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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.
You may have detected a skeptical vein in me whilst reading. I am skeptical. I am a scientist, it’s my job! Furthermore, I am a geologist who specializes in groundwater. I earn money through the planning and delivery of water (potable or construction water typically) to major projects. Part of that process is the exploration for water. Through a combination of looking at maps, on the ground reconnaissance, and clever things like geophysics, I decide where precisely to drill water wells. It is a scientific process, with a lot of learning along the way. You really do get better with experience, and for me anyway, my background in gold and nickel exploration has helped. I’ve been doing all these various exploration tasks for a several years now (about 6 in fact) and definitely I’ve improved. I know how drill rigs work and I have a decent idea of how (basically) to tease out from the local geology in a given area the better places to look for water (or gold, or nickel or whatever). Again, it relies on the collective knowledge from generations of geological science. Knowledge that I started to learn at university.
Enough about my scientific credentials already! Why I write this is that I am currently working on a project where we are trying to find enough groundwater for the construction of 100km of railway. Railway line construction requires a lot of water (about 800,000L per day every 10-15km of line in this case).
We’re working in a pastoral area, sheep and wheat country. The geology is pretty much granite through and through, and anyone who knows what that’s like will tell you that water is scarce. Surface water is practically non-existent and groundwater is hard to come by. This is nearly a desert. How do I know this specifically in this area? Because I have been talking to the local farmers. These guys have been breaking their backs for generations, eeking out the precious value this land will throw up to those who persevere. The one thing that determines success or otherwise more than anything is water. Stock need it to survive, and having no mains water system, a farmer’s house supply relies on it. Subsequently, the farmers invest a large amount of thought and effort into finding water. The country is pock-marked with drill holes and windmills. With this effort comes a culture of great interest in the techniques deployed to find that precious water.
From my discussions, the number one technique employed to find water here is water divining (“water witching” or “water dowsing”, depends where in the world you are). Before you sigh and stop reading, consider this: a water bore can cost more than $10,000 whether or not you actually find water. A farm would quickly go broke drilling holes if their success rate wasn’t too good. But then, hiring geological consultants such as myself is not cheap either, and materially adds to the cost.
What you need is a method of locating the holes yourself (or even getting a mate to do it for a few beers). Enter divining. You know who they are – they’re the ones with bent pieces of wire or Y-shaped sticks who wander about and find the “stream” and tell you where to drill. There is no scientific evidence for its efficacy whatsoever. Indeed there is scientific evidence that demonstrates that diviners have success rates no better than chance (for a good summary, I do recommend the Wiki page). This scientific ‘disproof’ has been around for at least half a century. Despite claims by practitioners to the contrary, we can probably consign water diving to the quack-bin and declare it bogus. Hocus pocus pseudoscience.
BUT, does it work “in the real world”? Given that so many still use it, even rely on it, what residual value might it poses for the farmers out here?
Well, my unscientific study of the local farmers deploying this unscientific technique suggests that it is valuable indeed. The process of divining has located many successful bores in this district (together with a largely unmentioned number of failed bores!). Any geologist will tell you that drilling completely at random will not give you a good success rate. To this end, drilling on “crossing streams” found by diviners is not random. There is a great deal of local land knowledge that is deployed when divining, thus narrowing the focus of the search. The divining really then just delivers a reason for siting the drill rig in a particular location. With limited resources at-hand, this is perhaps just what is needed – comfort in spending the money.
So how am I to react when confronted with several ‘divined locations’ (I can’t help but make the mistake of pronouncing it ‘divine locations’ here!)? This is difficult country to explore, and even I, the skilled geologist, have limited data. My locations are beset with large error margins. In fact I will plan for a certain failure rate given the known geology.
I decided to let them have the run of it for a while, as the divined spots had some features that made them acceptable exploration targets. One diviner, we’ll call him ‘Bruce’, comes with, it is said, a 100% success rate! (Forgive my skepticism, 100%?) I have spent the last week drilling his targets. So far, we’ve drilled four holes. The first one was an absolute gusher! More water than we hoped for. Even the farmer, lets call him ‘Barry’, said he’d never seen anything like it! Then the second came up with water too. Not as much, but adequate.
At this stage, I’m running through the stats in my head. This is getting like some sort of baseball or cricket statistic. Surely the ‘run’ must end soon. But then comes the third hole, better than the second. So Bruce is 3 from 3. Pretty good. Don’t worry, I’m not about to be ‘converted’.
The fourth hole comes. I press on, drilling deeper than I usually would. Barry is telling me I have to go deeper, Bruce is never wrong! Bare in mind, this is hard, dry granite. No water in that. But then, sure enough, there’s the water! This time though, it’s minimal; not enough for a bore. So how to call this? 3.5 out of 4?
It’s hard to explain this without saying that there was simply a network of water baring fractures in the granite that would have been found anyway. That would be the logical, geologically appropriate explanation. I happen believe this to be the case. We may even have been able to detect the fracture systems with the right geophysics. And then, we might have drilled proper ‘geological holes’. But, like Bruce the diviner might agree (perhaps not) how will I ever know? We can’t drill everywhere, and geophysics for this kind of exploration is costly in both time and money with limited chance of improving the success rate.
So, what is the upshot of this? Well, I have spent a week drilling holes and conversing with Barry. We get on well and he has been helpful above and beyond the call. It has been a pleasure. What about the divining? Well, Barry wouldn’t let me drill anywhere that didn’t come approved by Bruce anyway. So, the upshot is that we have a happy landholder, and a happy geologist drilling good water bores (the task for which I am paid). Everyone’s a winner, except, perhaps, science. I come out of this a little miffed that I couldn’t show Barry a better way. But then I’m not from round here. It seems that local knowledge has beaten science in this round. Next time, I will have better data, and a better story. I hope.
I still don’t believe that we wouldn’t have found the water without Bruce though!!
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?
This blog is mostly about science, and about how people understand science, and hopefully it also attempts to explain some science from time to time. I try to keep atheist tirades out of it, because that is not the purpose of this blog. However, because the way people think is central to their understanding of science, and because religious thinking can have an impact on the way science is viewed, I consider it a rationally appropriate side-topic and will venture there from time to time.
In my haste and sleepiness at the time, I missed an argument in the comments, by Daniel, on my last post. I don’t mean to single Daniel out for this, however he made the comment and in the interests of furthering the debate, I’m reposting it for discussion. Isn’t the internet and the world-wide-web wonderful! Daniel wrote:
Medicine, planes, and cars do not oppose the knowledge of God, and neither does science. People do.
At first this seemed quite unremarkable to me. After all, no one was suggesting that other species oppose the knowledge of God. But then I noticed a classic misstep in the understanding of science: that science is a thing that exists apart from people. It is quite common, I think, for people to mistake the products of science for science itself. Science is a methodology; a set of tools, techniques and ways of thinking that allow a rational exploration of the world about us in the quest for knowledge. It has also helped us create some nifty devices and tricks, like planes and medicine.
Science is most definitely a creation of humans and human minds. The products of science, like medicine and automobiles, are not science themselves. The same can be said for “facts” about the world. That cheetahs eat gazelles on the African plains is not science. However, science has helped us understand the remarkable evolutionary arms race that has resulted in some of the fastest land animals that have ever existed.
So, when Daniel says that people oppose the knowledge of God, and that science doesn’t, he makes what is, to a large degree, a nonsensical argument. Science is created by people. If science develops explanations for things that do not require a God or Gods, then by implication, people have opposed the knowledge of God. The very same people who “oppose the knowledge of God” in Daniel’s argument may also substitute that knowledge with their own, scientific, explanations. Science and people are intimately intertwined. Indeed, inseparable. Likewise, religion and people.
To me, in this lies the fundamental problem with ideas like Stephen J. Gould’s ‘Non-overlapping Magesteria” which holds that science and religion are concerned with such different things that they do not and should not step into each others territory. The fact is that they do, and they both exist in people’s minds. Sometimes in the same mind. They both make claims about the way the world is, and both provide evidence, in different forms. Assessing the quality of that evidence is precisely the kind of task at which science has proven itself so adept. I, and many others, would hold that religion has done a pretty poor job at providing evidence for its claims about the way the world is, whereas science, in as much as it does give to us, has been pretty good.
Yet, there may be things that science helps us little in. It may tell us what varieties of moral system there are and why we have a moral system in the first place (hot research and debate here), but it science may still never actually tell us how to behave. For that we must make choices, decisions based on what we know. That is a property of our minds that is poorly understood, though we have reason to believe that it is one of the things that makes us unique. Our remarkable brains gave us science, and they also give us enough ‘free will’ to oppose science, even make choices that defy evolution. That does not mean that our brains didn’t get like this through evolution.
There is one more position to hold, one that is still scientific. That is to accept that there are things that we don’t know. Richard Dawkins asks, in a famous TED talk,
Are there things about the universe that will be forever beyond our grasp? Are there things about the universe that are, in principle, ungraspable?
These are important questions, and one cannot help but think that the only way forward is to apply the best tools of rational inquiry we have to the task, in the search for answers. The best tool we have is science. Lets get to work!
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…
A rough version of a talk I’m doing at uni. Thought I’d try out recording it. Thoughts?
Thanks to WEIT:
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 »
The journey continues. After reading “What is this thing called science” by A. F. Chalmers, I got a rush of blood to the head and decided to take the plunge. It is fascinating stuff, and what is particularly interesting to me is that, as a geologist, I was born just after probably the most significant revolution in geology of all time – the plate tectonics revolution. It is an amazing story of the progress of science, one that should be told and analysed more (and if I have the time, I will!)
So now, the history and philosophy of science is firmly on my agenda. Here’s the recent additions:
The astute reader will note the lack of Lakatos here. My mistake, let me get through these three first…
Also, this may take me a while – lacking a formal education in philosophy, some of these folks can be quite obtruse… but you get there in the end…
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?
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.
You sit on the beach and grasp a handful of sand. Peering closely, you focus on one tiny grain. It is small, white and smooth. Bringing it closer to the eye, you notice tiny worn ridges and grooves, with even smaller silty grains in between. It’s quite unremarkable, this miniscule grain with its infinitesimal debris. There must be a million million just like it that you have ignored. Yet you examine more closely. Soon you see the variations in colour, remnants of its glorious sovereign existence before being lost in the morass. You inspect the variation in form, the undulations in its structure. Fraction by fraction, this cubic millimetre of Earth reveals itself to you, and begins to tell you a story.
It is a very long story. It is an account no campfire could contain. Where it begins is only part of the tale; a part shrouded in the error bars of science, clumsily approximated by crude machines. To start at the finish is the only option on hand. How did it arrive at you feet? You look at the sea, the surf lapping at your feet; the sand in constant flux; insight creeps in, the dawn of new understanding. There are many grains twirling around. Some of those scratches and striations are now explained – it has been a rough ride for this crystal of quartz, knocked around by a thousand waves.
Looking further afield, you notice the froth of a longshore current, battered by the surf, interrupted by rips. There is movement there, and it comes along the beach. You and your grain of sand walk against the flow, constantly aware of the opposing flow only meters offshore. Suspended sand swirls in the breaking waves and the turbulent water heaves. As the surf gets choppier, you find yourself at an entrance where muddy water surges out into the deep. It is a river, and it is flowing. The water is not clear, clays and silts cloud the current and obscure the ripples of sand beneath. You look upstream; it stretches out into a vast estuary, the hills and the headwaters in the distance. You cannot follow this grain’s prior journey any further; already you are far from your car, far from the comfort of civilization. Whence did this miniature grain originate?
Having walked the length of the coast to the river, you have reversed perhaps the most recent decades of the grain’s history. The span of time reaches back far, far further than that. You have merely glimpsed a small episode on a diminutive stage. Were you to travel upstream, you would begin to grasp the forces at work. Look again at that grain. It is translucent in the light, a shimmering signal of its illustrious past. Underneath the craggy exterior lies a former glory.
Travelling upstream, you would find larger grains with the telltale reflectance of partially worn crystal faces. These are your grain’s younger cousins. Quartz is very tough; a great deal of abuse is required to wear down a noble crystal face. There would be other grains too, of different parentage. Feldspars, birefringent, coloured with earthen hues; flakes of mica, sparkling in the sunlight, flittering away in the flow. You have travelled back in time, seeing your grain in younger days, perhaps a thousand years ago.
Climbing the shores, boarding an all-terrain vehicle, you traverse the steep slopes of an increasingly incised valley. Returning to the bank, you see not sand, but pebbles, and boulders, huge, lumbering hunks of rock. Immovable for man, toys to the forces of nature. Focusing closely at a rounded stone, you are struck with the diversity. All the cast is there, but in varying states of disrepair. The feldspars are softening, the micas peeling off. But there, there like glass, is your quartz. Steadfast in adversity. Rubbing your finger over the specimen, crystals of quartz fall into your hand, splendid crystal faces twinkle in the rays. You are close to the source. Ten thousand years.
Gazing further up, you can see the granite dressed hills of the headwaters. You are drawn inexorably towards the majestic vista. Hiking boots on, you tramp up the slopes. Here, in the furthest reaches of this guiding stream, you find a large rock face. It shows its age, the skin peeling like an old onion. The crumbling face reveals beautiful perfection beneath. A batholith, older than the very hills it supports. Drilling in, you retrieve a core of sparkling granite. There, there in that smooth exposed surface, you see the players in their heyday, ready to act out the next scene, anticipating an audience. Yet there has been a pause. Time frozen in the act of crystallization. The quartz crystals are perfect, the feldspars lustrous pink, dark mafic minerals teasing for identification. You are at the chrono-crossroads, where time has stood still. This rock has been like this for six hundred million years, waiting unwearyingly for the next act. Pushed and heaved through the Earth, your grain’s distant cousins have remained firm, with only the slow decay of atoms for company.
Before even that ancient crystallizing moment, those grains had another story to tell. Granite to migmatite, migmatite to metamorphosis; metamorphosis to diagenesis, and then on to sedimentation before one day, on a beach, near a river … it is a story for another day. We have reached back some half a billion years, and yet there is another four billion to go. Cycle upon cycle, these minerals have seen it all. They will see it again. How privileged we are to comprehend the journey for but an imperceptible stretch of time.