Manifest evidence suggests science not an option
When Professor Sir Peter Gluckman recommends a title with such seemingly marginal appeal as The Geek Manifesto, it’s a sure bet rather more New Zealanders will be inclined to give the book a second glance than would otherwise have been the case.
The choice of title, to reference the scientific community and those simpatico, is curious considering the 11-point manifesto proper is largely about convincing the non-scientific society that science should inform policy. As the use of the word manifesto in the title suggests, this is something of a handbook for the converted in their battle to, amongst other things, bring politicians to account for unscientific positions, such as uncritical support for chiropractic and homeopathy, and for the cherry-picking of science to justify what is often ideologically driven policy.
Often responsibility for a title is that of publisher, seeking something that will resonate with the hoped for readership, and the wishes of the mere author can be secondary. Graham Hutchins’ evocative account of four small town King Country youths hell-bent on rugby and emulating the Beatles bore the working title 4-Gone Conclusions, until the publisher imposed an insipid Hello-Goodbye. However in the case of The Geek Manifesto, the choice of title was that of the author, Mark Henderson, who until recently was the science editor of The Times, and he uses the word geek loud and proud 13 times in the first chapter alone. And it was probably the publisher, who insisted on a subtitle, the less than ebullient: ‘Why science matters’, which at least is preferable one proffered: ‘Why the geeks shall inherit the Earth.’
Sir Peter gave his impromptu plug for Henderson’s important treatise in the closing minutes of the fifth panel discussion at last month’s Transit of Venus Forum 2012, in Gisborne:
We are dealing with a media, some people excepted, where antiscientism is rife. We actually have a lot of anti-scientists in the world. If you look at Britain, and I don’t know how many people here have read the book The Geek Manifesto, if you haven’t everybody should go and buy it now to see how the scientific community has combined and activated to start to deal with the misconceptions about science that exist. It is compulsory reading for everybody in this room.
The inspiration to use an astronomical event of pivotal historical significance to Aotearoa, to headline how science, by communicating better with the rest of society, can position his homeland as ‘a place where talent wants to live’ was that of the physicist and master of innovation, the late Sir Professor Paul Callaghan. The concept deserved to capture the imagination of all New Zealanders. That it didn’t rate a mention in the mainstream media beyond three brief offerings in the Gisborne Herald is tragically ironic, underlined Sir Peter’s impassioned plug. When Prime Minister John Key appointed himself a science advisor, for the first time ever in Aotearoa, this should have heralded the rapid mainstreaming of science that is long overdue. With the next transit of Venus not occurring until 2117, Prime Minister Key could safely have declared 6 June a public holiday, as a one-off salute to science. Businesses, by focussing on science-based innovation, even the installation of a little light-emitting diode lighting, could readily have recouped any lost productivity. Schools in particular could have leveraged the science day to inspiring effect, and the universities could concentrate on the overdue challenge of bringing the sciences and humanities closer together.
The next grand opportunity to marry up science with a historical milestone of particular significance to Aotearoa is the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s first voyage. The seven years lead time is long enough to get some mainstreaming science runs on the board and, surely, for the mainstream media to be brought aboard. But while what Captain Cook uncharitably charted as Poverty Bay should be the symbolic focal point for such a sestercentennial, the celebration should be a demonstration of how science and optical fibre can bring New Zealanders together virtually, rather than physically—one of the forum attendees took the opportunity to decry the dearth of broadband in the region—and a fitting time to formally reinstate Oneroa as the name for the bay.
(For good measure, Oneroa’s city should probably also take the bay’s original name. Too many colonial towns were saddled with names with little more merit than a opportunity of currying favour with a government official of the day, irrespective of how deserving that namesake was, in the case of William Gisborne. Had the civil-servant-turned-politician retired to Te Oneroa, if indeed he’d ever visited the place, as opposed to his ancestral acreages in Derbyshire, the city might be more justified in clinging to its colonial nomenclature.)
Whilst waiting for 7 October 2019—conveniently, it is a Monday—an antipodean version of The Geek Manifesto could usefully be written, but preferably with a less-conflicted message. Mark Henderson’s book, in part, urges geek-pride. Setting aside the quirky etymology of the word itself—originally, a fool—it nurtures separateness from the great uneducated, only then to advocate more effective communication with, and education of, that audience. Last week, conveniently illustrating the gulf, Prime Minister John Key compared the likelihood of state state asset sales being delayed by court action to:
…a chance a meteorite will hit the Earth this afternoon.
It proved to be an altogether too tempting an opportunity to mock the scientifically illiterate, gleefully pointing out that thousands of meteorites strike Earth every day might make self-described geeks feel superior, but New Zealanders knew their man was referring to some larger-than-life, Armageddon-scale, asteroid strike and were unlikely to have been impressed with the pedantry, regardless of their overwhelming disdain for the state assets fire-sale.
One of the many compelling stories included in The Geek Manifesto is that of Jonathan Shepherd, professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery at Cardiff University. As a front-line surgeon treating the victims of glassings in United Kingdom pubs, Jonathan Shepherd established properly designed randomised controlled trials that resulted in the replacement of the then standard annealed glassware with that which was tempered. An unexpected but minor consequence was that, although the tempered glasses formed much less damaging—not to mention, famously disfiguring—weapons, bar staff injuries increased, in part possibly because staff members tended to treat the glasses as unbreakable. Another major research contribution of Professor Shepherd resulted in the National Health Service removing 30 000 fewer wisdom teeth per year.
Aotearoa, with its surfeit of ‘why science matters’ stories, both positive—Lord Rutherford to Bernard Aston, the chemist who cracked ‘bush sickness’—and negative—the government’s current cherry picking from the chief scientist’s report on opportunities to reduce harm to adolescences from alcohol, has an abundance of material for a local title.
Cherry picking is not the exclusive purvey of the politian. The ranking, by the Cancer Society of New Zealand, of diets high in fruit and vegetables ahead of avoiding or limiting alcohol, in reducing risk. Cancer epidemiologist Professor Dallas English, visiting from the University of Melbourne, told Radio New Zealand that in the last 10 to 15 years, cohort studies in which he is involved have shown that the benefit of fruit and vegetables is not what was once thought. Disentangling the various effects, he said, was one of the hardest things for an epidemiologist to do, and it now appeared that previously observed strong link between eating fruit and vegetables and low rates of cancer was due to the low incidence of smoking amongst people who ate a lot of fruit and vegetables. However, such a diet, being less energy dense, was likely to bring other benefits, given the cancer–obesity link.
When Kathryn Ryan asked if most people underestimated the links between alcohol consumption and cancer, Professor English said:
For a long time cancer organisations have been a bit quiet on alcohol, for reasons I don’t really understand, but its been known for a long time that it’s a strong risk factor for some types of cancers. I’ve already talked oesophagus cancer in relation to smoking and alcohol, and together they really increase the risk a lot. For breast cancer, it’s not a very strong risk factor but it is one of the few avoidable risk factors. And in more recent years, bowel cancer has also been shown to be associated with alcohol consumption.
Henderson’s penultimate chapter, Geeks and Greens, is also its hardest hitting, taking on green fundamentalists for their ideologically determined responses to anthropogenic global warming. The fundamentalist anti-nuclear power position is excoriated, as are the anti genetic modification and anti-vaccine dogmas. The greens, by cherry-picking the science, are partly to blame for the failure for the world to mobilise to de-carbonise energy. An egregious example is their quoting of Dr James Hansen whilst consistently ignoring his plea for fourth generation nuclear power to be embraced, before returning to chant the all-we-need-is-photovoltaic mantra. It is in this chapter that Aotearoa just misses a mention as Henderson contrasts the coal mining deaths worldwide since Fukushima with the death toll from that disaster, which is zero, and the likely incidence of cancers, which are described by Geoff Brumfiel in his Nature column as too low to measure:
Although uncertainties about the numerous independent estimates remain large, taken together the estimates are actually leading to a fairly strong consensus view about the health risks from Fukushima: the risk from radioactivity is relatively low, and the cancers it causes will probably never be picked out from the background.
Regardless of what measures are belatedly taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the planet is plunging headlong into a new and unforgiving climate that will endure for at least a thousand years—short of the sort of extraterrestrial intervention the prime minister was alluding to. The yawning chasm in comprehension of the enormity of the emergency, between those studying it and the populace and its policy makers, can only be closed by a crash course in the scientific method, with no child or adult left behind.
New Zealanders must become better informed on climate science in order to understand the urgency to mobilise, for example, by planting trees on the scale comparable to the New Zealand Forest Service in its heyday. If the erosion-prone area currently in pasture was planted in indigenous species, as per the recommendation of Ministry for the Environment, more than six billion plants would be required—or nearly 1500 per each man, woman and child. The challenge of making the more erodible percentage of Aotearoa’s 17 000-kilometre coastline more resilient to the combined effects of sea-level rise, increased storm surge and wilder seas, is probably even more challenging. Britain, which has a coastline of comparable length, has 14 times as many people to share the burden of its protection. With 1100 kilometres of dune coastline needing all the help it can get from the planting of indigenous sandbinders, and from back-dune reforestation, and the aforementioned planting of steep hill country, an Aotearoa version of President Franklin D Roosevelt’s popular Civilian Conservation Corps, and its successor organisations, is needed. Paying 83 000 young New Zealanders, including a third of Māori and Pacific youth, to languish on the dole is unconscionable when there is real work to be done, and a science-based education to be gained into the bargain.
The parlous state of the Oneroa hydrological catchment is a further justification for the commemoration of Captain James Cook’s 1769 transit of Venus voyage, to focus on Gisborne/Oneroa, in 2019. The catchment is the source of 4% of the yearly average 400 million tonnes of soil washed into the sea from Aotearoa—the latter total being the equivalent of a 29-tonne truck-and-trailer unit every two and a bit seconds around the clock, seven days a week. The sedimentation double whammy reduces the productivity of the sea as well as the land and, without heroic measures being taken, will be exacerbated by global warming with its intensifying rainfall events, just as the world becomes increasingly desperate for every scrap of food the region can export. Meantime, while the sediment generation rate per hectare in the Mahurangi catchment is less than 15% of that of the Waipaoa River, most of the mud—say four truck-and-trailer loads per day—settles in the harbour, to the serious detriment of its farmed oysters, its cockles and the balance of its benthic community.
As is so powerfully and eloquently argued in The Geek Manifesto, a far greater role for science in securing a survivable planet is not an option—it is the only option.