Mental Indigestion

by Jim Caryl

Category: Observations

Telling tales…

The following is an excerpt about the current interplay between science and the media, taken from an article in this week’s Nature by Colin Macilwain:

…thanks to the massive growth in public relations and to online media’s insatiable appetite for ‘content’, journalism in science, as in other spheres, has evolved into an ugly machine — called ‘churnalism’ by media-watcher Nick Davies and others. This machine delivers inexpensive and safe content, masquerading as news, to an increasingly underwhelmed public.

The machine prospers because it serves the short-term interests of its participants. Editors get coherent and up-to-date copy. Writers get bylines. Researchers, universities and funding agencies get clips that show that their work has had ‘impact’. And readers get snippets, such as how red or white wine makes you live longer or less long, to chat about at the water-cooler.

None of these groups is benefiting strategically from the arrangement. Science is being misrepresented as a cacophony of sometimes divergent but nonetheless definitive ‘findings’, each warmly accepted by colleagues, on the record, as deeply significant. The public learns nothing about the actual cut and thrust of the scientific process, and as a result is beginning to adopt a weary cynicism that can only rebound on science in the long run.

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Strategies for communication…

FURTHER to my recent post on why people don’t accept evidence, it turns out that an editorial 1 and an opinion 2 piece in this week’s Nature, the latter unfortunately behind a pay-wall, actually focus on just this issue. The editorial states:

“Empirical evidence shows that people tend to react to reports on issues such as climate change according to their personal values (see page 296). Those who favour individualism over egalitarianism are more likely to reject evidence of climate change and calls to restrict emissions. And the messenger matters perhaps just as much as the message. People have more trust in experts — and scientists — when they sense that the speaker shares their values.”

So people tend to accept the evidence that supports their personal proclivities, and in fact interpret evidence in a manner than does so, thus people tend to persist in cherished beliefs and views even when confronted with contradictory evidence. This of course is something probably appreciated by most of us. Dan Kahan, in his opinion piece, points out:

“People endorse whichever position reinforces their connection to others with whom they share important commitments. As a result, public debate about science is strikingly polarized. The same groups who disagree on ‘cultural issues’ — abortion, same-sex marriage and school prayer — also disagree on whether climate change is real and on whether underground disposal of nuclear waste is safe.”

Another factor that weighs heavily in the public perception, and acceptance, of facts is the messenger. Owing to the fact that most people are ill-equipped to evaluate the raw data from scientific studies, they rely on the position of credible experts; it seems that those experts laypersons see as credible are those perceived to share the same values.

Research into the mental processes involved in such public perception is, Dan tells us, being conducted by Donald Braman at George Washington University Law School in Washington DC, Geoffrey Cohen at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, John Gastil at the University of Washington in Seattle, Paul Slovic at the University of Oregon in Eugene and Dan Kahan, the Elizabeth K. Dollard professor of law at Yale Law School. These processes are collectively referred to as ‘cultural cognition’.

So what is cultural cognition? Kahan describes it as, ‘the influence of group values (ones relating to equality and authority, individualism and community) on risk perceptions and related beliefs.’ I would imagine that peer-pressure represents one example within a spectrum of influences in cultural cognition.

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Editorial…

IN this blogging age, we are all writers and self-publishers, bypassing the need for publishing houses to pit our meagre words to the scrutiny of all. Yet being the publishers we are, we must recognise that – as in all publishing – there are still editors.

Each blogger is their own editor, though some may not reflect on this fact as they wilfully abandon great tomes of partially masticated drivel into the blogosphere. Others understand that the passionate cause for which they write, their gleeful discourse of some worthy note, must be married carefully with well nurtured words. These words are hunted down and tamed temporarily, often fidgeting and squirming in the embrace of their neighbours. But all words must stand before the judicious honing and pruning of the editor’s critical vision, lest an anarchic cankerous sentence betray your message.

I work in a field in which my work is submitted to academic editors, and I similarly edit the work of others. However, my cruellest and most harsh editorial scrutiny is saved for my own work, and herein lies the problem.

I am my own worst enemy.

I find myself, as both writer and publisher, in a battle of wills with my own editor – me. My editor seems to be overly concerned with this publisher’s impending need to secure an alternative means of funding, and thus for the last month has accepted only written work for applications to achieve that aim.

This blog, this means of communicating my interests and what would otherwise be my tacit discoveries, may as well be Nature or Science for all the luck I’m having getting pieces past my editor.

In 2010 I will start afresh, be less self-critical, and will try to post some of the 20 draft posts I’ve left to languish and die an ignominious death on the editor’s desk.

Never mind the blue skies…

IN YESTERDAY’S Guardian, Ian Sample highlighted the threat posed to British physics if the government maintains its inexorable stance that science should be aimed at money-making enterprise, at the cost of answering the big questions about life, the universe and everything.

[UPDATE 07/10/2009: Ian  Sample reports again on 7th October describing that the Nobel prize-winning chemist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, whose animated lecturing I’ve been fortunate enough to witness, ‘has also attacked government plans to divert research from basic science into projects that are expected to have a quick financial pay-off.’ See also David Mitchell’s wonderfully acerbic commentary on the subject.]

[UPDATE 23/10/2009: The Times has run an article describing how “Hundreds of eminent scientists including Professor Richard Dawkins and six Nobel prizewinners are campaigning against plans to put an end to university research that is deemed worthless….More than 200 chemists, physists and medics say the measures will mean universities will lack the cash to fund academics to undertake the kind of “blue-sky thinking” that led to the discovery of DNA, X-rays and penicillin.

Here, I re-post a blog I wrote back in April when I learnt of the impending deficit in basic research funding highlighted in the government’s Budget document.

Basic research

[First published 24th April 2009]

TODAY ‘The Scientist’ reported that the UK government is going to bail out biotech, investing £750 million ($1.1 billion) to bolster this and other ailing commercial science and technology sectors. This isn’t a bad thing, per se, but at what cost?

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Productivity…

Productivity (Copyright Jorge @ phdcomics.com)

THE thing about being a practising scientist working in academia is that when such a practising scientist decides they want to write more about science in general, they remember that academia is a toxic gas that expands to fill all available space.

We might hope for reprieve from standing at the bench, just a small amount of time to get a handle on our writing, a quick moment to imbibe some of the multiple streams of information from emails, journal table of contents, RSS feeds; alas, the moment a window opens, it is filled with responsibility. This may come in the form of the help you promised someone when you next got a chance; or hunting down an expensive enzyme in neighbouring labs, of which you require a mere fraction of a unit for a throw-away experiment; it could be trying to find a journal article with some essential information, rather than one that is actually interesting. Alternatively, you may just sit and stare into space, your brain already so depleted of sugar that you are protocolling on auto-pilot.

Having filled your day with preparations for experiments, and the remaining 5% of it getting to finally do the experiments, you turn your attention to your student, who is working on a completely different project, with its own set of unique and inconvenient problems, and for which you must but don’t have answers.

Having finally left the lab, if you’re lucky, you’ll manage to get home in time to cook some award winningly simple food (credit us with some respect, some of us do cook from scratch), which is invariably eaten in front of the computer while you finally get to sift through the now ridiculously over-burgeoning information stream, which now includes – lucky me – about a million twitter entries and their links.

Ultimately, if you’re not ready to go by 2 am, you have two choices: either spiral into pit of information overload, eyes glazing over as the numerous ideas that pop into your head leave just as fleeting and unformed as they arrived; or sleep.

There are of course some researchers out there who do manage overwhelmingly with both their professional and private pursuits, hell, I even manage it myself sometimes. But right now, I need a week’s worth of sleep.

Anatomy of (preparing to write) a scientific paper…

IT IS probable that most readers won’t know how much effort it takes to get the results of a scientific investigation in to press. After months and months of work, copious experiments, repetitions, frustrations, banging head against the wall, we enter the next phase – the paper. The effort of will, the to-ing and fro-ing from author to author, author to editor, author to reviewer, author to author, author to reviewer, through revisions and heartache, all so that 99.9% of the working population will never read it, never even know that it exists.

07.00 – Eager with anticipation I hit the computer. I then hit it again, and this time it starts. I’m at work and I’m using one of the institute’s computers. Last night I painstakingly arranged the four lab books I think I need, together with copious scraps of paper bearing notes and ideas for sentences, comments, discussion points. I’m ready to go.

All. I. Need. to. do. is. write. this. paper.

07.05 – [Waiting for computer] Cup of tea.

07.20 – Computer has finished loading. Quickly check emails.

13.00 – Lunchtime and all I’ve got to show for it is five open browser windows, each containing 12 tabs of web pages; an email-driven surf safari gone wrong, and haven’t written a word. Ok, quick lunch and then get down to it.

14.03 – Right: ‘Based on these observations we propose a model of incremental recognition layered specificity in the assembly of…

[Knocking at door] Lab mate: ‘Can you remind me how to use the Fluorescence spectrometer….?’

16.20 – ‘Based on these observations we propose a model of incremental recognition layered specificity in the for assembly of…

[Knocking at door] Lab mate: “Fancy a coffee?”

16.45‘Based on these observations we propose a model of layered specificity in the assembly of nucleosomal control complexes…

[Prof. walks in and sits down] Prof.: “The group in Bristol want the details of that construct we sent them, they’ve lost it, and they also want the other construct from last year, whatever it’s called, I mentioned it to them and they like the idea. I’m off shortly so could you get them away today?”

[Frantic searching through a year’s worth of meetings notes to identify what Prof means by ‘other construct’, then search archive freezer – once the lab manager has been found and the archive freezer key located. Realise that the sample was from July last year when I went on holiday, thus is poorly labelled as I was too excited to get out of the lab. Thirty minutes of cross-checking and I have the sample. Run to get items into last mail collection across campus in the mail centre.]

18.00 – ‘Based on these observations we propose a model of layered specificity incremental recognition in the assembly of nucleosomal control complexes…

[Decide to try working on a figure instead]

20.00 – Figure sorted. ‘Based on these observations we propose a model of layered specificity incremental recognition in the assembly of nucleosomal control complexes…

[Dinner]

22.00 ‘Based on these observations we suggest that the nucleosome assembles stochastically.

[Save. Shut down computer. Walk home]

22.30 – Realise that your plan to continue writing was foiled by forgetting the crucial lab note book. It’s either another figure, or bed. Decide on bed, but worth just checking emails/news/blogs briefly on laptop.

02.30Drearily close laptop. Collapse in to bed.

[Start the whole sorry affair again tomorrow].

Like this article? Please consider submitting it to Open Lab 2009:

Open Lab 2009

My take on Science Online London 2009…

[ratings]

Faraday lecture theatreI HAD good reasons for attending Science Online London 2009, not least of which was to meet – in person – some of the people whose blogs I’ve been reading for some time; and furthermore, how could I turn down an opportunity to spend a day at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. It is always interesting to discover the many cross-overs I shared with other delegates, shared experiences, desires and goals; in one case I found that I’d been working quite literally on top of a fellow blogger (Paolo!) at the same university for five years without once bumping in to him!

However, I am also a professional scientist, so I had a vested interest in some of the more technical discussions in the meeting; I am also passionate about science communication, thus with a varied programme covering the new media applications for science communication, it was bound to be good.

[More below the fold]

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10 year anniversary…

Graduation, University of WalesTHIS week has seen many graduation ceremonies at the university, all imbibed with veritable Hogwartian pomp. It makes me reflect on my own graduation, which curiously enough was exactly 10 years ago this week.

I was full of excitement in the event of getting my BSc. It meant a lot to me, I’d worked ‘fairly’ hard for it, I’d gotten a good grade and was ready to go off and try to be ‘a scientist’. I hadn’t yet figured out how I was going to do that; it would turn out that I would use do a Master’s degree whilst I decided what I wanted to do (which was in fact to go and do a PhD; how inventive of me).

The degree ceremony, held in both Welsh and English (it was the University of Wales after all), was excellent; they actually took the route less travelled and entertained us. There were musical recitals, an award winning Harpist, some meaningful words of wisdom and the usual traditional grandeur. No pulling of fingers or such silliness.

It is in stark contract to the format of the ceremony at my current university, at least five years ago when I graduated with my PhD, where they decided that the appropriate means to celebrate the achievement was to talk about how much research funding the university had received, and what a good job so-and-so vice chancellor was doing. No one cared, everyone just wanted to get their few seconds on stage and be off.

I was of course, like all newly minted graduates, full of cock and bull, ideological and desperately wet behind the ears. I’ve yet to meet a graduate who doesn’t think they know it all, but as is ever the case, within a year, most graduates realise they know nothing. As the brighter ones will admit, ‘the first step on the road to wisdom is admitting that you don’t know anything’; a derivation, I guess, from Socrates’, ‘The only thing I know, is that I don’t know anything’.

Ten years on and I’m still in contact with some of those with whom I graduated, all of whom seem to be doing well in their lives and careers. I remember being reticent to refer to myself as ‘a scientist’ at that time, being worried of being a fraud (an uncharacteristic display of graduate humility); yet I’m glad to say that I can now refer to myself as a scientist in the truest sense, which I think I would have been happy about back then.

Once again I am faced with a summer during which I will have to make some difficult decisions. Either I step up to the next rung of the ladder and become a lectureship somewhere, or I step to the side and find another way to ply my trade, all be it away from the bench.

Still, at least I feel confident saying that the only thing I know, is that I don’t know anything.

iDon’tTouch…

[ratings]

Koi pond WHEN I was part of the huge legion that didn’t go out and buy the newly released iPhone, but instead bought an iTouch, I revelled in my uniqueness, my individuality, my un-erring sense of fashion. Pah, anyone can by an iPhone I thought; I wanted the technology that was almost completely locked, with under-developed software and little use beyond a few snazzy features.

One such snazzy feature was embodied in an early app called ‘Koi Pond’, where the iTouch miraculously became a simulation Koi Pond. I could peer into the magical device and the little Koi swimming amongst the lillies; I could interact with them, ripple the surface. It was really cool for a whole 5 minutes. Then it was boring.

This all changed soon enough, with software updates, the opening up of the OS platform to third party developers and general usability. I was quids in; I saw the development coming and made the right choice. At the end of last week, Apple finally released the much awaited OS 3.0 for iPhone (for free) and iTouch (at cost, of course). I updated on Sunday morning and was pleasantly enjoying the cut and paste (never was cut and paste seen as such a novelty in recent times!) and the Spotlight function allowing me to search my whole iTouch for keywords.

Yes, this fun lasted all of about 2 hours. Upon arriving at a friend’s house on Sunday afternoon, I visited their pond to look for fish. The iTouch slipped from my unsecured shirt pocket into the pond, sinking into the mirk at the bottom.

My digital Koi had had the last laugh as they joined their brethren, before fizzling out never to be seen again.

Bluebells…

One of the joys of heading out into British woodlands in May is the profusion of Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), an ebullient blue-purple woodland carpet, ‘like the blue sky, breaking up through the earth’ (Byron). The UK has 25% of the world’s population of Bluebells, and justly they’re a protected species – not to be picked, but to be enjoyed in their natural environment.

Bluebell woodland

These pictures were taken in the Lake District on Saturday

bluebies_450