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. Shutterstock.com

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 (http://chirila.yale.edu) 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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New online tool can predict your melanoma risk

 People who are unable to tan and who have moles on 
their skin are among those at heightened risk of developing melanoma.

Australians over the age of 40 can now calculate their risk of developing melanoma with a new online test. The risk predictor tool estimates a person’s melanoma risk over the next 3.5 years based on seven risk factors.

Melanoma is the third most common cancer in Australia and the most dangerous form of skin cancer.

The seven risk factors the tool uses are age, sex, ability to tan, number of moles at age 21, number of skin lesions treated, hair colour and sunscreen use.

The tool was developed by researchers at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute. Lead researcher Professor David Whiteman explained he and his team determined the seven risk factors by following more than 40,000 Queenslanders since 2010, and analysing their data.

The seven risk factors are each weighted differently. The tool’s algorithm uses these to assign a person into one of five risk categories: very much below average, below average, average, above average, and very much above average.

“This online risk predictor will help identify those with the highest likelihood of developing melanoma so that they and their doctors can decide on how to best manage their risk,” Professor Whiteman said.

After completing the short test, users will be offered advice, such as whether they should see their doctor. A reading of “above average” or “very much above average” will recommend a visit to the doctor to explore possible options for managing their melanoma risk.

But Professor Whiteman cautions that people with a below average risk shouldn’t become complacent.

“Even if you are at below average risk, it doesn’t mean you are at low risk – just lower than the average Australian,” he said.

Read more: Explainer: how does sunscreen work, what is SPF and can I still tan with it on?

An estimated one in 17 Australians will be diagnosed with melanoma by their 85th birthday.

The test is targeted for people aged 40 and above as this was the age range of the cohort studied.

However, melanoma remains the most common cancer in Australians under 40.

Professor Whiteman said that the test may be useful for those under 40, but it may not be as accurate, as that wasn’t the demographic it was based on.

But he added complete accuracy couldn’t be guaranteed even for the target demographic.

“I don’t think it’s possible that we’ll ever get to 100%. I think that’s a holy grail that we aspire to, but in reality, cancers are very complex diseases and their causality includes many, many, factors, including unfortunately some random factors.”

The prognosis for melanoma patients is significantly better when it is detected earlier. The University of Queensland’s Professor of Dermatology H. Peter Soyer explained that the five-year survival rate for melanoma is 90%. But this figure jumps to 98% for patients diagnosed at the very early stages.

“At the end of the day, everything that raises awareness for melanomas and for skin cancer is beneficial,” Professor Soyer said.

Dr Hassan Vally, a senior lecturer in epidemiology at La Trobe University, said the way risk is often communicated is hard for people to grasp. But he said this model would provide people with a tangible measure of their risk of disease, and point them towards what they may be able to do to reduce it.

“Everything comes back to how people perceive their risk, and how can they make sense of it.

“If it makes people more aware of their risks of disease that’s a good thing, and if that awareness leads to people taking action and improving their health then that’s great.”

This article was co-authored by:




Yes, too much sugar is bad for our health – here’s what the science says

 More than half of Australians consume too  
much sugar. Sharon McCutcheon

The World Health Organisation recommends limiting “free sugars” to less than 10% of our total energy intake. This equates to around 12 teaspoons a day for an average adult.

But more than half of Australian adults exceed this limit, often without knowing. “Free sugars” don’t just come from us sweetening coffees and teas or home-cooked dinners; they are added by manufacturers during processing.

It’s often a surprise to learn just how many teaspoons of sugar are added to popular foods and drinks:

The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Most of the concern about excess sugar consumption has been focused on weight gain, and rightly so. Our livers can turn sugar into fat. Too much sugar – and too much soft drink, in particular – can cause fat to be deposited on our waist. This is known as visceral fat.

Visceral fat is especially harmful because it increases the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, even when blood sugar levels are higher than normal.

But what does the science say about sugar and the raft of other conditions we see in the headlines every other week? Let’s look at two examples: dementia and cancer.


Dementia is an umbrella term for brain disorders that cause memory loss, confusion and personality change. It’s the greatest cause of disability among older Australians and the third-biggest killer. Alzheimer’s disease is one type of dementia.

The research does not show that sugar causes dementia. But there is emerging research that suggests high-sugar diets may increase the risk of developing the disease. What we can say is that there is a link between high-sugar diets and dementia, but we don’t have evidence to show that one causes the other.

Too much sugar makes us gain weight but there are also other ways it an increase our risk of diseases. Giuliana M/Shutterstock

2016 New Zealand study of post mortems on human brains assessed seven different regions of the brain. The researchers found that the areas of greatest damage had significantly elevated levels of glucose (sugar). Healthy cells don’t usually have elevated levels of glucose.

This was also found in a separate analysis of post-mortem brain and blood samples from Baltimore in 2017. Using blood samples collected from the patients over a 19-year period before they died, the brain glucose concentration at death was found to be highest in those with Alzheimer’s disease. What’s more, this glucose level had been slowly increasing for years.

The levels of blood glucose were not indicative of diabetes. So otherwise healthy people could have rising levels of glucose in the brain well before any obvious signs of disease prompt any action.

Together, these studies tell us that the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease struggle to metabolise sugar for energy. The changes in the brain seem to be linked to persistent increases in blood glucose over a long period of time. And the damage to brain cells is occurring well before overt symptoms of Alzheimer’s appear.

We don’t know if simply consuming high amounts of sugar results in the build-up of glucose in the brain. But other research also supports this theory.

recent analysis of more than 3,000 people found that those who drink sugary beverages were more likely to have smaller brains and perform worse on a series of memory tests.

The researchers calculated that consuming one to two or more sugary drinks per day could be equivalent to up to 13 years of additional brain ageing. And a separate analysis of soft drink versus fruit juice reported similar affects.


Cancer is a condition in which the cells in the body mutate and rapidly multiply. It’s Australia’s second biggest killer and will affect half of Australians if they live to 85.

There is no evidence that sugar causes cancer, but there are at least two ways in which they are linked.

Too much soft drink can cause fat to be deposited on your waist. Dilok Klaisataporn/Shutterstock

First, if you are overweight or obese, you have an increased risk of developing 11 different types of cancer. Consuming too much sugar (and too many kilojoules overall) leads to weight gain, which increases the risk of cancer.

A second, more direct pathway linking sugar to cancer is the capacity for sugar to stimulate insulin secretion. This is a potent hormone signal for cell growth. Cancer cells also rely on sugar for energy to fuel their continual growth.

This suggests that independent of any change in your weight, consuming too much sugar may increase your risk of developing cancer.

But we need to be cautious about the quality of data available directly linking cancer to sugar consumption.

recent study of 35,000 people, for instance, reported a link between higher obesity-related cancer risks and heavy consumption of soft drink. But the authors point out that it was impossible to specifically separate drinking soft drinks from other unhealthy behaviours, such as smoking or lower levels of physical activity.

What does it all mean?

Much of the current discussion about sugar focuses on the effects of excess energy intake and weight gain, and the subsequent risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and some forms of dementia.

But while being overweight or obese increases your risk of these diseases, excess weight is not a prerequisite.

While the development of diseases are no doubt also based on genes and lifestyle factors other than diet, the evidence of the potential harms of high-sugar diets is accumulating. It’s certainly compelling enough for many to consider limiting how much sugar we eat and drink.

Whether or not the sugar itself is the culprit, sugary foods are linked to health problems – and that should be reason enough to cut down.

This article was written by:
Image of Kieron Rooney
Kieron Rooney – [Senior Lecturer in Biochemistry and Exercise Physiology, University of Sydney]





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What writers and publishers must learn from the Deadly Woman Blues fiasco

 Deadly Woman Blues by Clinton Walker was pulled 
from circulation after various factual errors were revealed. 
NewSouth Publishing

Seldom does a book about music attract the high controversy surrounding Clinton Walker’s Deadly Woman Blues: Black Women & Australian Music. On grounds of multiple inaccuracies and damaging reputational distortions, it was denounced by the very artists whose music it sought to celebrate as it reached bookstore shelves in February 2018. The publisher, NewSouth Publishing, withdrew the book from circulation within weeks on March 5.

Yet Deadly Woman Blues should not be forgotten. It remains a useful and instructive example, albeit unintentionally, of the authorial burdens and responsibilities inherent in publishing other people’s stories.

With Deadly Woman Blues, Walker sought to produce a chronologically ordered biographical encyclopedia cataloguing the overlooked histories and achievements of black women in Australian music. This included not only Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, but also expatriate women of the African diaspora and Indigenous communities of other countries. Promoted as the sister sequel to his critically acclaimed book of 2000, Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music, which spawned a tie-in CD and DVD, this latest book sadly disappoints and offends in multiple ways.

Nardi Simpson, of the Stiff Gins, first raised the alarm about Deadly Woman Blues on Facebook on February 14 after learning that it included commentary on her life and music without her prior knowledge or consent. She stated that she had been unable to secure a meeting with Walker to discuss this despite contacting him three times.

After eventually obtaining a copy of the book, she and her Stiff Gins colleague, Kaleena Briggs, wrote to NewSouth Publishing citing numerous inaccuracies in Walker’s telling of their story. The reply they received the day after the book’s launch at Gleebooks in Sydney on February 21 largely defended the approach taken in its production, yet stated that all of their suggested errata would be posted on the publisher’s website and that, as requested, the Stiff Gins entry would be removed from future editions.

Though a number of the affected artists were busy working at the Australian Performing Arts Market in Brisbane that week, jazz artist Marlene Cummins was present at the book’s Sydney launch, where she raised their many concerns about its distressing inaccuracies and distortions directly with the publisher.

With frustrated letters from Lou Bennett of Tiddas, and Deborah Cheetham AO of Short Black Opera amplifying this refrain of discontent, NewSouth Publishing ultimately relented and announced it would withdraw the book from circulation. All errata provided by the affected artists are to be published on its website. As of March 6, Deadly Woman Blues remains listed on the publisher’s website as “Out of print”. Walker issued an apology for his book’s “errors of fact” that same day.

In many cases, those “errors of fact” were far from trivial. Rather, they were gross misrepresentations that trespassed into the private lives of the affected artists, inflicting serious distress and risks of ongoing reputational damage.

In Cheetham’s case, Walker made so basic an error as to mistake her place of birth. Cheetham was in fact born in the Nowra District Hospital, where her officious removal from her mother at three weeks of age is well known to have later inspired the plot of her acclaimed 2010 opera, Pecan Summer.

Speaking on ABC’s The Drum on March 6, Cheetham equably explained: “As a member of the Stolen Generations, to have the place of my birth stated with such careless inaccuracy was not only insulting to me, but to my mother and my grandmother’s experience.”

Her restraint was admirable given that Walker had egregiously insulted her several times in the book. She wrote to the publisher about this and shared this correspondence with us:

He could have used any image of me as a performer in the various gowns that I wear. However, he chose to show me in a suit and tie to illustrate his point that he believes me to be a cross-dresser. The fact that he omitted the post-nominal AO from my name in the chapter title, “Deborah Cheetham Opera Snob”, is disrespectful as well. As for the word “Snob”, I consider accessibility to opera as one of the key platforms of my work and that hardly defines me as a snob. Also, his treatment and paraphrasing of my feelings around my first meeting with my mother, Monica, is as rough as it possibly could be and very disrespectful to us both.

Walker’s book similarly demeans other women with such false accusations, but we have not received permission to cite their responses. His insults may be considered defamatory.

Missed opportunities

So, what went wrong with Deadly Woman Blues? Why was it not received as a triumph like Walker’s earlier book, Buried Country? How did it pass the rigours of peer review that an academic publishing house would normally impose, and how were its many obvious flaws permitted to go to press?

The answers to these questions are unclear, though clues can be found in the framing Walker himself presents in the book’s introduction.

On page eight, in an ill-conceived apparent attempt to absolve himself of any need to have interviewed or consulted with the artists about whom he writes, Walker states: “Deadly Woman Blues isn’t oral history like Buried Country, it’s graphic history. Not investigative but impressionistic. Based not on interviews but images.”

Emerging here as a matter of grave concern is Walker’s seeming belief that the oral histories of black women are unworthy of robust exploration, and that their achievements are better suited to his own impressionistic interpretations through imagery. For a book about music, this seems rather odd.

Accompanied on the same page by salacious vintage illustrations of semi-naked Aboriginal women, Walker reveals his nostalgic fascination with depicting his subjects through “a gallery of portraits, accompanied by the briefest of notes. Like an album of old-fashioned cigarette cards, or set of bubblegum cards. Like a variation on the now highly collectable Popswops cards that Scanlens put out in Australia in the mid-1970s.”

Based on portraits of each artist that Walker himself penned and partially exhibited at the Macquarie University Art Gallery in October 2015, his apparent proclivity for titillating imagery re-emerges throughout the book’s pages. This is perhaps demonstrated no better than on page 162 in an image of an imagined cover for a fantasy CD by Christine Anu, in which a black line barely covers her bare nipples. In real life, Anu is depicted fully clothed on all of her album covers.

Having already denied his subjects any choice or agency in how or if they wanted their stories to be told, Walker’s bubblegum-card approach to history only serves to subordinate black women to the whimsical authority of his white male gaze, like a collection of chloroformed butterflies pinned to a curator’s specimen board.

Herein lies one of the most heartbreaking of this book’s missed opportunities. Had Walker only gone to the effort of consulting and interviewing the living artists he discusses, just as he did for Buried Country, then Deadly Woman Blues might too have been celebrated as an equally valuable triumph.

The other most heartbreaking of this book’s missed opportunities is that Walker has a genuine flair and passion for unearthing hidden histories. Part One and its accompanying discography, in particular, genuinely do introduce readers to many artists of yesteryear who are likely to be unknown to all but vintage music buffs. Yet the veracity of this rare information is grossly undermined by the serious “errors of fact” concerning the numerous living artists who called for the book’s withdrawal.

Publishing standards

Ultimately, there is no way of knowing how Walker arrived at any of the information he presents in Deadly Woman Blues, as it is a book largely devoid of any citations, references or bibliography.

In an alarming lapse of both scholarly and journalistic standards of evidence, attribution and ethics, which any academic publishing house should have demanded, Walker’s literary sources remain a mystery, as do the original reference images upon which the many portraits he penned were probably based. Other books in NewSouth Publishing’s catalogue include this kind of apparatus. Perhaps the publishers felt that a book about music by black women would just be a bit of fun and therefore warranted lower standards.

Australian Gypsies: Their Secret History, written by Mandy Sayer for NewSouth Publishing, and The Tattooist of Auschwitz, written by Heather Morris for Echo, are recent examples of excellent books that demonstrate how authors can present deeply personal and sensitive material with great care and respect for the dignity, rights and consent of the people whose stories they tell. This same dignity should have been extended to the living artists discussed by Walker in Deadly Woman Blues.

Walker’s assertion, starting on page nine, that there are few writers, Indigenous or otherwise, who specialise in Australian Indigenous music further reveals his limited knowledge of this critical field of research and NewSouth Publishing’s failure to adhere to rigorous peer-review processes.

In addition to DJ Hannah Donnelly, both Clint Bracknell and Payi Linda Ford are Indigenous Australian scholars who write about Australian Indigenous music. Karl Neuenfeldt, Peter Dunbar-Hall and Katelyn Barney have certainly contributed to this discourse as well, but so too have numerous other music scholars including Allan Marett, Linda Barwick, Fiona Magowan, Elizabeth Mackinlay, Robin Ryan, Sally Treloyn, Myfany Turpin, Genevieve Campbell and Reuben Brown to name but a few.

Indeed, had Walker read Katelyn Barney’s edited book, Collaborative Ethnomusicology, which emphasises the importance of equitable and co-operative approaches to music research between Indigenous Australians and others, then Deadly Woman Blues might still be in print today.

At best, Deadly Woman Blues is a lazy, under-researched effort that models how not to approach the task of publishing other people’s stories. Amateurish and unethical in its denial of their voices and agency, it has placed at risk the reputations, privacy and integrity of the very artists it sought to celebrate causing them preventable harm and distorting the public historical record. Both journalists and academics are bound by professional codes of conduct that prevent them from publishing material about people’s private lives without meeting rigorous standards of evidence, attribution and ethics, and there was a clear responsibility for both the author and publisher to have attended to this important matter before the book’s publication.

For these reasons alone, Deadly Woman Blues remains a useful resource that should not be pulped entirely. Rather, it should be kept in the rare collections of university and major public libraries as a reminder to us all that its many serious shortcomings should never again be repeated.

As to the question of who will now resume the challenge of appropriately producing the first comprehensive book about black women’s music in Australia, we have a novel suggestion.

NewSouth Publishing should fund an independent invitation-only conference for the living artists affected by Deadly Woman Blues. There, they could engage in unpressured discussion about if or how they want their legacies to be represented into the future. NewSouth Publishing should then fund any publishable output from this meeting that those women see fit to pursue with no strings attached.

We wish to thank numerous artists who have been affected by this book for their advice in writing this review.

Professor Marcia Langton AM is the Foundation Chair in Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne, and Professor Aaron Corn is Director of the Centre for Studies in Aboriginal Music (CASM) at the University of Adelaide. Both Langton and Corn remain closely involved in the National Recording Project for Indigenous Performance in Australia (NRPIPA), which they worked with many other colleagues and Indigenous community partners to establish in 2004.

Aaron Corn’s book, Reflections & Voices: Exploring the Music of Yothu Yindi with Mandawuy Yunupiŋu, is available from Sydney University Press.

Update: This article was updated on March 9 2018 to add the following statement from Kathy Bail, Chief Executive, UNSW Press Ltd and Phillipa McGuinness, Executive Publisher, NewSouth Publishing:

We read Aaron Corn and Marcia Langton’s article about the publication of Deadly Woman Blues carefully and are grateful for the time and consideration they have taken to write it. There is no publisher who will learn more from this experience than NewSouth. We have an extensive list in Indigenous Studies, developed over many years that we are proud of, but are revisiting our practices in light of our failings with this book.

Already, in addition to conveying our sincere apologies to the women concerned and preparing a list of corrections to appear on our website next week, we have already started revisiting our editorial processes and protocols in relation to publishing Indigenous material. We will be consulting with various advisers in the field.

We are a hybrid publisher: our scholarly books go through a peer review process, which is not always appropriate for books aimed at general readers. Yet the requirement for accuracy and care is, of course, the same for all books, which are subject to what we thought, until this incident, were rigorous editing processes. The book in question, for example, had an in-house project editor, an external copyeditor and a different external proof-reader. Yet we see that the assumptions many of us made about consultation and fact-checking were replicated down the line and have not served the women in the book well, nor given them the respect they deserve. It was indeed a missed opportunity.

We have written to various women in the book saying we would be delighted to consider proposals, and listen to ideas for other books, that would of course be subject to commercial arrangements. The idea for a conference is one that we will pursue with our university colleagues.

We recognise it is important that these women musicians have opportunities to tell their own stories, in their own words, on their own terms.

This article was co-authored by:
Image of Aaron CornAaron Corn – [Professor of Music · Director, Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM) · Director, National Centre for Aboriginal Language and Music Studies (NCALMS), University of Adelaide]
Image of Marcia LangtonMarcia Langton – [Foundation Chair in Australian Indigenous Studies, University of Melbourne]




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Sunday Essay : who was Mary Magdalene? Debunking the myth of the penitent prostitute

 Detail from Caravaggio’s Mary Magdelene, 
painted circa 1594-1596. Wikimedia Commons

Who was Mary Magdalene? What do we know about her? And how do we know it? These questions resurface with the release of a new movie, Mary Magdalene, starring Rooney Mara in the titular role.

The question of how we know about her is a relatively simple one. She appears in a number of early Christian texts associated with the ministry of Jesus.

These texts comprise Gospels written in the first and second century of the Common Era (CE). The earliest of them are included in the New Testament, where Magdalene plays a significant role. She also appears in later Gospels, which were not included in the Bible and come from a later period in early Christianity.

The answer about who she was and what we know of her is more complex. In Western art, literature and theology, Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a prostitute who meets Jesus, repents of her sins, and pours oil on his feet in a gesture of humility, penitence and gratitude. She is sometimes depicted kneeling at the foot of the cross, hair unbound, emphasising the sinful past from which she can never quite escape, despite being declared a saint.

The tradition of the penitent prostitute has persisted in the Western tradition. Institutions that cared for prostitutes from the 18th century onwards were called “Magdalenes” to encourage amendment of life in the women who took refuge in them. The word came into English as “maudlin”, meaning a tearful sentimentality. It is not a flattering description.

Titian’s Penitent Magdalene, circa 1565.Wikimedia Commons

Artistic depictions continued to emphasise Magadelene’s sexuality in various ways, under a facade of piety. In another twist on the same theme, she is presented as the wife of Jesus, most notably in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003).

The tradition of Mary Magdalene as the archetypal penitent whore, whose sexuality somehow manages to persist beyond her conversion, can be dated to a sermon preached by Gregory the Great in the sixth century CE.

Admittedly, there are a confusing number of women called “Mary” in the Gospels and we might assume Pope Gregory was tired of distinguishing between them. He reduced them to two: on the one hand, Mary, the mother of Jesus, perpetual virgin, symbol of purity and goodness, and, on the other, Mary Magdalene, promiscuous whore, symbol of feminine evil from which the world must be redeemed.

A disciple of Jesus

Yet nowhere in the Gospels is Mary Magdalene associated either overtly or covertly with sexuality. The four Gospels of the New Testament present her in two significant roles.

In the first place, she is a disciple of Jesus: one among a band of women and men from Galilee who believed in his message of love and justice and followed him in his ministry.

Secondly, Magdalene is a primary witness in the Gospels to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Unlike many of the other disciples, she does not flee when Jesus is arrested. She remains at the cross when he dies and later visits his tomb to find it empty, with a vision of angels declaring his resurrection.

Mark’s Gospel, which we now know to be the earliest Gospel to be written, speaks of Magdalene as a disciple of Jesus who has followed him from Galilee along with other women, but it does not mention her until the crucifixion. These women disciples now stand near the cross, despite the danger in being present at the execution of a dissident.

Three of them, including Magdalene, visit the tomb on Easter morning where they meet an angel who informs them that Jesus has risen from the dead (Mark 16:1-8). The women’s subsequent departure from the tomb is ambiguous, and they leave in fear and silence, which is where the manuscript of Mark’s Gospel abruptly ends. An ending added later makes mention of the risen Jesus making an appearance first to Magdalene.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Magdalene meets the risen Christ as she leaves the tomb, this time with only one other female companion, who is also called “Mary” (Matt 28:1-10). In Luke’s account, Magdalene appears at the cross and at the empty tomb to hear the angel’s words, but she and her female companions are not believed when they convey the message of the resurrection to the apostles (Luke 24:1-11).

Mary Magdalene anoints Christ’s feet in Dieric Bouts’ Christ in the House of Simon (circa 1420–1475). Wikimedia Commons

In Luke, there is an earlier mention of Magdalene in Jesus’s ministry where she is present, along with other women, as a disciple and supporter of Jesus (Luke 8:1-3). She is described as having had seven demons cast from her. This description might lead to the conclusion, in some minds, that the many “demons” refer to her unfettered sexuality.

But that would be erroneous. Exorcisms — the casting out of evil spirits — are common in the first three Gospels. Those suffering demonic possession are never described as sinful but rather are victims of external evil.

These days, we would associate their symptoms with physical maladies such as epilepsy or mental illness. Magdalene, in other words, has been the victim of a serious illness and Jesus has healed her.

Furthermore, the description is unusual here in that she is not described in relation to a male figure, as other women at the time generally were: father, husband, brother. She is simply referred to as “the Magdalene”, that is, the woman from Magdala, a Jewish village in Galilee.

We might well assume, from Luke’s description, that she is an independent woman of some means, who is well able to fund, as well as participate in, the movement around Jesus.

Her most significant role

John’s Gospel, however, gives Magdalene her most significant role. Once again, she does not appear until the crucifixion. In the narrative that follows, she comes alone to the tomb on Easter morning, finds it empty, tries unsuccessfully to gain help from two other prominent disciples, and eventually meets the risen Christ himself in the garden (20:1-18). He is alive and commissions her to proclaim the message of his resurrection.

On the basis of John’s story, later tradition gave Magdalene the title of “apostle to the apostles” and recognised something of her significance for Christian faith, witness and leadership. A tragic consequence is that her role as witness to the resurrection was later overshadowed by the apparently more alluring but inaccurate picture of her as the penitent whore.

A more accurate portrayal of Mary Magdalene announcing the risen Christ from the 12th-century English illuminated manuscript St Albans Psalter.Wikimedia Commons

The later Gospels, beyond the New Testament, also emphasise Magdalene’s importance as a disciple of Jesus and witness to the resurrection. The manuscript of the Gospel of Mary, which describes her discussions with the risen Christ, is unfortunately damaged and the central section is missing. In this and other similar Gospels, however, Magdalene is presented as the favoured disciple. This situation leads to some tension with the other disciples, who are jealous of her closeness to Jesus and the teaching she alone is given.

One Gospel speaks of Jesus kissing her, but the imagery in the Gospel of Philip is metaphorical and refers to a spiritual union with Christ. In response to the objection by the other disciples, Jesus asks why he does not kiss them in the same way, implying that they do not as yet possess the same degree of spiritual knowledge.

No evidence of Magdalene anointing Jesus

There is no evidence, incidentally, that Magdalene ever anointed Jesus.

There are three anointing traditions in the Gospels. In one, an unnamed woman anoints Jesus’s head in prophetic recognition of his identity (Gospels of Mark & Matthew). In another, a named and known disciple, Mary of Bethany, who is a model disciple, anoints Jesus’s feet in gratitude for his raising her brother Lazarus from the dead (Gospel of John). In the third, a “sinful woman”, who is not explicitly identified as a prostitute, anoints Jesus’s feet in a gesture of repentance, gratitude and hospitality. None of these three figures is associated in any way with Mary Magdalene in the texts.

The movie Mary Magdalene, directed by Garth Davis, is a significant portrayal of this early Christian figure in the light of evidence from the earliest texts. The screenwriters, Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, are quite clear that Mary is not to be associated with Jesus through her sexuality, either as harlot or wife. On the contrary, she is depicted as a faithful and deeply insightful disciple of Jesus, on whom he draws for his message of love, mercy and forgiveness.

Magdalene is beautifully portrayed in the movie, which draws on traditions from the earlier and later Gospels. She possesses an intense and compelling presence, which does much to restore her character from its later distortions.

It is true that the film makes somewhat erratic use of the New Testament, both in its presentation of Magdalene and of other characters in the story. Towards the end, for example, there is an implication that Magdalene and the church stand on opposite sides, the one in sympathy with Jesus’s teaching and the other anxious to build a self-glorifying edifice on his assumed identity.

This is unfortunate, as the New Testament itself is quite clear about the priority and identity of Magdalene as a key disciple, witness and leader in the early church, without seeing her in opposition to others.

Indeed, those who campaigned in a number of Christian churches for the ordination of women in the 20th century used precisely the example of Mary Magdalene from the New Testament as “apostle to the apostles” to support their case for women’s equality and leadership.

The recent installation of Kay Goldsworthy as Archbishop of the Anglican Diocese of Perth — the first woman in this country and across the world to be given this title — is the true heir of Magdalene as she is portrayed in the earliest Christian writings.

This essay was written by:
Image of Dorothy Ann LeeDorothy Ann Lee – [ Frank Woods Professor of New Testament, Trinity College, University of Divinity]
The film Mary Magdalene opens in Australian cinemas on March 22.




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Weekly Dose: cocaine, the glamour drug of the ’70s, is making a comeback

 In Australia, cocaine is most commonly snorted. 
Ralf Geithe/Shutterstock

Cocaine is derived from the leaves of the coca plant, which is native to Central America. For thousands of years, the leaves were used by the local inhabitants such as the Incas, who chewed or made them into a tea, because of the alertness and energy they provided.

German chemist Albert Niemann eventually isolated the active ingredient in 1859 and it was named cocaine. This was the beginning of the drug’s use as a medicinal and recreational substance in Western culture.

How many people use it

Cocaine is the second most commonly used illicit substance in Australia, after marijuana. Reports of cocaine use in the 12 months to June 2017 more than doubled since 2004 – from 1% to 2.5% (or around 170,000 to 500,000 people).

The number of people who have ever used cocaine has had a similar percentage increase – from 4.7% in 2004 to 9% in 2016. Cocaine use has reached a 15-year high.

History and use over time

Cocaine gained prominence in the 1880s. Sigmund Freud broadly praised its uses, including in overcoming morphine addiction and treating depression.

Viennese ophthalmologist Carl Koller performed the first operation using cocaine as an anaesthetic on a patient with glaucoma, which led to its use as a local anaesthetic.

But, soon after, practitioners began reporting side effects. Cocaine doses were administered at such high concentrations that there were 200 cases of intoxication and 13 deaths (in around seven years) as a result.

At the 1912 Hague International Opium Convention cocaine (and heroin) was added to the drug control treaty as problematic substance. This sparked the introduction of new drug control laws relating to cocaine in various countries.

Crack cocaine is a solid, rock-like version of the drug which can be smoked. from shutterstock.com

Cocaine use decreased after this, but later experienced a surge in popularity in the 1970s, peaking in the 1980s. During this time, cocaine was associated with celebrities, high rollers and glamorous parties.

Then a new, crystallised form of cocaine (crack cocaine) was developed. Crack cocaine is processed with ammonia or baking soda, producing a solid “rock” version of the drug which could be smoked.

Not only was crack cocaine more potent, but the effects of the drug (typically after smoking) were felt faster. It was also much cheaper, which allowed it to spread quickly into poorer communities. Its use became recognised as an “epidemic” around 1985, which lasted for ten years.

How it works

The nervous system uses chemicals called neurotransmitters to communicate. These move across the space between two nerve cells and bind to receptors on the receiving cell.

Neurotransmitters do different things. Dopamine, for instance, is involved in the reward system of the brain. It creates feelings of pleasure and contributes to motor control, reinforcement and motivation.

The more neurotransmitters are present in the space between two cells, the more can bind to receptors and have a stronger effect. When the body no longer needs the neurotransmitter in its system, it gets reabsorbed into the cell that released it. This is called re-uptake.

One way to increase the level of a neurotransmitter in the brain is to prevent this re-uptake process from occurring. Cocaine inhibits the re-uptake of dopamine in the brain. The resulting increase in dopamine can cause heightened feelings of pleasure and well-being, among other effects.

The coca plant, from which cocaine is derived, is native to Central America. Olmez/Shutterstock

Some evidence suggests cocaine also inhibits the uptake of the stimulant norepinephrine and the mood regulator serotonin.

Nerves also communicate through electrical signals. Cocaine inhibits electrical communication. In this way, it also works as an anaesthetic by blocking communication between peripheral nerve cells. Cocaine produces a numbing effect when applied to mucous membranes such as the mouth, throat and inside the nose.

How much it costs

The average price for cocaine is around A$300-$350 per gram. That’s A$50 more per gram than methamphetamine (ice). In 2017, Australia ranked as the most expensive country to buy cocaine.

How it’s used

Cocaine is used primarily as a recreational drug. In Australia it’s most commonly snorted. Injecting, swallowing and smoking are less common.

How it makes you feel

The effects of cocaine depend on the dose, form, method of use and what the cocaine is cut with. Cocaine is commonly taken in doses of between 10mg and 120mg. A high lasts between 15-30 minutes and has a half-life (time required before 50% of the drug has left the user’s system) of one hour.

Lower doses will cause a person to experience increased heart rate, body temperature and blood pressure. Cocaine also brings out feelings of euphoria, confidence, giddiness, alertness and enhanced self-consciousness.

Higher doses can cause additional effects such as sleep deprivation, hyper-vigilance, anxiety and paranoia.

Some people who use cocaine may also experience tactile hallucinations. A common example of this is the feeling of bugs crawling on the skin.

Cocaine users can experience tactile hallucinations, such as the feeling of bugs crawling on their skin. from shutterstock.com

Using cocaine over a long time or in binges may lead to depression, irritability, disturbances of eating and sleeping, and tactile hallucinations.

Cocaine is also very addictive. Withdrawal symptoms last up to ten weeks.

Cocaine can cause severe heart and neurological issues, and even death, when taken in too large a quantity.

Recent data show that seven people died due to cocaine overdose in 2013 in Australia.

Cocaine used to be added to Coca-Cola. from shutterstock.com

Other points of interest

In the 1880s in the US, cocaine was included in numerous medicines, and even in Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola had about 60mg of cocaine in a 250ml bottle.

In ColombiaMexico and Peru, possessing small amounts of cocaine for personal use is decriminalised.

One of the more recent concerns about the resurgence of cocaine is the potentially deadly effect it has when cut with fentanyl, a potent opioid. A number of recent drug overdoses in Sydney have been linked to heroin cut with fentanyl, highlighting its deadly effects. While this hasn’t yet become popular with cocaine, it very well could.

This article was co-authored by:
Image of Jason FerrisJason Ferris – [Associate Professor, The University of Queensland];
Image of Barbara WoodBarbara Wood – [Research Assistant, The University of Queensland]
Image of Stephanie Cook Stephanie Cook – [Research Assistant at the Institute for Social Science Research, The University of Queensland]




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