Why are ‘feminine’ crafts like basket weaving disparaged by politicians?

 Basket weaving is an important cultural and economic 
activity in many parts of the world, including Australia. 
IM Swedish Development Partner/Flickr

Basket weaving. It doesn’t sound much of an insult does it? But Education Minister Simon Birmingham appeared to use the term in this way in an interview following opposition leader Bill Shorten’s budget reply speech. Birmingham reacted disdainfully to Shorten’s commitment to fund fees for TAFE students, sneering at Labor’s “disastrous VET FEE-HELP program that subsidised everything from energy healing to basket weaving.”

Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen described this comment as an insult to TAFE teachers. Bowen is right, of course. But more than that, this insult derives its power from denigrating and trivialising crafts traditionally practised by women. By extension, it denigrates women themselves.

It calls to mind a similar jibe delivered by home affairs minister Peter Dutton during the gay marriage debate in March last year, when he told leading Australian company CEOs who urged government action on the issue to “stick to their knitting”. Three days later, Greens senator Janet Rice pulled out her knitting and worked on a rainbow-striped scarf during question time.

Janet Rice

Why is it that when dredging for an insult, male politicians turn to traditionally female crafts? It seems their gendered nature, pigeonholed as women’s hobbies – mundane and domestic, unpaid and undervalued – makes them suitable targets for ridicule. We don’t see such sneers at woodwork, metalcrafts or other “manly” pursuits.

Oppressive attitudes towards women have engendered such characterisations of their leisure pursuits. In 1986 feminist theory pioneer Sandra Harding wrote: “In virtually all cultures, whatever is thought of as manly is more highly valued than what is thought of as womanly”. More than 30 years on, the insults from Birmingham and Dutton illustrate that this view is as pertinent today.

Birmingham’s comment also marginalises and undermines the merits of the highly skilled craft of basket weaving, which has a rich history, including in Aboriginal culture. Created with extraordinary dexterity and patience, items that once served utilitarian purposes, such as carrying food or even babies, are today preserved as museum pieces.

Traditional Owner Patsy Raglar weaving at the inaugural A Taste of Kakadu food festival in the Northern Territory in 2017. PARKS AUSTRALIA

Such weaving “expresses cultural identity and traditions that date back tens of thousands of years”, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies says. Baskets carried by figures and ancestor spirits have been depicted in Arnhem Land rock art dating back more than 40,000 years.

Home to some of Australia’s finest fibre works, the Maningrida region’s Arts and Culture website notes: “There are also spiritual dimensions to weaving, which vary according to the materials used and the totemic significance of the object made.”

Curator Dr Kevin Murray, former artistic director of Craft Victoria, now an adjunct professor at RMIT University and editor of online craft publication Garland, reacted angrily to Birmingham’s insult. “Sure, basket weaving can thrive in Australia without TAFE support, but we need to address the way it is often demeaned as an art form by men in suits. What’s more meaningful: adding up figures in a spreadsheet or weaving objects for people to use that reflect a relation to the land and tradition?” he posted on the Craft in Australia Facebook page.

Two days later on that page, the World Crafts Council – Australia posted a notice of the National Basketry Gathering 2019 in South Australia with the comment, “Basket-makers stand proud!”

Craft meets politics with the Illawarra Knitting Nannas Against Gas. TONY MARKHAM

The inference attending the Birmingham insult is that basket weaving is a waste of money, while Dutton’s message is essentially that the CEOs should mind their own business and concentrate on what they know.

Many women are very familiar with the message of “don’t bother your pretty little head with that”. Yet crafts are increasingly recognised as appropriate subjects for scholarship. Finnish design scholar Maarit Makela has noted that “the making and the products of making are seen as an essential part of research”. They are “strongly connected with the source of knowledge. In this sense we are facing the idea of knowing through making.”

Also worth noting is that a significant body of research has confirmed what crafters have long known – that their crafts have mental health benefits. Craft has been found to enhance wellbeing – indeed some psychologists prescribe knitting for their patients.

Crafts also promote social connections, a counter to the loneliness and social isolation of contemporary life. Even trauma can be eased by participating in them, researchers have found. “The analysis revealed that feelings of agony or pain could be pushed away and turned into bodily activity or symbolic imagery by hand work,” writes Finnish researcher Professor Sinikka Pollanen.

Increasingly, craft practitioners are using their skills for other purposes than the purely decorative or utilitarian. They are actively protesting aspects of society – the Knitting Nannas who oppose coal seam gas exploration or yarn bombers enhancing desolate urban landscapes, for example. While some men are using craft to buck the gender stereotypes, for activist women it’s a means of drawing attention to and rebelling against the restrictions placed on them because of their gender. The message: craft matters; we matter.

This article was written by:
Image of Sue GreenSue Green – [Deputy Director, Journalism Program, Swinburne University of Technology]




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Grattan on Friday: Fixing citizenship imbroglio is not just a matter of better paperwork

 According to the committee more than half of 
all Australians would have to reorder some aspect of their affairs 
if they wanted to nominate for parliament. 

The government would have us believe there’s really no fundamental difficulty with the citizenship provision in the constitution, which has cut a swathe through the federal parliament. It is just a matter of not being careless.

Unwilling to confront the genuine and ongoing problems now the dual citizen genie is out of the bottle, the government says candidates for parliament simply need to get their paperwork in order.

But a report from the joint standing committee on electoral matters, released on Thursday, presents a compelling case for going back to taws on section 44, which covers not just citizenship but also people having conflicts of interest and offices of profit under the crown.

Staggeringly, according to the committee more than half of all Australians would have to reorder some aspect of their affairs if they wanted to nominate for parliament – and some might never be able to overcome the barriers. The title of the report is “Excluded”.

The only way of making things more workable, the bipartisan inquiry concluded, is by overhauling the section via a referendum.

The government, however, has made it clear it hasn’t any stomach to go down the referendum path. While sources claim it is not necessarily ruling it out for ever, that’s the distinct message coming from the public words.

If the committee, chaired by Western Australian Liberal senator Linda Reynolds, had recommended a referendum before or at the coming election, the government’s position might be reasonable. The challenge would be too big; its political capital too small.

The committee, however, has accepted a longer timetable is needed.

Section 44 disqualifies dual citizens from sitting in parliament. The High Court’s black letter law interpretation, which also applies to other parts of the section, is that a person must not be a dual citizen at the time of nomination.

The section “allows the laws of other countries to create dual citizenships without the knowledge or consent of Australian citizens,” the committee found. It “creates an ongoing cloud of uncertainty over those who have parents, grandparents or spouses born overseas. This cloud also covers those who do not have documentation about their family, including Indigenous Australians”.

One of the cameos given in the report is fictionalised as “Christine” but obviously based on Labor Indigenous senator Pat Dodson. It raises the issue of someone whose mother was part of the stolen generations, without family records, but whose grandfather was rumoured to have been Irish. The senator “Christine” has no disqualification she knows of but remains in “jeopardy that the identity of her grandfather will be discovered”.

The report – unanimous except for one dissenting Liberal – said the evidence suggested “only those with documented generations of wholly Australian forebears can be completely assured of their citizenship status for the duration of their parliamentary term. This creates two classes of Australian citizens for the purposes of engaging in representative democracy.”

Under the committee’s proposal, the referendum would be either to scrap section 44 or have added to it “until the parliament otherwise provides”.

It says that if the referendum passed, the government should engage with the community to determine “contemporary expectations” about suitable qualifications, in relation to citizenship and other matters (such as whether someone holding an office of profit under the crown should have to quit before nominating, as at present, or when elected).

The committee hasn’t taken a view on whether the present requirement for a parliamentary aspirant to be an Australian-only citizen should remain, or dual citizenship should be acceptable.

There are arguments on both sides: the instinctive attraction to feeling an MP should have renounced claims to any other citizenship, versus the feeling that in a multicultural country this might be too rigid a position.

Fairfax’s Latika Bourke reported British Conservative MP and co-chair of the ANZAC parliamentary friendship group Andrew Rosindell describing in particular the ban on dual Australian-British citizens as absurd. She also pointed to Catherine West, an Australian who is a British Labour MP.

While whether MPs should be allowed to be dual citizens would be a debate worth having, one can also understand a government not wanting to have it. It could be fraught and divisive.

Responding to the committee’s report Turnbull said that “what people have to do is simply get their act together.

“Australians expect politicians to set a high standard and they look to us and they say, ‘we have to fill in our forms’, whether it is for tax, or Centrelink, or childcare … ‘We have to get all the details and information together. So should you, people who want to be members of parliament’”.

No doubt many people, highly cynical about politicians, would say just that. But Turnbull knows he is resorting to a populist argument, rather than a soundly-based one. As a lawyer he’d be fully aware, as the report emphasizes, that the citizenship matter is more complex.

This is shown, for example, by the situation of Labor MP Anne Aly. She has produced a letter from the Egyptian embassy saying she is not an Egyptian citizen, but that hasn’t stopped doubts being canvassed. In response, Labor defaults to questions around Liberal MPs Julia Banks and Jason Falinski. The point is, while in the case of some people and countries, determining and renouncing foreign citizenship is relatively straight-forward, in other instances it can be anything but.

The government plans to implement measures, drawing on the report, to make it less likely people will fall foul of the citizenship trap, such as requiring candidates to publicly disclose their family citizenship history when they nominate.

Although the committee has suggested interim steps, it doesn’t regard them as an adequate permanent fix.

The committee was adamantly against giving the Australian Electoral Commission a role in vetting candidates. “For legislative, practical, and reputational reasons this is a dangerous and unworkable suggestion,” it said. “Most crucially, having the AEC both conduct elections and adjudicate on candidate disqualification would seriously corrupt the probity of Australia’s democracy”.

The citizenship provision has claimed 15 members of this parliament, of whom two (Barnaby Joyce and John Alexander) have been re-elected and another four (Justine Keay, Susan Lamb, Rebekha Sharkie, and Josh Wilson) are seeking re-election in the coming byelections.

Ahead, the choice is between a patch-up or a proper solution. The patch up is inevitable in the short term but is a cop-out as a long-term answer.

When it comes to updating the constitution, the task seems beyond this country. Recommendations for various changes from conventions and inquiries over many years have come to nothing. Only eight referendums (including changes to the federal parliament’s powers) have been carried since federation, the last in 1977.

For all the talk, the prospect of a referendum on Indigenous recognition, which only a few years ago seemed likely relatively soon, has once again slipped away.

Our politicians, and we the Australian people, are stuck like glue to aspects of our constitution that have become unfit for purpose.

This article was written by:
Michelle Gratton – [Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra]




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What happens to small towns whose water becomes big business for bottled brands?

 The more the market is willing to pay, the harder it is 
to regulate water use. Shutterstock.com

Groundwater being pumped from a highland aquifer, only to be whisked away in tankers and sold in little plastic bottles by a multinational corporation – it’s a difficult concept for a small farming town to swallow.

Just ask the residents of Stanley, Victoria, whose four-year court battle to stop a farmer bottling local groundwater for Japanese beverage giant Asahi ended in failure last month. They were left with a A$90,000 bill for legal costs.

Locals have clashed with the bottled water industry in many parts of the world, including the United States and Canada, and perhaps most famously in the French spa town of Vittel, where residents have accused Nestlé of selling so much of their water to the rest of the world that they barely have enough left for themselves.

These conflicts demonstrate the challenge of balancing the competing demands on water drawn from underground. Compared with surface water, which is less tricky to monitor, groundwater is far harder to govern.

Under the Australian Constitution, water is primarily governed by the states. In Victoria, groundwater in high-use areas is managed using groundwater management plans under the Water Act, and water for commercial or irrigation purposes requires a take and use licence. This licence specifies the maximum volume of water a user is allowed to divert each year and under what conditions – what is often called an ‘entitlement’.

If a licence-holder wants to amend their licence, they need to apply to their regional water corporation.

It was one such application that triggered the dispute in Stanley. Local farmer Tim Carey applied to change the source of 19 million litres of his existing licence from surface water to groundwater, and from agricultural to commercial purposes. This would allow him to truck the water to a bottling plant run by Mountain H2O, owned by Asahi.

The changes were approved by Goulburn-Murray Water under the local water management plan. Stanley’s residents were concerned about the impact on irrigation and the environment, and tried to challenge Carey’s operation under local planning laws. But the court said that his approved water licence meant he didn’t need planning approval too. With no clear legal options now left for local residents, that may well prove to be the final say on the matter.

How did this happen?

Unfortunately, before about 1980, water entitlements were given away like kittens by various water agencies. As a result, in some areas, users are entitled to much more water than they actually use – sometimes more than is sustainable. And politics generally precludes any intervention to amend these inflated entitlements once the licence-holders have become used to having them.

Extensive droughts in the late 1970s and early 1980s, combined with the Darling River’s striking algal bloom in the early 1990s, catapulted the importance of effective water management into the public consciousness.

In 1997, this resulted in “the cap” – limits on surface water diversions in the Murray-Darling Basin. However, the cap didn’t limit groundwater extractions, which then increased dramatically. The regulation of groundwater, memorably described in an 1861 court case as too “secret, occult and concealed” to even attempt, has long lagged behind that of surface water.

It wasn’t until the Millennium Drought (2000-09), with the advent of the National Water Initiative and the federal Water Act 2007 that Australian groundwater management underwent significant, large-scale reform. The main thrusts of the reforms were the development of legal and planning frameworks to achieve sustainable management of surface and groundwater, and the restructuring of water markets to be nationally compatible.

The new water governance regime created under the federal Water Act, under which the Commonwealth assumed important powers over waters in the Murray-Darling Basin, allows for groundwater markets and new limits on groundwater withdrawals. Groundwater trading is generally constrained by rules that require the “to” and “from” locations to be hydrologically connected to one another.

Stanley’s groundwater falls within a new mega-planning area that covers great swathes of northern Victoria. The new management plan for this area is due at the end of the year, but is currently only 30% complete.

Even if the plan is finished on time, groundwater sustainability in regions like the Ovens might elude us. Limits on water extraction are generally based on the entitlements in the area. But as current groundwater usage is less than those entitlements, “sleeper” licences can still be activated. During shortages, when the economic value of water peaks, people can trade water that would otherwise remain unused. In some management regions, the total entitlement volume is roughly double or more than the actual usage.

The Stanley case shows how communities can mobilise when groundwater moves from one use to another. If new plans further encourage groundwater markets, we should brace ourselves for more of the same – although it is unclear whether other communities would enjoy any more legal success than the people of Stanley.

What are management decisions based on?

High-profile cases like Stanley’s highlight the need for a robust scientific basis for licensing decisions. Communities facing change will have a difficult time accepting decisions that are not supported by rigorous science.

Unfortunately when it comes to groundwater, it’s far from straightforward to work out how much water is down there and where it goes. An expert hydrogeologist retained by Stanley’s residents argued that the modelling used to estimate the impact of the bottled water extractions was very simplistic. Mapping groundwater with an overly simplistic model is akin to using an identikit sketch of a smiley face to catch a criminal.

But water corporations have finite resources, and if we want in-depth analysis, then we need to invest in management planning tools such as drilling programs and numerical groundwater models supported by monitoring data and surveys of groundwater-dependent ecosystems. This sort of analysis is time-consuming, expensive and currently a political stretch. Governments only tend to spend serious money on groundwater investigations once people start running out of water.

However, if we want to get groundwater licensing right, it needs to be scientifically robust, environmentally sustainable, and procedurally fair.

As Stanley’s residents discovered, there might be no second chance.

This article was co-authored by:

Image of Emma Kathryn White

Emma Kathryn White – [PhD Candidate, Infrastructure Engineering, University of Melbourne]


Image of Rebecca Louise NelsonRebecca Louise Nelson – [Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Melbourne]




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Long-running battle ends in a win for residents, koalas and local council planning rules

 You can see koalas at Dreamworld on the Gold Coast, 
but the city council has won a planning battle to preserve their 
wild population too. Dave Hunt/AAP

Gold Coast City Council has won a four-year legal battle with Boral Resources, with the courts upholding the council’s refusal to approve a proposed quarry because of its impacts on the amenity of local residents – including the area’s koalas. In some rare good news for local government in Queensland, which has been under a cloud lately, the Court of Appeal’s decision confirms that councils are entitled to rely on their own planning schemes when deciding on local development applications. Even though Boral had secured approvals from the Commonwealth and Queensland governments, the Queensland Court of Appeal has upheld the council’s decision to refuse Boral’s application to develop a quarry.

A quarry quarrel

The council took on Boral and won after a four-year battle. In May 2014, Boral Resources had applied to the council for a permit to develop a quarry over 65 hectares of land at Reedy Creek, west of Palm Beach. State planning instruments had identified this land as a key resource area of state significance. For Boral, the quarry would generate hard rock and overburden worth A$1.4-1.5 billion.

In January 2014, the federal environment minister, acting under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, approved the development. In July 2014, Queensland’s Department of Environment and Heritage Protection did likewise.

All that remained was council’s consent. But, even though its own planning officer recommended approving the development, on July 11 2014, the council refused Boral’s application. When the local protest is loud enough and big enough – 4,200 objections were received – then even the Gold Coast Council will hear!

Residents’ opposition to the quarry development was organised, loud and ultimately, after several years, successful. Stop the Gold Coast Quarry/Facebook

Not surprisingly, Boral immediately appealed that decision to the Planning and Environment Court. The court had to balance numerous competing interests to re-decide the merits of the case.

To some extent, the economic arguments were on Boral’s side. If the proposal did not proceed, competition could be reduced and the additional costs to the community could be around A$240 million over the life of the quarry, as even the Court of Appeal later accepted.

On the other side of the equation, the development would have adverse impacts on the amenity of nearby residents. These included creating ugly views and generating noise and dust by introducing an extra 450 haulage truck movements per day on local roads.

Judge Richard Jones decided the balance favoured refusing the application, confirming the council’s refusal.

Now the Court of Appeal has upheld that decision. The council, local residents and koalas have won the day.

The case also raises some points of more general planning interest. These relate to:

  • the respective roles of state and local planning instruments
  • whether profitable economic development may legitimately be delayed to another day
  • whether protecting koalas requires protecting their habitat as well.

State versus local planning instruments

In Queensland, the state planning policy identifies 16 state interests arranged under five broad themes. No one state interest is given priority over the others.

The Court of Appeal’s decision confirms it is the rightful business of local governments to balance and resolve competing state interests at the local level in their own planning schemes. Notwithstanding the site’s designation as a key resource area in state planning policy, the council had acted lawfully in relying on its own planning instruments to decide that adverse environmental and amenity impacts justified refusing the application.

Should good economic development be postponed?

Despite refusing the application, the judge conceded the resource should be protected for future exploitation when appropriate.

Boral argued this was an “irrational decision”. How would the amenity of residents and the survival of koalas be any less of concern in the future if they were so important even now? In Boral’s view, if this was a valuable economic resource (and everyone agreed it was), development now was the only sensible decision.

The Court of Appeal paid short shrift to this notion. It held that although the local planning instruments currently prevailed against an approval, amendments to these over time might alter the balance in favour of development. Local government, once again, is in the driving seat.

Do koalas need their trees?

Koalas are a recognised matter of environmental significance at both the Commonwealth and state levels. Developing the quarry would involve, over time, clearing 30,000 trees, including 23,000 koala habitat trees. The Planning and Environment Court judge recognised this would have an adverse impact in relation to a matter of environmental significance.

Boral had, like every other developer, argued conservation efforts at other sites (imposed as offsets) could produce a better outcome overall for koalas in southeast Queensland. The court dismissed this claim because the local planning scheme specified matters of environmental significance should be protected in situ.

Not to be defeated, Boral argued the judge confused koalas (a recognised matter of environmental significance) with koala habitat (of no particular status in this case). The Court of Appeal denounced this logic:

It cannot seriously be disputed that to destroy its habitat is to fail to conserve and protect it as a listed threatened species.

What are the broader planning implications?

The Boral litigation explores some really interesting principles for planning law and local governments.

Let’s just imagine, for a moment, a land use planning world where state planning policy is always applied with reference to the affected community’s vision for its neighbourhood; where councils regularly protect habitat for endangered species; and where, just occasionally, the drive for ever more resource development gives way to a holistic view of sustainable development … oh, what a different world that would be!

This article was written by:
Philippa England – [Senior Lecturer, Griffith Law School, Griffith University]




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Can anyone learn to sing? For most of us, the answer is yes

Singing increases breathing control and lung capacity,
can improve your health,& release the happy hormone.Mai Lam/The Conversation 

Do you have a pair of vocal folds that can produce sound? Can you tell the difference between a higher note and a lower note? Good news! You and about 98.5% of the population absolutely can be taught how to sing.

And the rest? Well, according to a recent Canadian study, about 1.5% of the population suffer from a condition called “congenital amusia”. They have real difficulty discriminating between different pitches, tone, and sometimes rhythm.

So if you were to play a well-known melody – say, the tune to “Happy Birthday” – and you played a few wrong notes, most people would identify the errors straight away. However, someone with congenital amusia might not notice anything wrong at all. You can see examples of that in this video, from about the 3.20 mark:

Natural talent aside, most of us can be taught to sing

Several years ago I had a request for private vocal lessons from a woman who just wanted to sing one song for her husband’s birthday in six months time.

What I noticed was that she was unable to accurately pitch match. She came to lessons each week and maintained her practice with incredible diligence. What she lacked in natural ability, she made up for in heart and work ethic. Within six months, she was not only matching pitch, but she was singing one and a half octave patterns slowly through her entire range (for example, from low C to A in the next octave up).

More importantly if she sang a note incorrectly, she could discern and correct it herself. She performed the song for her family and it was a happy outcome for all involved.

Her experience shows that hard work pays off, but that’s not the only factor. Work by German researchers found that that it is not just how much you practice that counts, but rather how quickly you identify and correct your error. This is what makes an OK singer into an expert performer. That said, without deliberate practice even the most talented singer will reach a plateau and get stuck.

 Professional singers learn vocal exercises and warm-up techniques.

How singing works

Understanding exactly how singing works is a surprisingly complex field of research. There is a rather significant leap from singing in the shower or being part of a community choir (although both are a great place start) to pursuing singing professionally.

Singing practice and training involves generating a sense of vocal freedom – this is what you’re seeing when you watch someone sing movingly, beautifully but seemingly without effort. For most singers, years of practice go into developing that kind of freedom.

As singing voice teacher Jeannette Lovetri writes:

It takes about 10 years to be a master singer. Ten years of study, investigation, involvement, experience, experiment, exploration, and development, and in some way, that’s when you start really being an artist.

We are all born with the key ingredients of a singing voice. The early gurgling and bubbling sounds we make as babies contain some of the key components of singing – a variety of pitches, dynamics, rhythms and phrases. But some of us may have a genetic advantage that can be enhanced by training.

A University of Melbourne study called Let’s Hear Twins Sing aims to discover what factors influence singing ability and to what extent genes play a role in pitch accuracy.

Physical skill and control

The act of singing looks simple but actually involves highly skilled control and coordination of muscles – and these muscles need to be both flexible and strong. True control comes from training.

A person needs to be able to control the air pressure in their lungs and use their abdominal muscles to push air through the trachea, where it meets the vocal folds, which start to vibrate. In a really good singer, vocal health, posture and alignment, breath management are matched with imagination, self-expression and creativity.

A really good contemporary professional pop singer isn’t just born that way. They also need an inquiring mind, dedication to understanding the physiology of the vocal instrument, the discipline and daily practice of warm-ups and a variety of exercises, a deep understanding of music harmony, ability to notate and transcribe music, some degree of improvisation and stagecraft skills.

Film stars learn to sing all the time for a role (usually surrounded by a team of vocal teachers and months of daily practice). The results aren’t always perfect, but that’s not necessarily what is important. Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, for example, has a small, breathy voice but it suits her role and enhances her character.

So if you’ve never sung professionally but want to try singing, I encourage you to give it a go! Chances are that you can be taught to sing – and even if you can’t, there are health benefits to trying.

Singing increases breathing control and lung capacity, it can improve heart health, and release the happy hormone oxytocin, elevate your mood and reduce pain, and may even increase your immunity. Even practising a new behaviour, like singing, can be good for the brain.

So enjoy singing. Find a singing teacher who loves singing and teaching, performs regularly and incorporates their knowledge of anatomy and physiology into their vocal teaching. Once you start, you’ll likely realise that singing can bring benefits for life.

This article was written by:
Image of Leigh CarriageLeigh Carriage – [Lecturer in Music, Southern Cross University]




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Acupuncture during IVF doesn’t increase chances of having a baby

 Acupuncture might alleviate stress for women 
undertaking IVF. from www.shutterstock.com

Acupuncture has become a frequently used treatment prior to and during in-vitro fertilisation (IVF). Women hope it will increase their chances of having a baby, but also provide support with reducing stress, and feeling relaxed and well while undergoing treatment.

Several small clinical trials have previously suggested acupuncture improved outcomes of stressful and unpredictable fertility treatments. But our new study has found this is not the case.

The study of more than 800 Australian and New Zealand women undergoing acupuncture treatment during their IVF cycles has failed to confirm significant difference in live birth rates.

The findings published yesterday in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) support recent guidelines from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and two high-quality meta-analyses (which combine data from multiple studies to identify a common effect).

What the study found

We examined the effects of a short course of acupuncture administered during an IVF cycle. We were not able to show that acupuncture increased live births, clinical pregnancy or having fewer miscarriages.

Undertaken across 16 IVF centres in Australia and New Zealand, the randomised controlled clinical trial (that compares the effects of an experimental treatment on one group with those of a placebo or alternative treatment in another group) aimed to increase live births and pregnancies among 848 women aged 18 to 42, undergoing an IVF cycle using fresh embryos, over a four year period.

The first acupuncture treatment was given at the start of the IVF process when medication is given to stimulate the ovary to produce follicles.

Following successful fertilisation, acupuncture to recognised acupuncture points was performed prior to, and immediately following, the transfer of the embryo to the woman’s womb.

The control group in this study was sham acupuncture. This looks like real acupuncture but does not involve insertion of the needle through the skin. For both groups the needle is held in place by a plastic tube, but as the practitioner places the needle on the skin, for the control group the shaft of the needle disappears into the handle, while in the treatment group the needle pierces the skin.

The results showed a clinical pregnancy was achieved in 25.7% of women who received acupuncture and 21.7% of women in the sham control, and that a live birth was achieved for 18.3% of women who received acupuncture compared to 17.8% who received the control.

While a 4% increase might sound hopeful, given the low percentage of successful IVF births to begin with, this is not a big enough increase for scientists to conclude there is a difference. This means the study does not support that acupuncture can improve pregnancy or live birth rates for women undergoing IVF.

However, in clinical practice, acupuncture may include more sessions prior to an IVF cycle starting. Whether this would make a difference hasn’t been tested.

Why is this important?

Despite recent technological improvements to IVF, the success rate is still low. Consequently, new drugs, laboratory techniques and other treatments need to be developed and rigorously tested to explore their effects on producing healthy babies for women undergoing IVF.

Acupuncture has long been used for gynaecological and obstetric problems. In 2002, the first randomised controlled trial of acupuncture administered a specific form of IVF acupuncture at the time of embryo transfer. The results indicated the chance of achieving a pregnancy from acupuncture was twice that of women undergoing IVF treatment alone.

Further clinical trials were conducted to examine if these results could be replicated. Some trials found acupuncture had some effect and others found it had none.

IVF is an emotionally tumultuous time. k b unsplash

Where did the acupuncture belief come from?

An adequate blood flow to develop immature eggs, and the endometrium (the lining of the uterus), is important to female fertility and pregnancy. Studies on a stronger form of acupuncture, electro-acupuncture, found it may influence central sympathetic nerve activity, and may increase blood flow in parts of the body, including improved blood flow and oxygenation to ovarian and uterine tissue.

Stress is thought to play a role in infertility. Among women undertaking IVF treatment, previous research has found an association between lower levels of stress and anxiety and increased pregnancy.

In our earlier research, acupuncture was shown to reduce the emotional stress and burden experienced by women during IVF treatment.

We hope the new findings will enable women and practitioners to make evidence-formed decisions about the use of acupuncture to achieve a pregnancy and live birth.

But unpublished findings from our trial highlight a supportive role from acupuncture with reducing stress, increased relaxation and improving how women feel about themselves while undergoing the demands of IVF treatments. These findings suggest while it probably won’t improve a woman’s chance of having a baby, acupuncture could help women deal with the emotional turmoil of IVF.

This article was co-authored by:
Image of Caroline Smith
Caroline Smith – [Professor Clinical Research, Western Sydney University]
Image of Robert NormanRobert Norman – [Professor of Reproductive and Periconceptual Medicine, The Robinson Institute, University of Adelaide]




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If we can’t recycle it, why not turn our waste plastic into fuel?

 Could this be turned into fuel, instead of just 
more plastic? Shutterstock.com

Australia’s recycling crisis needs us to look into waste management options beyond just recycling and landfilling. Some of our waste, like paper or organic matter, can be composted. Some, like glass, metal and rigid plastics, can be recycled. But we have no immediate solution for non-recyclable plastic waste except landfill.

At a meeting last month, federal and state environment ministers endorsed an ambitious target to make all Australian packaging recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025. But the ministers also showed support for processes to turn our waste into energy, although they did not specifically discuss plastic waste as an energy source.

Read more: China’s recycling ‘ban’ throws Australia into a very messy waste crisis

The 100% goal could easily be achieved if all packaging were made of paper or wood-based materials. But realistically, plastic will continue to dominate our packaging, especially for food, because it is moisture-proof, airtight, and hygienic.

Most rigid plastic products can only be recycled a few times before they lose their original properties and become non-recyclable. Even in European countries with strict waste management strategies, only 31% of plastic waste is recycled.

Worldwide plastic production is predicted to increase by 3.8% every year until 2030. Flexible, non-recyclable plastic materials are used in an increasing range of applications like packaging, 3D printing, and construction.

We need to expand our range of options for keeping this plastic waste out of landfill. One potential approach is “plastic to energy”, which unlocks the chemical energy stored in waste plastic and uses it to create fuel.

How plastic to energy works

Plastic is made from refined crude oil. Its price and production are dictated by the petrochemical industry and the availability of oil. As oil is a finite natural resource, the most sustainable option would be to reduce crude-oil consumption by recycling the plastic and recovering as much of the raw material as possible.

There are two types of recycling: mechanical and chemical. Mechanical recycling involves sorting, cleaning and shredding plastic to make pellets, which can then be fashioned into other products. This approach works very well if plastic wastes are sorted according to their chemical composition.

Chemical recycling, in contrast, turns the plastic into an energy carrier or feedstock for fuels. There are two different processes by which this can be done: gasification and pyrolysis.

Gasification involves heating the waste plastic with air or steam, to produce a valuable industrial gas mixtures called “synthesis gas”, or syngas. This can then be used to produce diesel and petrol, or burned directly in boilers to generate electricity.

In pyrolysis, plastic waste is heated in the absence of oxygen, which produces mixture of oil similar to crude oil. This can be further refined into transportation fuels.

One of the advantages of plastic waste-to-fuel is that plastic doesn’t have to be separated into different types. Author provided

Gasification and pyrolysis are completely different processes to simply incinerating the plastic. The main goal of incineration is simply to destroy the waste, thus keeping it out of landfill. The heat released from incineration might be used to produce steam to drive a turbine and generate electricity, but this is only a by-product.

Gasification and pyrolysis can produce electricity or fuels, and provide more flexible ways of storing energy than incineration. They also have much lower emissions of sulfur and nitrogen oxides than incineration.

Currently, incineration plants are viewed as an alternative energy supply source and a modern way of driving a circular economy, particularly in Japan, South Korea and China, where land is valuable and energy resources are scarce. In other countries, although waste incineration is common practice, the debate around human health impacts, supply issues and fuel trade incentives remains unresolved.

Can Australia embrace plastic to waste?

Gasification of plastic waste needs significant initial financing. It requires pre-treatment, cleanup facilities, gas separation units, and advanced control systems. Pyrolysis units, on the other hand, can be modular and be installed to process as little as 10,000 tonnes per year – a relatively small amount in waste management terms. Plastic pyrolysis plants have already been built in the UKJapan and the United States.

As pyrolysis and gasification technologies can only process plastics, many councils do not see major advantages in using them. But by taking only a specific waste stream, they encourage better waste sorting and help to reduce the flow of mixed waste and plastic litter.

Australia has invested a serious amount of funding into research, particularly in waste conversion. It has a solid industrialised infrastructure and a highly skilled workforce. The current recycling crisis offers an opportunity to explore some innovative ways of turning our waste into valuable products.

There are direct job opportunities in plastic conversion plants, and indirect jobs around installation, maintenance and distribution of energy and fuels. We might even see jobs in R&D to explore other waste conversion technologies.

In the meantime, the plastic we send to landfill is damaging our environment and harming wildlife. That needs to change, and Australia should consider plastic waste-to-energy as part of that change.

This article was written by:
Image of Muxina KonarovaMuxina Konarova – [Advanced Queensland Research Fellow, The University of Queensland]




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Homelessness: Australia’s shameful story of policy complacency and failure continues

 Governments have all but abandoned the commitments 
made a decade ago when Kevin Rudd launched a national campaign 
to reduce homelessness. Dean Lewins/AAP

Exactly a decade ago in 2008, the Australian government committed to an ambitious strategy to halve national homelessness by 2020. Through stepped-up early intervention, better homelessness services and an expanded supply of affordable housing, the problem would be tackled with conviction. Instead, as succeeding governments regrettably abandoned the 2008 strategy, homelessness in Australia has been on the rise.

Last week’s federal budget offered no response to this concern. And the problem is fast getting worse, as highlighted in our new Australian Homelessness Monitor, prepared for independent community organisation Launch Housing. Emulating a respected UK annual monitoring project, this report is a comprehensive national analysis of the state of homelessness in Australia together with the potential policy, economic and social drivers of the trends across the country.

Recently published 2016 Census statistics showed a 14% increase in overall homelessness in Australia since 2011. That’s well ahead of the nation’s population growth rate.

Our major cities have seen much larger rises in homelessness. Recent increases have been especially big in Sydney (up 48% since 2011), Darwin (up 36%) and Brisbane (up 32%).

Concerningly, the numbers of people sleeping rough have been growing particularly fast. This, the most visible and extreme form of homelessness, grew nationally by 20% over the 2011-2016 period.

Although offset by periodic rehousing initiatives for long-term street homeless, five-year increases in the municipalities of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide have exceeded the national trend. This was especially true in Melbourne. The 2016 City of Melbourne countshowed numbers jumped by more than 200% over this period.

Why are the numbers soaring?

As our report this year highlights, many policies, or policy failures, are implicated in these trends. These include:

Such developments are critical in a housing market where, by international standards, subsidised social housing provision is minimal. This means the vast majority of Australia’s lower-income population must depend on an increasingly stressed private rental sector in which the stock of low-cost homes is dwindling.

Partly as a result, ABS statistics cited in our report show the proportion of low-income tenants in rental stress has risen from 35% to 44% over the past decade nationally. In New South Wales, it has risen from 43% to 51%. In Victoria, the figure rose from 32% to 47% over the decade.

Homeless numbers have soared in the big cities, with Melbourne recording a 200% increase in rough sleepers over five years. Dan Peled/AAP

The geographical pattern of recent homeless changes shows the housing market is driving these changes. Our report finds increases in homelessness have generally been much more rapid in capital cities. Non-metropolitan areas have recorded much lower growth rates, or even reductions.

In another pointer to housing market impacts, increases in homelessness have tended to be higher in the large eastern states. These are the states where economies and property markets have been relatively strong over the past few years. In South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia, where these factors have been less evident, the rate of homeless growth has been lower.

So, overall numbers were up by 53% in inner Sydney (2011-2016), but rose by a more modest 21% in Hobart. In contrast, homeless numbers fell by over 30% in remote South Australia and Western Australia.

Governments have let this happen

Despite these stark trends, recent Australian governments, while footing the bill for homelessness services rising well ahead of inflation, have presided over cuts in social and affordable housing.

In its 2014 budget, the Abbott government cancelled the National Rental Affordability Scheme. This was Australia’s last national affordable housing construction program.

An increasingly underfunded social and affordable housing system leads to a burgeoning homelessness support system. The cost of emergency services for those lacking homes has risen by 29% in real terms over the past four years. On its current path, the cost is set to exceed A$1 billion by 2020.

Meanwhile, in the face of deteriorating public housing stock and intensifying shortage, social housing investment by state and territory governments has actually fallen by 7% since 2012-13.

Five years ago, prior to the 2013 federal election, then opposition spokeswoman on housing Marise Payne said “the Coalition’s homelessness plan” was “to abolish the carbon tax, pay down Labor’s debt, generate one million jobs in the next five years and increase our collective wealth so all of us – individuals and charities – have the capacity to help the homeless and those most in need in areas where government is not always the answer”.

While placing faith in philanthropy, such sentiment is underpinned by a stubborn belief that we can rely on market forces to provide suitable and affordable housing for disadvantaged Australians – just as much as for all other citizens. It is clear from the latest statistics that the official approach moulded by this thinking has failed.

What needs to be done?

Looking to the future, the ongoing restructuring of private rental markets seems likely to keep pushing up the numbers of people subject to housing insecurity. The availability of affordable low-rent housing continues to contract.

For any realistic chance of progress, the Australian government needs to reconfirm recognition of homelessness as a social ill that must not be ignored. It needs to re-engage with the problem, starting with a coherent strategic vision to reduce the scale of homelessness by a measurable amount within a defined period. And it needs to recommit to a level of government support that ensures enough social and affordable housing is provided to keep pace with growing need, at the very least.

Disappointingly, the federal budget provided no indication that such developments are in prospect. Yet squarely tackling Australia’s growing homelessness problem demands recognition that excluding people from safe, secure and affordable housing is effectively a denial of citizenship.

Read More: More and more older Australians will be homeless unless we act now
Read More: Family break-up raises homelessness risk, and critical period is longer for boys

This article was co-written by:
Image of Hal PawsonHal Pawson – [Associate Director – City Futures – Urban Policy and Strategy, City Futures Research Centre, Housing Policy and Practice, UNSW]
Image of Cameron ParsellCameron Parsell – [Research Fellow, The University of Queensland]





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A Guide To Understanding The Full Ramifications Of Autism Spectrum Disorder

With more and more children and adults being diagnosed with autism, people have many questions. What is autism? What are signs that a person is autistic? What is the “autism spectrum”? Can a person outgrow autism, or is it for life? Are there different kinds of autism?

With so much information, and misinformation available, it can be an extremely difficult task to know what is true. To make matters more confusing, psychologists and psychiatrists are still learning more about autism and are often updating their research and classification methods. Knowledge of autism can in some cases become outdated or irrelevant with time.

This article will work as an introductory guide to what autism is, and hopefully will answer some of the more pressing questions and concerns associated with this disorder.

What is Autism Like?

If you’re just learning about autism, you may wonder what it’s like. How do psychologists and psychiatrists diagnose autism? What criteria do they use to diagnose autism?

Doctors use something called the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) to determine if children and adults match certain symptoms that are most closely associated with certain disorders.

Below are some of the major indicators they use to assess Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

What Are the Major Symptoms of Autism?

It’s important to point out that no two people who are on the spectrum exhibit autistic traits in exactly the same way. While there are often commonalities between ASD people, it would be in error to say that ALL autistic people have all the same symptoms or attributes. However, below is a list of symptoms that are often associated with ASD.

Social Difficulty

When it comes to social interactions, most ASD people have some difficulty. The degree of social difficulty varies, but it’s something that most people on the spectrum have in common.

ASD individuals may have trouble making friends or interacting with people around them. They often will not initiate play or conversations with others, often prefer to be alone, and may not show affection. In fact, they may be resistant or uncomfortable displaying or receiving affection.

Many ASD individuals have trouble expressing emotions and may seem detached. They consequently also have trouble relating to other people and other people’s emotions emotions, which may appear as a lack of empathy for others. In many cases, it may not occur to them to show empathy.

Another common sign of autism is trouble making eye contact, and inappropriate facial gestures or facial gestures that don’t match their emotions.


When it comes to speech, ASD people often struggle to understand tone, humor, or sarcasm. Children may have speech delays as an early indicator of autism. It’s not uncommon for them to use repetition of words of phrases. The repetition of phrases is not meant to communicate, but rather to self-stimulate or calm themselves.

Often ASD people have difficulty expressing their needs which may turn into a meltdown or tantrum, especially in children. Adults and children may struggle to keep a conversation going with people around them.


As with speech, sometimes ASD people will display repetitive body movements like hand flapping, rocking, or spinning. They may be clumsy, have unusual posture, or move in an unusual way.

People on the spectrum often have sensory processing issues that are either a hyper or hypo sensitivity to input. People who are hypersensitive may overreact to things like loud noises or uncomfortable clothing. People with hypo-sensitivity underreact to stimuli.

This may manifest as having an unusually high pain tolerance or seeking extra stimuli to regulate their system. Many ASD people show signs of both hypo and hyper sensitivity.

Additional behaviors

People on the spectrum may become obsessed with certain objects, or a primary field of interest. For children this may be about a certain subject (trains, for instance is a common one). For adults it may be a particular field of study or career. When something becomes of great interest, they will learn everything they can about it, and often repeat facts to anyone around them.

Many people who are on the spectrum have a difficult time when their routine or schedule is disturbed. When plans change too abruptly they can struggle to “go with the flow,” or to transition. For children especially this can lead to a tantrum or meltdown.


Children who are on the spectrum do enjoy playtime, but they do not always behave the same way as neurotypicals. ASD kids tend to not play with toys in an imaginary way or participate in make believe games. They may have a fascination with spinning things like the wheels on a toy, or they may spend a lot of time lining up toys or objects.

Some ASD kids become attached to inanimate objects like a key, a string, or a rubber band. Because ASD kids often struggle with communication and social skills, they may struggle to do things like sharing toys and taking turns.

Can Autism be Outgrown?

A simple answer to this question is no. Whether Autism is mild, moderate, or severe, it is something that people on the spectrum are born with. It is the way that their brains are wired.

While there are some small studies indicating that some children who have received intensive therapy have “outgrown” autism, the studies are extremely limited and the outcome is rare. Still in the beginning stages of research, it’s almost impossible to know whether the treatment had that significant of an affect on the children, or if they were possibly misdiagnosed from the beginning.

While this new discovery can offer some hope for parents, it can be equally damaging. Parents should understand that even if they receive the earliest intervention, with the most support and therapy, it is highly unlikely that a child will outgrow ASD.

What can offer hope is that many people with autism are able to adapt and learn to manage some of their symptoms. Early intervention is extremely helpful in managing symptoms that make life more difficult. It is also helpful in aiding children who have more severe symptoms become more independent and function with less support.

It’s also important to note that while autism offers drawbacks and many challenges, people on the autism spectrum also offer many unique gifts. Even referring to autism as something that could be, or should be, “cured” is offensive to some.

Some autism advocates believe that people should be more open to “neurodiversity,” and should not want or expect people with autism to be cured. Elizabeth Picciuto writes, “‘Neurodiversity’ advocates are not interested in finding a cure for autism. Rather than changing autistic people so that they fit into a narrow stripe of acceptable behavior in the world, they’d like to see the world expand its concept of acceptable behavior to include people with autism.”

What are the Different Types of Autism?

As psychiatrists and psychologists seek to understand and categorize autism, their definitions change over time. Pre-2013, autism was defined in 5 categories:  Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDDs): Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Disorder, Rett’s Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).

Post 2013, for simplification, autism is now defined as “Autism Spectrum Disorder” and no longer categorizes individuals the same way.

Below will outline how autism is defined today, but will also include former categorization since these terms are still sometimes used.

What is an Autism Spectrum?

Post 2013, people who are autistic are included in the “Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Because there is so much diversity among ASD individuals, it becomes almost impossible diagnostically to categorize people based on specific symptoms alone.

Instead, today, there are three levels of autism. These levels are not as much based on specific symptoms, but rather the severity of the symptoms. They are also used to help explain how much assistance, or what level of support, is needed for an individual to function.

Level 3

ASD people within this category typically require significant support. Someone in this category may have very limited speech or communication and they will have severe impairments in functionality. They may be inflexible, struggle with interruptions in routine, and will most likely exhibit repetitive behaviors. They will be highly unlikely to initiate interaction with other people, or to respond to interaction from others.

People in this category will exhibit these traits “across all spheres.”

Level 2

ASD people in this category will need moderate support. They are described as needing “substantial support.” Level 2 ASD people will have many of the same attributes as level 3, but less severely.

These individuals will have more communication abilities than those in level 3, but they will probably still have limited verbal skills and odd non-verbal skills. They will likely be inflexible, struggle with schedule changes, and exhibit repetitive behaviors.

Level 2 ASD people will experience difficulty in functioning in “a variety of contexts.”

Level 1

Level 1 ASD individuals are described as “requiring support.” People in this category will likely be verbal, but will still struggle with social skills like back and forth communication. They will struggle to initiate interactions with others and may lack interest in the feelings or interests of others. They may struggle to make friends and may come across as odd or unusual.

They may experience difficulty in functioning in “one or more contexts.”

What is Aspergers?

While Asperger’s Syndrome is now diagnostically considered an outdated term, it is still used in some contexts. It is understood to mean a person with “high functioning autism.” A person who had formerly been referred to as having Aspergers Syndrome will now likely fall into the category of “Level 1.”

Someone with Aspergers will likely be able to function in life independently, but will probably struggle socially. Because most people with autism lack typical social skills, they often struggle to gain and maintain friendships and relationships.

People within this category could also exhibit repetitive behaviors, irregular body movements, and have trouble making eye contact.

A person with Aspergers may be very intelligent and express great knowledge about a particular field of interest. It is most common that they would have an intense focus on one or two subjects of interest.

What is Mild Autism?

“Mild Autism” is not a diagnostic term, but it is a term that people use. This term is not very helpful in describing the level of someone’s autism. An individual might be considered “high functioning” under certain circumstances, for instance very verbal and highly intelligent, yet also have severe sensory processing issues making it difficult for them to live normally in public settings like school or a physical work space.

Alternatively, an individual with poor verbal skills might have less severe social or sensory restrictions, meaning that they would be more comfortable in social settings. It would be difficult to determine which of the two is exhibiting “mild” autism, in this case.

While the term is meant to express low severity, it can be misleading and is often connected more to the situation or setting that a person finds themselves, than it is to the specific individual.

What is Pervasive Developmental Disorder, not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)?

PDD-NOS is another outdated diagnostic term meaning autism that is more severe than Asperger’s Syndrome, but less severe than “Classic Autism.” It is sometimes referred to as “atypical” autism because a child or adult diagnosed with PDD-NOS may not exhibit all the traits of classic autism.

For instance, someone who had been diagnosed with PDD-NOS might exhibit autistic traits socially, but may not exhibit other common signifiers like sensory issues or repetitive behaviors.

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD), sometimes referred to as “Heller’s Syndrome,”  was sometimes considered part of the autism spectrum because it shares similarities of autism. However, because CDD is a rare genetic disease, it is no longer included in the ASD.  

CDD is a disease that would appear in children who show typical development, but would then begin to regress between the ages of 2 and 4. Children with CDD often develop seizures disorders as well.

Rett Syndrome

Rett Syndrome is another genetic disease that was once associated with autism, but no longer is. Rett Syndrome shares some similarities to autism, but it is not on the spectrum. According to Rettsynrdrome.org, “Rett syndrome is a rare non-inherited genetic postnatal neurological disorder that occurs almost exclusively in girls and leads to severe impairments, affecting nearly every aspect of the child’s life: their ability to speak, walk, eat, and even breathe easily.”

Children with Rett Syndrome usually have repetitive hand movements and greatly impaired motor movements.


With Autism Spectrum Disorder there is a great deal of information and misinformation. It is compounded by the fact that diagnostics, categories, and explanations have changed a lot over the years.

What’s most important with people who are on the spectrum is not how they are categorized, but rather that they receive therapy or intervention of some kind. The earlier the intervention, the greater the benefit both for those with autism, and their caregivers. Over time, with care and patience, caregivers and ASD individuals will learn to adapt to the unique lifestyle of ASD.

Article by Anna Kucirkova


The thinking error at the root of science denial

Could seeing things in black-and-white terms  
influence people’s views on scientific questions?Lightspring/Shutterstock.com

Currently, there are three important issues on which there is scientific consensus but controversy among laypeople: climate change, biological evolution and childhood vaccination. On all three issues, prominent members of the Trump administration, including the president, have lined up against the conclusions of research.

This widespread rejection of scientific findings presents a perplexing puzzle to those of us who value an evidence-based approach to knowledge and policy.

Yet many science deniers do cite empirical evidence. The problem is that they do so in invalid, misleading ways. Psychological research illuminates these ways.

No shades of gray

As a psychotherapist, I see a striking parallel between a type of thinking involved in many mental health disturbances and the reasoning behind science denial. As I explain in my book “Psychotherapeutic Diagrams,” dichotomous thinking, also called black-and-white and all-or-none thinking, is a factor in depression, anxiety, aggression and, especially, borderline personality disorder.

In this type of cognition, a spectrum of possibilities is divided into two parts, with a blurring of distinctions within those categories. Shades of gray are missed; everything is considered either black or white. Dichotomous thinking is not always or inevitably wrong, but it is a poor tool for understanding complicated realities because these usually involve spectrums of possibilities, not binaries.

Spectrums are sometimes split in very asymmetric ways, with one-half of the binary much larger than the other. For example, perfectionists categorize their work as either perfect or unsatisfactory; good and very good outcomes are lumped together with poor ones in the unsatisfactory category. In borderline personality disorder, relationship partners are perceived as either all good or all bad, so one hurtful behavior catapults the partner from the good to the bad category. It’s like a pass/fail grading system in which 100 percent correct earns a P and everything else gets an F.

In my observations, I see science deniers engage in dichotomous thinking about truth claims. In evaluating the evidence for a hypothesis or theory, they divide the spectrum of possibilities into two unequal parts: perfect certainty and inconclusive controversy. Any bit of data that does not support a theory is misunderstood to mean that the formulation is fundamentally in doubt, regardless of the amount of supportive evidence.

Similarly, deniers perceive the spectrum of scientific agreement as divided into two unequal parts: perfect consensus and no consensus at all. Any departure from 100 percent agreement is categorized as a lack of agreement, which is misinterpreted as indicating fundamental controversy in the field.

There is no ‘proof’ in science

In my view, science deniers misapply the concept of “proof.”

Proof exists in mathematics and logic but not in science. Research builds knowledge in progressive increments. As empirical evidence accumulates, there are more and more accurate approximations of ultimate truth but no final end point to the process. Deniers exploit the distinction between proof and compelling evidence by categorizing empirically well-supported ideas as “unproven.” Such statements are technically correct but extremely misleading, because there are no proven ideas in science, and evidence-based ideas are the best guides for action we have.

I have observed deniers use a three-step strategy to mislead the scientifically unsophisticated. First, they cite areas of uncertainty or controversy, no matter how minor, within the body of research that invalidates their desired course of action. Second, they categorize the overall scientific status of that body of research as uncertain and controversial. Finally, deniers advocate proceeding as if the research did not exist.

For example, climate change skeptics jump from the realization that we do not completely understand all climate-related variables to the inference that we have no reliable knowledge at all. Similarly, they give equal weight to the 97 percent of climate scientists who believe in human-caused global warming and the 3 percent who do not, even though many of the latter receive support from the fossil fuels industry.

This same type of thinking can be seen among creationists. They seem to misinterpret any limitation or flux in evolutionary theory to mean that the validity of this body of research is fundamentally in doubt. For example, the biologist James Shapiro (no relation) discovered a cellular mechanism of genomic change that Darwin did not know about. Shapiro views his research as adding to evolutionary theory, not upending it. Nonetheless, his discovery and others like it, refracted through the lens of dichotomous thinking, result in articles with titles like, “Scientists Confirm: Darwinism Is Broken” by Paul Nelson and David Klinghoffer of the Discovery Institute, which promotes the theory of “intelligent design.” Shapiro insists that his research provides no support for intelligent design, but proponents of this pseudoscience repeatedly cite his work as if it does.

For his part, Trump engages in dichotomous thinking about the possibility of a link between childhood vaccinations and autism. Despite exhaustive research and the consensus of all major medical organizations that no link exists, Trump has often cited a link between vaccines and autism and he advocates changing the standard vaccination protocol to protect against this nonexistent danger.

There is a vast gulf between perfect knowledge and total ignorance, and we live most of our lives in this gulf. Informed decision-making in the real world can never be perfectly informed, but responding to the inevitable uncertainties by ignoring the best available evidence is no substitute for the imperfect approach to knowledge called science.

This article was written by:
Image of Jeremy P. ShapirJeremy P. Shapir – [Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychological Sciences, Case Western Reserve University]




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