Some tenuous stretching of evidence: censorship, ‘polarising content’ and social media

There have been a couple of instances where it has been suggested I have ‘ignored’ evidence. The most recent instance was a sub-tweet so may have been someone else responsible for this grievous crime. Nonetheless it is something I feel quite strongly about and one of my values is that I present evidence  (mostly this refers to scientific research) as clearly and honestly as I have perceived it. Both these accusations of me ‘ignoring’ evidence are quite interesting to dissect. They both have a similar pattern and the charge is unfair.  Please allow me to explain.

The first instance was a published debate in the New Zealand Medical Journal about smoking in films. There are some observational studies, which were referred to in the article, so not strictly ignored by myself and co-authors. Truly ignoring would be not mentioning or acknowledging their existence or indeed investing time in responding to them. Anyway my co-authors and I responded via debate and the full debate is available here. In summary, some tobacco control researchers want a R rating on films with smoking scenes, because the observational studies referred to in the debate show that the more smoking scenes a teenagers sees, regardless of context and framing, the more at risk they are of smoking. This R rating would theoretically work via film producers wanting a broader market than an R rating enables. They would therefore be likely to forgo smoking scenes. However I am hoping some of you can see where the actual evidence discussed begins to have some unknowns and assumptions thrown in now between what the research was on and the actual outcome we really want (a measured reduction in uptake of smoking). I’ll just throw in one unknown I can come up with – R rated films still sell and if my teenager is anything to go by – will still be popular and actively sought out for their edginess and rebellion factor. How many producers will actually forgo their artistic licence for greater anticipated returns? So we don’t know what sort of reduction in smoking scenes viewed we will actually get and whether the magnitude of it will be large enough to have a measurable effect on risk of smoking uptake.

I’ll just flag another of my fairly strong values here. I’m deeply suspicious of censorship and grateful that I live in a place where most of the time I have the opportunity and am empowered to make my own judgement about the material I see and respond to. Censorship is dis-empowerment. Someone else, somewhere else controls what is available to shape your thinking and challenge your thinking. When censorship is enabled it will invariably favour and support prevailing power structures. So this is a segue into the second charge that I am “ignoring or rejecting evidence”.Blog combined polarised content

Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw recently wrote a piece about why we shouldn’t share polarised content on social media. In a tweet that has been subsequently deleted Jess politely requested that Bryce Edwards not tweet the witch cartoon penned by Al Nisbet. The cartoon infers that the recently launched and promoted investigation led by Alison Mau  is a witch hunt and will be based on rumour, gossip etc. People, of course, are outraged. The cartoon is a very weak critique of the investigation. It is an unrealistic suggestion that these women who are investigating inappropriate sexual behaviour in the workplace are just trouble-makers aka witches. Most men and women these days will parse the cartoon, recognise it carries a fading outdated attitude and unrealistic generalisation and ignore it. Others, not me, will write and talk eloquently about how and why it is crap and a weak argument. It will reinforce a viewpoint in a group of people who already had this viewpoint and will be nigh on impossible to shift from their viewpoint.

My immediate response was to disagree that Bryce shouldn’t share it. It shouldn’t be censored. So I was curious to read Jess’s elaboration of her rationale for encouraging us not to share ‘polarising content’ on social media. The definition she gives is

“Polarising communication is that which encourages people to view an issue, implicitly or explicitly, as a “them” versus “us” scenario. They are more common in areas of social controversy and present an exaggerated or extreme view. It is a type of misinformation.”

and she elaborates a little on this definition with

“polarising communications (cartoons, opinion pieces, interviews etc)”

There are two issues. Firstly, the looseness of this definition is likely to prevent most people from consistently being able to identify arising future ‘polarising content’. The only reliable way seems to be stick it out there and see the response! Who decides what is and what isn’t polarising content before it is widely shared? Who is given this power and inherent in that – who is dis-empowered?

Secondly, the reason we shouldn’t share polarising content is that it “entrenches misunderstandings” and prevents us from talking about values we hold in common. It is rather melodramatically “ripping at our social fabric”.  What is the evidence that sharing “polarising content,” regardless of context, even negative context, is doing this?

Jess draws together a body of research which, in themselves, all make excellent reading for those interested in communicating science or research with the goal of solving daunting world problems such as climate change or poverty. However it is somewhat disparate research on topics that Jess herself connects, with reasonable rationale, in dot to dot style. With that dot connecting there are an awful lot of assumptions and unknowns, like the one I described earlier pertaining to R rated films and smoking, starting to creep in.

‘Polarising content’, is a type of misinformation according to Jess, because it presents an extreme or exaggerated viewpoint. This is based on studies that show that an extreme viewpoint, when repeatedly presented, may lead to individuals overestimating the number of people holding that viewpoint, this phenomenon is labelled pluralistic ignorance. The reference has this to say,

“…repetition in the echo chambers of social-media networks
particularly influential. One possible consequence of
such repetition is pluralistic ignorance,”

The reference provides a couple of examples of pluralistic ignorance developing but the contributing factors and environment were a lot more than complex than repeated sharing of ‘polarising content’.  Jess hasn’t referred to a suite of studies or even one study that specifically tests the impact of well defined ‘polarising content’ on a persons estimation of the prevalence of support for it. Let alone a study that examines various contexts in which ‘polarising content’ is presented i.e. is it framed positively or negatively, is it shared between good friends who have opposing views on that particular issue? The evidence that ‘polarising content,’ consistently and regardless of context, is misinformation is definitely shaky.

There are a couple more instances where research on subtly different questions are drawn in and linked – but with that linking comes assumptions. This makes for tenuous evidence and certainly at this stage does not come close to justifying a call for government censorship of social media,

“For governments, it’s time to consider the regulation of social media, particularly the use and misuse of it by powerful groups to manipulate people into polarised positions that serve vested interests.”

I don’t like the misuse of social media for manipulation of minds and trial by media but censorship is ‘dis-empowering’ and this ultimately favours the entrenched powerful.




Immigration, racism, bullying but no sexual harassment (this time)

A quick glimpse at the news, social media and current affairs these days and one could be forgiven for thinking that Lord of the Flies was a documentary. I was at a shopping mall today – I’d rather be on Aitutaki. I saw many people. I found myself sad almost to the point of tears wondering if they were wondering if I was thinking about them in the way that they’ve been described recently in an opinion piece. I don’t like that. It’s awful. I love being surrounded by diversity. It’s invigorating, inspiring, exciting and gives warmth, richness and meaningfulness to life. Embracing diversity is also our best chance at survival and progression.

However I’m doubly sad because I feel we’ve lost the opportunity to address the fears expressed in the opinion piece in a meaningful, progressive way. I feel just as sad at the way the writer has been and is being treated. He’s said insightful things and made a lot of meaningful contributions. He’s a person like everyone else who has fears, says stupid things, clever things, does good things, is sometimes lazy and is sometimes full of energy… (speculation alert) There is hopefully lots of potential to address these thoughts and opinions he has and prompt change.

One thing that won’t prompt change is the nasty, ‘lefty blog’, virtue signalling outrage and bullying that I’ve seen and referred to before by people I refuse to name and promote. I don’t for one minute think they are actually trying to get change on issues they purport to care about because they are using the most well-known useless methods – alienating, insulting and polarising. I speculate they’re out to feather their own nests. A bit like the tobacco industry recommending education programmes to solve youth smoking.  I welcome any attempts to persuade me, effectively, otherwise.

With respect to immigration, it needs calm, respectful discussion. My take on it, my fear,  having delved into the data, is that we might be importing too much white privilege and power, European/Western immigrants like me are still a huge chunk of immigrants. Are we relying too much on other countries’ education systems and not investing enough in developing our own citizens and residents? NZ I think could benefit from a little more investment in education, social and health services and less imports like me. I could be wrong.

A broken broad’s lament..

Iguacu 11

I looked up at the moon tonight

a simple sliver in a dark cast steel blue sky

hope hiding on the shadow side

the clouds have lost their blaze white sheen

all is grey blue dark as the sun departs.


It’s still and cold

where once a passion flickered bright

there’s ashen puffs of powder

to be picked up on whim

by a swirl of malcontent breeze


Hold still until the morning

keep faith, the sun is due

a steadfast orbit running true

moves lentando on

as in stasis I survey shattered reckonings

Bandhavgarh: A little bit of history, some things that tigers like to eat and more.

At the heart of Bandhavgarh National park, high on a narrow plateau, there are ruins of ancient temples and Bandhavgarh Fort. In mythology, the fort of Bandhavgarh is a token of love from lord Rama for his younger brother, Lakshman (Choudhary, 2016). Bandhav means brother and Garh means fort. The fort is considered sacred by devotees of Vishnu.

Bandhavgarh Sunrise 21st April 2017

Sunrise at Bandhavgarh

Man-made caves and inscriptions suggest there has been settlement in this area from BC. From the third to fifth centuries there are written records of the dynasties ruling from this Fort. In the sixth century the area saw three dynasties – the Sengers, the Kalchuris and the Baghels (Choudhary, 2016).


For a long time Bandhavgarh was a game reserve for the maharajahs of Rewa. Eventually the ecological significance of the area was realised and the maharajahs granted the land to the State government. It was declared a National Park in 1968.

Bandhavgarh plateau

There are three main types of plant communities (habitats) throughout the park, Sal forests, mixed forest and grasslands. There are also streams and springs which provided much needed water for wildlife throughout the dry season. These are supplemented with some managed waterholes which provide a safety net of water for the larger mammals and help to keep animals dispersed throughout the park and therefore reduces the threat of poaching and poisoning.

Spotted and Sambar deer are two of the most common herbivores throughout the park. Barking deer are rarer and more solitary.


Spotted deer


Spotted deer


Sambar deer

Sambar deer amongst bamboo

Sambar male

Muntjak or Barking deer

Female Muntjak or Barking deer

Male Muntjak getting a drink

Male Muntjak at a waterhole

There are two types of monkeys – Grey Langur and Rhesus Macaque. In urban areas the Rhesus macaque is common. This changes in Bandhavgarh. You come across Langurs more frequently.


Rhesus macaque

Rhesus macaque in Bandhavgarh

Rhesus macaque

Group of Langurs in dry riverbed

Grey Langurs in riverbed

Langur flopped in tree, Bandhavgarh NP, India 2

Grey Langur response to the heat

Langur mother and baby


Langurs - just chillin with Mum

Just chillin with Mum

There is also a rich diversity of bird life in Bandhargarh National Park. Here is just a small selection. Vultures, a bee-eater, a Malabar Pied Hornbill, Crested Serpent Eagle. You can click on this images to enlarge them.

There is of course the iconic bird of India – the peacock. Here it is displaying in it’s natural habitat. Far from the manicured lawns of English stately houses!

Every corner and every new foray into Bandhavgarh revealed something new!

On our last safari we were taken to the ancient caves carved out of the rock. These were inhabited by lots of bats. Then along the road up to the fort we passed more caves, shallow cuts into the hillside – stables for the maharajah’s horses. Finally we visited Sheshsaiya. A grove of tall, old trees. Statues of the trinity, Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva set within a pool fed by a perennial spring. A magical soothing place.

Choudhary, L. K. 2016. Fort of the Tiger: Bandhavgarh. Sarahbhi Books Associates, Bhopal, India.

Bandhavgarh Sunset

Sunset at Bandhavgarh

“When the stars threw down their spears And water’d heaven with their tears:”

In this post I am daring to frame the symmetry of the tiger. One of my favourite poems is ” The Tyger” by William Blake. Here are the first two verses from the poem

“Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?”

Beautiful cub

Tiger cub about 1 year old

We arrived at Tiger’s Den Resort just as the day was getting hot. The entry garden of the resort has shady trees and a path leading to a friendly face, cool, moist face flannels and a lemon squash. Safari’s into Bandhavgarh National Park occur at dawn and dusk. It’s too hot for tourists and the wildlife in the middle of the day!

Bandhavgarh National Park is in a region with a subtropical climate. There is a hot, dry summer (April- June) followed by monsoon rains from July to September. Then from October through to March it is cool and dry, gradually warming into summer. We got to know the park in its summer attire; golden dry grass, carpets of dessicated leaf litter, dusty earth, blue skies and the brilliant lush, green, fresh foliage of Sal trees (Shorea robusta). Dormant rice fields surround the park, waiting for monsoon.

Anyway onto tigers….

The first tigers we saw were 3 cubs who I think were about 4 months old. They were well hidden in bush near a waterhole. Their father turned up for a drink and they emerged from their shady hideaway to play at the waterhole and drink. A chicken (jungle fowl), an original chicken because India is where chickens come from and where I assume they were domesticated, crossed the road to the waterhole. Two of the tiger cubs got very excited. You can see them in the photo – very alert and watching the jungle fowl. As the fowl wandered away from the waterhole one of the cubs assumed full stalking posture and moved in slowly on the dallying bird. Suddenly the cub pounced. The startled fowl went hurtling off and crossed another road in front of us. The cub followed in hot pursuit. The rooster and cub disappeared from view into the bushes. There was a bit of crashing then a huge racket of squawking jungle fowl -the rooster had obviously found his flock to warn them and they all panicked loudly. A little while later the sheepish cub returned to the waterhole without success. More training was needed!

We watched the male and the cubs until it was time to leave the park. The cubs clambered all over their father and played with his tail. Then play fought with each other.

Tiger cubs resting in the shade

Tiger cubs hidden in the shade

Male - Dad to three 9mth cubs

Dad tiger arrives

Male Tiger at waterhole

Dad tiger has drink

Male tiger with cubs at waterhole

Dad hanging out in the pool with his cubs

Rooster who got stalked

The ill fated rooster

Two cubs have spotted the rooster

Tiger cubs spot the rooster

Father and cub

Back playing with Dad

The second tiger we saw was a beautiful tigress.

TigressTigress licking lipsTigress up closeTigress in grass

This tigress is mother to these three cubs who were about 1 year old

Our final tiger spotting was a male who had just eaten a very big meal. Look at how distended his stomach is. We came upon him as the heat of the day was beginning to build. He took his enormous belly to float and cool off in the waterhole.

Cooling off

Floating his big belly and cooling off

Male Tiger emerges from water

Emerging from the water. Just look at his full puku