Tag Archives: Science

We must defend science if we want a prosperous future

The Conversation

Barry Jones, University of Melbourne

Today’s Australians are, by far, the best educated cohort in our history –- on paper, anyway -– but this is not reflected in the quality of our political discourse. We appear to be lacking in courage, judgement, capacity to analyse and even simple curiosity, except about immediate personal needs.

There are more than 1.1 million university students, both undergraduate and postgraduate (about 900,000 of them locals), currently at Australian universities.

Australia also has about 4.5 million graduates (nearly 20% of the population), far more than the total numbers of traditional blue collar workers. Members of trade unions amount to about one million people: 18% of the total work force and about 12% of the private sector.

Inevitably, these numbers will shift our political culture, but the process is occurring slowly.

Australia, like the US, UK, Canada and much of Europe, has undergone a serious decline in the quality of debate on public policy. The British journalist Robert Fisk has called this “the infantilisation of debate”.

In the era of “spin”, when a complex issue is involved, leaders do not explain. They find a mantra (“stop the boats!”) and repeat it endlessly, “staying on message”, without explanation or qualification. The word “because” seems to have fallen out of the political lexicon.

Evidence-based policies and actions should be a central principle in the working of our system and reliance on populism and sloganeering should be rejected, but in reality they are not.

Selling out science

Complex problems demand complex solutions. Examples of such problems are refugees and climate change, which cannot be reduced to parroting a few simple slogans (“turn back the boats”, “stop this toxic tax”).

“Retail politics” – sometimes called “transactional politics” – where policies are adopted not because they are right but because they can be sold, is a dangerous development and should be rejected. We must maintain confidence that major problems can be addressed –- and act accordingly.

A voracious media looks for diversity and emotional engagement, weakening capacity for reflection and serious analysis, compounded by the rise of social media where users, typically, seek reinforcement of their views rather than being challenged by diversity.

Science and research generally are given disturbingly low priority in contemporary public life in Australia. Scientists, especially those involved with climate change or the environment, have come under unprecedented attack, especially in the media.

And the whole concept of the scientific method is discounted, even ridiculed. Gus Nossal sometimes quotes me as saying that Australia must be the only country in the world where the word “academic” is treated as pejorative.

The role of science in policy development is a sensitive issue. I spent years – decades really – bashing my head against a brick wall trying to persuade colleagues to recognise the importance, even centrality, of science policy.

Many, probably most, of my political colleagues had no interest in science as an intellectual discipline, although they depended on science for their health, nutrition, transport, entertainment and communication.

We need to revive the process of dialogue: explain, explain, explain, rejecting mere sloganeering and populism. We need evidence-based policies, but often evidence lacks the psychological carrying power generated by appeals to prejudice or fear of disadvantage (“they are robbing you…”).

Evidence vs. opinion

There is a disturbing conflict between evidence and opinion (“you have evidence, but I have strong opinions”), and political processes are more likely to be driven by opinion rather than evidence in a short political cycle.

Brian Schmidt, our Nobel Laureate in astrophysics, wrote of his experience in this regard in The Age on February 16:

As a Nobel Prize winner, I travel the world meeting all kinds of people.

Most of the policy, business and political leaders I meet immediately apologise for their lack of knowledge of science.

Except when it comes to climate science. Whenever this subject comes up, it never ceases to amaze me how each person I meet suddenly becomes an expert.

Facts are then bandied to fit an argument for or against climate change, and on all sides, misconceptions abound.

The confusion is not surprising – climate science is a very broad and complicated subject with experts working on different aspects of it worldwide.

No single person knows everything about climate change. And for the average punter, it’s hard to keep up with all the latest research and what it means.

More surprising is the supreme confidence that non-experts (scientists and non-scientists alike) have in their own understanding of the subject.

I encourage you to read Thinking, Fast and Slow, a 2011 best seller by the psychologist Daniel Kahneman who, although not an economist, won the Nobel Prize for Economic Science in 2002 for his development of “prospect theory”.

Prospect theory analyses rational and irrational factors in decision making. He demonstrates, regrettably, the extent to which people like you and me use familiar short cuts – “heuristics” – to make intuitive judgements, and discount evidence or rationality in making decisions.

This can apply whether purchasing something, deciding where and how to like something, or taking a political stance on issues. Kahneman became the outstanding authority on behavioural economics and social psychology.

Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, from 2012, is also an important book. I think Haidt could go much further with his thesis, which states that politics and religion tend to be centred on “values”, so people can pick and choose, and can sometimes be blinded to the facts because of their moral worldview. It is clear that many people say: “I reject these particular facts because I don’t trust where they come from.”

Heuristics and confusion

Psychologists confirm that we habitually engage in the cherry-picking of evidence -– we choose the bits that we are emotionally, intuitively, attracted to and comfortable with.

The Cambridge political scientist, David Runciman, argues that “opinion, interest and knowledge are too divided, and no event, whether an election […] or a crisis is clear enough in its meaning to bring closure”.

For example, there is fierce opposition in some quarters to the vaccination of children and the fluoridation of water supplies to prevent dental caries, even though the empirical evidence in support of both is overwhelming. But appeals to fear can be far more powerful than arguing on the basis of hard evidence.

There has been a sustained attack from some quarters – the News Corporation papers, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) to name only three – on scientific research and scientific method, even on rationality and the Enlightenment tradition.

The illusion was created that scientists are corrupt, while lobbyists are pure. One of the false assertions is that scientists who take the mainstream position are rewarded, while dissenters are punished (similar to Galileo and the Inquisition).

In Australia now, and the US until recently, the contrary could be argued. Galileo’s work was based on observation of data -– his opponents were operating from doctrine.

Scientists arguing for the mainstream view have been subject to strong attack by denialists who assert that they are quasi-religious zealots who are missionaries for a green religion.

In reality, it was the denialist/confusionist position to rely on faith, the conviction that there were a diversity of complex reasons for climate change but only one could be confidently rejected: the role of human activity.

It might be nice to see ‘science’ in that list. Takver/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Three fronts

There are three areas of attack against expertise and taking a long term, analytical view of the world: from the Right, the Left and the anxious Centre.

From the Right there have been systematic and well-financed attacks by lobbyists from the fossil fuels industry and electricity generators. This has been highly personal, often abusive, sometimes threatening.

The anxious Centre includes people working in particular industries and regions (such as Hunter Valley, La Trobe Valley, Tasmanian forests), understandably fearful of potential job losses, without much prospect of creating new jobs. The trade union movement is deeply divided on this –- as is the business community.

But from the Left, or some segments of the intellectual Left, a deconstructionist mind-set has partly undermined an evidence-based approach to policy making or problem solving.

The pluralist or deconstructionist or post-modern theory of knowledge is contemptuous of expertise, rejects the idea of hierarchies of knowledge and asserts the democratic mantra that –- as with votes in elections –- every opinion is of equal value, so that if you insist that the earth is flat, refuse vaccination for children or deny that HIV-AIDS is transmitted by virus, your view should be treated with respect.

Similarly, there has been a repudiation of expertise and or taste -– dismissing the idea of people like Harold Bloom, or myself, that there is a “Western canon” which sets benchmarks. “No,” say the deconstructionists, “the paintings of Banksy, the mysterious British graffiti artist, are just as good as Raphael, and hip-hop performances are just as valid as Beethoven’s Opus 131.”

The Welsh geneticist Steve Jones asks an important question: if there is a division of scientific opinion, with 999 on one side, and one on the other, how should the debate be handled? Should the one dissenter be given 500 opportunities to speak?

Yet Graham Lloyd, The Australian’s environment editor – perhaps more accurately described as the anti-environment editor – trawls the web, finds obscure and unsubstantiated critiques of mainstream science, then publishes them as front page attacks on professional integrity.

Science and common-sense

There are major problems when it comes to explaining some of issues in science, and there have been ever since science began. Some fundamental scientific discoveries seem to be counter-intuitive, challenging direct observation or our common-sense view of the world.

Common sense, and direct observation, tells us that the Earth is flat, that the sun (like the moon) rotates around the Earth and that forces don’t operate at a distance.

Aristotle with his encyclopedic –- but often erroneous –- grasp of natural phenomena, was a compelling authority in support of a geocentric universe, and that the seat of reason was in the heart, not the brain, and that females were deformed males. His views were dominant for 1,500 years.

The Greek astronomer Ptolemy, following Aristotle, provided ingenious proofs in support of geocentrism. Then along came Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler who said: “Your common sense observation is wrong. The orbits of sun and moon are completely different, although they appear to be similar.” (Our use of the terms “sunrise” and “sunset” preserves the Ptolemaic paradigm.)

By the 20th Century, electronics enabled us to apply force from a distance, to do thousands of things remotely, manipulating spacecraft and satellites, or receiving signals (radio, telephony, television), setting alarms, opening garage doors and, one of the great labour saving devices, the remote switch for television.

The most obvious disjunction between science and common sense is the question: “right now, are we at rest or in motion?”

Common sense and direct observation suggests that we are at rest. But science says, “wrong again”. We are moving very rapidly. The earth is spinning on its axis at a rate of 1,669 kmh at the equator, and in Melbourne (37.8°S) at 1,317 kmh. We are also orbiting round the sun even faster, at nearly 30 kms, or 107,200 kmh. There is a third motion, harder to measure, as the galaxy expands -– and it’s speeding up, as Brian Schmidt postulates.

But, sitting here in Footscray, it is hard to grasp that we are in motion, kept in place by gravity. Psychology resists it. Essentially we have to accept the repudiation of common sense on trust, because somebody in a white coat says, “trust me, I’m a scientist”. I would challenge anyone to reconcile common sense and quantum theory or to satisfactorily explain the Higgs boson or -– hardest of all -– to define gravity.

The factors that limit the psychological carrying power of much science –- not all -– include these:

  • its complexity, often requiring use of a language known only to initiates
  • outcomes are seen as too expensive
  • outcomes are seen as too slow
  • the history of science has been badly taught, often portrayed as an effortless success story, proceeding from triumph to triumph, instead of the passionate and dramatic reality.

Science at the core

Scientists and learned societies have been punching below their weight in matters of public policy, and they are careful to avoid being involved in controversies outside their disciplines, possible threats to grants being among them.

Some distinguished scientists are outstanding advocates, including Gus Nossal, Peter Doherty, Ian Chubb, Fiona Stanley, Robert May, Brian Schmidt, Ian Frazer, Mike Archer, Tim Flannery and Dick Denton.

Science must be at the core of our national endeavour and you are well placed to examine the evidence, evaluate it, then advocate and persuade. Our nation’s future depends on the quality of its thinking, and its leaders.

There is a wide-spread assumption by industry and government that Australia’s economic, social and technological future will be a mirror image of the past. We can be confident that this just won’t happen. We have not even begun to talk seriously about the threats and opportunities of a post-carbon economy.

I encourage you, whatever your political persuasion, or lack of it, to argue for higher recognition of the role that science must play in our future, and drive your MP mad unless or until he/ she does something about it.

Remember Archimedes and his lever. But first you have to find a fulcrum, then you push the lever.

The ConversationBarry Jones is Professorial Fellow at University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reblogs

What has science ever done for us? The Knowledge Wars, reviewed

The Conversation

Will J Grant, Australian National University

The deadbeat boyfriend at the centre of Janet Jackson’s 1986 hit What Have You Done For Me Lately used to take Janet out to dinner almost every night. He used to do a lot of nice stuff for her. But – as the title asks – what had he done for her lately?

Like Janet, many people ask the same question of science.

Sure, since the 16th century, science has given us electricity and anaesthetics, the internet and statins, the jumbo jet, vaccines and good anti-cancer drugs, the washing machine and the automobile. But what has it done for us lately?

In fact, for many people, what science has done for us lately hasn’t been dancin’ till one thought one would lose one’s breath. Rather, it has delivered emotionally-charged fights over issues such as vaccination, whether everyone should be taking statins, anthropogenic climate change, genetically modified foods, wind farms and high-tension power lines.

Indeed, while most of us are happy with most of the products of science – not least our iPods, white goods and light bulbs – when it comes to some of the more contentious issues of science we’re not such a happy bunch.

You only have to look at comment threads on this site on articles about these topics to see just such unhappiness and disgruntlement. In such discussions, science isn’t a benign tool for understanding the natural world, but a villain intent on unleashing industries and technologies we don’t want, or forcing us to give up our SUVs or eat our broccoli.

In this sort of world you can understand why, when considering the state of things, many scientists have taken on slightly exasperated air.

Warts and all

Science is under attack from some quarters. 
Melbourne University Press

And so Nobel Laureate and National Living Treasure Peter Doherty has stepped into this breach to make the case for science. His new book, The Knowledge Wars, rests on the argument that we are in the midst “of a potential deadly conflict between the new knowledge based in science and the established power”.

That is, while science has often been in conflict with established dogma – from Charles Darwin to Barry Marshall and Robin Warren – for the first time in a long time science finds itself pitted against powerful economic and political actors.

In this space, Doherty’s work seeks to provide a practical discussion of the nature of modern science with the hope that we can all take on a more evidence-based view of the world.

Thankfully, this isn’t a ra-ra hagiography that just drums into us that science is the best thing that’s ever happened to us since our ancestors discovered the paleo diet (though there is some of that).

Rather, Doherty seeks to explore how science works in modern times, warts and all. This means instead of a recitation of a high school definition of science, Doherty provides a nuanced, thoughtful discussion of the limits of peer review; the economics of publishing; the scientific culture of critique; fraud, errors and outright criminality in scientific work; and the nature of modern data collection.

This makes it a valuable “behind the scenes” examination of what actually happens in modern science.

Renaissance again

The goal in much of this is not to directly convince those who, for example, reject the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s position on climate change, but to provide ammunition to those of us who find ourselves stuck in a conversation with such people.

We’ve all heard lines about “global conspiracies of scientists”. Yet no one who has a passing understanding of how science works could imagine getting a global community to agree on anything remotely doubtful.

Doherty’s central target (very much in keeping with the history of science, really) is blind acceptance of dogma based on the pronouncements of authority. Here he connects centuries of science from Galileo and Copernicus to Charles Darwin, Richard Feynmann, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren.

We might even point to an earlier trajectory of empirically minded iconoclasts, from Prince Henry the Navigator to Heraclitus the Paradoxographer. Importantly, though those who reject the idea of anthropogenic climate change might point to such iconoclasts as rejecting scientific dogma, Doherty very much highlights such revolutionary work as part and parcel of the process of science. For him, the solution to any of the ills of science is more science.

At times The Knowledge Wars feels like a Wikipedia binge, ranging widely and wildly through invention and events of the last 500 years (although, to be fair, that’s often how I spend my Saturday nights). And, perhaps more fundamentally, it sorely misses a nuanced take on the economic sociology and history underpinning that period. For example, although central to much of scientific and social history of the last half millennium, “capitalism” doesn’t make it to the index.

But the bigger lament I have after reading The Knowledge Wars is one perhaps I share with Doherty. Modern science began with the birth of Renaissance men; with individuals who understood that wise governance requires an embrace of statecraft as well as high art and the latest advances in science.

Yet now, the very idea of Renaissance men and women seems anathema, a foolish dream that could never happen in this crazy mixed up world we now live in. But is that really so foolish?

The Knowledge Wars by Peter Doherty is published by Melbourne University Press and is available for A$29.99 in paperback and A$19.99 in ebook.

The ConversationWill J Grant is Researcher / Lecturer, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

1 Comment

Filed under Reblogs

Don’t fall off! The delicate balance of outrunning a predator

The Conversation

Rebecca Wheatley, The University of Queensland

Imagine you are crossing a stream over a fallen log. How fast would you walk across? Probably fairly slowly, balancing carefully as you go. Now imagine you are being chased by a bear. How fast should you cross the stream?

This kind of situation is something other animals face on a daily basis. Many small animals must be able to successfully evade predators in the trees as they look for food and mates. But how fast should an animal run when a predator is chasing it? What factors must it consider? And what happens if the environment the animal lives in changes?

An animal needs to run fast enough to escape its pursuer. But it also needs to avoid slipping and falling, as this could result in its death, either through the predator catching it, or by gravity just doing its thing. This presents the animal with a conundrum, because the faster it runs, the less accuracy it has over the placement of its feet.

So there is a trade-off between the speed and accuracy of locomotor tasks. The faster you perform an activity, the less control you have over the movement.

Looking for the best escape tactic

What this means for animals in the wild is that running as fast as they can might not give them their best chance of survival. There are other factors that must be considered.

In many predation situations, prey animals will perform tight turns and sudden changes in direction to try and out-manoeuvre the predator. In these cases, animals don’t use their top speed, as running faster makes it harder to change direction while remaining stable.

But if the animal’s route is constrained to a straight line – like when it’s running along a branch – it does not have the option of using these tight turns. Instead, it must be able to outrun the predator using speed alone.

On a typical small branch there are only two possible routes. Andrew Maynard, Author provided

But, just like people, different animals have different capabilities both in terms of how fast they can run and how coordinated they are. This means that different individuals will have different optimal speeds based on how good they are at maintaining their footing when they’re running.

So how can we figure out what the best running speed for a critter in this situation is?

We built a mathematical model that predicts just that, with the findings published earlier this month in the journal Integrative and Comparative Biology.

Our model takes into account the size and stride length of an animal, it’s level of coordination, and the speed of the predator. It also takes into account the difficulty of the environment the animal is facing – that is, how thick the branch is, or how narrow a target the animal has to aim for.

The model also accounts for different levels of mistake – for instance, a minor slip versus a really major slip – and the different costs for each.

A 3D plot showing the effects of beam width and individual coordination (where a smaller value means better coordination) on the optimum running speed for an animal escaping a predator.
Rebecca Wheatley, Author provided

We found that the fastest escape speeds should be attempted by the most coordinated animals on thick branches. The slowest escape speeds, on the other hand, should be attempted by uncoordinated individuals on thin branches. These results are pretty intuitive and are exactly what we would expect: there’s no point in running fast if it guarantees that you’ll slip and die.

The model in practice

This means that our model is probably on the right track. But, of course, we need to test it out in reality: do animals actually use their best running speed in nature?

The neat thing about this model is that it can be customised to any kind of animal. This means that we can modify the model to fit whatever animal we’re interested in studying, and then get some estimates for the speeds we think that animal should choose in different situations.

We can then run experiments to see if this is what our animals actually do. And if they don’t, our model will help us figure out why.

Our research looks at movement decisions in many different animals, from human athletes to native Australian marsupials like the buff-footed Antechinus (Antechinus mysticus). As a small mammal, Antechinus are under threat from a variety of exotic predators.

They are also a predator themselves, hunting down insects, small amphibians and reptiles for food. As such, they are an ideal species for looking at the kind of decisions animals make when avoiding predators and capturing prey.

But why does any of this matter?

Understanding how and why animals move the way they do can help us understand the impacts the environment has on a species’ ecology. This in turn can help us figure out how changing the environment will affect how easily particular animals can escape from predators.

It is well established that clearing habitat leaves many species vulnerable to predation. But little is known about how the complexity of the environment affects species directly in terms of how well they perform. Are trees easier to navigate than thick ground cover? Is a complex understory better for outmanoeuvring a predator than a simple one?

If we can develop models that accurately predict how environmental conditions affect animals survival through their ability to escape from predators, we can determine which environmental components are most important to preserve.

The ConversationRebecca Wheatley is PhD Candidate in Ecology at The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reblogs

The genetic blueprint of an octopus reveals much about this amazing creature

The Conversation

Jan Strugnell, La Trobe University and Alvaro Roura, La Trobe University

Octopuses are among the most impressive of the invertebrates thanks to their ability to solve puzzles, camouflage perfectly with their surroundings, mimic other species, use tools and potentially predict world cup victories.

Now that scientists this month have published the first octopus genome we are a step closer to understanding how these feats are achieved in a lineage so divergent from our own.

The octopus genome was of the California two-spot (Octopus bimaculoides) and it may provide us with some leads on how the highly unusual octopod body plan evolved.

Interesting body plan

Octopods are contained within the group Cephalopoda, which literally means “head-footed”, as the foot (i.e. the octopus arms) are connected directly to the head.

One family of genes that is known to influence body plan in animals is called Hox. These genes usually occur together, clustered in groups, and the order of the genes directly corresponds to the order in which they are activated along the body during development.

In the octopus genome the scientists found the Hox genes are completely scattered, with no two of them occurring together. This scattered nature of the Hox genes across the genome may provide insights into octopod body plan development and why octopus have a much more unusual body plan than their cousins, such as snails and oysters.

Another big finding of this octopus genome project is actually something the authors did not find: whole genome duplication. That is, evidence that the entire genome was duplicated throughout history so that two copies of the genome were present.

It was previously believed that a whole genome duplication event in the octopus lineage may have driven the evolution of some of the remarkable characteristics present within octopus, such as complicated behaviours including the use of tools or vertebrate-like eyes.

The idea was that a whole genome duplication event frees up a set of genes, allowing these copies to take on new functions. But the lack of evidence for this suggests other mechanisms are at play.

Blended genome

One of these mechanisms appears to be the huge expansion in some gene families previously thought to be expanded only in vertebrates and not in other invertebrate lineages. One of these families is the protocadherins, which are cell adhesion molecules required to establish and maintain nervous system organisation.

The octopus genome boasts 168 protocadherin genes, which presumably play a crucial role in the highly modified octopus nervous system and complex brain. In contrast, these protocadherins are found in relatively small numbers (17 to 25) in organisms such as limpets and oysters, and are completely absent in several invertebrate model organisms including the fruit fly and nematodes.

The fact that protocadherin genes occur in large numbers in vertebrates and octopus but not in other animals, and that they are expressed in octopus neural and sensitive tissues (suckers and skin), suggests that they might play an important role in the evolution of cephalopod neural complexity.

Protocadherin diversity provides a mechanism to establish the synaptic connections needed to interpret the vast amount of stimuli, including touch and smell perceived through the suckers, and organise complex behavioural responses like camouflaging through the change in skin colour and texture/sculpture. It is interesting that the diversity in these genes has been generated by different mechanisms in octopus and vertebrates.

The genome also shows a lot of evidence for transposon activity. Transposons are DNA sequences that move locations around the genome (sometimes called “jumping genes”) and they can drive evolution.

In comparison to other genomes, the scientists note that the octopus genome looks like it has been “put into a blender and mixed”. They show that these transposons play an important role in driving this mixing of the genome.

They also found that transposons are highly expressed in neural tissues. They suggest that these may play an important role in memory and learning as shown in mammals and flies.

The ability of octopuses to learn and solve puzzles is something that is fascinating to us and so this will be a fruitful area for further research.

Why did it take so long?

It is more than 14 years since the human genome was published in Nature and Science, and numerous genomes have been published since then such as pandas, bees and recently 48 species of bird.

But this latest publication represents the first genome of any cephalopod and one of only a handful of molluscs, (the group containing cephalopods). Other molluscan genomes include the limpet (Lottia gigantea), oyster (Crassostrea gigas) and the sea hare (Aplysia californica).

This first octopus genome gives us great insight into the evolution and function of this fascinating group and will serve as a great catalyst for further research on cephalopod genetics.

Jan Strugnell is Associate professor at La Trobe University and Alvaro Roura is Postdoctoral fellow at La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reblogs

Neil deGrasse Tyson on the cherry-picking of science

Neil deGrasse Tyson (born October 5, 1958) is an American astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, and science communicator. Since 1996, he has been the Frederick P. Rose Director of theHayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City. The center is part of the American Museum of Natural History, where Tyson founded the Department of Astrophysics in 1997 and has been a research associate in the department since 2003.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson: “One of the great tragedies of modern society is that you have politicians cherry-picking science.” Watch more: http://ab.co/1IlDSE2 Read more: http://ab.co/degrasse


Leave a comment

Filed under Quotations

Governments shouldn’t be able to censor research results they don’t like

The Conversation

Kypros Kypri, University of Newcastle

Government departments and agencies routinely commission research to help them understand and respond to health, social and other problems. We expect such research to be impartial and unbiased. But governments impose legal conditions on such research that can subvert science and the public interest.

Gagging clauses in contracts permit purchasers of research to modify, substantially delay, or prohibit the reporting of findings.

A 2006 survey of health scientists in Australia shows such clauses have been invoked by our federal and state governments to sanitise the reporting of “failings in health services … the health status of a vulnerable group … or … harm in the environment …”. And in a paper published today in the Medical Journal of Australia, I describe my experience of a contract negotiation with a government department where gagging clauses became an issue.

A rude shock

My colleagues and I were pretty happy when we were notified that our application for funding to study a new treatment for risky drinking had been successful. But then we received a draft contract with clauses that could potentially be used to sanitise the study findings, prohibit publication, or even terminate the project without notice or explanation via a “Termination for Convenience” clause.

That experience led us to initiate a formal study of the kinds of contracts governments use to purchase public good research in Australia. Draft contracts obtained through the Commonwealth’s AusTender website and its state equivalents show these documents often contain gagging clauses. And informal enquiries with universities suggest that Termination for Convenience clauses are common and accepted within the sector as a “cost of doing business” with government.

It’s important to note that these concerns don’t pertain to specialist funders of science such as the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council. What I am talking about here are government agencies that commission research to guide their activities and policy advice to government.

And while my area of expertise is health science, a brief examination of tenders for research in other domains suggests that gagging clauses are not unique to health.

Universities as the conscience of society

Private companies that provide research services to governments are motivated by profit, rather than public good, and may have no problem with accepting gagging clauses as long as they’re paid. But universities have ethical and legal obligations to serve the public interest.

A noteworthy aspect of my contract negotiation was that the university involved would probably have signed the restrictive contract offered. The experience of other health scientists and the government department’s comment in my case that the contract was standard (essentially asking what were we complaining about) suggest such arrangements are the norm.

But the idea that academics should be frank and fearless in their reporting and commentary is codified in the acts of parliament used to establish our universities, as well as in the Commonwealth’s Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Act 2011:

The higher education provider protects academic integrity in higher education through effective policies and measures to: … ensure the integrity of research and research activity; [and] ensure that academic staff are free to make public comment on issues that lie within their area of expertise…

Universities have an obligation to the public and should be careful when faced with gagging clauses. Juli/Flickr, CC BY

Some reasons why

So how has this culture of suppression come about? I hypothesise four processes underpinning this phenomenon:

1) Governments are increasingly image-conscious and active in managing the information environment. Research seems to have become more a means of providing support for a policy position than for generating knowledge to guide policy.

2) Lawyers with experience in the corporate environment are more often being employed in government, drafting contracts that are adversarial in character where they used to be cooperative. A similar proclivity to employ lawyers from the corporate world in university research offices may have contributed to loss of institutional memory about universities’ conscience of society role.

3) The squeeze on research funding from dedicated sources, such as the ARC and the NHMRC, has encouraged universities to compete more for government contracts.

4) Casualisation of the research workforce means people undertaking research are less able to be choosy about the kinds of projects they undertake.

Embracing partnership

In his seminal paper The Experimenting Society, Donald Campbell lamented the tendency of mid-20th-century American governments to commit to certain policy positions in the absence of evidence, rather than trying to generate the knowledge necessary to underpin better policy.

Similarly, Australian governments undertake policy experiments of one sort or another, perhaps every week, yet little is learned from them. These need to be recognised as opportunities to extend knowledge of how to generate wealth and well-being, and address society’s problems.

But that will require a change in the orientation of governments to recognising the need for evidence-based policy and, where evidence is inadequate, to contribute to generating relevant evidence through ethical funding of public good research. Effective partnership with scientists in the planning of evaluation is needed to accomplish that.

In turn, universities must revisit their founding principles, which include obligations to undertake research that benefits the public they are funded to serve, and to protect and encourage the role of public advocacy.

To be effective, there needs to be a sector-wide effort to modify the way governments purchase research. Situations in which secrecy about findings would be warranted would surely be rare and require strong justification.

The ConversationKypros Kypri is Professor, Public Health, Epidemiology & Prevention of Alcohol-related Injury and Disease at University of Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reblogs

Beyond Pluto: New Horizons’s mission is not over yet

The Conversation

Jonti Horner, University of Southern Queensland and Jonathan P. Marshall, UNSW Australia

When New Horizons phoned home this morning (Australian time) after its close encounter with Pluto, there was jubilation and excitement.

Now, as Pluto retreats into the distance, the slow trickle of data can begin. Sent to us at a rate of just 1 kilobit a second, it will take months to receive it all, and astronomers around the world are waiting on tenterhooks to get their hands on the data.

Pluto: Once shattered, twice shy

Like our own Earth, Pluto has an oversized satellite, Charon. It was discovered back in 1978 and is more than half the diameter of its parent.

Over the past few years, intense observation of Pluto in preparation for New Horizons’ arrival has revealed four more tiny satellites, Hydra and Nix, and tiny Kerberos and Styx.

Prior to New Horizons, our best view of the Pluto system came from the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA, ESA, and L Frattare (STScI)

But how did this satellite system come to be? And why the striking similarity to our double-planet?

If we look at the great majority of satellites in our solar system we find that they can be split into two groups. First, have those that we think formed around their host planet like miniature planetary systems, mimicking the process of planet formation itself.

These regular satellites most likely accreted from disks of material around the giant planets as those planets gobbled up material from the proto-planetary disk from which they formed. This explains the orbits of those satellites – perfectly aligned with the equator of their hosts and moving on circular orbits.

Then we have the irregular satellites. These are (with a couple of noteworthy exceptions) tiny objects, and move on a wide variety of orbits that are typically great distances from their host planets.

These, too, are easily explained – thought to be captured from the debris moving around the solar system late in its formation, relics of the swarm of minor bodies from which the planets formed.

NASA graphic using New Horizons’ early pictures of Pluto and Charon to compare their sizes to that of the Earth. NASA

By contrast, our moon and Pluto’s Charon are far harder to explain. Their huge size, relative to their host, argues against their forming like the regular satellites. Likewise, their orbits are tilted both to the plane of the equator and to the plane of the host body’s orbit around the sun. It also seems very unlikely they were captured – that just doesn’t fit with our observations.

The answer to this conundrum, in both cases, is violent.

Like our moon, Charon (and by extension Pluto’s other satellites) are thought to have been born in a giant collision, so vast that it tore their host asunder. This model does a remarkable job of explaining the makeup of our own moon, and fits what we know (so far) about Pluto and its satellites.

Pluto and its moons will therefore be the second shattered satellite system we’ve seen up close, and the results from New Horizons will be key to interpreting their formation.

Schematic describing our best theory for the formation of Pluto’s satellite system. Wikimedia/Acom

Studying the similarities and differences between Pluto and Charon will teach us a huge amount about that ancient cataclysmic collision. We already know that Pluto and Charon are different colours, but the differences likely run deeper.

If Pluto was differentiated at the time of impact (in other words, if it had a core, mantle and crust, like the Earth) then Charon should be mostly comprised of material from the crust and mantle (like our moon). So it will be less dense and chemically different to Pluto. The same goes for Pluto’s other moons: Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos.

Pluto, the unknown

The most exciting discoveries from New Horizons will likely be those we can’t predict. Every time we visit somewhere new, the unexpected discoveries are often the most scientifically valuable.

Jupiter and its volcanic moon Io, taken by New Horizons as it tore past the giant planet en-route to Pluto.
NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Goddard Space Flight Center

When we first visited Jupiter, 36 years ago, we found that its moon Io was a volcanic hell-scape. We also found that Europa hosts a salty ocean, buried beneath a thick ice cap. Both of these findings were utterly unexpected.

The Death Star terrorised peaceful planets before Voyager sent back images of Mimas. Flickr/Paul T, CC BY

At Saturn, we found the satellite Mimas looked like the Death Star and another, Iapetus, like a two tone cricket ball, complete with a seam. Uranus had a satellite, Miranda, that looked like it had been shattered and reassembled many times over, while Neptune’s moon Triton turned out to be dotted with cryo-volcanoes that spew ice instead of lava.

The story continues for the solar system’s smaller bodies. The asteroid Ida, visited by Galileo on its way to Jupiter, has a tiny moon, Dactyl. Ceres, the dwarf planet in the asteroid belt, has astonishingly reflective bright spots upon its surface.

Pluto, too, will have many surprises in store. There have already been a few, including the heart visible in the latest images (see top) – possibly the most eye catching feature to date. The best is doubtless still to come.

To infinity, and beyond!

Despite the difficulties posed by being more than four and a half billion kilometres from home, New Horizons is certain to revolutionise our understanding of the Pluto system.

The data it obtains will shed new light on the puzzle of our solar system’s formation and evolution, and provide our first detailed images of one of the system’s most enigmatic objects.

But the story doesn’t end there. Once Pluto recedes into the distance, New Horizons will continue to do exciting research. The craft has a limited amount of fuel remaining, nowhere near enough to turn drastically, but enough to nudge it towards another one or two conveniently placed targets.

New Horizons’ will continue its mission after flying past Pluto, studying objects in the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt. NASA

Since the launch of New Horizons, astronomers have been searching for suitable targets for it to visit as it hurtles outward through the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt, en-route to the stars.

In October 2014, as a result of that search, three potential targets were identified. Follow up observations of those objects narrowed the list of possible destinations to two, known as 2014 MU69 (the favoured target) and 2014 PN70.

The final decision on which target to aim for will be taken after New Horizons has left Pluto far behind, but we can expect to keep hearing about the spacecraft for years to come.

The ConversationJonti Horner is Vice Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow at University of Southern QueenslandJonathan P. Marshall is Vice Chancellor’s Post-doctoral Research Fellow at UNSW Australia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reblogs

Live blog: New Horizons flyby of Pluto

The Conversation

Tanya Hill, Museum Victoria

From 9.30pm AEST (12.30pm BST, 1.30pm ASAT, 7.30am EST), I’ll be blogging live as we follow NASA’s coverage of the New Horizons mission. Refresh this page every few minutes for the latest updates.

NASA live stream:


10:55am, July 15:

New Horizons phones home! Mission control reports that they have locked on to the signal from New Horizons. The team have 15 minutes to check that all systems are healthy. Currently the check-list is running like clockwork, and it is now confirmed that everything is working as it should be. The spacecraft is where it was expected to be – it will have recorded the data they were after. Congratulations NASA.


To finish up for the night – have you checked out Pluto time? I was surprised to find just how bright the daylight is at Pluto. See here to calculate the time at your location that matches the lighting conditions of local noon at Pluto.

The next Pluto time for my location in Melbourne is 7:28am tomorrow, but here’s how it looked a few days ago from the Three Sisters in Katoomba, NSW. The solar system is full of amazing worlds.


What happens next? The flyby isn’t all that New Horizons is doing. It will now be moving through the shadows of Pluto and Charon. These occultations will allow New Horizons to probe the atmospheres of the two worlds.

When Pluto is between the spacecraft and the sun, measurements will be made at ultraviolet wavelengths to determine what gases are found in Pluto’s atmosphere. Then when Pluto is between the spacecraft and Earth, the aim is for New Horizons to receive a transmission from the NASA’s Deep Space Network on Earth. By detecting how the signal passes through Pluto’s atmosphere it will provide information on the atmospheric pressure and temperature.



Pluto and Charon are a binary world – no other planet and moon combination have such similar masses to each other. Watch this video captured by New Horizons in January and you can see the two objects orbiting around their common centre of mass. Both objects are wobbling back and forth.

Charon and Pluto are also tidally locked – they both keep the same face pointing towards each other. This is because they each take 6.4 Earth days to spin once on their axis AND it takes 6.4 Earth days for Charon to orbit Pluto.

However, they look very different. It appears that Pluto has a younger surface, while Charon is old and battered. As data comes down, scientists will count the number of craters as a function of their size to work out the ages of different parts of their surfaces. Why is Pluto younger? Possibly due to an internal engine or climate effects due to Pluto having an atmosphere, while Charon doesn’t. More will be known with higher resolution data.


We will get to see the south pole of Pluto, but it’ll be under “Charon-light”. Pluto’s axis is tilted so that the sun set on Pluto’s south pole 20 years ago and it will not rise again for another 80 years. Shortly after New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto (perhaps happening right now!), the spacecraft will see Pluto’s night-side.

From the surface of Pluto, Charon appears seven times larger than Earth’s full moon, but five times fainter. But that’s enough for Charon to light Pluto so that this southern region will be seen. However, it won’t be as high resolution as the day-time images.


Here’s the image again:

The north pole is towards the top of the image, while the darker regions towards the bottom are the equator. There is clearly strong variations in brightness across the dwarf planet. The scientists report that they can also see a history of impacts and surface activity, perhaps tectonic activity that occurred in the past or maybe the present.

The atmosphere also plays a role in shaping the planet – it’s known to snow on Pluto and changes have been detected as the planet varies its distance from the sun. But no plumes or other signs of Pluto’s atmosphere have been found, yet.


Astronaut and astronomer John Grunsfeld (and a hero of mine!) reveals the first of many rewarding views of Pluto. As shown in the sneak peek below, the resolution is 4km per pixels, which is 1,000 times better than can be done from Earth.

But better is to come. Below is a comparison of what Earth would look like if New Horizons was flying over our planet at the same altitude that it has flown by Pluto. In the satellite image looking down on New York city, you can see Manhattan between the Hudson and East rivers, distinguish ponds in Central Park, count the wharves on the Hudson river and see runways from the airport.

Already Pluto is showing features that make it an interesting world to explore.

NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute


Earlier today the New Horizons team provided the best measurement of Pluto’s diameter. At 2,370km, it confirms that Pluto is bigger than the dwarf planet Eris by a mere 34km. When Eris was discovered in 2003, its brightness suggested that it was bigger than Pluto and while the two are now known to be pretty close in size, Eris is certainly more massive by 27%.

Of course the exciting thing about discovering Eris, is that’s opened up a whole new part of the Solar System – a third zone of icy worlds that contain the building blocks of the solar system in deep freeze.

The three zones of the Solar System: the small terrestrial planets, the gas giants and the icy worlds beyond Neptune.


New Horizons makes history – somewhere out there, billions of kilometres from Earth a little spacecraft has flown by a distant world. It’s collecting a treasure trove of data that will come flowing back to us over the next year or so. Congratulations to all the scientists, engineeers and those involved that have made it happen.

The team celebrates together.


New Horizons is all alone, firing off commands that have been pre-programmed. The last signal from the spacecraft was received at 1:17pm today (AEST). Right now the spacecraft is focused on Pluto – if it spent time talking to Earth that would take time away from observing Pluto. The spacecraft is due to send its ‘I’m fine and healthy’ message back to Earth at 10:53am tomorrow (AEST).


Here’s a sneak peek of the latest image, taken 6am this morning (AEST) at a distance of 766,000km. Will be discussed on NASA TV in 20 minutes.


Then and now. Here’s the discovery image of Charon from 1978. See the slight elongation of Pluto in the left image? That gave Charon away, because none of the background stars were found to change in a similar way between the two images.

1978: Pluto and Charon
US Naval Observatory

And this is what New Horizons is giving us now. We see two very different worlds, one large and red, one small and grey.

2015: Pluto and Charon


For most of my childhood, Pluto was closer to the sun than Neptune. Pluto takes 248 years to orbit the sun but for 20 years, between January 1979 and February 1999, Pluto sat inside Neptune’s orbit. Even though their orbits cross paths, the two will never collide. They are in a 3:2 resonance, meaning that for every two orbits of Pluto, Neptune has orbited the sun three times, keeping them apart.


Not asleep now! For about two-thirds of its flight, New Horizons was powered down and in hibernation. Like a real sleepy-head, the spacecraft would briefly wake up two or three times a year, check that all was ok, then return to deep slumber. The spacecraft woke for good on December 6, 2014.


The road ahead for New Horizons – note the timings are given in Australian Eastern Standard Time (AEST).



“It feels like you’ve been walking on an escalator for almost a decade, and then you step upon a supersonic transport” says Alan Stern, principal investigator for the New Horizons mission to Pluto.

It’s been a long wait for these scientists and engineers, following a spacecraft that was launched nine-and-a-half years ago. It’s no wonder this has been dubbed the mission of patience.

But now, the fun is about to begin. This evening (Australian time), New Horizons will whizz past Pluto – the last unexplored world in our solar system. It’s a new realm of discovery, seeing a part of the solar system that we’ve never seen before. This is a fantastic story of exploration and one we can all be a part of.

Until then, enjoy some of the latest images to be beamed back from the edge of the solar system.

The ConversationTanya Hill is Honorary Fellow of the University of Melbourne and Senior Curator (Astronomy) at Museum Victoria.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reblogs

Turning the tables: using genetic mutations to fix nature’s problems

The Conversation

Merlin Crossley, UNSW Australia

Everyone is different. That’s a simple truism, but it’s is also true when it comes to how people respond to diseases; some people are laid low and others shrug off the same ailment.

And it’s true of genetic diseases. Even when two individuals carry the same mutation, the severity of the disease may vary between them.

Sometimes this is due to environmental variation, but in other cases it reflects additional genetic changes that also influence how the disease affects that person. Some people will have other harmful mutations that combine with the main disease gene to make the condition worse, while more fortunate people may have inherited other variations, actual beneficial mutations, that reduce or even eliminate symptoms.

One of the best known illustrations of this phenomenon centres around the inherited blood disorder sickle cell anaemia. This lifelong condition is due to mutations in the adult globin gene – a point mutation in that gene renders it defective and patients suffer from anaemia throughout their lives. The symptoms can be severe. Damaged blood cells can block blood vessels leading to intense pain and even loss of life.

In the blood

But, as mentioned above, symptoms vary between individuals. Environmental variability also influences symptoms, so affected individuals may be advised to avoid high altitude and oxygen stress, for example. But genetic variations also exist. Some individuals carry a second mutation in the regulatory region of another globin gene that alleviates symptoms of sickle cell anaemia.

These individuals have a benign condition called Hereditary Persistence of Foetal Haemoglobin (HPFH). They have an “up-mutation” in the control region of a separate globin, the foetal globin gene, which boosts expression of that gene. The extra foetal globin can replace the defective beta globin.

I realise that is fairly complicated. But, put simply: humans have several globin genes. The foetal globins are turned on before birth and have a high affinity for oxygen; they enable the baby to snatch oxygen from its mother’s blood. After we are born the adult, or beta globin, gene comes on and the foetal globin gene is shut off.

But in a few people with HPFH the foetal globin gene stays on throughout life. Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to cause any health problems. Individuals with HPFH can even have normal pregnancies. They just have extra foetal globin in their blood.

The crux of the matter is this: if an individual inherits the sickle cell mutation and an HPFH mutation, they have few if any symptoms, because the extra foetal globin does the work of the defective adult globin gene.

So could one effectively “cure” sickle cell anaemia by introducing the HPFH mutation into blood cells affected by the defective adult globin gene?

Switching on the backup

Well, this is precisely the approach we have taken. Using the new technique of “genome editing”, we have introduced one of the best characterised HPFH mutations, and we find that we can successfully turn on the sleeping foetal globin gene.

At this stage we have only done this in cell lines in the laboratory. To turn this into a therapy, one would have to do it in haematopoietic stem cells – i.e. blood-forming stem cells – from the patient. It would be necessary to achieve a high frequency of editing in enough stem cells to enable repopulation of the patient’s blood with genetically enhanced cells.

Gene repair

But if it is so easy to edit the genome now, why don’t we just correct the sickle cell mutation rather than introducing a new mutation, albeit a beneficial and benign mutation?

Well, that is certainly a good strategy in the case of sickle cell anaemia, and many people are working on just that. But it may be a less ideal strategy for other blood diseases and various genetic diseases where large genes or regions of the genome are deleted.

In the case of the thalassaemias, for example, many different gene deletions occur. It may not be practical to edit in large gene replacement cassettes, and one would have to design a different insert for each mutation. In contrast, building in the foetal globin activating mutation should provide additional globin and work to compensate in many of these conditions.

Towards gene therapy using genome editing

A new age of genetic engineering is beginning, due to the ability to edit the genome using new DNA-cutting tools, with the technical names: CRISPRs, TALENs and ZFNs.

Gene correction or the introduction of beneficial mutations may be important in treatments in the future.

In agriculture they may also be important. Many genome wide association studies have identified beneficial mutations associated with particular prised qualities. Genome editing can also be used to introduce beneficial mutations in this context and may give rise to a new generation of crops and livestock.

The techniques are also interesting because no new or artificial material need be introduced. All one is doing is mimicking a naturally occurring beneficial mutation. The introduction of artificial transgenes has alarmed some parts of society.

Additionally, transgenes are recognised as foreign by some organisms and are shut down by epigenetic silencing, just as computer viruses are recognised and shut down by anti-virus software.

Beneficial mutations are unlikely to be subject to the same limitations. They are already known to work in nature and introducing them to improve human health or in agriculture may have many advantages.

The ConversationMerlin Crossley is Dean of Science and Professor of Molecular Biology at UNSW Australia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reblogs

In the vaccine debate, science is just getting its boots on

The Conversation

Ian Musgrave

There is an old saying that a lie will be heard around the world while truth is still getting its boots on. This was brought home to me during a radio interview I did on Tuesday night in the wake of the Federal Government’s decision to remove the conscientious objection exemption for vaccination. I was astonished that in 2015, some of these pieces of misinformation are still out there, and still believed, if the passionate radio callers (and several posts in my Facebook feed) are any indication.

Here is a sample of some of the misinformation and misunderstandings I encountered on the radio show and on the internet in the past 24 hours (paraphrased slightly).

“Why should we inject our kids with polyethylene glycol/brake fluid?” We don’t. There is no ethylene glycol in our vaccines. We do have harmless traces of a completely different chemical, 2-phenoxyethanol, which is an antibacterial helping keep the vaccines sterile.

“Why are we injecting our kids with formaldehyde?” Formaldehyde is used to inactivate viruses in some vaccines. After clean-up, minute traces are left, but the amount you would get from a vaccine injection is much less that is circulating naturally in your blood. Yes, your body makes formaldehyde. If you are seriously worried about formaldehyde, don’t eat apples or pears, which contain much more formaldehyde than vaccines. For details see here and here.

“Why are we injecting our kids with mercury?” We aren’t, there has been no mercury in kids vaccines in Australia since 2000. Especially those in the vaccination schedule. Note that the amount of mercury in the Thiomersal preservative is less than what you would get from eating a can of tuna and no one seems to be advocating a fish free diet for kids.

“Why are we still giving kids small pox vaccine when small pox is extinct?” We are not. And I am astonished that anyone would think that we did, but this (paraphrased) was an actual question.

Measles vaccination conquers measles. Source: Epidemiol Rev (2002) 24 (2): 125-136. doi: 10.1093/epirev/mxf002

“But we don’t need vaccines, these diseases were going before vaccines”. Nope, see that graph? That’s the incidence of measles in the UK before and after the vaccine, note the strong correlation between the fall in measles and the vaccine coverage of the population. Similar graphs are seen for the US and Canada (see here for the most dishonest anti-vaccination graph ever).

Australia stopped collecting data on measles incidence so there is a big gap in our data, but the incidence of the disease was higher before the vaccine than after. Same goes for pertussis (we had just had an epidemic when the vaccine was introduced), diptheria and Heamophilus Influenza B (and if you want to claim it’s all hygiene and diet, the HIB vaccine was introduced in the ‘90’s where nutrition and hygiene was at modern standards). See the Australian Academy of Sciences “science of vaccination” for graphs and details.

“There have been no deaths from measles since 2000”, this is actually a false statement about US data. 2000 was the year that endemic measles was declared extinct in the US. In Australia, we haven’t has a measles death since 1995. Unsurprisingly, since vaccination has been so effective.

However, in the US the has been 8 deaths during the epidemics caused by unvaccinated people catching measles overseas and bringing it back to the US, where it spreads mostly amongst the unvaccinated. In the US, it is usually linked to the heinous meme “no measles deaths since 2000, hundreds of measles deaths from the measles vaccine”. This pernicious statement is untrue, there have been no deaths due to the measles vaccine.

“What about that study that showed vaccines cause autism”. No, just no. Andrew Wakefield’s study, since retracted for unethical conduct, was so sloppy that it was meaningless, and may even be fraudulent. This unethical study has caused thousand of people to forgo measles vaccines, with kids getting caught in epidemics that should never have happened.

In the debate about our response to under vaccination, it is assumed that people refusing vaccines are making rational choices, weighing up the pros and cons of vaccination versus side effects with the best available data.

The controversial Leunig cartoon that shows a mother fleeing a barrage of syringes inadvertently sums up what it is really about.


As the talking points I’ve encountered show, people are coming up with objections that are either wildly distorted or flat out untrue but they all have one thing in common. They all directly stoke the fear that by vaccinating our children we will harm them. A rational choice is difficult to make in this environment.

That a lie can travel around the world before truth gets its boots on is never truer than in this debate. This recent article contains talking points not covered above that are either not true or wildly distorted (Fluarix does not contain foetal bovine serum, the virus for the vaccine is grown in eggs; vaccinations are not intravenous and so on). But I’ve already spent three days and over 1,000 words to cover the standard false or misleading claims and I have to stop at some point.

All the items I talked about have been dealt with long ago. But if you do an internet search for “Australian vaccine information” three of the top five hits are vaccine denialist sites. In this age of Dr. Google sites that play on fears will trump the more sober (and boring) official sites.

My approach to vaccine refusers (the people whose decisions have been influenced by misinformation and fear, as opposed to hard core vaccine denialists) is to provide them with better and more accessible information.

This may not work as well as it might be naively imagined, a study on the best way to provide accurate vaccine information to parents who had previously failed to vaccinate their children found that although the parents understanding of vaccine safety improved, they were no more likely to have their children vaccinated. Some parents became even less likely to vaccinate their children.

Even in the light of this somewhat depressing knowledge, we should not stop trying to get truth out there. One of the difficulties in communicating vaccine facts is that these may leave a gap in peoples beliefs (accounting for their reluctance to accept the facts). An approach I’ve mentioned before is replacing the gap with an alternative narrative. Whichever approach we use, we need to keep the facts front and centre.

Remember, this is not just abstract knowledge, or “cute science facts”, but information that will keep real kids out of hospital and in some case save lives.

Truth (and science) may take time to get its boots on, but those boots were made for walking, and the journey has just begun.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reblogs