Category Archives: politics

Why Science Needs PR

Sci­ent­ists need­ing to per­suade soci­ety at large should­n’t be rely­ing on their data alone to per­suade but instead should employ PR tac­tics, sug­gests Wired’s Erin Biba (and a num­ber of PR com­pany employ­ees, natch).

I don’t totally agree with the idea (sci­entif­ic integ­rity and all that jazz) but some of the thoughts/suggestions are entirely val­id and sci­ent­ists could go far by listen­ing to some of the advice and cri­ti­cism.

For instance, this sug­ges­tion to remove sci­ence’s holier-than-thou atti­tude, repla­cing it with per­son­al stor­ies of those at its core (the sci­ent­ists them­selves):

It did­n’t even occur to the [Amer­ic­an Asso­ci­ation for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence] pan­el­ists [at a recent cli­mate change sym­posi­um] that someone might find that here’s-the-data-we’re-right atti­tude patronizing—and worthy of skep­ti­cism. “Until sci­ent­ists real­ize they need us, we can­’t help them,” [Kelly Bush, founder and CEO of PR firm ID] says. “They have to wake up and say: ‘I recog­nize it’s not work­ing, and I’m will­ing to listen to you.’ It’s got to start there.” Sci­ence increas­ingly must make its most import­ant cases to nonscientists—not just about cli­mate but also evol­u­tion, health care, and vac­cine safety. And in all of those fields, the sci­ence has proven to be incap­able of speak­ing for itself. It’s time for those with true pas­sion to get over the stigma, stand up, and start telling their stor­ies.

Cryptic Crosswords and Face Identification

A study com­par­ing the effects of vari­ous leis­ure activ­it­ies on the recog­ni­tion and iden­ti­fic­a­tion of faces has con­cluded that eye­wit­nesses should not be per­mit­ted to do cryptic cross­word puzzles pri­or to an iden­tity parade.

The study, con­duc­ted by Cardiff Uni­versity’s Michael Lewis, com­pared logic puzzles (sudoku), cross­word puzzles (both cryptic and stand­ard) and mys­tery nov­els (Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code) and found that per­form­ing cryptic cross­words reduced the reli­ab­il­ity of recog­nising and identi­fy­ing faces.

“The iden­ti­fic­a­tion of an offend­er by a wit­ness to a crime often forms an import­ant ele­ment of a pro­sec­u­tion’s case. While con­sid­er­able import­ance is placed by jur­ors on the iden­ti­fic­a­tion of the offend­er by a wit­ness (such as a sus­pect being picked out from an iden­tity parade), research tells us that these iden­ti­fic­a­tions can often be wrong and some­times lead to wrong­ful con­vic­tions.”

“It would be undesir­able,” he writes, “to have wit­nesses doing some­thing before an iden­tity parade that would make them worse at pick­ing out the offend­er … Con­sider what wit­nesses may do before an iden­tity parade. It is pos­sible that they might be doing some­thing to pass the time (eg read or do a puzzle). It is pos­sible that some of these poten­tial activ­it­ies may lead to a det­ri­ment in face pro­cessing.”

via @noahWG

Immigration Makes Cities Safer

Cit­ies with large immig­rant pop­u­la­tions are some of the safest places to live, sug­gest the data and stud­ies, espe­cially those where the police “know how to work with [immig­rants], not against them”.

The stud­ies in question–including one extens­ive study by the FBI–go on to sug­gest reas­on­s why immig­rants reduce a city’s crime:

This is not just a mat­ter of ran­dom cor­rel­a­tion being mis­taken for caus­a­tion. A new study by soci­olo­gist Tim Wadsworth […] care­fully eval­u­ates the vari­ous factors behind the stat­ist­ics that show a massive drop in crime dur­ing the 1990s at a time when immig­ra­tion rose dra­mat­ic­ally. In a peer-reviewed paper appear­ing in the June 2010 issue of Social Sci­ence Quarterly, Wadsworth argues not only that “cit­ies with the largest increases in immig­ra­tion between 1990 and 2000 exper­i­enced the largest decreases in hom­icide and rob­bery,” which we knew, but that after con­sid­er­ing all the oth­er explan­a­tions, rising immig­ra­tion “was par­tially respons­ible.” […]

So, yes, there are pretty com­pel­ling data to sup­port the argu­ment that immig­rants as such—even pre­sum­ably “illeg­al” immigrants—do not make cit­ies more dan­ger­ous to live in. But what mech­an­ism about such immig­ra­tion makes cit­ies safer? Robert J. Sampson, head of the soci­ology depart­ment at Har­vard, has sug­ges­ted that, among oth­er things, immig­rants move into neigh­bor­hoods aban­doned by loc­als and help pre­vent them from turn­ing into urb­an waste­lands. They often have tight­er fam­ily struc­tures and mutu­al sup­port net­works, all of which actu­ally serve to sta­bil­ize urb­an envir­on­ments. As Sampson told me back in 2007, “If you want to be safe, move to an immig­rant city.”

Seven Threats to a Sustainable ‘Food Future’

In a hugely cap­tiv­at­ing and com­pre­hens­ive look at the food sup­ply chain in Bri­tain, Jeremy Hard­ing provides a look at “the future of food and its supply”–including food eth­ics, food secur­ity and the dire need for a sus­tain­able future.

Hard­ing’s case is the most cogent I’ve read and it offers much more than a con­dem­na­tion of our cur­rent, unsus­tain­able habits: the art­icle focuses on what Hard­ing dubs the “sev­en big stories”–the sev­en fun­da­ment­al “loom­ing threats” we must keep in mind when plan­ning for a sus­tain­able, effi­cient and secure ‘food future’.

  1. Pop­u­la­tion growth: The expec­ted large-scale urb­an­isa­tion of the future “poses big ques­tions about land use (hous­ing v. farm­ing) and the pro­duc­tion of food by a minor­ity for a major­ity as the gap between the two gets wider”.
  2. ‘The nutri­tion trans­ition’: As we move fur­ther away from a diet based on grains, pulses and legumes and toward one of meat and dairy (the trans­ition from maize feed­ing us to maize feed­ing the anim­als) means that “glob­al pro­duc­tion of food – all food – will have to increase by 50 per cent over the next 20 years to cater for two bil­lion extra people and cope with the rising demand for meat”.
  3. Energy: “The indus­tri­al pro­duc­tion of food is sure to become more expens­ive as fuel costs rise. It takes 160 litres of oil to pro­duce a tonne of maize in the US; nat­ur­al gas accounts for at least three-quar­ters of the cost of mak­ing nitro­gen fer­til­iser; freight, too, depends on fuel”.
  4. Land: “The amount of the world’s land giv­en over to agri­cul­ture con­tin­ues to grow, but in per cap­ita terms it’s shrink­ing. As with oil, it’s pos­sible to envis­age ‘peak food’ (the point of max­im­um pro­duc­tion, fol­lowed by decline), ‘peak phos­phor­us’ [and] ‘peak land’: the point at which the total area of the world’s most pro­duct­ive land begins to dimin­ish (soil exhaus­tion, cli­mate change) and mar­gin­al land comes up for reas­sess­ment”.
  5. Water: “World­wide, one in three people face water short­ages and by 2030 the ratio will have nar­rowed. […] Much of our fruit and veg comes from water-scarce coun­tries and […] lack of water closes down food pro­duc­tion and live­li­hoods”.
  6. Cli­mate change: “Extreme weath­er events will […] jeop­ard­ise agri­cul­ture and the move­ment of food from one place to anoth­er”.
  7. Agri­cul­tur­al work­ers: More than half of the world’s 1.1 bil­lion agri­cul­tur­al work­ers” own neither land nor machinery and live in a state of semi-slavery. The con­di­tions of this new glob­al under­class are at last a mat­ter of con­cern: world­wide food pro­duc­tion is set on a down­turn as their wretched­ness weak­ens their capa­city to pro­duce and earn, driv­ing more people inex­or­ably towards the cit­ies.

I sup­pose you could call these the food equi­val­ent of Jared Dia­mond’s twelve prob­lems of soci­et­al sus­tain­ab­il­ity.

India and the Definition of Middle Class

A newly pro­posed inter­na­tion­al defin­i­tion of the middle class for devel­op­ing coun­tries, pro­duced by the Cen­ter for Glob­al Devel­op­ment for the World Bank, has some sur­pris­ing con­clu­sions for India.

The report, pro­duced by the pres­id­ent of the Cen­ter for Glob­al Devel­op­ment, Nancy Bird­sall, sug­gests that “middle class” is defined as every­one with an income above $10 a day, exclud­ing those in the top 5% of earners in the coun­try… mean­ing India has no middle class.

This is a com­bin­a­tion both of the depth of Indi­a’s poverty and its inequal­ity. China had no middle class in 1990, but by 2005, had a small urb­an middle class (3% of the pop­u­la­tion). South Africa (7%), Rus­sia (30%) and Brazil (19%) all had siz­able middle classes in 2005. […]

In socio-polit­ic­al terms, the middle class is tra­di­tion­ally that seg­ment of soci­ety with a degree of eco­nom­ic secur­ity that allows it to uphold the rule of law, invest and desire sta­bil­ity. They do not, unlike those defined as rich, depend on inher­it­ances or oth­er non-pro­duct­ive sources of income. […]

OECD coun­tries define their poverty lines as 50% of medi­an income which works out […] to about $30 day. In the US the poverty line for a single indi­vidu­al in 2008 was $29 per day and for each indi­vidu­al in a four-per­son house­hold was about $14 per day.

How­ever, people in devel­op­ing coun­tries liv­ing on even $10 a day still have extremely low social indic­at­ors. Eco­nom­ist Lant Pritch­ett has shown that infant mor­tal­ity of house­holds in the richest quin­tile in Bolivia was 32 and Ghana 58 per 1,000. Few­er than 25% of people in the richest quin­tile in India com­plete 9 grades of school, Pritch­ett showed. “An upper lim­it of the 95th per­cent­ile, while on the high side, is just about suf­fi­cient to exclude the coun­trys richest,” Bird­sall adds.

via The Browser