Skeptic News: Don't Look Up! (actually, you should), and more...

NZ Skeptics Newsletter

Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.


This week I discuss the popular Netflix movie Don’t Look Up, ponder the association between the holiday road toll and drownings, celebrate the continuing success of the JWST, and take a look at the abuse that prominent scientists are being subjected to.

I’ve been on holiday for the past three weeks but tomorrow I'll be returning to work, as I expect many will also do so. Hopefully your holiday break, if you had one, has been enjoyable.

Oh, and in breaking news, as I write this Sunday evening, it seems that Brian Tamaki has attended another protest, seemingly in breach of his bail conditions. I wonder how many chances he's going to be given!

Craig Shearer

Don't Look Up


If you’re a Netflix subscriber, you’ll be able to watch a movie that’s been the topic of some discussion in science circles. That is Don’t Look Up - a satirical look at science communication. The movie’s been out for a little while now, so I feel justified in discussing the plot - so SPOILER ALERT!

In Don’t Look Up, a pair of US astronomers, played by Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio, discover that a comet, at least 5km wide, is on a collision path with Earth, and there’s just 6 months until impact. Such an impact would cause a planet-wide extinction event.

They present their findings to the president of the US, played by Meryl Streep - seemingly a female version of Donald Trump (even going so far as to show her son as Chief of Staff in a nepotistic hire). The president is a former reality TV star and anti-intellectual.

The president is apathetic about it and more concerned about image and approval ratings. The astronomers then leak the news to a talk show, complete with plastic, vapid hosts who don’t take the threat seriously. Lawrence’s character loses composure and rants about the danger, prompting mockery of her online (which I felt completely reflected reality).

Rocked by a sex scandal and afraid of the political fallout, the president then backs a project to attempt to alter the comet’s course by striking it with nukes. It’s then proposed that the comet potentially contains valuable rare-earth elements, so a billionaire CEO of a tech company comes up with a project to splinter the comet into fragments and recover the bounty. Unsurprisingly, the mission by the tech company to fragment the comet fails, with most of its landers failing.

The political landscape divides into those who “believe the science” and those who want to deny it, with some casting doubts on whether the comet actually exists. Lawrence’s character goes to visit her parents, where she’s not welcome. My favourite line from the movie is where one of her parents says “We’re for the jobs that the comet will provide”.

Eventually the comet is so close that people can see its reality by just looking up into the night sky (though I'm sceptical that most US cities have low enough light pollution to make this possible). But those opposing the science are wearing MAGA-esque hats with the slogan “Don’t Look Up” across them. This has obviously echoes of the COVID pandemic, and of climate change. 

Unsurprisingly, with the failure of the mission by the tech company, the comet then inevitably collides with Earth, with catastrophic consequences. But the elites (including the president) have managed to escape Earth on a spaceship, cryogenically frozen, then revived 22,000 years into the future on a habitable Earth-like planet. The ending is amusing, so I’ll leave that for you to see (it's after the credits).

The movie is really about climate change, and our lack of action on it, and how the rich and privileged will be able to be shielded from its worst consequences. Indeed, with allusion to Elon Musk, there’s the obvious expectation that we can just find a replacement planet to inhabit. 

Professor Brian Cox did an interview video that discusses the movie. Interestingly, he seems to have missed the point a bit, and focused on how accurate the science is around comets (or asteroids) and their potential to crash into our planet and cause a catastrophe, completely ignoring climate change. To be fair to Cox, perhaps he was asked to comment on the accuracy of the science behind the movie, so perhaps the climate change aspects of it were out of scope.

Ultimately the movie is a piece of fairly heavy-handed satire that fans of science will probably appreciate for its depressing reflections of the reality of our world, but probably won’t play well with the end of the demographic that denies the reality of our collective predicament.


Drownings and the road toll

Over the past week or so we’ve seen headlines separately related to the magnitude of the holiday road toll, and high number of summer drownings.

To me, it seems that it's human nature to clutch at any variation in the statistics and try to make sense of it. I think there’s a lot of randomness in the number of people dying on the roads, but I can understand the police wanting to get people to drive more carefully and avoid mistakes that lead to deadly crashes. 

Every life lost on the roads is a tragedy and we should aim to minimise this. But when you look at the statistics over time, travel on the road has become safer. Cars are better manufactured and more safely designed, and our fleet has modernised, though there’s still a lot of “old clunkers” on the roads. 

But, this year’s holiday road toll is at the high end historically, with 17 people losing their lives. I wonder whether being out of lockdown, and people wanting to do a summer road trip, has seen more cars on the roads, and consequently more crashes. And there I go, as others do, trying to rationalise the numbers!

The same applies to drownings at our beaches and rivers, with 14 people sadly drowned - the highest number in 25 years. 

Now it’s all very well to have some thoughts about the potential factors behind these fatalities, but there are those amongst us who go off the deep end (no pun intended). In the most ridiculous of takes, we have Sue Grey (anti-vax lawyer), who we’ve mentioned multiple times in the past, now trying to draw a relationship between the COVID vaccines and the drownings and the road toll. 

Sue Grey writes: Has anyone looks (sic) at factors that might explain the large number of car and swimming accidents. Are there any novel medical treatments or other factors that might explain this?

So apparently, according to Sue Grey, the COVID vaccine is now offered as an explanation for increased drownings and car crashes. Hmmm… it seems she’ll clutch at anything to discredit vaccines.

But, on the other hand, she’s also tried to blame the death of a 23-year-old Australian man, who was into powerlifting, on the vaccine. According to Grey, young and healthy people don’t die of COVID, so if they do, it was probably the vaccine, not COVID.

Coming this year, she and other anti-vaxxers are launching what they refer to as the “People’s Inquiry” into the NZ COVID response:

An inquiry by the people, for the people, to ask and answer the questions that the government, media and big pharma have suppressed, and to make recommendations about an exit strategy and reclaiming democracy

Sarcasm: I’m sure that it will be totally rational and they’ll get to the bottom of things, presenting cogent facts for all to see! More likely, they'll have some pre-determined conclusions that they just want to reinforce.

Still, perhaps 2022 will be the year that the NZ Law Society releases a decision about Sue Grey. Their investigation began back in November - one wonders why these things take so long. And then there’s the case of the Kaiapoi doctors offering vaccine exemptions along with their weight loss advice. Hopefully we’ll hear an outcome of this soon too.

JWST unfurled

In my last newsletter I wrote about the successful launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. Post launch there were many operations that it had to go through to be successfully deployed, the most major of which included its unfolding. 

It’s now reported that the telescope’s unfolding has completed. There were a total of 344 potential points of failure - now all but 49 of these have been “retired”. It would seem that most of the potential and highest risk failure points have passed. 

It’s probably fair to say that the potential problems may have been exaggerated, at least in the media, so as to “keep us on the edge of our seats”. But, the fact that it’s been successful is a tribute to the engineering talent and planning on the project.

Now we must await the telescope to cool down to its operational temperature of 40K or about -223C. Cooling down in the vacuum of space isn’t something that happens quickly - we must wait for the heat to radiate away as a vacuum is a pretty good insulator!

The telescope is on its journey to the L2 Lagrange Point between the Sun and Earth, now being about three quarters of the way there. It will be late June before we see any images, but I’m sure it will be worth the wait.

NASA has put together a nice set of animations that show the unfolding that has now taken place.

Scientists under attack

This week it’s been reported that University of Auckland scientists Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles and Professor Sean Hendy have taken a case to the Employment Relations Authority. They're claiming that their employer - the university - hasn’t done enough to protect them from attack by people upset with their science communication and public comment on COVID-related issues. They describe their attackers as “a small but venomous sector of the public”.

The authority has agreed to expedite their cases, which seems sensible given the potential danger they face. 

Wiles and Hendy have argued that part of their roles is to publicise their work, for which we should be thankful. Their work has directly influenced the government response to the pandemic.

The university has argued that they should address safety concerns by keeping public comment to a minimum. This seems unreasonable and a bit of a cop-out. The university has previously asked them to comment publicly in their role as employees and for the Prime Minister’s Office. It would seem that the university is happy to receive the positive benefits of the publicity without having to be responsible for any undesirable outcomes.

Siouxsie’s written up her experience in The Guardian.

Siouxsie and Sean aren’t alone. Professor Michael Baker, from the University of Otago, has also reported abuse, as detailed in the Otago Daily Times (thanks to David Crook for providing the article).

An interesting point in that article is that scientists and academics who’ve chosen to limit their comment to only their areas of academic expertise have been subject to less abuse - sort of limiting the attack surface, so to speak. But still, that article makes the point that the abuse has a chilling effect - that previously communicative scientists and academics are withdrawing from public comment - something which is pretty scary given our collective dependence on scientific literacy.

Commenting publicly is something we all benefit from and academics should be able to do this without suffering abuse or having to be worried for their personal safety. 

‘Tis the season

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