We all need to be citizen scientists to guard our futures

Knowing how science works is increasingly important when we rely so much on experts answering important scientific questions honestly

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 September, 2012, 4:37am

You may have seen this month a news report that it may be possible to make a warp drive of the kind seen on Star Trek by warping space-time around a starship, so it can travel faster than light.

Like the recent discovery of the Higgs boson, it's the kind of story that suggests science is the esoteric domain of eggheads in ivory towers, perhaps of interest but without direct relevance to the rest of us.

Compounding this impression, few job openings specify any of the sciences. Yet levels of scientific knowledge, and understanding of how science works, greatly affect the lives of you, me and everyone else.

Science, though wide-ranging, broadly involves the pursuit of knowledge that can be verified, such as through experiments. Predictions are possible, and can be extremely accurate: should you somehow leap from a high building in a vacuum, within 10 seconds you would be plummeting earthwards at 353 kilometres an hour.

Science can also be imprecise, finding it hard to pin down reality. Medical science provides several examples. For instance, after extensive research into diets, the best scientific advice for anyone wanting to lose weight has not progressed much beyond the commonsense "eat less, move more".

Even supposed medical truths can prove ill-founded. Peptic ulcers were believed to be caused by stress or dietary factors, until two doctors went against the then-prevailing wisdom and showed that most resulted from a bacterial infection. I have a strong interest in salt, as I find it helps combat my chronic sinus troubles. Well-known warnings link excess salt to high blood pressure, in turn threatening heart attacks and strokes. But, reading information online, I learn that the evidence for this is shaky; an article in Scientific American last year noted: "For every study that suggests that salt is unhealthy, another does not."

The situation is more straightforward regarding antibiotics, misuse of which reflects poor awareness of science in society. In Hong Kong, antibiotics tend to be overprescribed and too readily available, and patients are prone to stop taking them when feeling better rather than as courses are completed. This in turn leads to some bacteria strains becoming drug resistant "superbugs" that can cause lingering infections or even death.

The Centre for Health Protection is taking measures to combat drug resistance. Such official action depends on sound science, and you might hope that scientists are all working hard to discover objective truths that help in making the best decisions.

Sadly, however, scientists are not always so saintly. When the tobacco industry was threatened by anti-smoking controls, it enlisted support from some researchers who helped spread doubts about the adverse health impacts of smoking and passive smoking, playing a role in what a report on the World Health Organisation website called "the most astonishing systematic corporate deceit of all time".

You might laugh at my naivety, but I find it sad that even in science, the old saying of "who pays the piper calls the tune" applies strongly. I am especially interested in nature conservation, and like the idea that the system involving environmental impact assessments can minimise or prevent severe harm by development projects.

But this system depends on having worthwhile assessments, while the "environmental" consultants preparing the assessments in turn depend on funding from would-be developers. This means that consultants tend to bias their reports in favour of development, and against the environment. A conservationist friend considers the bias so strong that he dismisses biologists working on environmental impact assessments as "biostitutes".

I have done some environmental consultancy work (trying to avoid being a biostitute!) and read a few reports by others, finding that while quality varied, each had a rose-tinted view of the prospects for development.

No matter, at least as far as the assessments and consultants' incomes were concerned. The South China Morning Post reported last year that the director of environmental protection, Anissa Wong Sean-yee, had not rejected a single one of the assessment studies she had handled. With the government's own watchdog, the Advisory Council on the Environment, branded a rubber stamp, who is left with the task of really assessing the assessments? Green groups may critique environmental impact assessments, yet their efforts often rely on volunteers who may have passion for and expertise in aspects of nature conservation. These "citizen scientists" include birdwatchers, botanists, experts on dragonflies and moths, divers and avid hikers.

Citizen scientists can play vital roles in our society, perhaps especially in environmental protection. As well as focusing on threatened sites such as Sha Lo Tung, Tai Long Wan and Tung Chung Bay, committed individuals are needed to make progress on broader issues, such as air pollution.

With autumn winds blowing from the north, Hong Kong's severe air pollution is back with a vengeance. As I write it is not yet noon, but based on the current "very dangerous" air pollution levels, the Hedley Environmental Index estimates there have already been six preventable deaths today. Science tells us our air pollution causes significant sickness and even death. Commonsense tells us we should aim for air that's safe to breathe.

However, political expediency prevails when it comes to air pollution. The previous chief executive, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, promised new air quality objectives but failed to deliver on his promise. With more widespread scientific awareness in society, and in government, we just might set worthwhile goals for air quality and our quality of life.

Yet personal health issues, nature hotspots and air pollution pale into significance compared to what I believe is the key issue requiring awareness of science in society: global warming. To some people, the idea we humans can affect the climate seems as fanciful as a starship warp drive. But science tells us we can and are doing so, and news last week of an astonishing new record low for Arctic ice cover is further cause for alarm.

Fossil fuel companies sponsor efforts to downplay risks, using tactics strikingly similar to those that the tobacco industry deployed in its corporate deceit. The issue proves overwhelming for the media. So it is crucial that each of us does what we can to become informed and involved, and strive as citizen scientists to advocate and ensure changes for the better.

Martin Williams is a Hong Kong-based writer specialising in conservation and the environment, with a PhD in physical chemistry from Cambridge University