Step up scientists

It’s time scientists step up, step out, and put a stop to this catalogue of bullshit.

Scientists are a measured bunch, probably because their careers involve measuring. But those careers are themselves measured, not only in research output but also the impact of that research.

Scientists are also measured in the language they use. They’re generally cautious, sticking to supporting their statements with quantitive evidence - “In our research, 21% of respondents were shown to…” That type of thing. They prefer not to step out of their comfort zone of measured responses.

Right now we need scientists to stop doing that, and to start speaking with a commoner’s tongue. The media is awash with all manner of bizarre claims about Covid-19, and in the absence of firm, authoritative correction, those claims are taking root in the minds of people desperate for

Dark times ahead

We haven’t seen the full effect of Covid-19 yet, and when we do, fingers of blame will hone in without due diligence.

I’m going to put my boot in. This thing’s not over; not by a long shot.

When lockdown is over and the coronavirus takes hold in densely-packed townships and informal settlements, running rampant amongst those denied the luxuries of isolation and working from home, it’s going to enjoy its second breath.

And when people start dying by the dozens, even hundreds - and they will - South Africans will look for someone to blame. Social media has thrown up potential candidates: whites or ‘the rich’ - the two terms are apparently interchangeable.

But surely, that wouldn’t happen? After all, such claims are irrational. 

Think again. In an 

The gossamer wisdom of ‘they’

How can I tell if you’re spreading fake news about Covid-19?

Simple. I ask you one question: Have you ever commented about Covid-19 using the phrase ‘They say that…’? If you have, then, sorry, but you’re probably guilty.

If someone comments with some measure of authority on something using the phrase ‘They say that…’, and I’m within earshot, my reaction is to ask, “Sorry, who are ‘they’?”. It irritates my wife, who I suspect continues to use the phrase simply to return the favour.

There’s a reason for my pernickety inquisition: In journalism, significant value is placed on the credibility of the source of any story or comment within a story. It’s why journalists are very protective of their sources.

If, say, a story breaks about some cutting-edge research, and I have the lead researcher on

What you’re not told about Covid-19 infections

Right now, numbers of infected persons are being bandied about in news media as part of the breathless coverage of Covid-19. Those numbers are meaningless without context.

Let me explain. If the media report, say, 500 Covid-19 infections, my first reaction as a science journalist is to ask how many people were tested. It’s an issue of maths and basic logic.

If, say, 100 people are tested and ten of those test positive, the only thing we can deduce is that ten people - or 10% - of those tested, at the moment they were tested, were positive. That’s it. We can’t extrapolate it to a broader population. 

Let’s say a week later, the number of people tested positive is now 20; has the rate of infection doubled? Not necessarily. It depends on how many people were tested. If, to get

The maverick who got us to wash our hands

The reason you’re encouraged to wash your hands in the face of Covid-19 may seem logical now, but for centuries it wasn’t. It took one of science’s most remarkable - and tragic - mavericks to show the extreme value of a simple act. His story is worth telling.

Here it is, in an extract from my book “Tim Noakes: The Quiet Maverick”:

When science drops the ball: The uncomfortable truth about science

Unfortunately, because scientific research drives innovation in fields such as medicine, pharmaceuticals, armaments, technology, agriculture, sport and nutrition, it can provide significant financial and political leverage. It has therefore attracted more than its fair share of villains: scientists misrepresenting their findings to fall in line with the demands of their sponsors; research organisations colouring their work to capture

Don’t blame Covid-19

Alright, I’ve had enough…I have to say something. As a science journalist and writer, I’ve been keeping an eye on the coronavirus with a mix of fascination and grim satisfaction. Fascination, because such viruses are rare, and grim satisfaction because the blind panic taking hold is what happens when qualified science journalists are cut from the news equation. Let’s get the science stuff out the way: Firstly, this coronavirus is so new there’s still confusion over what it’s called. The virus itself is called SARS-CoV-2 because it’s related to the SARS coronavirus we saw in 2002-2003. It’s sometimes referred to as the ‘novel coronavirus’, meaning ‘new’, because it was only identified at the end of last year. The World Health Organisation refers to ‘COVID-19’. That’s not the virus, but the disease that develops from the virus - an acute respiratory illness akin to a nasty bout of flu.

Interview with David O’Sullivan, KayaFM

On the morning of Tuesday 20 June, I had the opportunity to chat with David O'Sullivan, breakfast show host on KayaFM, 2017 SA Radio Station of the Year, about my latest book, 'Tim Noakes: The Quiet Maverick'. David is a former colleague of mine from Talk Radio 702. More importantly for me, he is a highly skilled broadcaster with a remarkable intellect, a devilish wit, and a voracious appetite for reading. The result was a well-informed and highly engaging chat that could have gone on for hours. Unfortunately, the punishing dictates of breakfast radio meant that we had to pack as much as possible into 8 minutes. Luckily, we're both seasoned pros. In the pic, David is the distinguished gentleman on the left, I'm the one with the hairy face. You can hear the interview here. [Give it a second or two to load on your browser].  

Blade Runner’s lesson for legacy media

Abstract: The future for mainstream media is in the sci-fi epic 'Blade Runner'... In the opening scenes of Ridley Scott's iconic sci-fi epic Blade Runner, we are hit with his vision of Los Angeles in 2019. It's not pretty. Scott's city of angels is dark and ominous, choked by the fumes from scores of refineries; the constant bursts of flames from the sentinel steel chimneys slicing the smoke that blankets the city in otherwise perpetual darkness. And it never stops raining. The cityscape is a matte of sombre skyscrapers pressed shoulder to shoulder, at their feet the citizens scurry in and out of a frenzied jumble of Asian bazaars trying to eke out a business amidst the forgotten filth. When he made the film 35 years ago, Scott believed the skies over the city a few years from now would be criss-crossed by flying vehicles.

A call for a change in palliative care

Abstract: A radical rethink is necessary around the provision of palliative care. In a world riven by intense religious protectionism, political disunion and cultural variance, it's hard to imagine a perception or opinion that is shared by all humans. But there is something: an aversion to pain and the fear of death. Yet this is the calling for those providing palliative care, a currently specialised area of medicine that, it seems, requires profound debate, if not for ourselves, then for the sake of our parents. Palliative care is something of a mystery because its meaning is enwrapped in misinterpretation. For most laypersons familiar with the term it refers to that care given to those diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, mainly cancer, and who are at the end of their life. It is something provided by hospices and other organisations when doctors have declared there is nothing

Crowd behaviour: united they stand

Abstract: Is there a link between the Arab Spring uprisings and the behaviour of market traders?...

From Cairo to Tunis, demonstrators united by emotion, purpose and social media gather in their thousands to topple long-standing despotic regimes. Across the UK, crowds of a different temperament surge through summer streets, leaving behind them a trail of destruction. Meanwhile, in the world's financial centres, bond traders linked by the internet behave like a "virtual" crowd as they sell the securities of increasingly embattled eurozone members, leading yields to soar.

The crowd was at the heart of some of the most memorable events of 2011, demonstrating the power of the group driven by common identity and capacity for decision-making. They are classic examples of the herd mentality - the shared and self-regulated thinking of individuals in a group - an area of study popular with sociologists and