South Pacific

Pohutukawa flowers on Orewa Beach, New Zealand

I’m watching the BBC series South Pacific on DVD at the moment, and I’m up to the third episode. The series has beautiful cinematography: astonishing ultra-slow-motion footage of waves breaking on Pohnpei was the centrepiece of the first episode, and I’m not going to forget the creepy carnivorous caterpillars in action in Hawaii or the tiger sharks eating the albatross fledglings.

But the series is very much suffering from being “thematic” in the way that many modern museum collections are: without historical or geographic context, a loose set of narratives on a theme is forgettable. Set-pieces become nothing more than passing fancy for the eyes, with only the shocking or unexpected being committed to memory. It’s a great shame – as someone who works on Austronesian cultural diversity and comes from Oceania, it’s always disappointed me that there’s not been a good television series on the natural and cultural history of the Pacific. This series aspires to be that, but it’s a string of anecdotes, lurching from zoology to weather to culture, picking out the amazing (vine-jumping Pentecost Islanders from Vanuatu) and the extreme (freezing Macquarie Island with its penguins and elephant seals), with no contextual background of what the biology of the region is like as a whole, or how the fascinating and complex human settlement history has shaped the social and cultural diversity of today.

Most disappointly, the anthropology has made me cringe. The series is narrated (albeit by the splendid Benedict Cumberbatch) rather than having interviewers or allowing people to speak, and it all comes across as terribly touristic and superficial. Anutans were glowing described as people living in mystical harmony with their tiny atoll environment, and contrasted with those rapacious Rapa Nui who used up all their resources. You would think there was no-one living on Easter Island today, because all we got were atmospheric shots of the moai.

I’m relegating it to the background now and just waiting for the bits about keas. Keas are cool. Here’s one walking up a snowy slope with its beak. Bet you can’t do that.

ARKive video - Kea walking up snowy mountain side - using beak

population statistics say nothing about lily cole

Science reporting is rubbish, that’s a given. So this story (I hate myself for linking to the Daily Mail) Why blue-eyed boys (and girls) are so brilliant should have just made me roll my (no pun intended) eyes and slide on by, but it’s cropping up all over the place.

I’m not feeling the best today, and as a little rage is good for the digestion, I think: Fine, I’ll go read the paper. But lo! There is no paper? There’s not really even any clues about the researcher(s). This Joanne Rowe seems to be an emeritus professor of Physical Health at Lousiville, Kentucky. No web page of her own.

So I look on the magic academic databases, and the only things I can find are:

Percept Mot Skills. 1992 75(1):91-5.
Correlation of eye color on self-paced and reactive motor performance.
Miller LK, Rowe PJ, Lund J.

Percept Mot Skills. 1994 Aug;79(1 Pt 2):671-4.
Ball color, eye color, and a reactive motor skill.
Rowe PJ, Evans P.

These studies are 13 and 15 years old! Why is this news now? I could go for the benefit of the doubt, and say there is a paper, it’s just under the Wednesday science embargo. Likelihood?

I shall eat my hat or do follow-up detective work tomorrow.

Next up: Girls Prefer Pink O RLY? or, The Boring Nature/Nurture Debate, Redux.

confusion: it’s what’s good for you!

A nifty editorial on science journalism from the Columbia Journalism review:

My theory is that editors of newspapers and other major periodicals are not just ordinary folk. They tend to be very accomplished people. They’re used to being the smartest guys in the room. So science makes them squirm. And because they can’t bear to feel dumb, science coverage suffers.

This nicely demonstrates the tension of a scientific approach: on the one hand to have a fierce desire to Find Out Why and interrogate the world, and on the other hand to be okay with uncertainty and confusion.

BBC headlines ‘really annoying’

A rant, just for a second.

Like every other computer-bound sod I compulsively check the BBC news webpages all day and consider myself somewhat familiar with their style. The thing that’s really narking me off right now is their headlines. From today’s (although yesterday’s was much worse):

1. Twin blasts ‘kill 24’ in Baghdad

2. Majority ‘back’ animal research

3. Schools ‘must teach about drugs’

The little ‘scare quotes‘ are breeding and multiplying all over the page. It was my understanding that scare quotes are used to denote where a term was a matter of opinion rather than strict fact (or to convey some sort of journalistic editorialising if one could be bothered with the double entendre). So the use in the title of this post, and in the last example there, seem to be the valid use of the little splashes of punctuation. But why (for example) in ‘kill 24’? According to the sources at least 24 people were killed. As a reading of breaking news, I am quite okay with Twin blasts kill 24 in Baghdad, even if it ends up that somewhat more or less is the confirmed number. Do people really get terribly and litigiously upset if headlines don’t indicate uncertainty on every detail?

The second example is presumably qualifying that the majority of people polled, while supportive of animal-based research, don’t necessary want their taxes spent on it. But we get that from the article. There is a statement of general fact there: the majority of people polled do back research. Of course there’s qualification, else the article would merely be the headline.

Now, I completely understand that the headline-writing for the BBC News website is some sort of ordeal of attempting to fit maximum clickable interest into less than seven words. BUT. The increase (and I really do think it has increased) in the use of the quotes implies to me (1) lack of imagination and (2) some sort of lazy journalism where the headlines become all about opinion – and not balanced presentation of the facts and issues as well as the requisite quotes from two polarised sources, just for ‘balance’.

And since one of the Editors said on their blog the other day that they read what bloggers say about their site, I look forward to my queries being addressed.