Really? That is seriously the first time I've ever been targeted with that accusation.

    Look I'm all in favour of making sure things get done properly and external review is a major part of that process. But Heinemann has a long history in this field. He doesn't address whether GMOs are safe he instead focusses on things like the possibility of DNA making it's way into the ecosystem. Which sounds very scary doesn't it. The fact that all life has DNA and there is no reason to even remotely believe that the "escape" of DNA could cause any harm is irrelevant. Instead you spend days arguing about whether it's possible for DNA in a burial pit to somehow eventually make it into the water table and concluding finally that nobody know for sure. That getting DNA into the water table would be utterly harmless never gets reported. So excuse my frustration with criticisms coming from Dr Heinemann.

    As for Russell's show, I can't speak for his motivations but I view any exercise aimed at figuring out how to communicate science and scientific debates to the public as worthwhile.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3114 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to giovanni tiso,

    I mean it’s not as if scientists who work at AgResearch could possibly be biased on this subject.

    Of course they are biased. Yeah they work ridiculous hours for about half what they could earn in Aussie and a quarter what their managers earn. They get great science canned at the whim of politicians and strategic planners. They struggle to get publications. They get their cars splashed with acid and their children threatened by activists. And yet they continue to work on these projects.

    Yeah these are the kinds of people who are likely to distort the truth.

    Your point is valid Gio, yes they are employed on these projects and emotionally attached to the work they feel passionate about so yes they are biased. They also happen to be honest, I can say this because yes I know some of them.

    Sorry I really need a coffee because I'm getting way too animated about this.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3114 posts Report Reply

  • James Butler, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    Sorry I really need a coffee because I’m getting way too animated about this.

    Ahh yes, the well-known calming and soporific effects of coffee.

    Auckland • Since Jan 2009 • 790 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to BenWilson,

    the closest to the front end of the project you get, the more experienced and better paid the people tend to be

    I bet frontline tech support folk wish you were correct about that

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 15741 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    there is no reason to even remotely believe that the "escape" of DNA could cause any harm

    I hope you can see how that might be regarded as exaggeration. And it's a short step from there to bias.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 15741 posts Report Reply

  • James Green, in reply to Russell Brown,

    I was wondering about this, but most people seem to called him "Lord Robert Winston". Where, then, does the "Professor" part go? I know it's full and correct to refer to "Professor Sir Peter Gluckman".

    Kracklite is on it. Either [The Rth Hon] Professor Lord Winston, or Professor Robert [Winston], [Baron/Lord] Winston. The confusion is caused by life peers, whose surnames are the same as their peerage title. Wikipedia's example of a hereditary peer is John Julius Cooper [name], Viscount Norwich [title] (who also gets about as John Julius Norwich). In contrast Winston's title is Baron Winston of Hammersmith, and is his personal name is Robert Winston.
    It's sort of intriguing, but also very silly at the same time.

    Dunedin • Since Nov 2006 • 667 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Sacha,

    I hope you can see how that might be regarded as exaggeration.

    I accept there will always be bias, the question must be "does the bias affect the conclusions?" and that isn't easy to determine.

    And actually speaking as a molecular biologist with over 30 years experience in this field I honestly cannot think of any way that having DNA in the water can do any harm.

    /back of envelope
    Getting DNA into another organism, without the organism simply chewing up the DNA and using it as nutrient is really hard to do in the lab. We can do it using methods developed over the past 50 years, but it isn't easy for most organisms. Then getting the DNA to do anything useful in the new organism is also hard, again we can do it in the lab but it's taken decades of research but it still isn't something we expect to work even when we actually try, let alone by accident in the wild. And then getting that DNA inherited by the progeny of the organism also hard. And then having that DNA do something bad?
    /front of envelope

    No I'm going to stand by my original statement.

    Oh and if you want experimental proof of my hypothesis look at the "escape" of DNA from the millions of hectares of GM crops grown for the last 2 decades. That strongly suggests experimental observations of (lack of) harm correlate well with theory.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3114 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    the "escape" of DNA from the millions of hectares of GM crops grown for the last 2 decades

    Again, I don't follow this closely but isn't there evidence of gene transfer between GM and non-GM horticultural species?

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 15741 posts Report Reply

  • James Green,

    I'd like to judiciously back up what Bart is saying, including the idea that disentangling different and conflicting experts is extremely difficult outside of the field. I'm reminded of the thread around Linda Bryder's book on the Cartwright inquiry.

    And on science communication, and honesty, and grant funding. In the process of simplifying work for public consumption, there is a real danger of over-trivialising, or losing important nuance. There is also further danger in systematically doing this to make your research seem more exciting/breath-taking/revolutionary than it really is. This is often positive for getting funding, but I think can have a negative impact on reputation over time, but mostly within the field, rather than the public eye.

    Dunedin • Since Nov 2006 • 667 posts Report Reply

  • Roger, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    If anything it is this kind of "scientist" vs "scientist" conflict that is one of the most complex to understand when you are outside the specialist field being debated.

    And then there are those that are just involved because they like a good argument!

    Auckland • Since Jun 2007 • 171 posts Report Reply

  • Joe Wylie, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    Oh and if you want experimental proof of my hypothesis look at the "escape" of DNA from the millions of hectares of GM crops grown for the last 2 decades. That strongly suggests experimental observations of (lack of) harm correlate well with theory.

    If by "(lack of) harm" you mean sci-fi scenarios such as the appearance of new hybrid species then fair enough. Unlikely, but not impossible. As you'll know, the more immediate risk is from opportunistic lawsuits against farmers who have the misfortune to find their crops contaminated with patented strains. It's a real and serious issue for some.

    flat earth • Since Jan 2007 • 3291 posts Report Reply

  • Roger, in reply to Joe Wylie,

    crops contaminated with patented strains

    That is about the only way that exchange can happen... when pollen from a GE crop blows across to, and pollenates a member of the same type of plant.

    Eating GE corn is about as likely to contaminate people with 'foreign' DNA as it is for us to be contaminated by 'normal' corn DNA

    Auckland • Since Jun 2007 • 171 posts Report Reply

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