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What follows is my first guest post; and it touches on a topic in science communication that is close to my heart. Too often I find myself being irritated at a galah being described as a “Pink and Grey”. I cringe at people not being able to distinguish a monitor from a gecko. I particularly don’t like people worrying about crocodiles in places where they simply don’t live. Now; while I enjoyed a good education, I can assure you that these sorts of “real-world” lessons were not taught at school. I know what a galah is and I can even spot a wedge-tailed eagle from several hundred meters. I am who I am through an interest in the natural world that I have worked on through the years by asking questions and looking things up (in strange places like libraries, though the internet has replaced this largely in recent years.). I am not saying I am better than anyone in this, I am saying quite the opposite. IT IS HOW PEOPLE SHOULD BE. We were like this a couple of hundred years ago when people hung off every word from explorers. Somehow, in this age of information, we have lost the desire to have knowledge. It remains an important goal for science communicators, in my opinion, to inspire people to seek out information for themselves on the natural world. In some ways, it is not enough to simply teach.
Anyway, I owe my love of the natural world around me to my parents and grandparents. Thank you! Thus it is appropriate that my Mother be the first to guest post. A retired psychiatrist, she is also a naturalist. Her acuity of observation is second to none, and this is important if you are going to be mindful of your surroundings; another important lesson in life. If you’ve not heard of Dr. Kathy Hall, you have now:
Watch out for the crocs!
The visitor asked, “Do you ever see any of those white birds with yellow feathers on the top of their heads?”
Firstly, the visitor was Australian and had stayed at our place for several days on many occasions. He has also camped beside the Murray on a yearly basis for most of his adult life. Let’s give the visitor the benefit of the doubt and assume he was having trouble remembering the name Sulphur Crested Cockatoo or “Cocky” to most of us. Remembering the name is really not the issue, it’s asking whether we had any that is the problem! Cockies surround our house. They nest in the River Red Gums close by. They screech morning and night. They wake us even before the rooster crows. They fly in huge noisy flocks above us. They are omnipresent.
Probably even more bizarre was the comment of a 27year old Australian visitor who, when visiting the banks of the Coliban on a very hot day was concerned for my safety as I paddled on the shore-line in case there were crocodiles. She was serious.
Lack of wildlife observation skills is not unusual amongst our Australian guests, whereas, in general terms, our European visitors reach for binoculars, ask for individual names of species, and compare them with home wildlife. I often ponder the reason for this disparity. I suspect that the cause lies in less emphasis in this country on how we teach our children to speak and name things. If you point out a bird to a 2 year old and say, “Look, a bird!” in a minimalist way, that’s as far as the learning gets. If you say, “Look, honeyeater!” or “Look, Rosella!” or “There’s a corella!” the learning is already enriched. The trouble is, if the parent doesn’t know the difference, how can this enrichment occur? The knowledge, and interest, must be handed down through generations. Somehow we seem to have lost that interest and skill.
How often have you heard people refer to a pink and grey galah? They are all pink and grey, so ‘galah’ will do! It’s like referring to a black crow or a black and white magpie.
Although not true “twitchers”, R. and I have gained enormous pleasure from observing the different bird species that visit our property. Before we built the house and garden, while we camped in the paddocks, we observed 16 different birds. Since developing the garden, 5 years later, we have now observed 55 different species.
Some of you may remember [a previous piece of mine] about the pair of Australasian grebes who dominate our dam. They have produced two sets of chicks this season, four in each clutch. We are amazed to see them building a new nest so we may have a third brood soon.
Perhaps some may feel that being able to recognise different animal species is not important enough to worry about. I would counter that awareness of our surroundings and interest in the variety, characteristics and behaviour of living things around us is not only essential for the health of the planet, but also enhances our own pleasure and well-being. Not to mention our confidence while paddling in the Coliban!
-Kathy Hall, Coliban Springs.
Its been a while, but then science can’t be rushed, and much pondering over certain products made with water must be had first. For around 3 months now we’ve been doing this water exploration program and it’s coming to an end. I wrote about my experiences talking with local farmers and watching them wander around the paddocks with bent pieces of wire here. As I said, there is a certain comfort that this gives the farmers in siting a drill rig to drill a hole for their windmills. It’s not a cheap exercise, so when they commit, they like to feel confident that they’ve given themselves the best possible shot. When you can’t afford a hydrogeologist, and when it’s all you’ve known growing up; it is understandable that you’d see water divining as the way to go.
Scientists, such as myself, do not believe in water divining. Not because we simply reject that which we weren’t taught at school (which is a tempting retort from many who believe in pseudoscience). Rather because there is no evidence for its efficacy. Water divining has been subjected to a number of scientific trials and has failed to produce a significant result. It is, therefore, bunkum in scientific circles. No serious scientist or scientific consultant could use it professionally.
As I said in my previous post, however, there can be some client-liaison and political reasons for not rejecting it out of hand when in the field. It ‘smooths the water’ to let landholders do their thing and feel that they are influencing your scientific process. In fact, through this process, I have learned a lot about the land I’m exploring in and it has revealed numerous insights into otherwise obscured geological features. All this has aided my scientific exploration effort and I think bettered my hit rate. Of the holes planned and sited, the success rate through the program has gone from a predictable 20-30-odd percent to better than 50%. This may not sound too good, but sub-50% success rates in the terrain we’re in are not uncommon. In other terms, you could say that science and keen observation on the ground coupled with a relatively open minded approach to the landholders has enabled me to go from rank amateur in that terrain, to better than a water diviner in less than 3 months. The best water diviners have taken a lifetime to learn the craft and a require a lifetime’s experience.
So, let this be a little message to scientists who find themselves working with real people on real projects out on the ground where pseudoscience is rife. Don’t dismiss the pseudoscience out of hand and thereby fail to gather all the nuanced data that’s available to you. By all means disbelieve, as I do, but remember these are people you’re dealing with. If you get the opportunity to do it, take them through your scientific exploration process. You might be surprised how well they understand what you’re talking about (you shouldn’t be though, unless you’re one of a particular breed of condescending city-scientist), and you may just convert the odd one to the joy of good science well applied!
Some time ago I mentioned that I was interviewing Gary Cass about his work, especially his work teaching school students science and creativity. He uses an artistic approach to educate in some fairly complex scientific areas. I wrote more about him here.
Well, having interviewed him, filmed him and edited the film, here it is. He is a remarkable man, and it just goes to show that there are people out there who not only value the intersection of art and science, but teach it as well. Creativity + science = win!
Much as it took some work, I really enjoyed every aspect of making this film, from talking to Gary, filming and even the editing. I hope to do more of this some day (that is if anyone will let me after seeing this!). I hope you enjoy it and I’d like to send out a big thanks to Gary, the University of Western Australia, and the girls from Shenton College who appear in the film.
Naomi Oreskes is here in Australia promoting her new book, co-authored with Erik Conway, called “Merchants of Doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming“. I will be reading it, definitely. Tonight I went to her public talk at the University of Western Australia. She is a very good speaker, clear and concise, conveying precisely what it is she means to say and not confusing any of the issues. Impressive. Oreskes is a Professor of Science and History at the University of California, San Diego.
Her thesis surrounds scientific uncertainty and how that has been used by a group of scientists to create doubt in the minds of people about big issues like the dangers of tobacco smoke, and the realities of climate change (or global warming, if you prefer the older, arguably more-correct terminology). It is an eye-opening study of recent history.
If you’ve read my blog before, you’d know that I have an interest in the role of uncertainty in science. I see it as especially critical to the communication of science, and so this talk was particularly interesting. Good scientists embrace uncertainty. So much so that they use sophisticated statistical techniques to quantify it. A good scientific study knows its limits.
Uncertainty, in the scientific sense, does not equate to doubt as to the ability of a study to illuminate our understanding of the world. However, it does appear to be very useful in making scientific findings hard to understand for the general public. In the public’s eye, it very well may be that scientific uncertainty is interpreted as ‘doubt’. This is a shame, because truly doubtful scientists will say that they are doubtful (doubtful here implying that the results are dubious as to their implications). Doubt is not what is meant by the error bars of science. Those error bars simply demonstrate just how precise the findings are. If there are ‘overlaps of error bars’, it is very likely that the result will not be ‘significant’ and so the scientist might not have anything definitive to say as to the results.
This, however, has not been the case in climate science, as Oreskes makes plain. Climate science, unlike most fields of science, has been very definite indeed as to global warming. It is happening, and it is almost certainly contributed to (if not entirely caused by) humans. The level of agreement amongst scientists is extraordinary. Unfortunately, along the margins, the error bars and minor disagreements have been interpreted as doubt as to the general findings and implications. Oreskes’ contribution is to say that this might have its roots in the political ideology and personal motivations of some influential individuals, rather than actual doubt in scientific circles.
Oreskes has conducted an historical study, using the mainstay of historical techniques. What she speaks of is the actual historical record of the individuals concerned. In that sense, what she says should be uncontroversial. Her interpretations may remain controversial, but some of the things said by the scientists she writes about have to be seen to be believed.
Which ever side of the mythical climate fence you sit on, the historical record remains. It does not paint a pretty picture of the deep motivations of the anti-global warming movement. It also carries some important warnings. We need to be careful with science and how it is used in the public domain. This is a lesson that applies to both ‘sides’. Equally.
Interestingly, unlike how these things usually go, there were no ‘skeptic’ questions asked. Is this because her work has revealed a particularly inconvenient truth? Is the history of science a domain where skeptics fear to tread?
I suspect that when religious types have a spiritual moment that they really do feel like they are in the presence of God. A sense of awe, rapture and love not achieved normally in everyday life. I think also that many of the great communicators of science (most of whom are atheists) have had exactly the same feelings when contemplating something wonderful that science has revealed to them.
Myself, I get this too. It comes in a few different flavours, and this depends largely on the subject of my awe and wonder. Love, awe and even rapture really are emotions that I feel (not all of me is a scientific robot). But my subject is reality and the natural (or at least my perception of stuff, lets not even go down that psycho-philosophical path!).
Sometimes, I look out into the cosmos on a clear night, and I am struck with my puniness on that vast scale. I am almost overwhelmed with the span of time that it all represents. That light, that speck of illumination that teases the rods in my retina; it has been on such a spectacularly long journey that it seems almost whimsical that I should be there to see it. To think that after their journey of millions of years my eye is a few photons’ final resting place.
Other times, I have looked down through a mineralogical microscope, and have simply been amazed at what a few crystals have to tell, heaved through the Earth in that grand geological story.
I even sit in my garden and watch the wind rustle the leaves of a nearby tree and contemplate the brief little example they provide of the forces of nature at work.
If it were simply beauty that moved me, there would surely be enough in all that to sustain me. But there is more! As those photons excite my eyes and the electrical impulses course through my neurons to alert me to all the activity in the world, I am doubly moved by my ability to understand. To understand what is going on. That knowledge, itself made from the stuff of my brain, is an additional layer of beauty. An embellishment of wonder that has no parallel. My education, and particularly the discoveries of science over the ages that have fed that education, is the source of that wonder, that understanding. How can I not be moved by this? How can I want for more, other than to escalate the majesty through more knowledge and more understanding? It is not overstating the matter to say that this is the stuff of poetry; the very core of wisdom to be had.
So now, as we celebrate Carl Sagan Day, in honour of one of the great communicators of science, a man who brought the cosmos into the living room, I want to quote part of Pale Blue Dot, and I know I break no new ground here. However, it bears repeating. Before I do that though, I want to grab a little part of The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s at the end and it shows how its not just science that understands, but art also. Lest there be any idea that science and art are not good bedfellows, compare the two passages and see how, in literary mode and in scientific mode, we are united by a sense of the unknown, and a sense of what might be known.
And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
And from Carl Sagan:
Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
Amen to that!
Edit: I had to remove the link which started this post (it was a reply to another post on another blog with which I have some association, but I wish to state that I have no association with that post which has now been taken down). However, the general points remain true to my thoughts on the matter. I cannot comment further.
Blogging will not replace other forms of media. This is not its goal anyway. Certainly for me, it was a way of practicing and practising writing. Doing this in a public way was designed for me to ‘commit’ to the task. Feedback would be an additional benefit. Blogs, do, on the other hand, provide a good analysis of various issues, and in many cases in the scientific blogosphere anyway, they are highly accurate and treat the subject in greater depth than any of the traditional media. So we can agree that they are valuable. Perhaps more valuable than they appear to most people, as Scott Rosenberg discusses in this fascinating piece on blogging, empowerment and the ‘adjacent possible’. I am certain I will return to that post again and the intriguing ideas therein.
So, to pick apart a few points sometimes made about blogging:
Easy to start, hard to maintain.
Yes, and no. Writing a blog is not simply about writing. One must have subject material and that means “research”. However, if you are a regular across news sites, research journals, current affairs and other blogs (that is to say if you are a fully paid-up geek) then finding stories is not too hard. And if you do blog, you’re probably already the kind of person who feels compelled to write about the stories and information you find! Still, it requires effort and this may not fit in with your lifestyle and interests.
“Maintain” is an interesting choice of word. They don’t require a lot of maintenance once set up well. Sites like WordPress and Blogger make this possible. But you still need to write for your blog. Your blog becomes like a little corporation that employs (dictates?) you to write for it. Yes, it gets a life of its own as you contribute the pieces and the ‘general public’ delivers some feedback. You may even end up engaged in a public discussion on a particular issue. Rather like this post really. What a wonderful thing to be a part of.
Need to keep it constant updated otherwise you lose potential followers
Frequent/regular posting is important, but arguably quality is more so. On this blog, I still get hits on the better posts (in my opinion anyway) weeks after I posted them. Yes, the hit rate drifts if I don’t post for a while, but it quickly recovers when I do. This is because I promote new posts via twitter and Facebook etc., so my followers (I don’t have all that many unfortunately) know if I’ve posted. New followers come from being active in the online community. It is very rare to have someone simply stumble onto your site and then choose to follow it. These people are not likely to be harsh on you for infrequent posting anyway.
Engaging with the online community through twitter, Facebook and especially through hosting and contributing to things like blog carnivals is what gets people interested in your blog. It establishes ‘capital’ in your blog and that lingers for some time after each post, sustaining the blog between posts.
Thoughts into words
Writing is not that hard with practise. If you can speak coherently, you’ve got the basics of writing coherently. In fact, you can practice writing when you speak – next time someone asks you an ‘important’ question, think about how you will craft your next sentence a bit more than usual. Sure, spoken and written language are different, but clarity cuts across both domains. Practise is what is needed. Writing will help you clarify your thoughts too. Add to that some constructive feedback and you have a brilliant combination of original thought, considered opinion and flowing writing.
Credibility and the ol’ anonymity chestnut
This has been done to death. Anonymity no more suggests inaccuracy than having a name implies factual correctness. Seriously consider it. There are idiots writing for newspapers who put their name to their work. Having the name there obviously does nothing to improve the tripe they concoct. And I do find it irritating when anonymous writers make critical observations on anonymity online. There may be many reasons for concealing your identity, e.g. so your employer doesn’t know, so people can’t find you (especially if you’re providing a whistleblowing function), the list goes on. The desire to spread rubbish is not the only reason (though I can’t deny some do, I still return to my point that people do the same under their own name, so who’s kidding who here?)
Oh, and this issue with making it possible for “just about anybody to write anything”. Is anyone seriously suggesting this is a bad thing? Now, of course, how one reads all these random ramblings in cyberspace is important. Note that carefully because it warrants repeating: it matters how you read blogs – you have to take care in what you accept as true or correct. This applies to newspapers too; and TV; and magazines. Hell, even refereed academic journals are not immune.
Sorry, post has nowhere near the impact following revision. The link that remains at the top remains an interest of mine though, worthy of follow up.
You may detect an antipodean flavour in this issue, with some excellent work included from Australia! My hope is that Scientia is a springboard for people to read about research and to read scientific writing by real scientists who (generally) are not paid by anyone to write what they write. Consider this as science “from the horse’s mouth”.
As always, science bloggers are keen for commentary and review of their work, especially if they are writing about original research. This kind of peer-review gives science blogging its power and maintains its integrity. You really can get your fill of juicy science here.
Scientia Pro Publica relies on YOU, so be sure to submit your blog posts, or the best of others’ here. Future editions need hosts, and we need them EVERY WEEK now. The schedule is here. Also, Scientia has a Twitter account, and there is even one for all science, environment and medical blog carnivals here! Read the rest of this entry »
Soon I will have the honour to present to you, dear readers, the 43rd Edition of Scientia Pro Publica! This was a recent revelation for me, and I was fortunate enough to be included in edition 42 hosted at Cosmodynamics. Thanks Vanessa!
Scientia Pro Publica is a bi-weekly carnival of the best science writing (well communication generally) from across the blogosphere. It has grown in stature to the point where the convener is now seriously contemplating making this a weekly thing. In other words, Scientia Pro Publica is becoming something akin to the Nature of science blogging. Ok, that might be a bit of a stretch, however, it is like a magazine – it relies on public blog submissions and the host to compile and editorialize a selection of submitted blog posts. Currently, it receives more than 50 submissions each time, and this grows with each new host as the network expands. It is a privilege that I am able to bring it to you.
So, watch this space.
More importantly, if you are interested in science and writing, and would like to submit, just use the online form.
I would be interested in hearing from bloggers in earth science disciplines, as geology is my “home discipline”. That said, I have very broad scientific interests, so anything is welcome. You will notice that Traversing the Razor has very little geology in it!
The more the merrier! You may even want to host it yourself sometime!
Can’t wait to see your submissions!!
A great poem over at Science and the Media by CWeightman:
Ode to the Science Magazine
Newspapers and internet, these things just aren’t my scene.
But what I love instead is the science magazine!
Some whisper “obsolete”, it’s the age of kilobytes
I disagree: no better way to start days, fill nights.
Cosmos, New Scientist, take them as you find,
Built on ads and feedback columns, patiently aligned.
When needing of the latest scientific fable,
Look no further than the toilet, or coffee table.
Marvel at the graphics which fill the glossy pages.
A filler piece says “Einstein’s wrong”: will it last the ages?
So long as never broken remains the golden rule -
Always write on global warming, or else be the fool.
Here’s a checklist: archaeology, astronomy,
Conservation and health, the research economy,
Physics: particle and astro, sometimes even chem,
Geology, geography, must not forget them!
Articles on chaos theory, no one understands,
Thankfully there are diagrams giving us a hand.
And update me on L H C, save me a google
Tell me what I need to know, let me be time frugal!
So take away my dollars, as long as every week
I get fed a pulpy dish of science at its peak.
Now tell me, fellow readers, what in your heart you feel,
When I say “science magazines”, do they have appeal?
Thanks to those who looked at and commented on my variants post. Quite popular it seems!
I have two more to add, one that I had clearly left out, and one suggested to me by a reader.
Here goes, although I worry that this is going to become book length soon…
C. Scientificus Var. Attenboroughensii – The Naturalist
Named in honour of the greatest television naturalist and narrator of all time, David Attenborough, The Naturalist is a person who began their scientific career simply wanting to explore the world. Having found that there really are some very interesting things out there, he or she decided that other people ought to know about them too. And thus began a fruitful career of showing people just how amazing the world and life on it is. The Naturalist tends to avoid controversy, rallying to causes only when provoked. Attenboroughensii prefers to let this amazing world speak for itself.
C. Scientificus Var. Enterprisiensis – The Coal-face Worker [thanks to Andyextance's comment]
Enterprisiensis is the ex-industrial scientist who remains focussed on their home industry. Be it through choice or chance, they have found a niche in communicating their industry’s research. Enterprisiensis inhabits the murky niches of trade and professional society press – not as desperate to editorialise as other C. Scientificus. Instead, they are happy to act as a conduit of information to help bench-bound researchers achieve optimal results for their businesses, or at least reliably let them know what’s going on in their field. They are reluctant to stray from their home industry as they find that their niche is both productive and rewarding. A true specialist, the Coal-face Worker may not be well adapted to other ecosystems.
Ok, enough for now, I have to crawl back into my shell…
It occurs to me (as a novice in this field) that there are a few main variants of “science communicator”:
Communicatus Scientificus Var. Unopinionatii* – Cool-Hand Luke
Also know as the “Non-committal One”, Cool-Hand will never put his name to an opinion. He is probably a journalist, maybe a science journalist, almost certainly not a scientist. He writes for news papers, and loves phrases like, “scientists have claimed” (and a lovely critique of Luke can be found at Not Exactly Rocket Science, Ed Yong’s great blog). Cool-Hand prefers balance to the truth, and so will likely present most of science as a perpetual slanging match between sides balanced at 50/50. Science isn’t like that (in case you didn’t know).
*there is some debate as to the taxonomy here – Var. Unopinionatii may in fact belong to C. Journalensii under the subspecies of Scientalis.
C. Scientificus Var. Bulldogensis – The Watchdog
These are the people who, coming from a scientific background (particularly medical science) review the science behind grand claims and debunk them if dodgy. These guys write books about it that really should be essential reading for everyone over the age of about two. Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science is a prime example. The watchdogs are the heros of sanity in a crazy, commercially-driven world where a pill is better than a good nights sleep. Some Watchdogs are graduated Skeptics (see below). Michael Shermer comes to mind.
C. Scientificus Var. Sceptiensis – The Skeptic
Closely related to the Watchdog (but perhaps more distant from their original scientific training, or perhaps not even scientifically trained), the Skeptic will go after anything even remotely unscientific, and has a penchant for examining people who believe in crazy things. Some Skeptics become very good (and very popular) whilst others skirt the boundaries of sanity and start to believe in conspiracies themselves. This skeptic has to be constantly vigilant against “The Forces of Darkness”. Sooner or later it is revealed that the Skeptic works for the Templeton Foundation (no I’m not going to link to them, they might find out where I live).
C. Scientificus Var. Theatricalus – The Performer
Yep, you’ve seen them at shows, and seen them on TV. They make science “cool”, and mostly teach kids (and a few ‘kids’ masquerading as adults). These guys are probably our main line of defense against the dark arts of Woo and religion. Without the Performer, your child really might continue to believe in the Easter Bunny. Scientific thinking gets its first opportunity to thrive in the Performer’s hands. The world is a little safer from silliness thanks to them (God bless ‘em). Explosions and volcanoes and dry ice and the like are tricks of the trade here.
C. Scientificus Var. Obsesionatii – The Passionate One
The Passionate One is convinced that the world is in peril if we don’t all understand their field of science. So important is it that they sometimes lose the message of their science in an attempt to “get it out there”. Obsessionatii can be found engaged in long well-worded arguments across the blogosphere, or may be found appearing on late-night current affairs programs. Sometimes they accidentally fall victim to Unopinionatii in a cruel act known as “sensationalism”. Occasionally, Obsessionatii gets mixed in with roaming hoards of Bulldogensis and Sceptiensis. In these instances, they can be most effective, sometimes writing books about how, for instance, geology has an answer against anthropogenic climate change. However, it is important here to distinguish them from our next variant:
C. Scientificus Var. Professorisis – The Prominent Professor
The Prominent Professor is a genuine leader in his or her scientific field. However, usually after having written a surprisingly popular book, they have moved into a position of leadership in science communication, typically with the phrase “public understanding of science” associated with them. They typically have huge masses of seething fans, as well as a notable number of “antis”. Their opponents (who often have Sceptiensis in their mix) can be quite vocal, often labeling them as “strident” or at least labelling them as patsies to the media. They try to avoid Unopinionatii for reasons of professional integrity.
C. Scientificus Var. Polymathicus – The Profligate Writer
Sometimes a scientist, sometimes a journalist; Polymathicus writes features and blogs and books like they have six hands and an army of assistants. Sometimes they actually do have an army of assistants (probably only two hands). Who knows? Their products are easy to read and they really do reach a broad church. Most of the other variants are simply jealous of these types because Polymathicus have always done what the others always wanted to do – speak and write about interesting stuff. Whilst they sometimes sensationalize the science, they always offer a guiding argument, which distinguishes them from Unopinionatii.
There are probably others. Any thoughts?
I don’t know which I am or which I want to be. I suspect that I have grandiose visions of Polymathicus or Professorisis. I may have to settle for the debated taxonomic classification of Var. Studentiasis – who writes blogs about blogs and blogs about science and continually studies at uni and generally would kill to join one of the other variants.
There are a few dramatic climate-change related videos going round at the moment, frequently going after the shock factor. Whilst the shock factor is not always effective, this one below I think is very good, because it has a cognitive component – linking polar bears with your behaviour. No longer are they stuck on a melting iceberg, and this delivers a nice little way of thinking about your carbon footprint:
A rough version of a talk I’m doing at uni. Thought I’d try out recording it. Thoughts?
With a bizarre feeling of witnessing the future, I have just read Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent piece in the New Yorker (dated 4/10/10!) on the problems that social networking will face in causing any social change. Over at Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer has published an excellent reply challenging some of the claims Gladwell makes. This is a fascinating debate and a wonderful source of interesting distractions when you are meant to be working.
Any how, I want to take a different line and ask a related question about this. What do the differences between strong ties and weak ties imply for science communication? Read the rest of this entry »
When I was a child, I had what some might describe as an unhealthy obsession with TV documentaries about the world and wildlife. My tastes were not particularly discriminating, I would watch shows with a conservation theme, then enjoy a fishing show (I used to fish a lot with my Dad). But I loved watching shows that presented animals in their natural environment, and that gave us that little bit more knowledge about the world around us (one such series is actually called “The world around us”). I lapped up shows by the likes of David Attenborough and Ben Cropp.
Having exhausted what was on TV, I convinced my parents to take me to the video shop to get more. There I first discovered Malcolm Douglas; although he was already one of the highest rating documentary makers in Australian history. This khaki-clad adventurer would leap around the top half of our continent, handling snakes, chasing lizards, helping to catch and relocate troublesome crocodiles. He’d get bogged in his 4WD, then get out again competently (if a little muddy). The end of the day would be celebrated with a lesson on how to survive and flourish in the bush. Through Douglas’ lens I got to see parts of my country that I’d not seen before, and saw the behaviour of strange and dangerous creatures in their natural habitat. I was particularly impressed with his gentle skill with the animals he showed. As with his peers (though those like Douglas have few) he instilled in me a deep curiosity in the natural world, and more than that, a desire to learn more and pass it on to others. Read the rest of this entry »
Finally, I have a film to submit for UWA Science Communication! It is still to be submitted, but as soon as I am able I will get it out into the world.
In the meantime, here is the first 12 seconds!!
I thought I would comment on some lessons learned. This has been a great experience, and I hope to do more of this.
1. Write a good storyboard, but be prepared to ignore it. Get to know your talent’s work/background before you interview him/her. Revise the storyboard after having an intro discussion with your talent, and use it as a running sheet during your interview. Again, it still may go out the window in the editing.
2. Audio, Audio, AUDIO! Use good mics and watch for background noise. Its a killer. I used a decent shotgun mic and I still had noise problems. It just goes to show why professionals use lots of expensive gear (oh, if only uni provided…)
3. Get as much material from your talent as possible. Everything, stills, videos, random stuff. You never know how you can use it, and a good library of it is essential during editing. Read the rest of this entry »
At what point should a person move from explaining their scientific discoveries towards advocating their importance in policy development? And is science communication simply a form of advocacy itself? These are some of the thorny questions posed to Michael Nelson, associate professor of environmental ethics and philosophy at Michigan State University, in “Do Scientists Have a Special Responsibility to Engage in Political Advocacy?” by Matthew C. Nisbit.
In the interview, Nelson refers to his paper, co-authored with John Vucetich entitled “On Advocacy by Environmental Scientists: What, Whether, Why, and How” in which he finds that “advocacy is nearly unavoidable, and that scientists, by virtue of being citizens first and scientists second, have a responsibility to advocate to the best of their abilities, to improve their advocacy abilities, and to advocate in a justified and transparent manner.”
It is still not an easy question though. Really it boils down to what we are prepared to accept in society from our scientists. Read the rest of this entry »
Over at Science and The Media, the blog of my university class (of the same name), a small debate is going on about balance in science reporting (obviously hot button because of climate change).
ScientistMags stated in reply: “I think it’s time to balance out the scales of critique by highlighting good science journalism. It would also be an opportunity to demonstrate critical thinking in practice to people who normally do not think about the credibility of what they come across.”
I think this is a really good point that should be taken up. However, it brings up the hoary old MOP vs MOE debate. Measures of Performance in communication are relatively easy. We can objectively assess the number of good (basically correct and informative) media pieces versus the number of bad ones (sensationalised, wrong, misquoted, wrongly biased).
What are harder are Measures of Effectiveness. However, I suspect the risk of mis-educating the public through bad science is higher than the risk of no education at all from not reading good stories; that is to say, bad stories are probably more effective than good ones.
The highlighting of bad science sells books by the truckload, so we know that people are reading that. So, how do we measure the positive effect of good science (and science journalism) so that we can get out their and reinforce this work, and most importantly, measure its effectiveness?
In the coming month I will be producing a short film profile of Gary Cass, a scientific researcher in the soil science/agriculture section of the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Western Australia where I am studying a Masters in Science Communication.
He is famous for the Red Wine Dress. He used to work in a vineyard and he noticed a thin film of slime that developed on red wine when Acetobacter infected it and turned it to vinegar (a wine-maker’s worst nightmare). Being an artistic person, he wondered whether it would be useful as a fabric. The film was in fact threads of nanofibre-scale cellulose that is the ‘poo’ of the bacteria. So he got together with an artist and developed the world’s first “Red Wine Dress”. As creative as that was, what he’s realised is that the same cellulose fabric is potentially useful in other applications. He’s now involved in further research into these materials.
The great thing is that all you need is wine, sugar and the bacteria to produce it. It can even be used to produce biofuels. In other words, we could have a multi-use biofuel technology – wine, fabric and fuel all from the one crop. It’s far more land efficient than sugar cane for instance. The spooky part is what a colleague of his is doing in the States – he’s taken gene’s from the Acetobacter and put them in cyanobacteria, so now these little bugs photosynthesise to produce the same cellulose. All they need is water, sunshine and carbon dioxide!
I spoke to him yesterday and he is passionate about creativity in science. One of the things he does is teaching at a school here, Shenton College. It’s a program he developed where he gets the kids (year 11s) to learn earth history, biology and genetics using artistic methods. So for instance, one kid coded a musical score from his basic DNA sequence. Another group of girls put the process of abiogenesis to dance! The reaction has been very positive and he’s now getting international attention for his approach. He thinks that creativity is an essential part of scientific progress (really shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone, that, but it does challenge traditional ideas) and that for too long science education has stifled that. Art is a natural medium to reintroduce it, and the strong boundary between art and science has been unnecessarily created. He struggles somewhat with the question of whether he’s an artist or a scientist! He did agree however, that really it’s depends on the work he’s doing – when testing hypotheses, he’s a scientist, when developing creative ideas, he’s more of an artist.
My film will be a profile of him with a focus on the Shenton college program, with some background about the red wine dress.
A few links about him:
and here’s a little film about an exhibition with him: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-F2RD1KZT4
his website: http://bioalloy.org/o/ and particularly the dresses: http://bioalloy.org/o/projects/micro-be.html and the evolution pages: http://bioalloy.org/o/projects/bioalloyevolution.html
I am interested in the information that is lost as scientists proceed from experiment to publication. The real factors that slip through the cracks of expediency. What is more important in the communication of research, the method, or the factoid results that come from it? Are we too trusting in the scientific method? Has peer-review become a substitute for a wider interrogation of method?
These are just a few questions going through my mind as I read “Simplification in Scientific Work: An Example from Neuroscience Research” – a 1983 article by the late Susan Leigh Star. I was particularly struck by an early observation in the article that “published scientific conclusions tend to present results as faits acomplis, without mention of production of decision-making processes.” I am not sure that this is so true today, but I am intrigued by the possibility that it is exactly that loss of information (as research is presented with a higher degree of ‘granualrity’) that opens a door for skepticism in the wider community. When a large body of research by multiple scientific schools tends to agree on a matter, there is sometimes an impression given that they are all doing exactly the same experiments. Whilst the broad methods are the same, of course expedient decisions are made and this causes subtle differences. These are not always thoroughly explained, even if they are justified. I can’t help but think that something in this is relevant to the skeptical program in climate change. Is this what lets in the calls of “conspiracy”?
More to read, more to do. I have a few other things on my plate, but this is an intriguing line of research.