You didn’t march for science…you marched for the pre-frontal cortex…

Image result for emotion vs reason quote

“You didn’t run the code locally and bug check it before you submitted it, did you?”

I knew I hadn’t. I should have, but, it had been so late and I was so tired. I’d written the LHCb trigger code update in a hurry. It was cobbled together, a mess, barely – if at all – functional. I knew I’d dropped the ball on this one and I had to apologise. The experiment wouldn’t be able to power up and run for several hours because of me. Because of me, vital run time and vital data would be lost. Because of me, the head of the experiment was calling me internationally at 6am. Because of me, the progress of science and the march of progress would be slowed.

“Did you?…”

For some reason, that second prod changed everything. It didn’t feel like a question. It felt like a jibe, an insinuation, an attack. The initial emotional reaction of disappointment, embarrassment and acquiescence subsided, and was replaced by an unjustified irritation, an unvalidated desire to fight back and before I knew it….

“Of course I did! It must have been some snarl up in the submission process!”

I didn’t know why I came out swinging. I didn’t know why I let my visceral and fleeting emotional response get the better of me, and, earlier today, I still didn’t know why this episode had returned to me, in full and embarrassing mental technicolour and surround sound, whilst reading about the recent marches for science. But, I’ve learned to recognize when my sub-conscious is telling me something, to accept that my mind is away making patterns that I haven’t even begun to appreciate consciously.

Now, I think I might understand…

When this event returned to me, I was flicking through the entries in a recent Slate article:

http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2017/04/22/here_are_some_of_the_best_signs_from_the_march_for_science.html

The article opens with the following (and only) paragraph:

“Tens of thousands of people gathered in hundreds of rallies around the world on Earth Day in what was described as a “celebration” of science and support for evidence-based policies. Although the marches were billed as a way to emphasize “the vital role science plays in our democracy” they were largely protests against President Donald Trump’s proposed cuts in budgets for science and research program as well as his well-documented skepticism of climate change. “We didn’t choose to be in this battle, but it has come to the point where we have to fight because the stakes are too great,” climate scientist Michael Mann said.

671501078-people-with-signs-attend-a-rally-before-the-march-for

This was the introduction that set my sub-conscious whirring, because, although I really love the signs outlined in the article, I am not the one that needs to feel their impact, and I fear, as much as I love science and support my fellow scientists, science communicators and science advocates, I fear many on the march, by attacking Trump, may have been barking at the moon.671470216-dog-carries-a-placard-as-scientists-and-science

Marching to highlight “the vital role science plays in our democracy”

Many are expressing the sentiment that you shouldn’t have to march for the scientific method and facts. It’s surely self evidently true that the scientific method is the best way to delineate fact from the fiction and the key to humanity’s progress. But, who is this sentiment aimed at?

Let’s start by assuming it is aimed at Trump himself and his cabinet.

Do you really think that there aren’t incredibly smart people within his administration that realise the power of science and it’s application? Trump’s campaign team executed the scientific method perfectly. They performed a review of the evidence that indicated that huge swathes of Americans felt disconnected, under-represented and disenfranchised. They created a hypothesis that these people could be engaged, incentivized and mobilised. Then they put the MAGA experiment into over-drive. The project that offered a simple message, promises of taking back control and a bright future. Trump’s campaign team and cabinet do understand the importance of science, it’s just the importance of the relatively nascent field of neuroscience and how their messages can sway the emotional reactions of large crowds. It’s hardly like their messages were rocket science, history is littered with examples of large sections of society being swayed by simplistic and easily digested promises, and these examples don’t all relate to Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Russia….anyone remember these?…

Image result for 350m for the nhs

Image result for leave lets take back control

Trump even went through peer review, it was the peer review of the American people.

Why did Trump win the recent election?

I’m no political expert, but it strikes me from reading article after article like the following:

http://www.vox.com/2016/4/21/11451378/smug-american-liberalism

https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/oct/13/liberal-media-bias-working-class-americans

http://thehill.com/blogs/in-the-know/in-the-know/312322-anthony-bourdain-trump-won-because-people-were-sick-of

that large swathes of everyday Americans were tired of being treated like brainless, backwards, gun-toting morons.

671501448-woman-holds-up-a-sign-at-a-rally-before-the-march-for

Into this arena stepped Donald Trump, a man with no respect or regard for the “liberal elite”, but a tonne of promises to “stick it to them” and fight for the little guy, the every-man, the disenfranchised.

It didn’t matter that his policies and promises were often riddled with vague and hazy promises, “alternative facts” and outright bigoted, xenophobic and sexist remarks. What mattered, just as what mattered to an exposed me in my pyjamas, was the emotional reaction. The excitement to get behind a project, to be on the front foot, to come out swinging, to be fighting to “make America great again”. That’s all that mattered and facts could largely be damned.

So, what should we really fighting for when we want to highlight “the vital role science plays in our democracy?” We shouldn’t be fighting to highlight the importance of science to the government, they already realise it, we need to fight to make the importance of the scientific method and it’s application known to every voter. Because, a knowledgeable and well-informed public will demand equally well-informed electoral campaigns and policy.

Armed with this method, any would-be-voter could have seen the holes in Trump’s claims, promises and pledges and hold him to account. However, without that method, as we have seen, we are prey to our emotions, susceptible to believing what we wish to be true (whether it be about Mexicans, the Chinese, the Russians or whoever) and open to unjustified persuasion. This is what it means to be clouded by bias….and, although I’m always loathe to invoke “Godwin’s Law”, the warnings from history are stark…

Image result for emotion vs reason quote

I’d argue that, currently, those that consciously and consistently employ the scientific method are a significant minority (hell….they felt they needed a march!) and this allows and encourages (would-be) administrations to run election campaigns and pass legislation that caters more to our emotional reactions than our intrinsic needs. We need, and deserve, a better metric for good governance.

So, how do we convince the public at large that they should overcome their initial emotion reaction, the immediate instinct of their reptilian brain and throw in with the scientific method of hard evidence and critical thinking? Well, firstly, we have to accept that we are all equally and constantly under assault by bias. We all fall prey to our emotions, we all act irrationally and we fail to understand how unconsciously clouded by bias our thoughts and action are.

Don’t believe me? Try telling someone extremely smart that they are stupid or someone sporty that they are fat. Do you think they can unplug their emotional reaction from your comments and employ pure reason to bat you off? Now travel to your local sports arena and try telling a group of chanting, liquored up, die-hard fans that the home team are garbage….tell me your results.

Image result for arguing with a religious person quotes

Here’s a slightly more concrete example which I use in my science comedy shows, to show how biased large public groups can be.

Before scrolling down, answer the following question with your first reaction:

histogram

The honest answer you would expect to receive when asking this question is shown below. It is known as the “normal” distribution. Most people accept that they are of average fitness, whereas only a few are extremely fit and only a few are incredibly unfit.

histogram2

However, here is the aggregate response received from asking this question to over a 1,000 members of the British public:

histogram3

The response is clearly widely and inaccurately skewed towards high levels of fitness. This is an example of a thinking of cognitive bias known, unsurprisingly, as the over confidence bias. Cognitive biases make our intuitive understanding of the world and ourselves illogical and irrational and there are an incredible number of such biases that have been identified by scientific studies. The Wikipedia page on cognitive biases contains over 200 individual biases and these are only those that have as yet been identified!

Wikipedia of cognitive biases:

biases

So,  when we fight and march for science, we must realise that we are fighting for a cause, framework and methodology that seeks not only to improve the technological and intellectual capacities of our shared world, but which also seeks to improve the critical reasoning skills of each and every one of us and diffuse the mental obstacles thrown our way by evolution. We all stand to benefit. So, when we march to maintain a well-funded and unconstrained scientific community, we must learn the lessons of the recent U.S election.

Science is not a partisan pursuit. The fight for science is a fight to prove that those that advocate, champion and extol the scientific method have a way of looking at the world that trumps (pun intended) others. But, the worst way to get this across, as we have seen, is to look down upon, sneer at or alienate those that have a different opinion.

In the end, science benefits everyone, from the LHC physicist working wirelessly on his experiment from Cambridge to the lay pastor in Texas that wants to order a new megaphone from Amazon. If we don’t sell science on this level and meet people half way, we are on a hiding to nothing.

671492424-scientists-and-science-enthusiasts-carry-placards-as

Our world, and by extension everyone in it, are faced with many dire crises: the energy crisis, global warming, antibiotic resistance. The solution for all these crises will be born out of global scientific collaboration, and the rich democracies of the world will likely lead the way.

We’d better realise we are all in the same boat, or we might be sooner than you’d think…

671536402-people-with-signs-walk-past-the-trump-international671470844-scientists-and-science-enthusiasts-gather-prior-to-the

Science does play a crucial role in our democracy, but currently it’s a role is too easily subverted to one of control and subterfuge. We need to strive to create a well-informed, scientifically literate population that can resist such subversion.

I hope, and having seen the turn outs this weekend am sure, that there is a motivated, and diverse scientific community fighting to make this dream a reality. It is important to march and to make our voice heard, we just need to be clear regarding what we want that voice to say.

We have a long way to go, but [see below]…

Peace x

Maybe I was too hard on Tim Farron…maybe: homophobia, cognitive dissonance and why I despise (yes despise) religion…

pro

hitchins

I’ll be honest, the announcement of a snap general election slap bang in the mess that is Brexit, has left me with a feeling of powerlessness and confusion.

Image result for corbyn may meme peep show

I know how to combat both of those things, since I started studying science, I always have. I need to read manifestos, understand the state of the country and determine who I think is best suited, able and willing to drive this country forward out of its present predicament. I must collect data, understand the current evidence base – as best I can – and create a hypothesis. A hypothesis that will be strenuously tested over the next electoral cycle. In short, I have to employ the scientific method.

In initially doing so, I had begun to take an initial shine to the policies and ethos of the Liberal Democrat Party – an emphasis on education as “the key to freedom and opportunity, and a vital part of creating the fairer society”, a desire to create “a Britain that is open and tolerant” and an open and overt opposition to the isolationism and tribalism of Brexit…what’s not to like?

http://www.libdems.org.uk/

Then, the other day, this was brought to my attention:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/tim-farron-homosexuality-sin-general-election-liberal-democrat-leader-refuse-confirm-a7690546.html

The leader of the party, a committed Christian, failing, on multiple occasions to answer the question of whether homosexual sex was a sin. I was angry. I was confused. This is the leader of the Liberal Democrats, this is 2017.

Image result for twitter tim farron sue perkins

Friends, colleagues and others – who I respect immensely, and who know far more about politics than I – were quick to jump to Farron’s defence, citing his good (but not stellar) record regarding equality legislation.

https://miss-s-b.dreamwidth.org/1825800.html

He voted for the second reading of the Marriage Equality Act and was absent rather than abstaining for the final reading. He voted against the equality act (2007), but let’s allow a man to change his views over 10 years. After all, a week is a long time in politics…right?…right?…

Image result for a week is a long time in politics

Plus, as a particularly eloquent Facebook friend Paul Jefferson noted: “it is basically the definition of a Liberal to have beliefs but not think that the state should enforce them on others.” So, surely Farron can be an effective politician who seeks equality and leave his personal beliefs, however potentially reprehensible (and he deserves more time to articulate them) at the door, no?…well maybe….
Maybe I was too quick to condemn Tim Farron. I am a liberal person, and as such, I would defend his right to worship (as misguided as I think it is) and think as he likes. I would support his freedom of thought, conscience, religion and whatever else, as long as those freedoms do not impinge on the rights and freedoms of others.
At this point I should make a disclaimer and a partial retraction regarding my social media posts today. I always seek and intend to attack the tenets and dogma of religion and faith, wherever those tenets clash with modern liberal values and espouse none evidence based reasoning. However, I do not seek to blanket condemn those who identify as a member of a particular religion or faith movement. If you choose to identify as a Christian, but take your religion à la carte with a starter of charity, a main course of the “golden rule” and a dessert of a daily good Samaritan-esque deed, we have no beef. In fact, I’d like to think I identify more closely with you than 95% of non-religious people. I can only attack the illiberal tenets outlined in religious texts, not Christianity v25.87 practiced by Dave Michelson from Whitstable. If you don’t ascribe to those tenets,  we’re peachy!
Image result for peachy
If this ethos did not come through in my posts, or I was being too generalised when creating a “hooky” tag, I apologise and will seek to be less unnecessarily provocative in the future.
So, why did these interviews with Farron and the subsequent Facebook discussion raise such a visceral response in me?

I think for several reasons:

“Politician speak”

Just say “yes” if that’s what you think. I might not agree with you, but at least you’re honest, and I respect that. Farron’s failure to answer the question defaults the answer to yes and makes him look weak and uncertain at the same time – bigoted and spineless would be a ruthless assessment, flapping, a slightly kinder one.

After the willful obfuscation, smoke and mirror and lies of the Brexit leave campaign, the public want clarity and honesty.

Show me your bias, Tim and I’ll show you mine…

Image result for bias

Willful suspension of critical faculties regarding one subject.

This is the big one for me.

In the modern world, there is both a widespread conscience acknowledgement and an all-pervasive tacit acknowledgement that critical reasoning, logic and the scientific method are the best way to delineate fact from fiction. Would you rather be tried for murder by a jury of your peers and have evidence poured over by forensic scientists or rely on your luck with the judge’s tea-leaves?

Image result for tea leaves reading

There is not a shred of evidence for the fundamental beliefs of Christianity. Not a shred of evidence that an all-powerful, all-knowing deity created the universe, not a shred of evidence that a man died and lived again and not a shred of evidence that our consciousness will outlast our physical bodies. So, if someone can make a leap to believing these things and essentially suspend their critical faculties in doing so, what is to stop them doing so again in power? What if it impacts legislation this time?

Perhaps a person of strong faith can act against conscience in office, like a Catholic doctor prescribing artificial contraception. But, can a person function with that much cognitive dissonance, constantly torn between what is mandated to be right by religion and what is self evidently more morally acceptable in a modern secular society? I know many scientists, far smarter than I, who attempt it.

Image result for cognitive dissonance

Perhaps, I’m being overly pessimistic, but, isn’t it more likely that a strongly held religious conviction, a conviction with no evidential but a humongous weight of emotional backing will colour, guide and potentially contaminate a person’s actions? Indeed, if a strong faith doesn’t have outward repercussions on the world, is there any point having it? I leave that as an open question to my religious friends and I would love to hear your answers.

Protection of religious freedom

This is one I’ve wrangled with…

Do you have the right to hold, what a modern society would predominantly view as backwards, out of touch or even down-right crazy views?

The answer is a profound yes. No-one should ever be convicted of thought crime and different ways of looking at the world should never be dismissed out of hand. Bringing together differing and disparate perspectives is the key to science and progress and must be actively encouraged.

Image result for thought crime is death

That said, I find it difficult to accept the current mainstream liberal view that religious beliefs are off-limits to criticism – the old “it’s their personal beliefs” defence. If you choose to be religious, and that religiosity does not harm others, all power to your elbow. However, if you choose that path, you better be open to criticism. Particularly, where that religions tenets clash with the contemporary world.

I hate religion for one reason. It revels in the suspending of critical faculties and is the most socially accepted form of doing so. If you want to make otherwise morally normal people do and say wicked things, you need religion.

Image result for do and say wicked things you need religion hitchens

It is not Islamophobic to express the view that Islam is nonsense, it is not anti-semitic to oppose infant circumcision, and it is not Christianophobic to maintain that believing in the resurrection, the virgin birth and trans-substantiation displays a lack of critical reasoning – it does. You’re welcome to display such a lack. I just wish you wouldn’t…

Summary

In summary, perhaps I was slightly harsh and reactive towards Tim Farron, I’ll certainly give him the benefit of the doubt, especially after seeing this latest update (which I hope was sincere and not just a throw away line):

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/tim-farron-gay-people-sin-denial-lib-dems-election-campaign-a7692091.html

However, the event and subsequent discussion have raised some interesting issues, and, as always, I’d love to get your thoughts regarding them.

Peace x

Bill Nye: My science guy. Not the scientist we deserve, but the one we need right now.

bill-nye

Just a quick one tonight…

In my first set of blogs my message has been very consistent.

If science is to become truly mainstream, universally appreciated and have its maximum impact in democratic society, scientists must cast off their inaccurate and hackneyed stereotypes, and we must present example scientists/science communicators that pervade mainstream popular culture and (whether we like it as a science community or not) display some of the traits public audiences extol. They cannot just project science in an understandable and applicable way. They must also be sociable, funny, sexy and cool. Does anyone really think most people watch the Twilight movies just for the phenomenal acting?

I hadn’t realised how much work Dr Bill Nye has done in this regard, from having a YouTube series with NASA to appearing on “Dancing with the stars” and  appearing on mainstream programs such as CNN’s Piers Morgan Live and HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher (and much more), Bill has done a great deal to put science, scientific issues and the scientific methodology in mainstream focus. A great summary of this work is available here:

http://www.motherjones.com/media/2014/01/bill-nye-interview-asteroids-climate-science-politics

His message is also on point. He extol’s the scientific methodology and decries pseudo-science (and it’s teaching to the young) and the decline is scientific investment in the United States. “We have a problem. We can’t have economic growth without basic investment in science and research. And we can’t have irresponsible school board members in Texas teaching that the earth is 10,000 years old. We can’t have us embracing scientific illiteracy.”

Here is a true scientist pervading the mainstream culture, expounding scientific literacy and tackling some of the major problems we have, not only in science, but in modern society, and people love it! Long may it continue!

There is one problem. Bill isn’t getting any younger. We desperately need more and younger active physicists to take up his rallying call. Keep it up Bill, I’m right here fighting with you 🙂

S x

The scientific process in memes: Science meme sites please take note…

Box lid

As mentioned in my previous post, “I f*cking love science”  (and similar websites) does an awful lot right.  It uses its highly effective hooks to: inform subscribers about breakthroughs in science they may otherwise overlook, provide links to online scientific seminars and help to break down some of the negative stereotypes surrounding scientists. However, it also gets a few things wrong e.g. It uses worn out memes that contain inaccurate science and which misrepresent the scientific methodology.

There is no problem with using memes, flowery quotes and pretty pictures per se. But, if you are going to continue using them, then please at least do something useful, mildly innovative, and teach the scientific methodology. Require people to engage their critical faculties and understand some of the issues in modern science and society. I had a go when I was bored. Please click the link below and let me know your thoughts! (some zooming required)

Science game

Science is hard. It requires skill, hard work and dedication. You regularly feel over worked, under paid and under valued. But, you do it because you love it! Please play the game. 🙂

S x

 

I F*cking Love Science: A gleaming hook, a questionable fishing rod

Last time:

Why Brian Cox is a dirty cheat 😉[1].

Science communicators need “hooks” that pervade mainstream culture to draw new audiences to high level science. I explained how, today’s science communicators often outsource these hooks (specifically comedy) to experts outside of science, and how this outsourcing does nothing to help the damaging stereotypes of the scientist.

This time:

I f*cking love science: A gleaming hook, a questionable fishing rod

               Millions of people fish worldwide. For many it is simply a way to relax, unwind and clear their heads. They will throw back the fish once they have caught and catalogued them. For others, it is an essential means of survival. The catch will provide basic sustenance. However, all these fishermen have two things in common. They know they will do something worthwhile with the fish once they catch them, and they appreciate the need to use the appropriate bait and hook for the job.

Fisherman

Just like those fishermen, we science communicators need shiny hooks to attract new audiences to engage with, enjoy and become excited by high level science[2]. These hooks can be comedy, music, poetry or anything else that pervades mainstream culture. But, what’s the point of hooking new audiences if what you do with them afterwards isn’t entirely worthwhile?

The webpage “I f*cking love science” has become such a questionable fisherman. You only need to look at Facebook to see the whale of a fan base Elise Andrew’s site has reeled in. The hook of motivational language and quotes, memes and high resolution images works so well that it endangers fish stocks!

The website does a fantastic amount right. It uses its highly effective hooks to: inform subscribers about breakthroughs in science they may otherwise overlook, provide links to online scientific seminars and help to break down some of the negative stereotypes surrounding scientists.  However, it also gets a few things wrong. So, where can it be improved?

IFLS_Facebook

Well, the real problem is simply the site’s name. While the website may claim that “that’s funny” is “the most exciting phrase to hear in science”, one of the most laughable features of the site itself is often its interpretation of science.

Below are a few examples of what the website classifies as science:

Dendrite Oven Michio

The content includes: pretty images, memes and flowery, inspirational quotes from famous science communicators including Neil deGrasse Tyson and Michio Kaku.

This isn’t science. Even Elise herself admits, “I’m just telling people things I think are cool.[3]” There is certainly nothing wrong with liking any of these things. Indeed, I am a fan of each of these three genres, and have regularly shared IFLS content. But, it isn’t science. Science is people, and the scientific method is a collective human endeavour, in which people make theories, test them based on observation and refine these theories when the tests disagree with them[4]. If you want a perfect and incredibly simple explanation of what science is look here[5]. The following plots illustrate clearly how – on average – IFLS’s subscribers laud amusing, beautiful or otherwise emotionally stimulating images far and above solid science.

skeletons Seminar

Part of this imbalance is, of course, due to the proclivities of the subscribers themselves and is beyond the control of the website. That said, IFLS’s methods are not entirely blameless. IFLS is a fantastic hook to draw people to science; it is clear that making 400+ people aware of a scientific seminar as opposed to zero is a massive step in the right direction. However, sadly, the site’s content often doesn’t chime well with, or teach its followers much about, the scientific method when they do flop onto the bank.

Why does this matter?

If the site were purely recreational and didn’t advertise scientific seminars and the like, it wouldn’t matter. We all like pretty pictures. I have an image of the Hubble Telescope Deep Field as my desktop background right now. But, while the site continues to do this, and/or followers continue to view it as a “science site”, it does matter.

One important aspect of the scientific process is that all work is scrutinised, checked and repeated. This process ensures accuracy and the dissemination of a consistent message.

peer

All work is peer reviewed. This is not the case with the content of IFLS, which Elise describes as, “the inside of her brain”, not a fact checked stream of verified information, but a personal brain dump. This leads to IFLS content that is regularly wrong or misleads followers regarding the scientific methodology. This is irresponsible, particularly when dealing with such a large and scientifically curious consumer base. Consider the following post (which is far from the only example of its type, and probably isn’t the best):

Planets

There are 8 planets in the solar system. This is not debateable. It is a fact based upon the agreed scientific definition of a planet we use[6]. It may only change if the agreed scientific convention changes. However, the number of planets does not change based on the fact you can name more than 8 rocks orbiting the Sun (wrong), and it definitely doesn’t change based on your personal choices or feelings regarding the matter (misrepresents the scientific method).

IFLS regularly blurs an important line. It suggests that the scientific method is personally pliable and that the most important aspect of science is the personal satisfaction and hit you can draw from it. This is a problem that pervades modern science, and its communication, and has been recently discussed in relation to the famous TED platform[7].

There is no doubt that science can be amazingly fun and emotionally satisfying. But, this isn’t its purpose. IFLS dangerously merges the positive personal reaction people have to the hook designed to draw them to science and the science itself. This is a subtle, but important distinction.

I’m not saying this to be controversial, undermine I f*ucking love science or to have a go at Elise Andrew. I’m just a fan of IFLS, and I genuinely f*cking love everything positive it has achieved. It’s just that, like all the CERN analysis code I have ever written, it needs some bugs ironing out. Merging science and entertainment is extremely difficult. I know this better than most! The two often tug in different directions. The essence of science is ‘it is what it is’ – whether we like it or not. The audience’s ‘feelings’ are irrelevant. In order to be scientific, they are supposed to suspend their beliefs and engage their critical faculties. The essence of entertainment is ‘it is what it feels like’.  It’s not surprising that some tweaking of IFLS’s content is necessary. It is a pioneer in an emerging field.

I just don’t want IFLS to be yet another symptom of the “buzzfeed” culture of modern media, where well informed, well researched and fact checked content is readily replaced by content that may lack these qualities, but generates the maximum number of likes and shares from an insatiable consumer base[8]. It’s too important for that, and it can be far better than that.

Buzzfeed

I also don’t think it should continue to dominate the online alternative science outreach space in its current, slightly flawed format. Where, despite the holes in its scientific message, it dominates the “hook” marketplace of alternative science outreach. Why would you listen to X when IFLS, despite its faults, seems to have everything wrapped up so nicely in your Facebook newsfeed already?

Like Ahab, IFLS has harpooned a whale of public support, and I don’t want to see it dragged down in its continued pursuit of it.

Why Brian Cox is a dirty cheat ;)

Last time:

“Blurred Lines: physics communication and popular culture – mistakes made and lessons learnt”[1]

I explained how, when science communicators assess the acceptability of their content, they must consider not just what they say, write or film, but also its social context and how the content will be viewed in light of their personal identity.

This time:

Why Brian Cox is a dirty cheat.

Very much tongue in cheek…but with a point

We’ve all been in a situation where we feel we are undervalued:  where the work of another finds recognition above our own; where someone else steals our focus; where we feel “unappreciated in our time”. You just need that one chance to shine, to rise above the noise, to make your ideas heard. We can’t always be at the head of the queue. But, how would you feel if that same poster child for your field were a dirty cheat?

Cheating

Particle physics communication: room for a young ‘un?

My beloved field of particle physics has such a God man. His name is Professor Brian Cox.

Brian_Bible

Brian creating the sun on the 4th day of the biblical creation

At a glance we appear to be very well matched:

  • We both work in particle physics at the Large Hadron Collider…

Brian_ATLASSam_ATLAS

  • We both have dodgy northern English accents (although he’s on the wrong side of the Pennines)…

 Brian_ManchesterSam_Leeds

  • And we’re both lovers of dreadful hairstyling…

 Brian_hairSam_Hair

But while he hogs centre-stage, flies around the world informing us that everything is “woooooooonderful” (beautiful parodied in “Wonders of the stoner system”[2]) and hosts shows concerning everything from special relativity to flower arranging, many others and I are left on the side-lines. Well in my case, this is also because I’ve been doing research and outreach for all of five minutes, but let’s put that point to one side for this article.

As I discussed in a previous post[3], Brian has done a fantastic job in bringing the esoteric field of particle physics to the public. But more than that, he is helping to erode many of the negative stereotypes associated with those working in high level physics, and is now an internationally recognised style icon, sex symbol and as my mum says “a bit of alright”. Sadly I am yet to achieve these accolades…yet. Although, my mum tells me I “look alright”.

Fashion_HatFashion_ScarfFashion_Flowers Style icon?

Brian even appears to realise that scientists are perceived, by the public, to be detached, secretive and overly serious[4], and combats this by teaming up with professional BBC comedian Robin Ince to host the comedic radio show “The Infinite Monkey Cage”, “an irreverent look at the world according to science”[5].

 ipsos

There is however a problem. Brian doesn’t really do the comedy. The comedic genius, which is Robin Ince, does it. So, in order to fix some of the problems that we face as physicists, Brian outsources. He outsources comedy to an expert. Whilst this creates a fantastic and hilarious product, which I highly recommend. It actually actively suggests, to keen observers, that we physicists need professional guidance of the highest order to present our work with humour. This is far from what we want to project. I hope few have noticed this fact, but Brian is a dirty cheat!

Troll

Brian isn’t so much a comedian on IMC as he is a troll

Other physics communicators pervading the mainstream culture e.g. Bill Nye have tried to bridge the comedy-physics gap, with very limited success[6].  There are many phenomenal physics communicators. However, I can’t think of one who is currently in high level research, is well known and is genuinely funny (please correct me). I see this as a big problem, given the scientifically grounded public perception of scientists presented above. This is the gap in the market I want to help fill!

I really hope I get the chance to one day partially fill this need. We are currently in the midst of a global financial recession, and at this time of year, in the post-Christmas comedown, the January sales remind us all, even the BBC, of the need to save money. Why do we need to pay both Brian and Robin? I’ll do the science and the comedy for a fraction of the price. I’ll even get my haircut, two for the price of one anybody?

Of course, I’m getting incredibly far ahead of myself. Brian is a physics professor; I am not yet a doctor. Robin is a phenomenal comedian with years of experience and material; I’m a green around the gills young buck with everything to learn. But, I’m hungry, and I have time on my side. Let’s plot (I am a physicist after all, I must have plots!) out how things might play out:

Smooth

The equation governing my progression is:

Full equation

Where SG = Sam Gregson, BC = Brian Cox, RI = Robin Ince, OF = Offence Factor and t = time

The equation looks intimidating. However, under the assumption that I don’t massively offend the Institute of Physics or any high profile BBC TV presenters again[7] (perhaps an ambition assumption):

OF_zero

And the boundary conditions of success look as follows:

At the current time I have a fraction (let’s say 10%) of the physics knowledge of Brian and the same fraction of the comedic je ne sais quoi of Robin (I’m being generous to myself!):

t_zero

But in this simplistic parameterisation, as time passes, my physics knowledge and comedy skills grow, until I become an unholy but financially beneficial amalgamation of the two:

t_inf

I thought this would mean that I could never be a sex symbol. But the good people at http://www.morphthing.com beg to differ. My mother is again, for what it’s worth, very complimentary of the merged visage.

merge

Of course this mathematical model is far from perfect. It neglects several possible bumps in the road, including: my inevitably limited ability to improve at either physics or comedy, the inevitable drugs, sex, rock and roll and newspaper scandals that come with being a rock star physicist and Brian’s inevitable assassination attempt. I have traffic light colour coded them to indicate which factor, I believe, presents the greatest danger to my career progression (green = least serious, red = most):

Projection

Summary:

We need more physicists to cross the invisible barrier between physics and mainstream culture and one thing we don’t seem to have is a truly funny physicist. I’d like to fill this gap one day, but that day is a long way off.  In the meantime, it would be interesting to see Brian attempt to cut his teeth in the up and coming world of scientific stand-up comedy. If he’s up for the challenge, we’d love to have him join us on stage at the next LHComedy gig at CERN[8] [9]. He is supposed to work there after all, and Robin is already keen to join us!

Brian (and Robin) has been amazing for our field and has allowed our public image to make great progress, what I’ve said is largely in jest, but something to think about. Because, as Sophocles said: “I would prefer even to fail with honour than win by cheating.” I agree with him on that, if not with all the weird stuff about fancying your own mother…

S x

Next time:

I f*cking love science: A hook but no fishing rod

Blurred Lines: physics communication and popular culture

Last time:

Physics communicators and mainstream culture: correcting the public image of physicists[1].”

I explained how the public image of physicists is far from complimentary and how physics communicators can challenge this image by using comedy and popular culture references to explain physics concepts and engage with, inform and excite public audiences.

This time:

Blurred Lines: physics communication and popular culture – mistakes made and lessons learnt

“A man must be big enough to admit his mistakes, smart enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct them”[2]. These words really resonate with me, particularly after I was recently informed for the first time, that I had inadvertently offended a section of a physics outreach audience.

One beautiful thing about physics is that even when we conduct experiments that teach us nothing new, channels of investigation are closed off, previous results are verified and valuable lessons are learned. Activities that other fields may look upon as mistakes actually generate real and tangible progress. I should hope so; I’ve found nothing new at the Large Hadron Collider, despite working there for four years!

I recently made an outreach miscalculation. So what did I learn?

Well first of all, what happened? A month ago, I was shortlisted for the Institute of Physics (IOP) Early Stage Communicator award[3]. I was asked to give a ten minute presentation concerning my physics outreach activities and their motivations at the IOP headquarters in London. After successfully conceiving and project managing CERN’s first ever stand-up comedy evening[4] [5], I desperately wanted to reinforce how physics communicators can use comedy and popular culture references to improve the public image of physicists and engage with, inform and excite public audiences about physics! (see previous post for more)

Ronaldo and Messi’s free-kicks are fantastic proving grounds for Newton’s laws of motion; The Only Way Is Essex perfectly illustrates that entropy (chaos) always increases and the Miley Cyrus’ “twerk” is a fantastic example of simple harmonic motion. This is the point where I drew the ire of a high profile BBC presenter, “you want to change the stereotypes of the physicist by reinforcing female gender roles”.  They were offended. Unfortunately, they were also one of the two judges and the keynote speaker of the event. Cringe!

Miley Pendulum

Let me start by saying, I never want to cause any offence and I am a staunch supporter of all aspects of social equality. That said, I was never arrogant, naïve or stupid enough to think that my outreach activities wouldn’t ever offend anyone.  I am trying to push back the boundaries of science communication and excite new public audiences with high level science. There will be false dawns, there will be miscalculations of content and tone, there will be epic failures. But, worrying about past criticisms does not yield progress. What lessons have I learnt and what can we take away as physics communicators? Well I discovered two things in particular, and I’d like to share my thoughts on them and what I learnt from them with you now. Please let me know your thoughts!

Mistakes

  • Lesson 1: It is not possible to entirely separate a popular culture reference from its social context.

The reaction I received suggests that the physical underpinning of a famous, recognisable, and public act cannot be distilled from its social context. This was something I did not anticipate or fully appreciate before this event. In this instance, my physics training actually worked against me!

Physics is the unbiased, non-subjective and fundamental search for the secrets of why the universe behaves as it does and how it came to be. Physics is innately neutral.

Neutron

Physics makes no commentary on modern society or equality. It is all pervasive and yet non-invasive. It is, by definition, the subject of equality! In this context, segregation by sexual orientation, gender or race has no meaning. We can all be in awe of the mechanics of the universe around us and brought together by them – physically and figuratively. There is a reason the Large Hadron Collider was built in Switzerland – the most neutral country on Earth! Physics and its communication should therefore be a refreshing escape from a society where we are constantly reminded of how we are different and how we must constantly be careful about what we say and do.

When I made the comment about Miley, I was careful to stick to physics only:

  1. I made an initial observation: Miley twerked.
  2. I made a second observation: It reminded me of a physics principal.

I mentioned a highly recognisable, accessible and public act (after Googling for the top Twitter trends of 2013[6]) as a hook to excite public audiences and related it to a non-discriminatory physics concept without making any further comment about the wider motives or context of the act. Essentially, I used the “twerk” as physics intended, completely separate from social commentary. After all, why would we physics communicators want to offend anyone?

WBMaths

The problem is, while I may have chosen the twerk because it was certain to be recognized by my audience, Miley’s act carries a lot of weight: discussions of cultural appropriation, the image of females in the media etc. So, whether I wanted to bring a loaded background onto the stage when I mentioned her name or not, I did. The situation mirrors quantum mechanics, where making an observation brings the whole system associated with that measurement into clear focus.

To my mind, what I said should not be offensive, due to the context in which I said it. I also believe it is important for physics communicators to be able to reference the hottest topics in popular culture – assuming they show appropriate respect and caution – so that they may dismiss the negative stereotypes that they are nerdy, socially awkward, and disconnected.

However, I appreciate others may feel differently; offence is in the eye of the beholder. Most people at the event were not offended and that begs the question: how can physics communicators conceivably be expected to not only consider how the majority of an audience will react to a presentation, but also how different sub-sections of that same audience may contextualize, twist and hence find offence in the words they say? Where would we ever draw the line? Offence is so personal, so subjective. It is based on an individual’s personal experiences, proclivities and emotions. To steal a joke from the excellent comedian Steve Hughes: “I’m offended when I see boy-bands for God’s sake…what am I going to do? Call the cops?”[7]

OneDirection  

I also wonder about how different the world would be if: Darwin had not wanted to offend the Christians and had just accepted the giraffe has a long neck because, oh well, God made it so; if Bohr and Einstein had not wanted to offend one another and had kept their opposing ideas regarding quantum mechanics to themselves; or if the US hadn’t used Werner Von Braun’s leaps in rocket technology, because its links to the Nazi war machine would have offended the nation’s citizens. In the words of Stephen Fry: “It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more… than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what?”

Ricky 
  • Lesson 1 conclusion:

In future, I should be more careful to research the wider social implications behind my popular culture references. Although I, and many others, do not find my reference offensive, with greater thought, I could have used an alternative metaphor to Miley in this instance, communicated the same message and avoided some hot water!

  • Lesson 2: It’s not only what is said, but who says it.

It is clear that women are under-represented in physics. IOP research[8] suggests that a contributing factor to this may be gender stereotyping e.g. by both teachers and pupils in schools, and that great care with social and cultural stereotypes needs to be taken to avoid turning girls and women away from physics[9].

Despite the fact that I am a great supporter of any initiative that makes it clear that physics is a field in which (wo)men can flourish,  I am also a white, heterosexual cis-male working in a field that is dominated by similar people. I enjoy a huge amount of unfair social and workplace privilege (see “The male privilege checklist[10]) and my comments could be construed as reinforcing the perceived, unacceptable and inaccurate idea that physics is a “boys club”, where the discussion of the female derriere is an appropriate and common pastime. This fact was indeed, two weeks later, identified as the major problem with my metaphor and seemingly far more important than any initial offence my comments caused. I accept this charge. My comments *could* certainly be interpreted in this way.

BoysClub

I personally feel my reference was rather mild and in context did nothing to reinforce the “physics is for boys” idea. Indeed famous communicator Bill Nye has successfully used the twerk in his outreach[11]. I also worry that, despite laudable intentions, constantly and publicly highlighting situations where communicators may have alluded to a social stereotype does more to draw attention to those stereotypes than it does to erode them, and that a private discussion with me would have been more appropriate. In addition, when suggesting a communicator is using stereotypes due to his social privilege, the communicator can be unfairly stereo-typed  as “laddish” (or similar) themselves. Judges, organisations and commentators have every right to judge a presentation, both in terms of content and tone. However, making personal statements such as, “you want to”, makes wider insinuations about communicators beyond their presentations, undermines their wider messages and invokes stereotypes of its own.

  • Lesson 2 conclusion.

Perhaps we were both a little naïve. In future, I should be more aware that an audience may react to my message, the person I am and/or a mixture of the two. I must be careful not to verbally or non-verbally project views that are not mine through my content, tone or demeanour.

Institutions and individuals championing physics should be careful not to invoke their own stereotypes when dealing with a communicator and should stick to the content and tone of the outreach material presented. Discussions of socially sensitive topics and related criticism should be held in private in the first instance.

The person we are should not affect our message, but the sad reality is that it does. Just like in special relativity, the position from which we observe something changes what is perceived. Hopefully, when we do finally achieve the social equality we crave, these issues will not arise. For now, I need to be a little savvier.

One interesting follow up question (beyond the scope of this article) is whether my comments would have been more appropriate coming from a female physicist? Ellen Degeneres for example certainly gets away with using the twerk in her material[12] (although admittedly she isn’t a physicist). I guess I will never know….

Summary:

I was wrong at the IOP prize giving. I thought they wanted to see how I interact with mainstream comedy audiences. I did not tailor my speech to them, because my methods are largely not aimed at them. I was wrong, or at least, like Marty McFly in “Back to the future”, the audience wasn’t ready[13]. I hope this event was a learning experience for both of us, I know it certainly was for me! And quite a painful one!

When it comes to acceptability of content in public communication, we must consider not just what we say, write or film, but also its social context and how the content will be viewed in light of our personal identity. I guess if a white, hetero-sexual, cis-male physicist can realise and accept these things, there is hope for us all! Hopefully, I will appreciate even more from the comments and feedback of my readers 🙂

Physics does not make any social commentary, in truth its neutrality can – with appropriate mitigations and improvements, I will concede – provide its communicators with the greatest wrecking ball of equality I know. 😉

S x

WBGuy 
Oh and before I forget!…. WinterFestival everybody!

Next time:

…. Why Brian Cox is a dirty cheat and why I can do better 😉