Tagscience

Top Science Writers On Making Complex Subjects Accessible

The Guardian did a group interview of five of the six nominees for the the Royal Society’s Winton prize for science books 2012 — Steven Pinker, James Gleick, Brian Greene, Lone Frank and Joshua Foer.

Here’s an exchange between Greene and Pinker:

How has the formal, technical way scientists write journal papers affected popular science writing?

BG: I was looking back over some quantum mechanics papers from the 1920s and in one article the scientist described an accident in his laboratory when a glass tube exploded, a nickel got tarnished and he heated it to get rid of the tarnish – he went through the whole story himself in the technical article. You don’t really see that much these days. I don’t know if that is a one-off example, I haven’t done an exhaustive study, but have journal articles moved away from telling the story of discovery to just a more cut-and-dried approach?

SP: They have; I think that’s been documented. There is scientifically a problem with that, as opposed to narrating what happened. The problem is that since you’re under pressure from the journal editor to tell your story leading up to your conclusion without talking about all the blind alleys and accidents, it actually distorts the story itself because it inflates the probability that what you discovered is really significant. If you tried 15 things that didn’t work and one thing that did work and didn’t talk about the 15 that didn’t work, then the statistic that makes it significant is actually mistaken. The statistic has to be computed over all of the experiments you ran, not just the one that happened to work. In the social sciences especially, we’re seeing that there’s a lot of damage done by the practice of only reporting the successes and telling the story as if it was a straight line to a successful result.

Full Story: The Guardian: Science writing: how do you make complex issues accessible and readable?

Widespread Vaccine Exemptions Are Messing With Herd Immunity

Another one from John Timmer at Ars:

Despite the amazing benefits, immunization rates have been falling, driven by a fear that vaccines cause health problems such as autism. The autism risk has been both thoroughly debunked and the paper that originally suggested it turned out to be the product of an unethical, financially motivated individual. Despite this debunking, surveys show that a quarter of US parents think that vaccines can trigger autism, and rates of vaccination have continued to fall in many states. A new study looks at incoming kindergartners in California, and finds that the lack of vaccination is threatening herd immunity in some schools, and that some measures of risk have doubled in just three years. […]

Herd immunity occurs when a few unvaccinated children are protected by the fact that almost everyone around is vaccinated and therefore cannot infect them. It’s important for those for whom vaccines have not worked, those who have immune problems, or those who cannot be vaccinated due to specific health risks. But it requires very high rates of vaccination, typically 80-90 percent. And, in California, it’s at risk of breaking down. “The number of kindergartners attending schools in which there were more than 20 exempted kindergartners almost doubled (from 1937 in 2008 to 3675 in 2010),” the authors note.

Full Story: Ars Technica: Widespread vaccine exemptions are messing with herd immunity

Jonah Lehrer And The Poverty Of “Big Ideas”

Lehrer spent much of August writing about the affair, trying to figure out where it had all gone wrong. He came to the conclusion that he’d stretched himself too thin. His excuses fall along those lines: He told Seife that his plagiarized blog post was a rough draft he’d posted by mistake. And his latest explanation for those fabricated Dylan quotes is that he had written them into his book proposal and forgotten to fix them later. Even by his own account, then, the writing wasn’t his top priority.

The lectures, though, were increasingly important. Lehrer gave between 30 and 40 talks in 2010, all while meeting constant deadlines, starting a family, and buying a home in the Hollywood Hills. It was more than just a time suck; it was a new way of orienting his work. Lehrer was the first of the Millennials to follow his elders into the dubious promised land of the convention hall, where the book, blog, TED talk, and article are merely delivery systems for a core commodity, the Insight.

The Insight is less of an idea than a conceit, a bit of alchemy that transforms minor studies into news, data into magic. Once the Insight is in place—Blink, Nudge, Free, The World Is Flat—the data becomes scaffolding. It can go in the book, along with any caveats, but it’s secondary. The purpose is not to substantiate but to enchant.

Full Story: New York Magazine: Proust Wasn’t a Neuroscientist. Neither was Jonah Lehrer

The next big idea? The end of big ideas. See:

The Atlantic: Let’s Cool It With The Big Ideas

(I could swear Wired had a similar column from the editor a couple months ago, but it doesn’t seem to be online and I toss my print editions out after I read them)

Evgeny Morozov: The Naked and the TED

Academia vs. the Private Sector for Science Jobs

I write often about the need for more STEM education in order to match graduates with actual jobs, but the reality is that the “S” part of the acronym doesn’t necessarily have a lot of openings. At least not in academia. Julianne Dalcanton writes:

Recent reports and articles have generated a lot of buzz about the difficulty of finding employment in the sciences. These articles mirror the anxieties of the young astronomy community with whom I am most familiar. Scientists are not stupid and are pretty good with data, so they can look at the number of graduate students, the number of postdoctoral positions, and the number of faculty ads, and correctly assess that the odds of winding up with a long-term academic position are not good.

However, difficulty finding a “long term academic position” is not the same thing as difficulty finding a job. Buried in those same articles is the fact that the unemployment rate for physicists (which likely mirrors that of astronomers) is between 1-2%. In contrast, the lab-based biologists and chemists (which are the focus of the articles) are not finding employment at all, or if they do, it’s frequently in a position that makes no use of their technical skills.

Cosmic Variance: Subtleties of the Crappy Job Market for Scientists

In other words, science graduates are facing many of the same problems that Phds in the humanities face. Dalcanton goes on to note that many physics and astronomy majors are finding lucartive careers in the private sector, paritcularly in the technology industry. Ashlee Vance wrote about this phenomena for Business Week last year. I agree that it’s sad that so many smart people are ending up devoting their careers to figuring out how to get people to click ads, but as I wrote last year there’s an interesting upside: lots and lots of open source big data tools.

Earlier this year David Graeber wrote about why science and technology seemed stalled compared to our science fictional imaginations and quotes astrophysicist Jonathan Katz:

You will spend your time writing proposals rather than doing research. Worse, because your proposals are judged by your competitors, you cannot follow your curiosity, but must spend your effort and talents on anticipating and deflecting criticism rather than on solving the important scientific problems… It is proverbial that original ideas are the kiss of death for a proposal, because they have not yet been proved to work.

In other words, you might be better off in the private sector wrangling click stream data than you would be grinding out proposals to do essentially nothing in academia. Le sigh.

Texas GOP Opposes Teaching Critical Thinking Skills?

The Republican Party of Texas put the following into its 2012 platform:

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

But:

Contacted by TPM on Thursday, Republican Party of Texas (RPT) Communications Director Chris Elam said the “critical thinking skills” language made it into the platform by mistake.

“[The chairman of the Education Subcommittee] indicated that it was an oversight of the committee, that the plank should not have included ‘critical thinking skills’ after ‘values clarification,’” Elam said. “And it was not the intent of the subcommittee to present a plank that would have indicated that the RPT in any way opposed the development of critical thinking skills.”

Elam said the members of the subcommittee “regret” the oversight, but because the mistake was part of the platform approved by the convention, “it cannot be corrected until the next state convention in 2014.”

Full Story: Texas GOP’s 2012 Platform Opposes Teaching Of ‘Critical Thinking Skills’

(hat tip: Trevor)

Flawed But Indispensable Take Down of Malcolm Gladwell

SHAME Project, an organization founded by Yasha Levine and Mark Ames of The Exile, recently published a lengthy critique of writer Malcolm Gladwell. I finally read it, and recommend it even though it is a flawed piece. Highlights:

While a student at the University of Toronto, Gladwell’s admiration for Ronald Reagan led him into conservative activist circles. In 1982, while still an undergrad, he completed a 12-week training course at the National Journalism Center, a corporate-funded program created to counter the media’s alleged “anti-business bias” by molding college kids into corporate-friendly journalist-operatives and helping them infiltrate top-tier news media organizations. To quote Philip Morris, a major supporter of the National Journalism Center, its mission was to “train budding journalists in free market political and economic principles.” Over the years the National Journalism Center has produced hundreds of pro-business news media moles, including top-tier conservative talent like Ann Coulter and former Wall Street Journal columnist and editorial board member John Fund.

After graduating from University of Toronto in 1984, Gladwell spent a few years bouncing around the far-right fringe of the corporate media spectrum. He wrote for the American Spectator—notorious in the 1990s as the primary media organ promoting anti-Clinton conspiracy theories—as well as the Moonie-owned Insight on the News. From 1985-6, Gladwell served as assistant editor at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which was created to bridge the gap between neoconservatives and Christian fundamentalists and help the two hostile factions to come together to counter a common enemy: activists fighting for economic justice. Rick Santorum was a fellow at EPPC until June 2011, when he left to concentrate on his attempt to secure the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. […]

At the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell developed another branch of his branded Malcolm Gladwell, Inc. business: as a highly-paid corporate speaker. Indeed, Gladwell is ranked as one of the highest-paid speakers in America today, commanding anywhere from $40,000 to $80,000 for a single talk to corporations and industry groups eager to pay for his soothing wisdom. In 2007, Fast Company estimated Gladwell does “roughly 25 speaking gigs a year, his current going rate some $40,000 per appearance.”

That would translate into roughly $1 million that year in speaking fees alone—four times what he made at the New Yorker in 2005. It’s a huge amount of money, as far as speaker’s salaries go. For comparison: Mitt Romney only made $500,000 in speaking fees in 2010.

Most news organization have specific rules and guidelines about speaking fees, and some—including the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and the Washington Post—ban their journalists from taking fees for speeches. But the issue is far from settled, and regularly comes up in debates about journalistic ethics. Jonathan Salant, former president of the Society of Professional Journalists Washington chapter, considers corporate speaking fees to be outright bribes. He’s not the only one.

In a March 2012 article in the Columbia Journalism Review, Paul Starobin wondered if speaking fees are a “dark and an indelible stain on journalism” and noted that most journalists would not talk openly about the details of their corporate speaker side-gigs on the record and that some tried to prevent their names from being mentioned at all.

Full Story: Naked Capitalism: Malcolm Gladwell Unmasked: A Look Into the Life & Work of America’s Most Successful Propagandist

(via Innovation Patterns)

There’s an excellent conversation on MetaFilter. Here’s an interesting point from Mr.Know-it-some:

I stopped reading after “the notorious National Bureau of Economic Research, an organization with ties to the tobacco industry and bankrolled by the biggest names in right-wing corporate propaganda funding.” NBER is probably the preeminent economic research organization in the United States, if not the world, whose (approximately 1000) members include left-wingers like Joe Stiglitz and Paul Krugman. (Yes, you might argue that it leans a bit corporate, but calling it “notorious,” is simply ludicrous.)

(Though someone else on the thread points out that Paul Krugman actually did briefly work for Enron).

The thread hits all the points I would want to make about what’s good and bad about the piece. It’s clearly an example of the “hit piece” genre, but it does make good points.

Maias wrote:

What’s equally infuriating is that sometimes his arguments— and those of pharma— are correct. The case of ADHD drugs is one instance: some people are genuinely helped and their stories get drowned out in the cries of “drugging our kids” and “overmedication.” The idea that crack dealers or tobacco companies are solely responsible for addiction is genuinely problematic— it ignores the fact that people with addiction *do* tend to have underlying issues and the fact that humans have always sought consciousness alteration. Making this case does not mean you are a pharma or a tobacco shill, merely that you have read the literature and know something about drugs.

Ironically, it is exactly the type of journalism exhibited by both this piece and by Gladwell that is the problem: ignoring complexity leads to simplistic solutions (let’s just lock up the dealers! let’s ban ADHD meds! let’s prohibit cigarettes! let’s ban painkillers!) that don’t actually work.

And mediareport wrote:

There’s more than enough direct evidence of Gladwell distorting evidence and hiding conflicts of interest – and then responding by not directly responding to the criticisms – to make the critique stick and stick hard. Linking it to Gladwell’s early conservative training is an interesting approach, too.

The stuff about the pharmaceutical industry and Gladwell’s laughably wrong attempt at a defense of Enron execs seemed excellent and very much on point. That the intent of the piece was to savage Gladwell’s moronic brand is clear, but that doesn’t invalidate the accumulated information, which accomplishes the goal nicely.

(However, a few people on MeFi made the claim that S.H.A.M.E. implied that Gladwell was a white supremacist – they did not. S.H.A.M.E. wrote: “Gladwell, who is part-Jamaican, apparently didn’t mind working for a white supremacist who argued that people like Gladwell were inferior” (emphasis mine). That said, yes, mentioning Gladwell’s own work debunking the the thesis would have been charitable.

See Also:

The Tipping Point and the Long Tail debunked

Why, Unfortunately, Malcolm Gladwell Matters

Forthcoming Conference: Sexual Science 2.0

This looks like an interesting conference, November 8-11, 2012 in Tampa, FL:

The Internet and sex go together like Florida and sunshine. Online resources enrich our lives with sexual health and sexuality information, opportunities for relationship formation and sexual connections, sexually explicit materials, and commercial sex products. We can also face unintended consequences from Internet use, including dependence/compulsion, abuse, and inaccurate information and misinformation. However, beyond the Internet, myriad of technologies greatly influence human sexual behavior and sexuality both positively and negatively. Thus, the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS) theme is Sexual Science 2.0: Technological innovations in sexuality research. Although submissions from all areas of the scientific study of sexuality are welcomed, we are especially interested in multidisciplinary submissions focused on how technology informs and is a part of the research being conducted by sexual scientists. Potential research topics for plenaries, presentations, and trainings may include:

  • Sex and the Internet (Internet sex-seeking, navigating relationships online)
  • E-dating (finding dates and relationships online)
  • Technology-based sexual health interventions (video, web-based, chatrooms, etc.)
  • Cybersex (sexual interactions mediated by Internet or other electronic technology)
  • Compulsive online sexual behavior
  • Non-monogamy and the Internet
  • Special populations and online sexual communities
  • Sex and new media, social networks, etc. (Web 2.0, Google+, Facebook, Foursquare, etc.)
  • Reproductive and contraceptive technologies
  • Technologies pertaining to pharmaceutical/medical treatments and sexual enhancement
  • Sex toys and other commercial sex products that utilize technology
  • Online sexually explicit material, pornography, and erotica
  • Technologies aiding with sex therapy, sex research, sexuality education, etc.
  • Technologies for measurement and data collection, including new measurement styles
  • Sexual harassment online/cyber-stalking
  • “Sexting” and other innovative ways to communicate about sex
  • Sex and mobile phones/other portable communication technologies (tablet PCs, phones, laptops, etc.)
  • And others…

Sexual Science 2.0 conference

Edge 2011: What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody’s Cognitive Toolkit?

The Thinker by Rodin

This year’s Edge question was: “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” There are some good but somewhat boring answers, like Susan Blackmore’s or Kevin Kelly’s. But here are some of the more interesting ones I found:

Stewart Brand: Microbes Run the World

Nicholas Carr: Cognitive Load

Aubrey de Grey: A Sense Of Proportion About Fear Of The Unknown

Jonah Lehrer: Control Your Spotlight

Evgeny Morozov: Einstellung Effect

Jay Rosen: Wicked Problems

Douglas Rushkoff: Technologies Have Biases

Nassim Taleb: Antifragility — or— The Property Of Disorder-Loving Systems

I would especially recommend reading both Carr’s and Lehrer’s.

There are a ton of these, so I haven’t read them all, so there could be some gems out there I missed. What are your favorites?

If I’d been asked, I’d have chosen one of the following:

1. The idea of systematic ideology – that people choose what to believe based on ideology, not reason (an idea also supported by research indicating that facts can actually backfire when trying to change someone’s mind). Systematic ideology, named by George Walford, was proposed in 1947 by Harold Walsby. The idea is now being pursued by the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School, though they don’t use the term and may not be aware of Walsby’s and Walford’s work.

2. The Decline Effect.

Photo by Andrew Horne

60% of Science/Technology/Engineering/Math Majors Dropout or Change Majors

The New York Times on the problem with training the next generations of scientists, mathematicians, engineers, etc.:

Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree. That increases to as much as 60 percent when pre-medical students, who typically have the strongest SAT scores and high school science preparation, are included, according to new data from the University of California at Los Angeles. That is twice the combined attrition rate of all other majors. […]

MATTHEW MONIZ bailed out of engineering at Notre Dame in the fall of his sophomore year. He had been the kind of recruit most engineering departments dream about. He had scored an 800 in math on the SAT and in the 700s in both reading and writing. He also had taken Calculus BC and five other Advanced Placement courses at a prep school in Washington, D.C., and had long planned to major in engineering.

But as Mr. Moniz sat in his mechanics class in 2009, he realized he had already had enough. “I was trying to memorize equations, and engineering’s all about the application, which they really didn’t teach too well,” he says. “It was just like, ‘Do these practice problems, then you’re on your own.’ ” And as he looked ahead at the curriculum, he did not see much relief on the horizon.

New York Times: Why Science Majors Change Their Minds

Possibly related, 30-60% of college students fail their first computer programming class. I’m a big advocate of people learning to program, but research indicates that it might be impossible to teach most people to program by the time they reach college age. It’s not clear yet whether improvements in earlier education could reduce the failure rate, or whether most people’s brains simply aren’t wired in such a way that they can actually learn to program.

However, many of the students like Moniz mentioned above, clearly have the intellectual capacity for these majors. The NYT notes:

The National Science Board, a public advisory body, warned in the mid-1980s that students were losing sight of why they wanted to be scientists and engineers in the first place. Research confirmed in the 1990s that students learn more by grappling with open-ended problems, like creating a computer game or designing an alternative energy system, than listening to lectures. While the National Science Foundation went on to finance pilot courses that employed interactive projects, when the money dried up, so did most of the courses. Lecture classes are far cheaper to produce, and top professors are focused on bringing in research grants, not teaching undergraduates.

Combine the problems outlined above by the NYT with the fact that most students seem unable to learn how to program and the fact that most students don’t learn much in college and we’ve got some serious issues with trying to ever get our population’s science, math, engineering and computer science up to snuff. Hopefully universities will follow the advice of this article and integrate more project work. I have very mixed feelings about my alma mater The Evergreen State College, but I think they’re on to something with project work and interdisciplinary approaches to learning (for example, the Science of Mind course is 16 credits and covers neurobiology, cognitive psychology, statistics and philosophy).

Look a bit further and you’ll discover that our best minds are working on finding better ways to serve ads. Grim times indeed.

Academic Publishers Are Out of Control

George Monbiot has a must-read article in The Guardian on academic publishers. Monbiot points out that academic publishers receive their content for essentially free (the papers are funded by universities, often with public money, and editing is often done on a volunteer basis) and then sold back to the public at exorbitant prices. Individual articles cost at least $30, and subscriptions cost university libraries thousands of dollars per journal per year. The publishers operate at margins of up to 40%. Monbiot writes:

What we see here is pure rentier capitalism: monopolising a public resource then charging exorbitant fees to use it. Another term for it is economic parasitism. To obtain the knowledge for which we have already paid, we must surrender our feu to the lairds of learning.

Monbiot’s solution:

In the short term, governments should refer the academic publishers to their competition watchdogs, and insist that all papers arising from publicly funded research are placed in a free public database. In the longer term, they should work with researchers to cut out the middleman altogether, creating – along the lines proposed by Björn Brembs of Berlin’s Freie Universität – a single global archive of academic literature and data. Peer-review would be overseen by an independent body. It could be funded by the library budgets which are currently being diverted into the hands of privateers.

The Guardian: Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist

(via Brainsturbator)

Update: Matthew Ingram has a post that expands on the reasons why this system remains in place even as other media industries are being disrupted:

Academics who have tried to open up their research or bypass the journal industry say they often run into resistance from a number of sources. Among other things, appearing in a specific journal or publication is a key criteria for advancement at most universities, which means publishing in open-access formats could be a career-limiting move for an academic. Many publish their papers on their own websites, but most also go through the usual journal process as well, which reinforces the existing system. And since universities pay large sums to subscribe to those journals, they often feel compelled to justify those costs by requiring that all research be published through them.

Ingram also cites this post by sociologist and Microsoft researcher danah boyd, who calls for academics to boycott locked down publishers.

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