The problems facing science


How many of you have been to a scientific lecture about research that has been done or done a course in science at school or at university? Did you get to throw little chunks of sodium into water and wait for the explosion, or dissect a mouse to see what its interior looked like? What about going on field trips to look at fault lines or volcanoes; fossil beds with trilobites and cephalopods and so forth?

Did it inspire you to find out more? Did it completely turn you off and make you wish you were doing a Bachelor of Arts instead of a Bachelor of Science?

I see recurring problems with how people receive science as a discipline. They range from teachers being frustrated at the restrictions on what and how they can impart it to their students; from people turning away from science degrees at Universities because they do not think it will justify itself in terms of their job prospects; members of the public – who might have never seriously engaged with any credible scientific papers, presentations or otherwise – criticizing scientists for altering predictions or theories. Among other issues.

But perhaps the worst is the fear that policy makers seem to have of it. Perhaps law makers do not realize they are giving off negative signals when they talk about it. Perhaps they are deliberately giving off bad vibes because the science on issues such as climate change goes against their beliefs. It is nevertheless shown in the lack of investment into research, science and technology with the percentage of our G.D.P. invested into it staying at about 1.0%, which is where it has been the last 20 years.

The range of issues where science has been controversial is diverse. Environmental science, technology, medicine, energy, natural hazards among others are just a few of the range that courts public controversy.

One example that has saddened me is the tendency of members of the public – not all, and possibly just a vocal few – who think that scientists are playing Russian roulette with people’s lives by doing things such as drilling into the Alpine Fault. The purpose of the drilling was to understand how geophysical conditions around the fault change with time. It sought to determine heat flow, the rate of underground movement of the fault and how the rock strata was deforming in response to the heat and pressure around it. The idea behind this is to build up a picture of stresses along the fault and hopefully eventually give an idea as to how long we have before it all comes unstuck at 20,000km/h.

It saddens me because this research is essential in a quake prone country like New Zealand where we are racing the fault to be as ready as we can for the eventual Alpine Fault rupture. This research is going to be the basis on which scientists make recommendations to policy makers who are then going to have to give legal effect to them. The moves around New Zealand to make the owners of buildings that are considered quake prone either bring them up to a building code standard where it will survive an earthquake and let the occupants out safely are for good reasons.

Definitely the most controversial is climate change. From out right denial by well known figures such as Donald Trump, to some believing that we only have a couple of decades left before the man made component becomes irreversible no matter what happens, science has its critics. There are energy companies believing for sake of profit margins and their corporate shareholders believing it is a hoax. And there is Greenpeace and other environmental organizations being certain that only a “carbon neutral” world can check the effects of human activity on the climate.

We will not fully know whether a 1°C or 2°C change in the planets temperature will have terminal consequences, major consequences or just mild consequences. Climate scientists have given compelling reasoning to believe it is the former. Yet by the same token the particles per million (P.P.M.) of carbon in the atmosphere have risen to 400+ for the first time in millions of years and the rate of increase suggests it is going to climb further yet. These changes will affect things such as ocean temperatures with flow on effects to marine life, those species that live of marine life and ultimately, humans.

But we will not know how or what unless we invest in the science. We will not know the impact on the ecosystem unless we invest in the science.

And the same goes for funding a credible cure for cancer. Unless we invest in the sciences and have a broad discussion about its purpose, its strengths and its weaknesses, we will not know what that cure is.

Autonomous robots pose undue risk


Autonomous robots pose an undue risk to humans and human activity.

To see what is meant by this statement, an autonomous robot helping to perform an operation contributed to the death of a patient on an operating table in Britain when it knocked the hand of an assisting medic at a critical phase in the surgery. Whilst the robot did not make the fatal moves that ultimately led to the patients death a few days later, it was considered to have contributed.

I believe that medical procedures being done on humans are too valuable to have robotic assistance for a number of reasons, the one above being just one:

  1. Could a robot be programmed to tell minute differences in what is being operated on, such as for example the space between a piece of embeded shrapnel and something important like an artery
  2. Would robots have a broad enough understand of human language and interactions to not misinterpret something and subsequently behave in a way surgeons or other specialists might not anticipate
  3. In a time pressured situation such as someone losing much blood and the bleeding needing to be quickly stemmed, could a robot react in time or understand the urgency

The medical profession would be wary of any robot technology that cannot be over ridden by a human being since artificial intelligence is not (yet!) able to distinguish situational issues with the clarity that would be necessary to be an effective tool. But there is a bigger problem. Da Vinci – as the one in the article was known – and like robots will only be as good as the humans who designed them and work with them.

Another example of dangerous autonomous robots are the development of military robots. These will have the ability to determine themselves who to kill. Britain is thought to be funding the development of such weapons.

Both ethically and legally this raises very serious and immediately potent questions about the sort of military weapons that should be developed. Legally it enters a part of the Geneva conventions that is very grey and which has not been a priority for politicians in terms of overhauling. Ethically weapons that develop an operational mind of their own is highly improper at best.

Even if the drones are securely controlled and operated under strict parameters, there is also always the risk that cyber hacking could break into the drone and make it go rogue. In a politically charged environment where cyber attacks are frequent there is no such thing as a cast iron guarantee that such technology will be secure.

New Zealand politicians are perhaps 15-20 years behind on their understanding of technology and the ethical and legal challenges its applications pose. This is a rather broad statement, but also one that has serious truth to it. Therefore it is highly unlikely that they have given thought to the potential hazards of killer drones and the short comings of robots in a surgery environment – though admittedly in the latter, the robot is clearly supposed to be helping in a procedure that ultimately makes the human better.

Will our politicians get with the times before technological best practices in New Zealand start involving robots in situations where the human is not necessarily in control?

Changes to terrorism control laws?


A review of the laws that govern how New Zealand deals with terrorism has been announced by the Minister for the Government Communications Security Bureau (G.C.S.B.) and the Security Intelligence Service (S.I.S.).The Minister of Justice, Andrew Little, announced the review whilst saying that the 2007 Urewera raids where Police swooped on Tuhoe. Those raids, which generated nation wide controversy were seen as a test of the Terrorism Supression Act 2002 and the more recent Counter Terrorism Act.

The Urewera raids are widely viewed as a failure. The Police handling of them was poor and nearly all of the charges laid in the aftermath wound up being dropped because they were not admissible in court.

The Police now say that they would be reluctant to use the laws if there were grounds for doing so.

I have reservations myself. On one hand the law needs to be strong enough to prove a worthwhile deterrent – the sentences for terrorist related activities I believe need to be strengthened. On the other hand it needs to respect human rights and civil rights law – detainees need to be charged with something quickly or released; property should not be able to be searched without a warrant.

I agree with the need to review the law and believe that a review clause should be inserted, with a recommendation for legislative change if the review panel deems this necessary. But to add another piece of legislation to the existing mix, is not something I believe is necessary.

The countries in New Zealand’s neighbourhood where Islamic fighters are returning in a radicalized state have a different set of problems to what we face here. Those countries – Australia exempt – do not have as strong judicial processes as we do here. Malaysia and Singapore, as well as Indonesia are predominantly Muslim countries and therefore have strong Islamic influence. The radicalization that is happening would be taking place in Mosques. Most of the Muslim population who have come to New Zealand did so to get away from war, famine and civil instability in their home countries. Some may have come as migrants.

New Zealand also does not participate in military actions going on in Middle East countries to the same extent that Australia or its allies, the United States and Britain do. Whilst these are nations that are significant friends of New Zealand, they have a more America-centric orientation in terms of geopolitical priorities. New Zealand’s are more focussed on the Southwest Pacific.

This is not to say we should ignore the Muslim population. We should not give exceptional treatment to any group and they, like any others who are deemed a hazard, should be monitored accordingly. Whilst New Zealand has mosques, Islamic fighters are only a part of the small number of people who are thought to be a concern to the Security Intelligence Service (S.I.S.). A total of 30-40 people are thought to be of interest to the S.I.S.

What did we learn from W.W.1 100 years on?


When Europe spiralled into war in 1914, there was an almost euphoric, gleeful, delightful jolly mood throughout Europe. What a jolly thing they all said. It will be all over Christmas and we’ll be having pudding on the table, with presents under the tree and a roast for dinner.

So off they all rushed to war, this jolly good European jaunt. The Commonwealth nations excited to be supporting Mother Britain all began to mobilize. The Canadians, the Australians, the New Zealanders, Indians and South Africans all put out calls for troops.

Within weeks the first casualty counts were coming in. The Germans had somehow stalled on the banks of the Marne River. No worries everyone thought. Things will get going again soon. The days turned into weeks. The weeks into months. The nights began to become longer and the days colder. The trenches that were supposed to be temporary were starting to take on a degree of permanence.

No peace would descend on Earth in 1914. Instead the first of many bloody battles up and down the Western Front over which a few square miles of land would be fought with fanatical savagery had begun. Battles costing thousands of lives a piece had happened at St. Quentin, the Marne, Albert, Yser, Ypres (No. 1 of 5) and a host of other places. The ground that would become a muddy hellhole over the next four years was starting to be ground up.

The mincing machines of the Somme, Verdun and Passchendaele were still over a year away. But as the mass of pill boxes, bunkers, tunnels and barbed wire accrued on both sides of no mans land the men who sat in water logged dug outs eating, washing, and otherwise trying to live in close quarters to many other men, the task of finding ways to break the stalemate and win the war became a priority.

The plane as a weapon of war was still in its infancy. The tank was still years away. But other sinister developments were taking shape. Desperate to gain the military initiative, the Germans, French and British had begun experimenting with chemicals as weapons. The initial attempts were unsuccessful, but in 1915 the Germans introduced chlorine.

Tactics were changing too. The creeping barrage that moved in front of advancing soldiers had been introduced. A moving wall of exploding shells would proceed the soldiers across no mans land, chewing up and spitting out already mangled land and bodies. Another one, the bite and hold strategy of biting a small chunk out of the enemy lines, consolidating and moving on was another.

By the time the Somme and Verdun, two blood baths with a combined total of nearly 2 million Allied and German dead between them, were over, the French were ready to mutiny. The Russians, sick to death of their wealth hoarding Tsar and no longer able to stomach any further fighting against the Germans were ready to revolt. Food shortages in Germany and Britain were dire and no one knew how or when this giant mangling machine would end.

Conditions were no better in the Commonwealth countries. New Zealand and Australia were permanently scarred by their experiences in Gallipoli in Turkey where they had been trying to take the Dardenelles and secure a supply line to Russia. Canada, South Africa and India were also bleeding steadily. All had further bloody confrontations awaiting them at Passchendaele (Ypres III), and elsewhere.

And so, Passchendaele got underway with the misgivings of just about everyone involved. Only the Generals seemed to be keen for it to happen. The 100 days of mud and blood that followed earnt it a special place in the collection of hell’s that World War 1 was.

Whilst that was happening the Russians had the second of two revolts that toppled the Tsar. Communism became a new term in the language of politics and within months, Russia and the Germans had cut a deal that enabled the Germans to flood the western front with fresh forces.

The German offensive of 1918 temporarily terrified the Allies, moved rapidly west for a month and then, unable to sustain their supply lines, failed. Another 688,000 Germans and 863,000 British, Commonwealth, French and American lives later and it was over for Germany. Before they could recover, the Allies 100 days offensive that would end with the Kaiser abdicating and Germany calling for an armistice began. It took back everything the Germans had taken and was closing on the German border when the Kaiser abdicated.

So what did we learn from World War 1? Apparently not a lot, other than that type of war is criminal. Suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was apparently cowardice, for which one could be shot. Soldiers went home and suffered permanent mental break downs as a result of what they had seen and done with no redress of any sort. And in that 4 1/4 years, enough progress was made on the technological front to unleash horrors unheard of in 1913. Historians to this day argue over the true meaning of the battles that took place, though all are in agreement that it was a truly appalling time in human history.

It was meant to be the war that ended all wars. The Germans would be vanquished, and unable to conduct offensive wars ever again. It would be punished and made to pay huge reparations. Yet on 01 September 1939 World War 2: The Really Really Dreadful Sequel started.

The pill boxes and the grave yards that litter fields in Belgium and France are silent testament to four years of abject madness where political pride and military prestige were more important than the lives of millions of soldiers and civilians. If nothing else, on this 100th Armistice Day Anniversary, we would do really well to remember that. They did not die for nothing.

Learning the lessons of Kristallnacht: 80 years on


80 years ago today one the most appalling pre-war acts of the Nazi German regime occurred. Kristallnacht which is Crystal Night or Night of the Broken Glass is an incident in that period when the full force of the German state and its supporters was unleashed against Germany’s Jewish population. Thousands of businesses, synagogues, homes, memorials, graveyards and sites of cultural importance to the Jewish population were trashed; 30,000 or more healthy Jewish males were rounded up to be sent to labour camps. Thousands more were injured.

Kristallnacht revolted the world. Jewish emigration to Israel and Palestine as well as other nations sky rocketed. But as bad as it certainly was, it was just a prelude to much worse. 80 years later, with far right politicians on the rise, the world showing significant indifference to humanitarian crises in the Middle East, Myanmar, and an increasingly toxic political debate with ethnic overtones surfacing, have we really learnt the lessons of this act of barbarism?

I do not believe New Zealand is at risk of such a horrendous act as Governments and the authorities have gone to lengths to ensure that all ethnic groups can feel safe in this country. The Police encourage people who have been subject to racist abuse to contact them. New Zealand communities would at all levels frown upon on such conduct. That was not the case in Germany in 1933 in that that Kristallnacht was stoked by Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels, and that the violence and vandalism was carried out by members of the S.S. and S.A. It was enabled by the Enabling Laws and was part of a much more systemic campaign to rid Germany of its Jewish population.

New Zealand however is not free of racial and other types of intolerance. On social media, in pubs and elsewhere casual racism can be seen on a daily basis. It might be subtle or not so subtle, but it is nonetheless the first step on the way to stoking worse offence. The causes are largely what they have been in the past – deliberate stoking of injustices, perceived or otherwise, the use of history against particular groups.

In the case of Jews, the idea that they somehow control the banking system, that physical characteristics about them such as “crooked noses” all contribute to the problem. So do the deliberate misuse of images such as photos of the gas chambers, the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign at Auschwitz. But who will police this?

We however owe it to the generation that fought in World War 2 and saw the hell of the death camps and the concentration camps. We owe it the survivors of those camps to ensure that there is no chance of such wanton destruction being repeated.

If one wants to see where such a systemic campaign of abuse can lead, they need look no further than the persecution of the Rohingya people in Myanmar. The Government there headed by Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has used the military to empty communities and create a physical and social environment that is inhospitable to Rohingya. Hundreds of thousands of people are at risk and have been displace in Myanmar and Bangladesh. They live in refugee camps with minimal food, no water, bedding or shelter, with the United Nations grossly under equipped to handle such huge numbers.

The political climate in some countries is leaning towards open hostility towards minority groups. In the United States, Brazil and other countries heads of government and heads of state a developing sense of fear and division that leads to violence and eventually all out conflict is at grave risk of taking hold. Once the public are mobilized against such groups, a mob mentality can potentially exist in which instead of asking questions, everyone turns on an unfortunate group or individual. And just as Germany did in the 1930’s the power of the state can be mobilized.

What happens after that is a very slippery, very dangerous slope with dreadful consequences if one loses their footing.