Tag Archives: Martin Robbins

UK science blog prize

You must be based in the UK and writing a science blog to be eligible  for the first UK Science Blog prize. Kahlil A. Casimally’s Oct. 11, 2012 posting on the Scientific American blogs (specifically the SA incubator) mentions (Note: I have removed links),

The Good Thinking Society, chaired by science writer, Simon Singh, recently announced the inaugural UK Science Blog Prize. The prize sets out to recognise the majesty’s nation’s best science blog of the year. Yes, this means that the winner will probably be able to include a “2012’s best science blog in the UK” logo in his or her blog’s sidebar. Wonderful.

Here’s more about the contest from the Good Thinking’s UK Science Blog Prize 2012 webpage,

Although there are already several prizes established in the UK for science books, general science writing and even skeptical blogging, there appears to be no dedicated recognition for science bloggers.

We’d like this to change, as we feel that some of the best science writing currently being produced is being written by science bloggers.

First prize is £1,000. There will be at least three runners up prizes of £100 each.

You are asked to self-nominate an entry which must have been published in 2012 by the deadline of Oct. 15, 2012 (today!). The organizers have declared all kinds of science blogging is eligible (from the blog prize webpage),

Other than that, we’re open to all science blogs and that means science in its broadest sense (i.e. pure science, applied science, engineering, mathematics, technology, statistics, health).  [emphasis mine] We also encourage bloggers from all backgrounds to apply, ranging from teenagers to learned professors. We wish to keep the criteria as open as possible. It’s likely the runners up prizes will go to specific category winners, such as best student blog or best pure science blog.

I’m not sure I’d call this science in its broadest sense since they have left out the social sciences. Minor quibble aside, the judges are an interesting lot (from the blog prize webpage),

In addition to Simon Singh at Good Thinking, the following will also be on the judging panel:

Ben Goldacre is a doctor and writer, who’s work focuses on unpicking the real evidence behind scientific claims from quacks, journalists, drug companies, and government reports.

Mark Henderson is a former Science Editor at The Times and author of The Geek Manifesto, detailing the relationship between science and politics. He is Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust and doesn’t blog as often as he should.

Roger Highfield was the Science Editor of The Daily Telegraph for two decades and the Editor of New Scientist between 2008 and 2011. Today, he is the Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum Group.

Síle Lane is Director of Campaigns at Sense About Science and is a former stem cell researcher.

Martin Robbins is science writer, podcaster and journalist who blogs for The Guardian about science, pseudoscience and the role of science in politics.

Sid Rodrigues is the organiser of the world’s first Skeptics in the Pub, based in London and has served as consultant/organiser for science outreach events for over 5 years. He previously spent ten years as a scientist in applied genetics, analytical chemistry and forensics. He currently works at London’s home of free thought, Conway Hall.

Connie St Louis is Director of City’s Science Journalism MA, is an award-winning freelance broadcaster, journalist, writer and scientist. She presents and produces a range programmes for BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service.

I hope to hear more about this contest when the winners are announced.

Thanks to @BoraZ’s tweet for alerting me to this science blogging initiative.

Masterly science communication—treating your opponent with respect

There are many, many debates to be had about science, not least the debate about how one engages with individuals deemed to be practicing what has been called a ‘pseudo science’, in this case, astrology.  My focus here is on a response to how the debate was conducted and not on the merits of the arguments.

There was a recent kerfuffle about the cosmos shifting around so that the original 12 astrological signs in the zodiac of Western astrology were being displaced by the emergence of a 13th sign. You can read more about the announcement, which was made by astronomer (you read that correctly), Parke Kunkle, in the Jan. 13, 2011 news item in the Huffington Post.

At roughly the same time, there was a ruckus in the UK between astrologers and two astronomers who appear as presenters (hosts) of a BBC programme called, Stargazing. Astrologers were distressed by comments the presenters made about astrology and they wrote up a petition, which occasioned derision.

Apparently, the announcement and the ‘petition’ ruckus provided excuses for scientists, science writers, and science fans to heap scorn on and ridicule astrologers and the ‘pseudo science’ of astrology. It’s the same scornful attitude that proponents of emerging technologies often heap on individuals who are expressing an opinion or an idea usually based on fear about possible consequences.

One of the best responses I’ve seen to this ‘style’ of public debate is a Jan. 28, 2011 posting on Martin Robbins’ The Lay Scientist blog (one of the Guardian Science blogs). I’ve excerpted a few bits by  guest writer,Dr. Rebekah Higgitt, she’s responding to the astrologers’ BBC petition,

Like Martin, I heard about the astrologers’ petition to the BBC and blogged about it, together with another astrology-related story that recently hit the headlines. Unlike him, I was critical of the knee-jerk response of many scientists, science writers and fans of science. I also had some quibbles about his post, so I’d like to start by thanking him for hosting this – and, before you leap to the comments section, making it clear that I do not believe in astrology. However, I do believe that a little knowledge and understanding can help the cause of science communication far more than ridicule.

As is well known to readers of The Lay Scientist, the Astrological Association, prompted by remarks made by Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain, has asked for “fair and balanced representation” (note, not “equal representation”). This has resulted in widespread derision from those who can see nothing wrong with stating that “astrology is rubbish” and “nonsense”. Most, however, have failed to understand exactly what has annoyed these astrologers, or to take the time to find out what astrology actually is. [emphasis mine]

Note her emphasis on finding and understanding the basis of your ‘opponent’s’ ideas.

The Astrological Association is not complaining about a statement such as this. Rather, they consider it unfair that they are represented as having no knowledge of the astronomy and celestial mechanics that Cox and O’Briain are paid to explain on TV. They are annoyed that astrology is considered to consist solely of those who read and write newspaper horoscopes. Serious astrologers often have an excellent understanding of, and respect for, astronomy. [emphasis mine] They are, in fact, a not insignificant audience for astronomy programmes, lectures and books. This is why, as I explained in my earlier post, stories about “changing zodiac signs” and the “13th sign” Ophiucus do no one any favours. While Parke Kunkle’s “revelation” might confuse those with little knowledge of astrology or astronomy, it comes as no surprise to anyone else. The effect of precession has been understood for centuries, and practising astrologers are more than capable of dealing with this recurrent attack.

Which brings me to the history: a little historical understanding should make astronomers and science communicators realise that practising astrologers are likely to have good knowledge of planetary motions. Up until the late 17th century, astrology and astronomy were deeply interconnected. Since then there has been a parting of ways, but astrologers have continued to make use of accurate astronomical data. Astrology is not so much the father of positional astronomy and celestial mechanics as its client, patron and midwife.

Higgitt doesn’t believe in astrology (as she notes) but she extends a level of respect and courtesy that I have too rarely seen in discussions where a socially-defined expert group is effectively dismissing or accusing the other of being uninformed and/or superstitious and ridiculing them for their foolish beliefs and/or fears. By the way, Higgitt is Curator of History of Science and Technology, National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory, Greenwich.

My apologies for arsenic blooper

I made a mistake when reporting on NASA and the ‘arsenic’ bacterium. Apparently, the research methodology was problematic and the conclusion that the bacterium can substitute arsenic for phosphorus in its DNA is not supported by the evidence as presented.

Martin Robbins at the Lay Scientist blog (one of The Guardian’s science blogs) has posted an analysis of how this ‘media storm’ occurred. The article which started it all was in a well respected,  peer-reviewed journal, Science (which is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science).  From Robbins’s Dec. 8, 2010 posting,

Should the paper have been published in the first place? Carl Zimmer’s blog post for Slate collects the responses of numerous scientists to the work, including the University of Colorado’s Shelley Copley declaring that: “This paper should not have been published.”

There are two distinct questions here to tease apart: ‘should the paper have been published?’ and ‘should it have been published in Science?’

To the first question I would say ‘yes’. Peer review isn’t supposed to be about declaring whether a paper is definitely right and therefore fit for publication on that basis. The purpose of publishing paper is to submit ideas for further discussion and debate, with peer review serving as a fairly loose filter to weed out some of the utter crap. The contribution a paper makes to science goes far beyond such trivialities as whether or not it’s actually right.

Wolfe-Simon et al’s paper might be wrong, but it has also sparked an interesting and useful debate on the evidence and methodology required to make claims about this sort of thing, and the next paper on this subject that comes along with hopefully be a lot stronger as a result of this public criticism. You could argue on that basis that its publication is useful.

I would argue that the real bone of contention is whether it should have been published in Science – after all, if it had appeared in the Journal of Speculative Biological Hypotheses (and not been hyped) nobody would have given a crap. On this I’m not really qualified to comment, but what I can say is that given the wealth of scientists coming forward to criticize the work, it’s remarkable that the journal found three willing to pass it.

Robbins goes on to analyze the impact that the embargo (story is considered confidential until a prescribed date) that Science applied to the story about the article had on mainstream and other media. He also notes the impact that bloggers had on the story,

The quality, accuracy and context of material available on leading blogs exceeded that of much of mainstream media reporting by light years. While newspapers ran away with the story, it was left to bloggers like Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, Lewis Dartnell and Phil Plait to put things into perspective.

But more importantly it turns out that peer review is being done on blogs. John Hawks and Alex Bradley – both scientists with relevant expertise – found methodological problems. Rosie Redfield, a microbiology professor a the University of British Colombia [sic], wrote an extensive and detailed take-down of the paper on her blog that morphed into a letter to Science, which I sincerely hope they publish.

Robbins does not suggest that the blogosophere is the perfect place for peer review only that it played an important role regarding this research. There is much more to the posting and I do encourage you to read it.

I did look at Rosie Redfield’s postings about the papers. I found her Dec. 4, 2010 posting to provide the most accessible analysis of the methodological issues of the two. Her Dec. 8, 2010 posting is her submission to Science about the matter.

I do apologize for getting caught up in the frenzy.

Science, Critical Thinking, Richard Dawkins, & Cory Doctorow at TAM London

The Amazing Meeting (TAM) London starts officially on Saturday October 16, 2010 (tomorrow) but Martin Robbins (from The Lay Scientist blog which is part of the Guardian Science blogs site) started live blogging the event this morning (October 15, 2010). Here’s a brief description from the Guardian Science Desk’s blog,

What do comedians and scientists have in common? Often, it’s a love of all things geeky, and nowhere is that more obvious than at TAM London, the UK’s biggest conference celebrating science and critical thinking. Now in its second year, TAM (short for The Amazing Meeting) has been described by Jonathan Ross as “the best event ever!!!” and arrives this weekend with a line-up of speakers including Richard Dawkins, comic book legend Alan Moore, Graham Linehan and Stephen Fry.

TAM London is a fundraiser for the James Randi Educational Foundation, home of the Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge, which promotes critical thinking and scientific literacy.

TAM events originated in the the US. The James Randi Educational Foundation’s (JREF) 8th TAM meeting took place in July 2010 and you can find out more abut the US TAMs here.

As for the London TAM, I went to their website and found this,

TAM London 2010 is a world-class fundraising conference which this year is being held on 16 – 17 October 2010 at the Hilton London Metropole hotel. Join amazing speakers and over 1000 like-minded delegates for a fundraising celebration of science, critical thinking and entertainment in the heart of the city.

PLUS delegates have the chance to buy exclusive tickets to the premiere of Tim Minchin’s Storm movie and spend Saturday evening being entertained by Tim and special guests. A totally unique opportunity!

And if that wasn’t amazing enough, we’ve also arranged for a very special performance of Andy Nyman’s Ghost Stories on Friday 15th October just for TAM Delegates, with £5 off all tickets!

It all sounds very interesting and exciting but I checked out James Randi very quickly and found this essay about him on Wikipedia,

The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) is a Fort Lauderdale, Florida non-profit organization founded in 1996 by magician and skeptic James Randi. The JREF’s mission includes educating the public and the media on the dangers of accepting unproven claims, and to support research into paranormal claims in controlled scientific experimental conditions.

The organization offers a prize of one million U.S. dollars which it will pay out to anyone who can demonstrate a supernatural or paranormal ability under agreed-upon scientific testing criteria. The JREF also maintains a legal defense fund to assist persons who are attacked as a result of their investigations and criticism of people who make paranormal claims.

This is an agenda which I would not have guessed at from reading information on the TAM London website. From the About TAM London page,

TAM is ‘The Amaz!ng Meeting’, the fundraising conference of the James Randi Educational Foundation. TAM London 2009 was the first of these conferences to be held outside the USA and sold out in just one hour. The 2010 event continues this amazing success and is in addition to TAM8 to be held in Las Vegas in July 2010. Previous TAM speakers have included Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Mann, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, magicians Penn and Teller, Prof Brian Cox and dozens of other noted scientists, entertainers and academics. You can expect a warm welcome from the hundreds of like-minded people who attend TAMs, from all walks of life and backgrounds but with a common interest in critical thinking.

It becomes more clear if you find the About JREF page,

The proceeds of TAM London support the work of JREF and its mission of education and combating pseudoscience.

The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) is a Florida-based non-profit organization founded in 1996 by magician and skeptic James Randi. The President of the JREF is DJ Grothe.

The Foundation’s goals include:

* Creating a new generation of critical thinkers through lively classroom demonstrations and by reaching out to the next generation in the form of scholarships and awards.

* Demonstrating to the public and the media, through educational seminars, the consequences of accepting paranormal and supernatural claims without questioning.

* Supporting and conducting research into paranormal claims through well-designed experiments utilizing “the scientific method” and by publishing the findings in the JREF official newsletter, Swift, and other periodicals.

* Also providing reliable information on paranormal and pseudoscientific claims by maintaining a comprehensive library of books, videos, journals, and archival resources open to the public.

* Assisting those who are being attacked as a result of their investigations and criticism of people who make paranormal claims, by maintaining a legal defense fund available to assist these individuals.

* The JREF offers a prize of one million U.S. dollars to anyone who can demonstrate a supernatural or paranormal ability under agreed-upon scientific testing criteria.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with having an agenda but it wasn’t obvious from the the Guardian’s Science desk posting about the event,

Organiser Tracy King said: “The focus is on entertainment and education. People come to TAM because they want to learn and hear from leading speakers on subjects which interest them, but they want to have a good time doing it. Our mix of academics, comedians and writers ensures an incredible event where the public can meet like-minded people without feeling like being into science or geek stuff makes them a minority.

With science funding under threat, it’s more important than ever for TAM London to reach the public with its message – that science, technology and rational thinking are essential to the healthy future of the UK.” [emphases mine]

I may be fantasizing here but I sense a certain evangelical edge to the event which seems to antithetical to critical thinking.

Women in science blogging

There was a recent blog/twitter event about women science bloggers which nicely complements my Sept. 2, 2010 posting about women in nanoscience (science). The event started with a Sept. 15, 2010  posting by Jenny Rohn on her Nature Network blog, Mind the Gap (the original post includes a bar graph illustrating her point),

Celebrated science bloggers are primarily male.

Discuss.

*Note added retrospectively: I have been asked why I have not included self-organizing, grassroots blogging collectives, or indeed Nature Network itself, on this graph. The reason is because I was interested in the composition of high-profile collectives driven by prominent media outlets who are cherry-picking a select few independent power-bloggers. Hence the word ‘celebrated’, which was used ironically

Martin Robbins, one of the Guardian Science bloggers, responded the next day, Sept. 16, 2010, by creating a Twitter hash tag #wsb (women science bloggers) and inviting people to create a list. (I don’t think these hash tag convos sit around for too long, so check it now if you’re curious.) The next day, Sept. 17, 2010, Robbins posted the list of names collected on Sept. 16, 2010 and over 50 blog responses (lots of people didn’t get on the list) on his Guardian blog, The Lay Scientist.