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Unpopular Science

Chris Mooney & Sheril Kirshenbaum, The Nation
For twenty-three years Sabin Russell worked at the San Francisco Chronicle. A top medical writer specializing in global health and infectious diseases, Russell covered subjects ranging from bioterror threats to the risk of avian flu and traveled throughout Africa to report on the AIDS epidemic. He won numerous accolades, including a 2001 Science in Society Journalism Award from the National Association of Science Writers for his reporting on the flaws of the flu vaccine industry.

This article is partly based on Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future.

Then came March 30, 2009–his last day on the job. Russell was at MIT, on leave from his paper for a fellowship. The struggling Chronicle had been cutting staff and now suddenly forced many older career journalists to either take a buyout or risk a reduced pension. At 56, Russell was at the peak of his game, but for him, as for many of his colleagues, there was really just one option. “We have not left journalism; journalism has left us,” Russell remarked recently from San Francisco, where he is setting up a freelance office and looking for work.

Now the painful irony: Russell was pressured out of his job just as swine flu murmurs began to emerge from Mexico. This was his beat; few reporters are better equipped to tackle such a difficult yet urgent story, one so rife with uncertain but potentially severe risk. Russell even tipped off his old employer that the paper might want to get a jump on what was happening in Mexico City. “If I was covering this story now,” he says, “I’d be all over the Southern Hemisphere. It’s flu season there. How is Australia? How is the infrastructure to respond to a new strain holding up?”

Those are stories Russell won’t be writing.

The death of specialized newspaper science sections like the Globe’s is a long-term trend–one that appears to be accelerating. From 1989 to 2005, the number of US papers featuring weekly science-related sections shrank from ninety-five to thirty-four. Many of the remaining sections shifted to softer health, fitness and “news you can use” coverage, reflecting the apparent judgment that more thorough science or science policy coverage just doesn’t support itself economically.
(29 July 2009)

Very long and significant article on the hatcheting of science reporting jobs from papers, which, as the article speculates, doesn’t necessarily seem to be just related to the current economic crisis, but “part of a long-term trend.” -KS

“Peak Civilization”: The Fall of the Roman Empire

Ugo Bardi, The Oil Drum Europe
This text describes the presentation that I gave at the “Peak Summit” in Alcatraz (Italy) on June 27, 2009 (the picture shows me speaking there). It is not a transcription, but something that I wrote from memory, mostly in a single stretch, while I had it still fresh in my mind. The result is that my 40 minutes talk became a text of more than 10,000 words, much longer than a typical internet document (but still less than Gibbon’s six volumes on the same subject!) A talk, anyway, can be longer and more effective than a post, mostly because the people listening to you are not distracted by the infinite distractions of an internet connection. So, I wrote this post trying to maintain the style of an oral presentation. I don’t know if it will turn out to be more easily readable than the usual style but, if you arrive to the end, you’ll tell me what do you think of it.

Ladies and gentlemen, first of all thank you for being here. This afternoon I’ll try to say something about a subject that I am sure you are all interested in: the decline and the fall of the Roman Empire. It is something that has been discussed over and over; it is because we think that our civilization may follow the same destiny as the Roman one: decline and fall. So, the Roman Empire offers us some kind of a model. We can say it is the paradigm of collapsing societies. And, yet, we don’t seem to be able to find an agreement on what caused the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Historians – and not just historians – have been debating this subject and they came up with literally dozens of explanations: barbarian invasions, epidemics, lead poisoning, moral decadence and what you have. Which is the right one? Or are all these explanations right? This is the point that I would like to discuss today. I’ll be focusing on the interpretation of Joseph Tainter, based on the fact that empires and civilizations are “complex” systems and try to use system dynamics to describe collapse.

Before we go into this matter, however, let me add a disclaimer. I am not a historian and I don’t pretend to be one. It is not my intention of criticizing or disparaging the work of historians. You see, there are several ways of making a fool of oneself: one which is very effective is to try teaching to people who know more than you. For some reasons, however, it happens all the time and not just with history; just look at the debate on climate change! So, what I am trying to do here is just to apply system dynamics on the history of the Roman Empire which – as far as I know – has not been done, so far. It is a qualitative version of system dynamics; making a complete model of the whole Roman Empire is beyond my means. But the results are very interesting; or so I believe.

…Let’s start from the beginning and here the beginning is with the people who were contemporary to the collapse, the Romans themselves. Did they understand what was happening to them? This is a very important point: if a society, intended as its government, can understand that collapse is coming, can they do something to avoid it? It is relevant to our own situation, today.
(22 July 2009)
I am hoping to get permission to publish the full article on EB. -KS

The Problem is Us
Andrew MacNamara, Queensland Conservation

Is further population growth desirable in Australia? It is a simple question and goes to the heart of whether or not we can be environmentally sustainable, economically prosperous and socially cohesive as a nation in the 21st Century.

So why then don’t policy makers ask the question? More peculiarly still, having studiously avoided asking this fundamental question, why do our governments implement policies that fly in the face of the clear evidence of what Australians want, which is fewer, not more of us? Why does the bizarre suggestion that population growth is necessary for economic growth persist in the face of unambiguous evidence that it is simply not true? Why do we cling to the absurd proposition that we can lessen our impact on the environment, while continuing to tear it down to make way for more of us?

As you will have gathered from my opening remarks, what fascinates me about the population debate that we are not having, is not the question of whether or not we should encourage population growth. That is a no brainer and I will spend just a few minutes later putting to the sword the silly argument that we need population growth to grow our economy. What I find most interesting is the fundamental disconnect in our democracy on the desirability or otherwise of continuing population growth – the chasm between the individual choices of the governed, who with the advent of equal educational opportunity for women universally choose smaller families, and the policies of State and Federal governments, which overtly and covertly support unrestrained population growth.

Every day, the front pages of our papers are covered in variations on the same problem. Whether the shock/horror de jour is traffic congestion on our roads, overcrowding on our trains, waiting lists in our hospitals, housing affordability, social alienation in urban sprawl, declining koala numbers, reef runoff, food security, water security or global warming; there is only one problem – us. There are too many of us. To channel Mugatu from “Zoolander”, I want to scream, “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills”, as I watch billions of dollars being spent treating the symptoms of the one great problem we face –overpopulation, when the treatment is all designed to enable greater population growth, not to stabilise or reverse it.

Download the full text of Mr McNamara’s talk here The Problem is Us 63.40 Kb
(17 July 2009)

Sent in by EB contributor Michael Lardelli, who writes:
Very good and informative speech by Andrew McNamara, former Minister for Sustainability etc. in the Queensland Labor government (but lost his seat in the last election)