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The appeal to nature fallacy and a growing distrust of the authority of science

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Our society seems to be losing its trust with scientific knowledge. This degeneration is present in the market, media, and online, particularly regarding the health industry.

Why is this? There seems to be a large gap between the preconceived ideas ingrained in our society and scientific truths. Perhaps the most visible example of this is the abuse of the words ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’, and the positive and negative connotations that they are packaged with. The word ‘natural’ is plastered all over product labels by marketers, and clearly, they are onto something. The extensive use of the word ‘natural’ must be to address a large consumer demand for goods that are ‘natural’, or made with ‘natural’ ingredients. It appears that Australian consumers hold a strong preconceived view about the world: mother nature and natural products are inherently good, or at least superior to their human-made counterparts. However, this statement is not consistent with our scientific knowledge, or with reality for that matter.

The scientific method is impartial. Of course, it has to be acknowledged that there has been a lot of damage caused by errors in scientific analysis and thinking  – the temporary approval of thalidomide, asbestos, and nuclear waste just to name a few. But these are mainly failings of technology, and of political administration. Scientists may discover a powerful chemical; however, it is up to society to insist that it is safe to use. Failings to do so seem to have led many to believe that all science and technology is suspect, and that all natural things are good.

Indeed, there are many undesirable however perfectly natural events that we ask the scientific community to alleviate us of, such as mental struggle or genetic diseases. Conversely, there are many unnatural interventions in our lives that are blatantly ignored by pseudo-scientists who, like us all, find them convenient, such as cars and phones. It makes little sense that these pseudo-scientists are picking on the industries of food and agriculture.

In its simplest form, the appeal to nature fallacy follows that what is natural is good, and what is unnatural is bad. Its application to the food and agriculture industry presents a fundamental misunderstanding of how practices such as artificial selection work. As far as we know, it does not matter if new organisms are made in a laboratory, as opposed to farmers using selective breeding. The joining of two genes in a laboratory is merely an extension of what farmers have been practicing for millennia; it is plain common sense. If the ends are the same, that the consumers can access decent quality produce, then there is no rational debate to be had. It is the means by which ‘unnatural’ food comes about that makes some consumers uneasy, and their unease is emotionally driven, not rational.

Those preferring ‘natural’ remedies or products, such as food, are not a trivial part of the consumer population. A quick walk through your local supermarket will show that many consumers are on the lookout for goods marketed as natural, especially ones that promise vague, mystical powers such as an ‘energy boost’, a ‘detox’ or a ‘cleanse’.

The search for ‘natural’ goods and services can be seen in the realm of medicine too. This branches off into categories such as ‘natural medicine’, ‘naturopathy’, ‘homeopathy’ or ‘alternative medicine’. If these treatments actually worked so well, then they probably would not be regarded as ‘alternative’, rather they would be widespread.

It is important to note that this article could have focused on many different pseudo-scientific trends. Chemophobia, childbirth without available medical assistance, raw foodism, spiritual therapy, anti-vax, organics products, and climate denialism are all part of a network of folk beliefs. All of these practices tend to rely on poorly interpreted science to support themselves.

Humans are inclined to be attracted to emotional stories. Our intuitions tend to tell us to clutch onto anecdotes and emotionally driven arguments rather than rational ones. This part of our psychology is prevalent all throughout our culture. Just look at our advertising, or the political success of Trump.

The main problem comes about when the general public start to disregard the authority of science. When this happens, our culture of evidence-based theory is at risk of being challenged by an emotional herd. Ultimately, that’s when unjustified and unscientific thinking begins to pose a threat to the greater good of the public.

 

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Science

Women Working in STEM

Women of STEM (Felicity Kaye)

We spoke to three Monash University students and alumni — Pippa, Ghina and Michelle — about their experience as a woman working in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields.

What did you study and where do you work?

Michelle: I studied a Bachelor of Science (Honours), majoring in Genetics and I am a research assistant at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.

Pippa: I’m currently studying a Bachelor of Environmental Engineering, and I am an Environmental Officer at Fulton Hogan, a tier one construction company, working on the M80 Upgrade.

Ghina: I’m in my third year of studying Software Engineering. I’m currently working as an R&D consultant at KPMG, to basically help companies better classify their IT projects.

What kickstarted your interest in STEM?

Michelle: I distinctly remember dreaming of becoming a scientist in primary school, beginning as a curiosity of wanting to understand the world, eventually turning into an interest in biology and genetics.

Pip: I love challenges and being out of my comfort zone so I think having a career which was less popular for women (in Engineering) was exciting for me rather than daunting.

Ghina: I grew up in Saudi Arabia, where the “doctor, lawyer or engineer” mentality is still quite strong, so a non-STEM field was just never going to sit well with my parents. And when was time for me to choose my VCE subjects and I chose IT simply because the teacher was known to be very forgiving. Turns out I was good at it, so I thought, “If it’s good enough for Gates and Zuckerberg, it’s good enough for me”.

Did you have any role models in the field?

Michelle: As a geneticist, I also greatly admire Rosalind Franklin and her crucial contribution to solving the structure of DNA.

Pip: I didn’t really have many female role models in the STEM field. In fact, when I was in year 11 there was only myself and another girl that studied physics in the whole year level of 400 people!

Ghina: Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla. Some may say that I should find myself a female role model, but I stand firmly behind the idea of not discriminating between genders in any way, even this. He’s leading a global change and people don’t talk about it about enough.

What would be your dream job?

Michelle: A researcher and professor with work that lets me travel all around the world.

Pip: What I am passionate about is engineering in developing communities. I would love to travel and learn about other cultures and communities whilst creating innovative design solutions to challenges that are present: sanitation, access to electricity and more.

Ghina: I think I’m most likely going to follow my father’s footsteps and get into IT-related business. I’ve had the chance to explore the field of technology and see how fascinating it is, so I think I would really like to bring more aspects of it to the general public to enjoy and benefit from as well.

What do you think of the perception that STEM is still a ‘man’s field’?

Michelle: I agree with such a perception, as for example, the general perception of what a scientist looks like is that of a middle-aged man in a white lab coat. The lack of representation can be discouraging for women wanting to work or advance in the STEM fields. However, there are increasingly more initiatives in place to encourage and acknowledge women in STEM.

Pip: I think the stereotype of STEM being a men’s field is no longer a completely true representation of reality. But I have found working on site in the construction world to be a slightly male dominated environment. Most of the labourers are male but there are quite a few females in the project team working as engineers.

Ghina: It’s usually the outsiders who always feel the need to remark on me being a girl in IT: “is it difficult? Do you get treated bad? Do the guys snatch up the jobs first?”. If we just stop promoting that image, we might see a lot more girls joining STEM fields without being scared of how they might get treated.

Have you ever felt discouraged or treated differently for your gender at your work or in your studies?

Michelle: Whilst I have not been personally subjected to such discrimination, I have, in recent years, become very aware of such biases in the STEM fields, through stories of upsetting experiences from peers and the media. So there exists a fear that such experiences will happen, which can sometimes in itself be discouraging.

Pip: I can’t recall ever being discouraged to pursue a career in engineering. In fact, many people promote how it’s a great time to be an upcoming female engineer because there are so many new opportunities opening up for us at the moment.

Ghina: I have been offered jobs before simply because I’m a female in the field. There is so much pressure on employers to have more STEM females, but it should be on parents and schools. Girls are not entering STEM fields because they’re presented to them as boring and not rewarding enough, not because they wouldn’t be able to find jobs. The industry is ready for them now, a lot more than it was a decade ago, but they’re still not coming.

What would you say to encourage students interested in STEM?

Michelle: Best to get a feel for what working in your STEM field of interest will be like. Talk to people working in that field, and get as much experience as you can, for example through volunteering, educational programs.

Pip: If I speak to engineering specifically, I would encourage students to study and work in the engineering field as it teaches you to think outside of the box and to problem solve which is not only valuable in your career but throughout life. Ten out of ten, would recommend.

Ghina: This is going to be cheesy, but seriously, just do it. And if you don’t like it, it’s fine, you don’t have to stick to it. And if you do have to stick to STEM fields, then that’s also fine, because they’re incredibly broad and inclusive and there’s something within them for everyone.

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Science

Science News: Edition 2

Science News
Submerged Landmass Zealandia a Candidate for Continent

Zealandia, a region that is two-thirds the size of Australia in the southwest Pacific Ocean, is a step closer to being recognised as a continent. It covers a nearly 5 million square kilometre, area that centres on New Zealand and encompasses New Caledonia, Norfolk Island, the Lord Howe Island group and Elizabeth and Middleton reefs.

The area is believed to have once been a part of Gondwana – a supercontinent which made up the majority of landmasses in the Southern Hemisphere. However, 94% of the landmass sunk below sea level between 60 to 80 million years ago.

A paper published in the journal of the Geological Society of America -reportedly the first robust, peer-reviewed scientific paper to define and describe Zealandia, contends it is distinct enough to constitute a separate continent.

Source: Geology Society of America Today

 

What’s the Buzz? Bees Can Learn New Tricks

Bumblebees have displayed surprising cognitive flexibility in a recent study published in Science. This ability to learn means that, despite their small brains, certain species of bees could develop completely novel behaviours in response to environmental pressures.

The bees were tested in a task that involved moving a ball to a goal for a reward after a demonstration. It was found that bees completed the task quicker if they first observed a live or model demonstrator.

Bees were also able to solve the task more efficiently than in the demonstration. Unlike the demonstrator, when given a number of balls to choose from, the bees used the ball closest to the goal. This occurred even when the demonstrator’s ball colour differed from the ball chosen.

Source: Science

 

WHO Top 12 Bacterial Threats to Human Health

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has published a list of antibiotic-resistant “priority pathogens” that pose the greatest threat to human health. This catalogue of 12 families of bacteria aims to address growing global resistance to antimicrobials by promoting the research and development of new antibiotics.

The listed bacteria are resistant to multiple antibiotics, can develop resistances to new treatments, and pass along genetic material for other bacteria to become drug-resistant. The WHO list divides these bacteria into three categories, according to the need for new antibiotics: medium, high and critical priority.

The criteria for compiling the list were: the deadliness of infections; long hospital stays required for treatment; frequency of antibiotic resistance; infectiousness; ease of prevention; treatment options remaining; level of research and development of new antibiotics.

Source: World Health Organisation

 

Brain Scans Spot Autism Signs in High-Risk Babies

MRI brain scans can adequately forecast autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnoses in ‘high-risk’ babies whose siblings have autism, according to a US Infant Brain Imaging Study.

In the study, researchers scanned the brains of 106 ‘high-risk’ infants at age 6, 12 and 24 months. They found that ASD diagnoses and behavioural signs of autism in ‘high-risk’ babies could be correlated with faster than average brain growth 8 out of 10 times.

These findings could potentially be used as an ASD diagnostic tool as neither genetic nor behaviour diagnosis methods have been successful. However, this research cannot yet be applied to a general non-‘high-risk’ population; a larger study replicating the results needs to be conducted before findings are conclusive.

Source: Nature

 

Facts are a Bit Woolly on the Woolly Mammoth Resurrection

A Harvard genetics team has spliced 45 mammoth-like edits of DNA into the Asian elephant genome using the gene-editing tool Crispr. This has been widely reported alongside headlines saying woolly mammoths could be ‘de-extinct’ in two years.

These headlines are based off a quote from Harvard geneticist Prof George Church during an American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting. Church said his team was aiming to produce a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo, an elephant embryo with mammoth traits. He speculated that it could happen in a couple of years.

The research project at its current stage has no plans to resurrect a mammoth. The project has two goals: using mammoth genes to save the endangered Asian elephant and helping to fight global warming.

Source: The Guardian, New Scientist, Medium

 

Earth’s Deepest Ocean Trenches are Highly Polluted

According to a discovery published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, deep ocean trenches, six to eleven kilometres below the surface, are 50 times more polluted with toxic and industrial chemicals than river systems in China. The pervasiveness of pollution suggests better management and monitoring of these environments are needed.

The study analysed tiny deep-sea crustaceans and found that even the deep-sea wilderness is impacted by human degradation. It also showed a strong correlation between the level of pollution on the surface and deep-sea waters.

The investigation was conducted by a team of Scottish researchers on the world’s deepest marine trenches: the Mariana Trench in the west Pacific Ocean above Australia, and the Kermadec Trench near the north-eastern tip of New Zealand.

Source: ABC

 

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