Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: Clover It

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  • Keir Leslie,

    And further, I should note that there are these independent institutions called `universities' where scientists can work, which are specifically designed to emphasise academic freedom for that very reason.

    Since Jul 2008 • 1452 posts Report Reply

  • Rob Stowell,

    these independent institutions called `universities' where scientists can work, which are specifically designed to emphasise academic freedom

    It was like that. once, I seem to remember.
    Now it's all about funding sources, publishing every scrap or random thought, and a heap of 'applied technology" :(

    Whakaraupo • Since Nov 2006 • 2091 posts Report Reply

  • giovanni tiso,

    If you can't work for the government, and you can't work for commercial interests, without being accused of being a pawn of either, then who can scientists work for without having to fend off presumptions of bias?

    Nobody. There's nobody a scientist can work for that is irrilevant to what they do. Nobody gives you a blank cheque and an expensive infrastructure and laboratory assistants without asking you what you're going to do with all that stuff, demanding some sort of accountability and having a say. It just doesn't happen. So yeah, there's a presumption of bias, simply in the sense that all that information is relevant to our understanding of how and why we do science. It doesn't of course mean we should dismiss the opinion of scientists, or deny that they have a degree of autonomy, or blithely assume that they don't have ethical considerations at heart.

    Wellington • Since Jun 2007 • 7473 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha,

    +1

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19688 posts Report Reply

  • Islander,

    And all those free lovely science-embracing universities get their funding from.....?

    Big O, Mahitahi, Te Wahi … • Since Feb 2007 • 5643 posts Report Reply

  • B Jones,

    I think I agree with you, Giovanni. I just get a sense in just about every debate about science conducted by non-scientists (of which I am one) that the question of who paid for the research becomes way more important than is it good research and what does it show. Mainly, I think, because most of us aren't really qualified to engage with the latter. But the former is a kind of ad hominem, the sort that makes me tear my hair out when it's applied to scientists by conservative advocates about evolution or global warming or whatnot. Surely the whole concept of a search for truth hasn't been entirely defeated by Foucault and all that?

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 976 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha,

    Just becomes a search for truths plural - but that's not the distorting factor, it's corporatist politics

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19688 posts Report Reply

  • Stephen Judd,

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 3122 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen,

    So yeah, there's a presumption of bias

    Yeah I totally get that Gio and Sasha and others. I do think you overestimate the influence of business on science in New Zealand but the point is fair there is some influence. The question is then do the people involved allow that influence to alter their thinking.

    But you also have to accept that it is both frustrating and somewhat insulting to be accused of bias. I try very hard not to let that affect my discussion but it's hard sometimes to be told by someone that I am merely a pawn of big business and hence my opinion is irrelevant (actually had pretty much those words used more than once). And it wouldn't be so bad if the presumption of bias were applied to all parties in the discussion. You hardly ever see anyone point out that organic farmers have a financial interest in seeing GM banned.

    I think B Jones makes a good point that because the knowledge takes time and effort to gain it is hard to argue the science and easier to argue other things.

    But I think also that there is a fundamental core of folks who just don't like the idea of GM and regardless of what "proofs" are supplied that inherent dislike remains.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4451 posts Report Reply

  • recordari,

    Strangely apropos.

    I love that the before shots are all white-coated men, and the after shots, well not men. And they even play racquet-ball! The feminisation of Science? In a good way, of course.

    [Coat]

    AUCKLAND • Since Dec 2009 • 2607 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen,

    The feminisation of Science?

    It's very real. We had a visit some time ago from a South African scientist (female), she expressed surprise that we had so many men working in science because in SA men wouldn't work in such a poorly paid profession.

    We are starting to see that more in NZ as male students seem to be choosing career paths leading to what they believe are higher paid jobs. I think now have a pretty strong majority in favour of women getting science degrees, something that was inconceivable when I did my degree.

    But don't worry we still pay them less than men when they get a job as a scientist and we don't let them run the institutes.*

    *we really need an irony tag to go along with the sarcasm tag.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4451 posts Report Reply

  • B Jones,

    it is hard to argue the science and easier to argue other things

    I think it's also a symptom of people being educated in either the arts or science, with little crossover in between. Most BA grads would have read or at least encountered the arguments of Chomsky, Foucault and so on, and encountered science through the politics of science. A smaller proportion would have post sixth form statistics, or have read scientific papers and be able to make informed judgements independently. And fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

    I think there's a real risk that the only process humans have developed for checking their assumptions and testing their theories becomes just another one of several equally valid "truths". That's an tempting proposition for those whose voices haven't been properly represented by science in the past, but the ultimate result of everybody's truths being equal is that the loudest shouters, not the closest representation of reality, get primacy in policymaking. See the science curriculum in Texas.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 976 posts Report Reply

  • Ian Dalziel,

    Elementary my dear, what's on?

    *we really need an irony tag to go along with the sarcasm tag.

    how about a periodic solution:
    <Fe> Ironic statement </Fe>

    and maybe for the finer distinction on sarcasm:
    <Fey> snark </Fey>

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 7889 posts Report Reply

  • dyan campbell,

    But you also have to accept that it is both frustrating and somewhat insulting to be accused of bias.

    Bart, no one is accusing you of bias. I was quoting from Lewis Wolpert's book that "science produces ideas and technology produces products".

    I think it's also a symptom of people being educated in either the arts or science, with little crossover in between.

    This may be evidence of poor education in general, but I have never met an actual scientist that was not incredibly well informed in many different subjects.

    I have met several people working with technology who mistakenly considered themselves "scientists" who could afford to do a bit more reading in areas other than their own specialised, applied research.

    But I have never met a scientist that thought we could possibly calculate the risk of introducing something novel into the ecosystem. As David Suzuki says (and he's a scientist - you would have studied his work as well as Lewis Wolpert's) "anyone who says they can predict the consequences of GM is either stupid or lying",

    In physiology for instance - can you predict how any of the nutritional changes in GM products will affect the metabolisation of that food? Can a "scientist" working in GM on an agricultural product really understand the mechanisms of epigenetics? Of endocrinology? Of reproductive biology? Developmental biology? Bacteriology? Virology? Neurobiology? And what of effects on pathways we do not yet know exist?

    Only a few years ago endocrinologists thought leptin explained a lot, but when did they know of ghrelin, adiponectin or preopiomelanomelacortin? Leptin is only one small part of that particular pathway. And that's only part of one tiny pathway in a system with an incalculable number of large pathways.

    A "scientist" - and by "scientist" I mean someone with a background in science who works in the field of technology, thinking mistakenly they are a "real scientist" - is no more qualified to discuss the issues that arise from GM than anyone else with a decent education. And someone who is only educated in their miniscule field can not honestly claim to understand the impact their product will have on the environment.

    auckland • Since Dec 2006 • 595 posts Report Reply

  • Matthew Poole,

    And on the topic of assumed truths being countered by evidence that will probably just be ignored, a study just published in the BMJ points very, very strongly to zero correlation between exposure to radiation from cellphone towers and childhood cancers.
    Not that this will matter a damn, of course - much like the vaccination/autism thing - but the evidence is mounting that low-dose exposure to cellphone signals is not carcinogenic.

    Auckland • Since Mar 2007 • 4097 posts Report Reply

  • giovanni tiso,

    And it wouldn't be so bad if the presumption of bias were applied to all parties in the discussion. You hardly ever see anyone point out that organic farmers have a financial interest in seeing GM banned.

    And politicians, in riding the more emotional and unhelpful attitudes towards your particular branch of science. Although given that Fitzimmons gave an audience to Richard Gage, I'd be inclined to think that hers was a genuine inability to process evidence, as opposed to a more cynically calculated pretense. But the end result is very much the same.

    Wellington • Since Jun 2007 • 7473 posts Report Reply

  • dyan campbell,

    And it wouldn't be so bad if the presumption of bias were applied to all parties in the discussion. You hardly ever see anyone point out that organic farmers have a financial interest in seeing GM banned.

    Bart, not one person I've ever met (or read for that matter) who objects to the application of this technology in the environment is an organic farmer - most of them are scientists - really highly qualified ones.

    And of course there are people who object to gene sequences - in medicine or food - being patented, but are not bothered by the application.

    Also there are people who think that some sequences are best patented to protect them from exploitation by those with vested interests one way or the other.

    I could go on with descriptions of who people who have a right to an opinion as to the application of this technology, but if you think about it absolutely everyone has a right to an opinion as to the application of this technology.

    The science is neutral, but the application to technology affects us all.

    auckland • Since Dec 2006 • 595 posts Report Reply

  • dyan campbell,

    but the evidence is mounting that low-dose exposure to cellphone signals is not carcinogenic.

    A carcinogenic effect is only one facet of the damage radiation does. Some of us would like to know the effects on epigenetics, endocrinology and neurobiological development. Not all of us are paediatric oncologists... there are a few other points of view to consider before we call this "known".

    I don't object to the application of this technology - cell phone towers - but I do object to people with a science background working in that field concluding for all other fields that they have this subject understood, defined and labeled. We don't know what we don't know yet - nor will we know this for a long time. Who could predict that slavery centuries ago would affect blood pressure in the 21st C? Who knew prosperity and the plentiful availability of food would have a deleterious effect on the maternal grandchildren of the nutritionally deficient? We figure these things out in hindsight.

    As I say, I have no problem with cell phone towers, but I do have a problem with people who say a study like this concludes anything about public health in general.

    US Regulatory Commission Fact Sheet on the effects of radiation

    .The likelihood of cancer occurring after radiation exposure is about five times greater than a genetic effect (e.g., increased still births, congenital abnormalities, infant mortality, childhood mortality, and decreased birth weight). Genetic effects are the result of a mutation produced in the reproductive cells of an exposed individual that are passed on to their offspring.

    These effects may appear in the exposed person's direct offspring, or may appear several generations later, depending on whether the altered genes are dominant or recessive.

    auckland • Since Dec 2006 • 595 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen,

    Bart, not one person I've ever met (or read for that matter) who objects to the application of this technology in the environment is an organic farmer

    I have, many times. I think you either need to check the sources of what you have read more carefully or read a little wider. Note I'm not dismissing their objections because of their background.

    "anyone who says they can predict the consequences of GM is either stupid or lying"

    I am really struggling to understand your point here Dyan.

    If your point is that because we don't know and can't know everything then we should not do anything, then I disagree. And it is really that simple, we disagree.

    I believe that we know enough to be able to make sensible, reasonable decisions about both field experimentation with GM crops and also the release of GM crops with every expectation that they will provide significant benefit. I can provide the examples of the last 15 years as evidence that such a belief is reasonable.

    Furthermore the evidence from the last 15 years is that the benefits of GM crops were understated.

    I have yet to be convinced by any of the disaster scenarios postulated by the opponents of GM. In my opinion we should embrace this science and the technologies it makes possible.

    I recognise that there are people who for varied reasons disagree with my opinion. And I recognise that for some there is no scientific discussion that will make them comfortable with GM.

    Just to go back to this quote

    "anyone who says they can predict the consequences of GM is either stupid or lying"

    I actually find this sort of comment really irritating, which is simply my personal reaction. There is this idea that science has to be about certainty. And that's not true. Science is about observation and hypothesis. If you want certainty science is the last place you should look because science is all about testing and challenging "certainties".
    I can predict the consequences of GM easily. It will with absolute certainty do great good in the world it will make some people money it will get some people angry it will bring us surprises most of them good and some of them bad. There I just made a prediction. Will I be proven right after we do the experiment of time and observe the results? I don't know. But I am neither stupid nor a lier simply because I made the prediction.
    The real point of the quote is not that we shouldn't make predictions but that we must do the experiments to test the predictions. Unfortunately most folks miss that point.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4451 posts Report Reply

  • Ian Dalziel,

    trebor robert

    I can predict the consequences of GM easily. It will with absolute certainty do great good in the world it will make some people money it will get some people angry it will bring us surprises most of them good and some of them bad.

    that is a very comprehensive prediction...
    though it seems to have more in common with our favourite palindromic buddy - a Bob each way...

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 7889 posts Report Reply

  • B Jones,

    Dyan, did you link to that NRC fact sheet to shore up your point about cellphone towers? Because that's about ionising radiation, not the non-ionising sort that cellphone towers emit. There's a big difference.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 976 posts Report Reply

  • dyan campbell,

    "anyone who says they can predict the consequences of GM is either stupid or lying"
    I am really struggling to understand your point here Dyan.

    That's not my quote Bart, it's David Suzuki's quote. And I think his point is pretty evident in his statement. I've used that quote and attributed it to him twice in this discussion. Take it up with him.

    Dyan, did you link to that NRC fact sheet to shore up your point about cellphone towers? Because that's about ionising radiation, not the non-ionising sort that cellphone towers emit. There's a big difference.

    I am aware that the first knocks an electron clear off an atom or molecule and the second does not. I once had a fascinating conversation with Linus Pauling about how little we really know about radiation, and how wrong the early - and many of the subsequent - assumptions turned out to be. And I am aware that any and all radiation - not necessarily ionising or mutagenic radiation, but even radiation from nature - is likely to have effects not yet known, much less catalogued. These may have been happening all around us for generations (like the example of blood pressure and slavery or aged fatherhood and sex-linked genetic diseases) but we do not know what it is we are seeing until we look for it, working backwards.

    And - I'm quoting myself here -

    I don't object to the application of this technology - cell phone towers - but I do object to people with a science background working in that field concluding for all other fields that they have this subject understood, defined and labeled.

    Thalidomide and circadian rhythms, aged fatherhood and sex-linked genetic disorders, the omentem, cytokines and diseases we didn't know we could create in our bodies by disrupting that particular metabolic process - these are all examples of infinitesimally small causes that have previously unrecognised, massive effects.

    We don't know what we don't know. Bart, how are you more qualified than David Suzuki to accurately gage the risks of all GE on the environment? He's a guy who knows a lot about genetics - you would have studied what he discovered - and he is deeply unsure what would affect what. For instance, he's not keen on the idea of releasing salmon into the wild that grow 3x faster than normal salmon, because he has some idea that will disrupt something we don't recognise even exists. It may have terrible consequences for the forests, for all we know, because, as it turns out, the forests and the salmon (and the bears and the flies) all depend on one another for their existence.

    Where David Suzuki and I both hail there are much wider ecosystems to consider, and more of these incredibly unlikely relationships have been carefully mapped out. And the incredibly unlikeliness of the relationships between organisms - and their waste - and their apparently unrelated neighbours - has anyone who knows anything about these subjects quite alarmed at the prospect that there are ignoramuses out there who presume to know more than their own tiny little avenue of research.

    auckland • Since Dec 2006 • 595 posts Report Reply

  • Ian Dalziel,

    I tinker therefore I am...

    ...quite alarmed at the prospect that there are ignoramuses out there who presume to know more than their own tiny little avenue of research.

    like all the various schemes to do some geo-engineering

    Polluting the upper atmosphere with nanoparticles that cool the planet? That’s geo-engineering. Turning plantations into charcoal to bury our problems in the soil? That’s geo-engineering. Changing the chemistry of the seas to soak up more greenhouse gas? Also geo-engineering.

    but what happens if the iron you dump in the ocean acts as a heat-sink and cools currents, even slightly - that thermal conveyor belt about the planet is kinda crucial in myriad ways...

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 7889 posts Report Reply

  • dyan campbell,

    but what happens if the iron you dump in the ocean acts as a heat-sink and cools currents, even slightly - that thermal conveyor belt about the planet is kinda crucial in myriad ways...

    Exactly Ian.

    auckland • Since Dec 2006 • 595 posts Report Reply

  • dyan campbell,

    Not me here, I'm quoting David Suzuki:

    More science [is] needed on effects of genetically modifying food crops.

    In gearing up for the 2010 release of its super-genetically modified corn called “SmartStax”, agricultural-biotechnology giant Monsanto is using an advertising slogan that asks, “Wouldn't it be better?” But can we do better than nature, which has taken millennia to develop the plants we use for food?

    We don’t really know. And that in itself is a problem. The corn, developed by Monsanto with Dow AgroSciences, “stacks” eight genetically engineered traits, six that allow it to ward off insects and two to make it resistant to weed-killing chemicals, many of which are also trademarked by Monsanto. It’s the first time a genetically engineered (GE) product has been marketed with more than three traits.

    Canada approved the corn without assessing it for human health or environmental risk, claiming that the eight traits have already been cleared in other crop seeds—even though international food-safety guidelines that Canada helped develop state that stacked traits should be subject to a full safety assessment as they can lead to unintended consequences.

    One problem is that we don’t know the unintended consequences of genetically engineered or genetically modified (GM) foods. Scientists may share consensus about issues like human-caused global warming, but they don’t have the same level of certainty about the effects of genetically modified organisms on environmental and human health!

    A review of the science conducted under the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development in 2008 concluded that “there are a limited number of properly designed and independently peer-reviewed studies on human health” and that this and other observations “create concern about the adequacy of testing methodologies for commercial GM plants”.

    Some have argued that we’ve been eating GM foods for years with few observable negative consequences but as we’ve seen with things like trans fats, it often takes a while for us to recognize the health impacts. With GM foods, concerns have been raised about possible effects on stomach bacteria and resistance to antibiotics, as well as their role in allergic reactions. We also need to understand more about their impact on other plants and animals.

    Of course, these aren’t the only issues with GM crops. Allowing agro-chemical companies to create GM seeds with few restrictions means these companies could soon have a monopoly over agricultural production. And by introducing SmartStax, we are giving agro-chemical companies the green light not just to sell and expand the use of their “super crops” but also to sell and expand the use of the pesticides these crops are designed to resist.

    A continued reliance on these crops could also reduce the variety of foods available, as well as the nutritive value of the foods themselves.

    There’s also a reason nature produces a variety of any kind of plant species. It ensures that if disease or insects attack a plant, other plant varieties will survive and evolve in its place. This is called biodiversity.

    Because we aren’t certain about the effects of GMOs, we must consider one of the guiding principles in science, the precautionary principle. Under this principle, if a policy or action could harm human health or the environment, we must not proceed until we know for sure what the impact will be. And it is up to those proposing the action or policy to prove that it is not harmful.

    That’s not to say that research into altering the genes in plants that we use for food should be banned or that GM foods might not someday be part of the solution to our food needs. We live in an age when our technologies allow us to “bypass” the many steps taken by nature over millennia to create food crops to now produce “super crops” that are meant to keep up with an ever-changing human-centred environment.

    A rapidly growing human population and deteriorating health of our planet because of climate change and a rising number of natural catastrophes, among other threats, are driving the way we target our efforts and funding in plant, agricultural, and food sciences, often resulting in new GM foods.

    But we need more thorough scientific study on the impacts of such crops on our environment and our health, through proper peer-reviewing and unbiased processes. We must also demand that our governments become more transparent when it comes to monitoring new GM crops that will eventually find their ways in our bellies through the food chain.

    auckland • Since Dec 2006 • 595 posts Report Reply

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