Category Archives: Science


Via Dr Isis, a fascinating look at global flight patterns over 24 hours. It really is worth 72 seconds of your life to watch this.

I’m fascinated by the patterns – the explosion of lights as the day advances over North America and Europe, and the waves of busy-ness back and forth across the Tasman. You can see all those wretched pre-dawn departures from and late night arrivals into New Zealand, so scheduled to enable airlines to cram four flights into a “day.”

It also put me in mind of the Astronomy Picture of the Day showing Earth at night. (Click here to get the best version of the picture.)

800px-Earthlights_dmspImage source: WikiCommons

It’s not so much the presence as the absence of light that is interesting; in Africa, you can see the development along the Nile, and then the great blank across most of the continent. Global flight patterns show many of the same gaps.

Just so we know what to think is carrying a story about research on sediment cores from a small Arctic lake. The research is peer reviewed, and seems to offer some fairly compelling evidence in support of the anthropogenic global warming thesis. (I’m being cautious with my language here, because I am not a scientist.)

But it seems that can’t just offer the story, and leave its readers to think about its significance. For them, it’s not proof, but ‘proof’. [link]


Too much Fox in the air at

Of course! It’s teh girleez’ fault!

I’ve been muttering about this to myself for days, wondering would I / wouldn’t I write about it. After all, the person I am about to criticise is someone I respect, and whose work I enjoy. But really, Poneke? Is it all teh girleez fault?

A few years back, Poneke delivered an address to the Sceptics Society conference, which is now posted on his blog. It’s a fascinating piece, showing that our mainstream media is far more sceptical about Western medicine and medical science than it is about new age nonsense, like homeopathy and iridology and feng shui. I find that a worrying trend too – why on earth is all this non-scientific crap getting a free pass? So I agree with the basic concerns raised by Poneke in his post. Moreover, I choose Western medicine over acupuncture, herbalism and prayer, every time. As for psychics and astrologers and other such charlatans who prey on other people’s tragedies, don’t get me started.

It’s when Ponoke stops reporting and analysing, and starts blaming, that I get upset. Why, he says, does the MSM give this kind of nonsense a free pass?

His answer – it’s all because there’s more girlies writing these days. He starts with the women’s mags, pointing out that they are full of stories about the alleged efficacy of the various alternative charms and spells. From there, he deduces that women are taken in by this stuff, and they like it. And that leads to saying that women journalists must believe in it. On top of that, it turns out that journalism is being feminised, even in the big newspapers. So the poor silly chookies have taken their uncritical belief in witchcraft and spread it right through the media.

The trouble is, Poneke’s analysis is based on what was published between September 2003 and August 2004 in 13 daily and weekly newspapers, including all the ‘big’ newspapers in New Zealand. Whatever the gender makeup of the newsrooms, aren’t most newspaper editors men? I know that the Sunday Star Times is edited by a woman, but as far as I can recall, during the time that Poneke used for his analysis, most of the other big newspapers were, and indeed still are, edited by men. So there must be a whole lot of mennies who have been brainwashed by the women’s mags too.

Of course, there is a much simpler explanation as to why the new age stuff gets this non-critical acceptance, even in the MSM. It sells. Rather than blaming the women writers for these pieces, it might simply be better to follow the money. Who would bother publishing a piece on feng shui if you couldn’t also sell the eyeballs to the advertisers?

That of course begs the question – why does this stuff sell? There must be an audience for it, or the women’s mags wouldn’t be full of it, and neither would the pieces in the MSM be so silly.

Poneke gives one highly plausible reason; following the cervical cancer debacle at National Women’s Hospital, many women, and presumably many men too, became deeply sceptical about doctors’ “authority”. But I think he misses another plausible explanation, to do with the way that women acquire and pass on information. And it’s not by listening to words of wisdom delivered from on high by people who can’t be bothered treating you with respect. Blue Milk has some words of advice for medical specialists, enthusiastically endorsed and added to by her commenters. Here’s the thing; if doctors treat you with contempt, brush aside your questions, tell you to just believe in them and trust them, and all the while, you know of far too many cases where trust in doctors has been rewarded with on-going contempt, then just how likely are you to go to them for further information, to feel that if you ask a question, it will be answered in a way that you can understand, without at the same time making you feel that you are stupid and small. In recent years, there’s been plenty of noise about the need to get men to see their doctors more often. I’m guessing that one of the reasons that men don’t like seeing doctors is not just that they don’t like admitting to ill health, but also that they don’t like being talked down to, and patronised. Their response? Avoid doctors. But what do women do in the same situation? Talk to each other. Gossip – pass on information and ideas. And that’s exactly the function that women’s magazines serve. Women connect with each other through them, get and pass on information, in an environment of equals.

So I think we can look deeper than the silly girlies when it comes to trying to explain why the MSM is so accepting to alternative medicines. I think that the explanations lie in the money trail, and in the failure of doctors and health professionals to treat women with respect, instead of treating them as a problem to be solved.

(As an aside, I’m not even so sure that the women’s mags are full of it. Last time I read one of them, at the hairdressers’, I found it was full of diet and weight pieces. Every celeb story commented on whether the person was looking too fat or too thin. And guess what? According to the mag, not a single person was looking good. I felt quite ill reading it.)

I see misogyny lurking in Poneke’s causal analysis. I wish he had dug a little further, thought a little harder about what might underpin the women’s mags, taken the time to look at the gender of people editing papers, not just writing them, and followed the money, rather than just blaming women. Of course I will continue to read and recommend Poneke to other people; I wouldn’t bother with this sort of analysis of some of the material presented on some of the other blogs around town. And no doubt he has plenty of issues with stuff that I write. In this case, however, I think he has just gotten it wrong.

So what finally pushed me to post on this? This charming bit of misogyny from Tumeke, where a woman is reviled for daring to have a baby. No mention of the baby’s father, who might just be held responsible too. No attempt to understand just how extraordinarily difficult it might be to care for a child in this woman’s circumstances. No idea that the woman might have had the baby because you know, that’s what people do. No – she is immediately dumped on for what the writer assumes to be her motives. What a great strategy – assign a motive to someone, then attack them for having that motivation. Fantastic. And there seems to be a nasty intersection of racism and sexism here too – would the writer have had a go at a white woman in quite the same way? I find it very odd, not least because the writers on Tumeke are often outspoken about racism, and the extent to which issues aren’t issues that the world should be concerned about if they only affect brown people.

Then there’s this bit of misogyny from The New Republic, analysed on Shakesville, and elsewhere in the feminist blogosphere.

And from Poneke himself, a nasty little jab at women. Not something he said himself, but did he really need to report this tired old sexism?

On top of that, Lyn wrote a nice piece about the web as menz space. Time to claim our space in it, she says.

So all my buttons have been pushed. And indeed, the fact that I sat on it for a few days, hesitating about whether or not to comment on it says something apropos of Lyn’s piece, all by itself.

We already knew ‘baby brain’ is real

From the files of obvious research comes the news that women really do experience ‘baby brain’. Seems we need to have official scientific research to confirm something that women have known for a long, long time – that during pregnancy and after pregnancy, our thinking and memory may not be quite as sharp as usual. It seems that our “executive cognitive control” diminishes, and we find it harder to process and remember new information. The researchers suggest that the likely cause is sleep deprivation.

What gets me is how women’s experience is only validated when there’s a scientific study to confirm it. Couldn’t they just believe us?

I can think of another reason why women might experience “baby brain”. It’s not just that you are sleep deprived. You are engaged in the tremendous process of producing and nurturing a new human being. Your focus goes inward during pregnancy, and then shifts entirely to the new little being. If you are a first time mum, you are engaged in a huge learning process, working out how to care for a baby, and reorganising your entire life around that baby. A similar learning process goes on with second and third babies. You are already engaged in an enormous task of understanding and processing and remembering novel information.

The researchers are telling us that women’s “executive cognitive control” is impaired pre and post pregnancy. May I suggest that it is not “impaired” at all. It is just directed elsewhere.

Total eclipse

Many years ago, when we were aged 5, 6 and 7, my parents and my uncle got my brothers and me out of bed to watch a total eclipse of the moon. I have no memory whatsoever of the eclipse, but I do remember the thrill of being out of bed in the middle of the night.

In the spirit of continuing a fine family tradition, I got my elder daughter out of bed to watch last night’s total lunar eclipse. I woke her up at about 9.45pm, just before the moon moved entirely into the earth’s shadow. As is customary in Wellington when spectacular celestial events are happening, the sky was cloudy, but the winds were fast moving, and there were breaks in the cloud, so we saw the moon several times, each time just a little darker. Eventually, we saw the last glimmering of light on what was from our perspective, the top right hand side of the moon. By then the moon had become, in my daughter’s words, “a beautiful rust colour, a bit like bricks.”

I tucked her back into bed, and went on with my work. Later on, the cloud cover blew away, and I could see the moon getting darker and darker. Eventually the light started to return in a shining gleam, and as I went to bed myself, very late, I watched the moon slip free of the last of the shadow. Wonderful.

I hope my daughter remembers it.

There’s a picture of the eclipsed moon here.

Update: Scoop has some fabulous pictures here

Women don’t like pink after all

After pointing you in the direction of an article in The Economist which describes a scientific study shoiwng that women really do prefer pink, there’s a thorough debunking of it on Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog.

My first retraction….

Women really do like pink

Or so The Economist says.