An honest conversation about COVID19: The science

This is an attempt to answer a few basic questions from my stand point about COVID19.

One of the most noted aspects about the New Zealand response to COVID19 is that the Prime Minister did not assume to know better and decided to follow the advice of her chief Science Advisor, Director General of Health and others. The Prime Minister saw the danger with the “herd immunity” approach in Britain, where thousands have died, where the idea was to simply let the coronavirus get into the community and and rely on the population gradually becoming immune.

The numbers of people that that would have potentially affected in New Zealand is truly terrifying. The very first estimate suggested a death toll of 80,000 New Zealanders or 1.6% of the population. Some people screamed alarmism, but forget that very little was known about COVID19, the international response was patchy and no plans were really in place. This was simply unpalatable to the Government.

Are we going to get rid of COVID19 completely?

I would like to think so, but the answer is probably not. At some point in the future, New Zealand will have to open our borders, albeit carefully and with priority given to those countries that have a semblance of control – Australia, Taiwan, our Pasifika neighbours and maybe a few other countries. But that might not happen until maybe February or March 2021, whilst we try to buy the hopes of a vaccine a bit more time.

COVID19 might come in waves over time. Those waves may eventually diminish in strength, but for the immediate future whilst it is still rapidly evolving in many countries COVID19 means that the borders must stay shut for the time being. I do not envisage international air travel resuming before March 2021.

Will we have a vaccine?

The international race to get a working vaccine has been underway for a number of months now, but even if the world co-operated – which it is not – it would still take time to find out what could realistically work, design a test and agree on the parameters of the sample group. After testing the sample group, the test results would have to written up, peer reviewed and governments briefed. If assuming after all this things are going well, plans for production can be started, but that will include finding suitable facilities  to manufacture it, who takes priority – do nations do it by their most vulnerable categories, by age groups, among other concerns.

But all this assumes we as nations develop a common and agreed understanding of COVID19. In this fractured world, politics is as big an enemy a result as the virus itself.

Should we trust the science?

Absolutely! Science has come a long way in the 100 years since the Influenza outbreak of 1918, which resulted in the deaths of about 50 million people around the world. That was transmitted by soldiers returning from World War battlefields, who picked up in the hell that was the trench environment, a pandemic that would kill 8,500 New Zealanders. Social attitudes have changed since then too. Whereas economy of death might have been acceptable to practitioners then, no medical practitioner worthy of being called one would contemplate such a ghastly idea. Understanding of hygiene and matching standards have improved society’s ability to fight back against.

Although we still have a long way to go in fully understanding how COVID19 works, enough is understood to know that COVID19 can spread very easily. In Washington State, a single person managed to infect 52 people in a 61 member choir. A single dormitory in Singapore has been linked to 800 cases there.

Although the flu vaccine is not related to COVID19, one of the best things one can do is have the vaccine anyway. This is for the reason that COVID19 has the potential to put a lot of people in hospital, and by having a flu vaccination, one is potentially freeing up a bad that might be needed by a COVID19 patient.

Should I trust the Government?

I am not going to make that decision for you, but I am going to be very clear that I do not condone in any shape or form COVID19 denialism. Nor do I condone people who are actively calling for measures that risk undoing all of our hard work and which may put more vulnerable society members at undue risk.

Climate Strike: A New Zealander’s perspective

This was meant to publish on Saturday, but I concluded it was not appropriate in the wake of the terrorist attack in Christchurch to do so.

These are some thoughts on the Strike for Climate protests on Friday.

I am actually quite surprised that schools and principals are so aloof. Of all the people talking about children’s future, and having to prepare our youth for future challenges they do not seem to understand that this is a problem that those very children are going to have to face. Sure it is in school time, but is the media likely to pay nearly as much attention to a student strike outside of school time? NO.

My activist mates are understandably proud of what they see and hear today. For them it is the culmination of something that started when Greta Thunberg bravely stood before the politicians in Davos and told them what she thought. Except that it is not the culmination of something, rather a very impressive first Act. And from what I have seen it does seem quite well organized, which makes the offset of the schools and principals not being on board all the more stark.

The people who said that they will not achieve anything and should be in school are missing two key points. First, this was about making sure politicians understand that there is a real and abiding concern among students about what we are doing to the climate. Second, it is my generation that is having kids right now, some of whom would have been at protests today. When they have children 15-25 years from now it will be they who have to face whatever changes we have wrought on the planet through climate change.

There is a huge amount of disinformation out there. And the militant factions on both sides of the divide are actively contributing to it, which is just fuelling the division, encouraging the hardening of positions and the refusal to compromise. I respect the planners – present and former – caught in the middle, trying to make the best of two bitterly opposing groups and find some common ground.

For example, what do climate change activists envisage in terms of heating for houses – will it be L.P.G. gas cylinders like the one that powers the gas fire at my parents place, or will it be electricity. Having just said goodbye to my brothers in-laws who are starting the long journey back via Nelson to snow covered Minnesota, where the father-in-law is a builder, I am aware that the continental climate induces much harsher winters than what we get in maritime New Zealand.

But before they get back to Minnesota, they have to spend several hours in the air before they reach O’Hare airport in Chicago. Whilst in the air, the aircraft will be burning tons of aviation fuel. That raises another question – if carbon is as bad as it allegedly is, what sort of fuel is going to be the aviation fuel of the future? As New Zealanders, we love to travel a lot and many of us want to go places in the future, but planes cannot fly if they do not have fuel.

Unfortunately Greenpeace, Green Party N.I.M.B.Y.ism means that a lot of the best counter solutions are not able to proceed because people don’t want the infrastructure necessary to support those solutions in their backyard. People want wind power, but don’t like birds getting mangled by the turbine blades or there is noise or visual pollution. You cannot have it both ways and just as with the economic model that I am going to mention shortly, something has to give.

But also there are more fundamental problems. I am not saying capitalism is the answer, because it is not – greed and sustainability simply do not exist in the same sentence. The economic model is going to have to change. A lot of the deforestation and other environmentally destructive activities are in pursuit of two things: raw minerals or energy sources. The massive loss of biodiversity is caused by habitats being wiped out on a scale much larger than we can sustain.

Cows belching and the large scale burning of fossil fuels – oh, here we go some of you will be saying – make up significant sources of our gas emissions in New Zealand. Robert Muldoon might have been ahead of his time when he tried to get a biofuel plant established in Taranaki, but I think a more modest project could probably be established in south Auckland using material from the waste stream.

But I do not see either of the major political parties in New Zealand being terribly keen to enact changes that will make a meaningful impact. Labour and National are both beholden to the neoliberal economic model that has dominated New Zealand economics the last 40 years and seem quite happy tip toeing around the edges of major problems, such as waste recycling.

So what does all of this boil down to? The climate strike is really about a more sustainable future for the generations that are striking. They were not expecting to achieve that today, but any politician who thinks that this can be swept under the carpet has obviously not looked at the topography of the carpet in recent times. The impact on planet Earth is too much to ignore, and helps to contribute to the rise of the word “ANTHROPOCENE”. My geologically oriented mates might be the jury that is out on whether the Anthropocene is a thing, but to me the evidence is there and the real argument is when did the Anthropocene start?

Revisiting the war on science

In 2016 I wrote about the war being waged on science. I wrote about it because I wanted to correct perceptions about how it is used, its short comings and its strengths. I wanted to show how my own perspective on science matured. It is 2019 now, and although there has been a change of Government, I still have the distinct impression that a good many politicians in Parliament are suspicious of the purpose of science and those who conduct research.

My impressions stem from looking at the commentary of politicians at both ends of the spectrum. Green M.P. Marama Davidson has just gone on the Twitter record as agreeing with a Prof Steinberger that western science, culture and philosophy is somehow crap because it has failed to emphasize not messing with the environment.

At the other end, A.C.T. Member of Parliament David Seymour, various National Party Members of Parliament as well as rural interests in New Zealand First, are in constant denial about the effect of dairy farming on water ways. They also seek to undermine our efforts to contain waste

All parts of Parliament have at some point or another talked about engaging science as a means to develop the economy. Nanotechnology, biotechnology, green tech are just a few. Yet these same Members of Parliament whilst talking up the importance of science, as soon as they realize its evidence testing of theories has debunked or undermined something the believe in, it is suddenly on the outer again.

Perhaps the mistrust comes from offshore locations such as the White House, which is in open denial about any environmental research that comes out and points to the state of one component or another of the biophysical environment. Paid for by heavy industry and other business interests, the White House of President Donald Trump has effectively crippled efforts by American researchers to better understand what humans are doing to the environment. The data sets collected by agencies such as the United States Geological Survey, the Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are of world wide value. The same goes for the data streams that come in from N.A.S.A. satellites.

There is a perception among many people that scientists are some sort of nonsense artists, who use their craft as a form of smoke and mirrors to make it appear that they know what they are talking about. A lot seem to not understand that a theory is only as good as the person who formed it, and that if the scientific community decide it is improbable it will fail.

At the time of my 2016 article there were two quite good examples of peoples misconceptions about science. At one level for example reading articles about the discovery of gravitational waves, or research into the Alpine Fault, some of the misconceptions are as alarming as they are laughable. In the international context, commenters on a Fox News article on Facebook went to considerable lengths to somehow incorporate religion into the news that a long time Albert Einstein theory that gravitational waves exist. They tried to suggest that a higher being was somehow at work. In the New Zealand context the misconceptions have to do with the Alpine Fault. When an the news website Stuff put up an article on Facebook last week, a substantial number of article readers commented that they thought the scientists were playing with peoples lives by drilling into such a big fault. Aside from being wholly wrong on a number of levels, it also pointed to the lack of understanding about the whole research programme,  even though the people making the comments had – presumably – just read read an entire article devoted to it.

In the case of the gravitational waves being discovered, the comments are all the more incredible since Einstein’s genius is beyond dispute. But on the other they are not so surprising given that the target audience are generally not trained to trust theories that are tested by the scientific community, especially if it does not fit a preconceived view of the world. In New Zealand, despite having seismic activity comparable to California, and a new found urgency in the post-Christchurch earthquake environment, to find out what we can about our faultlines there is a credible body of ignorance. Despite much effort to publicize the research, including public meetings, public notices, media releases and journalistic research, it seems that there is much work still to be done educating the public about the necessity of the research. This is even though one day it might save thousands of lives.

I feel for scientists. They are just humans trying to do a job that at times is misunderstood, never really properly funded and sometimes deliberately turned into a political football. Is it any wonder so few want to be scientists when we treat the existing ones like this? It might not be an intentional war, but sometimes I get the impression people who do not know better are waging war against science. And that is sad. And wrong.

And three years later in 2019, I don’t think much has changed.

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.

Science has no time for politics

In 2011 on B.B.C. programme called HardTalk hosted by Stephen Sackur, Prime Minister John Key was asked about fresh water quality issues. Mr Sackur asked Mr Key if New Zealand’s environmental standards had slipped after a string of controversies including the sacking of an elected local council over water management issues (among others). Mr Key came out firing, insisting our standards were fine and that New Zealand is “100% pure”.

When Mr Sackur challenged Mr Key on that point with data from well respected researcher Dr Mike Joy, Dr Joy’s data was dismissed as not being totally true.

And over the years a wealth of research and policy based on that research has accrued in New Zealand pointing to unsustainable dairy farming harming our fresh water resources. And as a way of hiding from the truth, the call for “further research” has gone out.

But globally there is an even bigger problem. The sheer scale of human consumption has altered the planet to a point where scientists have concluded that an entire epoch in the geological record has ended and that the new one will have a strong human input.

It is a truth that cannot be changed:

Science has no time for politics, something politicians are often loathe to admit.

We undermine our quest as human beings to better understand the world around us when we allow politicians to silence scientists trying to communicate their findings to the world.

When the National Institute of Water and Atmospherics fired Jim Salinger, one of the most eminent scientists in New Zealand it was roasted alive. People were disgusted with his silencing for electing to tell people about the findings of his latest research without consulting his bosses. But N.I.W.A. to its considerable credit learned its lesson and is now one of the better communicators of science in New Zealand.

When scientists working on earthquake research were silenced, people again were infuriated. With a live firing aftershock sequence firing off every magnitude number up to 6.4, with sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars in damage being done, of course people wanted to know what was going on. With people fearing for their lives, not knowing how or when the aftershock sequence – which threw convention out the window on 13 June 2011 with a magnitude 5.7 followed 80 minutes later by a magnitude 6.4 – of course scientists wanted to communicate as best as they could their interpretation of what was happening. Their professional reputations and credibility as researchers depended on it.

Which is why the Department of Conservation making decisions on apparently ill founded information is all the more disturbing. As the Government agency tasked with looking after our conservation estate, D.O.C. is expected by the public to promote and advocate for the national and forest parks, areas of significant scenic and natural value. Not surprisingly therefore people are upset and angry about some of its recent decisions that fly in the face of what it is meant to be advocating for.

One example is the Mackenzie Basin irrigation project that is trying to convert a naturally semi-arid part of New Zealand into a false green mass of paddocks that look completely out of place. A reporter for The Press was sent photograph by a D.O.C. researcher showing a large pipe carrying water for irrigation that crosses conservation land with significant values. He was then suspended and has since left It also ignores the effects of dairying in the tributaries of the upper Waitaki, which are seeing spikes of nitrogen inputs that reduce the water quality in an area that is big on water based pursuits – boating, fishing, and so forth.

Was the Department of Conservation scared of a political backlash? Perhaps so, but it should not be. New Zealanders are waking up to the realization that we need to do more to protect the environment and the ecosystems that sustain our flora and fauna. Or those species will join many more that already gone in the mass extinction currently in progress.