apostilb: reflections on science, writing and research

Want to win an Ig Nobel? Here are some suggestions

Science writers are always trying to think of fascinating story ideas that can be backed up with research. Inspiration might spring from the most unlikely of sources, like a nonsense musing on Seinfeld or the historical minutiae of a Trivial Pursuit question. The hard part is finding research about these obscure, fleeting puzzlings. My quest often goes unfulfilled.

Luckily, there is a prize that rewards researchers who conduct just these kinds of investigations. For figuring out things like why woodpeckers don’t get headaches, or how to un-boil an egg, or whether banana skins actually make you slip, intrepid scientists are awarded the Ig Nobel Prize, the down-to-earth and tongue-in-cheek Nobel Prize spoof that is surprisingly revealing about what counts as relatable science and how the scientific method can be brought to bear on the humorous, the smutty and the bizarre. (The 2016 Ig Nobel ceremony on September 22 is being livestreamed here.)

In no particular order, here are some Ig Nobel-worthy contenders, as proposed by the Twitterverse:

A good rule of thumb is that studying animals or quirky behavior is likely to yield a result that “makes people laugh, and then makes them think” (levitating frogs, anyone?). But there are still plenty of wild and wacky things that just haven’t been studied yet, so here are a few ideas for which I couldn’t find scholarly literature or historical information. Perhaps some enterprising scientist would like to take a crack at these? And if any of these questions already have solid research-based answers that my cursory Googling overlooked, I want to hear about it!

  • Why do you always get in the slowest line at the grocery store?
  • Why are credit cards, IDs and business cards all the same size? There’s an international standard, but how did it come about?
  • Are near-sighted people messier? Drawing on my own experience studying near-sighted people, I’ve wondered whether the blur of being near-sighted obscures small stuff like dirt and hair. This may be especially applicable in bathrooms, where near-sighted people often take off their glasses or it’s otherwise steamy.
  • Are the values of precious metals and gemstones in any way correlated with their refractive index or other optical properties? Does shinier mean pricier?
  • Has anyone analyzed whether particular airplane safety videos or demonstrations are more effective than others? (@RaoOfPhysics thinks this one is great.)
  • How do the brains of expatriates change over time, especially with regard to attrition of their native language?

And finally, why do we come up with the best ideas in the shower, while brushing our teeth, or just as we’re about to fall asleep? This blog post, naturally, was composed with toothpaste froth.

Science journalism needs more punk, not more patrolling

What is with the rash of hand-wringing among science journalists lately? Everyone and their mom is publishing think pieces bemoaning the state of science journalism, and they mostly seem to be passing the buck to scientists. Scientists need to be scrutinized because they’re all up to no good! Science is experiencing an unprecedented spate of retractions! The scientific method is inherently flawed! It’s as if science journalism collectively woke up to a “problem” that is not new and has been building over years, and decided that the right course of action was to construct an even more adversarial culture with their subjects: the scientists and the research they produce.

Science journalism is weird. It’s made up of people who seem to share a worldview that rational thought is good, that scientific progress is beneficial for humanity, that research deserves to be publicized, that the scientific method is the best tool we have for learning about the fundamentals of the world and how we ourselves work. Yet science journalism — well, science writing, more broadly — is also this motley patchwork of people from two different camps: journalists, or those who attended journalism schools, and former scientists, who probably attended graduate school in the sciences (there are of course hybrid cases and other paths to science writing). On the face of it, these two camps share a lot: critical thinking, searching for and interrogating evidence, progressively polishing hypotheses or adopting new ones that account for new data, and always questioning the establishment. So why, now especially, are some in the journalist camp pushing for hardline, investigative science journalism?

Is science journalism going through some kind of identity crisis or feeling of inadequacy? Does it not measure up compared to the hard-hitting political reporters or the investigative corporate watchdogs? Why is there this sudden insistence that most scientists are colluding with industry, fudging results, being shady with funding or outright making stuff up? Scientific retractions are up, but so are cases of autism, and rationally we know it’s not because of vaccines, but a combination of better detection and not-yet-fully understood mix of environmental, genetic, and neural factors.

Any observer or practitioner of science journalism likewise sees the morass of factors that has led to the “crisis” the field is now experiencing: the implosion of traditional media and the rise of online outlets, the 24-hour news cycle that demands fresh content and ever more clicks, the iron yoke of advertising on revenue, the lack of reporters with specialized science knowledge or the time to apply it, the symbiotic relationship with glamor journals and their embargo whims, and on and on and on. And yet the knee-jerk reaction is, scientists must somehow be responsible for this plight, just like politicians must always be lying or corporations must always be covering up their financial misdeeds. I get it, it’s an easy narrative to swallow.

Investigative science journalism has its place, that is certain. Retraction Watch, PubPeer, and like-minded projects shed light where it is definitely needed. In-depth investigations of sexual harassment in academia or the corporate ties of scientists are valid. Scrutiny of hyped medical studies or poorly or misleadingly reported clinical trials helps everyone. And drawing attention to environmental and public health crises is important. But for most of science, all this is overkill. Most science is harmless. In fact it’s less than harmless, because most people, not even specialized scientists, will ever come across it. It’s not a cute panda cub, and it’s not a blind cave-dwelling fish with feet or the first flower ever grown in space or even the loneliest whale. It’s an unremarkable little ant that toils alongside other unremarkable little ants and together they somehow amass an unfathomable intelligence and build a massive, awe-inspiring nest that seems way beyond the capabilities of their little bodies and finite lives.

Now instead of promoting a science journalism that acts like ant spray and targeting individual ants, if we could focus on the cool hive mind or the engineering feat or all the other features of this ecosystem that we just don’t understand, maybe we’d actually be producing something interesting and novel and worth reading and paying for. Some ants/bugs/scientists deserve the spray, but it’s kind of a poisonous mindset to go in with extermination being your primary objective, rather than understanding, observing, and storytelling.

There’s another way I think (some) science journalism could be. Take music critics: they obviously love music, they might have their specialized beat whether it’s opera or heavy metal, and they listen obsessively, go to shows, follow tours, profile musicians. Sounds an awful lot like reading papers, going to conferences, doing interviews, and the other routines of science journalism. Music journalists are critical, and they’ve followed the evolution of certain artists, can place them into a historical and contemporary context, can give their albums one star or four, and ultimately give fans an idea of whether they should listen or go to the gig. But they don’t go looking for misdeeds (and there’s probably more of that in rock than in science) and most of what they do is quick hits about Kanye West’s latest Twitter rant, not analyzing the entire oeuvre of Bach. And they’re not inherently against music.

Many science journalists seem concerned with appearing as “science cheerleaders” rather than “science watchdogs”. But I say go ahead and be a science groupie (and I don’t mean the IFLScience variety). That’s how you get backstage and see the good, the bad, and the ugly, and that’s the only way you’ll get into the after party. Science is not rock & roll. Yes, there is a lot more at stake with science for humanity, the planet, and the economy than in Justin Bieber’s career (though perhaps only barely). But, like music, science is a fundamental human activity, an industry with broad societal sway, and something that moves and excites people. Science also has its own Milli Vanillis, but they don’t invalidate Einstein or Curie or deter the next indie wunderkind of cosmology or the pop princess of physics. Science is hard, and it’s imperfect, much like the music industry, and for every busker on the subway there are 10 graduate students toiling in the lab. Science journalists can choose to continue lamenting the rise of the scientific equivalent of talentless boy bands, or they can celebrate the new kids who are just trying to get a spot at the open mic or the Susan Boyles of science who have been overlooked. Not everyone needs to aspire to be a modern Nellie Bly; I think I’d much rather be the Rob Sheffield of science writing.

AAAS 2016 was all about overcoming the noise

Mid-way through this year’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the thread connecting the disparate sessions and talks started to weave into a coherent structure. Though the theme was “global science engagement”, in blunt jargon it might as well have been “boosting the signal-to-noise ratio”. From the scientific results announced at the meeting to the sessions on improving communication, there was an undercurrent of urgency in messaging, a need for forceful (accurate!) advocacy, coupled with an embrace of fundamentals, both in science and in interaction with the public and with other scientists.

First, the standout physics result: LIGO. While the press conference itself was not at AAAS but (appropriately) at NSF, the detection of gravitational waves was the talk of the meeting. The presser simulcast was packed, Twitter enthused, and the talk by LIGO spokesperson Gabriela González was deftly added to the schedule, becoming one of the must-sees at the meeting. The gravitational-wave signal, as everyone breathlessly recapitulated, was actually within the frequency range of human hearing. The chirp that originated a billion years ago could be heard. Talk about a signal-to-noise ratio! The timing, not just for the centennial of Einstein’s prediction but also for the AAAS meeting’s PR efforts, could not have been more perfect: Albert’s face graced the giant Science magazine cover that served as a selfie backdrop in the exhibit hall.

On the same day as the LIGO announcement, the US House of Representatives approved a measure that would require NSF to fund only projects in the “national interest”. The LIGO news seemed a little lost on the public, and even the scientists and journalists themselves were a bit more interested in re-hashing the “open secret” of the big news and the way in which (in some sense) science was made into theater. In the case of the LIGO result the signal transmission was thus less than perfect, despite the well-orchestrated conjunction of a peer-reviewed blockbuster paper, stunning visuals and a dynamite press event.

Another strategic signal boost came in the form of Jennifer Doudna’s plenary. Just weeks after Eric Lander’s hotly-debated CRISPR history, Doudna’s talk was a calculated move in the struggle to assert dominance in the public eye while the Berkeley-MIT patent battle rages. Doudna made no mention of Feng Zhang in her talk, though she did credit a number of students and collaborators. At the media briefing immediately after, she also smoothly replied that she had not run into Lander, who was also in attendance at AAAS as an awardee. (And, I later found out, Lander, clearly a skilled communicator, is also a fellow alumnus of the AAAS Mass Media program.)

In the science-communication sessions, it became apparent that a surgical precision is being applied to the study of the practice of communicating science, if not to the actual practice itself. The deficit model may be dead, but its ghost still lurks. To actually meaningfully engage, scicomm researchers suggest connecting with people’s values, initiating dialog, meeting contrary perspectives, and increasing transparency. It may actually seem counterintuitive for scientists to adopt the role of listener rather than lecturer and to include uncertainty in their messaging if they’re trying to convincingly convey a scientific message. But this is because the nature of engagement itself is changing from an activity done begrudgingly, once-a-year to one of sustained relationships between scientists and publics, as exemplified by the ELFLAND approach.

The need for a signal boost was also evident within science itself. At the session on publishing and scientific integrity, the phrase “(re)surfacing the shadow literature” was thrown around. It’s very telling that the shadow work that embodies the core of the scientific method — the replication study — has long been shunned as unpublishable, but is now the toast of the town. Replication studies could really be a shot in the arm for science. Not only does reproducibility get science back to basics, it can crucially function to restore the credibility of science as an institution and re-affirm the values at the heart of science: honesty and transparency. Reforming the incentives for publishing and career advancement in science can go a long way in boosting the legitimacy of science and the efficiency of the scientific literature, and for the scientific method itself as a positive contributor to evidence and decision-making that can improve quality of life. That is probably a signal we would all like to see strengthened.

So much that we do (or attempt to do) as science communicators depends on high fidelity. Forget reporting scientific results with integrity: even the very act of speech can be hampered, and the message lost, due to technical malfunctions, environmental distractions, crowded rooms, lack of coffee, or the inclement weather, to name just a few of the complaints meeting attendees voiced on Twitter. But these distractions are very real, and our brains handle them poorly. Time and time again at the meeting, I heard the dictum that scientists have to break through the noise. Yes, there is a polarized and cacophonous media landscape. The proper way to respond to that is not to insert yet another droning voice into the mix. You can, for example, achieve high-fidelity science communication by being a Neil deGrasse Tyson. For those of us who aren’t, the key is small-scale, sustained, chipping-away-at-the-ice conversations, and the emergent global voice that comes from these concerted efforts. Connecting with an audience need not be hard. Though they are experts dealing in minutiae, scientists are also humans with opinions. Embracing this latter identity seems to be a key behavior for many of the most successful scientist-communicators.

One way we give science a signal boost is by gathering together. Crammed into windowless rooms, sitting on folding chairs listening to eloquent speakers like Kathleen Hall Jamieson or Arthur Lupia, I had the feeling I was part of a congregation, lapping up the sermon at the altar of Knowledge. But it doesn’t follow that evangelism, as tempting as that might sound, is the logical messaging strategy for science. The time for deficit-model-style forced conversion of the masses is long gone.

We need to stop talking about a “war on science” or how misinformed and disinterested the general public is. Science will continue to inform and sustain human culture, whether people overtly recognize this in their daily lives or not. The best outcome we can hope for with engagement is that someone will walk away with an awakened sense of personal scientific identity, as someone who does think and act scientifically. At the same time, scientists may emerge as better researchers through engagement. The (bi-directional!) signal boost associated with that shift is priceless.

HT to @RaoOfPhysics for thoughtful feedback.