This election year, NZ voters should beware of reading too much into the political polls

With a new prime minister sworn in and a cabinet reshuffle imminent, it’s no exaggeration to say the election year has begun with a bang. Already the punditry and speculation are ramping up, with anticipation building for the first opinion polls.

There will be more polls to come, of course, but a word of caution is in order: don’t treat them as gospel, and try not to let them become self-fulfilling prophecies. At this point, we can’t predict who will form New Zealand’s next government, and it could yet be a tight race.

Furthermore, political polling has not had a stellar record in recent times. Former prime minister Jim Bolger’s famous remark from 1993, after he didn’t get the election majority he expected, still resonates: “Bugger the polls.”

It’s not just a local phenomenon, either. The results of the Brexit referendum and the Trump–Clinton presidential contest in 2016, and the 2019 Australian election, were all out of line with preceding opinion polls.

In 2020, the US presidential polls were off by about four percentage points. And the 2022 US midterm elections didn’t produce the landslide (or “red tsunami”) many Republicans had predicted.

Election night 2020: polls consistently underestimated the Labour Party’s eventual majority.
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The 2020 election miss

It’s a similar story in Aotearoa New Zealand. In 2020, the polls immediately prior to the election overestimated the National vote and underestimated Labour’s.

Taking the averages of the results of all six polls published during the month before election day, National emerged on 30.9% and Labour on 47.2%. In the final three polls during the two weeks when advance voting was open, the averages were National 31.4% and Labour 46.3%.

The gap was closing and Labour would land on about 46%, or so it seemed. As Labour’s trend in the polls since mid-2020 was already downward, 45% looked plausible. But predictions based on the opinion polls were significantly wrong. Labour’s election result was 50%, National’s only 25.6%.

The polls in the final fortnight were overestimating National by an average of 5.8 percentage points. They were underestimating Labour by 3.7 points. The Green and Māori parties were also underestimated (1.1 and 0.7 points, respectively).

There were even bigger failures in polls showing Green candidate Chlöe Swarbrick running third in Auckland Central with about 25% of the vote. Instead, she got 35% and won the seat.

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick on election night 2020: polls had placed her third but she won the Auckland Central seat.
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Statistics 101

The opinion polls and the election – the only poll that counts, as the saying goes – use different methods with different samples. They’re intended for different purposes, and hence their results will differ, too.

An opinion poll is a snapshot of a sample of potential voters. By the time it’s published, it’s already in the past. Surveys normally ask which party you’d vote for if the election were held tomorrow. But you may change your mind by the time you actually vote, if you vote at all.

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Here’s how to make opinion polls more representative and honest

Furthermore, surveys are prone to random error. So, no matter how scientifically rigorous, they only estimate – and can’t replicate – the relevant population. It’s in the interests of the polling companies to be accurate, of course, especially when close to an election. But we need to read their results critically.

Samples are normally about 1,000 people, and pollsters try to ensure they closely resemble the demographic makeup (ideally by age, gender, ethnicity, education and location) of the eligible population, giving voters of all kinds an equal voice.

Post-survey weighting boosts results from social groups with low response rates.
The proportion of the population that holds a specified preference is estimated, and all estimates are subject to variance. This is expressed as a margin of error, which is normally plus or minus three percentage points.

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The margin of error is the range in which the pollster bets the “true” results should probably fall, with the true figures being outside that range only 5% of the time. In other words, pollsters are 95% confident the actual results will fall within that range. It’s only a statistical estimate.

But the quoted margin of error doesn’t apply evenly. If a given party is polling at 50%, then the quoted margin of error applies. If a party is polling higher or lower, then the margin of error narrows – the further you get from 50%, the narrower the margin of error.

How new Prime Minister Chris Hipkins fares in the first opinion polls of 2023 will be closely watched.
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Beyond the margin of error

Another concern is whether respondents will give honest answers. Some may be unwilling to reveal their voting intentions or they’ll wilfully mislead the poll.

And often a large proportion of a sample doesn’t know yet whether they’ll actually vote, or for whom they’ll vote. Responsible pollsters will report the percentage of “don’t know” responses.

But the conservative bias in the pre-election 2020 opinion polls was systematically outside of the margins of error, and hence not due only to random variation.

Apparently, pollsters didn’t obtain samples that resembled the population that actually voted. It looks like younger left-wing voters were especially hard to reach or unwilling to participate. Or their election turnout may have been underestimated.

Polling companies are now using online panels to help correct such biases. We’ll have to wait for the next election’s results to judge how it’s working.

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Chris Hipkins becomes NZ’s new prime minister – there are two ways it can go from here

Reading the tea leaves

A series of opinion polls can reveal trends and thus serve a purpose as public information. But they’re not suited for forecasting. One result taken out of context may be misleading, so it’s disappointing when major news organisations over-hype polls.

When party-vote percentages get converted into numbers of seats, journalists are reading tea leaves and not reporting news. Meanwhile, the market research firms are getting massive publicity.

Accurate or not, opinion poll results can have self-fulfilling or “bandwagon” effects on people’s voting behaviour. People might want to back a winner, or not waste their vote on a party that’s polling below 5%. Or some might vote for a party other than their favourite, with an eye to post-electoral negotiations.

Perhaps the best advice for voters is this: when deciding which party to vote for, try not to think about the polls. And poll-watchers should prepare for surprises on election night. Läs mer…

Philosophers have studied ’counterfactuals’ for decades. Will they help us unlock the mysteries of AI?

Artificial intelligence is increasingly being rolled out all around the world to help make decisions in our lives, whether it’s loan decisions by banks, medical diagnoses, or US law enforcement predicting a criminal’s likelihood of re-offending.

Yet many AI systems are black boxes: no one understands how they work. This has led to a demand for “explainable AI”, so we can understand why an AI model yielded a specific output, and what biases may have played a role.

Explainable AI is a growing branch of AI research. But what’s perhaps less well known is the role philosophy plays in its development.

Specifically, one idea called “counterfactual explanation” is often put forth as a solution to the black box problems. But once you understand the philosophy behind it, you can start to understand why it falls short.

Why explanations matter

When AI is used to make life-changing decisions, the people impacted deserve an explanation of how that decision was reached. This was recently recognised through the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, which supports an individual’s right to explanation.

The need for explanation was also highlighted in the Robodebt case in Australia, where an algorithm was used to predict debt levels for individuals receiving social security. The system made many mistakes, placing people into debt who shouldn’t have been.

It was only once the algorithm was fully explained that the mistake was identified – but by then the damage had been done. The outcome was so damaging it led to a royal commission being established in August 2022.

In the Robodebt case, the algorithm in question was fairly straightforward and could be explained. We should not expect this to always be the case going forward. Current AI models using machine-learning to process data are much more sophisticated.

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The big, glaring black box

Suppose a person named Sara applies for a loan. The bank asks her to provide information including her marital status, debt level, income, savings, home address and age.

The bank then feeds this information into an AI system, which returns a credit score. The score is low and is used to disqualify Sara for the loan, but neither Sara nor the bank employees know why the system scored Sara so low.

Unlike with Robodebt, the algorithm being used here may be extremely complicated and not easily explained. There is therefore no straightforward way to know whether it has made a mistake, and Sara has no way to get the information she needs to argue against the decision.

This scenario isn’t entirely hypothetical: loan decisions are likely to be outsourced to algorithms in the US, and there’s a real risk they will encode bias. To mitigate risk, we must try to explain how they work.

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The counterfactual approach

Broadly speaking, there are two types of approaches to explainable AI. One involves cracking open a system and studying its internal components to discern how it works. But this usually isn’t possible due to the sheer complexity of many AI systems.

The other approach is to leave the system unopened, and instead study its inputs and outputs, looking for patterns. The “counterfactual” method falls under this approach.

Counterfactuals are claims about what would happen if things had played out differently. In an AI context, this means considering how the output from an AI system might be different if it receives different inputs. We can then supposedly use this to explain why the system produced the result it did.

One example of a counterfactual would be to ask what the world might be like had the internet never been developed.
Shutterstock

Suppose the bank feeds its AI system different (manipulated) information about Sara. From this, the bank works out the smallest change Sara would need to get a positive outcome would be to increase her income.

The bank can then apparently use this as an explanation: Sara’s loan was denied because her income was too low. Had her income been higher, she would have been granted a loan.

Such counterfactual explanations are being seriously considered as a way of satisfying the demand for explainable AI, including in cases of loan applications and using AI to make scientific discoveries.

However, as researchers have argued, the counterfactual approach is inadequate.

Correlation and explanation

When we consider changes to the inputs of an AI system and how they translate into outputs, we manage to gather information about correlations. But, as the old adage goes, correlation is not causation.

The reason that’s a problem is because work in philosophy suggests causation is tightly connected to explanation. To explain why an event occurred, we need to know what caused it.

On this basis, it may be a mistake for the bank to tell Sara her loan was denied because her income was too low. All it can really say with confidence is that income and credit score are correlated – and Sara is still left without an explanation for her poor result.

What’s needed is a way to turn information about counterfactuals and correlations into explanatory information.

The future of explainable AI

With time we can expect AI to be used more for hiring decisions, visa applications, promotions and state and federal funding decisions, among other things.

A lack of explanation for these decisions threatens to substantially increase the injustice people will experience. After all, without explanations we can’t correct mistakes made when using AI. Fortunately, philosophy can help.

Explanation has been a central topic of philosophical study over the last century. Philosophers have designed a range of methods for extracting explanatory information from a sea of correlations, and have developed sophisticated theories about how explanation works.

A great deal of this work has focused on the relationship between counterfactuals and explanation. I’ve developed work on this myself. By drawing on philosophical insights, we may be able to develop better approaches to explainable AI.

At present, however, there’s not enough overlap between philosophy and computer science on this topic. If we want to tackle injustice head-on, we’ll need a more integrated approach that combines work in these fields.

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Australian teachers are dissatisfied with their jobs but their sense of professional belonging is strong

Teachers around Australia are preparing to head back to the classroom for 2023. But amid excitement about a new school year, there are ongoing concerns about teacher shortages and headlines saying kids are “falling behind” and education strategies are not working.

We are education researchers who study teachers’ perceptions of their work in Australia. Last year, we conducted a national survey of 5,000 teachers, asking them about their careers. We found a growing number of teachers are not satisfied with their jobs and a large majority are planning to leave the profession.

But it was not all bad news. Almost 80% of those we surveyed reported a sense of belonging to teaching.

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Job satisfaction

We found teachers are increasingly unhappy in their jobs. In our 2019 survey of Australian teachers, 65.6% of respondents said they were satisfied with their work. In 2022, that number dropped to 45.8%.

Teachers tell us this significant drop is because they feel unappreciated. They report a growing workload – in part thanks to increasing administrative demands – and a lack of respect from the community. According to one respondent:

the time taken in keeping records of everything has increased exponentially.

Another teacher told us:

I am burnt out. I cannot do my job well with all the demands placed upon me.

Perhaps then it is no surprise that only 27.6% of respondents said they planned to stay in the profession until they retired. Almost 20% said they would leave within five years.

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’They phone you up during lunch and yell at you’ – why teachers say dealing with parents is the worst part of their job

The importance of belonging

Against this negative background, our survey results offered a ray of hope. Almost 80% of respondents reported a strong sense of belonging to the teaching profession.

Teachers report increasing workloads and decreasing levels of satisfaction.
Shutterstock

Our survey found several factors contribute to this. The biggest positive influences were teachers’ relationships and connections with colleagues and students. Many teachers feel a sense of shared purpose and camaraderie with their colleagues. As one survey respondent said:

Teachers are usually incredibly warm, passionate, positive people who want the best for their workmates and our shared students.

Teachers also valued their relationships with students. Seeing students learn and succeed reaffirmed their sense of purpose. As one teacher told us:

You get emotionally invested in ensuring the students develop.

Another respondent said they were boosted by moments when students “have that ‘aha moment’”

and tell you about their day and what they love about coming to school, as well as trusting you with personal matters.

We also found supportive school systems and policies contributed to a sense of belonging. This includes flexibility in the curriculum and opportunities for teachers to be “heard”.

On top of this, many teachers pointed to the importance of job security. Permanent teachers tend to feel more belonging than contract teachers, thanks to the security of their positions.

[E]very year, as soon as term 3 started, I would be thinking of applying again and started feeling I don’t belong here anymore. My current position is ongoing and it definitely is a big boost.

Barriers to belonging

When we asked teachers what harmed their sense of belonging, common responses included a lack of respect, unrealistic expectations, and a lack of support.

Many teachers felt their profession was not valued or respected by the general public. They pointed to common misconceptions about being a teacher. As one teacher explained:

Non-teachers assume they know what it is like to be a teacher because they have been a student in a school, I do not think I know what it is like to be a dentist because I have been and had my teeth cleaned.

Respondents also felt that negative media coverage about schools and teachers affected their sense of belonging. They said they were often made to feel like “babysitters” rather than professionals.

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No wonder no one wants to be a teacher: world-first study looks at 65,000 news articles about Australian teachers

What now?

Some teachers in our study report feelings of being overwhelmed and under-compensated, and are considering leaving the field. But our research also shows how much the profession means to them, which suggests there is an opportunity here.

With better support and more understanding of what their complex roles involve, there is great potential to address the teacher shortage. And make teaching a much more satisfying job.

The authors would like to acknowledge the contribution of Dr Mehdi Moharami to the research presented in this article. Läs mer…

Ukraine recap: supply of German and US tanks to make Kyiv ’a real punching fist of democracy’

For the past several days the focus of war news has been squarely on Germany’s Olaf Scholz. The chancellor has been battling with his conscience over whether to accede to Volodymyr Zelensky’s plea to supply Ukraine with his country’s fearsome Leopard 2 tanks.

The Ukrainian president has been hammering the message that with much of the fighting in the east of the country bogged down in a bloody and attritional battle around the city of Bakhmut in the eastern Donbas region while Russia is reportedly conscripting and training up hundreds of thousands more troops for a spring offensive, his country is desperate for the sort of increased firepower these tanks can provide.

Zelensky has been putting similar pressure on Joe Biden too. Washington has been reluctant to supply Kyiv with its Abrams 1 tanks, which have led American battle assaults since they were first deployed in 1991, insisting they were too complicated and too hard to maintain and repair.

The great fear for both Berlin and Washington is that deploying these devastatingly effective weapons would give substance to the Kremlin’s repeated insistence that Russia’s real enemy in this conflict is Nato. Each escalation in the power and sophisticated weaponry being provided by Ukraine’s western allies to meet the changing circumstances of the war has been trumpeted as such by Vladimir Putin and his proxies.

But under pressure from the international community (particularly those states who have bought the Leopard tanks from Germany and want to be granted export licences to supply them to Ukraine, such as Poland), both the US and Germany have relented. They will begin sending their tanks to Ukraine in coming weeks. The question now is whether they will come soon enough and in sufficient quantities to allow Kyiv to launch a major spring offensive.

David Grummitt, a historian at the Open University, has written books on both the Leopard and the Abrams tanks. He believes that this is a significant and symbolic moment in the war – signifying as it does, the west’s willingness to do what it takes (from the sidelines of course – nobody is talking about Nato boots on the ground just yet) to defeat Russia in Ukraine and reinforce the idea that military aggression will not be allowed to prevail.

Where the conflict stands, January 25.
Institute for the Study of War

Both tanks were developed during the cold war to fight what Grummitt calls a “near-peer adversary” on a conventional battlefield. Kyiv is cock-a-hoop. Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, told reporters that: “This is going to become a real punching fist of democracy against the autocracy from the bog.” Grummitt agrees, but warns that Putin will be quick to accuse Nato of escalating the aggression against his country.

Read more:
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So what changed Germany’s mind? As Christoph Bluth, an internional security expert at Bradford University explains, the resignation last week of German defence minister, Christine Lambrecht, was an indication that things might be shifting. Lambrecht had been a staunch opponent of exporting the tanks to Ukraine. The arrival of her replacement, Boris Pistorius, left Scholz surrounded by advisers who were in favour.

Poland had also indicated it would send some of its Leopards to Ukraine whether or not Germany supplied it with the necessary export licence. And a growing majority of Germans favoured upping Germany’s support to Ukraine.

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Ukraine war: why Germany dragged its feet over supplying Leopard tanks to Ukraine

This is our weekly recap of expert analysis of the Ukraine conflict.
The Conversation, a not-for-profit newsgroup, works with a wide range of academics across its global network to produce evidence-based analysis. Get these recaps in your inbox every Thursday. Subscribe here.

And what of Joe Biden’s about-turn on supplying Abrams tanks? Monica Duffy Toft, a professor of international politics and the director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the Fletcher School, Tufts University in the US, believes that, except for a few of the more conservative Republicans in the US Congress, there is generally bipartisan support for helping Ukraine. The US has already given more than US$50 billion in aid to Kyiv, something that polls suggest 65% of the US public think is the right thing to do.

More importantly, says Toft, this deal signals that the US is in this for the long haul. But, she warns, all the advanced military tech in the world will not resolve the conflict. Only talking will do that – and none of that is happening at the moment.

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US will give military tanks to Ukraine, signaling Western powers’ long-term commitment to thwarting Russia

Zelensky puts his house in order

Western coverage of Ukraine and its leadership has been overwhelmingly positive since the invasion began at the end of February last year. Volodymyr Zelensky has cut a highly sympathetic figure, appearing equally at ease among his troops, on the streets of Ukrainian cities and via video link at just about every major international summit and not a few national parliaments to press his case for help in his country’s fight against the Russian aggressors.

But he also realises that he and his government must be seen to be squeaky clean and free from any whiff of malfeasance. So this week has has acted to purge his government of officials found to be involved in any alleged wrongdoing, whether it be the deputy head of his presidential office, Kyryl Tymoshenko, who was reported to be using a car donated by General Motors as humanitarian aid for his own use, or the governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region, Valentyn Reznichenko, who was allegedly involved in a scandal surrounding the diversion of funds earmarked for road reconstruction to a company owned by his girlfriend.

Stefan Wolff, an expert in international security at the University of Birmingham, stresses how important it is for Zelensky and his senior team to be seen to be above any suspicion of wrongdoing. Wolff says it is vital to keep the Ukrainian people – who, after all, have endured unimaginable sacrifices over the past 11 months – from becoming disaffected. The purge won’t have gone unnoticed by Ukraine’s western backers either – who would be understandably averse to seeing their financial aid being “informally privatised” into the wrong hands.

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Russia’s friends in Pretoria

The news that South Africa will join China and Russia this year in naval exercises, hosting their warships in its ports, was greeted with some surprise in the west. After all, back in the cold war, South Africa was a staunch ally of the US and at one point the idea was mooted of a southern alliance, to be dubbed Sato, which would include South Africa and take in much of Latin America and the south Atlantic region.

But, Stephen Chan, a scholar of African affairs at SOAS, reminds us of the close friendship between the Soviet Union and South Africa’s freedom fighters, the African National Congress. Moscow did plenty to help the ANC defeat apartheid, so it should not be surprising that there is a degree of sympathy in Pretoria for Russia.

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Russia rekindles old friendship with South Africa, its ally against apartheid

Dark anniversary

As you’d expect, we’re working with scholars around the world to mark the anniversary of the invasion with a comprehensive look at everything that has happened since and what it might mean for the future of global security. One of the features of our coverage that anybody who has followed the war closely, is how the nature of the fighting has changed.

Alexander Hill, a professor of military history at Calgary University in Canada, walks us though how the conflict has developed from what Putin envisaged as a lightning-fast “special military operation” lasting a matter of days to an all-out land war with many thousands of casualties, wholesale destruction and millions of refugees. Barring meaningful talks, of which – at present – there is no sign, Hill, sadly, sees no end in sight to the misery and bloodshed.

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Why Russia’s war in Ukraine today is so different from a year ago

Ukraine Recap is available as a weekly email newsletter. Click here to get our recaps directly in your inbox. Läs mer…

What are universities for? Canadian higher education is at a critical crossroads

In recent years, Canadian provinces such as Ontario and Alberta have been attempting to repurpose and reprogram our universities to more narrowly serve the labour market. They’re doing so by adopting performance-based funding in the most profound changes the sector has witnessed in decades.

These profound changes are encapsulated by the statements of former Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who said his government was “trying to retool the education system.”

Last year, Kenney said government funding for universities should align with the needs of the labour market and criticized university arts programs which he claimed provided “very poor” employment prospects for graduates.

It is unsettling to consider the long-term trajectory and the consequences of narrowing universities in their scope to more closely emulate technical and training colleges and the manner in which they serve the current labour market and industry.

Universities already feature a diverse mix of vocational and professional training programs as well as more broadly focused and flexible undergraduate and graduate degrees. There is little to be gained, and much to be lost, by attempting to turn universities and colleges into lesser and more convoluted versions of one another.

Both are necessary to provide a robust and diverse education system.

Graduates listen during a convocation ceremony at Simon Fraser University, in Burnaby, B.C.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

The university’s contributions

Responding to similar debates in the United Kingdom, former English literature professor Stefan Collini provocatively asked, “What are universities for?” It is now time Canadians ask that same question.

In that spirit we at the University of Regina have set to gather many national and international scholars, heads of funding agencies, administrators and policy-makers to engage in discussions on the topic at the appropriately entitled symposium: What Are Universities For? Exploring roles, challenges, conflicting tensions, and promising re-imaginings.

The challenges facing academic institutions demand that we ask such questions, and that we start to grapple with what the answers might be and the legacy we are leaving the next generation.

The university is an entity like no other, and should perhaps be more accurately described as a “multiversity.” Urban geography scholar Jean-Paul Addie has listed seven social and economic ways universities benefit society: Being economic engines, changing the face of a city, attracting global talent, building international connections, helping to address societal challenges, fostering creativity and open debate and improving people’s lives.

Read more:
Seven ways universities benefit society

Universities are about more than preparing people for the workforce. They foster important research and teach students how to think critically.
(Shutterstock)

What are universities for?

At their core, universities are institutions charged with performing teaching, research and service. Universities are immensely diverse and quite adept at integrating a variety of conflicting demands and purposes: From fostering ground-breaking scientific research, to transmitting and critiquing knowledge, to supplying teachers for our schools and medical personnel to our hospitals.

Intriguingly, if you ask the students themselves about the purpose of higher education, the answer is: it depends. Research has found the way students view universities is contingent on how much the education costs.

In countries like Denmark, Germany and Poland, where governments provide greater financial support for university students, there is greater emphasis on the social benefits of higher education. Universities are seen as contributing to a more enlightened and reflective society, and helping their country to be viewed more competitively worldwide.

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What’s the purpose of university? Your answer may depend on how much it costs you

However, in England, Ireland and Spain, where students are expected to shoulder more of the financial cost of their university education, they were more likely to see it as a means to employment.

Canada should avoid pitting these conceptions of higher education against one another. We ought to respect the many and varied benefits of an inclusive, accessible and robust post-secondary education system.

Canada’s crossroads moment

Current trends in Canada are a great cause for alarm. Ontario ranks last in the country for university funding as a percentage of total revenue. The government of Alberta has recently slashed hundreds of millions in funding from the province’s universities. Both provinces are the first to subject their universities to narrowly conceived funding metrics.

Canadians must realize that we are at a critical juncture. Canada’s universities should not be an arena for shortsighted and partisan politicking. We urgently need to ask ourselves what kind of society we hope to maintain, foster and create and link that to how universities can best serve that society. Läs mer…

Beavers and oysters are helping restore lost ecosystems with their engineering skills – podcast

Whether you are looking at tropical forests in Brazil, grasslands in California or coral reefs in Australia, it is hard to find places where humanity hasn’t left a mark. The scale of the alteration, invasion or destruction of natural ecosystems can be mindbogglingly huge.

Thankfully, researchers, governments and everyday people around the world are putting more effort and money into conservation and restoration every year. But the task is large. How do you plant a billion trees? How do you restore thousands of square miles of wetlands? How do you turn a barren ocean floor back into a thriving reef? In some cases, the answer lies with certain plants or animals – called ecosystem engineers – that can kick-start the healing.

In this episode of “The Conversation Weekly,” we talk to three experts about how ecosystem engineers can play a key role in restoring natural places and why the human and social sides of restoration are just as important as the science.

Ecosystem engineers are plants or animals that create, modify or maintain habitats. As Joshua Larsen, an associate professor at the University of Birmingham, explains, beavers are a perfect example of an ecosystem engineer because of the dams and ponds they build.

Beaver ponds can create valuable wetland habitats that store water and support life.
Schmiebel/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

“They create this pocket of still water, which allows aquatic vegetation to start to colonize that wouldn’t otherwise be there,” says Larsen. Once a beaver establishes a pond, the surrounding area begins to change from a creek or river into a wetland.

Larsen is part of an effort to reintroduce beavers into Britain, a place where they have been extinct for over 500 years and the landscape reflects that loss. There used to be hundreds of thousands of beavers – and hundreds of thousands of beaver ponds – all across Britain. Without beavers, it would be prohibitively difficult to restore wetlands at that scale. But, as Larsen explains, “Beavers are doing this engineering of the landscape for free. And more importantly, they’re doing the maintenance for free.”

This idea of using ecosystem engineers to do the labor-intensive work of restoration for free is not limited to beavers. Dominic McAfee is a researcher at the University of Adelaide in Australia. He studies oysters and is leading a project to restore oyster reefs on the eastern and southern coasts of Australia.

Oyster reefs provide important structure that supports entire ecosystems.
Jstuby/Wikimedia Commons

“These reefs were the primary sort of marine habitat in coasts, coastal bays and estuaries over about 7,000 kilometers (4,350 miles) of Australian coastline,” says McAfee. But today, “They’re all gone. All those reefs were scraped from the seafloor over the last 200 years.”

When you lose the oysters, you lose the entire reef ecosystem they support. So, a few years ago, McAfee and his colleagues decided to start bringing these reefs back. Oysters need a hard surface – like a rock, or historically, other oysters – to grow on. But all those old oyster reefs are gone and only sand remains. “So the first step to restore oysters is to provide those hard foundations. We’ve been doing that in South Australia by deploying limestone boulders,” explains McAfee. After just a year, McAfee and his colleagues are starting to see results, with millions of oyster larva sticking to these boulders.

At this point, McAfee says that challenges are less about the science and more about getting community and political support. And that is where Andrew Kliskey comes in. Kliskey is a professor of community and landscape resilience at the University of Idaho in the U.S. He approaches restoration and conservation projects by looking at what are called social-ecological systems. As Kliskey explains, “That means looking at environmental issues not just from a single disciplinary point of view, but thinking that many things are often occurring in a town and in a community. Really, social-ecological systems means thinking about people and the landscape as being intertwined and how one interacts with the other.”

For scientists, this type of approach involves sociology, economics, indigenous knowledge and listening to communities that they are working with. Kliskey explains that it’s not always easy: “Doing this sort transdisciplinary work means being prepared to be uncomfortable. Maybe you’re trained as a hydrologist and you have to work with an economist. Or you work in a university and you want to work with people in a community with very real issues, that speak a different language and who have very different cultural norms. That can be uncomfortable.”

Having done this work for years, Kliskey has found that building trust is critical to any project and that the communities have a lot to teach researchers. “If you’re a scientist, it doesn’t matter which community you work with, you have to be prepared to listen.”

This episode was produced by Katie Flood and Daniel Merino, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. It was written by Katie Flood and Daniel Merino. Mend Mariwany is the show’s executive producer. Our theme music is by Neeta Sarl.

You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio, on Instagram at theconversationdotcom or via email. You can also sign up to The Conversation’s free daily email here. A transcript of this episode will be available soon.

Listen to “The Conversation Weekly” via any of the apps listed above, download it directly via our RSS feed, or find out how else to listen here. Läs mer…

Why labour strife at universities should concern us all

Universities are important public institutions. The education of students and the research undertaken on campuses have a broad impact throughout our economy and society. In Canada, a significant portion of university budgets also comes from government.

In smaller cities and towns, universities are often among the largest employers in addition to serving as important community hubs. Perhaps nowhere has this impact become more apparent than Sudbury, Ont., where — as the province of Ontario’s auditor-general reported — mismanagement at Laurentian University led to significant job losses and disruption to the local economy.

Given the public significance of the university sector, the increasing labour unrest that we are seeing there should be of concern to all citizens.

University labour strikes

In 2021-2022, a record six faculty associations were on strike in Canada, at Acadia University, Concordia University Edmonton, the University of Lethbridge, the University of Manitoba, the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and Université Sainte-Anne.

Read more:
University and school strikes across Canada are about workers’ rights — and protecting education as a public good

While faculty union contracts are typically negotiated for three or four years, the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic led many universities to negotiate shorter “rollover” agreements that extended previous contracts, usually for a year or two, with their faculty unions.

Many of these are now coming up for negotiation, as are the normal-length contracts that were signed prior to the onset of the pandemic.

According to the Canadian Association of University Teachers, the result is that more than one-half of faculty unions in Canada are in collective bargaining this year.

Given the numbers, it would not be surprising if 2022-2023 sets a new record for the number of faculty strikes. There have already been two strikes in Canada: CUPE 3912, representing teaching assistants and part-time faculty at Dalhousie University, and CUPE 3906, representing similarly classed employees at McMaster University.

How the public understands issues at stake

Contract negotiations can be difficult for many reasons and the public is often in the dark about the issues that ultimately lead to a strike.

While this may be true for any strike, it’s especially true in the academic sector. As faculty members who were involved in union communications during our strike at Acadia University in February 2022, we developed an appreciation of the challenges of getting information to the public.

Independently of our union work, we decided to explore more systematically how faculty unions get their message out when contract talks break down.

We have interviewed more than a dozen members of faculty union communications teams at five of the six universities that were on strike last year.

The members we spoke to reported that, despite the significance of universities as public institutions, there was relatively little mainstream media coverage of their strike (and therefore little broad public attention).

We also compared coverage of strikes at Acadia University at the Halifax Chronicle Herald (the largest newspaper in Nova Scotia) in both 2022 and 2007.

We found that the paper ran only six stories about the recent strike during the four-week work disruption. By contrast, the Chronicle Herald ran 17 strike-related stories or columns during a three-week faculty strike at Acadia in 2007.

A recent analysis of media coverage of the strike at the University of California indicates that this is a broader problem within the academic sector as a whole. Specifically, three weeks into the largest academic strike in United States history, the mainstream media had provided scant coverage.

Little critical analysis

Our participants also reported that what little coverage exists tended to be limited in scope.

Much of it merely parroted news releases written by the two opposing sides (“the union says A; the administration says B”), with little critical analysis of either’s claims.

They also noted that the focus was often disproportionately on differences in salary proposals, even when salaries were not listed by striking union members as a particularly significant issue.

These limitations in media coverage likely stem from changes to the media landscape over the last couple of decades — in particular, the collapse of traditional revenue models for mainstream media outlets and the corporate consolidation and downsizing that has resulted from that.

The result is media outlets that assign reporters to produce content while investing minimal time and resources.

There are fewer securely employed journalists, and they are stretched thinner and thinner.

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Instead of mourning local news, try paying for it

Turning to social media

To compensate for the lack of detailed coverage in the mainstream media, our research shows that faculty unions are increasingly turning to social media to try to get their message out about key bargaining issues.

These include issues like working conditions of part-time faculty, the need for improved diversity among tenure-track faculty, improved transparency in university governance and class sizes and other students’ learning conditions.

However, unions’ social media messages are primarily targeted at their members and students. They cannot replace the in-depth coverage of complex, enduring issues that is the purview of mainstream media.

Our ongoing research suggests that important reporting came from outlets that operated at a smaller scale, both geographic and financial.

For example, strike participants at Université Sainte-Anne, three hours from Halifax, commented on the important, if limited, coverage from the Tri-County Vanguard based in Yarmouth, N.S.

The Vanguard sent a reporter to cover the early days of the union’s seven-week strike, whereas the larger English-language media outlets mainly covered the strike when faculty travelled to Halifax or in its final weeks.

Even in those final weeks, CBC Nova Scotia — based in Halifax — relied on photographs submitted by striking faculty rather than sending journalists to the picket lines in Church Point, N.S.

Legacy newsrooms in Canada have struggled and downsized.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Kevin Frayer

Beat reporters a rarity

Coverage of the University of Manitoba Faculty Association strike was more in-depth in the independently owned Winnipeg Free Press, which, unlike many newspapers, still has an education beat reporter.

The importance of local and independent media in disseminating information about faculty union labour disputes is another aspect of the crisis in the media landscape.

As university labour disputes continue, information about faculty associations’ positions and their analyses of why these issues matter can often be found on their social media platforms

In the longer term, however, effective coverage will require policy support for local, independent media outlets, as well as effective professional support for people reporting on labour and education beats that are critical to the public interest. Läs mer…

Ukraine war: why Germany dragged its feet over supplying Leopard tanks to Ukraine

The decision to provide heavy tanks to Ukraine in significant numbers constitutes a step change in western military support for Ukraine. For the first time, western countries are providing substantial offensive capabilities to support a major campaign to regain lost territory.

The decision has been long in coming. But for some months, the German chancellor Olaf Scholz resisted the decision to send German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. Even the Nato meeting held at the Ramstein US air base in Germany on January 20 to discuss the issue ended without a decision, much to the frustration of Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky and some of Kyiv’s other western allies.

In addition to a general fear of escalation, there was much public discussion of Germany’s aversion to involvement in armed conflict (understandable given its 20th-century history) and Berlin’s hopes to rebuild relations with Moscow eventually.

But this is not the whole story. Scholz is keenly aware of Germany’s reliance on the US for its security. So he would only take such a major decision with clear US approval and – most importantly – with evidence that the US would participate in a similar deal to supply its own tanks. Until this week the US was adamant it wouldn’t send Abrams tanks to Ukraine, saying they were unsuited to the conditions of warfare there.

Germany’s other problem is its relatively low stocks of the Leopard 2 tanks (about 320 for all of Germany’s own defence needs down from 4,000 main battle tanks during the cold war period). Readying its existing stock for battle will take some time. But the underlying issue is that the Germans fear that if the various European states that have bought Leopard 2 tanks from Germany supply them to Ukraine, they may well opt to replace their own inventories with US equipment instead.

This would destroy a massive export market for Germany as the country exported 2,399 battle tanks between 1992 and 2010. This is already in progress in fact as Poland announced the purchase of 116 M1A1 Abrams tanks with associated equipment with delivery starting this year in a deal worth $1.4 billion (£1.13 billion).

There has also inevitably been some internal German politics involved. Securing the deal took the resignation of the previous German defence minister, Christine Lambrecht – who was strongly averse to allowing the Leopards to be used in Ukraine. Her replacement, Boris Pistorius, is in favour and is backed by German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, and vice chancellor, Robert Habeck.

German chancellor Olaf Scholz has finally given in to pressure to supply Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.
EPA-EFE/Clemens Bilan

Meanwhile in Washington, intense diplomatic activity by US secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin persuaded the president Joe Biden to commit to sending 31 Abrams M1 battle tanks to Ukraine. This was partly a leverage to persuade Germany to change its mind on sending its Leopards. Initially Germany will provide 14 Leopard 2A6 tanks from its inventory, with the goal of eventually providing 112 overall.

Germany will deliver the most modern version of the Leopard 2 which is deemed the most capable tank in the modern world except for the US M1 Abrams. Poland has pledged another 14 and Norway will send spare parts and up to eight units. Between them, different European countries have a total of about 2,000 Leopard 2 tanks. Ukraine is seeking 300 tanks overall – so far 105 have been pledged for delivery in the next few months.

The three types of tanks that Ukraine will receive each require very different training, with different supply chains for maintenance and operations. Once integrated these tanks will combine with other top-of-the-range modern fighting machines supplied by western allies to make for a formidable armoured force.

Adding aircraft

Meanwhile, the issue of supplying aircraft is once again under discussion. Ukraine is pushing for the supply of F-16 fighter jets and manufacturer Lockheed Martin has announced it is stepping up production. This looks to be the next big issue on the agenda. The Netherlands has declared it is willing to supply F-16s if requested and other European countries are exploring the idea of supplying Kyiv with their existing stocks of Soviet-era aircraft in return for being restocked with the US F-16.

Danish air force F-16 fighter: the US has sold these warplanes to several European countries. There is now pressure to supply them to Ukraine.
EPA-EFE/Hannibal Hanschke

Military experts are dubious however, favouring mobile, ground-based air defences over expensive, fixed-wing aircraft and insisting that any attempt by Ukraine to gain air superiority would be a costly mistake.

Washington has also made it clear that Ukraine needs to change its operational tactics. Senior US defence and national security officials met with Zelensky to suggest ways to shift from drawn-out attritional battles, such as the one being played out at enormous cost in men and munitions in Bakhnut in the Donbas region, to a much more rapid mechanised warfare of the sort that brought Ukraine success in its autumn counteroffensives.

Deliveries will take months

Supplying tanks capable of that type of rapid manoeuvre warfare is designed to help Ukraine make that shift. The problem is that it is uncertain when the new armoured brigades will be available. Even the first deliveries will take several months – and the US tanks will probably not arrive until the autumn.

So a shift in strategy may not be feasible in time for a spring offensive – Washington now seem resigned at the prospect of an extended conflict.

The Kremlin downplayed the decision to send heavy tanks to Ukraine as a “losing scheme” – although the Russian ambassador to Germany Sergey Nechaev sounded a warning note, condemning the German decision as “highly dangerous” and stating it “takes the conflict to a new level of confrontation”.

Despite this defiant note, Russia’s war planners will be aware that their positions in Ukraine will come under increased pressure in coming months. They will not have missed the message that Nato’s initial reluctance to use its considerable military assets to support Ukraine is ebbing away – and Russia cannot count on western war weariness to turn the tide in its favour. Läs mer…

COVID booster vaccines: how a third dose may help vulnerable people ’level up’ their immunity

COVID vaccines call our immune systems to action, generating antibodies which fight against any contact we have with the virus. Antibodies help to reduce the effects of an infection or even prevent it altogether. Scientists have estimated that vaccination has averted millions of COVID deaths worldwide.

Studies have also shown the chances of having long-term or ongoing symptoms (“long COVID”) are significantly reduced for anyone who does catch COVID after being vaccinated.

While vaccination provides effective protection, the immunity generated by COVID vaccines wanes in the months afterwards. The coronavirus has also continued to evolve over time, with more recent delta and omicron variants better at avoiding the body’s defences than earlier forms of the virus. With this in mind, many countries around the world have rolled out booster (third) doses.

In our new study, my colleagues and I wanted to know how effective first booster vaccines were at generating antibodies. We were particularly keen to understand how those people most vulnerable to COVID responded to the first booster, as these groups mounted a smaller immune response after the first and second doses.

We found the first booster increased antibody levels across the board, bringing the most vulnerable groups closer in line with the rest of the population.

What we did

We worked with more than 9,000 participants from two long-term UK-based research studies, TwinsUK and Children of the 90s. We asked participants to use home testing kits to take their own blood samples, which they then posted to a laboratory for testing. We also asked them to complete surveys about their health and experiences throughout the pandemic, which we used in our analysis.

In the blood samples, we measured the levels of antibodies that act against the “spike” protein part of the coronavirus. These “anti-spike” antibodies represent one of the antibody types generated following COVID vaccination. The level of these antibodies in the blood is linked to how much protection we have against future infection (people with higher levels tend to have a lower risk of infection than those with lower levels).

In our analysis, we found large increases in antibody levels with each vaccine dose. Participants who had received a first booster had a ten-fold higher level of antibodies on average, compared with people who had only received two doses, with the second dose around six months earlier.

Read more:
Five reasons why young people should get a COVID booster vaccine

When comparing antibody levels between groups of people, we did see that certain groups identified as more vulnerable to COVID (such as those advised to “shield” or with suppressed immune systems) had lower levels after a first or second dose. This has been demonstrated in other research.

However, we found this difference was lessened after a first booster. The majority of these more vulnerable people mounted a strong response to the booster, similar in scale to other study participants.

The exact reasons for this are not yet known. Studies have shown that repeated exposure to coronavirus, through vaccination or infection, improves the strength and breadth of the immune response. So this may help to explain why the antibody levels of more vulnerable people “take off” after a booster. But we need more research to understand this effect.

Vulnerable people tended not to respond as strongly to the initial course of COVID vaccines.
PeopleImages.com – Yuri A/Shutterstock

Some limitations

We note that our study has certain limitations. Our sample size was limited for some groups, and the participants in our study were more likely to be older, female, and identify as being of white ethnicity, compared with the UK population overall.

Geographically, TwinsUK participants were more likely to live in more affluent areas, and in the south-east of England. Children of the 90s follows children born in Bristol and surrounding areas and their parents, and so participants tended to live in south-west England.

Further work is needed to generalise our findings to UK racial groups who don’t identify as white, and other international populations. We also note that the antibodies we measured are only one part of the wider immune system, and immune response varies between people.

Read more:
COVID vaccines: many people have had two doses but not their boosters – here’s why that might be

The importance of getting boosted

Our study provides further evidence that coming forward for a booster vaccination is a good idea, particularly as COVID is still going around. It also shows the significant benefit of booster doses for people in higher-risk groups.

After the rollout of first and second doses in the first half of 2021 in the UK, a first booster vaccination was offered from September 2021, followed by a second seasonal autumn booster dose starting in September 2022 for certain groups.

But take-up of booster jabs has been lower than first and second doses. While 88% of people in the UK aged 12 or above have received the first two doses, only 70% have also had the first booster.

The first booster is available to anyone aged 16 and over, plus at-risk children aged 12 to 15. The current autumn booster is available to everyone over 50 and some younger people who are at higher risk. However, reports indicate these boosters will stop being offered on February 12, making it particularly pressing that those who have not yet received a booster come forward.

To book a COVID vaccination, visit the NHS website or contact your local GP practice. Läs mer…

Four possible consequences of El Niño returning in 2023

Every two to seven years, the equatorial Pacific Ocean gets up to 3°C warmer (what we know as an El Niño event) or colder (La Niña) than usual, triggering a cascade of effects felt around the world. This cycle is called the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) because every El Niño is naturally followed by a La Niña and vice versa, with some months of neutral conditions in between events. The change in sea surface temperature associated with ENSO events might seem marginal, but it is more than enough to disrupt weather patterns globally and even the large-scale circulation of air in the polar stratosphere 8km above the Earth.

It is not surprising for La Niña conditions to last two consecutive years, but a three-year La Niña, which the world has had since 2020, is more rare. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has reported that the equatorial Pacific Ocean will return to its neutral state between March and May of 2023, and it is likely that El Niño conditions will develop during the northern hemisphere’s autumn and winter.

Probability of El Niño (red), La Niña (blue) or ENSO-neutral conditions developing during the coming months.
Climate Prediction Center/NOAA, Author provided

Given the strong influence of ENSO on global patterns of precipitation and temperature, scientists keep a close watch on the status of the tropical Pacific to provide the best possible information. So what can the world expect from the next El Niño event?

1. Likelihood of exceeding 1.5°C

During an El Niño, the ocean transfers some of that excess heat and moisture to the atmosphere, as when you cook pasta and your kitchen gets steamy. On top of the global warming trend, a strong El Niño can add up to 0.2°C to the average temperature of the Earth. The hottest year on record was 2016, during a particularly strong El Niño. A La Niña year can also break heat records, as the warming trend imposed by the increasing accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere can mask the cooling effect of natural processes.

As the world has warmed, the hottest years have occurred during El Niño events.
NOAA Climate/NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, Author provided

Since the planet has already warmed by around 1.2°C relative to pre-industrial times and El Niño adds some extra heat to the atmosphere, it’s possible that Earth’s rising temperature will temporarily exceed the 1.5°C threshold of the Paris agreement some time after the peak of the El Niño in 2024, though it is too early to know how strong this next event will be.

2. More heat, drought and fires in Australia

Australia has had three years of above average rainfall due to prolonged La Niña conditions that brought severe floods, especially in the east. During El Niño, scientists expect the opposite: less rain, higher temperatures and increased fire risk, especially during winter and spring in the southern hemisphere.

As the globe heats up, some regions are warming faster than others. A good example is Australia, which is 1.4°C hotter now than in the early 20th century. Every year, the area of the continent scorched by wildfires increases, fuelled by a dry trend induced by climate change. This occurs despite the anomalous wet years that Australia has experienced during the recent La Niña event. The underlying influence of climate change makes the country extremely vulnerable to the effects of an El Niño.

Heatwaves and wildfires could become more frequent and severe in 2023.
Metriognome/Shutterstock

3. Slower carbon uptake in South America

South America is where the effects of ENSO were first documented by Peruvian fishermen centuries ago. Given the proximity to the equatorial Pacific Ocean, South American weather is significantly disrupted every time an El Niño event occurs, with flooding on the west coasts of Peru and Ecuador and drought in the Amazon and northeast, where the consequences of crop failures can reverberate across the continent.

During El Niño events, the fall in precipitation and rise in temperature in Colombia has been linked to outbreaks of diseases spread by insects, such as malaria and dengue fever. Higher temperatures during El Niño boost the rates at which mosquitoes breed and bite.

Elsewhere during an El Niño, the Amazon rainforest dries and vegetation growth slows so that less CO₂ is absorbed from the atmosphere, a trend repeated in the tropical forests of Africa, India and Australia.

Scientists in 2019 studying the damage from Amazon forest fires that burned during the 2015/16 El Niño.
Marizilda Cruppe/Rede Amazônia Sustentável, Author provided

4. Cold winters in northern Europe

The balance between high pressure over the Azores and low pressure over Iceland determines where rain goes in Europe during winter by pushing the jet stream – a band of strong eastward winds that carries rain across the Atlantic – north or south. During El Niño winters, both pressure centres lose strength, and the jet stream brings wetter conditions to southern Europe.

The largest effect is observed in northern Europe, however, where winters become drier and colder. A frosty 2023-24 winter season is likely if El Niño ramps up sufficiently by then. As a result of global warming, scientists expect El Niño’s influence over the North Atlantic and northern European winter will strengthen.

Understanding the intricacies of the climate system is similar to trying to assemble a big jigsaw puzzle. The oceans talk to each other, and to the atmosphere, which at the same time feeds back to the ocean. Scientists are still unsure how El Niño will behave in the future, but its effects will probably be amplified by climate change in different regions of the world.

Don’t have time to read about climate change as much as you’d like?
Get a weekly roundup in your inbox instead. Every Wednesday, The Conversation’s environment editor writes Imagine, a short email that goes a little deeper into just one climate issue. Join the 10,000+ readers who’ve subscribed so far. Läs mer…

Nadhim Zahawi tax penalty: accounting expert on what it means when HMRC fines you for being ’careless’

Although the news that Tory party chairman Nadhim Zahawi had paid a penalty for failing to file his taxes properly first surfaced during his short tenure as chancellor from July to September 2022, his past tax affairs have come under scrutiny again more recently.

In July 2022, the Independent reported that Zahawi’s tax affairs were under investigation by HMRC. More recently, the Sun reported that the ex-chancellor, now Tory party chairman, had paid “several million” to “settle a dispute with HMRC” about whether he had used an offshore company called Balshore Investments to hold shares in YouGov. This the polling company he co-founded with help from his father in 2000 and retired from in 2010. Balshore is registered in Gibraltar and has been linked to Zahawi’s family, but Zahawi denies setting it up or using it.

Although the exact details have not been made public yet, Zahawi came to a settlement with HMRC after it found he was “careless” with his tax return. HMRC defines this as “a failure to take reasonable care in relation to your tax affairs”.

On the subject of care and carelessness, HMRC’s internal manual Compliance Handbook says:

People do make mistakes. We do not expect perfection. We are simply seeking to establish whether the person has taken the care and attention that could be expected from a reasonable person taking reasonable care in similar circumstances, taking into account the ability and circumstances of the person in question at the time the irregularity was submitted to HMRC.

The principle of carelessness is similar to that of “negligent misrepresentation” in a legally binding contract. This is when a person makes a false statement that they believe is true, but they don’t have reasonable grounds for believing that it is true.

Examples of carelessness cited by HMRC include haphazard record keeping, insufficient reading or understanding of HMRC guidelines and, most relevant in the Zahawi case, carelessness on the part of representatives employed by the taxpayer in question.

HMRC will consider many factors when deciding what constitutes careless behaviour and the appropriate level of penalty when a self-assessment return is submitted. For example:

Was the tax issue something that the person or business would be expected to have reasonable knowledge of?
What evidence exists that they took the time and care to look at the guidance when making a judgement on their return?
If an agent or tax representative was appointed to assist and complete the return, did the taxpayer thoroughly check the work, and advise and correct where necessary?
Importantly, did the person make HMRC aware of any errors or misdemeanors in their return if they were discovered later?

The severity of any penalty can be reduced if someone is co-operative and confesses before HMRC discovers a problem.

To settle the issue with HMRC, Zahawi paid the additional amount owed, plus 30% of that amount as a penalty – reportedly millions. This is the maximum percentage that can be imposed on a person for a lack of reasonable care. HMRC perhaps took the view that a person in Zahawi’s position has sufficient resources and support to get his returns correct.

More serious offences, such as fraudulent misrepresentation – when a person makes a statement that they know is not true – can carry a penalty of up to 100% of the tax due). These penalties imposed by HMRC are for cases of tax evasion, that is when someone has clearly under-declared a tax liability (deliberately or not).

Independent ethics investigation

So what now for Zahawi? No government wants any indication of careless financial behaviour, much less tax avoidance, hanging around any of its representatives. And so prime minister Rishi Sunak has tasked the independent ethics adviser Laurie Magnus to look into Zahawi’s recent interaction with HMRC.

Magnus will be looking for any possible breaches of the Ministerial Code. This covers a wide range of transgressions but among the most relevant for this situation are:

1.1: Ministers of the Crown are expected to maintain high standards of behaviour and to behave in a way that upholds the highest standards of propriety
7.7: Ministers must scrupulously avoid any danger of an actual or perceived conflict of interest between their Ministerial position and their private financial interests.

But it is more difficult to understand what exactly Magnus can do. The government is unlikely to go over HMRC’s head and examine the tax position and penalty in detail. So this leaves the issue of investigating what and when Zahawi has commented on the matter, and whether that includes any potential inconsistencies or contradictions.

UK prime minister Rishi Sunak has tasked an ethic advisor with looking into Zahawi’s tax affairs.
I T S/Shutterstock

Whether Magnus will look at Sunak’s own involvement and how much he knew (or didn’t know) about this matter at certain points in the timeline is another key question. And this also highlights the shortcomings of the ethics adviser role when looking into issues such as tax discrepancies. The adviser cannot independently launch their own inquiries into ministerial matters but must wait for the prime minister to request any investigation.

Just one month after Magnus’s appointment, this ongoing story threatens to expose the weaknesses in the government’s ethical scrutiny, and more importantly for Sunak, affects his ability to present a stable style of premiership following the economic turmoil of 2022. Läs mer…

The public or the state: who calls the shots at the BBC?

What’s the difference between a state broadcaster and a public broadcaster? The dispute over the close relationship between the BBC chairman, Richard Sharp and the former prime minister Boris Johnson, has seen some people – including on one occasion a BBC presenter – refer to it as a “state broadcaster”. The BBC is usually called a public service broadcaster (PSB) – and other PSBs around the world still look to the UK model as an example of good practise. The difference is significant and matters.

The formal distinction seems straightforward. State broadcasters – as found in countries such as China, Iran, parts of the Middle East and increasingly eastern Europe – broadcast in the interests of the state. They have leadership directly appointed by the government, high levels of government editorial control or censorship, direct political funding, and are directly accountable to the government.

Public Service broadcasters, meanwhile, operate in the interests of the wider public. They enjoy editorial independence from government and are usually funded via some sort of mechanism designed to insulate them from direct political control but provide a degree of open accountability to the public that funds them. How that is achieved, however, can be complex and involve compromises.

The latest debate over political influence at the BBC raises some difficult questions about independence and accountability.

Forms of governance

Public broadcasters need to demonstrate they are impartial and not politically aligned or directed. At a moment of highly polarised politics, with the increased scrutiny and criticism it brings, this is difficult. Users from both the left and the right regularly criticise the BBC for not representing the world as they see it.

Read more:
The controversial business of researching BBC impartiality

As a consequence, the BBC has suffered a decline in trust in its services. With that comes scepticism about its impartiality and independence.

Traditionally, the BBC – like other public institutions – has enjoyed editorial and operational autonomy while being institutionally accountable to government through the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the National Audit Office (NAO) and parliamentary select committees.

Accountability: BBC director- general, Tim Davie, appears before a parliamentary select committee.
PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

For decades it was overseen by a government-appointed board of governors, separate from the management. This mutated in 2007 into the BBC Trust – still separate from management but with greater resources to scrutinise the executive.

In 2016, David Clementi, a former deputy governor of the Bank of England, undertook a further review of the BBC’s governance. He recommended a unified board, with management and non-executive directors around the same table, and a chairman appointed by government. Separate oversight moved to the media regulator Ofcom (whose chair is also government appointed).

For most of its 100 years, a form of direct government appointment of non-executive governors, trustees or directors has been the norm. It has largely worked. Even when the World Service was directly funded by government, it was widely recognised that its journalism was independent.

But in the current climate of distrust in both media and the UK government, such arrangements are increasingly interpreted as interference. The BBC sometimes attracts accusations of being closer to state broadcasting than a model accountable to the public.

The suspicion is less about direct political interference than soft influence through appointments such as Sharp as chairman shortly after he brokered a £800,000 loan for the then prime minister and the appointment of non-executive directors with recent government experience including Robbie Gibb, formerly director of communications for then Conservative prime minister Theresa May.

Question of impartiality

Governments of the past have often appointed those they believe to be politically sympathetic. But there is a sense that the current Conservative government has taken Margaret Thatcher’s famous inquiry of “Is he one of us?” to new levels.

The BBC’s management has been openly focused on impartiality – largely interpreting this as political. Both the chairman and the current director general, Tim Davie, are on record as saying they believe the BBC’s staff have a soft-left bias which needs addressing.

Their problem is that the current crisis demonstrates that impartiality is as much about independence and accountability as it is about political balance. And those are harder to measure.

Further, the unified board means those responsible for demonstrating the BBC’s editorial independence on air, by reporting on itself, are around the same table as colleagues trying to defend the corporate interest. Chinese walls were easier when the governors or trustees sat separately from the management.

To stem further decline in trust, the BBC will need to demonstrate political independence at the highest level – beyond what has been required in the past. And it needs to find ways of demonstrating broader public accountability beyond Parliament and watchdog Ofcom. The public cannot practically oversee the BBC – but greater openness away from the committee rooms and boardrooms of London would help.

Some senior executives at least recognise this. The new CEO of BBC News, Deborah Turness, announced on her arrival she wanted to bring greater transparency to how news judgments are made. In an all-staff email she said:

The question I would like to ask you all to think about here, is this: to ‘the pursuit of truth with impartiality and accuracy’, how might we credibly add, ‘and with transparency’ – to lead the world in delivering what consumers say they need, if they are to continue to trust us.

Greater independence, open accountability and transparency in operations are hard things to deliver. But they can reassure the public and build trust, they are increasingly recognised as core elements of the impartiality expected of a public broadcaster, and needed to insulate them from any misguided accusations of straying towards state broadcasting. Läs mer…

Teaching the Holocaust through literature: four books to help young people gain deeper understanding

A survey commissioned in 2019 revealed the shocking result that over half of Britons did not know that at least six millions Jews had been murdered during the Holocaust.

This result was all the more surprising given the fact that the Holocaust, as a topic, has been part of the national curriculum in England and Wales since its creation in 1991. The 2014 iteration of the national curriculum has the Holocaust as a firm part of key stage 3 history – compulsory for all 11 to 14-year-olds in state schools. Additionally, many secondary school pupils may encounter the Holocaust as a topic in English or religious education lessons.

However, research into what school pupils in England know about the Holocaust shows that they lack knowledge about its context. They may know bare facts – ghettos, deportations, concentration camps – but are less clear on the ideology that led to the rise of the Nazis and the Holocaust in the first place. Pupils may not be clear what exactly it is they need to take away from those lessons and how they can be relevant to their contemporary lives.

For instance, it is important to understand how politicians sought to gain popular support by blaming minorities such as Jewish people for all the ills Germany experienced after the first world war. Relentless anti-Jewish propaganda was used to indoctrinate the general population.

It is for this reason that literature can be a meaningful additional teaching tool, not only in schools but also for everybody interested in the events leading up to the Holocaust. Literature can broaden horizons and deepen knowledge. It can offer different perspectives, often in the same narrative; it teaches us empathy but it can also help us to acquire facts and additional knowledge.

However, the sheer number of books on the Holocaust – survivor accounts, biographies, novels, factual books – can be overwhelming.

Sometimes, bestselling books on the Holocaust, such as John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006) or Heather Morris’ The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), lack the factually correct underpinning that is necessary to make them a good way to learn about the history. It is consequently vital to find books that meaningfully introduce their readers to the topic and that provide carefully researched historical context.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

One example is Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971) which is based on Kerr’s own childhood experience. It is the story of 9-year-old Jewish girl Anna who has a happy childhood in Germany until the day her father, wanted by the Nazis, has to leave the country.

Judith Kerr (1923-2019) in Berlin in 2016.
EPA-EFE/SOEREN STACHE GERMANY OUT

Anna’s subsequent narrative outlines the repressions affecting Jewish life on a daily basis. She encounters public events such as the staged book burnings and the daily propaganda that perpetuated falsehoods about Jews. As such, it is an excellent – though hard-hitting – way to introduce a younger readership to the prejudices and reprisals Jews were increasingly subjected to in Nazi Germany.

The Diary of a Young Girl

Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl (1947) is probably the one Holocaust book most people have heard of. It charts the two years Anne and her family spent in hiding in Amsterdam.

The book is often praised for its positive and hopeful message. It is, however, vital that even young readers are made aware of the fact that the Franks were eventually discovered by the Nazis, deported to Auschwitz and from there to Bergen-Belsen, where Anne tragically died in early 1945.

Night

Survivor accounts are generally the best way to learn about the Holocaust. Older teenagers could read Elie Wiesel’s outstanding Night (1958). It describes, in a dispassionate voice, Wiesel’s experiences of being deported from his home town of Sighet in what is now Romania, first to Auschwitz and from there to Buchenwald.

Elie Wiesel (1928-2016) attends a tribute ceremony for Holocaust survivors and WWII in Washington, DC in 2013.
Abaca Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Wiesel lost his father, mother and youngest sister in the Holocaust and dedicated his life to Holocaust education. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1986. If anybody plans to read just one book on the Holocaust, it should probably be this one.

Maus

Some young readers might be reluctant to read such hard-hitting accounts by witnesses and survivors of the Holocaust. They might be persuaded to engage with the topic, though, through Art Spiegelman’s seminal graphic novel Maus.

Spiegelman’s book recounts the story of his father Vladek and mother Anja, who both survived Nazi concentration camps. He uses the imagery of an animal fable by depicting his Jewish characters as mice who are chased by the Nazi cats. While this is potentially a distancing device to soften the impact of his illustrations, it also helps Spiegelman to pass critical comments on the Nazis’ notorious attempts to classify people into strictly segregated groups.

Maus made it back into the bestseller lists in January 2022 when a County School Board in Tennessee controversially banned it from its classrooms and libraries. Censorship is not yet a thing of the past – and it is, maybe, especially the people making decisions about education who ought to read these texts.

Using literature as a tool to augment Holocaust teaching in secondary schools might be a good way to further pupils’ learning and understanding not just of the Holocaust, but of the ideologies, populism and propaganda that lay behind it – and how to identify similar narratives that are, worryingly, on the rise again in the world around them. Läs mer…

ChatGPT: Why education should embrace the AI chatbot, not shun it

Just under two months ago, the US artificial intelligence company OpenAI introduced a program called ChatGPT. Essentially an advanced chatbot, it has been the subject of much debate.

Some commentators have described its answers as very impressive, while others have drawn attention to factual errors in its output. Nevertheless, the product has been hailed as a potentially disruptive innovation for many different industries.

A significant amount of what has been written about ChatGPT so far has focused on its implications for education. The program’s much-vaunted capacity to provide detailed answers to queries on a vast range of topics has raised concerns it could have harmful effects on learning and enable students to “cheat” on exams and homework.

ChatGPT has already “taken” a number of tests, including the US Bar exam, actuarial and medical examinations. In all cases it performed at or near a pass level “out of the box”. While some work on ChatGPT looks at downsides and concerns, our more optimistic perspective is that ChatGPT could well take the form of a low-cost, or even free, electronic research assistant.

Our study published in Finance Research Letters aimed to see whether ChatGPT could be used to write a finance paper that would be accepted for an academic journal. The program passed the test, but performed better in some areas than in others. Furthermore, adding in our own expertise helped overcome the program’s limitations in the eyes of journal reviewers. The findings suggest that ChatGPT could be an important aide for research and not necessarily a threat.

From good to great

Our thinking was: if it’s easy to get good outcomes from ChatGPT by simply using it, maybe there’s something extra we can do to turn these good results into great ones.

We first asked ChatGPT to generate the standard four parts of a research study: research idea, literature review (an evaluation of previous academic research on the same topic), dataset, and suggestions for testing and examination. We specified only the broad subject and that the output should be capable of being published in “a good finance journal”.

This was version one of how we chose to use ChatGPT. For version two, we pasted into the ChatGPT window just under 200 abstracts (summaries) of relevant, existing research studies.

We then asked that the program take these into account when creating the four research stages. Finally, for version three, we added “domain expertise” — input from academic researchers. We read the answers produced by the computer program and made suggestions for improvements. In doing so, we integrated our expertise with that of ChatGPT.

We then requested a panel of 32 reviewers each review one version of how ChatGPT can be used to generate an academic study. Reviewers were asked to rate whether the output was sufficiently comprehensive, correct, and whether it made a contribution sufficiently novel for it to be published in a “good” academic finance journal.

The big take-home lesson was that all these studies were generally considered acceptable by the expert reviewers. This is rather astounding: a chatbot was deemed capable of generating quality academic research ideas. This raises fundamental questions around the meaning of creativity and ownership of creative ideas — questions to which nobody yet has solid answers.

ChatGPT could help democratise the research process.
Shutterstock

Strengths and weaknesses

The results also highlight some potential strengths and weaknesses of ChatGPT. We found that different research sections were rated differently. The research idea and the dataset tended to be rated highly. There was a lower, but still acceptable, rating for the literature reviews and testing suggestions.

Our suspicion here is that ChatGPT is particularly strong at taking a set of external texts and connecting them (the essence of a research idea), or taking easily identifiable sections from one document and adjusting them (an example is the data summary — an easily identifiable “text chunk” in most research studies).

A relative weakness of the platform became apparent when the task was more complex – when there are too many stages to the conceptual process. Literature reviews and testing tend to fall into this category. ChatGPT tended to be good at some of these steps but not all of them. This seems to have been picked up by the reviewers.

We were, however, able to overcome these limitations in our most advanced version (version three), where we worked with ChatGPT to come up with acceptable outcomes. All sections of the advanced research study were then rated highly by reviewers, which suggests the role of academic researchers is not dead yet.

ChatGPT is a tool. In our study, we showed that, with some care, it can be used to generate an acceptable finance research study. Even without care, it generates plausible work.

This has some clear ethical implications. Research integrity is already a pressing problem in academia and websites such as RetractionWatch convey a steady stream of fake, plagiarised, and just plain wrong, research studies. Might ChatGPT make this problem even worse?

It might, is the short answer. But there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. The technology will also only get better (and quickly). How exactly we might acknowledge and police the role of ChatGPT in research is a bigger question for another day. But our findings are also useful in this regard – by finding that the ChatGPT study version with researcher expertise is superior, we show the input of human researchers is still vital in acceptable research.

For now, we suggest that researchers see ChatGPT as an aide, not a threat. It may particularly be an aide for groups of researchers who tend to lack the financial resources for traditional (human) research assistance – emerging economy researchers, graduate students, and early career researchers.

It’s probably the most optimistic possible conclusion, but it’s just possible that ChatGPT (and similar programs) could help democratise the research process. Läs mer…

Eliminating neglected diseases in Africa: there are good reasons for hope

Togo had reason to celebrate in 2022 when it became the first country in the world to eliminate four neglected tropical diseases. The west African nation stamped out Guinea worm disease in 2011, lymphatic filariasis in 2017, sleeping sickness in 2020, and trachoma last year.

These diseases are transmitted in various ways. Guinea worm disease, for instance, is water-borne while sleeping sickness is transmitted by the tsetse fly.

They are just a few among a host of neglected tropical diseases, which mostly affect impoverished communities and that are exacerbated by instability, climate change, and poor living conditions. Every year, 1.7 billion people are affected by these diseases. They cause immense suffering, stigma, disability – and sometimes death.

Togo achieved its milestone through a combination of measures. These included door-to-door mass drug administration, training of healthcare staff, sustained financing, and strong political support.

Other African countries also made significant progress in tackling neglected tropical diseases in 2022. Benin, Rwanda and Uganda managed to eliminate sleeping sickness. Malawi eliminated trachoma and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) eliminated Guinea worm disease.

On another continent, in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi applauded his country’s success in eliminating smallpox, polio and Guinea worm disease, while expressing confidence it could “soon” eliminate another neglected tropical disease, visceral leishmaniasis.

All of this means there’s plenty of reason to celebrate. But the global health community cannot rest on its laurels. These diseases are still present in some areas.

The insects that transmit many of these diseases don’t respect borders – so no one is safe until everyone is. The COVID-19 pandemic gravely disrupted control programmes, delaying the achievement of elimination goals by years for some diseases. Some countries are also struggling to tackle neglected tropical diseases because of instability and conflicts that hinder control efforts, or because they have large remote regions that are difficult to reach.

Adequate funding is needed to support drug distribution, training of healthcare staff, and raising awareness. Funding for research and development is crucial, too, so that the promising innovations emerging from African laboratories and clinical trial sites can reach doctors and patients.

Improved treatments

One of the challenges in tackling many neglected tropical diseases is the absence of adequate treatments. Existing medicines are often not effective enough or are difficult to administer, such as regular injections that require hospitalisation. Some treatments are very painful. Others are downright toxic. For some diseases, such as a fungal infection called mycetoma, which is endemic in Sudan, there are no effective treatments at all – amputation is often the only option.

Because these diseases affect the poorest communities and there is little profit to be made from developing new drugs, they have been historically ignored by traditional pharmaceutical research.

But the abundance of good news last year has given me hope. 2022 was an incredible year for visceral leishmaniasis, which is endemic in eastern Africa and is my field of expertise as a physician and specialist in infectious diseases and tropical medicine.

Read more:
Innovation — and research — are key to killing off neglected tropical diseases in Africa

The disease is fatal if left untreated. It’s the deadliest parasitic killer after malaria. Those infected with visceral leishmaniasis suffer from fever, weight loss and intense fatigue. Many are unable to work, which means a loss of income for their families.

But in September 2022, a shorter, more effective new treatment was announced. Developed with several partners, including Médecins Sans Frontières, this treatment partially removes the need for daily injections.

In June, the World Health Organization also recommended an improved treatment specifically for people who are co-infected with HIV and visceral leishmaniasis. This gives hope for the thousands of patients – often young seasonal migrant workers – who respond poorly to standard treatment.

Promising results for a new, one-dose drug for sleeping sickness were also announced last year following clinical studies conducted in the DRC and Guinea by Congolese and Guinean researchers. This new medicine would be a significant improvement over existing drugs and could open the door to sustainably eliminating the disease. This is a remarkable achievement. I still remember when the only drug available to my fellow doctors in the DRC was an arsenic derivative so toxic it killed 5% of their patients.

Collaboration and partnerships

However, research and development efforts alone are not enough. Collaboration and partnerships are key. These are not just buzzwords: past successes in tackling neglected tropical diseases have been rooted in close-knit partnerships between national health authorities, international donors, medical research institutes, universities and industry.

The new treatments I mentioned above were all developed thanks to such coalitions. I am the director of the Eastern Africa office of a global non-profit medical research organisation called Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative, which took an active role in all these research and development collaborations.

The good news is that new partnerships keep being formed. In 2022, we established LeishAccess, a regional collaboration in Eastern Africa working to promote access to visceral leishmaniasis treatments and remove the obstacles that still prevent half of patients from accessing the life-saving drugs they need.

All these advances give me hope. These extraordinary efforts will eventually pay off. I am convinced that, in a not-so-distant future, people will stop dying from leishmaniasis, and will be safely cured thanks to simple oral drugs.

Many gaps remain, with millions of people still suffering from diseases that could be cured. And neglected tropical diseases that are slowly disappearing can suddenly come back with a vengeance, fuelled by conflicts, economic crises, increased poverty, or climate change.

But if sustained investment is coupled with African political leadership and scientific excellence, there’s good reason to hope for the elimination of neglected tropical diseases on the continent. Läs mer…

A major new exhibition in Nairobi reveals the history of east African art traditions

Mwili, Akili na Roho (Body, Mind and Spirit) – on in Nairobi, Kenya – is a major international exhibition presenting east African painters who are key players in the modernist art of the region. Modernism in the fine arts refers to a period of experimentation from the late 1800s to the mid 1900s, a break from the realism of the past and a search for new forms of expression.

The exhibition features a group of artists from different generations who vary in backgrounds, as well as in the themes and forms of their art. They represent 50 years of east African art – from 1950 to 2000. They are: Sam Joseph Ntiro (1923-1990), Elimo Njau (1932-), Asaph Ng’ethe Macua (1930-), Jak Katarikawe (1940-2018), Theresa Musoke (1942-), Peter Mulindwa (1943-), Sane Wadu (1954-), John Njenga (1966-1997), Chelenge van Rampelberg (1961-) and Meek Gichugu (1968-).

Together they form an important cross-section of figurative paintings from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Figurative art draws from the real world, especially human figures.

While modernism is most commonly associated with the western world – think Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse or Marc Chagal – these African modernist artists often critique western stereotypes about “primitive” colonised peoples at the same time as they yearn to recover pre-colonial modes of experience. This is one of the aspects that makes the exhibition so powerful. But it contains many more themes to consider that remain relevant today.

A growing showcase

The first showcase of Mwili, Akili na Roho took place in Germany in 2020. It was part of the larger context of a solo exhibition by its originator, the celebrated Kenyan-British artist Michael Armitage. Armitage is the founder of Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute – where the exhibition is currently on show. In 2021, Mwili, Akili na Roho moved to London as a continuation of Michael Armitage: Paradise Edict.

This third iteration in Nairobi expands on the first two. The initial exhibition had seven artists (with the exclusion of Njenga from Kenya, Mulindwa from Uganda and Ntiro from Tanzania). The Nairobi edition boasts a total of 54 artworks, presenting additional works from collections around the world. Notably, artworks are also borrowed from the artists’ own collections.

The exhibition focuses entirely on painting as one of the most prominent mediums of expression in art, representing a sort of history of the painting of east Africa. It’s an entry point for a deeper engagement with this history, and the enduring influence of creative ideas and art institutions from the region.

Faith and religion

For example, the idea of faith and religion is represented by works such as Ntiro’s Agony in the Garden (1950), an African representation of the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion.

Agony in the Garden by Sam Ntiro.
James Muriuki courtesy Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute

In the 1980s, Wadu took a different approach to the same subject. He paints himself as Jesus in Walking on the Water and in Give us Our Daily Bread. He tells his personal story of faith through his paintings. He attributes his success in life to God, having had tuberculosis as a young man but healing as a result of his faith.

There are also artists who have approached religion in the form of African mythology about humanity. Mulindwa did a great deal of research into the myths of the Toro people of Uganda, which influenced his art.

Land and politics

Katarikawe’s works feature cattle as symbols of life, borrowing directly from his and other people’s everyday lives. Nature and landscapes also feature prominently.

Ideas about land and politics offer social commentary throughout, about colonialism and the theft of the land.

Landscapes are also touched on by artists such as Musoke, who sought refuge in Kenya, leaving Uganda during the reign of dictator Idi Amin. Mulindwa’s large, chaotic landscapes depict a subtle social commentary on the oppression in Uganda.

As People Walk Before Gouache by Jak Katarikawe.
James Muriuki courtesy Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute

East African art structures

It is useful, when looking at the exhibition, to also reflect on the artists’ backgrounds. Five were educated at Makerere University in Uganda, creating a school of thought of huge significance in east Africa.

These interconnected backgrounds allow reflection on the art structures and spaces that have existed in east Africa. After independence in the region, there was a short period when Makerere University, the University of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) and the University of Nairobi (Kenya) were part of a single art school, Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Art. There was an exchange of knowledge and influences that can be traced in the body of works in the exhibition.

The other five did not receive any formal training in art. Among them, Njau was the founder of the Paa ya Paa Arts Centre in Nairobi and Musoke taught art at universities for about 25 years. Wadu was one of the founding members of the Ng’echa Arts Collective in Kenya (established in 1955 and commonly referred as the “village of artists”) and rose to prominence at Gallery Watatu in Nairobi, where Gichugu had his first solo exhibition.

So, the exhibition also demonstrates how visual art can be used as a tool to educate about history.

Creating a new space

As much as the Nairobi contemporary art scene is vibrant, with galleries selling and showcasing work, there is no museum or other space dedicated to tracking the history of the region’s art, recording it, and building content that can be viewed and reviewed over time.

Read more:
The importance of remembering Kenyan artist Rosemary Karuga

The Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute has rightfully claimed this space and Mwili, Akili na Roho is an example of some important choices the gallery is making in furthering the art of the region. The exhibition is educative and – importantly – is open to schools and universities in Kenya for students to learn more.

Mwili, Akili na Roho will run at the Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute until 18 February 2023. Läs mer…

Prince Harry: early leaks came from a Spanish translation, causing confusion about what was really said

Eight days before Prince Harry’s memoir Spare hit shelves elsewhere, copies went on sale prematurely in Spain.

Over the next few days the UK media, scrambled to acquire Spanish copies of the book, having been unable to get English versions for themselves. Their reporting on the story was initially based on these Spanish versions.

The fact that many of the quotes had been translated from English to Spanish and then back into English was barely acknowledged. Sometimes, this results in change, or different versions, as we see below. The book’s tagline is “His Words. His Story.” and part of the coverage centred around why it was important that these were Prince Harry’s own words. Yet what those words actually were, depended on where you read them.

His words?

One much quoted extract from Spare is Prince Harry’s account of how many members of the Taliban he had killed. He writes:

So, my number: twenty-five. It wasn’t a number that gave me any satisfaction. But neither was it a number that made me feel ashamed.

This was a focal point for early spoilers on the book and was quoted differently in different publications.

On Sky: “So my number: twenty-five. It was not something that filled me with satisfaction, but I was not ashamed either.”

In The Times: “So my number is 25. It’s not a number that fills me with satisfaction, but nor does it embarrass me.”

Neither of these translations is wrong. They show different ways of rendering the same idea – but the cumulative effect is important.

It was unclear whether early criticisms were responding to the published version or alternative translations. Those attacking the author for his stance may not in fact have been responding to “his words” at all.

A more detailed example comes in Prince Harry’s account – here taken from the book in English – of losing his virginity:

Inglorious episode, with an older woman. She liked horses, quite a lot, and treated me not unlike a young stallion. Quick ride, after which she’d smacked my rump and sent me off to graze. Among the many things about it that were wrong: It happened in a grassy field behind a busy pub.

Unsurprisingly, this was another of the most frequently quoted leaks. But again, the wording is not consistent. The Daily Mail quoted:

“… a humiliating episode with an older woman who liked macho horses and who treated me like a young stallion. I mounted her quickly, after which she spanked my ass and sent me away. One of my many mistakes was letting it happen in a field, just behind a very busy pub.”

There are some significant differences. Firstly, a shift in agency and responsibility: a “quick ride” is recast to position Harry as dominant (“I mounted her”), while “things that were wrong” become “my many mistakes”, suggesting self-accusation.

There is also awkwardness, in the term “macho horse” and in the reference to ass spanking: would the author who talks elsewhere about his “todger” also say “ass”?

The different word choices may be partly about different translators working on the text that appeared in different places. A translator collaborates in rewriting the author’s text, brings out its interest and value, reads carefully for hidden layers of meaning and confronts difficulties and inconsistencies.

Languages don’t map directly onto one another and there is often more than one way to translate a given word or phrase. What’s notable here is that the invisibility of the English to Spanish to English translation process leaves readers not understanding why there are different versions.

His story?

Translation theorists have talked about translation as a kind of “rewriting”. Recognising the translator as an active writing agent is key to exploring the ethical question of whose voice is heard in translated texts.

However, the participation of others in the telling doesn’t necessarily mean Spare is no longer Prince Harry’s story.

Spare on sale at the Barnes & Noble bookshop in New York.
lev radin / Shutterstock

Storytelling is central to how we establish our identity, and it is social. We rely on communities to retell our stories and so, as the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre explains: “We are never more (and sometimes less) than co-authors of our own narrative.”

But how far can the ownership of Prince Harry’s narrative stretch when the words are no longer “his”? As we have seen, when fragments and differently translated snippets are all presented as “the text”, the resulting inconsistency undermines the authenticity of the story, and with it the agenda of the book.

The marketing for Spare and media appearances surrounding its publication have leaned heavily on a bid to “tell my own story” and resist “words being taken out of context”. The realities of translation show how difficult this is. Läs mer…

It’ll take 150 years to map Africa’s biodiversity at the current rate. We can’t protect what we don’t know

The African continent is bursting with biodiversity. In a 2016 report, the United Nations Environment Programme wrote:

Africa’s biomes extend from mangroves to deserts, from Mediterranean to tropical forests, from temperate to sub-tropical and montane grasslands and savannas, and even to ice-capped mountains.

About a quarter of the world’s species of plants and animals are found on the continent.

But biodiversity isn’t just beautiful. We need it to survive. Different species and biomes provide ecosystem services to humans: food, clothing, potable water and the very air we breathe. The disappearance of a seemingly unimportant animal, like a certain species of bee, may result in the extinction of certain plant species. That, in turn, affects humans and other species.

Experts have estimated that each country, globally, must protect the biodiversity of 30% of its territory by 2030 to at least mitigate the effects of ongoing environmental damage.

But we found in a recent study that huge swathes of Africa remain unstudied and their species undocumented. Why? Because scientists keep returning to areas whose biodiversity has already been mapped, rather than visiting new, unexplored areas.

We show that at the current rate of discovery it may take more than 150 years to visit every 100km x 100km area in Africa even once. And, our analysis suggests, one visit won’t be enough. It may take up to 27 field expeditions to document just 50% of an area’s existing species.

If scientists don’t start venturing outside well-mapped areas, thousands of new species will remain undocumented. Adequate data is crucial to identifying and delineating species boundaries, understanding spatial biodiversity patterns and effectively promoting species conservation. We cannot protect what we don’t know.

Assessing the data

All of the uncoloured areas on these maps of Africa show parts of the continent where the study didn’t find any scientific expeditions.
Authors supplied

Our estimates are based only on birds, mammals and amphibians — three well-studied groups. The knowledge bias and spatial patterns we report are likely to be considerably worse for other already under-described groups such as plants, fungi and insects.

We wanted to use data to produce visuals of the continent’s unstudied or under-studied areas. Usually when scientists go to the field, they collect specimens which end up in museums and then show up on the museums’ databases. These databases have been aggregated into one by the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, so all the data sets can be accessed at once.

This was the source of our data and meant we were counting scientific expeditions, a better representation of species mapping than, for instance, researchers’ anecdotes or a random sample of journal articles.

To estimate the number of expeditions in each 100km x 100km grid cell in Africa, a standard method for conducting analyses of this sort, we counted the number of years which had at least one collection involving either amphibians, mammals or birds. So, a value of five, for instance, shows that there were collections made by scientists in five different years.

Then we applied statistical tools that use the current rate to model the future trend if the behaviour (the rate of expeditions) stays the same.

Our results emphasise that current practice is insufficient to adequately classify and map African biodiversity. This can result in misleading and self-reinforcing conservation priorities: areas are considered to be of high conservation value largely because they are better surveyed rather than because they are actually more diverse.

Pushing for change

There are ways to improve this situation.

Agencies, companies and philanthropists that fund research should actively promote projects that aim to sample areas where baseline biodiversity data is lacking.

Researchers should, meanwhile, increase the taxonomic and methodological scope of their collection efforts. Given the logistical and legislative challenges of carrying out fieldwork across most of Africa, we urge scientists to collaborate with specialists in different institutions and with varied taxonomic expertise to responsibly sample the maximum possible number of taxa – in full or as tissue samples, especially for endangered or large species.

There’s also a need for scientists to engage with each other beyond borders. Biological sampling in Africa has, to a large extent, been carried out by European and North American institutions. Researchers from institutions in those regions need to collaborate with local universities, rather than just using locals as field assistants.

At a government level, the process for sampling permits should be made transparent and available online for every country in the continent, to encourage and streamline biodiversity research. Läs mer…

Ukraine: why supply of US and German tanks echoes cold war

The decision that Germany and the US will allow the export of M1 Abrams and Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, alongside the British Challenger 2 tanks promised in mid January is the culmination of Nato’s policy to assist Ukraine and an important symbolic step in the west’s response to Putin’s aggression.

The export of German and US tanks to Ukraine is not without risk, both real and symbolic. In purely military terms, well-trained, well-led and motivated Ukrainian tank crews operating the Leopard 2 or M1 Abrams will be better protected, have better firepower and be more manoeuvrable than their Russian counterparts. Provided the Ukrainians can cope with the fact that they will need different ammunition, spare parts and possibly fuel they can make a difference, significantly enhancing Ukraine’s capability to defend its territory.

If these conditions are met and if the west makes available the 300 tanks that the Ukrainian leadership demands, they can be a gamechanger. Tanks can deliver rapid gains of territory to the Ukrainians in a summer offensive.

Just as important, however, is the need to continue to supply long-range artillery to Ukraine to degrade Russia’s logistical capabilities and destroy troop concentrations.

Replaying old stories

Symbolically, the presence of US and German-made tanks in Ukraine is more problematic. Nato’s cold war doctrine was largely based on the experience of German tanks in the second world war – especially during the Wehrmacht’s desperate retreat across Ukraine in 1943-44 when small groups of German tanks successfully counterattacked, delaying the Soviet Red Army’s advance.

The presence of Abrams and Leopard 2s in Ukraine promises to recreate the never-fought battles of the cold war with tanks and tactics designed for the clash of Nato and the Warsaw Pact armies across the German plains in the 1980s.

In the 1970s Nato and the Soviet Union faced each other across the border between East and West Germany. Leaders in both blocs were aware of a growing discrepancy in conventional forces, a crucial component of which was the “tank gap”. By the end of the decade the Soviets had 10,000 more tanks in Europe than Nato.

The newest Soviet tanks – the T-64 and the T-72 – were superior to contemporary Nato models in terms of armour, firepower and manoeuvrability. If the Soviets had invaded, Nato would have been unable to stop their larger conventional forces and would – sooner rather than later, have been forced to use nuclear weapons to avoid defeat. Attempts at US-German cooperation to produce a new tank – the MBT-70 – had failed miserably in the late 1960s. In the next decade both developed their own solutions to close the tank gap.

In 1979 the West German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, accepted the new Leopard 2 into service, followed three years later by the arrival in Germany of a new American tank, the M1 Abrams. Both were better protected, faster and had more effective guns than their predecessors. But Nato’s armoured doctrine still relied on quality rather than quantity to meet the Soviet threat.

In 1984, with the new generation of Nato tanks, including the British Challenger 1, in service, Soviet tanks still outnumbered their opponents by nearly three to one. Nevertheless, despite the appearance of a new Soviet “super tank”, the T-80, Nato was closing the tank gap. It also developed new fast-moving combined arms tactics, designed to strike deep into the attacking Warsaw Pact forces.

Russia’s tank stocks, including the T-72 B3 battle tank, tend to be Soviet-era designs or upgrades based on the same designs.
EPA-EFE/Yuri Kochetkov

By the end of the decade Nato generals in West Germany could be confident that their tanks could blunt any Soviet invasion without needing to push the nuclear button.

In the event the cold war and the Soviet threat to western Europe collapsed with the Berlin Wall. The M1 Abrams and British Challenger 1 proved their mettle – and the validity of Nato armoured doctrine – in the deserts of Iraq and Kuwait during the 1991 Gulf War.

In the following decades Nato main battle tanks – the M1 Abrams, the Challenger 1 and 2, and the Leopard 2 – were deployed in peacekeeping operations in the Balkans or fighting insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, in George W Bush’s “New World Order” the main battle tank seemed a relic from the past. In the battle against terrorists and non-state actors, drones and “smart” bombs seemed much more relevant than 70-ton tanks.

Crimea changed approach

This changed suddenly and dramatically in 2014 with the Russian annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas. The US again sent their Abrams to Germany and German-made Leopard 2s were deployed to the Baltic states as part of Nato’s new enhanced forward presence battlegroups.

From 2014 until the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Nato states, including Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Poland and the Netherlands, expanded their tank forces and refocused from counterinsurgency to fighting a near-peer adversary on a conventional battlefield.

However, this decision pans out on the battlefield, it promises to hand Putin an important domestic propaganda victory – and one you can be sure he will exploit to the full. Läs mer…

Ukraine has a mixed record of treating its citizens fairly – that could make it harder for it to maintain peace, once the war ends

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the dominant Western media narrative has been clear – Russia is the “global villain,” and Ukraine a model country victimized by an unjust war. But while the war may be unjust, Ukraine had its share of problems before the conflict with Russia intensified in 2022.

Expert analysis shows that Russia launched an illegal war and has committed the vast majority of the human rights violations in the conflict – such as targeting Ukraine’s civilians.

Ukraine has also allegedly committed war crimes against Russian soldiers during the conflict. Much like Russia, the country has had a mixed record over the past two decades regarding treatment of its citizens.

We are human rights scholars who helped launch the world’s largest quantitative data set – known as CIRIGHTS – to track global human rights in December 2022.

Our analysis shows that while Ukraine’s prewar human rights record is better than Russia’s, it is far below the global average. Along with an ongoing problem of government corruption in government, Ukraine has been cited by Western human rights groups for not prosecuting hate crimes and failing to properly address and respond to gender-based violence.

Ukrainian women and children pass through the Przemysl train station in Poland after fleeing the war in April 2022.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Ukraine’s human rights record

Ukraine scores in the bottom third of all countries in terms of its human rights record, according to our data. Its score of 42 out of 100 is the same as that of the Central African Republic – a country rife with violence against civilians and political instability.

Several factors contributed to this ranking. Ukraine’s military, for example, is known to have indiscriminately used cluster munitions in highly populated areas of Donetsk – in the eastern part of Ukraine that is occupied by a rebel government – in 2014, killing civilians. Ukraine’s police also killed numerous protesters in Kyiv during the 2014 protests, which led to EU sanctions.

Other human rights and freedom monitors like the U.S. nonprofit Freedom House have reported more recently that Ukraine was “partly free” when it came to issues like expression, access to information and the press. The country ranked just below the global average, with a score of 59 out of 100.

Other human rights analyses show that the extent to which people in Ukraine are free from government torture and forced labor and enjoy such privileges as freedom of religion and expression has improved since 1991, when the Soviet Union broke up – and Ukraine gained its independence – the country’s ranking still stands below that of Ukraine’s Western European neighbors, like Poland, and the United States.
Unless Ukraine addresses its human rights shortfalls, it could risk not achieving or maintaining lasting peace, no matter when or how the war eventually ends. Research shows that human rights violations create social and political problems that can lead to conflict both within a country and internationally.

How it works

While many human rights measurement projects tend to focus on if and how a government uses physical violence against its people, our project aims to measure all 30 internationally recognized human rights, including women’s rights and workers’ rights.

We believe that this kind of comprehensive data helps all people have an easy, transparent and reliable way to understand a country’s human rights record.

Hundreds of undergraduate and graduate research assistants, as well as 10 faculty members across different schools, scored each human right for all countries of the world for each year since 1981, based on publicly available research and human rights reports. Each country’s scores in the 2022 report card are based on the most recent year for which scores were available for all human rights scored by the CIRIGHTS data project.

The scorers work independently with a rigorous set of scoring guidelines to consider 25 human rights measures and then work together to resolve differences to agree upon a numerical score.

The December 2022 annual report placed Canada and Sweden at the head of the class, with a 96 each, followed by New Zealand, Norway and Portugal at 94. At the bottom were Iraq, with a score of 12, China at 10, and North Korea and Syria with 6, and Iran at 2. The U.S. was not measured in this report card, since the U.S. government does not report on its own human rights. Subsequent reports will include analysis of the U.S. drawn from other sources.

Ukraine’s recent history of protests

Research has shown that violations of human rights increase the likelihood of violent protests, terrorism and rebellion.

Ukraine, like Russia, has a history of citizens’ fighting corruption through public grievances, which turn into mass protests. Its Orange Revolution in 2004 and 2005, for example, resulted in widespread marches in protest of the alleged fraudulent election of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, a candidate backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Following a run-off election, Yanukovych’s anti-corruption opponent Viktor Andriyovych Yushchenko was elected in January 2005.

But five years later, Ukranians voted Yanukovych right back into office.

In 2014, mass protests once again emerged in Ukraine after the government abruptly canceled an economic trade and political agreement with the European Union, following Russian pressure. People protested the decision, and Yanukovych’s government passed new laws to limit protests. Emboldened, police violently repressed the demonstrators – leading to more violent and deadly riots.

The 2014 and 2015 clashes culminated in the ouster of Yanukovych and the overthrow of the pro-Russian Ukrainian government. The protests also coincided with Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula.

Conflict between Russia and Ukraine has since dramatically intensified, spreading across much of Ukraine in 2022. This conflict has only made domestic human rights conditions more important.

Ukrainians take to the streets during the 2004 Orange Revolution to protest an alleged fraudulent election.
Sergey Supinski/AFP via Getty Images

Why it matters

Our data shows that Russia ranked as the 12th-worst human rights violator in the world over the past two decades, placing it far below Ukraine. Russia is known to be responsible for thousands of civilian deaths in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine, as well as the torture and imprisonment of Ukrainian citizens living in Russia.

And our analysis showed that Ukraine’s record for protecting civil and political rights, as well as other kinds of rights, were substantially better than Russia’s in recent years. Our scores are consistent with scores provided by other groups that track human rights.

The statistical evidence from all sources shows that both Russia and Ukraine have poor human rights records and are a long way from achieving a passing grade. This means for both countries it will be hard to achieve internal peace after the war ends. Läs mer…

What’s effective altruism? A philosopher explains

Effective altruism is an intellectual and charitable movement that aspires to find the best ways to help others. People dedicated to it rely on evidence and rational arguments to identify what they can do to make the most progress toward solving the world’s most pressing problems, such as reducing malnutrition and malaria while increasing access to health care.

A group of intellectuals, including the Oxford University philosophers William MacAskill and Toby Ord, coined the term in 2011. The movement was inspired in part by the philosopher Peter Singer, who has argued for an obligation to help those in extreme poverty since the 1970s.

Numerous effective altruist nonprofits have sprung up over the past 12 years. They research and implement ways to help others that they think will make a big difference, such as by providing people in low-income countries with malaria-fighting bed nets, safe water dispensers and low-cost cataract surgeries to restore eyesight.

Why effective altruism matters

Effective altruism has gained traction and mobilized tens of billions of dollars, in part because of its popularity among some extremely wealthy donors.

Perhaps the most affluent proponent is Dustin Moskovitz, who co-founded Facebook and the Asana digital work management platform. Moskovitz makes charitable giving decisions with his wife, Cari Tuna.

Before the collapse of the FTX cryptocurrency exchange that former billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried founded, he reportedly committed more than US$160 million to charities that are popular with effective altruists.

Elon Musk hasn’t been clear about his charitable giving preferences since he started to pour billions of dollars into his own foundation. But he has praised MacAskill’s most recent book, “What We Owe the Future,” sparking conjecture about the Twitter, Tesla and SpaceX CEO’s possible support for these giving practices.

The effective altruism movement also includes many donors without billions to give away.

Regardless of their wealth, all donors with this mindset can dedicate their own money or time to support their favorite causes.

One way they can try to do both at once is through what effective altruists call “earning to give”; they make as much money as they can and then donate most of it to charities they believe will do the most good per dollar spent.

Some effective altruist groups embrace a secular version of the religious tradition called tithing – and give 10% of their income to high-impact charities.

Others may devote their time to these causes by personally working, volunteering or advocating for organizations they believe will do a great deal of good.

Effective altruists who focus on the biggest existential risks that threaten humanity’s survival are called ‘longtermists.’

Near and far

Effective altruists need to reach their own conclusions about a question they all must grapple with: Which causes do the most good?

When deciding whether to focus on an issue, they first consider three other questions. First, how big is the problem? Second, how much funding is currently devoted to addressing it? Third, are there any known solutions or systems that can or do make a difference?

Effective altruists also tend to land in two different camps.

“Neartermists” focus on problems facing the people and animals who are alive today. These effective altruists typically see problems related to extreme poverty as among the most significant issues that can be solved.

They are likely to support charities that have shown they can take just $7 and protect a child from malaria, $1 to deliver essential vitamin A supplements or $25 to cure someone of preventable blindness. Another main priority for neartermists is improving the conditions of livestock and the vast numbers of animals suffering in factory farms.

Longtermists emphasize problems that people who will be alive in the future might face.

Effective altruists in this camp often highlight the importance of trying to reduce the probability of artificial intelligence killing everyone on Earth, nuclear war, pandemics, climate change and other existential risks. Läs mer…

Debates over sacred images in the Byzantine Empire show why it’s hard to appease any side

An adjunct lecturer at Hamline University recently lost her job for showing an image of Prophet Muhammad in an art history class, which some students and administrators considered to be Islamophobic. The university later retracted the accusation of Islamophobia and said in a statement, “It was never our intent to suggest that academic freedom is of lower concern or value than our students,” but still insisted that “care” does not “supersede academic freedom, the two coexist.”

An earlier statement from Hamline President Fayneese Miller had noted, “Students do not relinquish their faith in the classroom,” which suggested that classrooms need to be visually tailored to a specific faith.

As a historian of Byzantine art familiar with the fierce debates over sacred images in the 8th and 9th centuries, I consider Miller’s statement a challenge to how students might study religious imagery at all.

The very example of the debates in the Byzantine Empire shows how hard it is to design a space that caters exactly to the specifications of any particular faith.

The debates over images in Byzantium

In Greek Orthodox Christianity, which was the official religion of the Byzantine Empire that lasted from 312 to 1453 A.D., some factions were against sacred images and some in favor of them. The factions that were against images claimed that the image of Jesus Christ was unacceptable, since his nature was both divine and human.

An icon of Christ being effaced, from 9th-century Byzantium.
Chludov Psalter, State Historical Museum, Moscow, via Wikimedia Commons

This position argued that an image of Christ, therefore, either showed only his divinity – which was impossible, since divinity cannot be depicted in ordinary, human-made materials – or that such an image claimed Christ was not divine at all – also considered a heresy. An image of Christ could not be produced or displayed, since it put the artist and viewer in a false position regarding the Orthodox faith.

However, those who were in favor of images countered this stance by arguing that God, or divinity, had taken human shape in the form of Christ. The incarnation, meaning “enfleshment” of Christ, thus legitimized the making of images, since it made Christ accessible to humankind. This faction also argued that sacred images were necessary, as they served to remind viewers of the sacred beings they depicted, such as Christ, the Virgin and the saints.

Contradictions acknowledged on both sides

The differences between the two factions became clear in the Council of Hiereia, which was called by Emperor Constantine V in 754 A.D. to lay out the terms of those who were against images. However, despite affirming that sacred Christian imagery was blasphemous and should not be produced, this faction still stated:

“… we ordain that no one in charge of a church … shall venture … to lay his hands on the holy vessels … because they are adorned with figures. The same is … in regard to the vestments of the church, cloths, and all that is dedicated to divine service. …”

Example of a vessel for holy bread used in the sanctuary.
Metropolitan Museum, New York. Gift of Mrs. Hayford Peirce, 1987

The above statement was at odds with the general stance of the council against images. It meant that the already existing sacred images were still considered holy, and vessels containing sacred images were permitted to remain intact. These vessels were in all probability used at the altar table in the sanctuary, the holiest part of a church.

The faction in favor of images won the debate in 843 A.D. That was the year when the Greek Orthodox Church officially ruled that sacred images, or icons, were essential to that faith. But despite the victory, that side made an implicit concession to its opponents.

It was decreed that the sacred icon was not to be venerated for the materials of wood, wax, colors, or other matter it was composed of, or even the image it showed. There was a general idea that venerators, by lighting candles in front of icons and kissing and touching them, were directing attention to the materials and not to the holy subject. Instead, the image was supposed to lead the viewer’s mind to the holy subject, which was Christ, the Virgin or the saints.

In the 11th century, Symeon the New Theologian, an Orthodox monk, came to disregard this definition. A historian of Byzantine art Charles Barber argues that Symeon, despite being in favor of images, sought a spiritual experience during his prayers that went beyond the matter of the image.

Thus, each side of the Byzantine debates implicitly acknowledged the impossibility of any watertight, consistent theory regarding sacred images. By the same token, both sides indicated the impossibility of fashioning spaces that catered exactly to any Orthodox Christian position regarding such images.

Visual sanctity in the classroom

Returning to the contemporary classroom, to what extent can this space be visually controlled?

All art history instructors can certainly curate their lectures. Curation here inevitably means the inclusion and exclusion of certain things. However, it is unlikely that any degree or kind of selection would completely satisfy any single position regarding sacred images.

To demand that a discipline like art history maintain visual sanctity in the classroom is, I believe, tantamount to demanding the impossible. Läs mer…

How California’s ambitious new climate plan could help speed energy transformation around the world

California is embarking on an audacious new climate plan that aims to eliminate the state’s greenhouse gas footprint by 2045, and in the process, slash emissions far beyond its borders. The blueprint calls for massive transformations in industry, energy and transportation, as well as changes in institutions and human behaviors.

These transformations won’t be easy. Two years of developing the plan have exposed myriad challenges and tensions, including environmental justice, affordability and local rule.

For example, the San Francisco Fire Commission had prohibited batteries with more than 20 kilowatt-hours of power storage in homes, severely limiting the ability to store solar electricity from rooftop solar panels for all those times when the sun isn’t shining. More broadly, local opposition to new transmission lines, large-scale solar and wind facilities, substations for truck charging, and oil refinery conversions to produce renewable diesel will slow the transition.

I had a front row seat while the plan was prepared and vetted as a longtime board member of the California Air Resources Board, the state agency that oversees air pollution and climate control. And my chief contributor to this article, Rajinder Sahota, is deputy executive officer of the board, responsible for preparing the plan and navigating political land mines.

We believe California has a chance of succeeding, and in the process, showing the way for the rest of the world. Most of the needed policies are already in place.

What happens in California has global reach

What California does matters far beyond state lines.

California is close to being the world’s fourth-largest economy and has a history of adopting environmental requirements that are imitated across the United States and the world. California has the most ambitious zero-emission requirements in the world for cars, trucks and buses; the most ambitious low-carbon fuel requirements; one of the largest carbon cap-and-trade programs; and the most aggressive requirements for renewable electricity.

In the U.S., through peculiarities in national air pollution law, other states have replicated many of California’s regulations and programs so they can race ahead of national policies. States can either follow federal vehicle emissions standards or California’s stricter rules. There is no third option. An increasing number of states now follow California.

So, even though California contributes less than 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions, if it sets a high bar, its many technical, institutional and behavioral innovations will likely spread and be transformative.

What’s in the California blueprint

The new Scoping Plan lays out in considerable detail how California intends to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 48% below 1990 levels by 2030 and then achieve carbon neutrality by 2045.

It calls for a 94% reduction in petroleum use between 2022 and 2045 and an 86% reduction in total fossil fuel use. Overall, it would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 85% by 2045 relative to 1990 levels. The remaining 15% reduction would come from capturing carbon from the air and fossil fuel plants, and sequestering it below ground or in forests, vegetation and soils.

To achieve these goals, the plan calls for a 37-fold increase in on-road zero-emission vehicles, a sixfold increase in electrical appliances in residences, a fourfold increase in installed wind and solar generation capacity, and doubling total electricity generation to run it all. It also calls for ramping up hydrogen power and for altering agriculture and forest management to reduce wildfires, sequester carbon dioxide and reduce fertilizer demand.

This is a massive undertaking, and it implies a massive transformation of many industries and activities.

Transportation: California’s No. 1 emitter

Transportation accounts for about half of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, including upstream oil refinery emissions. This is where the path forward is perhaps most settled.

The state has already adopted regulations requiring almost all new cars, trucks and buses to have zero emissions – new transit buses by 2029 and most truck sales and all light-duty vehicle sales by 2035.

In addition, California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard requires oil companies to steadily reduce the carbon intensity of transportation fuels. This regulation aims to ensure that the liquid fuels needed for legacy cars and trucks still on the road after 2045 will be low-carbon biofuels.

The Port of Long Beach opened the nation’s first publicly accessible charging station for heavy-duty electric trucks in November 2022.
Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images

But regulations can be modified and even rescinded if opposition swells. If battery costs do not resume their downward slide, if electric utilities and others lag in providing charging infrastructure, and if local opposition blocks new charging sites and grid upgrades, the state could be forced to slow its zero-emission vehicle requirements.

The plan also relies on changes in human behavior. For example, it calls for a 25% reduction in vehicle miles traveled in 2030 compared with 2019, which has far dimmer prospects. The only strategies likely to significantly reduce vehicle use are steep charges for road use and parking, a move few politicians or voters in the U.S. would support, and a massive increase in shared-ride automated vehicles, which are not likely to scale up for at least another 10 years. Additional charges for driving and parking raise concerns about affordability for low-income commuters.

Electricity and electrifying buildings

The key to cutting emissions in almost every sector is electricity powered by renewable energy.

Electrifying most everything means not just replacing most of the state’s natural gas power plants, but also expanding total electricity production – in this case doubling total generation and quadrupling renewable generation, in just 22 years.

That amount of expansion and investment is mind-boggling – and it is the single most important change for reaching net zero, since electric vehicles and appliances depend on the availability of renewable electricity to count as zero emissions.

Electrification of buildings is in the early stages in California, with requirements in place for new homes to have rooftop solar, and incentives and regulations adopted to replace natural gas use with heat pumps and electric appliances.

Two microgrid communities being developed in Menifee, Calif., feature all-electric homes equipped with solar panels, heat pumps and batteries.
Watchara Phomicinda/MediaNews Group/The Press-Enterprise via Getty Images

The biggest and most important challenge is accelerating renewable electricity generation – mostly wind and utility-scale solar. The state has laws in place requiring electricity to be 100% zero emissions by 2045 – up from 52% in 2021.

The plan to get there includes offshore wind power, which will require new technology – floating wind turbines. The federal government in December 2022 leased the first Pacific sites for offshore wind farms, with plans to power over 1.5 million homes. However, years of technical and regulatory work are still ahead.

For solar power, the plan focuses on large solar farms, which can scale up faster and at less cost than rooftop solar. The same week the new scoping plan was announced, California’s Public Utility Commission voted to significantly scale back how much homeowners are reimbursed for solar power they send to the grid, a policy known as net metering. The Public Utility Commission argues that because of how electricity rates are set, generous rooftop solar reimbursements have primarily benefited wealthier households while imposing higher electricity bills on others. It believes this new policy will be more equitable and create a more sustainable model.

Industry and the carbon capture challenge

Industry plays a smaller role, and the policies and strategies here are less refined.

The state’s carbon cap-and-trade program, designed to ratchet down total emissions while allowing individual companies some flexibility, will tighten its emissions limits.

But while cap-and-trade has been effective to date, in part by generating billions of dollars for programs and incentives to reduce emissions, its role may change as energy efficiency improves and additional rules and regulations are put in place to replace fossil fuels.

One of the greatest controversies throughout the Scoping Plan process is its reliance on carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS. The controversy is rooted in concern that CCS allows fossil fuel facilities to continue releasing pollution while only capturing the carbon dioxide emissions. These facilities are often in or near disadvantaged communities.

California’s chances of success

Will California make it? The state has a track record of exceeding its goals, but getting to net zero by 2045 requires a sharper downward trajectory than even California has seen before, and there are still many hurdles.

Environmental justice concerns about carbon capture and new industrial facilities, coupled with NIMBYism, could block many needed investments. And the possibility of sluggish economic growth could led to spending cuts and might exacerbate concerns about economic disruption and affordability.

There are also questions about prices and geopolitics. Will the upturn in battery costs in 2022 – due to geopolitical flare-ups, a lag in expanding the supply of critical materials, and the war in Ukraine – turn out to be a hiccup or a trend? Will electric utilities move fast enough in building the infrastructure and grid capacity needed to accommodate the projected growth in zero-emission cars and trucks?

It is encouraging that the state has already created just about all the needed policy infrastructure. Additional tightening of emissions limits and targets will be needed, but the framework and policy mechanisms are largely in place.

Rajinder Sahota, deputy executive officer of the California Air Resources Board, contributed to this article. Läs mer…

People blame and judge parents for children’s heavier weights

The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.

The big idea

Americans stigmatize parents of heavier children, specifically blaming them for their children’s weights, according to experiments conducted by our team of psychologists.

The more a person views parents as responsible for a child’s excess weight, the more likely they are to view such parents as bad parents who are lazy, overindulgent and incompetent.

Our findings corroborate what parents of children with higher weights have reported for years: that other people – friends, other parents, strangers or even their pediatricians – might blame them, dislike them and think they are poor parents.

Why it matters

In the U.S., about 1 in 3 children have body mass indexes that would be categorized as overweight or obese. The number has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning an increasing number of parents face stigma on account of their child’s weight.

This parental weight stigma is just beginning to receive serious scientific attention but could have major effects on parents, children and families.

For example, family courts across the U.S. and internationally have removed children with obesity from parental custody in large part due to their children’s weights. Family separation can have massive negative effects on children. Our work suggests that if judges react as our study participants did, they may view parents of heavier children as being bad parents simply because their children are heavier.

In reality, weight is not solely under personal control. In fact, dieting can cause weight gain. Excess weight arises from a complex interplay of genes, environment, diet and activity.

Psychologists also know that weight stigma is associated with pervasive negative consequences, including bullying, ignorant comments and feelings of painful invisibility – as well as diminished educational and economic opportunities and worse medical outcomes importantly not simply due to one’s weight. Experiencing weight stigma, insidiously, might itself facilitate weight gain and cause other negative effects.

Everyone loses in the blame game.
roman023/iStock via Getty Images Plus

What still isn’t known

If people blame and stigmatize parents of children with higher weights, what effects does it have on parents, on their children and on the parent-child interactions that are so important for healthy development?

We do not yet know, for example, if heavier children are aware people stigmatize their parents. If so, these children might not only be ashamed of their size, but also might erroneously feel responsible for how people treat their parents.

How we do our work

For this research, published in the journal Psychological Science, we ran three experiments with over 1,000 U.S. participants – about 75% white and 25% other races/ethnicities – over the course of 2022.

We randomly assigned participants to view one of four line drawings depicting a mother or father next to an 8-year-old daughter or son. We also included a short description of the parent and child.

In two of the line drawings and descriptions, the child was described and depicted as “healthy”-weight. In the other two, the child was depicted and described as having “obesity.” The parents were always depicted and described as being healthy-weight. This allowed us to conclude that study participants’ reactions to parents were due to their children’s weights, not the parents’.

We asked participants a few short questions about how good or bad a parent they thought the adult was. Participants also answered questions about what they believed influenced the child’s weight (as well as their academic performance and athleticism, to help obscure the focus of the study). Participants were given 100 “responsibility points” to allot to four factors that could be behind the child’s weight: parent behavior, child behavior, genetic factors and societal factors.

As expected, people who viewed the child with obesity assigned more responsibility points to parent behavior and saw that parent as a worse parent. We found parent and child gender made little difference, consistent with other work.

This is consistent with previous research showing people blame parents for children’s obesity more than people blame society or the kids themselves.

We also tested whether providing alternative explanations for the child’s weight would decrease the amount of blame parents received for it. When we told participants the child had a thyroid condition that caused her excess weight, they stigmatized the mother less, holding her less responsible.

Next, our team is exploring how parents’ own weight, income and race/ethnicity influences the stigma directed toward them on account of their child’s excess weight. Läs mer…

Prince Harry’s kill count revelation could spark important discussions about war’s effects on soldiers

When Prince Harry revealed in his new book, “Spare,” that he killed 25 Taliban fighters as an Apache helicopter pilot, he compared their deaths to “chess pieces removed from the board.” His comments have drawn ire from critics, such as Anas Haqqani, a member of the Haqqani Network, which is an Afghan Sunni Islamist militant organization and part of the Taliban government of Afghanistan. Haqqani shot back that those slain fighters “were not chess pieces, they were humans; they had families who were waiting for their return.” But others have questioned whether Prince Harry should have spoken about his body count at all.

Here, L. William Uhl, an assistant professor of philosophy at the United States Air Force Academy, provides insight on what airmen are taught and told when it comes to the sensitive topic of taking lives in the line of duty.

1. How often do airmen have to discuss the kills they did in battle?

Reporting kills is actually a routine part of an airman’s duty. It comes up as part of what is called battle damage assessment. This assessment is necessary to determine how much of the enemy’s physical and functional capabilities remain.

Some airmen’s annual performance reports will include the number of enemy combatants they have killed. These numbers become part of these airmen’s permanent records and are used to demonstrate how they have contributed to their units’ missions. It is possible to determine how many have been killed, for example, if certain weapon imaging systems are used or enemy combatants are out in the open.

Prince Harry himself says, “So, my number: Twenty-five. It wasn’t a number that gave me any satisfaction. But neither was it a number that made me feel ashamed. Naturally, I’d have preferred not to have that number on my military CV [curriculum vitae], on my mind, but by the same token I’d have preferred to live in a world in which there was no Taliban, a world without war.”

It is one thing to destroy a facility and not dwell on the people inside, another to witness one or more deaths directly or through some form of imaging.

2. With whom should airmen discuss their kills?

After airmen deploy to combat areas, they are required to talk to counselors when they redeploy home. But I know from experience that sometimes they cannot wait until then.

While I was deployed to Baghdad International Airport in 2004 – one year after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein – Iraqi insurgents ambushed a convoy returning to Baghdad from Balad. During the firefight, American forces lost one captain but managed to kill some of the insurgents. A friend who was a chaplain told me that from the time these troops had returned to base, many had sought him out for counseling, even into the wee hours of the morning. They struggled with the realization that they had killed people in the performance of their duties.

3. Is there any reason not to disclose the number of kills during or after one’s service?

Richard Kemp, a former British Army colonel, has said that Prince Harry’s providing the number of kills could provoke attacks from the Taliban and their followers on the United Kingdom. Tobias Ellwood, a member of Parliament and a former British Army captain, said that “there is the unwritten assumption that nobody publicly discusses kill counts for the principal reason that it can have security repercussions.” They are responding not only to Prince Harry’s notoriety as a member of the royal family but also to his connections with the British military and the Invictus Games, the charity he launched to help wounded British service members recover from their injuries.

Few, if any, American service members will rise to Prince Harry’s level of notoriety. Nevertheless, while in service or after leaving the service, those who wish to publish their memoirs in one form or another should contact the public affairs office of their military branch for guidance. Memoirs about wars fought many decades ago, such as World War II, Korea or Vietnam, will most likely not raise as many security concerns as accounts about more recent conflicts.

Discussing numbers of people killed or thought processes about killing can elicit strong reactions from anyone, but especially from those who consider the United States and its allies to be the enemy. Without realizing it, active-duty service members and former service members who have left active duty since Desert Storm may put lives at risk by revealing information about current operations, weapon system capabilities or deployment locations.

4. How do service members view such disclosures?

When teaching my cadets about the moral issues of killing in war, I find that these young future officers wrestle with taking on the daunting responsibility: most people their age will never have to reckon with killing if called upon to do so.

In class I teach about what Michael Walzer refers to as “naked soldiers” in his book “Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations.” The book recounts five examples from World War I, the Spanish Civil War and World War II. In each example, a soldier refrained from killing an enemy soldier because he realized that the enemy soldier was just like him: another human being.

Upon discussing this book, many of my cadets have told me about conversations they have had with relatives who have seen combat. In most cases, my cadets say their relatives leave out the specifics of having killed or don’t talk about their combat experience at all.

In the first few years after the 9/11 attacks, some military units would show, for various purposes, videos that were set to heavy metal music and contained footage from the weapon’s point of view as it was about to impact the target. I would say that these videos were a way of not only expressing Americans’ anger about the 9/11 attacks but also of motivating airmen to take the fight to the enemy.

Cadets I have recently taught have said that while they understood the purposes of the videos they have seen, they were bothered knowing that as these munitions zeroed in on their targets, people were only a few moments away from dying.

Each semester, cadets enrolled in our core philosophy course attend a lecture on an issue related to just war theory, a framework of ethics used to determine when it is permissible to go to war. In 2019, Karl Marlantes, a Marine lieutenant during the Vietnam War, spoke about what it was like for him to kill a young Vietnamese soldier at close range. He also spoke about what he has done “to make peace with his past.” I still recall the dead silence from the audience as they listened to Marlantes’ account.

5. Should Harry get some sort of consideration because of the public or media interest in his life?

Many people have criticized “Spare” because they believe that Prince Harry has revealed details about not only his own life but also royal family life that probably should remain undisclosed. In many instances, I tend to agree. But I also think that, given his notoriety, he addresses a very important question: How do service members maintain their moral integrity and well-being after having taken lives in the performance of their duties?

In “The Unseen Scars of Those Who Kill via Remote Control,” Dave Philipps discusses the stress that drone pilots experience. These pilots may observe targets for a long time before finally receiving the order to kill them. What bothers many of these pilots is that they come to see these targets as ordinary human beings with families. The difference is when their shifts are over, these pilots go home to their own families and do the very same activities they observed their targets doing with theirs. Läs mer…

The Holocaust: remembering the powerful acts of ’ordinary people’

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” the British author LP Hartley once wrote, hinting at the mystique of history – the idea that people in the past were somehow different to us in the 21st century.

As many historians will tell you, it’s not particularly useful to project modern values onto the past, or to judge historical figures by contemporary ideals. But the idea that the past far away in space and time, is also flawed. It encourages people to overlook the fact that those involved in seismic past events were real human beings, just like ourselves.

Nowhere is reconciling that distance between past and present more important than in the case of the Holocaust, which saw the murder of six million Jews at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. Drawing on this idea of making the past less of a “foreign country”, the official theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2023 in the UK is “ordinary people”.

Difficult questions

Holocaust Memorial Day is the annual opportunity for people around the world to remember and learn about – and from – the genocide. As the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust has outlined in its theme vision:

Genocide is facilitated by ordinary people. Ordinary people turn a blind eye, believe propaganda, join murderous regimes. And those who are persecuted, oppressed and murdered in genocide aren’t persecuted because of crimes they’ve committed – they are persecuted simply because they are ordinary people who belong to a particular group.

The theme of ordinary people encourages us to ask difficult questions of ourselves and society. Those who faced persecution were ordinary people who could do little to stop their fate.

We also tend to talk of the Nazi regime in sweeping terms – as an amorphous spectre of cruelty and fanaticism. But we must also remember that this regime was composed of ordinary men, women and children. It was a human phenomenon. Even Adolf Hitler – who as the figurehead of the Third Reich has become almost an abstract symbol of evil – was ultimately one single man.

The Holocaust as part of the British story

Human stories can bring us closer to the Holocaust in an emotional sense. But in the UK, it is possible to move closer to the past in a geographical sense. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust notes that “while the theme for HMD 2023 focuses on ordinary people, this can be extended to include ordinary locations, or sites”.

It can be tempting to think that the Holocaust happened “over there”, far away in mainland Europe. But the Holocaust is part of British history, albeit a complex one.

During the 1930s, an estimated 80,000 Jewish refugees came to Britain. Between November 1938 and September 1939, approximately 10,000 children were transported to Britain as part of the Kindertransport.

Yet, even though by 1941 allied governments were receiving incomplete reports of mass killings in Eastern Europe, no decisive action was taken against the Holocaust specifically. Until the end of the Second World War, the British war cabinet maintained that military victory would be the most effective way to end the genocide (or what was known of it).

Save the children

Britain was involved in responding the Holocaust in several different ways, as illustrated by the stories of two ordinary people. One was Nicholas Winton, a career banker who petitioned the UK government relentlessly between 1938 and 1939 for Czech children to be allowed entry to the UK. The other was Jane Haining, matron of a Jewish school in Budapest who remained with her charges and was sent to Auschwitz.

With a small group of helpers, Winton worked tirelessly to evacuate as many children from Prague as possible, ensuring the safe passage of 669 children to host families in Britain.

Jane Haining’s fate proved more tragic. A committed member of the evangelical United Free Church of Scotland, she took up her position in the girls’ hostel of the Jewish mission school in Budapest in 1932. Following the outbreak of World War II in 1939, she decided to remain with her young wards, despite her church’s advice that she should return to Edinburgh.

Haining’s assistance of persecuted Jews began before the German invasion of Hungary. From 1940, Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied states had started to arrive in Budapest, and some were taken in by Haining and her school.

The assistance Haining had offered Jews had not gone unnoticed by the new German occupiers of Budapest. In late April 1944, Gestapo officers arrived at the hostel to arrest the Scot for possession of illicit radio receivers. During questioning, the charges were broadened to include working among Jews and political activity, amongst other allegations.

Following confession under duress, she was transferred to the Kistarcsa transit camp on the outskirts of Budapest. In May 1944, Haining was deported to Auschwitz, where she died of starvation three months later.

Bringing the Holocaust closer to home

Between 2020 and 2022, there was a 22% rise in antisemitic incidents in the UK, while distressing examples of genocide continue to proliferate around the world.

To ensure new generations understand what happened to the Jews and other minorities during World War II, studying the Holocaust has been a compulsory part of the national curriculum in England since 1991 (although there is no formal requirement in Scotland or Northern Ireland). Thirteen European countries have legislation that criminalises Holocaust denial and the Nazi message, but this is not illegal in the UK.

In the current climate of social, cultural and national division, it is ordinary people who have the power and the responsibility to support efforts to learn from and about the Holocaust, so that appalling events from history are not repeated. Education is a vital tool to sow cultural appreciation and overcome social division, but there is always more to be done.

As it was demonstrated over and over during World War II, it is ordinary people, working together, who are capable of achieving extraordinary things. Läs mer…

Tanzania: opposition rallies are finally unbanned – but this doesn’t mean democratic reform is coming

In Tanzania, the political rally is back. Chadema, Tanzania’s leading opposition party, held mass rallies outside the official election campaign for the first time in six and a half years on 21 January 2023.

It could do so because three weeks earlier, President Samia Suluhu Hassan lifted the ban on public rallies. Assassination-attempt survivor and opposition politician Tundu Lissu returned to Tanzania on 25 January to take part in them.

The ban on rallies was introduced in June 2016 by the late President John Magufuli. It became a central plank of an authoritarian turn initiated by the ruling party, Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM), but ultimately propelled by Magufuli. The ban, however, appeared to affect only the opposition – CCM continued to convene rallies with impunity throughout.

Magufuli’s death on 17 March 2021 raised the dual possibilities that the CCM regime might loosen its iron grip, and that in such a context, the opposition might rebuild. The end of the ban on rallies has implications for both these possibilities.

I have spent 10 years researching Chadema’s grassroots organising and what it calls the struggle for democracy. I am writing a book on rallies in Tanzania.

In my view, the unbanning of rallies will tremendously alter the space in which the opposition has to operate. However, this doesn’t set Tanzania on any path of democratic reform. The timing and wider context still leaves the opposition with a big task ahead.

The very real possibility remains that Hassan has unbanned rallies to signal that she plans future democratic reforms – without actually enacting any.

Read more:
Tanzania’s Hassan has put out positive signals: deeper change is yet to come

A culture of rallies

It’s easy to underestimate the importance of the rally in Tanzania. In much of the global north, political rallies are things seen on TV and attended by ultra-partisans. But not in Tanzania.

In 2015, I oversaw the collection of a nationally representative survey in Tanzania. It showed that in the last month of the country’s election campaign, 69% of all people attended rallies. This figure dwarfs its equivalents in the global north. In the 2016 US campaign, just 7% of people attended public meetings.

Not only did a large proportion of Tanzanians attend rallies. They also attended them frequently. The same survey data showed that the average person attended seven such rallies in the last month of the campaign, or just under one every four days.

In Tanzania, the rally is, or in political campaigning becomes, a medium of mass communication, just as it does across much of the global south. Indefinitely banning rallies does to public communication in Tanzania what indefinitely banning television, or the internet, would do in the global north.

Tanzania’s ban on rallies was doubly painful for the opposition. First, it was a ban, in effect, only on opposition rallies.

Second, the opposition needs rallies in a way that the ruling party does not. In the shadow of state coercion, media outlets offer the opposition scarce and hostile coverage. The rally offers the opposition a way to reach the 73% of Tanzanians who say they don’t (directly) get news via social media.

Rallies and grassroots organising

The ban on rallies was lifted for the election campaign in 2020, but the opposition needs rallies between elections too – this is when they organise.

Chadema leaders and activists told me that between 2007 and 2015, they founded party branches across much of Tanzania. Their work paid off. The survey data I collected showed that in the 2015 campaign, Chadema’s ground campaign was so strong that it made at least as many house-to-house visits as the ruling party, perhaps more.

They achieved this party-building feat in large part through rallies. Teams of party leaders toured the country convening rallies. They imparted their messages and recruited attendees. Follow-up teams organised these new recruits into branches.

In parallel, lone organisers ran their own solo party-building initiatives. These local leaders, among them the 2020 presidential candidate Tundu Lissu, held public meetings in villages. Incrementally, they recruited local activists who became the leaders of new branches.

Today, though, it’s hard to know how well these structures have endured. Opposition activists were subjected to everyday oppression. It peaked during the violence of the 2020 election, and was designed to demoralise and demobilise them.

This means that opposition parties have their work cut out. They have to re-join public debates after years of censorship, and reorganise and remotivate their supporters all at once.

This makes the timing of the end of the ban important.

Chadema’s grassroots organising for the 2015 election began just months after the 2010 election. Revoking the ban now, just over two and a half years before the October 2025 election, leaves opposition parties with a greater task than they have faced before – and less time in which to do it.

President Hassan: reforming or gaslighting?

Unbanning the rally is perhaps the most concrete opening of political space that Hassan has introduced since she was sworn in as president.

Some will be tempted to read the unbanning of the rally as a sign of things to come. But that would be unduly optimistic.

It may be that Hassan plans to enact a wider programme of democratic reforms. Or it may be that she lifted the ban precisely so that it looks like that’s her plan.

Read more:
Tanzania’s Hassan faces her first political test: constitutional reform

Ultimately, either reading could turn out to be right. Interpreting the intentions of the often inscrutable Hassan is a matter of guesswork. But there are reasons to be sceptical.

First, the rally ban was part of an authoritarian architecture. The ban is gone, but the architecture remains. This leaves the regime with means aplenty to preserve its dominance.

Second, with the exception of the Magufuli years, the regime has long maintained the appearance of being the sort that would oversee democratic reforms – while implementing few of them.

The significance of the rally’s return may not be in what the regime will grant. Instead, it may be in what the opposition can demand. Chadema used its first rally to call again for a new constitution. Läs mer…

Heat stress is rising in southern Africa – climate experts show where and when it’s worst

Most of us have felt either too hot or too cold at some point in our lives. Depending on where we live, we may feel too cold quite often each winter, and too hot for a few days in summer. As we’re writing this in late January 2023 many southern Africans are probably feeling very hot and fatigued; a prolonged regional heatwave began around 9 January.

Being too hot isn’t just uncomfortable. Heat stress causes dehydration, headaches, nausea – and, when people are exposed to high temperatures for protracted periods, they risk severe health outcomes and could even die. For instance, at least five people working on farms in South Africa’s Northern Cape province have died from heat stroke in January. At least 90 people died in India and Pakistan in May 2022 during a devastating heatwave.

The situation is only going to get worse. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that “globally, the percentage of the population exposed to deadly heat stress is projected to increase from today’s 30% to 48%-76% by the end of the century, depending on future warming levels and location”.

We wanted to create a detailed picture of when and where heat stress occurs in southern Africa. By applying a global gridded dataset of a human thermal comfort index, we found that there has been a consistent change in thermal comfort – the human body’s experience of the outdoor thermal environment – from the 1970s to today. Simply put, southern Africans are experiencing heat stress more often than in 1979.

Given that global temperatures are set to rise in the coming years and decades, these findings are worrying. Warmer temperatures will mean that regions that were classified as having “favourable” thermal comfort will more regularly be classified as regions of “thermal stress”. Heatwaves have been projected to occur more frequently, and to be more intense.

Measuring thermal comfort (or stress)

Over the past two decades, scientists from across the world have developed the Universal Thermal Climate Index. It has advanced our ability to model human thermal comfort levels, ranging from cold stress to heat stress. Earlier thermal comfort indices typically only modelled heat stress because they mainly measured the combined effects of humidity and temperature to calculate an equivalent temperature.

Temperature extremes can put people’s health at risk. Authors supplied.

This equivalent temperature would essentially measure how we feel in relation to the surrounding environment. For example, at 5pm on 23 January, Johannesburg’s outdoor air temperature was 29˚C; relative humidity was 30%; the sky was clear and there was a gentle breeze of 16km/h.

For someone outside, the equivalent temperature would have been slightly higher than the outdoor temperature (possibly as high as 32˚C), largely due to the effect of relative humidity and limited wind chill.

The Universal Thermal Climate Index considers a wider range of factors that influence thermal comfort than its predecessors. In addition to air temperature, relative humidity and wind speed, it also includes radiant heat, a measure of how hot we feel when standing in the sun rather than in the shade.

The index is built for humans navigating the real world: it includes a clothing model and an exertion model.

During the current southern African heatwave, for instance, the model assumes that nobody is dressed in a fuzzy jersey. In winter, it assumes nobody in countries like Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Eswatini, Lesotho and South Africa is wearing shorts and a T-shirt.

Ultimately, the inclusion of all these factors means that the Universal Thermal Climate Index is a more accurate and realistic indicator of the level of thermal comfort (or discomfort) perceived by the human body.

Southern African application

To apply the Universal Thermal Climate Index to southern Africa, we drew data from the ERA5-HEAT data collection, which provides an hourly dataset, of the equivalent temperature derived from the index, for 1940 to present; it is produced by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts.

We zoomed into the time period 1979-2021 and considered thermal comfort at annual, seasonal and monthly scales. Over these scales, we calculated the average climatology, and investigated changes and year-to-year variability patterns in day-time, night-time and daily average equivalent temperatures across southern Africa.

We found that heat stress occurs most widely during the summer months (December to March); cold stress occurs mainly during the winter months (June to August). Heat stress was, as one would expect, most common during the day and cold stress more common at night.

Drilling further into the data, we discovered that, from September to March, more than 85% of the subcontinent experiences day-time heat stress. Over parts of the Northern Cape in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, day-time heat stress can reach very strong, and potentially dangerous, heat stress levels during these months.

From May to August, our results showed that more than 80% of southern Africa experiences night-time cold stress, and over much of South Africa night-time cold stress can reach moderate cold stress. In short, it’s unusual for people in the region to feel extremely cold and fairly common in certain months to feel extremely hot, especially outside.

Going forward: why it’s bad news

Everyone in southern Africa is at risk of heat stress. But children, the elderly, and those with underlying comorbidities are more vulnerable.

Those working outdoors, like farm and construction workers, are especially vulnerable because there’s little that can be done to adapt to and cope with heat stress while working outdoors during the day-time. Adjusting work hours to avoid peak heat hours is one measure that could be applied.

There are also some coping mechanisms you could apply in your daily life. Limit your exposure to the sun by moving to shade or indoors to a well-ventilated or air-conditioned room. Keep hydrated (with water), avoid strenuous activities (like sports or excessive manual labour), wear lightweight protective clothing, a hat and sunblock, and, if you feel ill, seek medical attention. Läs mer…

Vaccine hesitancy in South Africa: COVID experience highlights conspiracies, mistrust and the role of the media

In recent weeks, China has reported a spike in new cases of COVID and related deaths. Some countries have imposed travel restrictions as a result. But most – including South Africa – have not.

Instead, the South African government’s approach is to increase testing, boost surveillance, and, most importantly, breathe new life into its COVID vaccination campaign.

South Africa first introduced COVID vaccines in February 2021. It set an ambitious target of fully vaccinating 67% of the population (40 million people) by the end of that year. By mid-January 2023, almost two years down the road, only 35% (21 million people) had been fully vaccinated.

One area that’s seen a troublingly low turnout is Soweto. The area is a massive cluster of some 30 townships – underdeveloped, racially segregated urban areas – in the south of Johannesburg. Soweto has about 1.7 million inhabitants; most are black. Only about 20% have gone to a vaccine site to finish their inoculation.

This vaccination rate is in stark contrast to what Sowetans told us as part of a study we undertook back in August 2020, before vaccines became available nationwide. The study was done at Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital in Soweto – Africa’s largest hospital. More than half of everyone we interviewed said they would accept a vaccine. This was still much lower than national surveys at the time, which estimated a hypothetical acceptance rate of about 75% on average.

This clearly shows that hypothetical intent to vaccinate cannot be used to predict uptake. To plan an effective rollout, it’s paramount to understand the social underpinnings of vaccine hesitancy in Soweto. Such insights would likely be transferable to places with similar demographics and socioeconomic profiles throughout South Africa.

What drives hesitancy?

There is always a certain “field of suspicion” in perceptions and attitudes towards illness and inoculation. People may have uncertainties and doubts concerning, for instance, adverse side effects, symptoms, or outcomes of disease. This is especially true in the case of a novel, rapidly spreading and potentially deadly virus like COVID-19.

In Soweto, we identified a host of factors amplifying this field of suspicion.

The haphazard way in which the media reported on the disease was one such factor. There were conflicting messages coming from health and government authorities. Wild speculation, rumours, “fake news” and whispers about COVID-19’s nature and true origins spread via local social media networks and in some parts of the press. Some concepts weren’t explained in a way non-expert audiences could engage with (or in languages that the vast majority of people in Soweto speak).

Mistrust of the institutions involved was another factor. Suspicion and uncertainty opens a space in society for stubborn false or incorrect claims and conspiracy theories. Some people were saying that COVID-19 fatalities had been deliberately exaggerated and that it was a scheme concocted by “Big Pharma”. Some believed that the virus did not exist. Others claimed that Bill Gates had put a microchip in the vaccine to “control” the masses, or that the 5G network was somehow causing it.

In Soweto, various Africanised counterfactual claims circulated. For instance, some warned that COVID-19 was a man-made virus purposefully created to destroy black African populations. Or, in a contradictory version, black people were immune and COVID-19 only infected white people.

When such misinformation flourishes, people become even more anxious, doubtful and hesitant about getting vaccinated.

Structural, social, economic and political factors together decrease uptake in immunisation programmes. This is particularly evident in townships such as Soweto because of histories of colonisation, marginalisation and racism. For instance, during apartheid, the white government displaced thousands of people and decreased funding for social services such as education and healthcare for non-whites. This resulted in a lack of medical coverage for and discrimination against black people both economically and in terms of healthcare. These historical and structural health disparities continue to have an impact on the broader healthcare picture in South Africa even today.

Another factor was related and, in some ways, similar to the issue of mistrust. The pandemic triggered a social mechanism that medical anthropologists refer to as “othering”, just as it did and still does in the ongoing HIV pandemic. This time, othering presented in its more sinister form – racialisation.

Othering can be viewed as scapegoating and stigmatisation – believing, for instance, that the virus affects only the rich, white people or foreigners.

Othering and racialisation also reinforce false divisions: the mkhukhu (shack) dweller against the wealthy, black people against white people, those who are pro-vaccination against those who mistrust vaccines. All of these tensions combined can destabilise the authorities’ credibility as they try to roll out immunisation programmes.

Way forward

It remains paramount during vaccination rollouts to explore and address factors that influence vaccine confidence and selectivity.

Appropriate media coverage of vaccination and debunking of wrong “information” is crucial in driving forward immunisation.

Curbing vaccine hesitancy is as much a matter of acknowledging its social, historical and cultural roots as it is of addressing its clinical dimensions. These are lessons best remembered for future outbreaks – and they are even more important to unravel now as South Africa’s government encourages more people to line up for the COVID-19 jabs. Läs mer…

Grattan on Friday: Response to Alice Springs crisis poses early Indigenous affairs test for Albanese

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese did the right thing in dashing off to Alice Springs this week in response to the publicity about that city’s crime crisis. But in doing so, he set up a test for himself.

That test will be early, and tough. The first round will come next week, when Albanese and Northern Territory Chief Minister Natasha Fyles receive a report on whether alcohol bans should be reimposed on Indigenous communities.

It’s clear the PM believes they should be. He has canvassed an “opt-out” system to replace the present arrangement, under which communities have to opt in to stay dry. The NT government installed the “opt in” arrangement to replace the bans which lapsed when federal legislation expired last year.

The territory government argued the bans were racially discriminatory, although Fyles has now (sounding reluctant) agreed to an “opt-out” scheme being on the table.

Does the “racism” argument justify what has been the NT’s policy? Undoubtedly imposing bans on Indigenous communities is racially discriminatory, curbing the rights of the Aboriginal people who live there. But the bans also promote “rights” – notably, the right of women and children to a safe environment.

Those who reject bans simply on the grounds of discrimination must be willing to accept some moral responsibility for the harm to the vulnerable that binge drinking is doing.

Read more:
Alcohol bans and law and order responses to crime in Alice Springs haven’t worked in the past, and won’t work now

Albanese still has a way to go to get everyone to agree to the opt-out program. Community consultations are underway, and there’ll likely be mixed views. And he has to keep the NT government on the same page.

Presuming he can announce the opt-out approach, the federal government also needs, within a reasonable time and in conjunction with the NT government, to come up with a comprehensive program for tackling the extreme disadvantage in NT communities in general and the town camps around Alice Springs in particular.

As those on the ground point out, the Alice Springs crisis goes way beyond the alcohol issues, and is endemic. The evidence indicates it is also beyond the capacity of the NT government to cope with it.

The challenges in Alice Springs shot to national prominence just as the debate about the Voice referendum is becoming more difficult for Albanese.

Polling indicates people haven’t got their heads around what’s being asked (indeed, they are unlikely to engage until much closer to the vote). Critics are attacking from the right and the left, including Indigenous Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe.

A range of factors will influence those who are uncertain: the force of the arguments put forth by the government and other advocates, where the Liberals land on the Voice, fear-mongering from “no” campaigners.

Opposition leader Peter Dutton and his spokesman for Indigenous Australians, Julian Leeser, this week again insisted Albanese must put out more detail. Leeser said people he’d have expected to support the referendum were cautious. “They’re saying to me things like, ‘Look I want to vote yes, but I’m just not sure I can because no one can explain to me how this will work.’”

Read more:
What do we know about the Voice to Parliament design, and what do we still need to know?

Albanese had hoped keeping the emphasis on the principles of the Voice – pointing out the detail was for parliament – would maximise the referendum’s chances.

But many voters who are uncertain won’t be satisfied without a more precise model. Referring people to the extensive Indigenous Voice report for these details doesn’t wash, especially as the government hasn’t said precisely which parts of that report it accepts.

The public needs the Voice’s skeleton – which may amount just to the government gathering and clarifying what’s out there and putting it into a succinct, clear presentation that also covers off on contentious matters. “Detail” doesn’t mean endless fine print.

If the government does this, the onus will be on Dutton. It will test whether his questioning is genuine and reasonable, or (as First Nations leader Noel Pearson fears) he is just playing a “spoiling game” – laying the ground for declaring the Liberals will oppose the referendum, as the Nationals have already done.

The issue is complicated for Dutton, whose party will never be united on this. He will be open to damaging criticism if the quest for detail is confirmed as spurious.

Albanese, pushing for bipartisanship, is going out of his way to get Dutton on board (or to wedge him, depending how you see it). This week, he invited Dutton to attend a meeting of the referendum working group, which is advising the government, so he can glean more information. Dutton has accepted.

The Liberals being naysayers would play badly in “teal” seats, at least some of which Dutton needs to win back to secure government. If the referendum went down, Dutton would be loaded with a large share of blame.

Pearson, an Indigenous figure much praised by Liberal leaders at various times, wrote this week: “By playing a spoiling game, the federal opposition will be responsible for destroying the three-decade quest for reconciliation”.

Pearson said this week, ‘We’ve got to understand what is at stake and that is the chance for reconciliation.’
Mick Tsikas/AAP

There has been speculation the Liberals might not take a formal position; this would be expedient for Dutton but a failure of leadership.

As the referendum debate intensifies, the stakes rise. Pearson says, “I cannot see how reconciliation will be a viable concept in Australia if the referendum fails”. The fallout from a loss would be huge.

On the flip side, the proponents of the Voice are wrong to raise unrealistic expectations for the body, even if their motives are understandable.

If it comes into being, the Voice will be symbolically important and, if it works effectively, it will institutionalise a compelling and authoritative source of first-hand advice.

Read more:
An Indigenous Voice to Parliament will not give ’special rights’ or create a veto

But it won’t have all the “answers”, for obvious reasons. Views among Indigenous people are not unanimous. Why would we expect them to be? They are not even unanimous about the Voice. Those serving on the Voice would argue among themselves, as do members of any other democratic, representative body.

More fundamentally, the complex issues bedevilling Aboriginal affairs are “wicked problems”, too often intractable even when governments seek and listen to Indigenous advice.

Those who over-hype what the Voice could do are paving the way for later disillusionment about the body and its role. It is important to be realistic.

Tom Calma, co-author of the 2021 Indigenous Voice report, described its potential value in his Wednesday speech accepting the award of 2023 Senior Australian of the Year. “We must have enduring partnerships, so Indigenous communities can help inform policy and legal decisions that impact their lives and we can recognise the special place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peoples in Australia’s history.” Läs mer…

A hymn to the stars: what happens when science puts the universe into music

A little over six months ago, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) delivered its first photographs, dazzling the world as it revealed the cosmos in glorious technicolour. The first picture transmitted in July showed a galaxy cluster located in the Southern hemisphere sky, 5.12 billion light years from Earth. In the words of US president Joe Biden, it represented “the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe” taken by humanity so far.

But NASA didn’t content itself with unveiling these first JWST images visually. Tapping into the long love story between music and astronomy, scientists mapped out the colours to different pitches of sound.

Music and astronomy: an ancient love story

Music and space might not seem like natural partners – after all, no air means no sound. But to our forebears, the links were obvious. In Ancient Greece, thinkers such as Aristotle believed the Earth lay at the centre of the universe. This didn’t make it an unchanging ideal, however: to the ancients, terrestrial phenomena were ever-changing, a reflection of our planet’s imperfection. The sky, by contrast, was seen as immutable and eternal, and so worthy of emulation.

A few of the stars moved with respect to others – so-called “planets” in the etymological sense (for planet means “wandering star”). The ancients knew of seven of them: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, plus the Sun and the Moon. That number would go on to inform the composition of the days of the week as well as of the musical scale.

Indeed, to the Ancient Greeks, each planet hung on a sphere, which, in turn, revolved around the Earth. Given that movement emitted sound here – such as when two objects rubbed against one another or when feet hit the ground – it made sense that the moving spheres in the cosmos should also produce sounds. Contrary to those heard on Earth, these were thought to be perfect, prompting the Ancients to use the stars as a template for terrestrial music. This is why in the Middle Ages astronomy and music were grouped together in the quadrivium, which also included arithmetic and geometry, and lay the foundations of the liberal arts education.

Plotting the stars on the musical scale

But how to weave together notes and planets? This is admittedly the trickiest part. Some scientists have linked a sound’s pitch to a planet’s distance, others with its speed. To add more intricacy to the compositions, at the time perceptions differed in the relative positions of the planets in the solar system.

The melodies assigned to the planets by Johannes Kepler, in his Harmonices Mundi.
University of Oklahoma/Wikipedia, CC BY

The German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was one of the scientists to most notably draw on this Ancient Greek concept of “music of the spheres” (also known as musica universalis) to map out the planetary system.

Kepler’s findings would catapult us into the modern cosmos: he determined that not only was the Sun not at the centre of the solar system – as Nicolaus Copernicus had proposed in the previous century – but also that the planets revolved around it in an elliptical rather than circular motion. As a result, distance and speed changed in the course of the orbit. It became impossible to associate a single note with a single planet, driving him to the conclusion that planets sung melodies.

Of course, all this had to remain harmonious: for a planet to produce a melody, the highest sound had to chime well with the lowest. Eventually, Kepler abandoned his tunes to concentrate on spelling out his third law on planetary motion in 1619.

While we have long left the idea of planetary spheres behind, the “music of the spheres” left its mark – even today, songs and albums continue to bear its name, including Coldplay’s latest opus. The relationship between astronomy and music went on to develop further, with music inspired by astronomical concepts, objects or people, or alternatively drawing on real astronomical data.

Three red giant stars reveal their pulsations in data from the Kepler space telescope. Their bright oscillation frequencies have been multiplied by 3 million to enter the audible frequency range. Note that the larger stars correspond to the lowest tones.

Kepler’s heirs

Rather than mapping the planetary systems, Kepler’s heirs are now mapping the sky with sounds, following a few chosen rules. Intense light in an image translates into intense volume: a brighter object produce a louder sound. In turn, a sound’s duration corresponds to the object’s appearance: short for a star (which is basically a spot in an image), long for a nebulous cloud.

For the pitch, it could directly reflect the light frequency (higher pitch if higher frequency) or be a spatial coding (the higher the object is in the image, the higher the pitch). In that case, the image of a nebular “mountain” will produce a sonorous rise and fall. In a picture of the centre of our Galaxy released for Chandra space telescope, both methods are combined: spatial coding with different light frequencies represented by different instruments (bells for X-rays, strings for visible light and a piano for infrared).

In 1606, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote that “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces” terrified him. For modern day scientists, however, they’re a playground of light and especially of music.

The Webb telescope data, translated into sound, “Southern ring”. Läs mer…

Pension reform in France: Macron and demonstrators resume epic tussle begun over 30 years ago

More than 1 million people poured onto the streets in France on Thursday to protest the government’s plans to reform the pension regime. The bill, which was presented to the Council of Ministers on Monday, aims to raise the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 years old starting from 2030. It would also bring an end to some of the country’s specialised retirement regimes, whereby certain workers get bigger pension pots and to retire earlier than others (rail or post workers, for example). It is due to be debated at the French assembly on 30 January.

Pension reform is one of the defining issues of Emmanuel Macron’s second five-year term, as he looks to become the president who resolves a quandary that has troubled French presidents since the early 1990s. The policy was one of the central pledges of his 2022 presidential campaign, after he postponed it due to the double pressure of the streets and the Covid pandemic.

It is set to be hotly contested by trade unions, activists and politicians from the left and centre. In this regard, Thursday’s massive turnout was but one of a series of actions in what is expected to be a long tug of war between the government and the streets. The next strike is slated for 31 January, and in the days running up to it, trade unions have announced plans to disrupt the railway network, ports infrastructure, and the oil and nuclear sectors.

So who will prevail, the people out in the streets or the government? As a historian specialised in French social movements, I can attest the evolution of the past 30 years does not play in the strikers’ favour, notwithstanding some notable victories.

Demonstrators wave banners and a puppet at the effigy of Prime Minister Alain Juppé, on December 12, 1995.
Derrick Ceyrac/AFP

1995: the great showdown against pension reform

Many of those taking to the streets today will be hoping to replicate the spectacular demonstrations of November-December 1995 – the largest in the country since May 68. At the time, the right-wing government led by Jacques Chirac (1995-2007) sought to impose an austerity package known by the name of its then prime minister, Alain Juppé. Intended to tighten to public purse’s strings ahead of France’s adoption of the euro currency, Plan Juppé‘s reforms would have – among others – raised employees’ contribution to retirement funds and aligned specialised retirement regimes with that of the general public.

Things didn’t work out as the government hoped. Public-sector workers and students turned out en masse to oppose the plans, and for over three weeks, trade unions brought the country’s transport network to a halt. In Paris, one takes hours to go anywhere by car, bike, foot or hitchhiking. Some commuters are left with no option but to sleep at their offices. At the movement’s apex, more than 2 million people took part in the demonstrations of the 12 December, one out of six national strike days.

Despite the disruptions they created, the 1995 protests enjoyed considerable public support –- so much, in fact, the media talked about a “strike by proxy”. On 15 December, Alain Juppé had no choice but to call an end to the pension-reform project.

The failure dealt a blow to Jacques Chirac at the start of his first seven-year term. It was also one of the factors that contributed to the right’s defeat in the elections held after the president dissolved the National Assembly in 1997.

Political prudence

Just as the memory of May 1968 fuelled a phobia of student movements within the political class, the 1995 strike and the failure of the Plan Juppé lent credence to the idea the pension reform presented high political risks. This likely explains the extreme caution with which successive French governments have approached the subject.

In 2003, still under the Chirac presidency, it was the Minister of Social Affairs, François Fillon, and not the prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who carried out a pension reform. While careful not to touch the special pension regimes, he still had to reckon with a major strike movement, which saw a turnout of nearly 1 million people. But unlike the 1995 strikes, the trade unions failed to gain public backing, allowing Fillon to pass his reform.

In the autumn of 2007, only a few months after his presidential inauguration, Nicolas Sarkozy introduced a bill that would have also upped the contribution period for beneficiaries of special retirement schemes from 37 to 40 years. Like Macron’s pension reform today, the policy was one of Sarkozy’s main campaign pledges. Faced with a well-supported social movement in the transport and electricity sectors, he gave his Minister of Labour, Xavier Bertrand, a great deal of latitude to negotiate, making some economists say that this reform was one of “failed reforms of President Sarkozy”.

In April, a man looks at a presidential campaign poster of candidate for re-election Emmanuel Macron, on which is written
Joel Saget/AFP

The state vs. the street

In truth, the impact of social reforms is of little importance. They are above all a matter of conveying an impression of change and symbolically affirming the power of the state over that of the street. This is perhaps more than ever the case with incoming presidents. When starting his mandate, Sarkozy was only too aware how a large-scale student movement had just forced the preceding government to backtrack on plans to introduce a “first employment contract” – a framework that would have essentially made it easier to fire employees under 26.

Even in cases where it is symbolic, this victory of the state emboldens successive governments to push their reform projects, as modern day protests multiply, radicalise and even occasionally escape the control of trade unions. In this instance, one can think of the civil disobedience movement Nuit debout, which has been compared to the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States, 15M in Spain, and the more recent Gilets Jaunes protests.

Governments’ increasing show of force

The past years have seen French governments increasingly turn a blind eye to demonstrators. Thus in 2010, labour minister Eric Woerth pushed back the retirement age from 60 to 62 years old, notwithstanding strikes that brought more than one million people in the streets (2 million, according to trade unions). In 2016 and 2017, presidents Hollande and then Macron also ignored protests and did not hesitate to resort to Article 49.3 – a legislative device enabling the government to bypass parliament for measures relating to social security – to relax labour regulations.

More than protest, it is the Covid crisis that has undermined efforts to adopt the pension reform began under the government of Édouard Philippe (2017-2020). However, the tussle between the state and the street that started on 19 January could well see Macron succeed, particularly now that the government has negotiated a parliamentary majority with the right-wing party Les Républicains to pass it.

Beyond the issue of pensions, Macron is betting on his ability to assert himself in the face of opposition in many forms. This is a major test, the outcome of which will inevitably influence his entire second term in office. Läs mer…

With the upsurge of ’contract cheating’ in Indonesia, student academic integrity is at stake

If you are a student and spend much of your time on the internet, the chances are you have come across an account or website that offers to do your assignments for a fee.

Some of these services are fully-fledged businesses. Some are one-person operations. Whichever it is, “contract cheating” – a term coined in a 2006 study by English scholars Thomas Lancaster and Robert Clarke – is a process by which students hire a third-party to complete work on their behalf.

Known in Indonesia as “joki”, these operations provide expertise in research, writing, or even technical undertakings such as creating software, and perform per students’ requests. They can rake in hundreds of thousands to millions of rupiah (tens to hundreds of US dollars) from a single transaction.

Data regarding contract cheating providers in Indonesia and how frequently students rely on them is scarce. But to give some global context, a 2018 study from Swansea University in the UK revealed that around 15% of university students around the world have hired someone to complete at least one of their assignments.

In Indonesia, there has been a spike in instances of academic dishonesty by students, resulting in a rapid rise of research and literature on the importance of maintaining integrity in the academic setting.

This is especially evident in the higher education environment where students are prepared to enter the workforce and expected to do so with a mature sense of personal responsibility.

In fact, some of the most lucrative opportunities for service providers not only include entrance exams for public universities and assignments while studying, but also government job recruitment processes once students graduate. Competition for these institutions are so tight that some Indonesians opt for third-party help. Only a couple of weeks into this year, reports surfaced of joki intervention during a state-owned enterprise (SOE) recruitment test.

Why contract cheating is widespread

The contract cheating industry exists to cater to the needs of students.

Many of them take advantage of students who are disillusioned by their prospects of receiving top marks in certain classes. This can be fuelled by expectations of peers or family members. Other providers may take on clients who have lost motivation to satisfy academic standards, or are currently grappling with responsibilities outside of school such as part-time jobs that consume most of their attention and time.

There is also a psychological aspect at play. Contract cheating providers frequently advertise themselves under the guise of “support services” or by using marketing that dangles the possibility of maximising leisure time despite having academic work looming.

They effectively manipulate students into believing that cheating is normal. The sustained expansion of the contract cheating clientele creates the impression among students that they are merely partaking in an academic rite rather than being dishonest.

As with any other type of business, the commercial success of contract cheating providers depends on their ability to reliably supply a wide range of services and meet the specific needs of those seeking assistance.

Providers can easily be found across online platforms and marketplaces.

Examples of contract cheating or joki services on social media.
Author provided

On social media, providers do not hesitate to tag official school and student organisation accounts. In addition, the use of contract cheating has grown rapidly since the COVID-19 pandemic. As school activities and government recruitment exams for graduates increasingly move into the virtual space, service providers have more freedom to reinforce their presence and operate undetected.

No clear rules

But supply and demand are not the only things that grease the wheels of contract cheating. Regulation of these services under Indonesian laws are obscure at best.

It is equally unclear if either providers or their clients could be penalised.

Indonesian legal observers argue that students who turn in an assignment done by another person under their own names could be committing a form of copyright infringement. However, this may not mean much as contract cheating is transactional and providers are unlikely to assert intellectual property rights over the use of paid-for work.

Others argue that cheaters could be prosecuted for fraud or forgery under the Indonesian Penal Code for misrepresenting someone else’s work as theirs in pursuit of personal advantage.

While logically sound, this reasoning begs the question of whether criminal prosecution is indeed the appropriate solution when we remain undecided on the precise definition of contract cheating and whether penalties could extend to both providers and students.

Contract cheating is also so ubiquitous today, and operates in scales large and small, that it’s hard to imagine law enforcement using up resources to chase after every one of them.

It is no surprise, for instance, that contract cheating persists in some Commonwealth countries that have legislated against it. Australia passed such legislation in 2020, yet by 2022 it had only seen one court injunction filed against an overseas essay factory.

The Indonesian academic ethics framework has not yet recognised contract cheating. The term closest in definition used in some ministerial regulations is plagiarism – which is defined as appropriating as one’s own the work of others.

Read more:
When does getting help on an assignment turn into cheating?

But plagiarism and contract cheating are conceptually distinct; plagiarism does not pivot around a willing exchange of service and payment between parties.

It could well be part of contract cheating, where an amateurish provider recycles his or her own work for multiple clients, in which case students risk getting sniffed out and being academically sanctioned. However, providers increasingly avoid this, and that means they are harder to detect.

Though specific regulation prohibiting the act of contract cheating might help, however, it won’t entirely eliminate the problem. While the law may prevent businesses from advertising illegal and unethical services, it does not necessarily alter students’ mindsets from attempting to commit academic dishonesty.

What universities can do

Despite the myriad of difficulties in eradicating contract cheating, there are ways to minimise its presence.

Academic misconduct must be clearly regulated at the university level, coupled with reliable on-campus student counselling so students can communicate any academic-related concerns rather than seeking external help. Institutions may also opt for establishing a whistle-blowing system to identify cheats.

Finally, it is crucial that Indonesian academia diversifies the metrics by which students’ performance is judged and explores personalised methods which could evaluate their understanding of the subject at hand – such as oral presentations – and train practical skills necessary to help them navigate post-university life. Läs mer…

Canada’s new drinking guidelines don’t consider the social benefits of alcohol. But should they?

This month, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction issued revised recommendations for lower-risk alcohol consumption. The new guidelines state that no amount of alcohol is “safe” and that individuals should drink no more than two standard drinks per week in order to minimize their risk for chronic diseases, such as cancer.

The report also acknowledges the reality that 40 per cent of Canadians, aged 15 and older, drink more than six standard drinks per week – meaning that many of us exceed the new recommendations for low-risk alcohol consumption.

Given the role that alcohol plays in many of our lives, its of little surprise that people are reacting to these new recommendations with a fair degree of skepticism. At the heart of the emerging debate are two contradictory truths:

The more alcohol you drink the greater risk you subject yourself to; and,
You can still have good reasons for drinking more than public health officials say you should.

Risk-taking isn’t always about risk

As a social and behavioural epidemiologist, I have worked extensively to understand how people perceive risk, the factors that shape whether individuals engage in so-called “risky” behaviours, and how assessments of risk can create stigma for individuals who flout social norms. Much of my work has been focused on sexual and gender minorities, youth who use drugs and other marginalized populations.

I have learned that many of the behaviours that you or I might think of as “risky” are actually adaptive responses that help individuals meet their fundamental needs as human beings.

For example, people who engage in risky sexual behaviours describe feelings of intimacy and connection with their sexual partners. Those who drink alcohol or use other drugs report that these substances help them unwind — making it easier to come out of their shell and connect with friends and family.

In other words, people derive benefit from these stigmatized activities.

Considering the social benefits of alcohol

For thousands of years, our ancestors have derived benefits from alcohol — whether those benefits be the added nutrition from being able to eat and metabolize fermenting fruit from the forest floor or its benefits as a so-called “social lubricant.”

However, the authors of the new guidelines and the studies that underlie them often ignore these benefits arguing that they are inconsequential to health.

Poor social health can be just as harmful as smoking, drinking, being obese, sedentary living and exposure to poor air quality.
(Unsplash/Priscilla du Preez)

However, as the lead researcher on a national study aiming to develop Canadian Social Connection Guidelines, I would argue that the social benefits of alcohol use are fundamentally important to the development of public health guidelines for alcohol consumption.

Just as most people do not know that alcohol increases your risk for cancer, most of us also don’t realize that poor social health is just as, if not more, harmful than smoking, drinking, being obese, sedentary living and exposure to poor air quality.

In fact, the list of diseases and conditions that have been linked to social disconnection is expansive and includes depression and anxiety, psychotic disorders, cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, neurocognitive impairments, poorer immune response, inflammation and poor metabolism.

While decades of research have warned about the dangers of loneliness and social isolation, public health bodies have not fully embraced the need to prioritize social connection.

Reconciling harms and benefits

Reconciling the benefits and consequences of alcohol is certainly a challenge. This is especially difficult given that many studies on alcohol risk fail to capture meaningful dimensions of social life.

For example, studies rarely account for the social context of drinking when measuring the impact of alcohol on poor health. Similarly, the fact that many drinkers may have been exposed to high levels of second-hand smoke has not been fully accounted for in estimating its health consequences.

Measuring these potential confounders is especially important given that even if alcohol doubles or triples your risk for a given cancer, the risk in the first place may have been extremely low. Measuring very small changes in risk is hard. More and better studies are still needed.

Our society also needs to do better in supporting campaigns that teach people the importance of social health and help them develop social skills, so they don’t need to rely on alcohol as a social lubricant.
(Unsplash/Romina Mosquera)

These future studies must also account for the benefits of alcohol use. Within the context of the new guidelines, the report suggests that the potential harm from consuming even 14 drinks per week (which is well above the new two drinks per week threshold for low-risk alcohol use) appears to be very modest: less than a year of lost life expectancy, on average.

This is similar to the estimate calculated from a synthesis of 83 studies, which found that those who drank seven to 14 drinks (100 to 200 grams) per week had shorter life expectancy by just six months, compared to those who drank zero to seven drinks (zero to 100 grams) per week.

Many of us may be willing to make these trade-offs in order to live a happier life overall.

Meanwhile, studies on the functional benefits of alcohol on social health have reported benefits from moderate drinking. These benefits are likely due to alcohol’s promotion of endorphins — which play a key role in social bonding.

Considered along with a growing body of research that emphasizes meaningful social connections as the most important determinant of happiness and well-being, these studies suggests that we (at least those of us who feel a little more social after a drink or two) might benefit more from drinking alcohol than abstaining from it.

Of course, we certainly should find ways to reduce our alcohol consumption, perhaps by finding alternative social lubricants, including cannabis. Our society also needs to do better in supporting campaigns that teach people the importance of social health and help them develop social skills, so they don’t need to rely on alcohol when a well-timed joke might do just as much to break the ice.

Moderation in all things

In summary, I agree with the authors of the new alcohol guidelines that alcohol risk is best represented along a continuum: drinking two or fewer drinks per week creates negligible-to-low risk, drinking three to six drinks is moderately risky, and drinking more than six drinks puts you at higher risk for poor health.

However, these estimates must be considered alongside the other important determinants of our health and happiness. Truly, none of us can lead risk-free lives and most of us probably don’t want to anyway. Läs mer…

Placebos reduce feelings of guilt – even when people know they’re taking one

Guilt is a double-edged sword. It can be a reminder to improve and a motivation to apologise. It can also lead to pathological perfectionism and stress and is also closely associated with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Unfortunately, good and bad guilt are common, and there are few proven treatments to reduce unhealthy guilt.

To help solve the problem of too much guilt, a recent study published in Nature found that placebos can reduce feelings of guilt, even when the person taking them knows they’re receiving placebos.

In the study, 112 healthy volunteers between the ages of 18 and 40 took part. Their guilt was measured at the beginning using questionnaires including the state shame and guilt scale (SSGS). This questionnaire asks people whether they feel remorse or bad about something they’ve done. Next, the participants did an exercise intended to make them feel more guilty. The exercise involved writing a story about a time they had treated someone they loved unfairly.

The participants were then divided into three groups. One group received a “deceptive placebo”: a blue pill they were told was a real drug. Specifically, they were told that the pill contained phytopharmacon, a substance designed to reduce the feeling of guilt by making whoever took it feel calmer.

Another group received an “open-label placebo” – the same blue pill, but this group was told it was a placebo. They were told that placebos benefit many people through mind-body self-healing mechanisms.

The third group did not receive any treatment at all. This was the “control” group.

After getting the treatment, the guilty feelings were measured using the same questionnaires to see whether the deceptive placebo or open-label placebo was more effective than no treatment.

The main outcome reported in the study was that the deceptive placebo and the open-label placebo combined were more effective at reducing guilt than no treatment.

This blue pill will help to reduce your negative feelings of guilt.
Milos Vucicevic/Shutterstock

Overcoming the placebo paradox

Open-label placebos are important because they overcome the “placebo paradox”. The paradox is that on the one hand placebos have effects, especially for pain, and we know how they work. Doctors are ethically bound to help their patients and this ethical force pushes them towards prescribing placebos.

On the other hand, traditional placebos are deceptive (patients think they are, or could be, a real treatment). Doctors are also ethically bound to avoid deceiving patients (usually) and this ethical force pushes them away from prescribing placebos (although it seems that most doctors have prescribed placebos at least once). Because open-label placebos do not involve deception, they overcome the paradox and pave the way for ethical (open-label) placebos to help patients, where appropriate.

While the novelty of this study must be applauded, it is not without it’s weaknesses.

First, the participants were healthy volunteers. They were not suffering from guilt before the experiment. It is unclear whether research in healthy volunteers translates to people in actual clinical practice. Also, the measures of guilt were only taken up to 15 minutes after the placebos were given. The long-term effects (and real-life usefulness) of the placebos are therefore not known.

A bigger problem was that it lumped the effects of deceptive and open-label placebos together. The novelty of the study is that it uses open-label placebos, so lumping their effects with those of deceptive placebos dilutes the novelty. This was rather odd because when I dug into the supplementary material, it was clear that open-label placebos alone were more effective than no treatment for reducing guilt. It’s a shame that this was not the headline result.

Encouraging

The fact that open-label placebos can reduce pathological guilt, even by a tiny amount, is encouraging because they can be used ethically in cases where better treatments do not exist. Future studies need to look at the effects of open-label placebos in actual patients and follow them up for longer.

It is also a small leap from the promising results of this study to believe that if open-label placebos work, we might be able to “placebo ourselves” by giving ourselves positive suggestions that make us feel better. Läs mer…

Strikes: how rising household debt could slow industrial action this year

After decades of declining real wages and deteriorating working conditions, strike activity has spiked over the last year, particularly in the United Kingdom. From nurses and teachers to railway and postal workers, employees are demanding wage increases and improved working conditions – and walking out if they believe employers’ offers won’t stave off the rising cost of living.

However, my research suggests that many workers may increasingly feel unable to strike because of their growing household debt.

This current wave of strikes is the largest in more than a decade, but it is nowhere near the heights reached in the UK during the 1970s. September 1979 saw the all-time peak of post-war era industrial activity, with more than 11 million working days lost due to strike action. The latest figures for November 2022 show 467,000 days lost.

Working days lost to strike activity

Office for National Statistics (ONS)

The recent resurgence of industrial action has in part been driven by the ongoing inflation crisis that many countries face right now, including the UK, with workers struggling because of recent slow wage growth. Public sector unions have also become stronger in recent years. But the wider reasons for the most recent peaceful era of industrial relations might tell us more about the outlook for current strike action.

Read more:
UK strikes: six milestones in the history of industrial action in Britain

My recently published research indicates that a rapid increase in personal indebtedness has been a major factor suppressing industrial action over the last four decades. The decline of social housing and the deregulation of the financial system in most advanced countries over this period has encouraged workers to borrow heavily.

Consequently, financing personal debt has become a major priority, and the fear of losing their job and defaulting on their debt has made workers more self-disciplined in the workplace. In other words: a bad job is better than no job.

Since at least the early 1980s, household debt-to-income ratios have been increasing dramatically. Household debt is consistently over 100% of disposable income in most advanced economies – in some OECD countries it’s at least 300%.

While household debt accumulation stabilised and even slightly declined after the 2008 global financial crisis, the current cost of living crisis and the impact of the pandemic on people’s finances have caused outstanding debts to start to rise again for most households – particularly the poorest. And because many governments and central banks are treating the current inflation crisis as demand-driven and increasing interest rates to fight it, household debt and debt servicing costs are likely to keep rising for the foreseeable future.

My research looks at the relationship between the long-run increase in household debt and strike activity over the last 50 years in the USA, UK, Japan, Korea, Sweden and Norway. I used historical data from the statistical databases of the International Labor Office (ILO) of the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, among others.

I found evidence that a steady increase in personal indebtedness is strongly associated with a steep decline in the number of strikes organised, strike participation, and days lost to strikes in the vast majority of these economies. Inflation and changes in the power of trade unions have also played a part, but personal debt obligations have been key in suppressing industrial action.

UK strikes in 2023

As a result, the very thing that has has triggered today’s strikes – the cost of living – could also bring about an end to this action. It is unlikely that workers whose personal debt is rising will be able to participate in indefinite strike action.

And since the main consumer price increases right now relate to fuel consumption, energy-related debts accumulated during the coldest months of the year could push lower income households to abandon strike action out of necessity. While the government has introduced limited energy subsidies, these are unlikely to save the most vulnerable households from poverty.

Read more:
Energy crisis: the UK is still heading for widespread fuel poverty – despite the government’s price cap

Fuel poverty has been a growing concern for many workers in recent months.
Nenad Cavoski/Shutterstock

So, if trade unions think strikes are the best way to successfully achieve their workers’ demands, there are some steps they could take. Firstly, since the disruption power of workers varies substantially across sectors, coordination and collective demands for country-wide pay increases and workplace reforms could strengthen the impact of strikes.

Trade unions should also use pre-strike donation campaigns to provide more generous strike compensation to striking workers. They could also collaborate with debtor unions. These associations represent indebted households and demand reforms or even the cancellation of certain debts.

So, mobilising more workers to achieve their goals of better pay and conditions, could mean coordinating union demands and incorporating debt relief measures so that workers can strike without fear of financial ruin. Given the government’s general reluctance to negotiate on pay terms, a short but sharp burst of industrial action – a general strike – could be the way forward. Läs mer…

Finding Britain’s ’shadow woods’ offers the fastest way to reforest the countryside

When William the Conqueror surveyed his new kingdom in 1086, from lowland to upland, Britain was covered with trees. In low-lying Yorkshire, the East Anglian Fens and the Somerset Levels, wet woods of tall white willows and alders lined great rivers. On windswept highlands in the Pennines, north Yorkshire and Cumbria, goat willows shed fuzzy catkins in downy blankets and dead leaves of wintertime moor-grass formed dense carpets.

Along the western coast of Britain were extensive Atlantic rainforests: ancient, twisting trees enmeshed with boulders, all richly clothed in mosses, lichens and ferns. Now largely forgotten, these enigmatic forests once clad the lower slopes of hills and clifftops.

Where Britain’s rainforests remain, they provide rich sanctuaries for woodland wildlife absent from the wider landscape, including old man’s beard, a lichen which hangs from branches in tangles.

Along with thickly wooded pastures where peasants grazed pigs among wild deer and boar, Britain’s rainforests persisted unenclosed into medieval times. Today’s ancient woods were enclosed from these same landscapes around 1,000 years ago.

On moors and heaths, trees were progressively removed by centuries of burning, grazing, and draining to support an abundance of sheep and grouse. Farming, timber extraction and livestock grazing erased most of the country’s natural wealth, with much of this loss happening surprisingly recently. Half of England’s ancient woods remaining in the 1940s were destroyed during the second half of the 20th century.
.

Atlantic rainforests are dense, damp and mossy habitats.
Drepicter/Shutterstock

Yet survivors from these earlier landscapes are found across the countryside in shrunken patches of oak-bluebell woodland which cling tenaciously to cliffs and outcrops or meadows with rare flowers and unique fungi. Often overlooked, these relics persist anywhere axes, ploughs or sheep have failed to reach. Wizened rowan trees and gnarled hawthorns, shrunken and bent by chill winds, may designate thousand year-old landscapes. Finding these patches could unlock future woodlands rich in currently rare species.

What to look out for

Scouring the countryside reveals clues of ancient woods in plants, old maps, and soils. Ecologists call these remnants shadow woods.

An ancient hawthorn and bluebells mark a shadow wood.
Ian Rotherham, Author provided

Plants like bluebell, yellow archangel, dog’s mercury and wood sorrel may survive underneath stands of bracken (a tall fern) and yellow-flowered gorse (a prickly shrub described as woodland in waiting) for centuries after a woodland has been cleared. These plants mark the spot where a woodland once grew, and where it can easily be encouraged to grow back.

A bracken bed suggests a former wooded common.
Ian Rotherham, Author provided

Maps and road signs offer hints too. Gardom’s Coppice in the Peak District is shrouded by recently-grown birch, but it holds a thousand veteran trees which were cultivated for wood over centuries and may be up to 800 years old.

So-called veteran trees may be several centuries old.
Ian Rotherham, Author provided

Former woodlands also leave distinctive bands in the soil: patterns which reflect the movement of water through earth undisturbed by ploughing over long periods. I am studying how fungi and bacteria living in such soils might tell us even more about the woodland that once grew there.

How to bring them back

Having discovered suitable sites, the first thing to do is remove sheep and cattle which gobble up seedlings. This will allow trees to produce saplings, unlocking nature’s own powers of recovery. Soon, willow and birch seeds will arrive on the wind, berry-bearing holly, hawthorn and rowan will emerge from bird droppings and oaks may be planted by jays caching acorns.

Where jays go, oak trees follow.
S.Borisovich/Shutterstock

Natural regeneration can freely rewild vast areas. The resulting habitats, which spring back quickly once grazing is restricted, are richer in plants, animals and fungi than plantations and cost nothing to create or manage. Sometimes the answer is to reduce grazing for a short time and bring herbivores back once trees are established. Either way, the complexity of the ecosystem recovers over time.

Read more:
Monks Wood Wilderness: 60 years ago, scientists let a farm field rewild – here’s what happened

Shadow woods indicate the extent of a former woodland and where reforestation is most likely to succeed, with high levels of resulting biodiversity. That’s because components of the former woodland are ready and waiting to aid the regeneration. That includes soil fungi which form partnerships with young trees and waiting flowers like bluebell and stitchwort which spread out under developing canopies to become the understorey. This reminds us that, ecologically, a woodland is much more than just the trees, but the whole functioning system.

Don’t have time to read about climate change as much as you’d like?
Get a weekly roundup in your inbox instead. Every Wednesday, The Conversation’s environment editor writes Imagine, a short email that goes a little deeper into just one climate issue. Join the 10,000+ readers who’ve subscribed so far. Läs mer…

Deep sea reefs are spectacular and barely-explored – they must be conserved

Sunlit coral reefs are perhaps the most famous marine habitat and many people will have snorkelled over or dived down to one at some point. Home to a quarter of all known ocean life, these “rainforests of the ocean” have been at the forefront of marine research for decades and been featured in documentaries like Blue Planet and animations such as Finding Nemo.

However, reefs and corals do not stop where the sunlight becomes scarce. Largely hidden from the masses lie great expanses of deep reefs, which collectively have a larger geographic footprint than their shallower counterparts.

Sandwiched between shallow reefs and the deep-sea, reefs between 30 and 300 metres to this day receive relatively little scientific attention, considered too deep for shallow-water reef biologists and too shallow for deep-sea researchers. Combined with the costs and challenging logistics of studying them, and due to the widespread impression that they face few threats by simply being deep, despite evidence to the contrary, deep reefs remain notably underexplored.

Reef zones in Bermuda with representative seafloor organisms. As you go deeper, species change from light-dependent hard corals to sponges and ‘octocorals’ (wire corals, sea fans, whip corals).
Modified from Stefanoudis et al. 2019, Author provided

Luckily, recent advances have allowed us to learn more about these unique ecosystems. Specialised scuba equipment, known as technical diving, can get you down to 150 metres, and remotely-operated or autonomous vehicles, or even small manned submersibles, can go even deeper.

As we go deeper and less light penetrates the water, hard corals and other light-dependent organisms that dominate the shallows become less abundant. They’re replaced by other photosynthetic groups such as fleshy algae, until they too get replaced by sponges, soft corals and sea fans.

I have had the privilege of being inside a submersible a dozen times now, in which an acrylic hull gives you an almost 360 degree view of underwater life. The feeling is unique as you get to visit the depths of our ocean and observe its creatures – stuff you typically only see in documentaries – firsthand. Massive sea fans are a particularly amazing sight, often more than 2 metres across:

The author goes sea fan spotting in the Maldives.
Nekton, Author provided

I have had several encounters with reef sharks, floating tube-like pyrosomes and bioluminescent comb-jellies, but the interactions I most enjoy are with the ever-curious potato groupers that will follow and hang around the submersible and even pose for photographs:

‘Fish whisperer’ Robert Carmichael of Global Sub Dive charms a grouper in the Seychelles.
Nekton, Author provided

Fish are more mobile than corals or sponges and so the fish species at at the topmost deep reefs are still mostly-familiar. However as you go deeper the fish gradually become more and more unique and adapted to the low-light, low-food conditions of deep reefs.

Notably, it is only a few years since scientists first described and categorised a new reef zone – the rariphotic or rare-light zone between around 150 metres and 300 metres in depth. The unique collection of seabed organisms and fish helped define this depth range as an entirely new reef ecosystem. Since we are only beginning to scratch the surface of deep reefs, many more exciting discoveries will follow in the coming years.

Deep reefs need targeted conservation

Deep reefs provide a plethora of essential services for people and the planet. They help protect coasts from waves and storms, they provide breeding grounds and protection for fish, and refuge for some organisms residing in much-imperilled shallow reefs. Natural medicinal products have also been discovered in deep reef species, including anti-tumor and anti-fungal compounds found in sponges collected from 125 metres deep in the Pacific island nation Palau.

Why deep reefs are worth saving.
Nekton, Author provided

The logistical and financial challenges of studying deep reefs means there is less data available than for shallow reefs, and deep reefs are rarely used to inform management and conservation activities. Though their unique biological communities warrant targeted conservation efforts, most deep and offshore reef habitats are still unprotected. The few that are protected are often included incidentally due to geopolitical boundaries and rarely explicitly included in management plans and designation targets.

How we can save deep reefs

I’m part of a team of 18 scientists from different organisations around the world who have recently developed a framework for conserving deep reefs in the Western Indian Ocean, home to some of the world’s least known deep reefs. Our framework includes practical recommendations, which we hope will enhance deep-reef stewardship throughout the region and could eventually be adopted globally.

Below are the our top five recommendations:

Protect: Highly protect 30% of ecosystems by 2030 (“30 by 30”), and include deep reefs in this target.

Conserve: Conserve deep reef ecosystems and their resources by specifically including them in fishery regulations, marine protected areas and marine spatial planning.

Manage: Extend current management efforts on shallow reefs to include deep reefs as these ecosystems are often connected.

Invest: Invest in foundational, fundamental and applied research on deep reef biodiversity, ecosystem functioning and provided services.

Collaborate: Develop national and international collaborations to survey and conserve deep reefs in national and international (High Seas) waters. Läs mer…

US will give military tanks to Ukraine, signaling Western powers’ long-term commitment to thwarting Russia

President Joe Biden announced on Jan. 25, 2023, that the U.S. would send 31 M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine – following Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s repeated requests for more military tanks to help wage its war against Russia.

“This is about helping Ukraine defend and protect Ukrainian land. It is not an offensive threat to Russia. There is no offensive threat to Russia. If Russian troops return to Russia, where they belong, this war would be over today. That is what we all want,” Biden said in his remarks at the White House.

The president’s announcement came on the same day Germany confirmed it was sending 14 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine – a fraction of the 300 tanks Ukraine has said it needs to push Russia back from occupied territory. The United Kingdom has promised 12 tanks, alongside several other Western European countries that are giving armored vehicles and other war supplies.

The U.S. has not formally declared war against Russia, but the battlefield in Ukraine serves as a classic case of a proxy war, waged without a formal declaration.

U.S. support for Ukraine has been a constant throughout the first year of conflict, most recently extending as far as inviting Ukrainian forces to train on an Air Force system in the U.S..

I am a scholar of U.S. foreign policy and international security. As the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine approaches on Feb. 24, 2023, I think it is important to put U.S. aid to Ukraine in perspective – both historically and as compared to other current U.S. military aid commitments worldwide.

Doing so may help answer an important question: Is the U.S. prepared to support Ukraine for the long haul, or will its current high level of spending commitment be undone by the whiplash of polarized U.S. domestic politics?

Here are four key points about U.S. support for Ukraine to understand, and how the U.S. is signaling it will stand with Ukraine for the long term.

President Joe Biden announced on Jan. 25 that the U.S. would send military tanks to Ukraine.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

1. Tanks are a major boost for Ukraine

The delivery of Western tanks will bolster Ukraine’s arsenal. Until now, the Ukrainian military has been relying on older, prior-generation Soviet-era T-72s.

The Western tanks come with challenges, though. The Abrams, for example, relies on jet fuel, and it is expensive and complicated to maintain and train on. But the deployment of these tanks, along with tanks from Germany and the U.K., signals that the West would like to give Ukraine a fighting chance to retake the territory that Russia has conquered and occupied since February 2022.

These weapons systems come along with commitments to train Ukrainian soldiers and teach them how to operate the tanks and other machinery. But with them, Ukraine will be in a much better position to take the offensive over Russia and perhaps reclaim more its territory from Russia, including the land bridge to Crimea that Russia established with its seizure of the city of Mariupol in May 2022.

2. US aid to Ukraine, overall, has been immense

The speed and quantity of U.S. military aid to Ukraine tells a story about how the U.S. and its allies see the stakes in the war’s outcome.

U.S. military aid to Ukraine to date has been staggering, especially when compared to how the U.S. has supported other conflicts in modern history. U.S. military aid during the Cold War conflicts was orders of magnitude higher than spending in Ukraine, but those occurred over longer periods of time. The Vietnam War, for instance, cost the U.S. an estimated US$138.9 billion from 1965 to 1974, or the equivalent of about $1 trillion today.

The U.S. Defense Department announced in early January 2023 that it would give an additional $3.1 billion in military aid to Ukraine.

In total, the U.S. approved about $50 billion in aid for Ukraine in 2022.

About half of that money – or $24.9 billion – went toward military spending. By comparison, U.S. military aid to Israel – a longtime top recipient of U.S. military aid – in 2020 was $3.8 billion.

The U.S. also gave $9.6 billion to Ukraine for nonmilitary purposes in 2022, such as helping Ukrainians receive medical care and food. This marked a sharp increase from the $343 million total in foreign aid the U.S. gave Ukraine in 2021 – this included both military and economic assistance.

Members of the U.S. Army 173rd Airborne Brigade demonstrate urban warfare techniques to Ukrainian soldiers in Yavorov, Ukraine, in September 2022.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

3. Most – not all – Americans still want to help Ukraine

For Western allies in Europe, particularly those like Poland that are physically closest to Ukraine, the war has come to be seen as existential – seriously threatening the stability of international politics and the organizations, like the United Nations, that were set up after World War II to prevent a third world war.

Americans do not face the immediate threat of a spillover ground war across borders like people in Europe could face. But most Americans still continue to support Ukraine in its fight against Russia.

In December 2022, 65% of Americans said they favor supplying arms to Ukraine, and 66% said they supported sending money directly, according to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a nonpartisan political think tank. More striking still, the same poll found that nearly 1 in 3 Americans support the idea of sending American troops into the fight – a number that has shifted only slightly since the start of the 2022 invasion.

And although there is bipartisan support, some Republicans — in particular conservatives aligned with former president Donald J. Trump’s isolationist “America First” stance — have argued that the U.S. cannot afford to support Ukraine and also address high levels of inflation at home.

Ground crew unloads U.S. military weapons and other hardware in Kyiv in January 2022, shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

4. US signals long-term aid to Ukraine

The long-term impact of U.S. and NATO military aid on the war in Ukraine remains uncertain. On one hand, it’s clear that U.S. intelligence support, advanced weaponry and Ukraine’s skilled use of both has seriously hurt Russia’s chances on the battlefield.

On the other hand, Ukraine has demonstrated strong levels of national unity, leadership and military competence. So even perfect intelligence support and the most advanced U.S. weaponry wouldn’t have made much of a difference if Ukraine hadn’t shown such skill, courage and grit in the face of Russia’s still overwhelming advantages.

Quite a bit of the promised U.S. aid to Ukraine will be disbursed over a long period. Most of the new money the U.S. promised to Ukraine be spent by 2025, but some will not arrive until 2030.

And, although the U.S. and its western allies are now giving Ukraine tanks and other weapons systems, some of them might not arrive for months or even years. This long-term time frame is also a clear indication that the U.S. plans to help Ukraine rebuild its military, even if the war ends in the near term.

But, by itself, I believe the most that military aid can accomplish is to feed a war of attrition. Ending the war will require more than smart weapons and grit. It will take political acumen and diplomatic efforts to help Ukraine continue to secure its independence and protect against future Russian threats.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on January 18, 2023. Läs mer…

Beirut port disaster: former Lebanon prime minister charged with homicide

The investigation into the Beirut port explosion has taken a new turn, with the judge overseeing the probe charging a former prime minister and two other former ministers with homicide with probable intent.

The explosion in August 2020, which happened in a massive silo in the port of Beirut containing a large amount of the fertiliser ammonium nitrate which had been stored there since 2014, killed 218 people and devastated parts of the city. An investigation was quickly set up, but has been plagued with delays and difficulties.

The judge’s decision to lay fresh charges comes after the investigation had been stalled for over a year following a succession of lawsuits from politicians already indicted. But the presiding judge, Tarek Bitar, reopened the inquiry unexpectedly this week, defying the wishes of the public prosecutor.

The importance of this move is potentially enormous. Indicting Hassan Diab – prime minister at the time of the blast – sends a powerful signal that Lebanon’s political elites are no longer exempt from justice. The charge against Diab relates to claims that while as prime minister he ignored warnings that the ammonium nitrate represented a major danger to the city.

Lawless disorder

Lebanon’s postwar order seems to rest on political leaders remaining unaccountable for wrongdoing or incompetence. The case of the still ongoing investigation into the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005 is a prime example of justice frustrated at every turn. Despite a long-running UN special tribunal into the assassination of Hariri, only two people have been found guilty – in absentia, because Hezbollah refuses to hand them over to justice. This after 17 years of investigation.

Pursuing accountability for Lebanon’s political leaders is fraught with difficulties. Lebanon’s culture of impunity stems from the aftermath of the country’s civil war (1975-1990).

Public anger: victims and their families call for an end to the culture of impunity for those involved in the disaster.
EPA-EFE/Wael Hamzeh

Many of the warlords responsible for violence have reinvented themselves as political leaders. In 1991, recognising they would be first to be prosecuted for war crimes, Lebanon’s political leaders passed a general amnesty law, which pardoned political crimes committed during the civil war.

Some politicians have claimed immunity from prosecution over the port explosion by citing the amnesty law. Lebanon’s parliamentarians have even sought to extend the amnesty law to prosecutions for corruption.

Lebanon’s power-sharing government meanwhile, which guarantees the representation of all the main sectarian factions, provides a further cloak for political leaders to evade accountability. Leaders can use their veto powers to stall and dead-end policies and claims for justice they disagree with.

Frustrating justice

Attempts to enforce justice are frustrated by a range of tactics. Political factions regularly interfere in Lebanon’s judicial system to slow or close down investigations. Those seeking justice, such as victims from the civil war, are either told to shut up or are menaced into silence. Reports indicate that Bitar has been under military protection, such is the risk of his assassination.

Bitar’s investigation has provoked anger from Hezbollah, the hybrid militia and political party with strong links to Iran. Hezbollah accuses Bitar of leading a politically biased campaign to lay blame for the port explosion at Hezbollah’s door.

In 2021, a high-ranking Hezbollah official threatened to “usurp” Bitar, a statement seen as a warning shot that they will do all they can to remove Bitar from leading the investigation. Hezbollah and its political allies in parliament have lobbied to remove Bitar from the investigation and have it instead vested in a judicial council – which activists have reportedly claimed would be easily influenced by the accused.

Protester with a poster of former Lebanon prime minister, Hassan Diab, who has been charged with homicide with probable intent after the 2020 Beirut port explosion.
EPA-EFE/Nabil Mounzer

The homicide with probable intent charge levelled against Diab will raise the stakes with Hezbollah. Although Diab claims to be an independent, support for his premiership largely came from the Hezbollah controlled bloc in parliament. It is expected that Hezbollah will respond to the recent charges, though no statement has as yet been issued by the party.

There is no evidence to back Hezbollah’s claim that Bitar is biased. While he comes from Lebanon’s Christian community, which was affected by the port explosion, he is widely seen by the population as a straight shooter, above the fray of sectarian factionalism. Victims of the port explosion view Bitar as their main chance for justice, while many citizens hope that the investigation will finally open the door to greater accountability from the ruling class.

Accountability at last?

The question now is whether Bitar’s latest charges have any chance of leading to prosecutions. Without speculating on the evidence that Bitar has gathered, the broader political context does not provide grounds for optimism. It appears that Bitar is flying solo. None of the groups or alliances in parliament supportive of Bitar’s investigation are sufficiently powerful to ensure the investigation will remain open.

Even some of his supporters, mostly drawn from the leadership of some of Lebanon’s Christian parties and leaders, are wary of the consequences of an investigation that leads to justice for victims and punishment for corruption. Meanwhile his opponents – notably Hezbollah – have the political heft to create numerous obstacles to slow down or shelve the investigation.

Bitar may hope that his investigation will be bolstered by support from the international community. His intervention follows recent meetings with French judges conducting an independent investigation into the deaths of two French nationals in the port explosion.

France, a former colonial power in the region, continues to see Lebanon as a key foreign policy concern. It is unclear at this point whether the French investigation has provided new evidence or broad support for Bitar’s investigation.

But most importantly, the investigation is a major test of whether Lebanon’s culture of impunity will endure. A great deal hangs on this case. Läs mer…