Texas mass shooting reaction. What America does best!?…

Preamble:

This post serves as a reaction to the following minute long video:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-us-canada-41883672/texas-church-shooting-president-trump-condemns-act-of-evil

Please watch the video before proceeding.

I will turn the following post into a YouTube video this evening/early tomorrow.

Post proper:

Well, another month and another horrific mass shooting in the United States, this time in a Texan church.

You know what, I don’t want to get on here and say everything that everyone has said before.

I don’t want to get on here and go all teary and “Jimmy Kimmel” on you. I don’t even want to go into the fact that Trump constantly – and perhaps correctly – says that the wakes of these attacks – which are increasing in rate and lethality by the way – are not the time to discuss gun control policy and legislation and yet the immediate aftermath of the New York city truck attack is the perfect time to criticise immigration policy.

I want to leave all that aside…

This isn’t the perfect time to discuss policy, but it IS new data. New data that is adding to a dataset of harrowing mass shootings at an accelerating rate.

Regardless of which side of the gun control you stand on, it’s new data that demands analysis, new data which demands that current policy should be reviewed and reconsidered, if not changed, in the light of it. This is the purpose, the function and the opportunity of new data.

Donald Trump might be right, this might not be the time to discuss changes to gun control legislation, increasing mental healthcare provision or the wisdom of the 2nd amendment, but it is the time to demand the facts behind these attacks: how were the guns used obtained, what were the psychological histories of the shooters, what were their stated aims, if any, so that a comprehensive review of current gun policy can be undertaken and it can be determined whether it requires amendment.

That review may conclude that no further action is appropriate. Indeed, there are some logical and reasonable reasons for American’s to retain their guns, as we have identified in BBoS on guns series (see here). But, that does not invalidate the need for that review and for people to be open-minded to change in the light of new data. As a scientist, I don’t like to be wrong, but accepting the possibility that I could be is so incredibly important.

The current debate on guns has become binary value signalling. We have Jimmy Kimmel and “the left” signalling that guns are evil and if you oppose gun control, you are walking on the graves of the dead, and you have Donald Trump and “the right” arguing that guns are completely superfluous to mass shootings and illegal homicides. Neither side is completely right. They are just scratching the confirmation bias of their core supporters. The real answer lies somewhere in the middle, but until both sides accept this, no progress will be made.

The founding fathers wanted America’s citizens to be able to defend themselves from the potential tyranny of government. They were an erudite, intelligent and perspicacious group. I’m sure they would have wanted the American populace to be protected from an unintentional tyranny caused by lack of analysis, investigation and appropriate associated action.

America was a nation founded in a very real sense on Thomas Paine’s philosophy and enlightenment thinking, so investigation and data is something that they would not be adverse to.

So, for me, as an outsider and an admirer of the freedoms enshrined in the constitution, what American’s do best is not holding hands, saying prayers and standing together in silent solidarity. It’s holding their government’s officials, decisions and legislation to account. The very essence of the 2nd amendment.

 

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The “fake news” fighting MacMillan “Digital cancer nurse”: my initial thoughts…

 

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Today, I want to look at the story that the MacMillan cancer charity has felt it necessary to employ a nurse, Ellen McPake, to fight fake cancer information online and interact with cancer patients. A link to the video I will be commenting on can be found here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-scotland-41808212/digital-nurse-fights-fake-cancer-information

Please watch the short video before reading on! 🙂

This post will be followed up with an associated YouTube video tomorrow when my internet connectivity is fully restored (I will place a link below)! So, this post acts as a quick reaction/discussion of the main points raised in the video (written on the screen as the video progresses)

As someone that has had a relative suffer and die from cancer, this story really jumped out at me. So, I wanted to take a look at the video above, give my initial thoughts and open things up for discussion with you guys!

I haven’t had time to research these topics in depth, so I’m happy to be proved wrong or educated in certain areas.

So, to the video…

Do cancer sufferers look to the internet to find information about their illness?

I was shocked to see it quoted that only 2/5 of patients took to the internet to find information about their condition and look at potential treatments and therapies. I’d have thought this number would be much closer to 100%!

When I snapped my achilles tendon, a much less serious condition, I remember spending hours on the internet looking at surgical papers, potential treatments, recovery metrics etc. I remember this picture really spoke to me:

 

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Perhaps, these numbers are slightly skewed by the fact that more older and less tech-savvy people suffer from cancer on average (?) and that means that the number of people turning to the internet for medical advice will only increase in the future.

 

One nurse is fighting against fake health news online

Frankly, I think it’s amazing that we’ve got to a point where information is so readily accessible and free-flowing that this measure is needed.

However, the internet is weakly policed and doesn’t display the same rigour as a medical trial or scientific study. I regularly hear friends and relatives saying things like “X treatment/drug worked for Uncle Jim” and the like. But often, people are simply falling into the traps of correlation not meaning causation. It’s only natural, we are pattern seeking animals.

Of course, some unscrupulous people undoubtedly post known false information online to make money or achieve notoriety, but I’m sure most just want to help those that are suffering. As someone that has watched a loved one suffer and die or cancer, I can appreciate that.

The problem is that, when potentially false information is posted online, it can lead people to panic and potentially turn away from conventional, proven treatments. It’s great that the “digital nurse” could potentially reduce such occurrences.

Now, will this nurse be plugged into the latest breakthroughs in cancer research? And will she be free to discuss and review treatments that are outside those specifically favoured by the NHS? That’s not clear at the moment.

The NHS isn’t perfect, and I can certainly understand patients wanting to try less rigorously trialled and tested therapies when they have no other recourse. In fact, I’d completely support them having greater autonomy in this area.

 

Sodium bicarbonate cures cancer

I mean, wouldn’t this be one of the cover-ups of the century? If something you can buy a kilo of for less than a fiver in Wilko’s could cure cancer?

I’ve heard all the conspiracy theories that “big pharma” doesn’t want to cure cancer, but things like this seem a little far-fetched.

 

There are trust-worthy and untrustworthy sites for getting cancer information

 

I think that overall, what Macmillan is doing is a really positive step, but this nurse needs to be plugged into the latest advances in cancer treatment and therapy and not just be tied to the party line of MacMillan or the NHS.

Medical trials are the gold-standard for cancer treatments, but some therapies/drugs/treatments espoused by none NHS affiliated sites may show promise, and potentially be worth turning to, at least in a patients view, when there are no other options. I’m actually going to step away from scientific rigour for a moment and say that I can understand people wanting to try out of the box and less medically trialled treatments when they have no other options. Could such therapies be made more accessible on the NHS, perhaps if the patient wishes to cover the cost? It certainly warrants further discussion.

One thing the nurse could certainly help with is explaining the NHS’s scientific rationale regarding new wonder drugs or treatments that a patient may have seen. If a patient has seen that someone in the US is trialling an experimental therapy, it might be quite crushing that many in the UK cannot access the same therapy.

 

Summary

The NHS and cancer charities are not all knowing, but, on the whole, I think what MacMillan is doing is a positive move.

I know most people on the internet want to help those that are suffering, but you have to be very careful when you are posting information that will be seen by people at their most vulnerable. It could have the opposite effect to what you intend.

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

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“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.

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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?…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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…

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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!
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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.