Saturday, December 01, 2012

Patronising MSM journalists hasten their own demise

Well, Sydney is baking and I’m grumpy and I have a pet detestation that fastens on journalists either waving the arse of their ignorance in the reader’s face, or treating the readers themselves like idiots in their desire to patronise.

There’s this special tone of voice, “I-know-something-you-don’t” (imagine it singsong “nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah!”), that journalists use when they think they’re educating their audience but are really just patronising the living daylight out of us.

Here’s a piece about battery technology research from the SMH. It’s lame in that kind of lameness that you get when the journalist fears any real science will turn off readers.

And especially lame is this:

“Batteries keep the lights on at night, and are perhaps the most surprising component of the otherwise high-tech array. Nestled among the coconut palms and shiny solar panels are bungalows containing 1344 giant lead-acid batteries weighing a combined 257 tonnes.”


“Tokelau's energy set-up may seem anachronistic…”

As some of you know, my wife and I operate a solar-powered set of holiday cottages, Bunjaree Cottages in Wentworth Falls. We don’t have 1,344 batteries – a more modest 36 is our kit, and there are humans out there who will contrive ways to suck them down from 54 V at 5pm to blackout at 6am (no mean feat: my family in December 2011, during a rain spell, managed three days without losing power).

So okay, I am familiar with lead-acid batteries and not in the least surprised, but neither should the Herald’s “carbon economy editor” (the invention of useless titles is one way once-were-warrior newspapers rage against the dying of the light), nor the Herald’s readers.

If you open the bonnet of your car – an anachronistic activity I know, but bear with me – you’ll find it packed with “anachronistic” hundred-year-old technology. The internal combustion engine, for a start; not to mention the lead-acid battery in a corner to give you a start in the morning. Kick the tyres and you’re kicking something from the 19th century, with enhancements, wrapped around improvements on wheels that even Pharoes had.

Now, I’ll grant that some of the story passes muster – although telling us that someone invented the vanadium redox battery, but not caring to describe it screams “out of depth reporter” to me (the science is easy to find on Google; essentially, it uses vanadium in two different solutions to store the charge).

I have found over decades behind the alphabet piano that mostly, you don’t need to patronise the reader – and in the world of the Internet, it’s an advantage not to. If the story is good, readers will find it, share it, pass it around – and you’ll get the hits. Is it better to seek out idiots, or to assume that it’s just as good to have the same number of informed, knowledgeable readers in front of the story?

I suspect a mindset is at fault: even as its readers flee, the old world of the newsroom believes itself party to privilege. It can’t shake the habits of “knowing something you don’t”, the keeper of the curtain who, for a suitable fee, will draw it back and give the audience a peek.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

AusSMC: goodbye. You're not there to censor science

I have just asked the Australian Science Media Centre to no longer consider me a member.

Here’s why.

First let me set down my scientific credentials: I have none. I am a journalist with a strong interest in science, and – I hope – a functioning sniff-test on what I will and won’t write about. Their job was to educate me, but it seems I have to turn tables.

My only credential is that The Register (, for whom I write (, gets millions of hits in any given week (sometimes on a good day), and my science stories do well enough that nobody tells me to lay off science stories.

The Australian Science Media Centre has seen fit to upend a very public bucket ( on two Southern Cross University scientists for “media coverage by press release without a peer reviewed scientific paper to back it up?” asking “whether releasing preliminary data to the media is ever warranted”.

Let’s start with the hypocrisy. For the AusSMC to set “peer review” as the benchmark for “talk to the press” blithely ignores its own patron, the Baroness Greenfield, who just as blithely ignores peer review (for example when it comes to her theories about social media and brain development.

Also, there’s this exceptionally silly statement.

“The scientific process goes something like this: a researcher constructs a hypothesis, runs experiments to test their hypothesis, gathers data, interprets the results and then puts the lot through peer review”.

Bollocks. Nonsense. That’s how the scientific publication process goes. Science is messy. I’d suppose the most exciting words that an elder professor can hear from a PhD candidate are:

“That’s odd…”

And I have an example, here ( Speaking at the Australian Institute of Physics recently, CUDOS’ Dr Ben Egglestone was more frank about the researcher’s puzzlement. Actually, the first thought was that a bit of apparatus (presumably expensive) was broken.

The observation came first; after which came the hypothesis; after which the experimental test. After which, the paper.

Back to the CSG issue.

The first public discussion of the work by Dr Damien Maher and Dr Isaac Santos was not, as far as I can see, this press release ( as asserted by AusSMC, but rather this ( - PDF) submission to a Department of Climate Change’s inquiry.

I see nothing remotely improper about a scientist contributing to a government inquiry, even pre-peer-review.

It seems the press release was issued after the Sydney Morning Herald noticed the submission and put together this story: in other words, the press release was probably intended as a media summary after every man and his dog started calling up the University.

Which brings us to the question “whether releasing preliminary data to the media is ever warranted”?

To be polite, don’t be silly: is the world now to start censoring its scientists solely on the basis of whether a journal has accepted a particular item of research for publication? Sure, it’s good business for the big journals, but as a journalist, I acknowledge no obligation whatever to protect their business model.

In the specific instance of the SCU submission to the government inquiry: the document repeatedly makes clear that it is presenting preliminary results. The researchers say that their measurements are incomplete – they “provide evidence for significant but unquantified” emissions, and call for “baseline studies” before new projects are commenced.

Ahh, someone or other complains, but they didn’t release the raw data, so nobody else can test it! No: because the raw data is off with a publication undergoing peer review. It’s stuck in the “process” that the AusSMC is promoting.

More broadly, suggesting an extension of peer review from its proper(ish) role – ensuring that the science is sufficiently rigorous to justify publication in a specific journal – into a pre-publication self-censorship is an awful idea.

First, keep in mind that “peer review” isn’t magic. It means “this result is robust enough to warrant publication” – after which the real business of “replicate it or rip it to shreds” begins. The journals do not replicate an experiment before they publish: that is the job of other scientists, after they’ve got their hands on the data.

Apply a “pre peer review” gag? So that no scientist can ever answer the question “what are your current research interests?” So that all science journalism is forever beholden to the embargoes and fanatical media management of the large publishers? So that journalists can see nothing, read nothing and know nothing except by the grace of the journals – while laying out $20k in annual subscriptions?

Should Cornell University pull Arxiv because a journalist might download a document that hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed?

To think that the Australian Science Media Centre wants to filter “science” through the lens of the “science publisher’s” world view is a depressing thought indeed.

Goodbye. I don’t wish the AusSMC bad luck, because – to paraphrase Archie Goodwin – even with good luck, it won’t get much of an epitaph.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Childcare and feminism

Usually, you’ll hear this kind of thing from shits saying “why should you get help that I didn’t get?” Bear with me. It won’t be that way.
Because of the people I follow, I saw a lot of observations recently on Twitter that child-care is the feminist issue that’s on the don’t touch list; that the people who have “feminism” in mind are happier dealing the clue-by-four to radio shock-jocks whose opinions won’t change si why waste the time? (courtesy Helen Razer); that motherhood isn’t sexy enough for the feminist agenda (Asher Wolf).
Yes to all of you. You’re fighting the hardest fight that remains to feminism.
I have no direct stake and therefore, I guess, no right to comment. I’m not a woman. I’m a father whose sons are now old enough to do without me. If I died tomorrow, they’d get by somehow, not least because Ms T has taught them to cook – properly. That is: they can get by without pre-preps for the sauce. They can eat cheap. They’ll live.
Ms T, however, would not get by without me. Does that at least qualify me for “observer” status? I bloody hope, so or I am in the cross-hairs for the best flaming I’ve had in years…
Because I’m trying to be sensitive to others in this post, it’s hard to have the words flow. So if I wander, forgive me.
I identify the child care issue as the hardest fight, not only as a father, but as someone whose contacts reach back to 1896, when my late grandmother was born. I’ll just stick with my father’s lifetime: his mother, Doris, suffered septicaemia when her youngest son was born. This was during the Depression, at a time when government support for the merely unemployed was as hostile and hateful as today’s bipartisan contest to rain horrors on the heads of boat-borne refugees.
She never truly recovered: my dim memories of her are as someone who wore heavy coats and felt hats in a Sydney summer, and once seated as a visitor, barely moved. People came to her.
When my father joined the navy in WW2, he was directed to the ship’s laundry as a volunteer, because he’d wrangled the copper since age ten.
When I was seven, my mother suffered an affliction which much later I identified as Menier’s Syndrome, and was so ill that she needed to convalesce. I was too young – strike that, I know what I was, too much of a trouble-making pain in the arse! – to remain in Sydney with dad and my siblings. He had an over-the-odds too-many-hours job that precluded him from travelling to school every other week.
So I went to Springwood with my mother, to be cared for by my grandmother while my mother lay in a bed that spun if she closed her eyes. There were penalties and compensations in that six-months. The school I temporarily attended liked me just about as much as I liked it; my grandmother was a very severe product of the 19th century; but she had a short-wave radio! She also let me use any amount of cubed sugar in tea, and talked in a way that I liked hearing, in spite of the 70-odd years between us.
It would be easy, from my point of view, to say “So, there’s no support for child-care? Get over it, there never was any.”
I won’t.
My uncle – the only survivor today of Dad’s family – told me at a recent funeral how his elder siblings gave up fun and opportunity to help bring him up (dad didn’t resent his part in that; he resented bad medicine and the Depression).
And I recall a 1960s in which the only way to keep a family together – one that nearly failed anyhow for other reasons – was to divide it for a time. Because sickness didn't warrant support.
And me? I’m here. My sons are beyond compare, but they’re no the topic of this post. Nor are my experiences – and Ms T’s – of parent-hood. We got by somehow, in spite of short funds, a psycho school principal, and so on.
I merely wish to say two things: the first is that I wholeheartedly support the idea that child-care is a vital feminist issue. I have no particular right to say so, but I’ve never claimed the right to express my opinions, only the ability to do so and try to stop me.
The second: keep in mind that “care” is, also and maybe foremost, the right of the child. The insane ideological inputs from the right – that the child’s right to care is linked with getting women to be “real women” – can be disregarded, unless you want to subscribe to the equally-insane notion that “real women don’t get sick”.
Get the argument right – in a modern PR-driven construction that I utterly detest, “get the framing right” (may all savvy pundits die horribly, preferably at my hand) – and both the mothers and the children benefit.
Back to my introduction: “I never got help, why should you?
Because we never buy our own salvation. If you wan to save the world, do so, but understand that it will be saved for others, not for you.
Life is tragic, that way: you are noble when you buy a better life for those that can’t do it for themselves, either because they’re powerless today, or because they don’t know they need what you’ll win for them.
Do it for yourself, and it’s just greed.
Since I’m not in the mood to dwell on religion, I’ll call instead on Lord of The Rings: Frodo didn’t rescue Frodo. Just everybody else. 
That’s why I support those who battle on the behalf of others: the new mother who finds the mere energy to become an activist on behalf of better child care will not benefit herself. It will take too long: the best she can hope for is that some other mother has a better time of it.
All mothers deserve enough support that their sons might feel that way. All children deserve their mothers – without the stresses that lack of support introduce. If feminists  – not mere publicity-seekers – choose this as a battle-ground, I can’t ride their horses, but I can carry spears.

To those trying to change things for the better: My bet is that you have my mother and both my grandmothers, my aunt and probably my father - all dead, alas - applauding you.