You too can be a citizen scientist!

Green groups critique environmental impact assessments, yet often rely on volunteers with expertise in natural history: citizen scientists.

You may have seen a 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 reported that a former 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.


  1. Science Vital for Our Survival

    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.















    • Quack medicine and crackpot comments

      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:
      [quote]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 [!!!!][/quote]

      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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