Articulate US teenagers could finally force action on gun control

For the first time in decades, there is now a  
real possibility that some gun controls might be implemented.Colin Abbey/AAP

On Wednesday in the US, thousands of students left their classrooms in a national day of action designed to force political change on gun crime. Following the recent shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, this walkout is part of an extraordinary national movement. Young people across the US are doing what countless others have tried and failed to do: using grassroots strategies to take on the powerful gun lobby.

The US has an epidemic of gun crime. Mass shootings occur every day, and school shootings have become so common that over 170 schools and some 150,000 students have been affected by school-based gun violence since 1999.

Beyond the psychological trauma such attacks inflict, these shootings have a profound effect on academic success rates.

Author provided/The Conversation

And yet, in spite of the overwhelming majority of Americans who want tighter gun control laws, very little is done to stem the presence of guns in schools, or the ability of Americans to access high-powered weaponry with relative ease.

Policy inertia and the NRA

The main reason for this inertia is the extraordinary influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA). Since it turned to a more aggressive lobbying strategy in the 1970s, the NRA has helped redefine the meaning of the 2nd Amendment, bestowed a divine blessing on guns, and bent half of Congress to its will.

The NRA succeeds because it has created powerful (and mostly false or distorted) narratives to support gun use. It deploys familiar tropes to distract from tragedies. When gun-related tragedy hits, NRA-backed politicians call for “thoughts and prayers”. 

Reports out of Texas are devastating. The people of Sutherland Springs need our prayers right now.

The reality of US gun deaths is set against such pro-gun arguments, and each tragedy widens the stark divide between those who associate guns with freedom, and those who see them as devices for terror. So, when others call for legislative action, as they did following the massacre at Sandy Hook and other mass shootings, the gun lobby scolds them for “politicising tragedy”.

But murdered kids are political. Sandy Hook exposed the US to the faces of erstwhile happy kindergarteners, their lives snuffed out by a disturbed young man with easy access to guns. It’s an all-too-familiar story for Americans and, by international comparison, a unique one at that.

Yet the resulting push for change soon turned to despair: many came to believe that if 26 deaths at an elementary school can’t bring Congress to act, nothing can.

Gun laws and the possibility of change

The last last major piece of gun control legislation to pass Congress was the federal assault weapons ban in 1994. It was specifically designed to reduce the incidence of mass shootings, and targeted the enhanced killing power of assault rifles. But, under sustained attack from the gun lobby, the ban expired under its “sunset clause”.

Since then, the one major piece of gun legislation in the US, in spite of the national rise in mass and school shootings, has been an act designed to protect gun manufacturers in 2005.

Now, for the first time in decades, there is a real possibility that some gun controls might be implemented. The NRA, as well as numerous politicians associated with it, are facing significant pressure to act.

Recent news footage showed Senator Marco Rubio and the NRA’s Dana Loesh publicly sparring with students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, to a chorus of boos and jeers. Millions witnessed their discomfort.


This has already led to some action by states. Florida is looking to pass age restrictions and waiting periods for gun purchases, and Oregon has imposed gun prohibitions on domestic abusers and those with restraining orders.

Even President Donald Trump, who has been keen to show off his pro-gun credentials in the past, has recognised the public outcry. He has called for regulation of bump-stocks and age restrictions (though he is wavering on both).

The high school advocates

The reason gun control looks possible right now is largely due to the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Beyond the pressure they have been applying directly to the NRA and politicians, the students have been busy using advocating on social media, writing op-edsorganising rallies and walkoutsmaking media appearancesand pressuring companies to drop support for the NRA or pro-gun politicians.

Students all over the US walked out of classrooms on Wednesday to mark one month since the mass shooting that killed 17 at a school in Florida.Michael Reynolds/AAP

As a result of these efforts, the students are presenting important, emotionally powerful counter-narratives to those of the gun lobby. They are offering examples of successful gun control and pointing out that guns in schools are the problem, not the solution. They are also forming a coalition in opposition to the well-organised 2-4 million members of the NRA and affiliated organisations.

Whether these efforts are successful or not will depend largely on whether they are sustained. This is why the gun lobby calls for “hopes and prayers” and to not “politicise tragedy”. These are stalling tactics: if the NRA can wait it out, while at the same time applying pressure to its political allies, nothing gets done.

However, the gun lobby has not faced a political force like this before. While it is inevitable that media attention will eventually wane, the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas and around the country have access to tools — such as social media — that circumvent traditional outlets. They also have the ability to draw the national spotlight back, especially via their use of rallies and walkouts.

These tactics reinvigorate the Democratic base and ratchet up the pressure on the Republicans, already jittery following a string of shock political losses.

If the passion and dedication they have shown so far is sustained, especially as the congressional midterm elections approach, the young people of the US might just be able do what no one has done in decades, and force action on gun control.

This article was written by:
Image of George RennieGeorge Rennie – [Lecturer in American Politics and Lobbying Strategies, University of Melbourne]




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Australia’s draft ‘Strategy for nature’ doesn’t cut it. Here are nine ways to fix it

 The thorny devil, one of Australia’s many remarkable 
and unique animals. Euan RitchieAuthor provided (No reuse)

Australia arguably has the worst conservation record of any wealthy and politically stable nation. Since European arrival roughly 230 years ago, 50 animal and 60 plant species have gone extinct, including the loss of some 30 native mammals – roughly 35% of global mammal extinctions since 1500.

These are not just tragedies of the distant past – the Christmas Island pipistrelle, the forest skink and the Bramble Cay melomys have all died out within the past two decades.

More than 1,800 plant, animal and ecological communities are listed as being at risk of extinction, ranging from individual species such as the orange-bellied parrot and Gilbert’s potoroo, all the way up to entire ecosystems such as the Great Barrier Reef. This number rises every year, in the face of threats such as climate changerampant land clearingminingand invasive species.

This bleak situation has been recognised by successive governments, but never successfully tackled.

In the midst of such a tremendous environmental challenge, the federal government has released a draft document, Australia’s strategy for nature 2018–2030, for public comment. This is a welcome step, but regrettably the strategy falls a long way short of what’s required and contains significant flaws. It contains no firm commitments or measurable targets, and overlooks a substantial amount of relevant scientific evidence.

As representatives of Australia’s peak professional ecological body, the Ecological Society of Australia (ESA), we are deeply concerned that the strategy is not fit for its purpose of protecting Australia’s biodiversity.

A bolder, science-based vision

As part of ESA’s formal submission to the public consultation, we provide an alternative, evidence-based vision. This includes nine key recommendations for nature conservation in Australia.

1. Set measurable targets. Any project needs a set of quantifiable targets, otherwise we won’t know whether it has been successful or not. Some suggestions:

  • establish a comprehensive national network of ecosystem monitoring sites by 2025
  • reverse the declines of all species that are threatened by human-caused factors by 2025.

2. Commit to preventing human-caused species extinctions. The strategy should state explicitly that human-driven species extinctions are not acceptable, and establish and maintain clear paths of accountability.

3. Adequately fund the strategy’s implementation. Australia should show international leadership in conservation by investing at the upper end of OECD and G20 averages. At present Australia allocates less than 0.8% of GDP to conservation. We suggest 2% as an urgent minimum investment, with scope to expand funding to ensure that targets can be met.

4. Focus on the intrinsic value of biodiversity. The draft strategy is supposed to represent “Australia’s biodiversity conservation strategy and action inventory”, but it does not define biodiversity, choosing instead to focus on the vague notion of “nature”. We recommend the document return its focus to biodiversity, defined in the Convention on Biodiversity as “the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are a part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems”.

5. Make specific legislative recommendations. The strategy should specify the legislative revisions that will be needed to improve conservation, with particular focus on the flagship Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999. This should include:

  • requiring recovery plans for all threatened species
  • requiring threat-abatement plans to efficiently manage major threats to many species, such as impacts of feral predators and herbivores, invasive plants and new diseases
  • specifically protecting high-value ecosystems, including those of economic value such as the Great Barrier Reef, and those that are critical for species survival, and rare ecosystems.

6. Commit to establishing a comprehensive system of protected areas, including marine parks. Despite longstanding commitments to developing a fully representative network of protected areas in Australia, many bioregions remain poorly represented in the National Reserve System and the national marine protected area system.

7. Include all 20 Aichi biodiversity targets and affirm Australia’s commitment to the Convention on Biodiversity. Australia has a proud bipartisan history of national and international engagement with conservation. But the new draft strategy is poor in comparison with other countries’ equivalent documents, such as Germany’s National Strategy on Biological Diversity and New Zealands’s Biodiversity Action Plan.

8. Base the strategy on Australia’s international conservation commitments. Australia has signed more than 30 international conservation agreements, including the Convention on Biodiversity, the Apia Convention, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The domestic EPBC Act requires Australia not to defy these agreements, yet with the exception of the Convention on Biodiversity, none of them rates a mention in the new draft strategy.

9. Recognise key issues that affect Australian biodiversity conservation. Any successful strategy should specifically address new and emerging issues that can harm our environment, such as Australia’ increasing use of natural resources, environmental water flows in rivers, and overfishing.

We cannot ignore human population growth, increasing per capita consumption and subsequent resource demand as drivers of threats to healthy and resilient ecosystems.

Our unique plants, animals and other organisms shape our national identity. They have wide-ranging benefits to our society, as well as being inherently valuable in their own right. They need a much stronger commitment to their ongoing protection.

This article was co-authored by:

Euan Ritchie – [Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University];


Bek Christensen [Vice-President, Ecological Society of Australia, Queensland University of Technology];


Bill Bateman -[Senior Lecturer, Curtin University];


Dale Nimmo – [Associate professor/ARC DECRA fellow, Charles Sturt University];


Don Driscoll – [Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University];


Grant Wardell-Johnson -[Associate Professor, Environmental Biology, Curtin University];


Noel D Preece – [Adjunct Principal Research Fellow at Charles Darwin and, James Cook University]


Sarah Luxton – [PhD Candidate, Curtin University]




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Tributes pour in for Stephen Hawking, the famous theoretical physicist who died at age 76

 British theoretical physicist and cosmologist, 
Professor Stephen Hawking in 2014. EPA/Andy Rain

Acclaimed British theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author Stephen Hawking has died aged 76. Hawking is best known for his work on black holes, which revolutionised our understanding of the universe.

Hawking passed away today peacefully at his home in Cambridge, his family confirmed in a statement:

We are deeply saddened that our beloved father passed away today. He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years.
His courage and persistence with his brilliance and humour inspired people across the world. He once said, “It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.” We will miss him forever.

Read more: A timeline of Stephen Hawking’s remarkable life

Hawking was born on January 8, 1942, in Oxford, England. In 1963 he was diagnosed with ALS, a form of Motor Neurone Disease, and later confined to a wheelchair and forced to communicate via a computerised voice. But he continued his theoretical work and was outspoken on many things over much of his life.

Tributes have been pouring in on social media for the scientist, who made complex science accessible to everyone in his 1988 bestselling book A Brief History of Time.

Among those early to pay tribute were the American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and NASA.

His passing has left an intellectual vacuum in his wake. But it’s not empty. Think of it as a kind of vacuum energy permeating the fabric of spacetime that defies measure. Stephen Hawking, RIP 1942-2018.
262K people are talking about this

Remembering Stephen Hawking, a renowned physicist and ambassador of science. His theories unlocked a universe of possibilities that we & the world are exploring. May you keep flying like superman in microgravity, as you said to astronauts on @Space_Station in 2014

Others to pay tribute include Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi.

We lost a great one today. Stephen Hawking will be remembered for his incredible contributions to science – making complex theories and concepts more accessible to the masses. He’ll also be remembered for his spirit and unbounded pursuit to gain a complet 
Professor Stephen Hawking was an outstanding scientist and academic. His grit and tenacity inspired people all over the world. His demise is anguishing. Professor Hawking’s pioneering work made our world a better place. May his soul rest in peace.
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  • 11.3K people are talking about this

Hawking’s acclaimed book, A Brief History of Time, was made into a documentary in 1991, directed by Errol Morris, who also paid tribute.

It had to happen, eventually. We were lucky to have him for so long, and I was lucky to be able to work with him. A truly fabulous human being. Stephen Hawking. Funny, perverse, and, of course, brilliant.
  • 5,818 
  • 970 people are talking about this

Australian reaction

There have been reactions too from the world of Astronomy in Australia.

Professor Stephen Hawking appeared via hologram to address an audience at the Sydney Opera House in April 2015. The professor was physically located at Cambridge University in England. AAP Image/Sydney Opera House

Alan Duffy, Associate Professor and Research Fellow, Swinburne University of Technology

Professor Stephen Hawking was an inspiration to me to become not just a scientist but a communicator of that science.

His work as a cosmologist, and discoveries in black hole physics were legendary. His best-known prediction, named by the community as Hawking Radiation, transformed black holes from inescapable gravitational prisons into objects that instead shrink and fade away over time.

His writings were inspirational to many scientists and enriched the lives of millions with the latest science and cosmic perspectives. He was also wonderfully funny with a fantastic media savviness that propelled him into A-list celebrity stardom as few other scientists before.

Through it all, of course, his illness made his achievements near-superhuman. How he manipulated Einstein’s equations in his mind when he could no longer hold a pen I can’t even begin to imagine.

While his many contributions will live on there is no doubt that science and the wider world is the poorer for his passing.

Jonti Horner, Professor (Astrophysics), University of Southern Queensland

I think Stephen Hawking’s biggest achievement was getting people talking and interested in some very complex and challenging ideas about the universe and our place in it.

I remember the fuss when his book A Brief History of Time came out, and how it became such a big deal in the UK. It was amazing how widely read and discussed it was, particularly given its content (stuff that is usually portrayed as being really difficult and/or boring).

It was a fantastic example of how even the most complex and challenging ideas can capture the imagination, when they’re explained in the right way. Above and beyond the great research he did, his impact as a communicator was fantastic.

He definitely did a lot to bring those kind of concepts into the mainstream, and doubtless inspired a whole new generation of cosmologists and astronomers. That is probably the best legacy any scientist could ask for!

Lisa Harvey-Smith, Group Leader – Australia Telescope National Facility Science, CSIRO

Stephen Hawking was undoubtedly an intellectual giant, making leaps of reasoning that sometimes led to startling insights into the nature of the physical world. His finding that black holes slowly dissolve will probably be his greatest scientific legacy.

But he was much more than a skilled cosmologist. His greatest impact came from taking the time to carefully explain his theories to the public, engaging millions with his bestselling books.

As a 15-year-old, his most successful book A Brief History of Time had me captivated with relativity and quantum theory. This is the true strength of his legacy.

Matthew Bailes, ARC Laureate Fellow, Swinburne University of Technology, Swinburne University of Technology, and Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav)

Like many of the great theorists, Stephen Hawking had the ability to use very simple thought experiments to make predictions about the behaviour of the universe.

My favourite was his insight into evaporating black holes, which combined general relativity and quantum mechanics.

His ability to remain engaged with the scientific community despite his physical condition was a testament to his rare talent.

Hawking also recognised the enormous potential of the universe to be teeming with life and the advances in technology that might permit its detection in the near future. Hence his support for Breakthrough Listen, the search for alien life in the Universe.

Steven Tingay, John Curtin Distinguished Professor (Radio Astronomy), Curtin University

As an astrophysicist who has spent a significant fraction of my career working on the observational aspects of black holes using radio telescopes, and hoping to continue that with the billion dollar Square Kilometre Array over the next decade, Stephen Hawking’s work to understand the physics of black holes is close to my heart.

His mathematical and physical insights into black holes have been astonishing, which at some level synthesised general relativity and quantum mechanics.

Hawking’s work has inspired deep questions in physics and astrophysics, which has had a bearing on plans to build telescopes to explore the Universe, including the Square Kilometre Array in Australia.

Alice Gorman, Senior Lecturer in archaeology and space studies, Flinders University

There are few scientists who reach as far into popular culture as Stephen Hawking did. His research tackled the biggest of big questions – the nature of time, space and the universe we live in.

Sometimes it feels like science is losing ground in the modern world, but people still look to the stars for answers about who we are and how we come to be here.

Hawking’s bestselling A Brief History of Time made cosmology accessible to people and brought black holes out of the shadows and into the public imagination.

Personally I’ll miss his appearances on The Big Bang Theory, where he could out-nerd the nerds, and also provide some often necessary common sense. It was always great to see a world-class scientist just having fun.

This tribute was compiled and written by:





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Why duck shooting season still isn’t on the endangered list

 The rising influence of the gun lobby in Australia 
may have extended the prospects of duck season continuing for 
the foreseeable future. shutterstock

On March 17, the 2018 duck shooting session will open in Victoria. The first shots were fired in Tasmania and South Australia last weekend. The Northern Territory allows certain types of bird shooting later in the year. Duck shooting is prohibited in the rest of Australia.

States and territories have jurisdiction over duck shooting. In Victoria a new raft of regulations has been introduced to try to limit the damage to the state’s wetlands. One change of note in Victoria is that this year the Blue-winged Shoveler cannot be legally shot due to the low numbers of the species.

The Blue-winged Shoveler has been added to the protected list in Victoria this year for the first time. Flickr CC

Other new regulations require that hunters recover the birds they shoot. This rule serves to formalise what Victoria’s Game Management Authority (GMA) refers to as “standard practice for responsible hunters”.

However, in most other respects Victoria’s 2018 duck season will look almost indistinguishable from previous years. It will still be three months long, with a “bag limit” of ten birds per person per day.

In Tasmania, authorities postponed the shooting start time in 2018, among a raft of other minor amendments.

In fact, the various states regularly make minor changes to the rules. Hundreds of minor adjustments have been made over many decades. While these changes may seem significant, from a broad socio-legal perspective they do little to challenge the status quo.

Playing by the rules?

A GMA-commissioned review by Pegasus Economics last year documented regular instances of duck shooters behaving irresponsibly. The independent report concluded that “non-compliance with hunting laws is commonplace and widespread”.

The ABC has aired allegations that unsustainable hunting is on the rise and that regulators feel unable to enforce the rules. It revealed pits containing around 200 unrecovered shot birds from the 2017 opening weekend at Victoria’s Koorangie State Game Reserve alone.

Activists interviewed in the report claimed to have brought out 1,500 dead birds from the wetlands. Of these, 296 were protected species, including 68 endangered Freckled Ducks.

A supplied image of over 800 native waterbirds, including 68 threatened Freckled Ducks, displayed outside the premier’s office at 1 Treasury Place, Melbourne, by the Coalition against Duck Shooting on March 20, 2017. AAP

In my book Animals, Equality and Democracy, I argue that there is a generalised tendency for animal welfare laws to be more effective for socially visible animals. Laws that govern the welfare of zoo animals have improved much more quickly, for example, than those that cover animal welfare in factory farms.

Duck shooting is not a highly visible cause of animal harm. Relatively few people live near the wetlands where shooting takes place. But animal advocates have been effective in making it visible, despite laws that limit their ability to do so.

Elaborate events such as Duck Lake, in which animal activists performed their own version of Swan Lake on the opening morning of the 2016 Tasmanian duck shooting season, help generate media attention.

In 2017, long-time Victorian anti-duck-shooting campaigner Laurie Levy from the Coalition Against Duck Shooting was once again fined for entering the water to help an injured bird. While such activities go some way in generating public visibility, they have thus far not been able to stop duck shooting outright.

The gun lobby’s growing influence in Australia

At present, only 28,000 Australians are registered duck shooters. According to 2012 Australia Institute analysis, 87% of Australians support a ban on duck shooting. There is mounting evidence that endangered and non-game species are also being killed.

Before being re-elected at this month’s Tasmanian state election, the Liberal state government promised to soften the state’s gun laws. It also committed to “always protect the right of Tasmanians to safely and responsibly go recreational shooting”.

In Victoria the picture is a little more complex. A 2016 report asserted that most members of the state’s Labor Party oppose duck shooting and that the Andrews government’s continued support may cost it votes.

Indeed, despite the pressure from within the ALP, the daily bag limit for the 2018 season is ten, compared with just four in 2016.

‘Industry capture’ reinvigorating duck shooting

The Pegasus Economics review identifies “industry capture” as a significant factor in the continuation of duck hunting. Industry capture refers to a situation in which industry has a disproportionately close and influential relationship with policymakers compared with other relevant stakeholders.

The decision by the Tasmanian Liberal Party to share details of its proposed softened gun laws with shooters and farmers, and not other interested parties or the public, suggests industry capture is a genuine factor in Tasmania too.

With widespread community opposition ranged against the entrenched interests of the shooters themselves, state governments will need to make some big calls on the future of duck hunting, rather than the current tinkering around the edges.

This article was written by:
Image of Siobhan O'SullivanSiobhan O’Sullivan – [Senior Lecturer in Social Policy, UNSW]





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A timeline of Stephen Hawking’s remarkable life

 Stephen Hawking at Gonville & Caius College, 
Cambridge in 2015. lwpkommunikacio/flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Acclaimed British theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author Stephen Hawking has died aged 76. After being diagnosed at the age of 21, he had lived for more than half a century with motor neurone disease.

family statement recorded Hawking as saying:

It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.

Move through the timeline using the arrows or scrolling.

This article was prepared by :




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Looking for truth in the Facebook age? Seek out views you aren’t going to ‘like’

 Facebook’s algorithm is based on pleasing rather 
than challenging users. Shutterstock

Post-truth” was the Oxford English Dictionary “word of the year” for 2016. As we move into 2018, let’s hope the hype surrounding this term gives way to more measured assessments. The term has all the uses and disadvantages of the hyperbole it represents.

On one hand, it draws attention to the profound challenges facing today’s news media and liberal democracies. On the other, it makes it seem like we have entered into a new dystopian world where politicians no longer want or need to tell the truth, and the media is so awash with “fake news” that citizens cannot trust it.

Yet this won’t do. It is easy to imagine that Australia’s former Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, wishes that the media no longer had the will or wherewithal to report the truth. When Steve Bannon called the mainstream media the new “opposition party”, it is clear that he wanted it to be true.

Yet CNN, the Washington Post and the New York Times are still trading. It is Bannon who has fallen from power. In Australia, too, media outlets continue to express biases and all the shortcomings that beset the mortal frame. Yet trying and failing to tell the whole truth, and nothing but, is a very different thing from disregarding truth altogether.

Traditional news services now face unprecedented competition in the age of the internet and social media. The need to attract large numbers of clicks favours sensationalism over serious research and partisanship over patient reportage.

Yet none of this makes truth-telling impossible. That is a claim which favours people who want to truck in half-truths and misrepresentations, and excuse themselves by saying that everyone else does it. Trump is a big fan of throwing around the term “fake news”. So is Vladimir Putin.

Nor do such challenges remove the vital role of truth-telling in sustaining open societies. On the contrary, citizens need to be able to “keep the bastards honest” more than ever, especially when they take to donning saviour’s clothing. Speaking truth to power is the great moral challenge of our time.

What’s Francis Bacon to Facebook?

At the beginning of modern scientific culture, philosopher Francis Bacon made a series of observations about how our minds work. They remain as relevant as ever in this apparent age of post-truth. For example:

The human mind resembles those uneven mirrors which impart their own properties to different objects, from which rays are emitted that distort and disfigure the truth.
When any proposition has been once laid down (our mind) forces everything else to add fresh support and confirmation.“

By contrast, we have a tough time accepting anything we don’t, well, “like”:

and although the most cogent and abundant evidences may exist to the contrary, yet we either do not observe or despise them, … sometimes with violent and injurious prejudice, rather than sacrifice the authority of our own first conclusions.

Francis Bacon. Wikimedia Commons

In short: “people always believe more readily that which they prefer to be true”, rather than what happens to be true.

When it comes to prescribing his “new instrument” for inquiry, Bacon coaches his readers in how and where to actively seek out things that elude, challenge, upset or reframe their established beliefs.

So you can see what Francis Bacon is to Facebook.

Facebook generates your feed based on your past likes. Its business model figures you’ll be more likely to stay on the platform by being fed items that please rather than oppose or challenge you.

In other words, social media weaponises the “idols of the human mind”, which Bacon said prevent people from finding the truth. A Baconian Facebook would select your news items based on what you are likely to disagree with rather than playing to your prejudices.

Liberals and leftists would be made to “friend” devoted readers of Breitbart. They in turn would be fed the New York Times and the Washington Post. And perhaps the accelerating uncivil polarisation of public life would actually slow.

What’s Spinoza to sharing?

Shortly after Bacon, another modern giant, Benedict de Spinoza, also distinguished the ways we follow the prejudices and “likes” of our tribes from how he believed people should seek the truth.

We are social creatures, Spinoza observed. His Ethics deftly analyses the way our emotions and opinions “love company”. We very often do or believe things simply because others around us do. Moreover, “everyone endeavours, as far as possible, to cause others to love what he himself loves, and to hate what he himself hates”.

Share that.

Indeed, fuelled by this echoing and mirroring of our passionate beliefs, we readily jump to generalisations about whole groups, based only on whether we like or dislike some individuals:

If a man has been affected pleasurably or painfully by anyone, of a class or nation different from his own, and if the pleasure or pain has been accompanied by the idea of the said stranger as cause … the man will feel love or hatred, not only to the individual stranger, but also to the whole class or nation whereto he belongs.

Today’s social media feeds upon these characteristics, fuelling tribalism and incivility. But Spinoza agrees with Bacon that the only way to halt the hatred is to cultivate people’s awareness of their own tendencies to select, simplify and screen information.

We are not post-truth. But it is up to citizens to be alert to lies and distortions. And it’s up to our educational institutions to keep alive the many resources in our tradition which can prevent hyperbole from becoming fact.

This article was written by:
Image of Matthew SharpeMatthew Sharpe – [Associate Professor in Philosophy, Deakin University]




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The origins of Pama-Nyungan, Australia’s largest family of Aboriginal languages

 The spread of Pama-Nyungan was likely influenced 
by climate.

The approximately 400 languages of Aboriginal Australia can be grouped into 27 different families. To put that diversity in context, Europe has just four language families, Indo-European, Basque, Finno-Ugric and Semitic, with Indo-European encompassing such languages as English, Spanish, Russian and Hindi.

Australia’s largest language family is Pama-Nyungan. Before 1788 it covered 90% of the country and comprised about 300 languages. The territories on which Canberra (Ngunnawal), Perth (Noongar), Sydney (Daruk, Iyora), Brisbane (Turubal) and Melbourne (Woiwurrung) are built were all once owned by speakers of Pama-Nyungan languages.

All the languages from the Torres Strait to Bunbury, from the Pilbara to the Grampians, are descended from a single ancestor language that spread across the continent to all but the Kimberley and the Top End.

Where this language came from, how old it is, and how it spread, has been something of a puzzle. Our research, published today in Nature Ecology and Evolution, suggests the family arose just under 6,000 years ago around what is now the Queensland town of Burketown. Our findings suggest this language family spread across Australia as people moved in response to changing climate.

Aboriginal Australia is often described as “the world’s oldest living culture”, and public discussion often falsely assumes that this means unchanging. Our research adds further evidence to Australia pre-1788 being a dynamic place, where people moved and adapted to a changing land.

Map of Pama-Nyungan languages, coloured by their main groupings. Compiled by Claire Bowern using data from National Science Foundation grant BCS-0844550.

Tracing Pama-Nyungan

We used data from changes in several hundred words in different languages from the Pama-Nyungan family to build up a tree of languages, using a computer model adapted from those used originally to trace virus outbreaks.

Different related words for ‘fire’ in certain Pama-Nyungan languages. Green dots show languages with a word for ‘fire’ related to *warlu; white has *puri; red has *wiyn; blue has *maka, and purple *karla. Chirila files ( and google earth for base image.

Because our models make estimates of the time that it takes for words to change, as well as how words in Pama-Nyungan languages are related to one another, we can use those changes to estimate the age of the family.

We found clear support for the origin of Pama-Nyungan just under 6,000 years ago in an area around what is now the Queensland town of Burketown. We found no support for the theories that Pama-Nyungan spread earlier.

The timing of this expansion is consistent with a theory that increasingly unstable conditions caused groups of people to fragment and spread. But correlation is not causation: just because two patterns appear related, it does not mean that one caused the other.

In this case, however, we have other evidence that access to ecological resources has shaped how people migrated. We found that, in our model, groups of people moved more slowly near the coast and major waterways, and faster across deserts. This implies that populations increase where food and water are plentiful, and then spread out and fissure when resources are harder to obtain.

You can see a simulated expansion here. The spread of Pama-Nyungan languages mirrored this spread of people.

What languages tell us

Languages today tell us a lot about our past. Because languages change regularly, we can use information in them to work out who groups were talking to in the past, where they lived, who they are related to, and where they’ve moved. We can do this even in the absence of a written record and of archaeological materials.

For places like Australia, the linguistic record, though incomplete, has more even coverage across the continent than the archaeological record does. At European settlement, there were about 300 Pama-Nyungan languages. Because there are at least some records of most of them we are able to work with these to uncover these complex patterns of change.

There are approximately 145 Aboriginal languages with speakers today, including languages from outside the Pama-Nyungan family. Many of these languages, such as Dieri, Ngalia and Mangala, are spoken by only a few people, many of whom are elderly.

Other languages, however, are actively used in their communities and are learned as first languages by young children. These include the Yolŋu languages of Arnhem Land and Arrernte in Central Australia. Yet others (such as Kaurna around Adelaide) are undergoing a renaissance, gaining speakers within their communities.

Nathan B. performing “Yolŋu Land” using English and Yolŋu Matha.

Finally, though not the focus of our study, there are also new languages, such as Kriol spoken across Northern Australia, Palawa Kani in Tasmania, and Gurindji Kriol. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders also know English, and most Indigenous Australians are multilingual.

Without records of all these languages, and without ongoing work to support speakers and communities, we aren’t able to do research like this, and Australia loses a vital link to its history. After all, European settlement of Australia is a tiny chunk of the time people have lived on this land.

This article was written by:
Image of Claire Bowern Claire Bowern – [Professor of Linguistics, Yale University]




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How protons can power our future energy needs

 The proton battery, connected to a voltmeter. 
RMITAuthor provided

As the world embraces inherently variable renewable energy sources to tackle climate change, we will need a truly gargantuan amount of electrical energy storage.

With large electricity grids, microgrids, industrial installations and electric vehicles all running on renewables, we are likely to need a storage capacity of over 10% of annual electricity consumption – that is, more than 2,000 terawatt-hours of storage capacity worldwide as of 2014.

To put that in context, Australia’s planned Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro storage scheme would have a capacity of just 350 gigawatt-hours, or roughly 0.2% of Australia’s current electricity consumption.

Where will the batteries come from to meet this huge storage demand? Most likely from a range of different technologies, some of which are only at the research and development stage at present.

But our new research suggests that “proton batteries” – rechargeable batteries that store protons from water in a porous carbon material – could make a valuable contribution.

Not only is our new battery environmentally friendly, but it is also technically capable with further development of storing more energy for a given mass and size than currently available lithium-ion batteries – the technology used in South Australia’s giant new battery.

Potential applications for the proton battery include household storage of electricity from solar panels, as is currently done by the Tesla Powerwall.

With some modifications and scaling up, proton battery technology may also be used for medium-scale storage on electricity grids, and to power electric vehicles.

The team behind the new battery. L-R: Shahin Heidari, John Andrews, proton battery, Saeed Seif Mohammadi. RMIT, Author provided

How it works

Our latest proton battery, details of which are published in the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, is basically a hybrid between a conventional battery and a hydrogen fuel cell.

During charging, the water molecules in the battery are split, releasing protons (positively charged nuclei of hydrogen atoms). These protons then bond with the carbon in the electrode, with the help of electrons from the power supply.

In electricity supply mode, this process is reversed: the protons are released from the storage and travel back through the reversible fuel cell to generate power by reacting with oxygen from air and electrons from the external circuit, forming water once again.

Essentially, a proton battery is thus a reversible hydrogen fuel cell that stores hydrogen bonded to the carbon in its solid electrode, rather than as compressed hydrogen gas in a separate cylinder, as in a conventional hydrogen fuel cell system.

Unlike fossil fuels, the carbon used for storing hydrogen does not burn or cause emissions in the process. The carbon electrode, in effect, serves as a “rechargeable hydrocarbon” for storing energy.

What’s more, the battery can be charged and discharged at normal temperature and pressure, without any need for compressing and storing hydrogen gas. This makes it safer than other forms of hydrogen fuel.

Powering batteries with protons from water splitting also has the potential to be more economical than using lithium ions, which are made from globally scarce and geographically restricted resources. The carbon-based material in the storage electrode can be made from abundant and cheap primary resources – even forms of coal or biomass.

Our latest advance is a crucial step towards cheap, sustainable proton batteries that can help meet our future energy needs without further damaging our already fragile environment.

The time scale to take this small-scale experimental device to commercialisation is likely to be in the order of five to ten years, depending on the level of research, development and demonstration effort expended.

Our research will now focus on further improving performance and energy density through use of atomically thin layered carbon-based materials such as graphene.

The target of a proton battery that is truly competitive with lithium-ion batteries is firmly in our sights.

This article was written by:

John Andrews – [Professor, School of Engineering, RMIT University]



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Technology and regulation must work in concert to combat hate speech online

 We need to call on all the tools at our disposal 
to counter online bullying.

Online bullying, hate and incitement are on the rise, and new approaches are needed to tackle them. As the Australian Senate conducts hearings for its Inquiry into cyberbullying, it should consider a two-pronged approach to combating the problem.

First, the government should follow the lead of Germany in imposing financial penalties on major social media companies if they fail to reduce the volume of abusive content on their platforms.

Second, we must develop ways of correctly identifying and measuring the amount of abusive content being posted and removed to ensure that companies are complying.

Given the volume of data on social media, artificial intelligence (AI) must be a part of the mix in supporting regulation, but we need an appreciation of its limitations.

The impact on victims

Josh Bornstein was the victim of online abuse.David Crosling/AAP

In 2015, Australian lawyer Josh Bornstein was the victim of serious online abuse at the hands of a man in the United States, who impersonated Bornstein and published a racist article online in his name. Bornstein subsequently found himself on the receiving end of a barrage of hate from around the world.

The incident was highly distressing for Bornstein, but cyberhate can also have consequences for society at large. Acting under a cloak of anonymity, the same man used another fake identity to pose as an IS supporter calling for terror attacks in Australia and other Western countries. In December, he was convicted in the United States on terrorism charges.

Bornstein is now calling for both the regulation of social media companies by governments and legal remedies to enable action by victims.

Germany as a regulatory model

New legislation recently introduced in Germany requires companies to remove clear cases of hate speech within 24 hours.

In response, Facebook has employed 1,200 staff and contractors to more effectively process reports of abuse by German users. If the company fails to remove the majority of such content within the 24-hour limit, regulators can impose fines of up to €50 million (A$79 million).

These laws aren’t perfect – within months of them coming into effect, Germany is already considering changes to prevent excessive caution by social media companies having a chilling effect on free speech. But the German approach gives us a window into what a strong state response to cyberbullying looks like.

This is only the cusp of a brave new world of technology regulation. Cyberbullying laws can’t be enforced if we don’t know how much abuse is being posted online, and how much abuse platforms are removing. We need tools to support this.

Employing artificial intelligence

At the Online Hate Prevention Institute (OHPI), we have spent the past six years both tackling specific cases – including Bornstein’s – and working on the problem of measurement using world-class crowdsourcing and artificial intelligence approaches.

Others are also looking at identification and measurement as the next step. The Antisemitism Cyber Monitoring System (ACMS) – a new tool to monitor antisemitism on social media – has been under development by Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry since October 2016. It will be launched at the 2018 Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism in Jerusalem later this month.

The tool uses text analysis – a form of artificial intelligence – and works by searching social media sites for words, phrases and symbols that have been identified as indicators of possible antisemitic content. The tool then reviews the content and generates interactive graphs.

Similar approaches have been used by the World Jewish Congress and by Google’s Conversation AI project, but the approach has limited effectiveness, particularly when applied to large social media sites.

Data from a one-month trial of ACMS was released ahead of the system’s launch. While the software is being promoted as a major step forward in the fight against cyberhate, the data itself highlights serious methodological and technological limitations making it more of a distraction.

Limitations of the technology

One limitation ACMS has is detecting abuse that uses the coded language, symbols and euphemisms that are increasingly favoured by the far right.

Another is that ACMS only monitors content from Facebook and Twitter. YouTube, which accounted for 41% of the online antisemitism identified in a previous report, is not included. The automated system also only monitors content in English, Arabic, French and German.

What’s more concerning is the Ministry’s claim that the cities that produce the highest volume of racist content were Santiago (Chile), Dnipro (Ukraine), and Bucharest (Romania). These cities have primary languages the software is not programmed to process, yet they have somehow outscored cities whose primary languages the software does process.

Of particular concern to Australia is a graph titled Places of Interest: Level of Antisemitism by Location that shows Brisbane as the highest-ranked English-speaking city. This result has been explained by a later clarification suggesting the number is an amalgamation of global likes, shares and retweets that engaged with content originally posted from Brisbane. The data is therefore subject to a large degree of randomness based on which content happens to go viral.

Lawyers and data scientists must work together

There is a place for AI-based detection tools, but their limitations need to be understood. Text analysis can identify specific subsets of online hate, such as swastikas; language related to Hitler, Nazis, gas chambers and ovens; and antisemitic themes that are prominent among some far right groups. But they’re not a silver bullet solution.

Moving beyond identification, we need both lawyers and data scientists to inform our approach to regulating online spaces. New artificial intelligence tools need to be verified against other approaches, such as crowdsourced data from the public. And experts must review the data for accuracy. We need to take advantage of new technology to support regulation regimes, while avoiding a form of failed robo-censorship akin to the robo-debt problems that plagued Centrelink.

The Inquiry into Cyberbullying is an important step, as long as it facilitates the solutions of tomorrow, not just the problems of today.

This article was written by:
 Image of Andre ObolerAndre Oboler – [Lecturer, Master of Cyber-Security Program (Law), La Trobe University]




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Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef: going beyond our backyard to protect the reef

 Protecting and saving icons like the Great Barrier  
reef needs a global response triggered by local action

From place-based to problem-based campaigns, we are seeing a rise in initiatives aiming to foster collective environmental stewardship among concerned citizens across the globe. These international communities have arisen to meet new environmental challenges and seize the opportunities presented by our increasingly connected world.

Traditional approaches to community engagement have tended to focus only on the involvement of local people. However, the recently launched Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef initiative highlights the changing nature of community engagement aimed at fostering environmental stewardship.

In a globalised world, maintaining treasures like the Great Barrier Reef and other ecosystems affected by global-scale threats demands new approaches that involve participation not only of people living locally, but also those in distant places.

A connected world

Today’s environmental problems tend to be characterised by social and environmental connections with distant places.

In terms of environmental connections, places such as the Great Barrier Reef are increasingly affected by global threats. These include: poor water quality associated with port dredging driven by international mining; reef fisheries influenced by national and international markets; and, most importantly, coral bleaching caused by climate change. Social and political action beyond the local is need to combat these threats.

Social connections are increasing through both ease of travel and social media and other forms of virtual communication. This provides opportunities to engage more people across the globe to take meaningful action than ever before. People are able to form and maintain attachments to special places no matter where they are in the world.

Our recent research, involving more than 5,000 people from over 40 countries, shows that people living far from the Great Barrier Reef can have strong emotional bonds comparable to locals’ attachments. These bonds can be strong enough to motivate them to take action.

Harnessing social media

Increasing social connections across the globe don’t only allow people in distant locations to maintain their attachments to a place. They also provide a vehicle to leverage those attachments into taking meaningful actions to protect these places.

Such strategies can now be used even in the most remote of locations – such as 60 metres above the forest floor in a remote part of Tasmania.

Environmental activist Miranda Gibson, who remained engaged with activists around the world during a tree-sitting protest in the Tyenna Valley, southern Tasmania. AAP

During her 451-day tree sit, activist Miranda Gibson co-ordinated an online action campaign. She was able to engage a global audience through blogging, live streaming and posting videos and photos.

Social media provide a new way to foster a sense of community among people far and wide. In this sense, “community” doesn’t have to be local; individuals with common interests and identities can share a sense of community globally. Indeed, this is a key ingredient for collective action.

Employing images and language targeted to appeal to people’s shared attachments to a place can help increase collective stewardship of that place.

These global communities reflect “imagined communities”, a concept developed by political scientist Benedict Anderson to analyse nationalism. Anderson suggests that nations are imagined in the sense that members “will never know most of their fellow members or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”.

Such communities of environmental stewardship can have significant impact. For example, this type of community – which UTAS Professor Libby Lester termed “transnational communities of concern” – played a key role in the decline in Japanese market demand for Tasmanian forest products.

Beyond slacktivism

An important challenge in engaging distant communities in environmental stewardship is to avoid the pitfalls of “slacktivism”.

This refers to the phenomenon of people taking online actions that require little effort, such as joining a Facebook group. It makes them feel good about contributing to a cause but can stop them from taking further action that has real on-the-ground impacts.

More meaningful options are available to people in remote places that can result in real change. These include lobbying national governments, international organisations (such as the World Heritage Committee), or transnational corporations (to prioritise corporate social responsibility, for example). Most organisations that have successfully engaged distant people in environmental stewardship, including Fight for Our Reef, have tended to take a political approach to help with lobbying efforts.

Other meaningful actions that can be undertaken remotely include supporting relevant NGOs and reducing individual consumption.

A new approach to global citizenship

The Citizens for the Reef emphatically state that they are “not looking for Facebook likes” but seek “real action”.

The six actions being promoted include reducing consumption of four disposable products, eliminating food wastage, and financially supporting crown-of-thorns starfish control. Signed-up citizens are given an “impact score”, based on undertaking these actions and recruiting others, and can compare their progress to others around the world.

The initiative provides an example of a new form of environmental activism that is emerging in response to increasing global environmental and social connection. The significant challenge for this initiative is to gain the sustained engagement of enough people to achieve real-world impact.

Ultimately, however, while the local to global public certainly have a critical part to play in addressing these threats, this does not diminish the responsibility of government and the private sector for safeguarding the future livelihood of the Great Barrier Reef.

This article was written by:
Image of Georgina GurneyGeorgina Gurney – [Environmental Social Science Research Fellow, James Cook University]




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