Flat Earthers vs climate change sceptics: conspiracy theorists and contradictions

Flat Earthism and the idea that human activity is not responsible for climate change are two of the most prevalent conspiracy theories today, two academics from Nottingham Trent University contend in an article republished (HERE) on Sciblogs.

Both ideas have been increasing in popularity since the late 20th century, Gareth Dorrian and Ian Whittaker write in an article first published in The Conversation (the original article can be read HERE).

They write:

Currently, 16% of the US population say they doubt the scientifically established shape of the Earth, while 40% think that human-induced climate change is a hoax. But proponents of one of these theories are not necessarily proponents of the other, even though both are often motivated by a common mistrust of authority. In fact, they regularly contradict one another.

Flat Earthers, for example, tend to disbelieve organisations such as NASA on the shape of Antarctica – or indeed, that there is a southern hemisphere at all. Yet the president of the Flat Earth Society, Daniel Shenton, is quite convinced – presumably at least in part thanks to information from NASA – that climate change is happening and espouses a fairly conventional view on the subject.

Former White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci (dismissed by president Trump after ten days in office), meanwhile, believes that the Earth is in fact round, but does not believe in anthropogenic climate change, as he made clear in an interview with CNN.

Such selective reasoning is common among conspiracy theorists who often lack consistency with one other. Despite this, the media, celebrities and even politicians regularly make broad comparisons between climate change scepticism, Flat Earthism and other conspiracy theories.

Fabricated data?

In the field of global climate change, scientific bodies often are accused, even by those in power, of fabricating data. But such criticism is often deeply flawed.

Take those sceptics, for example, who believe that climate change is occurring, but because of natural – rather than man-made – causes.

If one argues that data has been fabricated to show warming where there is none, one cannot then also imply that warming is occurring after all, but naturally. Either there is warming or there is not.

Similarly, Flat Earthers who state that images showing Earth’s curvature are due to the shape of a camera lens, themselves believe in a disc which by definition has a curved edge.

Indeed, one of the few commonalities which exist between all major conspiracy theories is that somehow scientists and governments are involved in a grand conspiracy for reasons unknown.

A major part of the scientific anthropogenic climate change argument is that there is an increase in temperature extremes in both summer and winter.

Evidently, a Flat Earth model cannot support this; in fact, the most accepted Flat Earth model, which maintains that the sun rotates in a non-variable circular orbit over the flat disk, implies that there should be no seasons at all, let alone multi-decadal seasonal extremes due to climate change. Nevertheless, to quote Shenton:

Climate change is a process which has been ongoing since (the) beginning of detectable history, but there seems to be a definite correlation between the recent increase in worldwide temperatures and man’s entry into the industrial age.

In this instance, the president of the Flat Earth Society is correct. Anthropogenic climate change sceptics, on the other hand, are often willing to accept the science behind the Earth’s natural cycles, which they blame – instead of human activity – for the world’s weather woes. Clearly, we again find an implicit difference of opinion between a Flat Earth model, and a non-anthropogenic climate change one.

It is also clear that many climate change sceptics believe in the (approximately) spherical Earth, even if only subconsciously, by their use of scientifically accepted global maps when discussing data – not to mention when calling it “global” warming.

And what about aliens?

If governments and scientists are so untrustworthy and steeped in corruption, then why would one believe them on any issue? Where does the line of trust actually fall? Why would a person who mistrusts governments and scientists on the shape of the Earth, not hold the same politicians and scientific organisations similarly bogus on the issue of climate change? Or alien abductions, chem trails, or anything else?

But the problem isn’t likely to go away any time soon. The US has the highest number of believers in both flat-Earthism and anthropogenic climate change scepticism, and the UK is not far behind.

The US also has a high number (more than 50%) of senior political figures who deny man-made climate change, not to mention a democratically elected leader vocally believing the same. There are also numerous well-known celebrities who question the established shape of our planet.

While of course scientists can play the blame game, it could be that the scientific method itself is a major limiting factor in communicating results with the public. Science is not just a body of knowledge, but a method of critical thinking.

Scientists, by necessity, have to communicate their findings in a certain rigid way focusing on probabilities, certainty values and confidence intervals. These can appear dry or baffling to the public. But by providing more easily understandable narratives we can make scientific discussions with the public more productive.

The ConversationIn today’s complex world of social media narratives, the engagement of scientists with the public is more crucial than ever. Thankfully, current funding for public engagement training and activities is accessible to scientists with a passion for communication and conversation, enabling them to communicate facts rather than “fake news”.

***
Gareth Dorrian is  Post Doctoral Research Associate in Space Science at Nottingham Trent UniversityIan Whittaker is a Lecturer.

***

 This article has been restored after being accidentally removed from AgScience earlier today during the repair of a glitch in the blog’s formatting. 

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Latest NZ Total Diet Study gives more insight on what Kiwis are eating

New Zealand Food Safety (a unit of the Ministry for Primary Industries) today published the results from the 2016 New Zealand Total Diet Study,  which shows the food New Zealanders eat has a high level of safety in regard to chemical hazards which might be present in the food supply.

Exposure to agricultural chemicals and contaminants from food remains low and for the first time in two decades dietary intake of iodine is sufficient for good health.

The study, which is carried out on average every five years, is a national survey of a range of common foods consumed in a typical diet.

It is used to assess New Zealanders’ overall exposure to chemicals, such as agricultural compounds, environmental contaminants and nutrients, and to identify any potential food safety risks. It is also used to monitor trends and changes in levels over time.

The ministry’s specialist advisor for toxicology and environmental chemistry, Dr Andrew Pearson, says more than 4300 individual food samples were tested for the 2016 study for 301 agricultural chemicals and 10 contaminants and nutrients.

The number of food types tested was increased to 132 to capture new food trends, and for the first time the study has looked at Pacific Island ethnicity diets.

“Overall we found that the New Zealand food supply continues to be safe in terms of exposure to chemicals, and generally there is a sufficient level of nutrients for health,” Dr Pearson said.

Both contaminants and nutrients can come from a variety of sources, such as those naturally occurring in the environment, natural processes (like volcanic activity), and materials used in food preparation and storage (such as tin from cans).

In terms of contaminants, the ministry tested for aluminium, arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, and tin.

Dietary levels of cadmium and mercury have remained consistent with results from the previous studies.  Lead levels, on the other hand, have decreased and the declining trend is continuing.

Aluminium was tested for the first time and higher-than-expected levels were found in some foods.

“While the potential health risk is low, we are actively working with industry to reduce the level of aluminium in these foods,” Dr Pearson said.

The ministry tested a range of common nutrients, such as iodine, selenium, sodium, and zinc. Approximately half of the foods were also tested for fluoride.

The study found New Zealanders are still consuming higher-than-needed levels of sodium in their diets but they are getting the right levels of selenium and zinc, both of which are essential in supporting a healthy metabolism.

An increase of iodine was found in New Zealanders’ diets. This is linked to bread being fortified with iodised salt.

This means that for the first time since the 1990s iodine intakes are estimated to be at a level in the population which is needed for good thyroid function.

The ministry tested three types of agricultural chemicals that are commonly used in agriculture – insecticides, fungicides and herbicides. The test for the first time also included two chemicals commonly found in disinfectants used in the food production industry and in homes.

“We tested more agricultural chemicals than in any previous TDS and although about 40% of the samples had a detected level of agricultural chemical residue, all of the exposures in the diet were very low, and far below the levels that would be a food safety risk,” Dr Pearson said.

“All in all, the results from the 2016 TDS are very reassuring, and show the New Zealand diet is safe and wholesome.

“The levels of agricultural chemicals and contaminants in our diets remain low and most of the latter are naturally occurring in the environment, so the fact they are showing up in our foods is unavoidable.

“In addition, we are eating foods that are providing us with the right levels of nutrients needed to maintain a good diet.”

The next study will likely be conducted in 2021.

Source: Ministry for Primary Industries

Technical working group calls for urgent action on climate change

A report from the Climate Change Adaptation Technical Working Group urges better planning and resourcing and strong leadership to prepare New Zealand for a warmer, wetter and wilder future.

The report, released today, makes 21 major recommendations as a starting point.

It says the Government should urgently set about first identifying what needs to be done and who does what along with undertaking a countrywide risk assessment to inform it.

It also suggests the Local Government Act 2002 be changed to specify climate change adaptation as a function of local government and arm local authorities with a clearer mandate.

Strong leadership is called for, too – the Government should make it clear to the public that climate change is a priority, from a review of policy and legislation to factoring climate impacts into government and council procurement processes.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw issued a press statement (HERE) to accompany the release of the recommendations.

The group’s Co-Chair, Dr Judy Lawrence, says in the statement that even if the world stopped all greenhouse gas emissions today, our climate would still change for centuries.

“Previous emissions take time to show their impact and are long lasting. We are already seeing the effects of climate change with sea level rise, more floods and hotter temperatures and we can expect further losses and damage,” says Dr Lawrence.

“We need robust data to assess our risks and see where and who is most vulnerable and exposed. This will enable us to put a national plan into action which is independently monitored and reported on.

“Adaptation needs to be funded so that there are incentives for people and organisations to take adaptive action. All of this work needs to be supported by strong leadership.

“The group has conveyed its expectation that the government will put in place a coordinated set of measures. These will enable New Zealand to reduce its exposure and vulnerability to the changing climate.”

Mr Shaw said becoming climate-resilient was a significant challenge.

“But it’s clear from CCATWG’s report that with the right plans and tools in place, we have a greater chance of managing the transition,” says Mr Shaw.

“There is new money in Budget 2018 for resourcing the Government’s climate change priorities.

“I see risk assessment as a priority and I intend to bring options to Cabinet soon for a decision on how and when to do a risk assessment.

“In the coming weeks we will be asking New Zealanders how they see New Zealand adapting to the effects of climate change as part of the Zero Carbon Bill consultation.

“We are all in this together and we have a responsibility to future generations to make changes now and build on what has been started. This will provide a framework for the future. I urge everyone to be part of the conversation.

“Taking early action in the right areas is likely to avoid the need for more abrupt action later,” says Mr Shaw.

The report can be read HERE.

People can register to have their say on how New Zealand becomes climate resilient as part of the Zero Carbon Bill HERE.

$13 million for leading-edge biotech research in the Bay of Plenty

Dr Marie Magnuson
Dr Marie Magnuson … turning algae into tucker and tonics.

The Government and the University of Waikato are investing $13 million in a new research programme in Tauranga aimed at helping tackle some of the biggest issues facing New Zealand’s primary sector, Education Minister Chris Hipkins announced today.

The project, part of the Entrepreneurial Universities programme administered by the Tertiary Education Commission, will be set up in Tauranga by a prominent Australian-based expert, Dr Marie Magnusson.

The Government is committing approximately $4 million over five years to the programme, while the University of Waikato has pledged $9 million.

The work will focus on algal biotechnology, using science to grow a new and valuable industry.

Mr Hipkins said this type of research and technology

” … will be critical as we look for solutions for things like reducing cattle methane emissions, limiting nutrient run-off from pasture, and fighting agricultural and horticultural diseases in an environmentally sustainable way.”

The first stage of the project will examine options for growing macroalgal species like kelp and sea lettuce alongside existing mussel farms. Later stages will extract valuable bioproducts for use in fertilisers, animal feed supplements, cosmetics, human foods and other initiatives.

Other goals include addressing some of the country’s pressing primary sector issues by reducing methane emissions from cattle through improving feed, and creating environmentally benign solutions to agriculture and horticulture pathogens like PSA.

Dr Magnusson, who will move to Tauranga from Queensland, will lead a team of new researchers and technical staff, guided by University of Waikato staff including Chair of Coastal Science Professor Chris Battershill.

They will be based at the Coastal Marine Field Station at Sulphur Point in Tauranga, with work due to start in September.

Relying on strong science, the products the researchers develop will be targeted for markets where there is demand, with an eye to industry development, and future job creation in the Bay of Plenty and the rest of the country.

New Zealand’s aquaculture industry was worth nearly $500 million in 2015, and is estimated to grow to $1 billion by 2025, with the project aiming to contribute significantly to that growth.

The initiative will work with organisations locally, nationally and internationally, and partner with private companies where appropriate. Staff will work with local iwi and Māori businesses in the region as a priority.

The University of Waikato will be backing the research and entrepreneurial work with an increase in undergraduate and graduate teaching, including offering an Aquaculture major.

Over the next three years, the initiative is expected to bring from 15 to 20 world-leading researchers and their teams to New Zealand.

Biography of Dr Marie Magnusson

Dr Marie Magnusson is a Senior Research Fellow in the James Cook University College of Science and Engineering with over 10 years of experience in the fields of algal biology, biochemistry, and product development.

She completed her B.Sc. in 2003 at Göteborg University in Sweden followed by an M.Sc. in 2004. Her Ph.D. (2005-2009) was at James Cook University in phycology and marine pollution.

Following her graduate studies, Dr Magnusson undertook two post-doctoral fellowships at James Cook University in microalgal biomass evaluation and macroalgae end product research and development.

Dr Magnusson is currently Program Leader and Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Macroalgal Resources and Biotechnology (MACRO) at James Cook University.

Her research is focused on ways to utilise algae (macro and micro) and algal extracts to develop human food and nutraceutical and pharmaceutical products for improved health outcomes, and to develop biotechnology products based on algal polysaccharides with unique gelling and functional properties.

Sources: Minister of Education; University of Waikato

 

Royal Society posts video discussion among experts on land use and climate change

A video recording of a panel discussion which looks at the implications for land use of responses to climate change, in this country and around the globe, has been posted on the Royal Society Te Apārangi’s website.

The discussion, Land use and climate change: new pressures and new possibilities?, is chaired by Veronika Meduna, NZ editor of The Conversation.

Issues of current land use and climate change are explored with a panel of international contributors – their expertise is in global food security, sustainable resource management, renewable energy, sustainable development, and economics relating to climate change.

The event was opened by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group III co-chairs Professor Jim Skea (UK) and Dr Youba Sokona (Mali), who were at the IPCC lead authors’ meeting on Land Use and Climate Change in Christchurch in March.

Speakers were:

Professor Tim Benton (UK)
Professor and Dean of Strategic Research Initiatives at the University of Leeds and Distinguished Fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, London. Formerly the Champion of the UK’s Global Food Security programme.

Professor Annette Cowie (AUS)
Principal Research Scientist -Climate, NSW Department of Primary Industries
Research experience includes sustainability assessment and greenhouse gas accounting in agriculture and forestry; investigating key aspects of soil carbon dynamics; life cycle assessment of forestry, bioenergy and biochar systems.

Dr Fatima Denton (Ethiopia)
Head of the African Climate Policy Centre, Director of the UN Economic Commission for Africa’s Special Initiatives Division.
In 2016 she was nominated by the Borlaug Dialogue International Symposium, as one of the Women Leaders Driving Agricultural Transformation in Africa.

Associate Professor Anita Wreford (NZ)
Agribusiness and Economics Research Unit, Lincoln University (NZ)
Applied economist specialising in responses to climate change, Anita is a lead author for the IPCC Working Group III.

The event was hosted by the University of Canterbury in partnership with the IPCC, the Ministry for the Environment, Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, The New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre and Royal Society Te Apārangi.

Comprehensive resources on the implications of climate change, the impact on health, and mitigation options for New Zealand can be found at the Royal Society Te Apārangi website HERE. 

Source:  Royal Society Te Apārangi

Mānuka honey definition research is published in international science journal

Research undertaken and led by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) to develop a scientifically robust definition for mānuka honey has just been published in a leading international scientific journal.

The paper, Using chemical and DNA marker analysis to authenticate a high-value food, mānuka honey, has been peer-reviewed and published in npj Science of Food.

Npj Science of Food is an online open access journal that publishes high-quality papers on food safety, security, production and packaging, and the influence of food on health and wellness. It is part of the Nature group, one of the world’s most prestigious scientific publishing groups.

“The work carried out by MPI to develop a scientific definition for mānuka honey is a worldwide first and very important for New Zealand’s reputation as a producer of high-quality food,” says Bryan Wilson, head of New Zealand Food Safety at MPI.

“This reputation is based on a track record of producing food that stands up to the expectations of local and overseas markets.  All mānuka honey for export has to be tested against and meet MPI’s definition.

“Publication of this research in npj Science of Food is further endorsement of the 3 years of scientific work that went into developing the definition.

New Zealand’s export markets, including consumers, could be confident the New Zealand mānuka honey they buy is authentic, Mr Wilson says.

Find out more

Dr Woods confirms the end of Growth Grant programme at end of 2018/19 tax year

Science, Research and Innovation Minister Megan Woods has made plain that the $657.2 million Growth Grant programme will be terminated at the end of the 2018/19 tax year.

Critics of the programme expressed disappointment on Budget Day that Dr Woods had not reaffirmed the phase-out of the grants in favour of the new R&D tax credit.

Taxpayers’ Union Executive Director Jordan Williams, for example, complained that when the Minister announced Labour’s R&D tax credit scheme earlier in the year, she said it would replace the growth grant scheme administered by Callaghan Innovation.

“But buried in the Budget appropriations we see that Callaghan Innovation’s funding for corporate welfare hasn’t been cut by a cent. Not even one,” he said.

“Megan Woods has let down taxpayers, and we will be working day and night to redouble our efforts to defeat this corporate welfare industry that picks winners and favourites, and keeps Callaghan Innovation’s feather-nesters in their taxpayer funded make-work scheme.”

But the Minister’s Office has confirmed to AgScience that – as reported by National Business Review yesterday – the Growth Grant scheme will be closed to new applicants on March 21 2019.

She told the newspaper:

“Businesses with an active Growth Grant on March 31, 2019, will have the option to continue receiving their grant until March 31, 2020.

“A temporary grant scheme mirroring the R&D tax incentive will be implemented to provide support for former Growth Grant recipients with insufficient tax liability to use an R&D tax credit immediately.”

A core focus for Callaghan’s 384 staff is now gone and a sharp round of redundancies is presumably on the way, NBR reported.

But Dr Woods emphasises Callaghan Innovation will have a continuing role in support areas.

“All of Callaghan Innovation’s other services and products, including R&D Project Grants [a smaller scheme that typically tops out at $100,000 per grant compared to Growth Grants’ $15-25m] and R&D Student Grants are not affected by the R&D Tax Incentive,” the minister says.

A minister staffer told AgScience a paper went to Cabinet on April 19 about the R&D Tax Incentive Discussion Document.

The R&D Tax Incentive discussion document and the Growth Grant transition consultation document (HERE) outline the main features of the Government’s proposals.

Submissions are open until 1 June.