Tag Archives: ethics

States of Emergency: What You Should Know, and What You Should Do

First: information. Check here for a map of the fire and its spread; monitor the Rural Fire Service (RFS) for updates and advisories. Listen to ABC radio for breaking news if you are in the car. And please, please, be careful. You cannot salvage your ruined property and life if you are dead.

There are currently 58 fires burning across New South Wales, of which 14 are out of control. The fires have taken out hundreds of homes and killed one person, with continued temperatures and winds making this fire season the most brutal in 45 years. The largest fire, at Lithgow, has taken out 40,000 hectares land, and is on course to merge with others fires in the region to create a mega-fire: a fire that “exhibits fire behaviour characteristics that exceed all efforts at control, regardless of the type, kind, or number of fire fighting resources deployed.”

Premier Barry O’Farrell has declared a state-wide state of emergency in response to the fires, and I want to explain what that entails. States of emergency are often contentious and misunderstood in civil life as—especially in this country—we aren’t used to wars, pandemics, or catastrophes on our shores. Yet understanding the state of emergency will help people understand what they should and should not do.

States of emergency in NSW are described by division 4 of the State Emergency and Rescue Management Response Act of 1989. Under the Act, police and emergency workers can evacuate people and destroy or appropriate property, or cut off power, in aid of fighting the fires and protecting public safety. It is an offence to exercise noncompliance or disobedience with personnel engaged in the emergency response, and responders are authorised to use “reasonable force” to achieve their goals. Responders, moreover, are not held liable for acts undertaken in good faith and in aid of the response effort. The Act also contains provisions for people affected by the emergency response to claim compensation on property damaged by responders.

The first thing is to understand the threat that justifies the state of emergency. We’ve had major fires in Australia since time out of mind, but these are the worst in NSW in almost half a century. Further, a mega-fire is not an out of control fire; it is an uncontrollable fire. This type of threat necessitates a response above and beyond typical fire fighting, and it is that need that justifies a state of emergencies.

This isn’t martial law, however, and you do have rights. There are lots of provisions within the Act to ensure compensation should you be affected by an emergency action. However, noncompliance is a crime; obstructing responders puts you, responders, and whole communities in jeopardy. Complying in an emergency sucks for everyone—responders don’t want to be in this position any more than you—but the risks to everyone should you not comply are immense. If you feel you’ve been coerced in bad faith, you should definitely sue for compensation. Just make sure you do it alive and well after the fires, and not posthumously.

Fire fighting is not necessarily something that is subject to intuitive explanations, and the expertise of those responding should be respected. Australia has some of the best people in the world when it comes to fire prevention, preparation, and management. Don’t undervalue their skills, and listen to their directions.

The 2013-2014 fire season is incredibly dangerous, and the potential costs for not aiding emergency responders through your cooperation are very high. Hopefully, they’ll never have to use the powers they’ve been granted; responders know that the longer they have to fight the more chance they have of dying, and they want this over as much as you do. So know what your rights are and how to enforce them, but also know the right time to do so.

If you want to help, get informed and follow the instructions over at the RFS website. Include your pets. And if you can, check the map and stay well away from the fire zones.

My dad’s partner lives out at Pheasant’s Nest, which is in the path of the fires in the Southern Highlands. Last time I heard they were prepared and still safe, but the next couple of days will be tense. My thoughts go out to them.

Professionalism in Science Writing

If you’re here, there is a good chance you know what I’m talking about. Bora Zivkovic, former editor at Scientific American and cofounder of the ScienceOnline conference, sexually harassed a number of women: of those who named Zivkovic and identified themselves, we know Monica Byrne, Hannah Waters, and Kathleen Raven. The circle of Twitter I occupy has veritably exploded with the news, and I suspect will—should—continue to discuss and work with these revelations for some time to come.

Kelly Hills, writing about biologist Dr. Danielle Lee being called a whore for refusing to write for Biology Online for free, mentioned a post of mine on science writing, authority, and responsibility. Considering the events of the last week, it seems an apt time to revisit issues of authority and power in the science writing community.

Talking with Thomas Levenson and Joanne Manaster, I claimed that I thought Zivkovic is, and given what we know, was bad at his job. This proved divisive, and I want to paint a clearer picture about what I mean in light of an idea building from authority and responsibility: professionalism.

Of Professionals and Professionalism

Science writing—journalism, blogging, communication—is an essential activity promoting a moral good. The scientific enterprise promotes value both as it generates knowledge, and allows that knowledge to be used to improve people’s lives. That knowledge, however, only realises a small part of its value when kept wrapped up in papers and conference proceedings. We need good ways of disseminating scientific knowledge, in order to promote science and its benefits, inform citizens of what happens to part of their taxes, and promote general education (which has a whole suite of follow-on benefits).  Science writing sits at the intersection between the lab coat and the person in the street; at its best it can make real differences to people’s lives.

When I look at science writers as a group, I see people pursuing the morally important activity of disseminating of scientific knowledge. They use a special set of skills: I challenge anyone who has tried to write to deny the significance of the skill of writing well. They teach each other the tools of their trade through collaboration, mentorship, conferences and social networks. And finally, they need to be autonomous to pursue their trade.

In my line of work, we call those people professionalsThe term is typically used to describe doctors, lawyers, and (historically) the clergy, but journalism is very much like a profession. Science writing fits even better into this paradigm, by virtue of its subject matter.

What Zivkovic did, however, was unprofessional in the extreme. Now, not every act of wrongdoing by a professional makes them a bad professional—a doctor cheating on their spouse doesn’t make them a bad doctor. Rather, as Hills has already noted, Zivkovic abused his power: the power he had as mentor and gatekeeper to the science communication world. By diminishing the self-worth of people vulnerable to him—by virtue of the role he occupied in their professional lives—he acted contrary to the institution in which he resided.

Zivkovic has also harmed the community at large—the “collateral damage” of which Janet Stemwedel writes. That, to me, is one of the lessons of the  #ripplesofdoubt hashtag. Even if Zivkovic’s abuses of power didn’t pervert his judgements about the quality of writers and their work (and there have been serious questions asked about the degree to which it has), the mere possibility is enough to cause havoc within the community. People who abuse their power change the communities they inhabit as much by their actions as by their omissions; Zivkovic’s transgressions were a corruption of the role he held. This is what made him bad at his job.

The Road Ahead

The revelations about Zivkovic’s actions have opened a wider conversation about the overall direction of the science writing community. Chad Orzel recently pointed out that science blogging has become “less a medium than an institution;” he’s also pointed out that ScienceOnline has become caught in between the image that “everyone is equal in the big happy Science Online family,” and the power structures that certainly exist within the community. Hills has also noted that the image of ScienceOnline as a group of friends hanging out actually make inclusiveness more difficult. The question of where ScienceOnline goes in the wake of Zivkovic’s actions has dovetailed into a larger discussion about what ScienceOnline should ultimately look like.

I believe that incorporating professionalism will improve the community’s ability to hold perpetrators accountable, and secure against further harassment. It will also help focus questions about what the community should strive to be. As ScienceOnline looks to continue its mission—and Scientific American, I sincerely hope, does a bit of soul-searching of its own—knowing what to fix can be aided by reference to what great practice must look like.

A vibrant professional culture in science writing, to me, means offering a diverse and inclusive set of perspectives. It also means having the processes to foster and encourage individuals with those perspectives to pursue both the deep knowledge required to write excellent pieces, and the tools to make that knowledge entertaining and accessible. It means—especially in the context of freelancers, who are incredibly vulnerable to abuses of power—protecting individuals from harassment by others within the community. It means establishing a stable and reliable platform for those harassed, assaulted, or otherwise harmed by others to raise their voices with the knowledge that they will be believed, and the matter fully and compassionately investigated; a platform that can, where necessary, criticise and sanction the leaders of the community. It means people in the community knowing—again, and with confidence—that success or failure in their field is judged on the quality of the work, not the unprofessional standards of the gatekeepers.

All of those things are necessary. Remove one, and you damage the edifice on which people’s livelihood’s rest.

It will take time, but individuals are already moving to offer suggestions on what comes next, such as Maryn McKenna’s thoughtful analysis of where ScienceOnline should go from here. Understanding the different elements of professionalism in science writing allows people looking for solutions to ask “does this allow us—the community—to better serve the needs of our members in fulfilling our professional mandate?” ScienceOnline, to their credit, already has a mission that loosely tracks this professional model. I think that an enduring legacy for ScienceOnline would be to build the safety of its members not simply as a separate policy, but as a central feature of this mission.

To finish, I want to acknowledge that Monica Byrne, Hannah Waters, and Kathleen Raven have done something truly heroic by sharing their stories, and bringing to light this unconscionable abuse of power. I’ve spent my words here on the institution that is science writing, but I want to make clear that any critique of institutions should begin with the recognition of personal stories. At great risk to themselves these remarkable people have exposed corruption within their community. That’s true professionalism.

Who is responsible for all those cranks?

So a running theme in my work is responsibility for communication—how we understand our obligations to communicate truthfully, accurately, and with the ends we seek. So it was with great interest that I watched Suzanne E. Franks (TSZuska), Kelly Hills (Rocza), and Janet D. Stemwedel (Docfreeride) hold a conversation in the wake of Virgina Heffernan’s “Why I’m a creationist.” I’m not going to spoil the amazing train-wreck that is Heffernan’s post; if you’d like to see some of the fireworks that ensued you should head across to watch the fallout as Thomas Levenson and Carl Zimmer got stuck in.

The conversation between Franks, Hills, and Stemwedel is interesting, I think, for the way they navigated Heffernan’s alleged status as a Foucauldian, and how this linked up with issues with postmodernism more generally. Postmodernism is an area I’ll leave to the experts above; what interests me is how we connect the bad apples, the cranks, and the downright malevolent with broader criticism of a field.

I’ll work with my own field, the analytic tradition of moral and political philosophy. It has all sorts of bad apples and problematic characters: we seem destined (the horror) to include people like Robert Nozick. Now I am about as anti-Nozick as it gets, but I can’t deny that he was an American political philosopher from the same cohort as John Rawls; someone whose theories are not so important to me as is one of his students, whom I count as a friend and mentor. I feel I have to kind of have to grind my teeth and allow Nozick as part of the “family,” albeit not a part I much like.

But do I have to own responsibility for every obnoxious kid that reads Nozick? And takes him seriously? Yikes. That sounds terrible. Yet perhaps in some cases I do—if there is a professor out there teaching that Anarchy, State and Utopia is God’s Divine Word, I’m probably stuck with their students as a product of my field’s “sins.” 

I will hang my head cop the criticism that analytic philosophy has produced a frightening amount of first-rate assholes in its time.

Will I, however, take responsibility for right-wing libertarians and their fascination with Adam Smith’s “invisible hand?” I’m hesitant—primarily because most libertarians just casually gloss over The Theory of Moral Sentiments and run straight for The Wealth of Nations, and that just seems like intellectual laziness and cherry-picking at its worst. I can be held for bad writing; bad theories improperly rebuffed; or teaching that is antiquated, bigoted, or just wrongheaded. But it is much harder, I think, to say that I am responsible because a whole group of people found it inconvenient to read the other half of a body of work.

These, I think demonstrate a (non-exhaustive) series of relations we might have with certain elements of our intellectual movements and traditions, who use common language to achieve results that don’t sit right with us.

We could, of course, just reject that someone is properly part of our practice. This is, I’ve no doubt, as much political as it is a question of whether someone’s practice possesses the necessary or sufficient conditions to be classed as part of one’s group—we want to be able to say that some practices that take our name are simply Doing It Wrong. Yet we don’t want to allow just anyone to get away with that at any time–it removes a powerful and often legitimate critique of being able to point at an element of some set of people and go “they are a problem, and they are indicative of some larger issue.”

Another way we could approach this is to say “well that’s an instance of Bad X, but Bad X is not the same as X being bad.” That’s an important part of managing a field’s boundaries. The problem, of course, comes in identifying at what point instances of Bad X become signs of X being bad. My co-supervisor, Seumas Miller, has done work on institutional corruption that I think would be interesting to apply here, but that’s a paper in itself.

Finally, we could acknowledge and go “that’s not just an instance of bad X, but a sign that there is something wrong with the way we practice or communicate X. We should fix that.” I’ve talked before about the need for responsibility in science writing, and that applies to my field as much as any other.

Which of these is Heffernan? Is she Just Doing It Wrong, a bad po-mo (but not evidence of po-mo being bad), or a sign of something more problematic? I don’t know. Franks, Hills, and Stemwedel, I think, cover all three possibilities. Maybe Heffernan is a combination, a hybrid, or something altogether than these three distinctions I’ve made.

I’ve thrown the original chat up in Storify for anyone who wants to see the source I’m working from. It has been edited inexpertly, but I hope not leaving anything important out (though I did leave out an entertaining discussion on Foucault and Emo-pop that you’ll have to track down on Twitter). You can find it here.

David Morrison and Professionalism in the Military

I was going to write tonight about the “slippery slope” argument, but that got derailed by some quality television

Tonight, on SBS’ The Observer Effect,, the most excellent Ellen Fanning interviewed Lieutenant General David Morrison. Morrison is the Chief of the Australian Army, and has recently achieved a modicum of fame for his brutal video in which he speaks out against the systemic culture of violence against women in the Australian Armed Forces:

On all operations, female soldiers and officers have proven themselves worthy of the best traditions of the Australian Army. They are vital to us maintaining our capability, now and into the future. If that does not suit you, then get out.

The interview was an excellent piece of work by Fanning, and a great way to experience Morrison in a way that carries though his outrage and no-holds barred fury, and commitment to change.

Three of Morrison’s responses, I thought, were really significant.[1] First, Morrison demonstrated, by way of actually attending to the experiences of female service members, that he had abandoned the time-honoured explanation that the systemic mistreatment service members by those in positions of privilege, be that by virtue of their rank, race, or gender. Though holding one’s breath for radical change is unwise, it is certainly heartening to hear a senior official that this isn’t simply a matter of disciplining offenders. This is a systemic issue, and one that needs to be dealt with in a systemic manner.

I taught at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) in the fallout of the 2011 Skype Scandal, and encountered a widespread belief among the students at ADFA that violence against women was only about individuals, rather than being an issue of culture. It was a frustrating experience; that Morrison talks about violence against women in the ADF as a systemic issue is great to see.

Next, Morrison critiqued the “ANZAC myth,” noting that the image of the Australian soldier as a white, male, ocker larrikin is outdated. In a speech at the UN International Women’s Day Conference (written by Lt Col Cate McGregor), Morrison stated:

…the Anzac legend – as admirable as it is – has become something of a double-edged sword. Many Australians have an idealised image of the Australian soldier as a rough hewn country lad – invariably white – a larrikin who fights best with a hangover and who never salutes officers, especially the Poms. This is a pantomime caricature. Every soldier is Mel Gibson in Gallipoli and frankly it undermines our recruitment from some segments of society and breeds a dangerous complacency about how professional and sophisticated soldiering really is. [2]

It is a powerful reminder that the modern Australian military is sophisticated, professional, and diverse, with an increasingly sensitive set of operational goals. Our armed forces—including the Reserves—are engaged in operations as much humanitarian and policing as they are soldiering. Our service simply cannot rely on its old image, born of a time when being an Australian soldier meant dying for a far away power’s strategic desires.

This dovetails into the point Morrison makes most forcefully—in the interview and  the video—that eradicating violence against women[3] is a matter of institutional integrity. Any professional institution that seeks to represent, as the military does, the interests of a nation must fulfil that role or be deemed deficient as an institution. Morrison made it clear that being unable to treat any member of Australian society with respect is against the national interest. He also spoke about rape as a weapon of war, and made it clear that there was no place for sexual assault of any kind, in any capacity, in the ADF.

Making that connection is significant, because Morrison is stating that if you perpetuate or condone sexual violence against women as a member of the ADF, you are not just a reprehensible human being. You are deficient as a soldier. Respect is and ought to be a hallmark of the military profession, and anyone who can’t manage that is a failed professional. That’s a gutsy claim for Morrison to be mounting, but I’m glad to see it made, and by someone in his position.

It’s a great interview, I’m hoping it makes curriculum this coming semester. Let’s hope the words turn to actions, and some changes get made.


  1. These aren’t in order they appeared, but as I’m remembering them.  ↩
  2. Speech at the UN International Women’s Day Conference, New York, 8–9 March 2013.  ↩
  3. Morrison also mentioned violence against people of colour in his interview, though due to the content of the video that made him famous, the interview was primarily about violence against women.  ↩

A World of Trouble: Untangling the Politics and Promise of Nuclear Power

This post was originally meant to appear over at The Curious Wavefunction as part of a debate between myself and Ash about the politics and perils of nuclear power. I was somewhat dismayed when I woke up this morning (timezones, remember) to find my response had been bracketed by editorial and response from Ash without my consent or knowledge. Ash agreed to take the post down, and my response without accompanying editorial is below. It is worth noting that, for me, this cuts to the heart of what I wrote on yesterday, in that when one has a platform—and here, editorial control over subject matter—one has to be exceedingly careful about how their input frames content.

In this specific matter, to take what I as an author consider quite a strong disagreement and begin my entry with a statement saying a) this is only a disagreement of degree rather than kind (as if that made the disagreement lesser), and b) that degree was not substantial, undermines the position I put forward here without giving me adequate room to respond. As such, I present my view here without editorial, and Ash’s response I trust will be in the usual place in due course.

On Tuesday, Ash over at Curious Wavefunction blogged about “Pandora’s Promise,” a new documentary about the intersection between nuclear power and the environmental movement.  I haven’t had a chance to see the documentary because despite the internet, Australia is still very, very far away in movie-miles. But Ash raises a number of interesting points about the state of nuclear power—and the institutions that surround nuclear power—that are worth talking about and investigating a little further.  In the interests of disclosure, I am pro-nuclear in principle, but I think that  a lot has to be done before nuclear becomes more credible as a solution to anything.

Ash is definitely onto something when he talks about how risk in nuclear science misunderstood, and what actually happens to people exposed to radiation beyond what we experience every day. He notes the complexity of assessing the impact of radiation: dosage, chemical variation, method of contact, decay products, and decay paths all create different results. Radiation physics is a menagerie of causes and effects, and it is too quick to make comparisons simply in terms of the quantity activity one is exposed to.

The problem is, this cuts both ways. The reason there is little—but not noevidence that low levels of radiation increase cancer risk is that safety standards have been kept high. But the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and that uncertainty, not to mention the costs of finding out, has to be factored into our assessment of nuclear power.  Moreover, to claim that radiation is all about context, and then give examples of contexts where radiation is safe, is somewhat problematic.

That lead us into the next problem—new reactor designs, even those that show promise are still a ways off, and have some serious hurdles to contend with.  Liquid salt plants and so-called “breeder” reactors have been plagued with problems from their inception; they are not new ideas at all, but rather old ideas long in wait of feasible and successful engineering. Liquid salts run at exceedingly high temperatures, and may utilise highly reactive metals like sodium as cooling systems. The corrosive and highly flammable sodium is difficult to contain and can wear away containment vessels at a surprising speed.  The Monju reactor in Japan, for example, has been plagued by controversy and safety concerns for almost 50 years. This isn’t simply technological lock-in; making breeders cost effective, safe, and efficient enough to go into widespread use is and continues to be an immense technical challenge.

Most Gen-IV reactors will rely heavily on plutonium, as it is a far more efficient method of causing fission, and arises from the byproducts of irradiating uranium. But this introduces a new, unstated element of risk—In addition to being radioactive plutonium is incredibly toxic. It binds in calcium sites around the body such as bone marrow, and has long decay chains comprising of varied intensities of radioactivity. Storage of plutonium for civilian fuel projects presents a proliferation risk, a health and safety risk, and an environmental risk.

Now, I use “risk” here because the obvious reply from Ash, or anyone else, is that compared to the costs of not  pursuing nuclear power, the above dangers are deemed more than acceptable. In “Pandora’s Promise,” and Ash’s post, the costs take the form of anthropogenic climate change, and the costs of that clearly outweigh any costs of nuclear power.

Again, I want to make it clear that I believe that climate change is happening, it is human-influenced, and the costs of not acting are likely to be severe. It is just that in using such an—admittedly very real and scary—extreme cost without qualification as the reason to pursue nuclear power skews our risk assessment somewhat.  It is the same type of cost that motivates arguments for geoengineering on a large scale or human enhancement so that our bodies are better adapted to survive the pernicious effects of climate change. With a big enough catastrophe, anything is fair game.

But nuclear power isn’t simply a scientific or engineering puzzle. Its main drivers, in the end, have not been public fear—plenty of nuclear weapons have been built despite opposition. Part of what stymies nuclear power is that the science and technology have been tightly controlled from the outset. This has led to a dearth of skills in the right areas: many scientists who might have otherwise contributed to the nuclear sciences in civilian matters were either snatched up by the weapons industry, or denied clearance to work with fissile materials.

Further, the strict nature of nuclear secrecy, among other regulatory levers, creates an environment in which—even once civilian nuclear energy became a plausible pursuit—vested interests had the ability to control the market in all sorts of problematic ways.  According to one source, today 10 utilities own 70% of the total nuclear capacity of the USA.

Changing these institutions, allowing innovation to happen securely, and introducing competition into the nuclear marketplace are as much social and political changes as they are technical.  These are some of the very real challenges to wider adoption of nuclear power, and these changes, I fear, are where we the industry may falter.

This shouldn’t be a deterrent, but it outlines the challenges associated with the nuclear power industry. The clicks heard by Szilard and Fermi on that fateful day in 1942 in Chicago had potential, and still do.  Everything after, I contend, has been as much hindrance as help. The truth about nuclear energy, if there is any, is that it is as much a complex political case as it is a scientific one. Ash does, to his credit, note this, but I think he downplays precisely the type of gap we are talking about. It would be a shame to let the promise of nuclear power pass untapped. Yet one only has to look at the state of the nuclear energy industry today to know that the current system needs a radical overhaul, and that will require a significant amount of capital and civic participation. When we consider the cost-benefit analysis of a project, political costs have to figure in somewhere.  And right now in the world of nuclear energy, those costs are exceedingly high.