You too can be a citizen scientist!

Widespread empathy for science is crucial for achieving sustainability.

You may have seen a recent report that it just may be possible to make a warp drive of the kind seen on Star Trek – by warping space-time around a starship, so it can travel faster than light. Like the recent discovery of the Higgs boson, it’s the kind of story that suggests science is the esoteric domain of eggheads in ivory towers, perhaps of interest but without direct relevance to the rest of us.

            Compounding this impression, few job openings specify any of the sciences. Yet levels of scientific knowledge – and understanding of how science works – greatly affect the lives of you and me, including through decisions we make, and grander decisions with far reaching impacts on our lives.

             Though wide ranging, science broadly involves the pursuit of knowledge that can be verified, such as through experiments. Predictions are possible, and can be extremely accurate: should you somehow leap from a high building in a vacuum, within 10 seconds you would be plummeting earthwards at 353 kilometres an hour.

Medical "truths" can prove ill-founded

            Science can also be imprecise, finding it hard to pin down reality. Medical science provides several examples. For instance, after extensive research into diets, the best scientific advice for anyone wanting to lose weight has not progressed much beyond the commonsense, “Eat less. Move more.”

            Even supposed medical truths can prove ill-founded. Peptic ulcers were believed to be caused by stress or dietary factors, until two doctors went against prevailing wisdom and showed most result from a bacterial infection. I have a strong interest in salt, as I find it helps combat my chronic sinus troubles. Well known warnings link excess salt to high blood pressure, in turn threatening heart attacks and strokes. But reading information online I learn that the evidence for this is shaky; an article in Scientific American last year noted, “For every study that suggests that salt is unhealthy, another does not.” So at times, it’s worth investigating a little, providing you find reliable sources.

            While I believe salt intake should suit individuals, the situation is more straightforward regarding antibiotics, misuse of which reflects poor awareness of science in society. In Hong Kong, antibiotics tend to be over-prescribed and too readily available, and patients are prone to stop taking them when feeling better rather than as courses are completed. This in turn leads to some bacteria strains becoming drug resistant “superbugs” that can cause lingering infections or even death.

            The Centre for Health Protection is taking measures to combat drug resistance. Such official action depends on sound science, and you might hope that scientists are all working hard to discover objective truths that help in making the best decisions for us all.

Who pays the piper calls the tune

Sadly, however, scientists are not always so saintly. When the tobacco industry was threatened by anti-smoking controls, it enlisted support from some researchers who helped spread doubts about the adverse health impacts of smoking and passive smoking, playing a role in what a report on the World Health Organization website called, “the most astonishing systematic corporate deceit of all time.”

            You might laugh at me for my naivety, but I find it deeply sad that even in science, the old saying of “Who pays the piper calls the tune” can apply so strongly. I’m especially interested in nature conservation, and like the idea that the system involving environmental impact assessments can minimise or prevent severe harm by development projects.

            But this system depends on having worthwhile assessments, while the “environmental” consultants preparing the assessments in turn depend on funding from would-be developers. This means that consultants tend to bias their reports in favour of development, and against the environment. A conservationist friend considers the bias so strong that he dismisses biologists working on environmental impact assessments as “biostitutes”.

            I have done some environmental consultancy work – trying to avoid being a biostitute,! – and read a few reports by others, finding that while quality varied, each had a rose-tinted view of the prospects for development.           

No matter, at least as far as the assessments and consultants’ incomes were concerned. The South China Morning Post last year reported that the director of environmental protection, Anissa Wong Sean-yee, had not rejected a single one of the assessment studies she had handled. With the government’s own watchdog – the Advisory Council on the Environment – branded a rubber stamp, who is left with the task of really assessing the assessments?

Citizen scientists

            The answer is almost: you and me. Green groups may critique environmental impact assessments, yet their efforts often rely on volunteers who may have passion for and expertise in aspects of nature conservation. These “citizen scientists” include birdwatchers, botanists, experts on dragonflies and moths, divers and avid hikers. 

Citizen scientists can play vital roles in our society, perhaps especially in environmental protection. As well as focusing on threatened sites such as Sha Lo Tung, Tai Long Wan and Tung Chung Bay, committed individuals are needed to make progress with broader issues, like air pollution.

With autumn winds blowing from the north, Hong Kong’s severe air pollution is back with a vengeance. As I write it is not yet noon, but based on the current “very dangerous” air pollution levels, the Hedley Environmental Index estimates there have already been six preventable deaths today. Science tells us our air pollution causes significant sickness and even death. Commonsense tells us we should aim for air that’s safe to breathe.

And political expediency prevails when it comes to air pollution. Previous Chief Executive Donald Tsang promised new Air Quality Objectives, but failed to deliver on his promise. With more widespread scientific awareness in society, and in government, we just might set worthwhile goals for air quality – and our quality of life.

Yet personal health issues, nature hotspots and air pollution pale into insignificance compared to what I believe is the key issue requiring awareness of science in society: global warming. To some people, the idea we humans can affect the climate seems as fanciful as a starship warp drive. But science tells us we can and are doing so, and news this week of an astonishing new record low for Arctic ice cover is further cause for alarm.

Fossil fuel companies sponsor efforts to downplay risks, using tactics strikingly similar to those the tobacco industry deployed in its corporate deceit. The issue proves overwhelming for the media. So it’s crucial that each of us does what we can to become informed and involved, and strive as citizen scientists to advocate and ensure changes for the better.

Published in Sunday Morning Post, 30 September 2012.

Links include:
Zooniverse - Real Science Online

Research fraud exploded over the last decade - includes:

The authors suggest that the increasing levels of fraud may come from "the incentive system of science, which is based on a winner-takes-all economics that confers disproportionate rewards to winners in the form of grants, jobs, and prizes at a time of research funding scarcity." That could certainly explain its prevalence in the US, where competition for grant money has become increasingly fierce in a way that roughly parallels the rising rates of fraud.

 

Martin Williams

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Martin Williams's picture

Another article on this theme by me; Chinese version [below] appeared in Ming Pao Weekly on 29 Sept 2012

Science Vital for Our Survival

Perhaps it’s appropriate that I’m writing about the importance of science in society for an issue of Ming Pao Weekly published just before National Day, since China is the only country I’m aware of that advocates the scientific spirit in decision making. This seems a worthy goal, though I’m not sure just what it means in practice.

            Even the definition of “science” is not so straightforward. I see on Wikipedia that it concerns the pursuit of reliable knowledge, and know from my university days that ideas should be open to testing, and re-testing. Physics is surely the purest science, yet scientific methods and knowledge span a wide range of subjects.

            Scientists include super-smart boffins whose work can seem far removed from the rest of us, like the CERN researchers who recently discovered the Higgs Boson. Even so, science plays a role in all our lives, and improved levels of science in Hong Kong and worldwide could benefit society, and may be vital for avoiding calamitous environmental woes.

            Before considering Hong Kong, it’s worth noting that levels of science elsewhere are often inadequate. The United States may have landed a robot vehicle on Mars, yet politicians in positions of power have come up with wacky statements like “Wind is god’s way of balancing heat,” “The internet is not a big truck. It's a series of tubes,” and the outrageous “"If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

            Hong Kong’s politicians are less prone to coming up with such clueless quotes. One that I recall, though, was from legislator Tommy Cheung Yu-yan during a panic over bird flu: ”Perhaps what we should do is give each person a gun and when we see a migrating bird, we can just shoot it down.”

            Mr Cheung is not noted for his scientific expertise – for instance, he battled a ban on smoking in restaurants – but in this case had been influenced by scaremongering regarding wild birds and bird flu, and this scaremongering stemmed from the government. In 2002, bird flu killed waterbirds in Kowloon Park and Penfold Park, and the government quickly said it had been carried there by migratory birds, even though most birds killed were captive, others were probably year-round residents, and there was no flu at Mai Po Marshes Reserve with its tens of thousands of migrant waterbirds.

            Soon, officials facing bird flu outbreaks elsewhere began blaming wild birds. It made a good story that the media loved – one journalist even likened wild birds to “intercontinental ballistic missiles”; but sadly, it was scientifically bankrupt. Rather like a crime show in which an innocent person is blamed, there was no solid evidence to support the allegations. Instead, even virus experts too often relied on feeble knowledge of migratory birds, and only circumstantial links between wild birds and flu occurrences, and downplayed the fact that virulent bird flu readily killed wild birds too. How convenient for the multi-billion dollar intensive poultry industry!

            Sadly, this is not an isolated case of the government ignoring or downplaying science. One example that I find ironic is that the Science Park has been built in an area struck by two massive tidal surges during typhoons last century, yet I’ve been told the design ignores the potential for such a surge. Elsewhere, too, we might wonder about planning for typhoon impacts; or must we wait for a wake-up call as New Orleans received from Hurricane Katrina?

            A major storm surge might occur this year, or could be decades away. Yet every day, Hong Kong people face known threats from our severe air pollution. Science tells us we should slash air pollution levels, but expediency has so far won out, with new Air Quality Objectives long delayed, and chosen to not affect development too much. Using science we can also argue against projects such as the Hong Kong – Macau – Zhuhai Bridge, and the third runway; but again, short-term economic benefits loom large.

            Science is not just for grand decision-making, of course. Your level of scientific knowledge can affect many decisions you make, such as whether to believe a foodstuff can boost a baby’s brainpower, or a skin cream can make you look years younger, and how to respond when smog smothers the city.

            You don’t need to become a scientist to have enough knowledge to grasp such issues – there are books, occasional media articles and documentaries. Nor should you believe someone just because they’re a scientist: based on experience, I believe even professors can be swayed by their funding sources.

            But with more interest in and knowledge of science, Hong Kong and the world as a whole can make better decisions, large or small, and better discuss and solve issues that affect us all.

            One over-riding issue is global warming. It is crucial that we quickly achieve a widespread understanding of what this means, and then take massive action to counter the threats. For unlike with face cream or bird flu, science tells us that if we don’t make sweeping changes to stem global warming, then sweeping changes will occur anyway – with horrendous consequences. Our scientific progress and technological achievements have got us into this situation; now we must embrace science to find a way out.

科學牽繫社會脈膊

適逢本期明周在中國國慶日出版,令我想到中國是我所認識的唯一一個提倡以科學精神做決策的國家。如何具體實行我是似懂非懂,但說法似乎十分可取,本文於是就地取材,淺談科學如何牽繫社會脈膊。

         「科學」沒有絕對明確的定義。維基百科告訴我,追尋可靠的知識就是科學。在大學時代,我認識到科學是可供實驗證明和再三驗證的理論。根據這個定義,大概只有物理才是最純正的科學,但是科學化的方法和知識,卻可以應用到不同的課題上。

         科學家總給人一個絕頂聰明的形像,他們從事科研工作,成就非一般人所能明瞭,好像最近發現希格斯玻色子的歐洲核子研究中心人員。但是科學卻又在我們的生活中擔演著重要的角色,所以提升香港以至國際間的科學水平,對社會百利而無一害,甚致可以幫助避免環境災難。

         先不談香港。不少地方的科學水平其實都相當有限。以美國為例,雖然連機械人都送上了火星,但該國政治人物的言論卻每每令人摸不著頭腦:「風是上主平衡熱力的手法」、「互聯網並不是一輛大貨車,而是一系列的喉管」,還有荒謬絕倫的「如果是真正強姦,女性身體有辦法能關閉整個系統。」

         香港的政治人物好像較少語不驚人誓不休,不過我卻記得立法會議員張宇仁在禽流感肆虐期間時說過:「禽流感問題不在於家禽,當局應該『一人派一支槍』,射殺所有候鳥,就沒有問題。」

         張先生曾反對食肆禁煙,在科學上知多識廣並非他的賣點,我相信他是受了謠言造成的恐慌影響,才會對野生雀鳥產生恐懼。造成恐慌,政府責無旁貸。在2002時,禽流感殺死了九龍公園和彭福公園的水鳥,政府很快便作出回應,直指禽流感是由候鳥傳播。事實上,大部份感染禽流感致死的都是養鳥,其他出事雀鳥也是本港居民;米埔自然保護區內水鳥候鳥成千上萬,但當中並沒出現任何流感情況。

         其後,地方陸續發現禽流感個案,急需官員應對。如上所述,候鳥傳播之說在科學上全無根據可言,但無辜的候鳥好像犯罪劇中被插贓嫁禍、無理指控的主角一樣。禽流感由候鳥傳播的講法言之鑿鑿,而且受傳媒所愛,有記者甚至把野生雀鳥比喻為「洲際導彈」,連病毒專家很多時都倚賴這些對候鳥的薄弱認識,對野生雀鳥與流感個案出現只有偶然關聯視而不見,輕描淡寫地略過致命的禽流感同樣也可隨時殺死野生雀鳥的事實。對於數以億元計的密集式禽畜業來說,這種論據實在是方便不過!

         很遺憾,政府輕視科學的態度並不限於個別事件。科學園選址便是其中一個令我感到諷刺的例子。這片土地在上世紀經歷暴風期間,曾兩次遭受大型潮水灌注,但據我所知,科學園在設計時並沒有考慮到大潮出現的可能性。對於其他地方發生的天災人禍,我們姑且會懷疑規劃時有否考量颶風的影響。難道香港要等到像卡特里娜颶風侵襲新奧爾良的情況出現,才會如夢初醒?

         大型的風暴潮可能在今年發生,也可能在數十年以後才出現。但香港人每天都面對著嚴重的空氣污染問題。科學告訴我們應該降低污染水平,但權宜手段至今仍大獲全勝,新的空氣質素指標便推遲再推遲,還要以不太影響發展為前提。如果從科學角度考慮,我們對港珠澳大橋、第三條跑道等工程理應質疑,但一而再、再二三,短期經濟利益蓋過一切。

         當然,科學並不只適用於重大決定。科學知識可以左右你日常生活中的選擇。你相信有食物可提升嬰兒的腦力嗎?又或有面霜可以令你年輕十歲?還是你會以一己的科學知識回應令我城窒息的煙霧問題?

         回答這些問題,你不一定要是科學家,你大可以從參考書籍、報章雜誌和紀錄片等增進自己的知識。你也不應該因為某人是科學家而全盤相信。根據經驗,即使是大學教授也會因為資金來源而有偏頗。

         對科學更感興趣、學習更多科學知識,有助香港和世界做出更好的大小決定。人們可以一同更深入地討論、尋找方法來解決可能影響我們每一位的問題。

         全球暧化便是其中一個刻不容緩的問題。首要任務是迅速令公眾廣泛瞭解問題背後的意義,再積極採取大規模行動來對抗暖化的威脅。與選擇面霜或對抗禽流感不同,科學在全球暧化上的作用,是讓我們知道不作出徹頭徹尾的改變來解決問題根本,地球便會出現翻天覆地的變化和可怕的後果。科學上的進步和技術上的成就令我們陷入這個困境,現在我們必須擁戴科學,一同尋找出路。

Martin Williams's picture

Days after the above columns were published came news of a hideous and dangerous quack medicine effort in Hong Kong, involving blood transfusions for supposed beauty improvements: Deadly bacteria found in beauty chain treatment

While over in America:

Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) tore into scientists as tools of the devil in a speech at the Liberty Baptist Church Sportsman’s Banquet last month.

“All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell,” Broun said. “And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior.”

According to Broun, the scientific plot was primarily concerned with hiding the true age of the Earth. Broun serves on the House Science Committee [!!!!]

Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA): Evolution, Big Bang ‘Lies Straight From The Pit Of Hell’

Hard to believe Broun believes his nonsense; maybe pandering to voters who are scientifically illiterate?

Serves on House Science Committee, eh? Isn't that like having a rabid atheist on a religious affairs panel?

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