Archive for the 'Public Perception of Science' category

What is the purpose of an anthology of science writing?

Dec 07 2009 Published by under Public Perception of Science

Sheril Kirshenbaum and DrHGG recently wrote posts expressing their disappointment at the selection of authors that Richard Dawkins included in the Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing. Neither of them was pleased that only three female authors were included in a book that featured 83 excerpts of writing by scientists.

Dawkins explained, in a comment left on Sheril's post, why the numbers worked out the way they did:

It is a collection of writing by good scientists, many of them dead and very distinguished. I am not one of those who thinks men are genetically better equipped than women to become distinguished scientists. Presumably for other reasons, it is a regrettable fact that the great majority of distinguished scientists of the past 100 years, as measured by Nobel Prizes, Fellowships of the Royal Society, numbers of science publications, etc, have been male. That imbalance, and not an imbalance in my preference or my choice, is what is reflected in the anthology.

Dawkins response does not seem to have pleased everyone - or, possibly, anyone - who was unhappy at the extreme gender imbalance. It certainly didn't please Tara Smith:

I call shenanigans. First, Dawkins also claims that he is "...not one of those who thinks men are genetically better equipped than women to become distinguished scientists." Therefore, he must know that it's other factors that have led to larger numbers of men than women in the top ranks of the scientific enterprise--one of these factors being a nasty feedback loop. Women lack role models in the upper echelons of science, leading more of us to think that perhaps this isn't the place for us, which is reinforced by examples such as this anthology. While Dawkins may not support such an attitude, his incredibly male-dominated collection, and his "too bad, so sad, that's just the way it is" response to this criticism reinforces this conclusion.

Reading the critiques, Dawkins' response, and the comments that have been left on the various posts so far, I can't help but wonder just what the people involved in this discussion - particularly Dawkins and his defenders - think the purpose of an anthology of science writing is.

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What's a "leading evolutionary biologist"?

Mar 03 2009 Published by under Public Perception of Science

The Guardian just announced that it's brought on four new columnists. These particular columnists are unusual, in that three of them are working scientists, and the fourth is an ethicist specializing in science and medicine. All in all, I think this could be a good move. The coverage of science by the mainstream media has not been outstanding of late, and giving working scientists a platform to talk about science might just help.

If I sound less hopeful than you expected, there's a reason. Unsurprisingly, the Guardian is describing their new columnists in glowing terms. Unfortunately, one of the descriptions was not quite accurate:

Finally, the leading American evolutionary biologist, PZ Myers, joins us. PZ is based at the University of Minnesota, Morris, and is the author of the ever-amazing Pharyngula blog. A glance through his recent posts reveal musings on the love songs of mosquitoes, a spat over a poll about the afterlife and an electron micrograph of a truly terrifying beetle phallus, which does indeed look like a medieval torture instrument.

PZ Myers is a lot of things. He's a genuinely nice guy. He's dedicated an enormous amount of time to science popularization, and he has a real gift for explaining science. I'm really happy that he's getting this opportunity. But he's not what I'd consider a "leading American evolutionary biologist."

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Volcano Monitoring and the Stimulus: Cost Effective and a Clear Public Good

I've already talked about the basic dishonesty Bobby Jindal exhibited when he took a swipe at the mention of "volcano monitoring" in the stimulus - Jindal claimed that there was $140 million in there for "volcano monitoring", when it's actually only one of a number of projects listed under that line - but there's something more important that I didn't discuss. I took a swipe at the messenger, but what about the message? Jindal may be a liar, but that doesn't make him wrong.

He is wrong, of course. He delivered the argument dishonestly, but the argument still fails on the merits. Volcano monitoring is a legitimate governmental function, and it would still be a good investment even if we were spending the entire $140 million on nothing but monitoring.


Before I get into the public policy questions, let's take a quick look at the costs. Volcano monitoring is (as many others have already pointed out) something that needs to be done if you want to avoid losses of life and property in a volcanic eruption. Unless you're near a Hawaiian-type volcano, with it's picturesque slow-flowing basaltic lavas, you really need to get out of the way before the mountain goes boom and falls down. If you want to be able to get out of the way before the insanely hot wall of burning rock, mud, and ash hits you, you probably want to have someone monitoring the thing.

The best example we've got of a case where volcano monitoring has worked really well is the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines. The Philippines Institute of Volcanology and Seismology had been monitoring the volcano for a while, and when it started to show signs of life USGS geologists came to assist. The US Air Force, acting on the advice of the USGS scientists, evacuated Clark Air Force base.


(Source: Wikipedia)

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Choice, Value, and the Internet: The Sandefur Debate Continues.

In his opening remarks for the latest entry in our ongoing debate about public financing for science, Timothy Sandefur suggests that after this post, we move on to concluding remarks. That strikes me as a reasonably good idea (and not just because he's generously offered me the last word). We may not have yet reached a point where we're talking past each other, but we're definitely getting dangerously close to that point.

After reading through Tim's latest post, I'm going to respond to his points out of order. I'm going to start out by looking at the more concrete examples that we've been looking at: the internet, and environmental research. Sandefur writes:

What's more, Dunford tried to use the Internet as an example of the necessity of government to fund innovation because private industry wouldn't do it. He writes "No one company expended--or had to expend--the tremendous research and development funding required to develop the basic foundation of the internet." But in fact private industry often develops basic, foundational technologies; it routinely performs research to develop new technological and scientific platforms for innovation and development. Sadly, given the nature of our mixed economy, there are no examples of this being done without some government intervention. But everything from the telephone to radio to television to the automobile to the airplane--these things have been developed overwhelmingly by private enterprise, doing research and development in fundamental ways without significant government intervention. Private industry invented MS-DOS and the GUI interface, both foundational technologies. The development of the airplane was done not only without government help, but in direct competition with the government, and that technology required significant scientific advances that were done by private industry. Look at what has been done with it today! The steam engine was developed almost independently of government intervention. Look what happened to it. The Xerox machine...well, this list could go on.

In the case of the internet, I think we do have at least some evidence that suggests that private industry was not able - or at least as able - to get the ball rolling on something along the lines of the internet. Through most of the 1980s and early 1990s, there were multiple companies that were running online information services (America Online and CompuServe were the two biggies there). The services did OK for a while, but they were ultimately crippled by one of the free-market side-effects: they weren't very inter-compatible.

Each of the companies that was providing online services had its own software and its own standards. These companies could have teamed up to come up with a common standard that would allow their users to access each others content. In fact, they had well over a decade of independent operation, and could have moved toward interconnectivity at any time. They chose not to.

Had they made a different choice, there's a chance that this might be a very different argument. But I don't think it's a very big chance. The companies did not move toward interconnectivity because they didn't see a financial motivation to do so. The users weren't demanding interconnectivity (yet), and it would really have taken supernatural powers to predict how the internet would change everything.

Later on, when the users were demanding interconnectivity, AOL, CompuServe, and the other service providers elected to connect to the internet instead of trying to come up with their own alternative. The government did not force them to integrate their services with the internet. They chose to do so.

And it's not a surprise that they did. The internet, at that point, was still largely the result of various government initiatives. By the time the commercial online companies were looking to tie into it, the internet had huge advantages over any attempt to come up with a commercial alternative. By the early 1990s, the protocols were in place, they were available for anyone's use, and no one company or organization had a proprietary interest in the foundational structure. The freedom that's provided by this unique infrastructure is what enabled the massive expansion of the internet over the last 15 or so years.

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Bad Science Reporting at the AP: The Comet Lulin Edition

Feb 19 2009 Published by under Public Perception of Science

In a recent and very widely distributed AP article, Seth Borenstein manages to do a pretty good job of misunderstanding what's going on with Comet Lulin. In a relatively short column, he manages to generate confusion about the location of the comet, mangle the name of a fairly well-known star, and totally flunk with his explanation of the comet's tail. It's not the worst science writing I've ever seen, but it definitely falls well into "massive fail" territory.

I'm going to take a minute or two and correct the most glaring of his errors, but then I'd like to get into something more serious: why this sort of inaccurate science reporting is such a Bad Thing.

If you want to see the comet, Borenstein reports, here's how to find it:

The best opportunity is just before dawn one-third of the way up the southern sky. It should be near Saturn and two bright stars, Spica and Regula.

There are just a few minor problems with this description:

  1. There is no star named Regula. There is, however, a star named Regulus.
  2. Spica and Regulus aren't particularly near each other.
  3. At the moment, Saturn isn't particularly near either Spica or Regulus.
  4. Depending on when you look, and how you define "just before dawn", there's a good chance that you're not going to find the comet "one-third of the way up the southern sky".
  5. In the near future, there are a number of good opportunities to spot the comet that don't involve getting up before dawn.

Borenstein is obviously laboring with a handicap here: he doesn't seem to realize that comets move against the background stars. Planets do, too, but not as fast. This one's zipping through the solar system quickly enough that you're not going to find it in the same place two nights in a row. In fact, it's moving so quickly that you'll actually be able to see it move against the background stars if you watch it for long enough.

Lulin was near Spica back on February 16th (and wasn't too far from there on the 15th or 17th). It will be near Saturn on the 23rd and 24th, and it will be near Regulus on the 27th and 28th. It will never be near all three of those celestial objects on the same night, much less at the same time.

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Sooner or Later, We're Gonna Have a Really, Really, Really Bad Day

"Children are our hope for the future."


"What does it contain, then?"


"Besides you, I mean!"

Death gave him a puzzled look. I'M SORRY?

Terry Pratchett


Bad Astronomy Blogger Phil Plait has written one of the most fantastically, outrageously, manically, humorously depressing books I've ever read, and I'm almost certain I mean that as a compliment. Death From The Skies provides a veritable smorgasbord of potentially deadly astronomical delights, each more exotic than the last. It's like having every Discovery Channel "The Sky Is Falling" special you can think of all packed into a single, 326-page volume. But there's a twist.

It's not sensationalistic.

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Scientific Misconduct and the Autism-MMR Vaccine Link

Feb 07 2009 Published by under Medicine, Public Perception of Science
A series of articles just published in The Sunday Times reports that it appears likely that Andrew Wakefield falsified much of the data that was used in the 1998 Lancet article that first identified the MMR vaccine as a potential cause of autism. If the charges leveled by the paper are remotely accurate, Wakefield is guilty of homicide - perhaps not legally, but certainly morally. If previous claims made by the paper are accurate, Wakefield may have acted for financial gain.

If even a fraction of the accusations leveled by The Times are true, Wakefield engaged in absolutely outrageous academic misconduct, if not outright fraud. In order for any of the accusations to not be accurate, The Times would have to be lying about the contents of medical records.

In the original journal article, Wakefield and his co-authors reported on a series of 12 children who presented to the hospital exhibiting symptoms of what the authors referred to a a "syndrome" of combined gastrointestinal disorders and developmental setbacks. According to Wakefield, these symptoms presented in these patients developed shortly after the children received the MMR vaccine.

According to The Sunday Times, that is factually incorrect in the majority of the cases presented.

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Rules for Radicals 1: The Prologue

What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.

Saul Alinsky

Rules for Radicals

This is the beginning of a promised (and late) series of posts discussing Saul Alinsky's 1971 book Rules for Radicals. Alinsky started out in community organizing in the 1930s, working in Chicago's infamous "Back of the Yards" neighborhood. Rules for Radicals is a how-to guide for organizing, based on the knowledge and experience Alinsky accumulated during the course of his career.

If you want a measure of just how effective Alinsky was at bringing about real grassroots change, you need look no farther than Rep. Michele Bachmann's now infamous Hardball appearance on Friday:

REP. BACHMANN: I think the people that Barack Obama has been associating with are anti-American, by and large, the people who are radical leftists. That's the real question about Barack Obama -- Saul Alinsky, one of his teachers, you might say, out of the Chicago area; Tony Rezko, who is an associate also.

Bachmann also provides a wonderful example of just how effective some of the tactics Alinsky pioneered. In the few days since she engaged in her reprehensible rant, her opponent raised almost three quarters of a million dollars, almost all from netroots sources. After seeing the influx in grassroots cash, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee decided to get involved, too, to the tune of $1,000,000, and now Bachmann has a real problem on her hands. (You can show your own disgust with Bachmann's attitude by adding to El Tinklenberg's total either through his own website, or through the ActBlue site. Every little bit helps - I kicked in $5.)

The Bachmann example brings me to the reason that I think it's important for people interested in science to take a close look at Alinsky's ideas: the online tools that we have access to can make it amazingly easy for small groups of committed individuals to make a difference, but only if they're used effectively. There have been a number of occasions when we have been extremely effective, but there have also been a number of opportunities that have been missed.

I'll get into more detail about why I think Alinsky and community organizing are important for those of us who are interested in science, and want to change the way scientific issues are dealt with in another post. For now, let's start looking at what we can learn from Alinsky.

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For this years Nobel Laureates ...

Oct 05 2008 Published by under Public Perception of Science

...keep an eye on the left sidebar of this blog. There's a listing there of the times and dates when the prize announcements will be made. If all goes well, the list will be automatically updated with the names of the winners, as soon as the announcements are made.
The first announcement, for the winner or winners of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, will be made sometime after 09:30 GMT tomorrow. Feel free to use this thread as an open thread for discussing speculation on who it might be, and for commenting after the winner is announced.

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Community Organizing and the Scientific Community: A Challenge.

Sep 08 2008 Published by under Do Something, Public Perception of Science

Last week, right around the time that Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin were mocking community organizers at the Republican Convention, I found myself talking about how community organizing can help us become more effective when it comes to dealing with issues where science and politics intersect.

I think this is something that we really need to do. The political groups that are opposed to science are typically very well organized. This is true for the anti-evolutionists, it's true for the global warming denialists, it's true for the anti-vaccinationists, and it's true for the anti-reproductive rights lobby. All of these groups have been extraordinarily effective when it comes to bringing people together around a common cause.

The members of the scientific community, on the other hand, typically belong to many organizations. Sadly, this is not the same as being well-organized.

During my childhood, I had many opportunities to see what community organizing can do. My mother is a professional organizer, and I started going to meetings with her when I was about two. This was in the Bronx, somewhere around thirty years ago. It's really no exaggeration to say that without the community groups, the Bronx would not have managed to do anywhere near as well as it has during that time.

That's because there is real power in numbers. When a single tenant in a slum building tries to do something about the conditions they're living in, progress is (at best) slow. The landlord is never in the office. The buildings department loses the complaints. Local legislators are friendly and courteous, but the matter isn't high on their list of priorities. The tenant who is trying to work on the problem is going to spend a lot of time and effort, and will be rewarded with a lot of frustration.

The same thing is probably going to happen to any other tenant who tries to do it alone - even if they're going through the same steps right around the same time as their neighbor.

When all the tenants in the building band together and refuse to pay rent until the landlord makes the building livable, things are different. The landlord is definitely going to take notice. The city inspectors find it much more difficult to avoid taking action. Elected officials take things very seriously when they know that the issue involves a number of constituents, not just one.

History shows that the organized approach works. It works when it's applied to slumlords and their unlivable buildings. It works when it comes to long-neglected public parks. It works when it comes to getting the local police precinct to pay more attention to neighborhood concerns. Similar approaches have also worked when it came to getting workplace safety and child labor legislation passed. It's also worked in places like Dover, Pennsylvania, when local citizens banded together, ran for office, and got rid of the nincompoops who got the school district into so much trouble.

I doubt that much of what I've said so far is controversial. I've had conversations about this sort of thing with some of before. Every time I've brought up the idea of trying to see if we can make community organizing work for us, the consensus has been that it's an idea worth trying. The problem is that so far, I've never made it past the "talk" point. And it's definitely going to take a lot more than talk for us to get organized.

As my mother has pointed out to me now and again (more or less weekly, over a period of at least a decade), there are professional organizers out there, they've been doing it for a long time, and they've gotten pretty good at it. They've had time to learn what techniques work, which ones don't, and how to modify the basic tools to handle different situations.

Fortunately for us, some of them have actually written some of this stuff down. And that's where my challenge to you comes in.

If there's one person who gets most of the credit for developing community organizing as a profession, it's Saul Alinski. Alinski started out organizing in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago in the 1930s. In the early 1970s, he published his second book, Rules for Radicals. Alinski was mostly interested in bringing about social and political change, but that doesn't mean that the strategies and tactics he outlines are necessarily going to be inapplicable in our own lives and interests. At the least, I think its worth looking at.

Starting on October 1st, I'm going to begin reading and blogging about "Rules for Radicals" at a pace of one chapter per week. I'm willing to do this by myself, but I think we'll all get a lot more out of it if I'm not the only one reading it. Which brings us to the challenge.

If you think that we (however you define we) need to do a better job when it comes to making the case for the role of good science in any aspect of public policy, read this book with me - especially if you're skeptical that tools developed to help deal with social problems can be used in the field of science communications. It's not a thick book, we're not going to be going through it quickly, and you've got plenty of time to get your hands on a copy.

I'll post on the first chapter four weeks from today - on October 6th. Is anyone else going to read it with me?

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