Tag Archives: The Lay Scientist

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.

Grassroots science organizing in the UK

There’s a lot of concern about impending cuts for funding science in the UK as signaled by Vince Cable’s (UK Secretary of State – Department for Business Innovation & Skills Sept, 8, 2010 speech), excerpted from Cable’s speech Science, Research and Innovation on the Dept. for Business Innovation & Skills webpage,

Over the next few weeks and months, major decisions will be made on Government spending priorities as part of a wider move to stabilise the country’s finances and rebalance the economy. They will help to define what we value as a nation and the direction in which we want to head. Investing in science and research is a critical part of that. I cannot prejudge the outcome but I know that my colleagues, including at the Treasury, value the contribution of UK science.

I have been arguing for years my concern over the way the British economy was distorted. Money borrowed for property speculation rather than productive investment and innovation. Too many top performing graduates heading straight for high finance rather than science and engineering.

It was clear to me and my colleagues that the British economy was becoming increasingly unbalanced in the short term, as the mountain of household debt built up. We were also unprepared for a long-term future where we need to earn our living in the world through high-tech, high-skills and innovation.

There is a school of thought which says that Government commitment to science and technology is measured by how much money we spend. Money is important both for the quality and quantity. But it is an input, not an output, measure. The question I have to address is can we achieve more with less?

In deciding priorities, there is a limit to how much I can dictate the course of events. Nor do I wish to. Research priorities and technical priorities are set at arms length from Government, and through peer review. That is right. Yet the Government spends £6bn a year supporting science and research and it is right that I should speak about strategic priorities.

I feel I should start by registering a personal interest when it comes to science. I’m one of few MPs to have at least started a science degree – well, it began as natural science and ended up as economics.

My constituency, Twickenham, is one of the major centres of scientific enquiry. It contains the National Physical Laboratory, a world-leading centre; the Laboratory of the Government Chemist; and a wide variety of companies involved in science, research and innovation.

I recently discovered one accidentally as a result of a parking dispute with local residents: FT Technologies which is one of two major companies in the world making wind monitoring and airflow measurement applications, much of its production being exported to China.

And one of my constituents is inventor Trevor Bayliss, best known for inventing the wind-up radio. He constantly reminds me of the parlous status and minimal support given to inventors whose ideas so often fail to find commercial application in the UK but are used overseas.

I would add that my youngest son, Hugo, is a very theoretical quantum physicist – based in Singapore.

You could say that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. But I am familiar with the language of science and the sorts of difficulties faced by scientists, researchers and inventors.

My preference is to ration research funding by excellence and back research teams of international quality – and screen out mediocrity – regardless of where they are and what they do.

Its is worth noting in the last RAE 54 per cent of submitted work was defined as world class and that is the area where funding should be concentrated.

Even a rationing of this kind presents problems. How do we allow room for new, unknown but bright people? How do we reduce, not increase, the time spent on applying for funding in a more competitive market?

There is a separate but critically important question of how we maximise the contribution of Government supported research to wealth creation.

I support, of course, top class “blue skies” research, but there is no justification for taxpayers money being used to support research which is neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding. [emphasis mine]

As I said earlier, it would be wrong to measure this in monetary terms alone. [emphasis mine] There are wider questions, regarding the UK’s openness as a society and its attractiveness as a destination for the brightest scientists, researchers and engineers from all over the world.


The Hauser review suggested a sensible approach – establishing a network of Technology and Innovation Centres, based on international models such as the Fraunhofer Institutes in Germany. Both science minister David Willetts and I agree that it is a good way forward, and I am looking closely at the recommendations in the review and the value of investing in these in the context of the Spending Review.

But we should not simply be copying overseas models. The key point is that what works are business driven high technology clusters with academic links. [emphasis mine] We already have several: such as the Research Council campus at Harwell, and others such as Cambridge and potentially St Pancras – and we are working at how to develop this model further.

Despite Cable’s protests  to the contrary and his attempts to ally himself with the scientific community, the focus here is on the bottom line and how science should be made to contribute.  The reference to ‘blue skies research’ is notable as a way of diminishing it while simultaneously claiming its importance. Plus, it’s not just any ‘blue skies’ research, it must be ‘top class’. Unfortunately history, including science history, is littered with stories about theoretical work that was so far ahead of its time that it was dismissed by contemporaries.

I do understand that the UK’s economy is seriously troubled at this time, hard decisions will have to be made, and that scientists will not be happy with any cuts so I can appreciate why Cable has tried to present himself as ‘almost’ a scientist and mention his ‘support’ of blue skies research. He had to know that no matter how he phrased things there’d be some sort of response from the UK’s scientific community, From Jennifer Rohn’s guest post for The Lay Scientist (Guardian Blog),

When you deal with science on a daily basis, it is difficult to take its fruits for granted. Science gives most people the luxury to forget, at least for a while, that the world can be a brutal and dangerous place. On a planet fraught with dwindling resources, burgeoning population, emerging disease and uncertain climate, we abandon science at our peril.

It is with this backdrop that a new chapter in my life began: Science Is Vital, a grassroots campaign to support UK research. I’d like to tell you that I thought long and hard about it, but the truth is that it was an almost instantaneous reaction: I read Vince Cable’s now infamous speech signalling crippling cuts to science funding, dashed off an angry blog post, and proposed marching in the streets on Twitter all in the space of about 15 minutes.

Science is vital. And it’s not just scientists who think so: our petition, which has more than ten thousand contributors and rising, has been signed by a wonderfully diverse array of people, from artists, social workers and builders to ministers, legal secretaries, and fire fighters, even a self-professed “house hubby”. Our campaign, in partnership with the Campaign for Science and Engineering, has been endorsed by groups such as the British Heart Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, Cancer Research UK and many scientific societies.

If you agree, please sign our petition, write to your MP , consider joining us on our Parliamentary Lobby on Tuesday 12 October, and above all, come to our rally this Saturday 9 October in central London – we’re expecting thousands.

Think of it: scientists and their supporters, massing in the streets! We’d like as many people as possible visibly displaying their pride in science, whether it is by wearing their white coat, T-shirts with their favorite scientific image or wielding scientific objects and placards.

As a Canadian, I’m fascinated that the scientific community in the UK is organizing a public rally. When Canada’s Conservative government effectively cut scientific funding in a budget a few years ago, the Canadian science community responded  months later with a letter carrying 2000 signatures. A blog evolved from that letter, Don’t leave Canada behind which is now run by Rob Annan. I believe that was the sum total of the public grassroots organizing in the face of a perceived crisis.

I realize that Canadian geography and population density do not lend themselves to centrally located or even regionally located public rallies. Distance and population numbers are always a problem.Although, I have to admit that I sometimes think that we use these problems as excuses for doing very little at all.

I hope that the folks in the UK are able to find a means of meaningful dialogue in the face of some very difficult circumstances. As for the Canadian scientific community, I imagine they are watching and waiting as they ponder future moves by the Canadian government (after all, there is a 2011 budget to look forward to).

The comedy of science

Apparently there’s a movement afoot, a science comedy movement according to Alice Bell in her posting, A physicist, a chemist and a zoologist walk into a bar …,

Somewhere along the line, science got funny. PhD comics are pinned to noticeboards and Facebook has groups dedicated to those who spend too long in the lab. Or, at least, it found some funny friends. Robin Ince co-presents a humorous Radio 4 show with Brian Cox, Josie Long’s set includes gags about A-level maths and, as the Wellcome Trust blog points out, science had a noticeable presence at the Edinburgh Fringe this year.

Bell has offered a thought-provoking essay looking at both the pros and the cons,

… Comedy can be a powerful rhetorical weapon, and that means it can hurt too.

A few weeks ago Channel 4 news journalist Samira Ahmed tweeted a request for some maths help.

Ben Goldacre, smelt bullshit and suggested his twitter followers “pre-mock” the story. They did. Then they realised it wasn’t quite as smelly as it seemed (nb: Goldacre speedily apologised). Reading Ahmed’s write up, it was worrying to hear that people “daren’t risk” speaking publicly. There’s been a lot of talk recently about the problem of “libel chill” on British science writing, that people self-censor for fear they’d be sued (as Simon Singh was by British Chiropractic Association). What about “mockery chill”?

I have to admit to having been quite thoughtless, on occasion, in my use of humour so I think Bell raises an important point.

Humour, as I noted  a few years ago in an entirely different context, can be dangerous. In addition to being hurtful, you can also disrupt the natural order of things. Think of political satirists and court jesters for that matter.

Bell’s essay inspired one by Dean Burnett guest post for The Lay Scientist (one of the Guardian Science Blogs),

But how does one go about introducing science into comedy, rather than the other way round? And what do non-London-based scientists do if they want some live comedy aimed at them? If they’re desperate enough to trawl the internet for hours, they can contact me. As a recently qualified doctor of neuroscience who’s also been a stand-up comedian for over five years, I’ve become something of a go-to guy for science conferences wanting a scientific comedy routine to round things off.

As someone experienced in both science and comedy but currently not employed by either, I’m always glad of the work. However, so rare is my background that I am often asked to make jokes about and poke fun at areas of science that I know little about, in front of people who are experts in it.

Preparing a routine about a field of study that isn’t your own is fraught with unique challenges. Case in point: I was recently asked to perform at a conference of geneticists, meaning I had to do a 15 minute set about genetics. Although my studies crossed into genetics quite frequently, I’ve always found it very confusing. So confusing, in fact, that the original request for me to do the conference confused me.

I had appeared at another conference several months before, and afterwards I was approached by a female professor who asked: “Do you have any genetics material?” This isn’t a typical post-gig question, so I wasn’t expecting it. I genuinely thought she asked, “Do you have any genetic material?” This alarmed me somewhat; I’m not at the level where I’ve been asked for my autograph yet, so for an unknown person to ask for a sample of my DNA for whatever reason was unprecedented. And terrifying.

This post has in turn inspired Pasco Phronesis (David Bruggemen) to find out if there are any science comedians in the US in his Sept. 26, 2010 posting,

As the Guardian notes, neuroscientist and stand-up comedian Dean Burnett gets work doing comedy sets for scientific conferences.

Now, if there is someone able to do the same thing in the U.S. or in other countries, I’d love to hear about it.

If anyone does know of a US science comedian, please do contact Pasco Phronesis (pasco dot phronesis at yahoo dot com).

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.


*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.