Archive for: June, 2010

Mooney Kerfluffle redux, or How Science Journalists Don't Get What The Average Scientist Is Up Against

Jun 30 2010 Published by under Academia, Activism

Chad at Uncertain Principles wonders what the kerfluffle is with Chris Mooney. Chris wrote an Op-ed in the WaPo that summarizes this AAAS article. My last post was directed at the Op-ed, which was pedantic and useless, if not counterproductive. The AAAS article has decent recommendations that will never do what he hopes they will do, for reasons outlined below.
As a side note- I think most of the problem stems from the fact that Mooney isn't saying things that 1) we don't already know or 2) aren't common sense. He also perpetuates stereotypes of the scientists who are poor communicators. It's another one of Chris's self-refuting positions: if we scientists are so arrogant, so unwilling to put up with being misunderstood, so hostile to any perceived stupidity, so wary, curmudgeonly and standoff-ish, then how can he cite a study that says the public generally holds a positive view of scientists? Things that make you go hmmmmmmm......
By and large, I'm willing to bet that these cretin scientists are the Occasional Communicators, the ones who don't do outreach. They think facts should prevail, they take part in, for example, to an evolution debate and act cocky, with no debate training and unprepared for the subtleties of what is essentially a religious right performance, not realizing that 3/4 of the audience has been bussed in from a local church, as orchestrated ahead of time by the Disco 'Tute. Yeah, instant turnoff for the audience at large. What Chris ought to be doing is drawing public eye to the effective science communicators (whether they be scientists or not). These aren't the ones that make a public spectacle, so by and large the media only passingly engages them. (We love dirty laundry.)
Enough idle chit-chat. On to the global problems I have with the AAAS paper.
I agree with Mooney- "nip it in the bud" is a good idea. But the problem isn't coming from your average joe, who generally has a decent opinion of scientists. There is a segment of society that is adamantly anti-establishment, which includes being antiscientific. We all know that anti-vaxers, for example, attribute a large part of their fears at Big Pharma. These traits are telling. They underscore a rejection of all things corporate, of all things modern, of advances in civil liberties. In a post-BP, post-9/11, post-Katrina world, there is a fear of corporate interests. There is great concern that business and government are in bed together, because capitalism, fascism, or communism, that setup doesn't work for shit. Which is why the Luddite message resonates with the general public, who might otherwise trust scientists.
The way you "nip it in the bud" is not to give the Luddites a podium. You do so, you make those who would normally trust scientists nervous. Perpetuate the false controversy, even a little, and you're doing the Luddites' job for them.
Mooney is right: building trust as early as possible is a better response. It sure beats putting out fires. But the AAAS recommendations fail on two counts: 1. they don't take into account the massive paradigm shift that must accompany their recommendations, and 2. are not as far-reaching as they should be. Not by a long shot.
For the latter: Giving people the tools to evaluate scientific claims is a better response. Teaching people to think statistically is a better response. Teaching kids how to detect pseudoscience will be a more effective response. Look, we're poor on resources over here. What agencies and funding we have to devote to these issues, well, we are dwarfed by the opposition. Besides their ability to raise money and support thinktanks, they get free publicity from celebrities and the internet. We don't. The AAAS recommendations don't go far enough. They're tactical. They deal with snuffing individual conflicts. We also need to target our meager resources at building trust with youth; lose the battle, win the war.
For the former: What we need is a massive shift in the way we perceive the role of scientists- Universities treat us as cash cows. We should be viewed, at least in part, as liaisons. Part of our professional responsibilities needs to be outreach. Outreach needs to be targeted, as Mooney suggests. But what I don't think he gets is the scope of the changes he's suggesting. They are too far-reaching to fit within existing job descriptions and expectations. Your average tenure-track faculty does not receive departmental support for any extended outreach, although this does vary widely by institution and department. Oftentimes "outreach" or "service" is defined in a professional setting- how many grant review panels are you on? How many journals do you review papers for? Are you on any departmental or university committees? It is all self-serving and insular. Academic entities depend upon the external money we bring in for survival, why the hell would they want us doing anything that doesn't further the university and its bottom line, especially in this economy?
Real community outreach is often frowned upon by tenure committees, at least if you do it regularly. Here's how tenure committees at research institutions view things: Brain Awareness Week comes once a year, ok. Go talk to the grade school kiddies. But give too many public presentations in the community? Better be to recruit students, else get your ass and your data to a professional conference. Blogging? Fuck that. You wanna write, you should be writing papers or grants. But not review articles, because they're not novel enough contributions and therefore don't count much toward tenure. Hell, writing a book on your own academic area of expertise carries zero weight with most tenure evaluation committees. You want to communicate your expertise then you need to build an international reputation with more papers, more grants, more committees, and more conferences. And more money to support our university staff. So any communication skills workshops you go to should be grant writing workshops. If you want to organize a public talk, do it by setting up a high profile session, forum, or entire conference at your next professional society meeting.
The fact of the matter is, researchers spend most of their time navigating IACUC and IRB red tape, constantly revising and submitting grants in an endless, near-hopeless cycle, frequently teaching (which ends up comprising much more than the10% effort outlined in their contract), occasionally mentoring, and rarely actually doing science. We put our kids to bed at 9pm and go write more grants or revise and resubmit an IRB for the 98th time, until 2am rolls around and we crash. How in the name of St. Gregory's Sack are we supposed to find the time to build our outreach skills? The system does not support it. Full stop.
What outreach we do, we do on our own time. Without training or preparation. If we're good at it, we do it until we burn out. If we're not good at it, we make spectacles of ourselves and then get targeted by another Luddite group for the next debate, to keep the spectacle going and free publicity rolling. That's how the crazies work.
The Bottom Line: The problem with Chris Mooney is that he doesn't understand the problem. And the reason he doesn't get it is because he has never been a scientist and doesn't understand all the factors lined up against us. I'm not trying to be a dick here, I'm giving an honest assessment. Like I said before, his heart is in the right place. Heck he's even right about a lot of things regarding public perceptions. But the basic mechanisms to facilitate what he proposes simply. aren't. there. The resources aren't there. The infrastructure does not support it. The academic lifestyle and administrative expectations are antithetical to it. The university system actively undermines it. Corporations quash it.
While blaming scientists for a broken system, perpetuating myths of the social outcast, and saying that ultimately we just need to listen might sound great, it does nothing to address the core issues. Chris- please, spend more time listening to the scientists too. There just aren't enough hours in the day, and the deck is already stacked against us.

8 responses so far

The LOLcats of Science

Jun 30 2010 Published by under Synaptic Misfires

Sci has something rather big brewing for tomorrow. Really rather large. In fact, it's SO large, that...ok she could have posted today. In fact, she was going to. But then she thought about science LOLcats and how AWESOME they would be...and...
Well here you go.
Sure I'm busy! I'm doing 'research'.
And then I got excited...

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10 responses so far

Rheumatoid Arthritis and the Cell Cycle

Jun 28 2010 Published by under Health Care/Medicine

This is a paper in which Sci has a certain amount of personal investment. You see, Sci has a family member who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis. And when I say suffer, I mean she suffers terribly. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease where you own body attacks the lining of the membranes between your joints. The result is painful swelling and stiffness (arthritis) which usually affects the smaller joints first (like your fingers) and which can severely impair your quality of life. Symptoms can wax and wane, but right now there is no cure, and treatments (which include things like aspirin or harder pain killers, steroids, and other immunosuppressants) are often not very effective and have a large number of side effects.
About 1% of the population is affected, and while the disease isn't itself fatal, it does shorten your lifespan by about 5-10 years, and seriously affects quality of life. Sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis often can't work and daily living is often impaired. So even though it's not a large population of people, it's still very important to find better treatments and attempt to find a cure to improve the lives of those who suffer from the disease.
And so this paper looks at two different proteins that might be able to help the controlling cell division. In fact, one of them is the SAME protein that Sci wrote about a few weeks ago when she looked at the incredible healing mouse. Interestingly, that mouse apparently is used for some autoimmune disease studies like lupus. Hmmmm. Nasu et al. "Adenoviral transfer of cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitory genes suppresses collagen induced arthritis in mice" Journal of Immunology, 2000.
(Does anyone else always worry they are spelling "arthritis" wrong? It's one of those words that look wrong if you look at it too long)
Anyway, let me introduce to you...the arthritic mouse:
(ok, they don't really look like that, but it's cute!)

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3 responses so far

A simple way to get the antiscience crowd to come around?

Jun 27 2010 Published by under Activism

Chris Mooney- a man with his heart in the right place and absolutely no idea what do do after that. Don't get me wrong, I like the guy. He's a force for good when dissecting a scientific issue for the public. But Mooney has been trucking out this same "communication" bullshit for a few years now. As usual, nothing much is offered other than "listen to them". I agree, communication is important, and scientists need to listen as much as talk. Ok..... then what? If, as he says, so many people only consider science as a small part of forming their opinions, what makes him think that they're even open to changing their minds? By his own logic in the article, antivacc'ers are more interested in the science than the general public, yet impervious to sound interpretations of it. So are anti-evolution folk. So are climate change deniers.
Mooney: Listen the Fuck UP. Just because some segments of the population are interested in cherry-picking data doesn't mean they have any interest in dialogue, in sharing information, in reformulating their opinions, in understanding the process of science, or in interpreting the data in light of the larger framework that they are willfully misunderstanding. This is true by your own logic.
Secondly- stop making the false dichotomy of scientists vs "the public". Um, hello, we're not always this misanthropic insular group that only shuffles between home and the lab by moonlight, shunning all interpersonal interactions. We have families, we take our kids to ballgames, we do our own sports clubs, we volunteer at churches and animal shelters, we go out on the weekends. Some of us engage in public outreach quite regularly, we tell the public about our research in a host of settings from evolution dialogues at colleges and churches to practical public health dissemination at dormitories. We answer questions and discuss the consequences of our research.
In fact, Chris, we are the public. Not every scientist is an expert outside their field. We rely on the news, Scienceblogs, Discoverblogs, SciAm, the NYT, and other popular outlets for our info and interpretations. We don't always go to the primary literature for the same reasons "the public" doesn't. When I need to know about global warming, I hit and The Intersection, because these sites distill the science well (btw thank you Chris and Sheril).
Mooney cites a Pew study that says the general public is generally positive on the scientific community, it's the scientists who are wary of the media. Maybe if those in the media and popular press would stop treating us like a different species, "the people" who we don't reach would feel less wary about trusting us when the data we generate challenges their preconceptions. Maybe if the media would stop treating everything like a "controversy", and stop giving free air time for dissemination of misinformation, we wouldn't have to spend our time debunking crap that was debunked 150 years ago (in the case of evolution) and could focus more on education. Here's an example; anybody even remotely familiar with the "controversy" surrounding mercury and autism knows who Andrew Wakefield is. He gets mentioned in practically every article and gets the media's "equal time" treatment, even though the guy is a total slime and we've known it for years. How many legitimate medical researchers, on the other hand, get more than a two-sentence quote? How many autism researchers fighting the good fight get profiled to the extent that Wakefield does? If you're not in the field, can you even name an autism researcher on the other side of the line from Wakefield?
So what can scientists do? Well, we have to pull double-duty debunking misconceptions of the data and of scientists in general. Universities and especially tenure committees need to be more supportive of scientists devoting time to outreach, especially for those conducting the so-called "lightning rod" research. That means more settings where scientists take the practical side of their research and tell the public about it, before it becomes an issue (which admittedly is about the only thing Mooney lays out as a strategy, even though he doesn't get into the nuts and bolts). Kids need to be made aware of how vaccines benefit them and the population as a whole. The general public needs to understand how evolution impacts their local ecosystems. We need to get out there and engage the public more, as scientists we've always fell short here. More scientists need to consider media-based careers, like Phil Plait. More scientists need to speak up in church if they hear bullshit getting peddled. More scientists need to sit on school boards. If you're a scientist and you're active in politics, find somebody like-minded in the opposing political party and organize a politics-free teachable moment where both sides of the aisle show up and see each other as human beings with common science-based problems that transcend their petty politics. Find ways to have teach-ins with legislators and staffers at the state and federal levels, if possible.
There, I've already done more than Mooney. I've made a couple concrete suggestions for how the problem needs to be addressed. Go check out PalMD's blog post for a good response to Mooney's article.
Let's actually do more than just listen.

17 responses so far

Friday Weird Science: Snoring Problem? Have you considered a didgeridoo?

Jun 25 2010 Published by under Friday Weird Science

Thanks again to NCBI ROFL, who finds these hilarious things and posts their abstracts for all the world to see, and for Sci to giggle over and then run around trying to find hilarious pictures of didgeridoos.
So, let's talk about your snoring problem.
And then let's talk about your musical stylings on the didgeridoo.
digeridoo.gif Puhan, et al. "Didgeridoo playing as alternative treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome: randomised controlled trial" British Medical Journal, 2006.
And to get an idea of what this whole study must have sounded like:

(Dang, this guy is really good...)

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11 responses so far

Calling Grad Students, past, present, and future

Jun 24 2010 Published by under Academia

Samia, over at 49 Percent, is about to become a brand spanking new grad student. And, like the good blogger she is, she's interested in the input of...other bloggers. What's grad school going to be like? What should people watch out for? What things should you look for when choosing a lab? When choosing a project? What kind of things do you wish you knew when you started? Well now you have an opportunity to share. Samia is accepting submissions for a grad school carnival, scheduled for August 15. Sounds like fun! She's interested in perspectives from new grad students, current grad students, old grad students, and basically anyone who's ever had anything to do with grad school. Send 'em in and let's make this thing a repository of grad knowledge!

2 responses so far

Here there be dragon drool!!!

Jun 23 2010 Published by under Basic Science Posts, Natural Sciences

Sci was going to save this one for a Friday Weird Science, but it's just so awesome that she couldn't bring herself to save it. She had to blog it NOW! It's not neuroscience, but it's awesome. Also, there's dragons.
Not this kind:
dragonage origins.jpg
(Anyone else think Dragon Age Origins is really awesome?! Well, Sci spends a lot of her time wondering why the ladies are so dang naked. You're climbing a high mountain pass in the winter! Your cleavage will suffer frostbite!!!)
It's this kind:
I'm sure you all know that dragons have TERRIBLE breath, but what about that whole "poison" thing? Bull et al."Deathly Drool: Evolutionary and Ecological Basis of Septic Bacteria in Komodo Dragon Mouths" PLoS ONE, 2010.

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4 responses so far

Congrats, and Awesome Site!

Jun 22 2010 Published by under Academia

First off, YAY ED!!! Ed Yong, of Not Exactly Rocket Science Fame, has won the Top Quark Prize for Science, given out by Three Quarks Daily. His post, on gut bacteria in Japanese people who love sushi, is truly really awesome. Kudos also to the winners of the Strange Quark and the Charm Quark! Well written all around!!!
And secondly, Sci got wind recently of something really cool brewing on the internets. This cool thing is a place called The Third Reviewer, which allows people to post comments on journal articles. Right now it's only neuroscience (which is enough for Sci!!) but maybe if it gets popular it will expand. Sci thinks this is a brilliant idea. Right now, you can't really comment on a lot of articles (unless the paper is in PLoS, and though PloS is great, it can't publish everything). Most require you to send in a comment, written and cited, which then has to be reviewed and itself published. And mostly, that won't happen at all. But this is commenting instantly, and ANONYMOUSLY.
Sci thinks this is brilliant. Of course you may get some quacks on there, but you will also get grad students and post-docs, stretching their wings in commenting on science, who will finally feel they can comment without putting their reputations in their field on the line. Sci knows that she and her professional cronies have discussed papers long and hard, and often had some pretty angry (or happy) opinions, but were afraid to say anything due to the huge effort and the possible blow to your reputation that can come from speaking your mind to the big dogs, and maybe, getting it wrong. So this looks like a great idea, and I hope it gains momentum. Check it out!
And now, back to your regular Tuesday.

3 responses so far

Stress and Anxiety, aka CRF and 5-HT2

Today's post comes to you from several tweets that Sci received way back in the mists of time (that is...two weeks ago. Three? Something like that). Sci got wind of this paper and has been meaning to blog it for a while, but other things get in the way, like other things will. And when those other things finally get out of the way, Sci sometimes finds that she's so SLEEPY she doesn't know if she can make it through any more dry, sciency prose (sciency prose, even at the best of times, is pathetically dry. It's why Sci blogs for you. See how she cares).
Like right now, when Sci is SO SLEEPY she just wants to lie down next to the cat and sack out. Scicat is currently reclining in a truly relaxed manner on the floor and isn't making this any easier. But for the sake of stress, anxiety, depression, and a large glad of iced Moroccan mint green tea, SCI BLOGS ON.
bottom biting bug.png
(Sci's determination very much resembles that of the bottom biting bug pictured here. A friend of mine showed this to me about a year ago, and it may still remain the oddest thing I have ever seen on the internet. Sci also finds it hilarious that every time anyone in Japan apparently trains for ANYTHING, they must at some point sit under a waterfall, and always end by looking determined on the top of Mt. Fuji. It's like the Rocky Steps of Japan.) Magalhaes, et al. "CRF receptor 1 regulates anxiety behavior via sensitization of 5-HT2 receptor signaling" Nature Neuroscience, 2010.

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7 responses so far

Friday Weird Science: a tote for your scrote, a recepticle for your testicle.

Jun 18 2010 Published by under Friday Weird Science

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for
Many thanks to NCBI ROFL for providing this excellent gem of a paper. I was actually going to do another one that I found via their site, but then I saw this one and I HAD TO HAVE IT. And so much additional thanks goes to Jason of the Thoughtful Animal and twitter bud hectocotyli, who managed to find the paper, as Sci only has access to the stacks copy and was about to pull her hair out.
And it was all worth it, my friends! This is a paper of such hilarious awesome that Sci can barely contain her giggles as she writes.
Let me introduce to you...the ball sling.
Just like that. 'Cept it's for a different pair of rocks. Shafik, A. "Contraceptive efficacy of polyester-induced azoospermia in normal men." Contraception, 1992.
Hehehe. A ball sack for your ball sack. A recepticle for your testicle. A tote for your scrote! I could do this all day...
A sling for your thing. A thong for your dong. A sock for your cock...
Anyway, let me introduce to your a tote for your scrote, made out of the ever classy polyester.
(NSFW pics below the fold. As though that picture of polyester shirts wasn't full of enough horror).

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24 responses so far

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