The driverless car is more than transportation technology.

I’m hoping to write a few pieces on design in the coming days. I’ll warn you now that one of them will be about toilets, so … urm … prepare yourself, I guess? Anyway, back to today’s theme: the driverless car. I wanted to talk about it because it’s a great example of what technology could do, not in terms of just doing something useful but in terms of changing how we think. I’m going to look at some of the changes that might happen. No doubt many of you will have ideas and some of you will disagree so I’ll wait to see what shows up in the comments.

Humans have been around for quite a long time but, surprisingly given how prominent they are in our lives, cars have only been around for 120 years in the form that we know them – gasoline/diesel engines, suspension and smaller-than-buggy wheels. And yet our lives are, in many ways, built around them. Our cities bend and stretch in strange ways to accommodate roads, tunnels, overpasses and underpasses. Ask anyone who has driven through Atlanta, Georgia, where an Interstate of near-infinite width can be found running from Peachtree & Peachtree to Peachtree, Peachtree, Peachtree and beyond!

But what do we think of when we think of cars? We think of transportation. We think of going where we want, when we want. We think of using technology to compress travel time and this, for me, is a classic human technological perspective because we are love to amplify. Cars make us faster. Computers allow us to add up faster. Guns help us to kill better.

So let’s say we get driverless cars and, over time, the majority of cars on the road are driverless. What does this mean? Well, if you look at road safety stats and the WHO reports, you’ll see that about up 40% of traffic fatalities can be straight line accidents (these figures from the Victorian roads department, 2006-2013). That is, people just drive off a straight road and kill themselves. The leading killers overall are alcohol, fatigue, and speed. Driverless cars will, in one go, remove all of these. Worldwide, a million people per year just stopped dying.

But it’s not just transportation. In America, commuting to work eats up from 35-65 hours of your year. If you live in DC, you spend two weeks every year cursing the Beltway. And it’s not as if you can easily work in your car so those are lost hours. That’s not enjoyable driving! That’s hours of frustration, wasted fuel, exposure to burning fuel, extra hours you have to work. The fantasy of the car is driving a convertible down the Interstate in the sunshine, listening to rock, and singing along. The reality is inching forward with the windows up in a 10 year old Nissan family car while stuck between FM stations and having to listen to your second iPod because the first one’s out of power. And it’s the joke one that only has Weird Al on it.

Enter the driverless car. Now you can do some work but there’s no way that your commute will be as bad anyway because we can start to do away with traffic lights and keep the traffic moving. You’ll be there for less time but you can do more. Have a sleep if you want. Learn a language. Do a MOOC! Winning!

Why do I think it will be faster? Every traffic light has a period during which no-one is moving. Why? Because humans need clear signals and need to know what other drivers are doing. A driverless car can talk to other cars and they can weave in and out of the traffic signals. Many traffic jams are caused by people hitting the brakes and then people arrive at this braking point faster than people are leaving. There is no need for this traffic jam and, with driverless cars, keeping distance and speed under control is far easier. Right now, cars move like ice through a vending machine. We want them to move like water.

How will you work in your car? Why not make every driverless car a wireless access point using mesh networking? Now the more cars you get together, the faster you can all work. The I495 Beltway suddenly becomes a hub of activity rather than a nightmare of frustration. (In a perfect world, aliens come to Earth and take away I495 as their new emperor, leaving us with matter transporters, but I digress.)

But let’s go further. Driverless cars can have package drops in them. The car that picks you up from work has your Amazon parcels in the back. It takes meals to people who can’t get out. It moves books around.

But let’s go further. Make them electric and put some of Elon’s amazing power cells into them and suddenly we have a power transportation system if we can manage the rapid charge/discharge issues. Your car parks in the city turn into repair and recharge facilities for fleets of driverless cars, charging from the roof solar and wind, but if there’s a power problem, you can send 1000 cars to plug into the local grid and provide emergency power.

We still need to work out some key issues of integration: cyclists, existing non-converted cars and pedestrians are the first ones that come to mind. But, in my research group, we have already developed passive localisation that works on a scale that could easily be put onto cars so you know when someone is among the cars. Combine that with existing sensors and all a cyclist has to do is to wear a sensor (non-personalised, general scale and anonymised) that lets intersections know that she is approaching and the cars can accommodate it. Pedestrians are slow enough that cars can move around them. We know that they can because slow humans do it often enough!

We start from ‘what could we do if we produced a driverless car’ and suddenly we have free time, increased efficiency and the capacity to do many amazing things.

Now, there are going to be protests. There are going to be people demanding their right to drive on the road and who will claim that driverless cars are dangerous. There will be anti-robot protests. There already have been. I expect that the more … freedom-loving states will blow up a few of these cars to make a point. Anyone remember the guy waving a red flag who had to precede every automobile? It’s happened before. It will happen again.

We have to accept that there are going to be deaths related to this technology, even if we plan really hard for it not to happen, and it may be because of the technology or it may be because of opposing human action. But cars are already killing so may people. 1.2 million people died on the road in 2010, 36,000 from America. We have to be ready for the fact that driverless cars are a stepping stone to getting people out of the grind of the commute and making much better use of our cities and road spaces. Once we go driverless we need to look at how many road accidents aren’t happening, and address the issues that still cause accidents in a driverless example.

Understand the problem. Measure what’s happening. Make a change. Measure again. Determine the impact.

When we think about keeping the manually driven cars on the road, we do have a precedent. If you look at air traffic, the NTSB Accidents and Accident Rates by NTSB Classification 1998-2007 report tells us that the most dangerous type of flying is small private planes, which are more than 5 times more likely to have an accident than commercial airliners. Maybe it will be the insurance rates or the training required that will reduce the private fleet? Maybe they’ll have overrides. We have to think about this.

It would be tempting to say “why still have cars” were it not for the increasingly ageing community, those people who have several children and those people who have restricted mobility, because they can’t just necessarily hop on a bike or walk. As someone who has had multiple knee surgeries, I can assure you that 100m is an insurmountable distance sometimes – and I used to run 45km up and down mountains. But what we can do is to design cities that work for people and accommodate the new driverless cars, which we can use in a much quieter, efficient and controlled manner.

Vehicles and people can work together. The Denver area, Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich and Bourke Street Mall in Melbourne are three simple examples where electric trams move through busy pedestrian areas. Driverless cars work like trams – or they can. Predictable, zoned and controlled. Better still, for cyclists, driverless cars can accommodate sharing the road much more easily although, as noted, there may still be some issues for traffic control that will need to be ironed out.

It’s easy to look at the driverless car as just a car but this is missing all of the other things we could be doing. This is just one example where the replacement of something ubiquitous that might just change the world for the better.

What to support? Thoughts on funding for ideas. We must fund the forges of creativity as well as the engines of science (@JulianBurnside #ideasforaus)

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 3.56.11 pm

The barrister and #HumanRightsExtremist, Julian Burnside AO QC, was part of today’s Carnegie Conversations at the Opera House. While I’m not there, I was intrigued by a tweet he sent about other discussions going on today regarding the investment of our resources to do the maximum good. (I believe that this was the session following his, with Peter Singer and chaired by Ann Cherry.)

Mr Burnside’s Tweet was (for those who haven’t seen the image):

What to support? Effective Altruism is good, but what about funding the arts, ideas and other things which can’t be measured?

Some of the responses to this Tweet tried to directly measure the benefits of a cure for Malaria against funding the arts and, to me, this misses the point. I am a scientist, an artist, a husband, a cat steward, and many other things. As a scientist, I use the scientific method when I am undertaking my research into improving education for students and developing better solutions for use of technology. If you were to ask me which is better, putting funds into distributing a malarial cure or subsiding an opera, then we are so close to the endpoint of the activity that the net benefit can be measured. But if you were to ask me whether this means we could defund the arts to concentrate on biological science, I’d have to say no, because the creative development of solutions is not strictly linked to the methodical application of science.

As a computer scientist, I work in vast artificial universes where it is impossible to explore every option because we do not have enough universe. I depend upon insights and creativity to help me work out the solutions, which I can then test methodically. This is a known problem in all forms of large-scale optimisation – we have to settle for finding what we can, seeking the best, and we often have to step away to make sure that the peak we have ascended is not a foothill in the shadow of a greater mountain.

Measuring what goes into the production of a new idea is impossible. I can tell you that a number of my best solutions have come from weeks or months of thinking, combined with music, visits to art galleries, working with my hands, the pattern of water in the shower and the smell of fresh bread.

Once we have an idea then, yes, absolutely, let us fund centres and institutions that support and encourage the most rigorous and excellent mechanisms for turning ideas into reality. When we have a cure for malaria, we must fund it and distribute it, working on ways to reduce delays and cost mark-ups to those who need it most. But we work in spaces so big that walking the whole area is impossible. We depend upon leaps of intuition, creative exploration of solution spaces and, on occasion, flashes of madness to find the ideas that we can then develop

To think that we can focus only on the measurable outcomes is to totally miss the fact that we have no real idea where many of our best ideas come from and yet so many of us have stories of insight and clarity that stem from our interactions with a rich, developed culture of creativity. And that means funding the arts, the ideas and things that we cannot measure.

(Edited to make the hashtag at the top less likely to be misparsed.)

Think. Create. Code. Vis! (@edXOnline, @UniofAdelaide, @cserAdelaide, @code101x, #code101x)

I just posted about the massive growth in our new on-line introductory programming course but let’s look at the numbers so we can work out what’s going on and, maybe, what led to that level of success. (Spoilers: central support from EdX helped a huge amount.) So let’s get to the data!

I love visualised data so let’s look at the growth in enrolments over time – this is really simple graphical stuff as we’re spending time getting ready for the course at the moment! We’ve had great support from the EdX team through mail-outs and Twitter and you can see these in the ‘jumps’ in the data that occurred at the beginning, halfway through April and again at the end. Or can you?

Rapid growth in enrolment!

Rapid growth in enrolment! But it’s a little hard to see in this data.

Hmm, this is a large number, so it’s not all that easy to see the detail at the end. Let’s zoom in and change the layout of the data over to steps so we can things more easily. (It’s worth noting that I’m using the free R statistical package to do all of this. I can change one line in my R program and regenerate all of my graphs and check my analysis. When you can program, you can really save time on things like this by using tools like R.)

Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 2.40.24 pm
Now you can see where that increase started and then the big jump around the time that e-mail advertising started, circled. That large spike at the end is around 1500 students, which means that we jumped 10% in a day.

When we started looking at this data, we wanted to get a feeling for how many students we might get. This is another common use of analysis – trying to work out what is going to happen based on what has already happened.

As a quick overview, we tried to predict the future based on three different assumptions:

  1. that the growth from day to day would be roughly the same, which is assuming linear growth.
  2. that the growth would increase more quickly, with the amount of increase doubling every day (this isn’t the same as the total number of students doubling every day).
  3. that the growth would increase even more quickly than that, although not as quickly as if the number of students were doubling every day.

If Assumption 1 was correct, then we would expect the graph to look like a straight line, rising diagonally. It’s not. (As it is, this model predicted that we would only get 11,780 students. We crossed that line about 2 weeks ago.

So we know that our model must take into account the faster growth, but those leaps in the data are changes that caused by things outside of our control – EdX sending out a mail message appears to cause a jump that’s roughly 800-1,600 students, and it persists for a couple of days.

Let’s look at what the models predicted. Assumption 2 predicted a final student number around 15,680. Uhh. No. Assumption 3 predicted a final student number around 17,000, with an upper bound of 17,730.

Hmm. Interesting. We’ve just hit 17,571 so it looks like all of our measures need to take into account the “EdX” boost. But, as estimates go, Assumption 3 gave us a workable ballpark and we’ll probably use it again for the next time that we do this.

Now let’s look at demographic data. We now we have 171-172 countries (it varies a little) but how are we going for participation across gender, age and degree status? Giving this information to EdX is totally voluntary but, as long as we take that into account, we make some interesting discoveries.

Age demographic data from EdX

Age demographic data from EdX

Our median student age is 25, with roughly 40% under 25 and roughly 40% from 26 to 40. That means roughly 20% are 41 or over. (It’s not surprising that the graph sits to one side like that. If the left tail was the same size as the right tail, we’d be dealing with people who were -50.)

The gender data is a bit harder to display because we have four categories: male, female, other and not saying. In terms of female representation, we have 34% of students who have defined their gender as female. If we look at the declared male numbers, we see that 58% of students have declared themselves to be male. Taking into account all categories, this means that our female participant percentage could be as high as 40% but is at least 34%. That’s much higher than usual participation rates in face-to-face Computer Science and is really good news in terms of getting programming knowledge out there.

We’re currently analysing our growth by all of these groupings to work out which approach is the best for which group. Do people prefer Twitter, mail-out, community linkage or what when it comes to getting them into the course.

Anyway, lots more to think about and many more posts to come. But we’re on and going. Come and join us!

Think. Create. Code. Wow! (@edXOnline, @UniofAdelaide, @cserAdelaide, @code101x, #code101x)

Screenshot of our EdX page.

Screenshot of our EdX page. Shiny!

Things are really exciting here because, after the success of our F-6 on-line course to support teachers for digital technologies, the Computer Science Education Research group are launching their first massive open on-line course (MOOC) through AdelaideX, the partnership between the University of Adelaide and EdX. (We’re also about to launch our new 7-8 course for teachers – watch this space!)

Our EdX course is called “Think. Create. Code.” and it’s open right now for Week 0, although the first week of real content doesn’t go live until the 30th. If you’re not already connected with us, you can also follow us on Facebook (code101x) or Twitter (@code101x), or search for the hashtag #code101x. (Yes, we like to be consistent.)

I am slightly stunned to report that, less than 24 hours before the first content starts to roll out, that we have 17,531 students enrolled, across 172 countries. Not only that, but when we look at gender breakdown, we have somewhere between 34-42% women (not everyone chooses to declare a gender). For an area that struggles with female participation, this is great news.

I’ll save the visualisation data for another post, so let’s quickly talk about the MOOC itself. We’re taking a 6 week approach, where students focus on developing artwork and animation using the Processing language, but it requires no prior knowledge and runs inside a browser. The interface that has been developed by the local Adelaide team (thank you for all of your hard work!) is outstanding and it’s really easy to make things happen.

I love this! One of the biggest obstacles to coding is having to wait until you see what happens and this can lead to frustration and bad habits. In Processing you can have a circle on the screen in a matter of seconds and you can start playing with colour in the next second. There’s a lot going on behind the screen to make it this easy but the student doesn’t need to know it and can get down to learning. Excellent!

I went to a great talk at CSEDU last year, presented by Hugh Davis from Southampton, where Hugh raised some great issues about how MOOCs compared to traditional approaches. I’m pleased to say that our demography is far more widespread than what was reported there. Although the US dominates, we have large representations from India, Asia, Europe and South America, with a lot of interest from Africa. We do have a lot of students with prior degrees but we also have a lot of students who are at school or who aren’t at University yet. It looks like the demography of our programming course is much closer to the democratic promise of free on-line education but we’ll have to see how that all translates into participation and future study.

While this is an amazing start, the whole team is thinking of this as part of a project that will be going on for years, if not decades.

When it came to our teaching approach, we spent a lot of time talking (and learning from other people and our previous attempts) about the pedagogy of this course: what was our methodology going to be, how would we implement this and how would we make it the best fit for this approach? Hugh raised questions about the requirement for pedagogical innovation and we think we’ve addressed this here through careful customisation and construction (we are working within a well-defined platform so that has a great deal of influence and assistance).

We’ve already got support roles allocated to staff and students will see us on the course, in the forums, and helping out. One of the reasons that we tried to look into the future for student numbers was to work out how we would support students at this scale!

One of our most important things to remember is that completion may not mean anything in the on-line format. Someone comes on and gets an answer to the most pressing question that is holding them back from coding, but in the first week? That’s great. That’s success! How we measure that, and turn that into traditional numbers that match what we do in face-to-face, is going to be something we deal with as we get more information.

The whole team is raring to go and the launch point is so close. We’re looking forward to working with thousands of students, all over the world, for the next six weeks.

Sound interesting? Come and join us!

We Stand Together

Pigeon point lighthouse, with star-like rays emanating from the light.

I do, seriously, try to keep politics out of my posts but, without being too pompous about it, there is more to being an academic than a big robe and a silly hat. One of the great freedoms of the academic is that we can, to a large degree, do and say what we want in terms of speaking truth to power. In many regards, like many freedoms, this expression becomes an obligation when we see something happening that is contrary to our ideals and our beliefs.

Right now, the University of Western Australia, an institution of a similar nature to my own, has just finished holding a large meeting of its academic staff to discuss a new “Consensus Centre”, run by Bjorn Lomborg, and funded by $4 million of government funding. This, at a time, when the Australian Federal Government has been slashing every other body that, just possibly, has a contrary view to what they would like. Here is evidence that there is academic unrest over this decision at UWA.

Lomborg is a (deliberately) controversial figure who walks an odd line through the areas of climate and economics, believing in events but questioning their impact. He is a Contrarian who has been effectively dispatched from his own country and has been seeking a home for some time, along the way taking the opportunity to speak to at least a few right-leaning politicians who were looking for such an ally. This would all be part of the background noise of science, were it not that he has been, repeatedly, found to be in error and he has not seriously addressed the concerns. From a personal perspective, I think he finds it too easy to make the human lives of the third world equivalent to economic advantage in the first world – to put it simplistically, in his world, people in Africa can die if it makes good economic sense in Europe.

Today, it is my duty as an academic, as a scientist, as a believer in people and as a human being to speak out on this issue.

As I understand it, today’s meeting at the University of Western Australia was effectively a mockery of formal consultative process in that they held the meeting after the decision had been committed to irrevocably. Someone at the meeting reported that:

“UWA VC says Lomborg agreement with Government has been signed.”

Lomborg’s economic credentials are under question. Lomborg’s motives are under question. The Federal Government’s motives are under question. This decision cannot, and should not, be irrevocable.

We need to remember what we are.

We are Universities. We are servants of truth, bastions of art, culture and science. We are the lighthouses that keep the flame of knowledge burning when everything around us is dark.

We stand against the tide of ignorance and we push it back as best we can.

We are not for sale. We take a salary to live but we are not paid to think of one thing or another, we are paid to be the agents, advocates and guardians of the academy.

We do not repeat lies when we know that they are lies. We do not support the repetition of flawed and broken data because it sells books. We do not shore up politicians because it looks good on the bottom line.

I support the staff and students at UWA who are rightly outraged by this and are calling for the deceptively named Consensus Centre agreement to be nullified. I sincerely hope that this matter is resolved – the University of Western Australia is far, far better than this.

Musing on Industrial Time

Now Print, Black, Linocut, (C) Nick Falkner, 2013

I caught up with a good friend recently and we were discussing the nature of time. She had stepped back from her job and was now spending a lot of her time with her new-born son. I have gone to working three days a week, hence have also stepped back from the five-day grind.  It was interesting to talk about how this change to our routines had changed the way that we thought of and used time. She used a term that I wanted to discuss here, which was industrial timeto describe the clock-watching time of the full-time worker. This is part of the larger area of time discipline, how our society reacts to and uses time, and is really quite interesting. Both of us had stopped worrying about the flow of time in measurable hours on certain days and we just did things until we ran out of day. This is a very different activity from the usual “do X now, do Y in 15 minutes time” that often consumes us. In my case, it took me about three months of considered thought and re-training to break the time discipline habits of thirty years. In her case, she has a small child to help her to refocus her time sense on the now.

Modern time-sense is so pervasive that we often don’t think about some of the underpinnings of our society. It is easy to understand why we have years and, although they don’t line up properly, months given that these can be matched to astronomical phenomena that have an effect on our world (seasons and tides, length of day and moonlight, to list a few). Days are simple because that’s one light/dark cycle. But why there are 52 weeks in a year? Why are there 7 days in a week? Why did the 5-day week emerge as a contiguous block of 5 days? What is so special about working 9am to 5pm?

A lot of modern time descends from the struggle of radicals and unionists to protect workers from the excesses of labour, to stop people being worked to death, and the notion of the 8 hour day is an understandable division of a 24 hour day into three even chunks for work, rest and leisure. (Goodness, I sound like I’m trying to sell you chocolate!)

If we start to look, it turns out that the 7 day week is there because it’s there, based on religion and tradition. Interestingly enough, there have been experiments with other week lengths but it appears hard to shift people who are used to a certain routine and, tellingly, making people wait longer for days off appears to be detrimental to adoption.

If we look at seasons and agriculture, then there is a time to sow, to grow, to harvest and to clear, much as there is a time for livestock to breed and to be raised for purpose. If we look to the changing time of sunrise and sunset, there is a time at which natural light is available and when it is not. But, from a time discipline perspective, these time systems are not enough to be able to build a large-scale, industrial and synchronised society upon – we must replace a distributed, loose and collective notion of what time is with one that is centralised, authoritarian and singular. While religious ceremonies linked to seasonal and astronomical events did provide time-keeping on a large scale prior to the industrial revolution, the requirement for precise time, of an accuracy to hours and minutes, was not possible and, generally, not required beyond those cues given from nature such as dawn, noon, dusk and so on.

After the industrial revolution, industries and work was further developed that was heavily separated from a natural linkage – there are no seasons for a coal mine or a steam engine – and the development of the clock and reinforcement of the calendar of work allowed both the measurement of working hours (for payment) and the determination of deadlines, given that natural forces did not have to be considered to the same degree. Steam engines are completed, they have no need to ripen.

With the notion of fixed and named hours, we can very easily determine if someone is late when we have enough tools for measuring the flow of time. But this is, very much, the notion of the time that we use in order to determine when a task must be completed, rather than taking an approach that accepts that the task will be completed at some point within a more general span of time.

We still have confusion where our understanding of “real measures” such as days, interact with time discipline. Is midnight on the 3rd of April the second after the last moment of April the 2nd or the second before the first moment of April the 4th? Is midnight 12:00pm or 12:00am? (There are well-defined answers to this but the nature of the intersection is such that definitions have to be made.)

But let’s look at teaching for a moment. One of the great criticisms of educational assessment is that we confuse timeliness, and in this case we specifically mean an adherence to meeting time discipline deadlines, with achievement. Completing the work a crucial hour after it is due can lead to that work potentially not being marked at all, or being rejected. But we do usually have over-riding reasons for doing this but, sadly, these reasons are as artificial as the deadlines we impose. Why is an Engineering Degree a four-year degree? If we changed it to six would we get better engineers? If we switched to competency based training, modular learning and life-long learning, would we get more people who were qualified or experienced with engineering? Would we get less? What would happen if we switched to a 3/1/2/1 working week? Would things be better or worse? It’s hard to evaluate because the week, and the contiguous working week, are so much a part of our world that I imagine that today is the first day that some of you have thought about it.

Back to education and, right now, we count time for our students because we have to work out bills and close off accounts at end of financial year, which means we have to meet marking and award deadlines, then we have to project our budget, which is yearly, and fit that into accredited degree structures, which have year guidelines…

But I cannot give you a sound, scientific justification for any of what I just wrote. We do all of that because we are caught up in industrial time first and we convince ourselves that building things into that makes sense. Students do have ebb and flow. Students are happier on certain days than others. Transition issues on entry to University are another indicator that students develop and mature at different rates – why are we still applying industrial time from top to bottom when everything we see here says that it’s going to cause issues?

Oh, yes, the “real world” uses it. Except that regular studies of industrial practice show that 40 hour weeks, regular days off, working from home and so on are more productive than the burn-out, everything-late, rush that we consider to be the signs of drive. (If Henry Ford thinks that making people work more than 40 hours a week is bad for business, he’s worth listening to.) And that’s before we factor in the development of machines that will replace vast numbers of human jobs in the next 20 years.

I have a different approach. Why aren’t we looking at students more like we regard our grape vines? We plan, we nurture, we develop, we test, we slowly build them to the point where they can produce great things and then we sustain them for a fruitful and long life. When you plant grape vines, you expect a first reasonable crop level in three years, and commercial levels at five. Tellingly, the investment pattern for grapes is that it takes you 10 years to break even and then you start making money back. I can’t tell you how some of my students will turn out until 15-25 years down the track and it’s insanity to think you can base retrospective funding on that timeframe.

You can’t make your grapes better by telling them to be fruitful in two years. Some vines take longer than others. You can’t even tell them when to fruit (although can trick them a little). Yet, somehow, we’ve managed to work around this to produce a local wine industry worth around $5 billion dollars. We can work with variation and seasonal issues.

One of the reasons I’m so keen on MOOCs is that these can fit in with the routines of people who can’t dedicate themselves to full-time study at the moment. By placing well-presented, pedagogically-sound materials on-line, we break through the tyranny of the 9-5, 5 day work week and let people study when they are ready to, where they are ready to, for as long as they’re ready to. Like to watch lectures at 1am, hanging upside down? Go for it – as long as you’re learning and not just running the video in the background while you do crunches, of course!

Once you start to question why we have so many days in a week, you quickly start to wonder why we get so caught up on something so artificial. The simple answer is that, much like money, we have it because we have it. Perhaps it’s time to look at our educational system to see if we can do something that would be better suited to developing really good knowledge in our students, instead of making them adept at sliding work under our noses a second before it’s due. We are developing systems and technologies that can allow us to step outside of these structures and this is, I believe, going to be better for everyone in the process.

Conformity isn’t knowledge, and conformity to time just because we’ve always done that is something we should really stop and have a look at.

The Sad Story of Dr Karl Kruszelnicki

Dr Karl is a very familiar face and voice in Australia, for his role in communicating and demystifying science. He’s a polymath and skeptic, with a large number of degrees and a strong commitment to raising awareness on crucial issues such as climate change and puncturing misconceptions and myths. With 33 books and an extensive publishing career, it’s no surprise that he’s a widely respected figure in the area of scientific communication and he holds a fellowship at the University of Sydney on the strength of his demonstrated track record and commitment to science.

It is a very sad state of events that has led to this post, where we have to talk about how his decision to get involved in a government-supported advertising campaign has had some highly undesirable outcomes. The current government of Australia has had, being kind, a questionable commitment to science, not appointing a science minister for the first time in decades, undermining national initiatives in alternative and efficient energy,  and having a great deal of resistance to issues such as the scientific consensus on climate change. However, as part of the responsibilities of government, the Intergenerational Report is produced at least every 5 years (this one was a wee bit late) and has the tricky job of crystal-balling the next 40 years to predict change and allow government policy to be shaped to handle that change. Having produced the report, the government looked for a respected science-focused speaker to front the advertising campaign and they recruited Dr Karl, who has recently been on the TV talking about some of the things in the report as part of a concerted effort to raise awareness of the report.

But there’s a problem.

And it’s a terrible problem because it means that Dr Karl didn’t follow some of the most basic requirements of science. From an ABC article on this:

“Dr Kruszelnicki said he was only able to read parts of the report (emphasis mine) before he agreed to the ads as the rest was under embargo.”

Ah. But that’s ok, if he agrees with the report as it’s been released, right? Uhh. About that, from a Fairfax piece on Tuesday.

“The man appearing on television screens across the country promoting the Abbott government’s Intergenerational Report – science broadcaster Karl Kruszelnicki – has hardened his stance against the document, describing it as “flawed” and admitting to concerns that it was “fiddled with” by the government.” (emphasis mine, again)

Dr Karl now has concerns over the independence of the report (he now sees it as a primarily political document) and much of its content. Ok, now we have a problem. He’s become the public face of a report that he didn’t read and that he took, very naïvely, on faith that the parts he hadn’t seen would (somewhat miraculously) reverse the well-known direction of the current government on climate change. But it’s not as if he just took money to front something he didn’t read, is it? Oh. He hasn’t been paid for it yet but this was a paid gig. Obviously, the first thing to do is to not take the money, if you’re unhappy with the report, right? Urm. From the SMH link above:

“What have I done wrong?” he told Fairfax Media. “As far as I’m concerned I was hired to bring the public’s attention to the report. People have heard about this one where they hadn’t heard about IGR one, two or three.”

But then public reaction on Twitter and social media started to rise and, last night, this was released on his Twitter account:

“I have decided to donate any moneys received from the IGR campaign to needy government schools. More to follow tomorrow. Dr Karl.”

This is a really sad day for science communication in Australia. As far as I know, the campaign is still running and, while you can easily find the criticism of the report if you go looking for it, a number of highly visible media sites are not showing anything that would lead readers to think that anyone had any issues with the report. So, while Dr Karl is regretting his involvement, it continues to persuade people around Australia that this friendly, trusted and respected face of science communication is associated with the report. Giving the money away (finally) to needy schools does not fix this. But let me answer Dr Karl’s question from above, “What have I done wrong?” With the deepest regret, I can tell you that what you have done wrong is:

  • You presented a report with your endorsement without reading it,
  • You arranged to get paid to do this,
  • You consumed the goodwill and trust of the identity that you have formed over decades of positive scientific support to do this,
  • You assisted the on-going anti-scientific endeavours of a government that has a bad track record in this area, and
  • You did not immediately realise that what you had done was a complete failure of the implicit compact that you had established with the Australian public as a trusted voice of rationality, skepticism and science.

We all make mistakes and scientists do it all the time, on outdated, inaccurate, misreported and compromised data. But the moment we know that the data is wrong, we have to find the truth and come up with new approaches. But it is a serious breach of professional scientific ethics to present something where you cannot vouch for it through established soundness of reputation (a ‘good’ journal), trusted reference (an established scientific expert) or personal investigation (your own research). And that’s purely in papers or at conferences, where you are looking at relatively small issue of personal reputation or paper citations. To stand up on the national stage, for money, and to effectively say “This is Dr Karl approved”, when you have not read it, and then to hide behind an “but I was only presenting it” defence initially is to take an error of judgement and compound it into an offence that would potentially strip some scientists of their PhDs.

It’s great that Dr Karl is now giving the money away but the use of his image, with his complicity, has done its damage. There are people around Australia who will think that a report that is heavily politicised and has a great deal of questionable science in it is now scientific because Dr Karl stood there. We can’t undo that easily.

I don’t know what happens now. Dr Karl is a broadcaster but he does have a University appointment. I’ll be interested to see if his own University convenes an ethics and professional practice case against him. Maybe it will fade away, in time. Dr Karl has done so much for science in Australia that I hope that he has a good future after this but he has to come to terms with the fact that he has made the most serious error a scientist can make and I think he has a great deal of thinking to do as to what he wants to do next. Taking money from a till and then giving it back when you get caught doesn’t change the fact of what you did to get it – neither does agreeing to take cash to shill a report that you haven’t read.

But maybe I am being too harsh? The fellowship Dr Karl holds is named after Dr Julius Sumner Miller, a highly respected scientific communicator, who then used his high profile to sell chocolate in his final years (much to my Grandfather’s horror). Because nothing says scientific integrity like flogging chocolate for hard cash. Perhaps the fellowship has some sort of commercialising curse?

Actually, I don’t think I’m being too harsh, I wish him the best but I think he’s put himself into the most awful situation. I know what I would do but, then, I hope I would have seen that, just possibly, the least scientifically focused government in Australia might not be able to be trusted with an unseen report. If he had seen the report and then they had changed it all, that’s a scandal and he is a hero of scientific exposure. But that’s not the case. It’s a terribly sad day and a sad story for someone who, up until now, I had the highest respect for.


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