Wednesday, February 07, 2007

How much hot air?

The article below by Jennifer Marohasy appeared in the Brisbane "Courier Mail", a mainstream Australian capital-city newspaper

Almost every day some report or event is claimed as evidence of global warming. Al Gore's recent movie An Inconvenient Truth went so far as to claim that we have a "climate crisis" right now. Do we?

It can be hard finding the real facts on climate change among all the hype. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has a mandate to deliver a comprehensive assessment of human-induced climate change every few years, and the Fourth Assessment Report, AR4, is due for release sometime this year.

You have possibly been led to believe, given all the media headlines, that this big report was released in Paris last Friday. It wasn't. Friday's document was just a 21-page summary of the first part of AR4, and doesn't even have a bibliography. That's right, just a summary of a quarter of the big report.

Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis - Summary for Policy Makers is nevertheless an important document, because it details the position of many global warming experts. So what does it say? For those who enjoy the thrill of the more extreme doomsayer predictions, the 21-page summary will be a disappointment.

For example, while Al Gore claimed that sea levels are about to rise by more than 6m, the IPCC summary indicates that sea levels have risen by just 17cm and may rise by no more than another 18cm, certainly no more than 59cm by 2099. The IPCC scientists predict temperatures will increase by 0.2C per decade for the next two decades, and that by the end of the century temperatures may have increased by as much as 4C or as little as 1.8C.

The 21-page summary indicates the world has warmed by 0.74C over the past 100 years. To put this in perspective, temperatures in Brisbane regularly fluctuate by as much as 10C in one day.

The IPCC summary explains that at the Arctic temperatures have increased at almost twice the global average, while at the Antarctic there has been no warming. That's right. No global warming at the South Pole.

The IPCC summary indicates there is no clear trend in numbers of cyclones, but their intensity has increased in the North Atlantic since 1970 and on balance there are likely to be more-intense cyclones in the future.

The IPCC summary does not explain why regions such as southeast Queensland have missed out, but perhaps this and many other issues will be detailed in the actual report when it is published in May.

It is unusual for the summary of a scientific report to be released before the actual report. Then again it is unusual for a report to be written by 600 scientists and reviewed by more than 113 governments; the process so far for just part one of AR4. Before May, all the contributing scientists are expected to refine the individual chapters in the report to make sure they all accord with the agreed summary.

Much has been written by philosophers about how scientists can get stuck within particular paradigms, unable to break free from the groupthink. Indeed, while it is useful to have a consensus from the United Nations on global warming, there must also be a place for dissent and debate. But the IPCC summary glosses over various anomalies. For example, while the global trend has been one of warming, a plot of mean temperatures since 1998 shows that there has been no warming since then, now eight years later. The IPCC summary does not acknowledge the current downward trend, which may or may not prove to be just a blip in the scheme of things. All in all, the IPCC summary paints a picture of a warming world, but I couldn't find a climate crisis.

Want greens with that? Hearty McDonald's gets tick of health approval

Health experts have confirmed what kids have been telling their parents for years: McDonald's really is good for you. In what is being touted as a world first, the local arm of the giant fast food chain that feeds 1 million Australians a day has earned the approval of an independent health organisation. The National Heart Foundation yesterday confirmed it would bestow its distinctive red tick of approval on a range of modified McDonald's meals, some of which include the standard hamburger, chicken burger and even the inscrutable chicken nugget. But there is a catch. You can't have fries with that. Or a fizzy drink. And there will be no option for substitution or supersizing.

McDonald's Australia has been working with the Heart Foundation for the past 12 months, modifying its recipes to reduce the levels of salt, saturated fat and kilojoules, virtually eradicate its trans fat use and add more vegetables to each approved meal. The salt content in the chain's deli-style bread rolls had to be cut by more than 40 per cent. And after what the foundation described yesterday as a rigorous system of trial, test and rejection, nine meal combinations eventually met the tick's demands: less than 2 per cent saturated fat, virtually no trans fat, and a minimum 75-gram serve of vegetables in every meal, which in itself must not provide more than a third of an adult's daily energy needs.

Monique Blunden, the communications manager for the foundation's tick program, said the ingredient changes made to the new McDonald's menu, which will come into effect by the end of the month, meant that even the standard Big Mac, fries and soft drink would be marginally more healthy than the original. However, the real health benefits would come through convincing people to substitute this typical fast food order with, for example, the tick-approved meal of lean beef burger, garden salad and orange juice. This would result in a 70 per cent reduction in saturated fat, a third less salt and half the kilojoules. If just 10 per cent of customers make such a swap, collectively they will remove 294 tonnes of saturated fat from their diet each year, according to the foundation.

To maintain the integrity of the tick system, McDonald's will allow twice-weekly independent audits at randomly selected outlets. Ms Blunden said the foundation was not expecting other chains to immediately follow the lead of McDonald's. "Some were more interested than others," she said. "But it was McDonald's who took us seriously."


Review urged of selection for medical education

Politically correct approach not working

Experts have called for an urgent rethink of selection processes used by medical schools after finding the tests used to admit students fail to identify the best applicants. Researchers who measured the subsequent performance of students who did well in the tests said good results bore little correlation with how well the students performed during their course.

The study -- published today in the Medical Journal of Australia -- also found the structured interviews used by many medical schools with the tests were too subjective, and there were "serious qualms" over their ability to highlight the best candidates. The findings are likely to reignite a controversy revealed by The Australian last year, after senior doctors criticised interviewers for asking would-be students their views on gay marriage, the Iraq war and whether their parents were doctors.

In three accompanying editorials also published in today's MJA, experts condemned other aspects of medical education, including poor tuition of newly-graduated doctors working in hospitals, and the adoption of "problem-based learning", which had displaced traditional teaching methods in many university medical schools. Queensland medical education expert Richard Hays, currently head of the medical school at Keele University in Britain, said despite its enthusiastic uptake, problem-based learning had not been based on strong evidence.

Chris McManus, a British professor of psychology and medical education, and Australian psychology professor David Powis, said the "sad reality is that surprisingly little is known" about how best to select students. Professor Allan Carmichael, chairman of Medical Deans Australia and New Zealand, said entry processes were under review and welcomed the findings as adding to the evidence of what worked. However, he said the editorials were individual opinions, and the new study was based on a small sample. Previous studies disagreed with it, he said. "One would take note of it, but not go in for a wholesale change of selection processes on the back of this study," he said.


The "dance of the lemons" in Australia too

A familiar "dance" to California and NYC -- where incompetent teachers are sent from school to school rather than being fired

Incompetent teachers are being shuffled between schools rather than being sacked while many new graduates are being put in charge of the most difficult students. And principals have little say in fixing the problem because they have little control over who they can hire and fire, according to Teachers and the Waiting Game, a new paper that argues for deregulation of teacher appointments in the public system. "Principals in NSW and other states have no say over who is dismissed from the school. They're not the person who decides whether a teacher is incompetent or whether they are guilty of misconduct," said the report's author, Jennifer Buckingham, from the Centre for Independent Studies.

Teachers who failed to prepare lessons or did not understand a syllabus were difficult to discipline or dismiss because a principal's "hands were often tied" by state education departments that were in the grip of teacher unions, Ms Buckingham said. "The process of examining a teacher's performance can take up to 12 months and it can happen in a couple of schools before eventually the teacher is dismissed."

Apart from Victoria, state and territory education departments often decide by whom and where teachers are recruited, often based on length of service at a school or seniority. Unlike Victoria, where principals can immediately advertise jobs, other state principals must choose from a department list of eligible teachers before advertising externally. "For example (in NSW) if a school needs a maths teacher, rather than advertising or selecting candidates from an employment list, the school will contact the department and they are sent a teacher, most of the time with no consultation," Ms Buckingham said.

The result had been a trend to send new graduate teachers to the most disadvantaged schools. "In order to work your way up to the top of the (school transfer) queue to be offered other jobs throughout the state, you have to put in time in a school that is hard to staff - and the reason those schools are hard to staff are because the kids are hard to teach," Ms Buckingham said.

In NSW, 30 per cent of graduate teachers were concentrated in 3 per cent of schools that were difficult to staff either because a high proportion of students had behavioural problems or were from non-English speaking backgrounds, she said.

NSW Education Minister Carmel Tebbutt rejected Ms Buckingham's thesis. "In 2005 we reformed staffing procedures to give local school communities more opportunities to choose their principals and, for the first time, their classroom teachers. In 2006, we introduced legislation to streamline the process of identifying, assisting, and if necessary, removing poor performing teachers."

Australian Education Union president Pat Byrne said the teacher shortage was not related to centralised recruitment processes. "The issue is not whether the school has the say or the selection, the issue is whether or not people perceive the position to be worthwhile in terms of the salary, conditions and accommodation," Ms Byrne said."


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