Shockingly Toxic Article

I haven’t been doing much in the way of blogging recently (or any Sci Comm for that matter) but I’m pissed off and I had to get this off my chest…

Original image by Guyon Morée. Provided under creative commons licence 2.0

Original image by Guyon Morée. Provided under creative commons licence 2.0

On the 26th of November, New Scientist (NS) published an article focusing on new chemicals. “great” I thought “I love chemistry”. It was that issue’s cover story but it had the worrying blurb of “We’ve made 150,000 new chemicals. We touch them, we wear them, we eat them. But which ones should we worry about?” The article’s tagline read “Our food, furniture and frankly everything else is contaminated with industrial compounds – but how harmful are they? New Scientist investigates.”

You’d be forgiven for feeling concerned because it’s New Scientist. They’re a powerhouse of knowledge and (usually) bring good, solid science to anyone who’s interested. So as opposed to just sighing, and muttering something about chemophobia, I read on. However, before we go any further, I want to take a second to appreciate what this cover and tagline sets up in the readers mind. To outright state, what your average non-chemist may think.

On the cover we see the words touch, eat and wear. Potentially leading the reader to think that they’re covered in, and ingesting chemicals. The less informed may worry. The more informed probably aren’t ridiculously bothered, but this is New Scientist, not known for over-exaggerating things. readers are probably taking serious note of what’s to come. Next, we see “which ones should we worry about?” OK, our more informed reader may hold off from full-blown panic but the blurb is literally suggesting that we may need to worry about something.

The by-line reads, “frankly everything is contaminated with industrial compounds”. The language is loaded, isn’t it? I mean, they’re being frank! And it’s not just that manufacturers have used some chemicals to make things (not that even that would be bad). No, no, no. Chemicals are contaminating things. No, not even that. Everything is contaminated. Contaminated with Industrial compounds. Our only reason to feel like it’s safe to shake quietly is that in asking the question “how harmful are they?” we’re lead to believe that perhaps not all 150,000 are going to kill us. However, the tone so far is causing us to consider the possibility that frankly we might just be screwed here. Again, this is New Scientist, people respect their journalism – I respect their journalism. NS has a stellar reputation. Of course, I may be jumping to conclusions here. It’s not like the article was outright using words like toxic and saying that we ought to be concerned – shocked, even. So perhaps your average reader wasn’t in full-blown panic mode. Concerned, sure, but maybe not panicked. Not shocked! No cause for that. OK, on to the article and, the natural beginning, the title… Toxic Shockers… Oh. Oh dear.

So here we are, in an NS cover-article about toxic chemicals, worried about what we’re going to see. We’re now looking out for new chemicals that we need to add to our list of things to avoid. Avoid them like you’d avoid sitting next to “that guy” at the Christmas dinner. The article’s set up for you to feel anxious and draw you in. So what monstrosities await? (Deep breaths everyone.)

We’re greeted with three paragraphs telling us that apples may contain traces of “pollutants”. Pollutants such as fungicides, insecticides and herbicides. To the uninitiated this might well be a worrying few lines of text. It takes until the fourth paragraph for the authors to say that most of them are either within safe levels or have zero effect upon the human body. The intro is horrible and if your guard wasn’t up, you’d be thinking that nothing (not even maw and paw’s good ol’ fashioned wholesome apple) was safe. The thing is, these pesticides are designed for use in agriculture and they’re present to prevent crop failure; to prevent pests from ruining this food which you’re relying on to not die. They’re not there to kill you and (as we eventually find out) they’re often present well below harmful levels or are as dangerous as a tickle fight with a kitten. Reading on, we hope they’re going to address the “problem” of the remaining 149,999 new ways to die.

“Over the next five pages, we explain what we know about nine of the most frequently suspected substances.”

Nine…NINE! I mean I wasn’t expecting 150,000, but nine (where did 150,000 come from anyway?). Ok, it’s surely going to be nine brand new super-effective ways to die. It’s probably the equivalent to juggling revving-chainsaws whilst telling Vladimir Putin how much you admire Stephen Fry. I mean, it’s had some serious build-up. It has got to be the nine worst offenders. Right?

Painfully, as you read through the article, you realise that only five of the nine classes of compounds actually appear to have a discernible toxicity profile. In what seems like a joke at first (but mercilessly isn’t) the authors talk about burnt toast. They mention acrylamide as a potential carcinogen and go on to establish the link between certain food-types, cooking methods, and how one may go on to produce the other. This leads the less critical reader to assume that burning their toast, causes cancer. However the authors (eventually) go on to state that there isn’t even a shred of evidence to prove that acrylamide is a human carcinogen. Why is this here? Their big example of compounds that they deem “guilty as charged” are lead and mercury. Ignoring the headache-inducing cliché and focusing on the big “offender”, this is not breaking news! Lead is bad for you… No, no, please, I’ve got this. 1990s meet New Scientist, New scientist meet the 1990s. You guys have a lot to talk about.

Sadly, after reading the article, the real take-home point here is not that you should burn your apples and not burn your toast. It’s that New Scientist span out an article which was a Daily Mail-styled piece of click bait! Something which, in essence, said “Hey, you’re all going to die. Wanna find out how? Click here!” New Scientist put out an article designed to make you think that we were (to quote the authors) “up to our necks in chemicals” and then muddied the waters by talking about a select few, not all of which that were harmful. You walk away from the piece scratching your head as to why any of this was news-worthy and quite frustrated that it not only made it into New Scientist, but was the cover article.

I despair at the shape of things to come if this is the future of science communication. Yes the Daily Mail makes stacks of cash churning out this sort of shit, but I beg you, NS, don’t sell your soul. Once your reputation’s gone, there’s no going back. We shouldn’t stand for this. Read the article (sorry, paywall) and if it pisses you off as much as me, tweet them or do the Facebook thing. Hell, if that doesn’t work, let’s stand outside their offices and shout until the daily mail takes over. I’m going back to radio silence.

Other opinions are available

Other opinions are available

Are We Missing The Point?

Today I read an opinion piece in Nature (by Colin Macilwain) which states that programmes that bolster STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, either distort the labour market (in favour of the employer) or are ineffective and, therefore, a complete waste of money.  When you get into the (US-based) statistics of the piece you can’t help but think that there is a point, at least where wasting money is concerned: there do seem to be too many overlapping programmes that share the same goals yet try to achieve them in perfect isolation. But the whole piece is a bit ‘glass half-empty’ for my liking.

Macilwain goes on to let the reader know that the Obama administration is suggesting these programmes are consolidated and strengthened (through increased funding). “Good” I thought “stop wasting money and make the most of what’s available”; a pretty smart move in a time of austerity. I might yield and say that to increase the funding may be unnecessarily generous. However, it seems that Macilwain wants to take things in completely the opposite direction and believes that these types of programmes are of no use at all:

“What no one asked was whether these many activities actually benefit science and engineering, or society as a whole. My answer to both questions is an emphatic ‘no’.”1 (Quote attributed to Colin Macilwain)

What he seems to be suggesting, is that these programmes are of benefit solely to the industry itself and that by flooding the job-market with new graduates the entire situation allows for the best to be cherry-picked and cordially paid a pittance for their effort and for the rest to have been abandoned and ultimately failed by these schemes. He might not be far off the mark here but I do think he’s missing a wider point (more on that later).

Pretty University

Avoiding the beauty of learning and further education because of a lack of inspiration is a travesty. Image credits: Lricewiki via wikicommons

Luckily Macilwain understands that these programmes were set up to involve under-represented minorities to a greater extent in STEM subjects. Furthermore he suggests that employers, who want the best, should invest more in their own employee’s education and training and they’ll have the best. A very fair point, indeed!

Here’s the rub though, Macilwain seems to be saying that all this money ($3 billion in the US) should be spent elsewhere, where it’s really needed and that governments should tell kids to just do what they want as a career. In a best case scenario, I think that he’s missing a bigger point. In the worst case, he might just be belittling the impact STEM ambassadors have on childrens’ lives – glibly calling the schemes “cuddly and wonderful”.  The bigger point is this; does he not remember what it was like to be young and impressionable? Not every child knows what they want to do with the rest of their lives. The process by which they chose their career path is rather more complex than:

“I just wanted to be an immunologist” (quote attributed to NOBODY).

Children often take a liking to a subject because they happen to have a particularly charismatic or very passionate teacher (I know that’s what got me hooked on chemistry in the first place). What happens to the child who might be sitting on the fence between a career in, say, plumbing or physics? Perhaps they had the potential to do well at both but needed the right education to know what was best for them.  Perhaps they just didn’t ‘click’ with their physics teacher and decided, by the proverbial ‘flip of a coin’, to become a plumber (no bad trade by the way – my Dad is a plumber – but that’s beside the point). That’s one fewer person who pursued a career in the sciences through a lack of education; a missed opportunity due to a lack of inspiration (or, for example, resources within a school).

STEM ambassadors (and people who work through similar programmes) can go into schools, or host events at universities and inspire young minds! This isn’t just warm and cuddly, it’s life-changing. They can be the spark to a child’s imagination that sets them down the path of science or any other STEM career for that matter. I don’t think that we should be cutting investment in STEM education programmes – though I’ll concede that maybe savings could be made – I do think that we should be looking at ways to attract more jobs. It’s not “second-guessing” the job-market, it’s actively going out and promoting it. It’s saying, we have a country that’s full of bright, well-educated minds who can work well for your company and you should set up shop here.

Some might read this and say I’m being naïve but I’d say they’re being overly pessimistic. I’d say that this particular Nature article is guilty of that too. The penultimate point being made, is that the consolidation of these disparate STEM programmes is ultimately futile. Futile because (in the US at least) government ineptitude and bureaucracy will prevent resources from being transferred from one particular site to another. Come on! Let’s not just criticise a system (as valid as that criticism might be) and then just ‘walk away’ without proposing a solution to the problem. Moreover, don’t suggest that axing funding all together is the way forward just because you happen to lack the imagination to fix the problem. The phrase “where there’s a will, there’s a way” jumps to mind. What this article smacks of is a lack of willingness more than the lack of a “way”. There could be many ways in which this problem could be fixed. Why even centralise the resources at all? Surely local resources could just be managed from a central location that’s in charge of the funds?

Returning to my main point, it’s a sad day when it’s suggested that we lessen education opportunities that genuinely help people, as opposed to proposing a solution to an addressable problem. I’d like to see this become the start of some productive dialogue and not the death of a valuable resource.

Leave a comment below or tweet me your opinions using @Sci_McInnes

  1. http://www.nature.com/news/driving-students-into-science-is-a-fool-s-errand-1.12981 as of 16 May 2013 at 2000 hours.

The Public Execution of Jonah Lehrer

Yesterday Twitter whipped itself into a frenzied-bloodbath of moral-outrage; nothing new there then. But for once I was quite willing to sit down and follow the twitter feed as witty put-down and vitriolic lampooning tumbled down my screen. Why? Well because the subject was Jonah Lehrer and what seemed to be his ‘Lance Armstrong-flavoured apology’. For those that don’t know who Jonah Lehrer is or what he’s apologising for I refer you to Michael Moynihan’s exposé in Tablet and Steve Myers’ piece in Poynter. If however you’re looking for the abridged version, I’d say this: Lehrer invented quotes, lied about doing it, ignored criticism and advice regarding his mistakes and profited from it, all under the guise of being a great science communicator. In doing so he betrayed the trust of many readers and fellow science communicators. With all that said, this is not what people were getting so worked up about yesterday. All that moral-outrage took place last year. This year’s angry tweets were concerned with his lunchtime presentation at a Knight Foundation conference. (FYI the video starts at about an hour into the feed. You will need to watch this video to know what I’m talking about.)

Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer. Image credit: Kris Krüg (creative commons license)

Somewhat ironically, Knight Foundation invited Lehrer to give his presentation under the umbrella-theme of ‘decisions’ and how to avoid making poor ones but at the same time allowing Lehrer a platform to talk about what he’d done. So far so tenuous, but we’ll proceed.

Coming to this video straight from the twitter-storm I’ll say that I don’t think I was prepared to warm to his “apology”. Yet thanks to Twitter’s ubiquitous nature I suspect that even if I just happened to catch the presentation without the backlash fresh in my mind, I would have drawn the same conclusions in due course. That is to say, the presentation ended up feeling like a 30 minute long squirming, narcissistic non-apology. It was like watching a Scooby-doo styled bad guy intellectualising the phrase “I would’ve gotten away with it…”. Lehrer is a very intelligent fellow and on the surface of things his points seem reasonable, but with a moment of reflection the presentation leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. I worried for a second that if it wasn’t for the live-feed of twitter in the corner, people in the room might actually have bought it (it’s all too easy to just listen to the content and not question it). However, Knight Foundation let an uncensored stream of tweets quietly take down the “apology” before it had even reached the Q&A section. So while Lehrer was peddling his contrived non-apology, the audience had cause to question what he was saying.

Like a bad joke following a tragedy, I suspect that Lehrer’s apology was all a bit ‘too soon’. I couldn’t take it seriously. To me it seems apparent that he hasn’t had enough time to truly think about what he’s done and I got the feeling that he’d been thinking more about how to ‘come back’ as opposed to considering his mistakes properly. Reading between the lines a little, it seems that Lehrer was saying he’d do it all again if he thought he could get away with it:

…unless I hold myself accountable in public, then the lessons will not last.

He even said that if he didn’t stick to his new rules that he might “find a better way to fail”. Presumably Lehrer would rather expend his efforts inventing more and more plausible lies as opposed to just telling the truth. While Lehrer keeps a cool exterior, I think these statements are the most telling (there were quite a few other points that we could pick over too by the way, but let’s not flog a dead horse). What he implies throughout his presentation is that he doesn’t trust himself to never do this again. (Hopefully future editors take careful note of this.) It leads you to think that the only thing he’s truly sorry for, is getting caught. You might arrive at the same conclusion too by considering those quotes and also by thinking a little more deeply about his FBI story. He tried to link together his own short-comings and the thought that serious consequences can be avoided by sticking to tough new SOPs. Only, his new rules aren’t ‘tough’ SOPs but common practice in everyday journalism; basic common sense if you will. His mistakes weren’t simple oversight and accidental errors but wilful decisions taken to deceive, plagiarise and lie. All this (presumably) to sell books and further his career.

This takes us to the inescapable focus of the tweeting masses. Not only did Lehrer profit from his many lies and plagiarism but he’s profiting even now by talking about why he lied and plagiarised and how he’s (perhaps) never going to do it again. $20,000 (US dollars) for less than an hour’s presentation was, as it turns out, compensation for today’s charade. Knight Foundation wasted a lot of money today for a presentation that was, in my opinion, disingenuous and ultimately embarrassing for both parties. A costly price to pay. Though I’m left asking myself if $20K isn’t the only price the Knight Foundation will pay for today’s little chit-chat? Whilst money can be recouped from generous investors, credibility is a much rarer commodity and I think that they may well have just given up more than they bargained for.

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