Friday, October 26, 2007

Do we just not like inconvenient truths?

The issue of climate change is now big news. This was brought home recently with the Nobel Peace Prize being given jointly to Al Gore and the United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Gore's Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, has helped drive home the dangers of climate change to the public. The Norwegian Nobel Committee felt Gore was 'probably the single individual who has done most to create greater worldwide understanding of the measures that need to be adopted'. In turn, it praised the UN panel, made up of some 2 000 members, for achieving an 'informed consensus about the connection between human activities and global warming'.

The road to this recognition has, however, not been easy. Gore's controversial defeat by George W Bush in the 2001 election aside, those advocating the link between human activity and climate change have had an uphill struggle. The UN panel, which was set up in 1988, has consistently released hard-hitting reports into a disbelieving scientific community. Only recently has broad scientific and public acceptance of the threat of climate change been accepted. Science, coupled with cool-headed publicity on Gore's part, triumphed. But why did it take so long?

Obviously, developing rigorous science took time. But was inconclusive science the issue? Or is there something in human nature that rallies against common sense, especially when it implies taking responsibility. Do we just not like 'inconvenient truths'?

Remember the public debate about whether smoking was bad for health. I recall scientists saying smoking does not cause lung cancer; it is only correlated with it, so do not panic . There are still those who might take this view. From a purely scientific perspective, this may be correct, but one does not need to be a scientist to figure out that inhaling smoke into one's lungs cannot be good for you. Equally, it does not take a PhD to realise that spewing gases into the atmosphere that we know in certain doses will kill humans and animals is ill-advised. Science can help us to figure out exactly what the problem is and solve it, but it is the denial of the obvious that I find interesting, yet disturbing at the same time.

Denial has its benefits. It keeps anxiety and potential distress at bay, and can often save us from embarrassment. Denying a problem can also mean we do not have to expend energy or resources on it. Refusing to accept that a wider social problem is present, especially when you are not affected, also helps preserve the personal illusion of immunity or safety.

This is not to say that coming to a consensus about problems such as climate change, or HIV/Aids for that matter, is not challenging. Many people are rightly sceptical about what they read in the media. Dare I mention the millennium bug. Even on the climate change issue, there have been alarmist reports at times that have not helped the cause.

Scepticism has its place and can drive good science. Scepticism is a doubting or questioning attitude or state of mind. It is constructive questioning. However, these days scepticism has been replaced with cynicism.'

Cynicism is defined as an attitude of scornful or jaded negativity marked by a general distrust of the integrity of the motives of others. Although trusting others is difficult in our world, it is fashionable these days to usurp healthy questioning with derision and sarcasm. People build their careers on pulling others down publicly.

When it comes to debates about climate change and other issues of public concern, it seems that proving someone is wrong is not always about advancing a solution. Rather, it is about scoring political points, getting as much airtime as possible or proving intellectual prowess. Surely, in a world faced with multiple crises, humility and cooperation are the only show in town.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 26 October 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The bluetongue blues

Since the infamous war hero, Tony Blair, resigned and Gordon Brown took over, the news in the UK has been fitting for the most virulent of blues riffs. Brown’s Premiership began with floods, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease and an economic downturn fuelled by a US housing crisis. The Gordon Brown blues then reached their apex with the discovery of bluetongue.

When I first heard the report, and showing my urban upbringing, I thought it was a joke or a new technology not too dissimilar to bluetooth but somehow related to cows. However, after hearing interviews with distraught farmers who had little time for gadgets or their livestock getting blue tongues, I realised it was no laughing matter.

For those of you living in countries spared the ongoing reporting of the disease, bluetongue is an illness transmitted by a specific midge. Sheep or cows bitten by the midges can suffer from fever, swelling, congestion, lameness and depression. A discoloured tongue, needless to say, is common and sheep whose lips and nose swell can apparently take on a ‘monkey-face’ appearance.

Most infected animals do not die but lose weight and, consequently, value, although in some species up to 70% can perish. The good news is that humans cannot get bluetongue (unless they drink too much cheap read wine) and animals cannot pass it to others animals (even if one sheep bites another after being teased for looking like an ape).

Bluetongue was first discovered in South Africa, which was the principal site of study for many years, since the disease was not present in other countries – but now it can be found in parts of Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and the US. Some scientists relate the movement of the midges to climate change.

In South Africa, a so-called ‘weakened’ vaccine is used against bluetongue with some success, but in Europe the vaccine is not considered safe and is still undergoing testing, presumably, because Europeans have the luxury of wealthy governments to assist farmers while a more tested vaccine is developed. This means that bluetongue, like climate change, media hype and terrible British summers, will be around for a while.

So understanding the spread of bluetongue or preventing it is shaped by a north–south divide, money, inconclusive science, environmental destruction and occasionally bad luck. Such a plot line is fitting for any gloomy blues tune. That said, I must admit, blues music cheers me up. I think this is because it alerts me to the fragility of our existence. Realising how flimsy life is, in turn, reminds me that I should use my time wisely.

To this end, I am becoming intolerant of media hype and public panic. I know bluetongue is serious, but the more I listen to the news in Britain, the more I think the media, and, perhaps, some overly comfortable suburbanites, long for the so-called good old days, when diseases sounded really nasty, like the Black Death or bovine spongiform encephalitis. There is an underlying nostalgia in some quarters for woebegone days, when people pulled together as German bombs rained down, and for the daily discussion, not about the weather but about some terrifying apocalypse-like uninhibited terrorism or rampant bird flu.

This might sound cynical, but I don’t think I can cope with another health scare in the media, and the exaggeration and hysteria that follow. It is interesting to learn about the challenges of livestock diseases and how this might affect the welfare of farmers, but that is not the story the media wants to tell. The desired story is about fear and uncontrollable pestilence, and fear sells newspapers and gets governments re-elected.

So here goes my own little blues riff: “Woke this morning, now my chickens got flu; woke this morning, Brown’s gonna see it through. Woke this morning, my sheep’s tongues were blue; woke this morning, jabbering media starting anew.”

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 12 October 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.