Monday Message Board

Another Monday, another Message Board. Post your thoughts on any topic (civilised discussion and no coarse language). I’ll be travelling a bit this week, as noted above, so this is a good chance for readers to talk among themselves.

7 thoughts on “Monday Message Board

  1. Re: Recent postings about biassed use scientific data.
    This article shows that the careless use of statistics about extinction can be discussed civilly, and that scientific studies about extinction can get misused (unintentionally) by
    enthusiastic environmentalists.

    Nature 428, 799 (22 April 2004);
    Dangers of crying wolf over risk of extinctions
    Sir – Media coverage of conservation research is usually welcomed by the scientists involved, but there are pitfalls to heed. Damaging simplifications of research findings may expose conservationists to accusations of crying wolf, and play directly into the hands of anti-environmentalists. For example, in January 2004 it was widely reported in the UK print media that one million species would go extinct by 2050. The original report (Nature 427, 145–148; 2004), however, was based on 1,103 species and clearly stated that — as a consequence of climate change over the next 50 years — a variable proportion of land animals and plants might eventually go extinct.

    We reviewed 29 reports in the local and national UK press, and found that many of the errors could be traced back to the press releases and agency newswires. In a press release from the lead author’s university, the figure of a million species appears along with the claim that a quarter of all land animals and plants may go extinct — but eventually, not by 2050. Newswires ranged from the cautious (“Hundreds of species of land plants and animals around the globe could vanish or be on the road to extinction over the next 50 years if global warming continues” — Dow Jones International) to the sensational (“Global warming could wipe out a quarter of all species of plants and animals on earth by 2050” — Reuters).

    Unsurprisingly, subsequent newspaper articles in the national and local press were highly inaccurate: 21 of the 29 reports we reviewed claimed that a million or more species would be extinct by 2050. Two reports even claimed that one-third of the entire world’s species would become extinct. No reports specified the full range of uncertainty (5.6% to 78.6% of the species studied would be committed to future extinction) and only two correctly stated that most species would become extinct well after 2050 (full details of our survey can be seen at

    Politicians and conservationists repeated these statements. The European Union’s environment commissioner Margot Wallström, for example, commented on “the recently published study that suggests global warming could wipe out a third of the planet’s species by 2050”.

    How can the conservation community prevent a repeat of such wide-scale media misrepresentation? Practical steps might be for high-profile journals to restrict press releases in the climate-change arena to research papers that present clear and unequivocal findings, and for scientists to write to newspaper editors and politicians to clarify misleading media articles. More generally, any institute, journal or individual involved in putting out a press release has a responsibility to ensure that it is both accurate and perfectly clear.

    Richard J. Ladle, Paul Jepson, Miguel B. Araújo & Robert J. Whittaker
    Biodiversity Research Group, School of Geography & the Environment, Oxford University, Mansfield Road, Oxford OX1 3PS, UK

  2. The extinction issue is tricky. In Australia only a single bird species has (probably) gone extinct on the mainland since white settlement (the Paradise Parrot). The situation of mammals is worse and if you include offshore islands things change markedly (birds tended to disappear on these for biogeographic reasons while some mammals survive on them because they are protected from ferals).

    But taking a populational view of the species concept (the view of modern conservation biologists) rather than a typological view — essentially accounting for intra-species variation since this determines natural selection — biodiversity has contracted markedly both for mammals and birds. The geographic range covered has contracted dramatically as have total population sizes.

    It is true as Simon, Lomberg (and others) have pointed out, extinction rates using dated species ideas are exaggerated. But if, as c. biologists believe, populations themselves should be targeted by conservation effort then real biodiversity problems remain.

    Finally, from an animal welfare perspective we should not be indifferent between a viable population of 1000 and one of 100,000 even ignoring issues of having a good gene mix.

  3. I want to know Pr Q’s reaction to the finding of Bob Woodward latest book on how the decision to invade Iraq was made. Slate’s Tim Noah addresses the riddle of who actually made the decision to go to war. He concluded that the Gulf War was declared by…the Vice President.

    There’s been much Washington buzz lately about when, precisely, President Bush decided to go to war against Iraq…Woodward addresses it head-on in his new book, Plan of Attack…Riddle solved…The answer is: never. Bush didn’t make a final decision. Vice President Dick Cheney did.

    This is bizarre but apparently it is the case that Cheyney truly believed his own nonsense about Saddam’s WMDs and Al Quaeda links.
    This is worrying on a number of levelsl, political and intellectual. For one, it makes rational analysis of the US government impossible, since these people are beyond reason.
    There is no point dreaming up rationales for the war when the decision makers are irrational. And Bush had trained himself to believe in what Cheyney (“the Man”) said was true.
    Noah then retails WOodwards account of how a pair of nut-cases and one-dim bulb subverted the decision making process of the US government:

    Cheney, impatient with waiting for Bush’s decision, took matters into his own hands. He called Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar into his office on Jan. 11, 2003, showed him the plans for the invasion, and asked whether he was in or out. Bandar said he wasn’t going to commit until he knew the invasion was really going to happen. Rumsfeld, putting Bush’s query about his “last decision point” out of his mind, told Bandar: “You can count on this. You can take that to the bank. This is going to happen.” Then Bandar asked whether Saddam would be killed; he didn’t want in if Saddam would still be around to kill those who’d betrayed him. Cheney answered, “Saddam is toast.”

    Charming aren’t they. Nixon and Kennedy, under greater pressure, made some effort to justify assasination beyond the level of discourse applicable to a couple of mafia dons.

    All that was left was for Bandar to be told the same by the president himself. When they met the next day, Woodward writes, Bush simply asked, “Any questions for me?” Bandar said no, and Bush replied, “The message you’re taking is mine.” But it was Bush’s message only because Cheney and Rumsfeld had already told him it was necessary to say so. Then Bush called in his secretary of state, Colin Powell, whose advice he had not sought, and told him we were going to war.

    There ought to be a law against this kind of behaviour, but my gut instinct tells me that Kinsleys dictum about “the scandal isn’t the illegal behavior–the scandal is what’s legal.” is probably applicable.

  4. On the Anzac Day theme, my nine-year-old son played in his school band outside the local RSL for the service/commemoration/whatever: Advance Australia Fair, God Save the Queen (no idea why) and Abide with Me (one of the better hymns, I think). The school’s two star trumpeters played the Last Post and Revallie (sp?), with hardly a hitch.

    At the end, the elderly club president made a speech in which he blasted the attitude of young people towards family, church and home, compared them unfavourably to the selfless heroes of yesterday, exemplified by the Anzacs, and wondered ‘what in the world this once great country is coming to’.

    Actually, he didn’t. In reality, he profusely thanked the kids for their efforts, praised the soloists to the heavens, commended the teachers (of this public school) and parents (“your children are a credit to you”) and concluded that with young people like this our country is in good hands.

    If nothing else, this Anzac Day showed me that some of my prejudices about veterans in general and RSL club members in particular need a serious overhaul. And I also felt really proud of my son for sticking at something he finds difficult and often frustrating, and producing – with many others – a fine result. Which I think is good.

  5. The striking thing about ANZAC Day was the republican sentiments of the Governor-General – another instance in the making of losing the battle but winning the war.

    The day is a time to think about the generality of my father’s experience, my father-in-law’s experience, and grandfather’s frontline experience. In the latter case he was one of seven brothers of which three or four were killed in the First World War, a typical experience I believe. My other grandfather, who I met, as I recall spoke of the Boer War.

    The inflection point at which family history and memory becomes completely a broader history is, I think, when there is no direct, or very little, personal experience, even as artifacts have been passed down. For example, I have my grandfather’s pocket war, engraved as been given by his workmates at the WAGR on his return injured from “the Great War” in 1916.

    At the moment, since my time is my own, and because I am striving be effective rather than merely busy, Public Holidays are not high on my priorities.

  6. My memories of ANZAC Day are inextricably tied to the fact that I grew up in New Zealand with a birthday the day after. Predictably, then, I always celebrated a day early to take advantage of the holiday. As I sit at work on my birthday, I kind of miss that.

    I do remember the parades of very old-looking men trooping down toward the cenotaph down at one end of Wellington. I remember the poppies, which in NZ (apparently unlike Australia) are most prominent on ANZAC day. However, I have to admit that I didn’t fully appreciate the significance of the occasion. I had a vague idea of the sacrifice the ANZACs had been forced to endure, but practically none about how the British actions were tantamount to betrayal and the effect that might have had on perceptions between her and her former colonies. I certainly had no idea of the role Gallipoli played in Turkish history, as a signal victory in an otherwise disastrous war for them and as a critical stepping stone in the career of Mustafa Kemal. For some reason the NZ schools don’t teach that bit.

    Now that I do know all these things, I find Gallipoli and ANZAC Day quite fascinating. I think schoolchildren the world over – not just in NZ and Australia – would do well to learn about them and the lessons to be learned from them.

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