SMC Heads-Up: Climate impacts explained, good and bad fats and balance in science reporting
Issue 242 2 - 8 August 2013
Climate impacts for NZ outlined
What does a changing climate really mean for New Zealand?
A new report from the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor, Prof Sir Peter Gluckman, lays out the "current scientific understandings of climate change and the ways in which it is likely to affect New Zealand over coming years and decades."
The report, New Zealand's changing climate and oceans: The impact of human activity and implications for the future, was released yesterday and summarises the current state of global knowledge on climate change - reiterating that point that "climate change is happening now".
Focussing on the specifics of how New Zealand will be affected by rising temperatures, the report concisely outlines potential impacts for a number of economically significant sectors, including farming, forestry, fisheries and tourism.
The impacts on human health, biodiversity and energy infrastructure are also explored in the report, which states:
"In the intermediate term (over the next 30-40 years), New Zealand will face significant adaptive requirements to cope with these shifts in climate and there will need to be a consequent readjustment in expectations of frequency of extreme events. The impact of change is likely to be greatest in domains unable to adapt quickly or in those areas already close to limits of tolerance.
"These include natural and farming ecosystems evolved to function in current conditions and infrastructure requiring a long lead-time to plan and build, but also areas with high vulnerability such as those already prone to flooding or drought. The magnitude of environmental changes will depend in part on the global trajectories of greenhouse gas emissions and land use change."
Uncertainty no excuse for inaction
The report acknowledges the inherent uncertainty in scientifc climate projections, but rejects this as a reason for inaction.
"It would be highly imprudent to ignore such projected scenarios just because they must be expressed in terms of probabilities rather than certainties," notes the report's foreword.
The foreword also posed several questions decision makers will need to answer:
- What is an acceptable level of climate-related risk to society?
- What are the costs and benefits of adaptation or mitigation compared with other priorities?
- How are different stakeholders affected - either now or in the future?
"These are among the policy-relevant questions that are, and will need to be, addressed," writes Sir Peter. "Science can inform these, but cannot alone answer them."
Physicist honoured at Vic Uni dinner
It was an awards dinner at which broadcaster John Campbell admitted he was probably a "bit of a prick" early in his career and All Black Conrad Smith remembered "borrowing" things from supermarkets as a cash-strapped student.
The Victoria University Distinguished Alumni dinner, held at Wellington's Town Hall on Wednesday, also saw Callaghan Innovation scientist Dr Jeff Tallon honoured for his career in science, particularly in the area of high temperature superconductors.
Dr Tallon arrived at Victoria University in 1977 and started a PhD in chemistry despite not having "a drop of chemistry" in his previous degrees.
He went on to become one of an elite group of internationally recognised New Zealand physical scientists. He has been at the forefront of developing a world-leading portfolio of patented high temperature superconducting (HTS) materials. He received a DSc. from Victoria in 1997.
Tallon has also been outspoken about the direction of science in New Zealand, going so far as to criticise his own research institution.
In November he outlined his dismay about the development of Callaghan Innovation in an opinion piece in the New Zealand Herald:
"I am certain that [Sir Paul Callaghan] would have been shocked by these developments and it is highly likely that he would not lend his name to any institution that lost its focus on science and research, especially in the physical sciences."
In his speech this week Dr Tallon used an analogy from nature to make his point about the science system saying that a tree shorn of its branches is difficult to climb.
Other distinguished alumni recognised included: Claudia Batten, John Campbell, Conrad Smith, Georgina te Heuheu and Brian Roche.
On the science radar this week...
Dietary fat swap for heart health
Switching 'bad' fats for 'good' fats in the typical Kiwi diet would have a substantial impact on heart disease in New Zealand, according to a new analysis. The question is, how can we make the change happen?
In a new study, researchers from the University of Otago, Wellington analysed the data from several international studies examining the links between saturated and polyunsaturated fat and cardiovascular disease. They then applied their findings to the average New Zealand diet, and determined that switching just 5% the daily energy intake from saturated fats to polyunsaturated fats could lead to a 10% decrease in heart disease nationwide.
To achieve such a dietary shift, the researchers recommended switching: cheese for nuts, red meat for canned fish, and potato crisps for nuts and seeds.
The authors also noted that several interventions, including a tax on saturated fats, could potentially be used to bring about the 5% change in fat consumption. However they acknowledge that more research is needed to determine the cost-effectiveness of such approaches.
The research was published on Wednesday in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health.
Prof Nick Wilson, from the University of Otago, Wellington, is a co-author of the study. He commented to the SMC:
"We did this study to inform decision-making around ways to lower heart disease in New Zealand. Heart disease is still a major cause of death and also very costly to the health system [...]
"While taxing food that is high in saturated fat will very likely result in large health gains, some further work is required on the best combination of taxes and food subsidies"
Independent experts welcomed the research, but were cautious of proposing taxes on saturated fats. Prof Cliona Ni Mhurchu from the University of Auckland, commented:
"This important paper reviews international evidence on potential effects of a reduction in saturated fat intakes on risk of cardiovascular disease and suggests that replacing 5% of energy currently consumed as saturated fat with polyunsaturated fats would reduce risk of cardiovascular events by 10%.
"The authors conclude such a change could be achieved relatively easily in NZ and propose public health policies such as fat taxes and other regulatory interventions as a means to facilitate these changes.
"When food taxes are introduced, people often buy substitute products not affected by price rises, and these substitution effects may either enhance or undermine the direct effects of the tax depending on foods chosen. It is important to assess substitution effects to know whether or not food taxes have positive effects on the whole diet as opposed to just the targeted foods."
You can read more expert commentary on the Science Media Centre website.
Balance in science reporting
"Giving both sides their due" is a basic principle of newsgathering, particularly when covering political and social debates. But good reporting on science issues requires more than a "he says, she says" approach to balance.
In science, claims need to be backed by evidence. Science, at its best, embraces transparency and subjects new results to intensive scrutiny. Persuasive arguments are not enough - science advances by accumulating evidence to support, refine or overturn current understanding.
Scientific consensus evolves over time, but the majority opinion represents the cumulative effort of thousands of scientists around the world and carries the weight of countless hours of analysis and refinement.
The best way to provide balance and help the public gauge the truth of competing claims is to provide this essential context for a research report or scientific viewpoint.
The balance of evidence
On controversial issues, rather than merely presenting opposing views of the science, it's important to weigh their merits.
Scientists engage in vigorous debate as a way of progressing understanding within their fields.
From an outsider's perspective, it can be easy to mistake normal debate over a nuanced interpretation of the facts for a more fundamental controversy.
The majority opinion may not always be right, but a solitary dissenting voice or outlier study doesn't always deserve an equal platform. Before including such counterpoints, consider whether the audience will be able to fairly take away what the relative merits are of the evidence backing up each side's case.
Scientific claims that fall outside the mainstream should be approached with healthy scepticism. Beware of isolated, obscure or long out-of-date research findings. A single study or two can easily present a distorted view of the science when taken out of context. The more extraordinary the claim, the more extraordinary the evidence required back it up.
Of course, figuring out how much credibility a scientific opinion deserves can require substantial background knowledge. Start by looking into what research has already been published on the topic, and what major peer-reviewed assessments or reviews have to say about it.
Supplement what you can find out on your own by consulting scientists who are knowledgeable in the field, but not directly involved with the research in question. The Science Media Centre can help suggest relevant experts.
Some things to consider when choosing sources:
• Does the expert have a scientific background that is relevant to the area they are weighing in on?
• Do they have established credentials? An active research career? A reasonable standing among fellow scientists?
• Are there any conflicts of interest or ties to organisations that may unduly influence their views?
Bear in mind that there is often a diverse range of opinion within the scientific consensus. By exploring several scientists' views, you may uncover new angles that hold more interest than a predictable retread of the same debate.
"Journalists and scientists espouse similar goals. Both seek truth and want to make it known. Both devote considerable energy to guard against being misled. Both observe a discipline of verifying information. Both insist that society allow them freedom to pursue investigations wherever they lead. "
BOYCE RENSBERGER Science writer, editor and former Director of MIT's Knight Science Journalism Fellowships.
Quoted: Radio New Zealand
"It would be a very big ask to remove every last cell from every last river."
NIWA Scientist Cathy Kilroy expresses scepticism on hopes to eradicate didymo algae from New Zealand waters.
New from the SMC
Fat swap for heart health: A minuscule change from saturated to polyunsaturated fats in the Kiwi diet could decrease heart disease in NZ, say researchers.
Are airlines to blame for increasing antibiotic resistance?:
With antibiotic resistance now causing great concern in the medical fraternity, the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases (ASID) has organised a session at their conference, currently underway in Surfers Paradise, to investigate the major causes of this growing issue. We rounded up comment from experts.
Climate report: A new report from the PM's Chief Science Advisor calls for risk management approaches and environmental monitoring in the face of a changing climate.
Genetic odours: Changing the name of a rose might not alter its smell, but a few tweaks in you DNA could, according to new research from Kiwi scientists.
Rare disorders:Medicines funding for rare disorders was the issue at the heart of a conference in Wellington this week.
Some of the highlights from this week's posts:
AgResearch moving house - let's have the full picture - Grant Jacobs takes a look at the shuffle of researchers and resources proposed for the agricultural research organisation.
Code for Life
Party pills and animal testing - Should we test novel recreational drugs on animals? Siouxsie Wiles brings some balance to the debate.
Lethal doses and Bees - Peter Dearden gives the latest buzz on new research into fungicides and bee death.
Please note: hyperlinks point, where possible, to the relevant abstract or paper.
Monogamy to save babies? Social monogamy, the pairing of a male and female to mate and raise offspring, may have evolved among primates to reduce the threat of infanticide by competing males, a study suggests. UK and NZ researchers analysed the traits of 230 primate species to build a model of monogamy in evolution and found that infanticide - where males will kill unrelated offspring to increase chances of mating with a female - is the driver of monogamy in primate societies.
Smelly genes: Do you love the smell of blue cheese, or hate it? Our sensitivity to some odours could be tied up in our DNA, according to a pair of studies from New Zealand scientists. Researchers tested 200 people for their odour sensitivity to food-derived chemical compounds and analysed their DNA, looking for genetic variations associated with odour sensitivity. The study identified four odours for which an individual's perception is linked to their genes: malt, apple, blue cheese, and beta-ionone, which is found in flowers, particularly violets.
Camping clock reset: If you have trouble going to sleep at night and waking up for work or school in the morning, a week of camping in the great outdoors might be just what you need. That's the finding of a new study showing that humans' internal biological clocks will tightly synchronize to a natural, midsummer light-dark cycle, if only they are given the chance. US researchers found that without artificial light, campers body clocks quickly shifted back by two hours.
The cognitive cost of lunch with friends: Do you typically eat lunch at your desk or do you pop out for a bite with friends? New research shows that after eating lunch with friends at a restaurant, individuals score worse on subsequent cognitive tests than if they ate alone. While such declines could impact work performance in tasks requiring attention to detail, the authors note, "an attenuation of cognitive control may be advantageous, such as when social harmony or creativity is desired."
Kidney disease overdiagnosis: A new definition of chronic kidney disease (CKD) labels over 1 in 8 adults and around half of people over 70 years of age as having the disease. Yet low rates of kidney failure suggest many of those diagnosed will never progress to severe disease. Now a team of Australian and British clinicians are arguing this is evidence of overdiagnosis, and are calling for a re-examination of the definition, urging doctors to be cautious about labelling patients, particularly older people.
Some of the policy highlights from this week:
Weather watchers: Metservice's new online mountain weather forecast service for National and Forest Parks was launched this week by Conservation Minister Dr Nick Smith.
Meat mixup: MPI has developed a new action plan following a review of the certification circumstances that lead to substantial delays for meat exports at Chinese ports.
Upcoming sci-tech events
• 4th Australia-New Zealand Roundtable on Genomics - 4 August, Queenstown.
• To believe or not believe (scientists) - that is the question - Cafe Scientifique - 5 August, Tauranga.
• Hype or hope? Complementary and 'natural' remedies in the treatment of couples with subfertility - 2013 University of Auckland Winter Lecture with Prof Cindy Farquhar - 6 August, Auckland.
• The Green Economy: Mythical or Meaningful? Sir Frank Holmes Memorial Lecture in Policy Studies,
with Prof Daniel Fiorino (US) - 6 August, Wellington.
• What if....The World Really Did Go Green? "What if Wednesday" Lecture with Prof Peter Newman - 7 August, Christchurch.
• US Climate Change Policy and its Global Implications - Policy lecture from Prof Daniel Fiorino - 9 August, Wellington.
For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC's Events Calendar.