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?

New Zealand Election 2017: A Tale of Two Political Spectra

I have largely been isolated from the election campaign being away in the Northern Hemisphere. When I left New Zealand, the media hysteria over Green Party leader Metiria Turei’s resignation was coming to an end and Jacindamania was in full swing. While I’ve been away, low quality broadcaster Mike Hosking revealed himself to be a racist and a dumbarse, Peter Dunne gave up and Gareth Morgan was able to gain some attention by being Trump-like.

In our heavily metricised society, even political opinions can be quantified. This usually takes the form of a two axis economic-social map. You are asked a series of relevant questions, your answers dictate the position of your personal co-ordinate on the map. The benchmark for this is the Political Compass. I’ve also had a look at TVNZ’s  Vote Compass, a NZ specific political spectrum calculator.

Since I only have one personality, my position on both charts is very similar. Here’s my Political compass result relative to their assessment of the NZ political parties:


and my VoteCompass result:


The big difference between the two charts is the position of the Labour Party. The Political Compass denotes Labour as centre-right economically and slightly socially authoritarian. Like every other Western social democratic party, it’s had an identity crisis during this neoliberal error era. Meanwhile, TVNZ’s Vote Compass marks Labour as extreme economic left and socially progressive.

Not that I’m complaining, I’m thrilled that Labour is a liberal-left party that is closely in line with my thinking. Although I can’t help but wonder if this placement can be used by disingenuous commentators and hacks to attack Labour as “far-left” in an attempt to dissuade their increasingly large support base? Maybe TVNZ has exaggerated the difference so that the politically uniformed don’t falsely declare: “they’re all the same”?

Perhaps the Political Compass is a bit pessimistic, I’ve been impressed with Labour’s policy releases so far. These include: some free tertiary education, making water users cover the cost of their damaging activities and strong public transport investment are all ideas I am on-board with. Where I diverge from Labour is in my radicalism. Relevant to the examples above, I think that three years of free tertiary education is not enough and more should be done to limit the use of ICE-powered vehicles.

But the choice is clear: I can either get some of what I want, or I can get lots of things I don’t want; such as more privatisations, illusory GDP growth and more user pays (unless you’re a dairy farmer). Far-left, or centre-right, labels shouldn’t really matter. Policy should. Exactly which party I’ll vote for is still to be determined, but given the policies it will clearly be for a Labour-led government.

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 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.

Ugh. NZ Retirement Age Comes up for Discussion… Again

New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English got into a spot of trouble over the past few days when he stuffed up some television interviews with a non-committal approach towards the retirement age*. In what comes across as an act of political desperation, English announced that he would pass legislation post-election to implement a rise in the retirement age from 65 to 67 in 2037. I have some misgivings about the policy. It is weak. The retirement age is political poison, English attempts to minimise the blow by putting it ahead so far away. It indicates that he has no confidence in his ability to lead this issue (to be fair, I also have no confidence in his ability too).

Here is my position on the retirement age. It should stay at 65. Here are some reasons:

  • Automation. As a society, increasing amount of work can be performed without human involvement. A low-ish eligibility for superannuation will incentivise older workers to retire, creating opportunities for younger people.
  • Ageism. Talk to anyone who has lost their job who is over-50. They’ll tell you it’s tough to find more work. From territorial management types who don’t want to be shown up by more capable and experienced staff to crude assumptions about one’s digital proficiency, there are a lot of barriers to re-employment for older people. Pushing up the retirement age just exacerbates this issue. Whats the point of keeping 60-somethings miserable while giving them unemployment payments? Just give them super instead.
  • Social contract. Simply put: pay your taxes now, which we’ll use to support others now and we’ll see that you get the same support when you retire. Of course, the social contract has already been violated with GST, student loans, previous rises in the eligibility age, tax cuts for the wealthy. The answer is to restore the social contract, not to keep breaking it.
  • One-size doesn’t fit all. All this talk about age increases is framed from a white-centric, managerial class point of view i.e. that of the most privileged in society. The needs of those in manual work or those belonging to ethnic groups with a lower life expectancy (due to structural inequalities in society) are often ignored. On this point, I have warmed to Peter Dunne’s idea of a variable age with adjusted payments. You can read the discussion document here, with a rather amusing foreword by none other than Bill English himself! However, I don’t see the need to reduce payments for those who need to retire earlier because of the nature of their work or because of societal issues beyond the control of individuals.
  • Running out the clock. I once interned at an organisation whose name I won’t reveal. The group leader was in their early 60s and it was clear that they were really just waiting to become eligible for NZ super so that they wouldn’t need to bother turning up to work. Raising the retirement age would mean such people hang around for longer while not doing much work which is harmful to interpersonal dynamics and for business productivity.

I disliked English before he announced his plans, all this means is I dislike him even more. Stoking the flames of generational warfare helps rally the generally older National voters, this policy is designed to do exactly that. The timing of the age rise is curious. Far away enough that the current-day elderly will be dead and won’t care and that younger people won’t be looking far enough ahead. It won’t even affect my parents in their early 50s. This is an implicit concession by National that it is an unpopular idea. But hey, it kicks in after you retire so who cares?

Having a defeatist outlook means that I suspect many NZ voters will think exactly along these lines. It is also a test to see how wedded Winston Peters and New Zealand First are to 65. I hope Peters and NZF take a solidarity type approach and reject any change to the age of eligibility. Fortunately, Peters has shown some of his trademark intransigence and has denounced English’s proposal. National improved their outlook for a coalition with NZF if needed following Key’s surrender. Now they have made a coalition which will almost be a necessity to stay in government post election much less likely.

The self-selecting poll is scary. 70-30 in favour of hiking up the age. Some of the person-on-the-street interviews don’t hold much hope either. The obsequious younger people that were interviewed have swallowed the neoliberal nonsense about a rising age being sensible and inevitable.

The media response from some circles is infuriating. The anonymous Press editorial praised English for “starting a discussion”. Jesus fuck, the editorial writer is either 5 years old or has dementia. Labour proposed the exact same thing in 2011 and held on to it for the disastrous 2014 election (the self-selecting poll from 2013 is interesting at 50-50). Don’t praise National for something they didn’t do, your bias is showing.

I was trying to see if the MSM criticised Labour for this policy, but it looks like they selectively praised Labour at the time as part of appearing “fair and balanced”. So at least they’re consistent in shilling for neoliberal talking points.

So what’s my solution? I’ve already made some noises about unconditional incomes and NZ super is an unconditional income for everyone over a certain age. Rather than trying to limit it, we should seek to expand it as part of restoring the social contract. Perhaps Dunne’s variable payment mode could be further stretched in order to make such an initiative more palatable to the hard-of-thinking. Also, wealthy people and corporations should pay more tax in order to fund government services. If National were as courageous as their media poodles insisted, then they would propose something like this instead of promising to inflict more damage onto New Zealand.

*Note. “retirement age” is synonymous with increasing the age of eligibility for NZ superannuation payments, which is the actual subject under discussion.

The Great Donald Trump Media Crybaby Survey

On this rainy Saturday morning as I was having breakfast, I was browsing through PZ Myers’ Pharyngula blog when I came across  an amusing development. President of the USA, Crooked Lyin’ Donald Trump has a survey on his eponymous website (warning: Donald trump’s website). Here, users are invited to share their opinions of the media coverage of Trump and his administrative fuckups. Trump’s team is clearly hoping that his loyal band of easily misled supporters will fill out the form to support Trump’s persecution complex. Myers suggests that all decent-minded left-liberal folk should fill it out:

let one factor decide how you answer: will it make Donald Trump unhappy, and go against the result the poll is engineered to generate?

With that in mind, I gave it a go. Yes, I live in New Zealand, but that will only make more of a mockery of the survey which is the whole point. Here’s how I answered:


Here’s a link to the 10538 Overture track.

I was most angered by Question 22, which forgets the disgraceful obstruction of the confirmation of President Obama’s SC nominee Garland. The media was so lukewarm in their criticism that the Republicans got away with it. When the Democrats try something similar over racist Jeff Sessions the Republicans get outraged, even though they themselves are responsible for this standard of behaviour existing in the first place!

Question 25 is ominous, where we are asked if the Administration should waste more of its resources  holding the media “accountable”. Their motives are clear, the US Republican Party now has a fascist ideology. Suppressing contrary voices is now part of their plan to hold onto power.

If enough Trump opponents fill out this form, he won’t get the result he wants. Then he can’t use it to justify whatever abhorrent actions he was wanting to do. All of the Trumpist talk of “will of the people” is hollow, electing Trump was never the will of the people and never will be. Here’s another chance to remind him of that.

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.


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

Mainstream Media Discovers That Climate Science is Old, One half of the New Zealand MSM duopoly ran an interesting article today about a 104 year old letter to the editor. A letter from 1912 in the Rodney Times raised the concern that carbon dioxide produced by the combustion of coal may increase temperatures. What impressed me was that a short timeline of early research into areas related to climate change was given at the end; namely the work of Fourier, Tyndall and Arrhenius in the 19th century.

I think that it’s helpful to have these pieces of history publicised, given the amount of confusion surrounding climate change in the general public. In particular, there seems to be an impression that climate change science is a young area of research. I imagine this is because climate change has only been widely reported on for the last 3 decades. Indeed, by casting climate change science as a recent development serves denialists well in their attempts to discredit it.

For example, one conspiracy theory claims that climate change was invented by Margaret Thatcher as part of promoting nuclear power or weakening mining trade unions. Or, that “eco-socialists” fabricated climate change following the collapse of the USSR as a new vehicle to promote their agenda. Or even climate change was manufactured in order to get research grants. Such conspiracy theories would have to take place in the 1980s, i.e. not long ago. This allows denialists to paint climate change science as an “inferior” field of study compared to other areas of science.

Denialists support this by arguing that “global cooling” was de rigueur in the 1970s. It never was, as I found out while reading an electrochemistry textbook published in 1974, which clearly stated on the second page that global warming was taking place as a result of carbon dioxide emissions (electrochemistry underpins many of the technologies that help with the transition away from fossil fuels).

Stuff got it right today. By highlighting the long timeline of climate science, they have served to bolster public confidence in the work of modern-day researchers and policy-makers. The denialists lost the battle on evidence in the 19th century (i.e. before they even started). With the publication of human interest stories that can capture attention while passing along factual information like the one on Stuff today, denialists shall continue to march onward to their defeat in the battle on rhetoric.