One Rotten Apple Spoils the Whole Barrel

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

Image: Diana Jasudasen

Ben Goldacre is a British doctor and academic who spends most of his time hunting down foolish science stories reported in the media and debunks the myths they perpetuate.

If you haven’t come across him yet, where have you been?  I strongly recommend you check out his website before anyone finds out.

Goldacre’s first book, Bad Science was published in 2008 and has a whole chapter titled “How The Media Promote the Public Misunderstanding of Science”. He boils this miscommunication down to the fact that most journalists are humanities graduates who feel disadvantaged about the fact that their area of expertise hasn’t contributed to the most significant developments in our history.

I personally think that’s a little harsh but agree with the opinion that the media feels obliged to report all news as the most exciting thing since sliced bread. Hence the term ‘newsworthy’. Who decides what is “worthy” of the news? If you scan the headlines in the newspaper, they often don’t correlate to the content of the article.

The example Goldacre uses to demonstrate this point is one of IQ and intelligence. ‘Research has shown that black children in America tend to perform less well in IQ tests than white children’ compared to ‘Research has shown that black people are less intelligent than white people’. It’s not the same sentence at all!

This may not sound like that big a deal to some of you, but when the media misreports on issues about health, the consequences can be a lot more serious. Here is a clip of Ben Goldacre speaking up about the media perpetuating the myth that MMR vaccines cause autism:

 

But if one scientist makes a claim and another challenges it, it makes it sound like the jury is still out on the matter. Is it then really the media who promote the public misunderstanding of science or should there be more policing of dodgy scientists who conduct dodgy research?

Are we preaching to the converted?

My day in a nutshell:

 1) Get up, log into my Google Reader, read blogs that I subscribe to

 2) Check twitter, read tweets (many by the same people who’s blogs I just read)

 3) Open up the assignment that I am determined to finish before I go to class (because I won’t be beaten by procrastination – not this time anyway).

3) Click on links that take me directly to articles on websites that I would normally frequent anyway

 4) Open up my facebook account, read feeds from anyone that has ever been associated with anything that I have ever ‘liked’

5) Make some lunch (yes it it lunchtime already – I got distracted by talking to my friends in the USA because it is night there)

6) Still a few hours to do my assignment.… A podcast that I subscribe to just came through on my phone.

7) The host suggested an interesting website at the end of the show – I’ll just check that out.

8) DAMNIT I am late for Uni!

 

As I run out the door I am faced with a fork in the cognitive road. I can either:

Image

 

 

The first option causes “cognitive dissonance” – the evidence is challenging my perceptions of myself as a determined and motivated person.

The second option maintains “cognitive consonance” – it maintains my determined and motivated self-perception at the expense of, well…the reality.

 

I am going to go with the consonance because I don’t like having my beliefs challenged.

 

As it turns out noone else does either. In a study of people’s preferences to reading political literature 36% more time was spent reading reports that agreed with the reader’s political leanings (Knobloch-Westerwick and Jingbo Meng, 2009). People tended to avoid articles that challenged their political ideology.

But at least it is not 100%, you might say, at least they are being exposed somewhat to other views. In a lab maybe. The reality these days is different. Self-selecting material and denying evidence was not my only problems today. If I happened to accidentally find myself ‘surfing’ the web (unlikely) all the content that is displayed is selected for me by google based on my past internet use. Gone are the days when I could outsmart Google with a proxy server or IP mask, now they get everything they need from my Gmail + and YouTube accounts, no matter where I am in the World!

 

So, if everyone is self-selecting their information exposure and discarding anything that doesn’t align with what they want to believe, can we ever change people’s perceptions or attitudes?

 

Or are we all just preaching to the converted?

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Knobloch-Westerwick, S., & Meng, J. (2009). Looking the other way: Selective exposure to attitude-consistent and counterattitudinal political information. Communication Research, 36(3), 426-448.

By Dangerous

Faster Than the Speed of Sound

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No its…

 

Felix Baumgartner, a professional Base jumper / Daredevil earned is place in the history books last Sunday after successfully landing the highest freefall ever from the edge of space. Nuts! The video above shows the seconds leading up to Felix’s jump and it certainly made me feel uneasy.

This story has gained serious attention over international media over the past week and for good reason. Felix set the world record for skydiving an estimated 39 kilometres, reaching an estimated speed of 1,342 kilometres per hour. Felix also broke other world records such as the highest manned balloon flight and (more amazingly), the record for fastest speed of freefall, making him the first human to break the sound barrier without the use of a vehicle. Leading up to the jump, Felix had battled panic attacks caused by bouts of claustrophobia in his suit but he pushed through and went on to achieve this amazing stunt.

The jump wasn’t just a genius marketing campaign by Red Bull. Jump organizers hoped to test whether parachuting from immense heights could prove a viable means of escape for commercial space travel. Those parsing the biometric data gathered during the mission included the US Air Force and NASA. This certainly got me interested in what felix does so here’s Felix’s top 5 Freefalls:

By ericliharrison
Aside

In recent years, the online media and the use of the Internet has grown exponentially due to the widespread and growth of technology. Goods and services have started to become available and easily assessable online. People can purchase goods and merchandise from their favorite stores on different websites in the comfort of their own homes. Stores are even setting up worldwide delivery and shopping has never been easier. Even food can be delivered into the comfort of one’s own home via a few clicks of the mouse.

Schools and universities have also incorporated the online media into the curriculum. In UWA, students are given assess to online lectures and the freedom to choose when to listen to the uploaded lectures. The Internet is so prominent that it is crucial to know how to use it to our benefit. Hence, scientists are stepping up and publishing blog entries to get in touch with a larger audience. Blog entries give opportunities to individuals to express their view on a given subject and the liberty of sharing an idea (like how this blog entry is supposed to influence and generate comments from my fellow peers). But how does blogs open up areas of science for the public? Trench’s (2012) article on Scientists’ blogs: glimpses behind the scenes explore this question.

I like how Trench describes blogs as ‘More conversational internet media, specifically as web logs (blogs)’ (Trench, 2012). So, what goes on behind the scenes? Or how does communication affect the conduct of science? To answer these questions, we would have to first look at the growth of science blogging, the benefits of science blogging, features of scientists’ blogs, and the special case of climate science.

The slow growth of Science blogging

The number of blogs has grown increasingly as more and more people get involved into the blogosphere. In most cases, bloggers write about entries related to their areas of interest, sharing information and opinions about a particular subject. Some academic researchers have ventured into the area of blogging, but those are mostly subjects on literature, political philosophy, and popular culture. The topics of natural science are hardly blogged about, and science blogs still remains as a ‘niche activity’.

Uses and Impacts of Science blogging

  • Science blogging influencing the practice of science. Science blogging allows room for discussion and generation of new ideas.
  • A form of communication between the science community and general public. This allows interaction with the audience, engaging them with different topics and building relations in the process.
  • Putting a ‘human face’ to science and health related issues. Science blogging allows the scientist to give his or her own personal experiences and opinion and the freedom to express accordingly.

Features of Scientists’ Blogs

  • Good web conduct, including proper references, sources and content.
  • Frequent updates, to keep readers updated.
  • Different types of sources, to spark interest of the audiences.
  • All types of information featured, including topics such as controversy and ethics than with science content. This also helps make the topic more relatable for the audiences.

The Special Case of Climate Science

Climate science is unpredictable and seen to have strong political and ethical implications. The area of climate science is strongly associated to the media, as the change in climate generally affects everybody, and weather is a highly talked about topic. It is noted that blog entries about climate change politics are mostly highly opinionated with subjective judgments from the writer which may not be 100% scientific accurate.

With the rise of the online media, it is definitely easier to reach out to a larger audience through the use of technology. Hence, scientists have to keep up with the new age of technology and incorporate the usage of the online media to publish their works. I personally think that online interactive media further helps to spark the interest of the public (as compared to boring journal articles that are just words and numbers). What is your take about scientists’ blogs? Do you think it is effective in sparking the interest of the public?

References

9GAG. (2012). Chemistry Cat [Image]. Retrieved October 11, 2012, from <http://s3-ak.buzzfed.com/static/enhanced/terminal01/2011/7/26/11/enhanced-buzz-14281-1311694183-9.jpg&gt;

Trench, B. (2012) Scientists’ Blogs: Glimpses behind the scenes. Sociology of the Sciences Yearbook, 28(6): 273-289.

Scientist’s blogs

The happy hormone

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Are the heavy workloads of assignments bothering you? Do you feel the pounding of your heart as the exam datelines approaches, and you realized that you have tons of lectures to catch up on? Fret not, take a short break and have a kit-kat! It would make you feel better. Chocolates such as kit-kats give off the ‘happy hormone’, also known as serotonin.

What causes our brain to feel happy?

Serotonin and endorphin goes hand in hand with controlling and affecting our mood. Serotonin acts as a neurotransmitter, while endorphins are hormones that work with the endocrine system and released in our bodies.

What are serotonin and endorphins?

Serotonin plays an important role as a regulator of the nervous system functions. It helps to relay messages from one part of the brain to another. A huge portion of the brain cells is affected by serotonin. This includes emotions such as appetite, learning, memory, mood, social behavior, sexual desire and function, and temperature regulation.

An imbalance in serotonin levels would have negative outcomes. To put it simply, if you do not have serotonin, chances of getting depression would be skyrocketing (oh no!).

Endorphins can be found in the nervous system, the pituitary gland, or throughout other parts of the brain. Endorphins are hormones that allow the body to feel calm and relaxed. It is the body’s natural medication, which relieves tension and helps you sleep better.

Endorphins are usually produced as a response to pain, fear or stress. Low endorphins level causes people to be anxious and more aware of pain. High endorphins level helps to diminish pain and have lesser effects towards stress.

For the pleasure seekers out there, orgasms are also a contributing factor for endorphins. Apart from that, it is a great workout that helps to burn calories. *wink*

So, what contributes to this ‘happy hormones’?

  1. Chocolates
  2. Fruits
  3. Exercise
  4. Kissing
  5. Drugs

All of the above! When serotonin and endorphins are released, the stress hormones would decrease and one’s mood would increase. Thus, I highly recommend the first three attributes.

Chocolates taste good and they contain both serotonin and endorphin production. They also consist of antioxidants, which protects the body from aging. Most fruits usually also consist of a huge range of vitamins that are good for the health. For example, oranges can boost serotonin levels, and are high in vitamin C. There goes the recommended serving of 2 portions of fruits and vegetables a day, seen commonly on the health promotion boards. Exercises are good in decreasing stress hormones and increases endorphins. Besides, a good workout helps one look good, keep fit, and the body healthy.

Not to undermine kissing. Kissing is good, if you stick to kissing the same person. If not, the widespread of other germs and viruses can be uncanny. Flu viruses can be spread through the sharing of saliva. Drugs such as ecstasy gives off serotonin and makes one feel good. However, the side effects are too great that one should not risk one’s health just for a temporary high. Thus, I strongly do not recommend kissing and drugs.

What is the importance of feeling happy?

Being happy makes you feel good. A smile gives off a happy vibe and a friendly outward expression, making a person more approachable especially when greeting someone. Smiling is an expression understood by every race and culture. Most importantly, it is free and has an ability to brighten up one’s day.

So, what are you doing now? You know the drill, give me a smile if you can! After all, it takes fewer muscles to smile than to frown. Smiling is the biggest key of happiness too. Time to turn that frown into a smile, and the tears into joy. Away with all the sadness and unhappiness, it’s time to start thinking about the rainbows and butterflies.

Many have not thought about the health benefits of happiness and the side effects of stress. Do they know that many simple things in life that can make one feel good? Even soaking up minute amount of sunshine energizes the body and promotes vitamin D intake. Have you thought of the importance between health and happiness? What do you do to feel happy?

Here’s a video of Pinkie Pie (from My Little Pony) with her Smile Song. Hopefully, it’ll brighten up your day.

 

References

Ahmad, H. R., & Brown, S. M. (2006). Serotonin. The American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 163(1), pp. 12.

Malick, J. B., & Bell, R. M. (1982). Endorphins: chemistry, physiology, pharmacology, and clinical relevance. New York.

Pruitt, D. S. (2012). Baby smiling [Image]. Retrieved October 3, 2012, from <http://www.flickr.com/photos/pinksherbet/3617699772/&gt;

Aside

What makes a good science podcast?

You are asking the right person, I am subscribed to 20 of them (a few more since I read this paper).

But first, the ideal show, according to listeners of Astronomy Cast (Gay, Bembrose-Fetter, Bracey and Cain, 2007), contains two hosts, includes interviews with real scientists, five-minute news updates and information on events related to the shows topic. While I don’t necessarily have any disagreement with what they have to say here, there are few points on which I really agree with them.

The reasons listeners said they liked Astronomy Cast was because they were “intellectually stimulating” and “not dumbed down”. I like to listen to podcasts that are well outside the areas that I studied because they are more challenging. This is what I like most about the multitude of podcasts that I listen to.

Bear in mind that I have a background in science and most of the respondents to the survey also have a general interest in science (although it is not clear if the podcast inspires people to seek out more science or if they were listening to the podcast because they were interested in science). I am not sure if the same criteria would be held for people without a background in science.

This does raise an interesting point, that the internet provides the opportunity for tailoring information for very niche markets (I use the word market loosely because they are free) and on a global scale, even the smallest markets in relative terms can be fairly big in absolute terms.

Astronomy Cast is listened to by people all over the world, yet the demographics of their viewers were surprisingly similar in terms of level of education, socio-economic status and interests. This makes it even more important for them to learn about their audience because one slip-up that disappoints their listeners could make them loose their entire base.

What about you, have any of you sought out any real niche information in podcasts? What was it and what made you like it?

If you havn’t listened to any podcasts here is an awesome segment from Radiolab to get you started :)

 Otherwise 

 The Brain Science Podcast – for all things neuroscience

 Rationally Speaking – The intersection of science and philosophy

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Gay, P.L., Benrose-Fetter, R., Bracey, G., & Cain, F, (2007). Astronomy Cast: Evaluation of a podcast audience’s content needs and listening habits. Cap 1 (1), 24-29.

 

 

What makes a go…

By Dangerous
Aside

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”

This is a quote from Philip Pullman, an author. Stories are a huge part of communication. They encourage learning beyond the lifetime of an individual. They can be passed through generations.

 

A good story can be remembered, there is no need to go back and read it, it can be passed by word of mouth from person to person, spreading with it a message or a viewpoint.  If you can tell a good story while remaining accurate a message can be communicated so easily.

‘Don’t be Such a Scientist- talking substance in a age of style’ is a book written by Richard Olsen. There is a chapter dedicated entirely to the art of storytelling, it is entitled ‘Don’t be Such a Poor Storyteller’. This chapter highlights the importance of scientists being good storytellers, but also being accurate storytellers.

 

A youtube clip on what the book involves is available: if you don’t have much time I would recommend sipping to 0.50!

Do you think people can ‘learn’ to be storytellers? I’m sceptical. I think you can learn certain aspects to being a good storyteller, but I think ‘the art of storytelling’ is not something that everyone can learn. On top of this, not every scientific discover is able to ‘become’ a story. To turn something like a journal article into a story requires creativity, do you think this is something achievable by every scientist out there?

References

Olsen, R. (2009) Don’t be such a scientist: Talking substance in a age of style. Washington: Island Press. Chapter 3 Don’t be such a poor storyteller pp. 104-118.

Image: ‘Old books I found in the living room’ Avsilable from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Old_books_-_Stories_From_The_Past.jpg taken on: 19th September 2012

Tell me a story grandma?

By zoesimmons

Grey’s Anatomy vs ER. (Breast Cancer Storyline – busted!)

We have come across so many different types of communication strategies in our science communication course. This article touches on one strategy that I’m sure we all can relate to quite easily – entertainment-education.

Entertainment-education (E-E) is a communication strategy that has been popular among international health promotion program planners since the 1950s.

They have been integrated into dramatic serial TV programs, and other forms of entertainment. This stretches out in countries as diverse as Mexico, Turkey, India, South Africa, and Columbia. They target health issues such as HIV/AIDS prevention, reproductive health, family planning, domestic violence, and the list goes on.

E-E has the potential to cost-effectively reach millions of people with health messages. There are a couple of reasons why I think and agree that it really is so effective:

  1. Drama serials attract large audiences, as people are able to relate to things in the shows – e.g. characters, emotions, scenarios, gender, race etc. Well, “life” basically.
  2. Once they get drawn or hooked to a drama serial, the program may subtly touch on different health issues every other episode while maintaining an intriguing storyline, which will keep viewers in suspense and coming back for more.
  3. Viewers chat and discuss about it with their friends or fellow viewers, and may even introduce the show to others.
  4. A lot of people are visual learners and watching shows can be considered observational learning. This can lead to attainment of new knowledge, impacts on attitudes and behaviours.
  5. Drama serials visually portray future consequences of a certain topic. In other words, it “fast-forwards” time to show the impacts of present-day decisions.

If one drama serial can be so powerful, what do you think the impact would be if two drama serials exercised a coordinated campaign in the same period?

Image Image

(Photo credits to eztv.it and topnews.in)

Everybody would have heard of the two very famous and popular medical dramas namely, Grey’s Anatomy (cheer if you love this!) and ER (cheer if you think this show is old!). In 2005, both dramas focused on the breast cancer risk that confronts women who test positive for the gene mutation (BRCA1). The two stories featured female patients who were struggling with the difficult decision of choosing to undergo preventive surgery (prophylactic mastectomy) to reduce her risk of developing cancer, since they were already tested positive for the BRCA1 test. (Scientific research shows that preventive surgery does reduce the risk by about 90%.)

The two dramas had similar storylines and similar health messages, however, after a study was done to evaluate the impact of both, it showed that the storylines had influenced different variables (knowledge, attitudes, behavioural intentions and behavioural change).

 

As much as I think that drama serials and shows are really effective in communicating science and creating awareness of health issues, I also feel that it can be very dangerous if viewers were to make life decisions based on them.

People tend to put themselves in the actors/actresses shoes and follow the decisions they make. But in doing that, they will also be expecting the ideal scenario, which they are now familiar with, to also happen in real life. (We know that it probably won’t happen that way. I mean, how can romance, relationships, family support, friendship, medical outcomes all turn out exactly 100% like in a drama?)

 With that said, is entertainment-education really more effective than dangerous? What do you think?

 

 

Reference:

Heather et al. (2008) Entertainment-Education in a Media-Saturated Environment: Examining the Impact of Single and Multiple Exposures to Breast Cancer Storylines on Two Popular Medical Dramas. Journal of Health Communication: International Perspectives, 13(8): 808-823.

By Jessica Ho

Watching the guinea pig; Papua New Guinea

The Nautilus Mineral is leading the world in the quest to develop, seafloor mineral deposits. It is developing the world’s first seafloor mining in the Bismarck Sea of Papua New Guinea (PNG). However, there are sensitive emerging issues that need attention before this major mining event could take its full course. The world is watching with curiosity as unfortunately, PNG is going to be the guinea pig.

The main hinted issue here is, “the interface between Seafloor Massive Sulfides (SMS) mining and environmental protection will be particularly challenging for developing countries such as PNG or Tonga and others in the Pacific, because of their limited capacities to undertake appropriate environmental laws to oversee seafloor mining activities effectively.”(Hoagland et al., 2010)

How much awareness on careful thoughts, considerations and communication had been delivered to the public? As far as environmental impacts and livelihood of the coastal PNG population is concerned this seabed mining project is going change everything.

We cannot see much under the sea, but there is sure living creatures whose peaceful habitat is likely to be disturbed by the slightest movement on the seafloor. How about this image?

How much do we know about the nature of this type of mining? Has the government of the day thought of its people and how this project is going to affect the daily lives of its people? Did the Nautilus company highlighted all the pros and cons of its operation? Has it done an honest plan for the next 20 years of its operation within the waters of PNG and in other parts of the Pacific? How much science (marine ecosystems disturbance) is there to be understood to appreciate or not appreciate this kind of development?

Here’s a video that should tell us how much has been said and understood as far as the development is concerned.

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Although Nautilus promises to encourage skills and technology transfer in terms of the following;

• Clean mining, low disturbance

• Little disruption of land holders

• Increased safety (compared with onshore operations)

• Royalties and taxes.

Can we safely rely and trust it? How far down the line would we tolerate before our lives are transformed by its influence, whether for good or bad?

Reference:

Video – http://youtu.be/tlnwguwO9Rc

Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pennstatelive/6011611812/sizes/m/in/photostream/

Hoagland, P., Beaulieu, S., Tivey, M. A., Eggert, R. G., German, C., Glowka, L., & Lin, J. (2010). Deep-sea mining of seafloor massive sulfides. Marine Policy, 34(3), 728-732. doi: 10.1016/j.marpol.2009.12.001

Watching sci-fi movies can blur understanding of science

“Science fiction films are not about science. They are about disaster, which is one of the oldest subjects of art.” 
― Susan Sontag

A group of 38 students in 8th grade were tested on their understanding of earth science concepts after going through 4 weeks of classroom study and then watching the movie The Core.

Why do this study?

Because research has shown that watching science fiction movies and television shows distorts the viewer’s ability to distinguish scientific facts from fiction

Specifically, this study was designed to find out the potential impacts of watching a popular science fiction movie on a student’s understanding of previously learned science concepts.

What did they find?

Surprisingly the study found that a large percentage of students explained their ideas using examples from the movie and with great confidence, even though they were wrong!

A single viewing of a science fiction movie had a negative impact on the students understanding of science concepts they had learnt before.

Why did the fictitious movie have such an impact?

The researchers believed that 3 main themes could explain why the students took on the ideas from the fictional movie:

  1. The concepts were believable and realistic (eg. Generally students know that microwave ovens are used to heat food, so they believed that microwaves as depicted in the movie could burn and destroy)
  2. The main character seemed to have scientific authority
  3. Images are more memorable than hands-on classroom experience

Sci-fi movies are made to be entertaining and while it is known to be fictional, it remains a powerful tool for influencing minds and provoking the imagination. They seem very plausible and real, often the result of subtle mixing of fact and fiction which blurs the line between reality and imagination.

What can we do with this information?

Teachers and science educators should be familiar with popular science movies to understand the misconceptions their students may have. Review such movies with critique to enable students to identify what elements were correct or wrong and explain why.

Be more selective of sci-fi movies especially if they seem very real, perhaps it is better to go for absolute fiction than something seemingly scientific?

Have you ever believed something in a movie which made sense but was not actually true? How did you respond to it?

As a science communicator how will you make use of this knowledge about the impact of sci-fi movies?

References:

Barnett, M. et al. (2006) The impact of science fiction film on student understanding of science. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 15(2): 179-191.

Image 1: http://jackasscritics.com/movie.php?movie_key=266

Image 2: http://bagelandamovie.blogspot.com.au/2009/02/flicks-are-for-kids.html