The Observatory

from Isaac Esipisu:

Ethiopia and Eritrea: An elusive peace on the cards?

By Aaron Maasho

Ethiopia and Eritrea are still at each others’ throats. The two neighbours fought hammer and tongs in sun-baked trenches during a two-year war over a decade ago, before a peace deal ended their World War I-style conflict in 2000. Furious veRed Sea, UNrbal battles, however, have continued to this day.

Yet, amid the blistering rhetoric and scares over a return to war, analysts say the feuding rivals are reluctant to lock horns once again. Neighbouring South Sudan and some Ethiopian politicians are working on plans to bring both sides to the negotiating table.

Asmara has been named, shamed and then slapped with two sets of U.N. sanctions over charges that it was aiding and abetting al Qaeda-linked rebels in lawless Somalia in its proxy war with Ethiopia. However, a panel tasked with monitoring violations of an arms embargo on Somalia said it had no proof of Eritrean support to the Islamist militants in the last year.

Nevertheless, Eritrea's foreign ministry wasted little time in pointing a finger of accusation at its perennial rival. “The events over the past year have clearly shown that it is in fact Ethiopia that is actively engaged in destabilising Eritrea in addition to its continued occupation of sovereign Eritrean territory in violation of the U.N. Charter,” the ministry said in a statement last month.

The Red Sea state was referring to Addis Ababa’s open declaration in 2011 in which its late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said his country would no longer take a “passive stance” towards its rival following Eritrea’s alleged plot to bomb targets in the Ethiopian capital during an African Union gathering of heads of state.

Sex and sensationalism

“The media loves to sensationalize research” on same-sex sexual behavior among animals, according to an analysis published this week in the journal Nature.

A pair of biologists from Australia and the UK surveyed 48 newspaper, magazine, and online articles written about 11 scientific papers on the subject, and concluded that journalists have a tendency to produce tawdry coverage that is inaccurate and can feed negative stereotypes about homosexuality. According to their report:

Evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists are often interested in variations in animal sexual behaviour — and particularly relationships between animals of the same sex. How did such traits evolve, and what are their functions and biological bases? Although worthwhile, such research can fuel some of the most licentious scientific reporting in both the mainstream media and specialized publications — titillating prose that wildly misinterprets the research and its implications for human behaviour.

The science of performance

Does sex diminish athletic vigor? Does athletic tape enhance it? These are just a few of the questions that one Reuters correspondent has sought to answer amidst the toil, tears, and sweat at the Summer Olympics in London.

Kate Kelland, who covers health and science news in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa for the wire service, has been on the performance beat since the opening ceremony, digging into the latest research on what might pump up or deflate an athlete’s game. Doping is the first thing that comes to mind, of course, and Kelland has had a number of posts on the matter.

In the last week, she has filed a useful factsheet on the “substance and methods used in doping,” and a helpful explainer on why “dope cheats face testing times at London 2012.” There was also a forward-looking piece about how the Games’ anti-doping laboratory will be developed into a world-class drug research center after the athletes have gone home, and an amusing retrospective about how “ancient dopers got their kicks from raw testicles.”

Muller’s media circus

UC Berkeley physicist Richard Muller was all over the media last week talking about his “total turnaround” from global-warming skeptic to adherent of the longstanding scientific consensus that the planet is heating up.

The question is: Did he deserve the attention?

The frenzy started with an op-ed published in The New York Times, in which Muller explained why he now believes that “humans are almost entirely the cause” of rising temperatures. At the same time, his team at the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project, which he founded three years ago, published five papers on its website laying out the research that caused his conversion. According to the analysis, average world land temperature has climbed 1.5 degrees Celsius in the past 250 years, and about 0.9 degrees in the past 50 years.

The problem with BEST’s work was twofold, however. First, its bottom line didn’t amount to much more than what other scientists had been saying for years. Second, the research wasn’t peer-reviewed.

The bright-young-things hypothesis

The downward spiral of Jonah Lehrer’s career over the last month has shocked his peers and instilled in them a visceral need to understand. Following the revelations of self-plagiarism, outright fabrication, and lying to cover his tracks, we were bewildered. How could such a seemingly talented journalist, and only 31 years old, have thrown it all away?

One theory, proffered by Salon’s Roxane Gay, is that “there is a cult of bright young things, a cultural obsession with genius, a need to find beacons of greatness in an ordinary world.” According to her piece:

Lehrer’s success and this current humiliation, how far he had to fall, is a symptom of a much bigger problem, one that is systemic, one that continues to consistently elevate certain kinds of men simply for being a certain kind of man. Jonah Lehrer fits the narrative we want about a boy genius. He is young, attractive and well educated. He can write a good sentence. He can parse complicated science for the masses and make us feel smarter for finally being able to understand the complexities of the human mind. He is the great white hope.

Lehrer resigns from The New Yorker

Science writer Jonah Lehrer has resigned as a staff writer for The New Yorker following revelations that he made up quotes and misquoted singer Bob Dylan in his book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, which was released in March.

Monday afternoon, Tablet magazine published the results of an investigation by staff writer Michael C. Moynihan, a self-described “Dylan obsessive” who found three fabricated quotes as well as four examples of misquotation in the first chapter of Imagine. When Moynihan asked Lehrer about the sources of the quotes, Lehrer said that they’d come from exclusive material provided Dylan’s manager, but eventually admitted to Moynihan that he’d been lying.

No sooner had Moynihan’s article appeared online than Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which published Imagine, released the following statement from Lehrer:

Press war down under

Fairfax Limited, one of Australia’s largest media conglomerates, is at war with its largest individual shareholder, the world’s richest woman.

The soap-worthy drama began on June 18, when Fairfax—which publishes The Sydney Morning HeraldThe Age, and other leading newspapers—announced that it would cut 1,900 jobs (about 20 percent of its work force) over three years, shut down two printing plants, and reduce all of its broadsheet newspapers to tabloid formats.

On the same day, mining magnate Gina Rinehart, already Fairfax’s largest shareholder, increased her stake in the company from 12.6 to 18.7 percent, prompting some to suggest that the $87 million share purchase had “expedited” the restructuring.

Our polar backyard

The Arctic is not under-covered. Some might even say the opposite is true. The polar bear has been “the poster child of climate change” for years, for instance, but communications experts worry that journalists’ fascination with the charismatic animal has made global warming seem like a distant problem and hindered public engagement. Reporters should localize climate-change coverage, these experts say, by focusing on energy use, public health, and other “backyard” angles.

It is possible to localize the Arctic itself, however. A good example of how this is done is a terrific 14-page special report in The Economist’s June 16-22 issue, which explores what “the vanishing north” means for global politics, trade, and natural resources.

“The Arctic, no longer distant or inviolable, has emerged, almost overnight, as a powerful symbol of the age of man,” writes James Astill, the magazine’s environment editor. He then sets out to scrutinize the region’s peril and promise over the course of eight articles, explaining that “the retreating ice offers access to precious minerals and new sea lanes—but also carries grave dangers.”

“Prophet of Katrina” stays put

The man The New York Times called “a prophet of Katrina’s wrath” for his prescient coverage of New Orleans’ vulnerability to hurricanes and flooding has decided to stick with the city’s beleaguered newspaper.

On Tuesday, Mark Schleifstein, the Times-Picayune’s environment reporter for the last 28 years, accepted a job offer from the new Nola Media Group, which was formed in the wake a decision to cut the daily paper’s staff (by about 200 thus far) and reduce publication to three days a week. In an update on his Facebook page, Schleifstein wrote:

The decision to stay was difficult for many reasons, including my own anger at how the announcement was made (or not made) of the decision to move to 3-day-a-week publication of The Times-Picayune and the creation of the new/revised online presence, and my continuing concern about whether employees of the new entities will have any say in their direction, development.

How creativity works? Not like that.

The author of a recent book about how creativity works is finding out the hard way that the answer is more elusive than he imagined.

Jonah Lehrer, one of science journalism’s brightest young stars, was accused of self-plagiarism on Tuesday after critics revealed that he had reused parts of old stories he wrote for other publications in blog posts for The New Yorker. So far, the magazine has appended an editors’ note to the top of six of Lehrer’s eight posts for its website, noting where else the copy had appeared and expressing “regret [for] the duplication of material.”

Lehrer, 31, didn’t respond to emails seeking comment, but “he understands he made a mistake, he’s apologetic, and it won’t happen again,” said The New Yorker’s Nicholas Thompson, who made a splash when he left features editing in March to manage and expand the magazine’s website.

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