Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Brief History of Sewage

This is perhaps my one and only attempt to write a semi-scholarly article on a historical subject. Public sanitation is commonly ignored, but of vital importance to human health. Water is likely to become the most valuable natural resource in the coming decades, but we treat it very wastefully, assuming perhaps that it is a limitless resource and that the Earth has an unlimited ability to cleanse it. I think that the advent of the flush toilet has also led to the development of the "out of sight, out of mind" mentality.

It's interesting that we see one of the greatest achievements of human "civilisation" as the development of cities (and now mega-cities), but this has had huge negative impacts on the general health of the population living within them. It was only through the work of true visionaries like Joseph Bazalgette, mentioned below, that many of us can now live fairly healthy disease-free lives within cities (like Mexico City where I am at the moment), with fairly reliable access to clean water. However, continued population growth and migration to cities threatens to undermine a lot of the advancements that have been made, and it must be remembered that (according to UNICEF) almost half of the population in the developing world - about 2.5 billion people - still lack access to basic sanitation.

A Brief History of Sewage

Friday, December 30, 2011

Celebrities and Science

It appears these days that there is no shortage of celebrities ready to make pronouncements on scientific subjects, and no shortage of people ready to take them seriously. Very often this is fairly harmless stuff, for example fad diets or Snooki's theory of why the sea is salty. However, republican presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann's recent claim that the HPV cancer vaccine is harmful, has drawn considerable criticism due to the fact that not only has she politicized a medical issue but may have damaged vaccination rates and therefore put lives at risk.

I'm interested in discussing whether celebrities should be able to use their influence to debate scientific issues, or whether this is a job only for "experts". Who are the experts, and do they sometimes lack the ability to educate and advise the public properly? Politics and medical ethics certainly come into close contact all the time, but there is a need for politicians to avoid soundbites which may ultimately harm public health.

Sense about Science is one of a number of charitable organisations which aims to promote public understanding of science and combat poor reporting and scientific ignorance in the media (The James Randi Educational Foundation has similar aims), going even as far to offer help and advice to celebrities. Sense about Science publishes a list of the worst celebrity science claims at the end of each year. Here is a round-up of the worst of 2011:

Celebrities and Science 2011