Neil Branda and his colleagues from Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) 4D Labs have demonstrated that animals can be ‘switched off ‘ with exposure to ultra violet light then ‘switched on’ when exposed to standard light. From the news item on Nanowerk,
In an advance with overtones of Star Trek phasers and other sci-fi ray guns, scientists in Canada are reporting development of an internal on-off “switch” that paralyzes animals when exposed to a beam of ultraviolet light. The animals stay paralyzed even when the light is turned off. When exposed to ordinary light, the animals become unparalyzed and wake up.
In more Canadian news, chemists at the University of Toronto have observed quantum mechanics at work with marine algae. From the news item on Nanowerk,
“There’s been a lot of excitement and speculation that nature may be using quantum mechanical practices,” says chemistry professor Greg Scholes, lead author of a new study published this week in Nature. “Our latest experiments show that normally functioning biological systems have the capacity to use quantum mechanics in order to optimize a process as essential to their survival as photosynthesis.”
Special proteins called light-harvesting complexes are used in photosynthesis to capture sunlight and funnel its energy to nature’s solar cells – other proteins known as reaction centres. Scholes and his colleagues isolated light-harvesting complexes from two different species of marine algae and studied their function under natural temperature conditions using a sophisticated laser experiment known as two-dimensional electronic spectroscopy.
… It also raises some other potentially fascinating questions, such as, have these organisms developed quantum-mechanical strategies for light-harvesting to gain an evolutionary advantage? It suggests that algae knew about quantum mechanics nearly two billion years before humans,” says Scholes.
Is Scholes suggesting the algae are more advanced with science than humans? I find that thought intriguing and perhaps useful if one believes that human beings are remarkably arrogant creatures who can benefit from a little humility.
On a completely different front, I’ve been doing some more thinking about science journalism and science public relations (I did refer to some of it in my series on science communication in Canada on this blog in Sept/Oct 2009 ) after last week’s posting about a science journalism study in the UK. In fact, my thinking on these matters was reignited by a posting Ruth Seeley made on her No Spin PR blog about why she calls her business ‘no spin’ and why she prefers the term ‘framing’,
Implicit in the word spin is the idea that deception is involved, facts are being turned on their heads, and/or there’s so much fast talking going on the truth would be unrecognizable even if it were part of the mix. The ‘truth’ is, it’s as much of an insult to call a public relations practitioner a ’spin doctor’ as it is to call a woman a ‘chick.’ And it is a female-dominated profession, although not yet at the most senior levels.
Despite the cross-fertilization that occurs between journalists and PR practitioners (since writing well is the foundation skill for both professions), there is also the perception that journalists are those who ferret out the truth and present it objectively, while PR folks do their best to deflect, disguise, and distract from the truth. The notion of the muck-racking journalist being free of bias is laughable in the 21st Century. We wouldn’t have populist, right-wing, and left-wing media outlets if bias weren’t inherent in every medium, whether it’s the way the headline is written, the fact that the story is covered at all, or the selective presentation of facts. The notion that objectivity is in disrepute is, thankfully, permeating the zeitgeist – and not a moment too soon.
Whether you view the world through rose-coloured glasses or not, whether you think all politicians are dishonest or revere those who occupy the corridors of delegated power, whether you’re a MacHead or a PC fan, we all have filters we apply to information, and these filters affect our decision-making processes.
There is nothing illegal, immoral, or unethical about choosing a frame. You need to be aware that there’s more than one framing choice. You need to consider the fact that others won’t choose the same frame as you. Ultimately, though, you will have to either pick one or leave the picture unframed. Choosing a frame and developing a strategy for its presentation is the heart of public relations. As a practitioner, aligning yourself with clients whose framing aligns with your beliefs and values is the soul of a successful PR consultancy.
Perception has never been reality. It just appears to be. That, I suspect, is a natural consequence of the human condition.
I mention Ruth in particular because her consultancy seems to be largely focused on science public relations (she does projects for Andrew Maynard [2020 Science] and, as you can see in her post, she is involved with the twitter science community). Her comments reminded me of a rather provocative posting on Techdirt in May 2009,
One of the most common complaints about the trouble facing newspapers today is the woeful cry “but who will do investigative journalism?” Of course, that’s silly. There are plenty of new entities springing up everyday online that do investigative journalism — and do it well.
Romenesko points us to a column by Tim Cavanaugh taking this concept one step further: suggesting that a subset of PR people may end up taking on the role of investigative journalists . Now, I’m sure plenty of journalists are cringing at the concept — and certainly, as someone who gets bombarded daily with idiotic story pitches that are spun to such ridiculous levels I can only laugh at them (as I hit delete), it makes me cringe a bit. But some of his points are worth thinking about.
I went on to check Tim Cavanaugh’s article and after a brief description of the current publishing crisis and its effect on investigative journalism,
Here’s one hypothesis. Numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest that in the decade from 1998 through 2007, another field was outgrowing, and perhaps growing at the expense of, traditional journalism. The number of people working as “reporters and correspondents” declined slightly in that period, from 52,380 in 1998 to 51,620 in 2007. But the number of public relations specialists more than doubled, from 98,240 to 225,880. (Because job types and nomenclature change substantially, I have used only directly comparable jobs. The U.S. economy was still supporting 7,360 paste-up workers in 1998, for example, while in 2007 some 29,320 Americans were working under the already antique title “desktop publishers.”)
So are flacks the future, or even the present, of investigative journalism? This interpretation makes intuitive sense. Important data points by which we continue to live our lives— the number of jobs that were created or destroyed by NAFTA, the villainy of the Serbs in the Yugoslav breakup, all sorts of projected benefits or disasters in President Obama’s budget plans— are largely the inventions of P.R. workers.
And though it’s considered wise to believe the contrary, these communications types are not constructing all these news items entirely (or even mostly) by lying. Flackery requires putting together credible narratives from pools of verifiable data. This activity is not categorically different from journalism. Nor is the teaching value that flackery provides entirely different from that of journalism: Most of the content you hear senators and congressmen reading on C-SPAN is stuff flacks provided to staffers.
The debate itself is not all that new as the relationship between public relations and journalism is at least one century old. One of the earliest PR practitioners was a former journalist, Ivy Lee. As for borrowing from the social sciences (the term framing as used in Ruth’s posting is from the social sciences), that too can be traced backwards, in this case, to the 1920s and Edward Bernays who viewed public relations as having huge potential for social engineering.Towards the end of his life (1891 – 1995) he was quite disappointed, (according Stuart Ewen’s book, PR! A Social History of Spin) in how the field of public relations had evolved. Ewen (wikipedia entry) is highly critical of the profession as per this May 2000 interview with David Barsamian,
Part of why the history of PR is so interesting is because you see that it’s a history of a battle for what is reality and how people will see and understand reality. PR isn’t functioning in a vacuum. PR is usually functioning to try to protect itself against other ideas that are percolating within a society. So under no circumstances should what I’m saying about Bernays in terms of the use of social psychology indicate that these are automatic processes that always work. They don’t always work. They don’t always work because to some extent, despite what [Walter] Lippman said, people don’t just function by pictures in their heads. They also experience things from their own lives. Often their experiences are at odds with the propaganda that’s being pumped out there.
As you can see, for Ewen PR is synonymous with propaganda which, by the way, was the title for a book by Edward Bernays.
I’ve worked in public relations and in marketing and find that the monolithic claims made by folks such as Ewen have elements of truth but that much of the analysis is simplistic. That said, I think the criticism is important and quite well placed as there have been some egregious and deeply false claims made by PR practitioners on behalf of their clients. Still, it bothers me that everyone is contaminated by the same brush. Getting back to Ruth’s post: In a sense, we are all PR professionals. All of us choose our frames and we constantly communicate them to each other.
Tags: 4D Labs, Canada, Edward Bernays, Greg Scholes, Ivy Lee, light harvesting, marine algae, nanotechnology, Neil Branda, phasers, photoswitch, PR, propaganda, public relations, quantum biology, quantum mechanics, Ruth Seeley, science journalism, SFU, Simon Fraser University, Star Trek, Stuart Ewen, Tim Cavanaugh, University of Toronto