Science Journalism Hits a New Low

“I don’t believe it!” was the exasperated catchphrase of Victor Meldrew, played by Richard Wilson in the television show One Foot in the Grave. While I didn’t find the show particularly funny, Father Ted brilliantly mocked Wilson’s distaste towards the catchphrase in The Mainland, thus cementing the catchphrase’s place in pop-culture history.

I found myself shouting “I don’t believe it!” earlier today when I clicked on a Fairfax “news” article about a “study” that claims men overeat in the presence of competitive environments. I could see where this was going straight away, I was not surprised to discover that the study was from none other than Brian Wansink‘s group at Cornell University.

Why was I not surprised? Because Wansink has form: It all started in 2016, he published a horrific post extolling the praises of a graduate student who was able to churn out 5 papers(!) from some data about restaurant eating habits. Furthermore, he derided a post-doc who refused to have any part in the whole affair for wasting too much time on “Facebook, Twitter, [and] Game of Thrones”.

The post aroused suspicion within the scientific community. Wansink’s work was subjected to further scrutiny, where it was discovered that Wansink was practicing P-hacking. P-hacking is where one tests a data set looking for the slightest correlations between any sets of variables. By convention, a statistical significance (P) below 0.05 is deemed to confirm a hypothesis. The trouble with P-hacking is that no hypothesis exists to motivate the design of an experiment, or to collect data.

Even worse, researchers found that Wansink’s statistical analysis was atrociously poor and that some of his work was self-plagiarised. It comes as no surprise that the retractions are starting to rack up.

The paper that the article was referring to* was one produced by the P-hacking effort outlined in Wansink’s brag post and has had to be corrected. Was any of this reported in the Fairfax article? Of course not, Wansink’s claims were simply parroted by the journalist. There wasn’t even a link to the paper that the article is supposed to be about! That the study was the result of academic misconduct is an important piece of information that readers should know about. More importantly, the poor quality of Wansink’s research means we can’t be sure that the competitive overeating phenomenon he claims exists is even true!

So we have an badly written article about a study so poor that it doesn’t warrant being written about. Why does this happen? The corporate media’s insatiable demand for ad revenue would be my guess. P-hacked studies that claim ridiculous sounding correlations between variables are typical clickbait that draws the attention of the non-scientific masses. Real science articles are usually less folksy and only appeal to a limited audience, hence don’t feature in mainstream news.

This approach is bad for science. The media is the only interface between scientists and much of the population. Superficial reports about dodgy studies presented as fact create a picture of scientists as bumbling, grant-hungry fools; whose findings are either bloody obvious, or obviously rubbish. The dumbarse comments below the offending Fairfax article prove my point.

While scientists such as Wansink are incompetent and their findings are ridiculous, most scientists are highly knowledgeable and produce robust work. But the public doesn’t get to see these people because their work isn’t “sexy” enough. Other fields of science such as climate change and vaccine research are then attacked by charlatans who are only too happy to exploit the public’s distrust in science to further their own agenda. The media has created the unbelievable situation where the public are lied to and then won’t believe the scientists who try to set the record straight.

It is absurd that the media these days is about profit first and disseminating information second. It is absurd that Fairfax think it is acceptable to publish claims by a fraudulent academic without letting it’s readers know that the claims are supported by shoddy research. It is absurd that our society has to suffer because confidence in science is undermined by media only interested in its bottom line. Down with this sort of thing.

*The paper was published in March 2016! What in the name of bloody hell are Fairfax doing reporting about it in January 2018?
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NZ 2017 Post-Election Limbo: My Thoughts

One and a half weeks ago, the people of New Zealand went to the polls to determine the make up of our next Parliament. Election night was a letdown for all sides, with no established bloc able to command a majority. Like 1996 and 2005, New Zealand First finds itself holding the balance of power*.

Firstly let’s note that National didn’t win. While it’s disheartening to know that ~46% of voters are either gullible or sociopathic, the centre-right is in trouble. Its coalition partners have either been taken out or rendered irrelevant. For National to stay in government, they need to do a deal with either NZF or the Greens.

Coalition negotiations have not begun yet, largely in part because special votes are still being processed and the final result may result in a few seats changing hands. Winston Peters, the leader of NZF has shown little interest in starting negotiations until the final result is clear. And fair enough, there’s no point coming to an agreement now that could be jeopardised when circumstances will change.

In this vacant period, news media and political operatives have started interviewing their typewriters and put out some truly dreadful dreck during the past week. Let’s go through those now:

National has a right to govern: No it doesn’t, and it’s unsettling that commentators are claiming that National has some kind of “moral” authority (warning: NZ Herald) to form the next government. Besides the fact that “National” and “morality” don’t belong in the same sentence, there is no constitutional stipulation that the largest party has priority when forming a government.

National/Green coalition: This idea is frankly ridiculous. Environmentalism and right-wing politics are fundamentally incompatible. When the right wing stop putting money and conservative organised religion before everything else, then there may be a case to be made. The Green Party would be nothing more than window dressing to make National look better. All of the analysis behind it is completely unwarranted as the Green Party membership can (and will) block the parliamentary Greens from coalescing with National.

Trying to read Winston: NZF has always promoted a weird mixture of left and right policy, hence both sides are quick to point out similarities and proclaim that NZF should go with them. I think James Shaw was correct to point out the common ground between Labour, Green and NZF during his election night speech. It’s much easier to imagine the three agreeing on a policy schedule that doesn’t deviate too far from what they campaigned on. Meanwhile, it’s hard to see National abandoning free-market economics and cutting immigration rates.

Peters hasn’t appreciated this idle speculation while the votes are still being counted and nobly insists that personal issues with the National Party will be put aside during negotiations. I don’t think he will be able to detach his feelings towards National and I don’t expect him to. National ran a deplorable campaign filled with lies, hollow bribes and dirty attacks that almost pushed NZF out of parliament. It’s not just a matter of personal relations, National cannot be trusted to govern fairly and transparently in the interests of all New Zealanders. It is my opinion that Peters should not reward such scumbaggery with another term in government.

MMP is Broken: Fairfax let two of their far-right headbangers out of the asylum to attack our quasi-proportional MMP electoral system (Grant’s article is here, du Frense’s is here). Their arguments are nothing more than the characteristic whining sounds made by arrogant National supporters. Apparently it’s an affront that their party has been denied minority rule. The fact of the matter is whoever can muster the support of 50% + 1 seats forms the government.  It makes no difference whether that is one, two, three, or four(!) parties. Common complaints about how small parties holding the country to ransom have popped up again. One just needs to look back to the UK in June to see that the same outcomes are just as possible in FPP systems.

That’s not to suggest that MMP is perfect. The 5% threshold has shown to be unfit for purpose. Parties such as ACT  and United Dunne Future have/had no real constituency to speak of, yet they are/were entitled to parliamentary seats. Meanwhile, NZF in 2008, Colin Craig’s Conservative Party in 2011/2014 and Gareth Morgan’s The Opportunities Party in 2017 gained many more party votes and no seats. I think the threshold should be lowered to 0.8% (i.e. 1 parliamentary seat) to mitigate the disproportionality of micro parties that rely on winning an electorate seat. A lower threshold means less wasted vote, which keeps the National Party further away from power, which is always a good thing.

With National likely to lose more seats once the special votes have been counted, I expect this week will see intensification of the corporatist demands for NZF or the Greens to give National the coronation they believe is their right. I can only hope both minor parties stay strong and will be able to make a deal between Labour and themselves. The three have already shown themselves to be a competent and responsible administration (sort of, the Greens were at arms length during the 48th parliament). We look set to be facing an opportunity for such a government again. I, along with many other New Zealanders encourage Labour, the Greens and NZF to take this opportunity for the good of our country.

*Balance of Power also happens to be the title of the 1986 album by the Electric Light Orchestra. Heaven Only Knows what the outcome will be. Stable government is So Serious, it’s good to see the parties Getting to the Point. The negotiators are living Secret Lives while the negotiation details are hidden from the media. Is it Alright that the National Party was able to run a campaign of Endless Lies?

Why does the Maxim Institute Hate Democracy?

Earlier this month, the Maxim Institute, a far-right think tank based in Auckland published an article about the urban/rural divide in New Zealand.The institute has done some “research” that indicates that there are differences in lifestyles and attitudes between regions in New Zealand. They forecast that a greater proportion of the population will live in urban centres (70% in 30 years time). Strangely the institute chooses to frame this as a problem:

That’s a lot of urban voters, and it’s going to be very tempting for politicians to focus more and more on urban interests in order to win those votes, possibly at the expense of the rest of the country.

It could also make it easier for urban voters to ignore or mock the interests of voters living in very different communities.

I don’t see the problem. If the vast majority of the population lives in urban areas, then it is only right that politicians focus on urban interests. That’s democracy in action. It’s also assuming that policy development is a zero-sum game. This is not strictly true, a policy designed to help urban dwellers does not necessarily harm rural dwellers.

Let’s also keep in mind that the opposite situation exists at present. Politicians already prioritise property owners and corporations at the expense of ordinary people. Policies such as irrigation schemes and the dilution of water quality standards are designed to benefit rural voters while harming the interests of the wider public. Why doesn’t the Maxim Institute write about these issues instead of this one that they made up?

It’s worth mentioning that the urban-rural divide is a cornerstone of political analysis in USA, where it plays a massive factor in elections. Donald Trump can credit the urban/rural divide with handing him the presidency that he didn’t deserve. The electorate is divided into a series of winner-take-all states where the number of electors is not proportional to the state populations. Narrow victories in swing states and the over-representation of small rural states turned a 2.7 million vote deficit into a 77 vote surplus in the electoral college. By preserving and accentuating a bias in favour of rural areas, the American right-wing have been able to engineer electoral victories in the face of popular defeats.

When we keep this in mind, the motives behind the Maxim Institute’s article become much more sinister. They don’t say it, but it is implicit that they think that the electoral system should be redesigned. I imagine they would want something less proportional, like FPP that favours rural constituencies. Never mind that FPP has been rejected by the public twice during the past two and a half decades.  While they may cry crocodile tears about their contrived decline in rural areas, this is all about securing right-wing power over New Zealand for years to come.

As things stand NZ has a very proportional voting system. There is no reason for this to ever change. If the increase in the numbers of urban voters is a problem for the political right, the problem is with them, not with the voters and not with the electoral system. If this is typical of the standard of work that the Maxim Institute is producing, urbanisation should be the least of their worries.

Another Great Kiwi Invention to not be Proud of

In my final year of undergraduate study, I worked in a group of 4 people to design a chlor-alkali process plant. One of the interesting parts of this process is that you produce chlorine and sodium hydroxide. We needed to make sure that our process was positioned such that there was sufficient demand for both the chlorine and the sodium hydroxide.We obviously went for a membrane cell design because the other main types (mercury and diaphragm) use mercury and asbestos respectively. Sad!

After the usual jokes about supplying chemical weapons to dubious customers (which doesn’t sound so funny anymore), we settled on Australia. We would sell the chlorine to a PVC manufacturer in Victoria, the NaOH to the mining industry for bauxite processing and we would use the reject stream from a reverse osmosis desalination plant. Concentrating the brine solution was one of the trickiest parts, so it seemed helpful to have the hard work done for us, and it would reduce the damage done to the environment by the desalination plant.

However, it wasn’t that simple. The RO brine wasn’t concentrated enough! Thus, we opted to bump up the feed concentration using electrodialysis (I believe the recycle brine stream was concentrated using multi-effect evapouration). Such an approach was used with a plant in Kuwait (now called Al Kout Industrial Projects Company).

Despite using an innovative and efficient set-up, the profitability was very sensitive to the price of NaOH. If the price is too low, you may as well not bother.

I was thrilled to discover that there was another application for the chlor-alkali process: Te Kiri Gold magic water of course! You don’t even need to worry about concentrating up the feed solution, just dunk your electrodes in and go! Then approach vulnerable people, who will believe that it will solve their problems. Even better, get some rugby has-been to endorse it. Then charge $100 for 2 litres.

So our Victorian chlor-alkali plant used 5.9 million t/y of RO brine . Of that, 5.2 million t/y of that was electrodialysis dilutate, with a NaCl concentration of 32 g/L which I presume was dumped back into the sea. Instead of doing this and have to pay some kind of dumping fee (which we didn’t consider in the cashflow analysis) let’s make some magic water! As a volume, that is 5.2 million L/y. Given that no separation is required, the only operating cost is that of the electricity. At $50 per litre, the plant could make $260 million/y in revenue from magic water alone! The revenue from the chlorine and NaOH was only $160 million/y, and these were also much more expensive to produce.

There are a few issues to consider. First is demand; while there are enough people to defraud to make it worth the while of the shareholders, there aren’t enough people to defraud on such an industrial scale. The second is efficacy: MAGIC WATER DOESN’T FUCKING WORK! The third is ethics: could you live with yourself if you knowingly sold ineffective products that were giving people false hope? The dumbarse who manufactures this product doesn’t have this problem as his knowledge is woefully deficient. His claims of wanting to help people would be more believable if he wasn’t charging such an extortionate amount for it. Maybe he’s just that bad at business and that is what he needs to do to cover his costs.

I’m disappointed by the media coverage. The Stuff.co.nz articles are clearly aimed at the already sceptical, who will read the first few lines and snort with laughter. However the more easily misled may not pick that up. The expert criticism of the product only features at the end of the article where it’s less likely to be read. The Herald is worse, their “investigation” is a one-on-one chat with the manufacturer whose incorrect answers to the reporter’s questions go unchallenged. One Herald “article” is nothing more than an anecdote from one of the scam victims. The media has a responsibility to protect the public and needs to take a stronger view against Te Kiri Gold, which should be shut down immediately.

I Also had a Go at Redesigning The Sun

While I was derping about on The Guardian earlier, I came across a story that got me thinking. British artist David Hockney was given the opportunity to redesign the masthead of the vile The Sun “newspaper” for a one-off edition. The only familiarity I have with Hockney’s work is from other pieces in The Guardian. The comment sections are mixed, there are those who blindly profess their love for his pieces and those who criticise the simplistic nature of his work. I tend to side with the latter body of thought.

The masthead is in the style of his iPad paintings, where a sun and light rays wobble across the background.  The nature of this medium brings about visible demarcations between finger/stylus strokes. I think the works have some level of charm due to the roughness of iPad painting, but roughness can be achieved by anyone on a tablet computer. I think the works are fairly inane and devoid of purposeful meaning.

Hockney takes pride in this work because he is a life-long fan of the paper. Which is a shame, The Sun has a shocking history of bigotry, misogyny, false reporting and political interference. Artists are stereotypically perceived as deep thinkers, which translates to great works with hidden meanings accessible only to those who study and take the time to analyse a piece. Given that Hockney apparently hasn’t been concerned by the misdeeds of The Sun, I can’t help but wonder if the lack of meaning in his work is driven by an absence of curiosity and critical thinking when he picks up the iPad.

The Guardian art critic, Jonathan Jones wrote an obsequious piece about how the redesign was a work of genius and presented “an optimistic vision of the world’s beauty”. I would agree if it weren’t for the bit that where there are the letters that spell out “The Sun”, which serves as a multiplier of hatred and ugliness.

So I thought I would have some fun and have a go at my own redesign of The Sun masthead. After all, I have plenty of Merit credits in NCEA Visual Arts. Lovingly crafted in Microsoft Paint. I think it does a good job of representing The Sun.

the-sun-redesign

Figure 1. The Sun Masthead Redesigned – Zeitungfürkatzen 2016. Google image on MS Paint.