Monthly Archives: September 2011

Science communication? I wish it were that easy…

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Over at Scientific American, Christie Wilcox has written a provocative piece making the argument that every scientist should blog, be on Twitter, and otherwise throw themselves into the social media revolution.  Why?  Because average people just don’t get it, and as scientists, everything will be better if we just all show up on Twitter and talk science.  As she says:  “it is first and foremost the scientist’s job to share his or her research with the broader community. That means it is the scientist who is ultimately to blame when their research isn’t communicated well.”

Okay, I’m being unfair, but I’m being unfair for a reason.  Christie makes some good points in this paper, such as finding ways to break through “the jargon wall”, and she is right that there is a problem with the acceptance of scientific truths (especially in the US).  But in her rush to promote the virtues of social media, I think she inadvertently throws a few people under the bus.

Even worse, scientists pass the buck when it comes to communicating science. We write the papers, but then hand them off to journalists and say “here, explain this to everyone else.” We hand what we’ve committed years of our life to over to a writer that may have little to no science training and even less passion for the discipline as a whole. Then, we gripe and moan when the science is shottily explained or, worse, completely misinterpreted.

If I were a science writer or journalist, I’d be pretty upset at Christie’s portrayal of my profession.  I’d be especially upset if I was someone like (the brilliant) Ed Yong, who she praises but who himself has said that “after leaving university with degree in hand, I made an abortive foray into research before realising that I much prefer to talk about science than to actually do it.”  Because though I doubt she meant to sound that way, Christie’s words suggest that most journalists / science writers are just mouthpieces who get in the way of real science communication;  years of training and/or experience in writing and communication of news are useless in the face of science, which can only be properly handled by scientists.  In particular, she points to an example of bad science reporting from Brian Anderson, which she herself trashed, about a Science paper reporting chemosignals in human tears (I haven’t read the original paper, myself).  But Christie misses a big point here:  Brian Anderson writes for, which gets millions of hits a month.  When Brian Anderson writes a crap piece, a lot of people see it.  When I write a crap piece on this tiny little blog – according to my site stats – 3 people see it.  If you gave every scientist the reach and audience that Brian Anderson has, I’d say that you’d be in danger of getting just as much crap writing about science (ahem).

The fact is, scientists who blog and tweet and othersuch right now are a self-selected bunch, and most of them do it either because they want to get better at science communication, or because they’re already good at it.  Christie writes as if  “all scientists have to do is get a Twitter account and a blog and magic will happen” (4. profit!!), but writing and communicating well is a difficult art which requires effort and time to master.  She herself has obviously put time into it;  the slides she links to from her post show visual design and presentation skill that is far better than most talks you will see by scientists, be they at a conference or a public event.  And I know how hard it is to make visually interesting talks and present well, because it’s a hobby horse of mine and something I’ve been evangelizing about to my peers for a few years now to a mixture of excited questions and blank stares.   The fact is that not everyone is good at communication;  they do good science, but they make for terrible speakers.  That’s why we have science writers:  not everyone wants to obtain these skills!  Some people just want to do research, not everyone wants to have a thousand followers on Twitter, and some scientists just want to use Facebook to (gasp) talk to friends and family.  They shouldn’t have to apologize for it.  (I’d honestly be happy if more scientists could be convinced to learn how to give talks to their peers that didn’t put entire rooms to sleep;  perhaps we can teach “writing a popular science book” in next semester’s class.)  How about this:  instead of giving every scientist a Twitter account, how about we work to make science writing and scientific journalism a field with more respect, and encourage people in undergraduate and postgraduate programs to view this an acceptable option?  Instead of making more blogs, how about we make more Ed Yongs and Carl Zimmers instead?

Having said that, do I think that the acceptance of science would benefit from more scientists writing good material about science on the web?  Sure.  But I doubt very much that it’s as straightforward an equation as Christie would have us believe, where more scientists writing = more acceptance of science in a linear relationship.  For example, assuming that there isn’t some sort of US specific deficit in this matter, countries vary widely on how much they accept the word of scientists on topics like climate change and evolution.  Is Christie claiming that the number of scientists on Twitter or quality of science writing in the newspaper completely explain the differences between Iceland and the US (of about 40% of the population!) in acceptance of evolution?

Her argument also suffers from its own premises.  In her slides, she suggests that you should be on Facebook because there are 3 million links shared per hour, on Twitter because there are 200 million tweets per day, and Google+ because it’s reached 20 million users in record time. And if we follow her advice?  Well, then we just add to that flood of information.  But science communication is a two- way street, with a producer and a consumer.  We can’t just increase the number of people writing about science without finding some way to convince the public to tune in and read this stuff, to watch the videos, and follow scientists on Twitter.  Christie’s argument suggests that if we increase the amount of communication, resistance to science will go down.  I’d argue instead that this is a system locked in a feedback loop that must be addressed on both ends.  You can shove more science down the pipe, but if you don’t change the culture and widen the pipe to allow that quality material through, you’re just wasting everyone’s time.

I know that I’m being hard on this piece, but it’s not because I think it’s a bad piece of writing.  I’m actually pretty impressed with her writing and enthusiasm and I’ll be keeping an eye on her RSS feed from now on. She’s right to encourage scientists to get better at communicating their work, and I would be happy if everyone followed her advice. I just don’t think it’s realistic to assume that everyone will, or that doing so won’t create nearly as many problems as it solves.  If scientific communication and acceptance of science is going to get better, it’s going to require a concerted effort on the part of scientists, science writers, journalists, educators, politicians, and everyone else who plays a part in driving our society towards accepting, understanding, and using the fruits of our scientific labour.

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Sexy genes that rock’n’roll: a review.

Full disclosure:  a month and a half ago, I began working in the same building as the author of the book that I review in this post, Rob Brooks.  He’s also an editor at Behavioural Ecology, a  journal that I submit to.  I haven’t  yet met Rob, though we’ve had a couple of brief interactions on Twitter.  I provide this background so that you can judge my review in context.

The Book: Sex, Genes, and Rock’n’roll, by Rob Brooks.  University of New South Wales Press, 2011.  [amazon].

The verdict: A great read, if a touch disjointed.

In Sex, Genes, and Rock’n’Roll, evolutionary biologist Rob Brooks (from my new institution, the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia) provides his insights into the application of what we know about evolutionary biology to the human condition.  The book is organized into three loose groups.  The first few chapters deal with the current obesity crisis sweeping the world, while the next chapters deal with issues of reproduction, love, and mating – not an entirely overlapping set of concepts!.  After a brief segue into human sex ratios the books discusses of the application of sexual selection to music, both production and consumption thereof, and ends with an explanation of why we die wrapped draped over the shoulders of famous rock’n’roll deaths.  The text is well-written and has a clear emphasis on making the product of evolutionary theory relevant and understandable to people who have little or no training in the field.  While I didn’t come across much in the book that I didn’t already know in some form or another, this is no slight to the depth of the scholarship on display; rather, it’s a tip of the hat to the complex trade-off between presenting the voluminous detail required to make the case for a behaviour’s evolutionary roots and the need to make it relevant and interesting to people who don’t wish to become biologists themselves along the way.

Brooks is at his best when explaining how evolutionary biology can help to explain the roots of issues that you may see on the news every day:  why are we getting fatter, as a society?  What is the evolutionary basis for love?  Why have population sizes in countries like India and China exploded while fertility rates in developed nations dwindle away?  This last issue is close to my heart, because in the last year of my undergraduate degree I first cut my teeth in science by trying to test the work of James Chisholm (whose book Death, Hope, and Sex would make an interesting follow-up to some of the material discussed here) using 50 years of published UN data on mortality and fertility rates.  As it happened, I had bitten off far more than I could chew and nearly choked on the data, but the process gave me a desire to do more and started me on the road I’m now following.  Sex, Genes, and Rock’n’Roll addresses these topics with a deft touch, providing enough meat to make the case with all the well-known examples showing up, while at the same time stitching it together into an interesting narrative that draws you through the book.  For example, the discussion of human mating systems and the causes and consequences of polygyny in particular presented in Chapter 7 is one the most lucid applications of current evolutionary thought to this subject that I’ve seen.

On the other hand, if the book suffers from a problem, I would say that the narrative is coherent within ideas but the switch between ideas (obesity to love, love to mating systems, mating systems to music, music to senescence) tended towards the disjointed.  In fact, looking at the notes I made while reading, I wrote about 2/3rds of the way through that the book seemed to be a collection of evolutionary novellas more than a coherent whole.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but perhaps a bit more attention paid to the transitions would help.   I would also take minor issue with the presentation of the research on music’s role in human sexual selection.  This is an idea I’m familiar with from evolutionary psychology, and it’s a hypothesis that I enjoy greatly, but the book seems to verge on taking the argument for granted.  The issue of whether music and musical culture is a product of sexual selection is, to me, still unsettled, and I would say that the details of this topic are a wild and unexplored frontier, not a well-mapped road.

Quibbles aside, this is a solid and entertaining book which is well-worth a read for the interested general public and good snack food for workers in the field.  The next time you find wondering what to read for fun and looking for something with a little substance to it, I’d recommend giving Sex, Genes, and Rock’n’Roll a try.

Note:  I initially downloaded the Kindle version, which was horribly formatted and crashed my iPad’s Kindle app repeatedly at the second chapter; it didn’t crash my wife’s Kindle, but on the iPad it was so bad that I ended up getting a refund from Amazon (I eventually read the book from iBooks).  I raised the issue with Rob, and he promised to follow up with the publisher.  Hopefully, the issue has since been solved.

Group selection a done deal? Hint: no.

The modern theory of natural selection derives...

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In reading Jerry Coyne’s review of David Sloan Wilson‘s new book, The Neighborhood Project, I came across this succinct summary of what I agree is the current feeling on group selection:

Group selection isn’t widely accepted by evolutionists for several reasons. First, it’s not an efficient way to select for traits, like altruistic behavior, that are supposed to be detrimental to the individual but good for the group. Groups divide to form other groups much less often than organisms reproduce to form other organisms, so group selection for altruism would be unlikely to override the tendency of each group to quickly lose its altruists through natural selection favoring cheaters. Further, we simply have little evidence that selection on groups has promoted the evolution of any trait. Finally, other, more plausible evolutionary forces, like direct selection on individuals for reciprocal support, could have made us prosocial.

These reasons explain why only a few biologists, like Wilson and E. O. Wilson (no relation), advocate group selection as the evolutionary source of cooperation. […]

At least, this agrees with my reading of the literature;  I’m hardly an expert in this area, but I’ve been swayed by the writings of people like Coyne and the pair of Stuart West and Andy Gardner (e.g. this paper, if you can get it;  this video is also well worth watching).  And nothing D.S. Wilson has ever written has convinced me otherwise.  Thus, I was especially surprised when I picked up a free copy of New Scientist from the Ultimo Big Night of Science – which, incidentally, was fantastic –  and saw that they had published an 8-page hatchet job (which is behind a paywall online here) by Wilson in which he claimed that group selection (a.k.a. multi-level selection or MLS) “is firmly re-established” in evolutionary biology.    “Today, though,” he writes, “there is near-universal agreement among those familiar with the subject that the wholesale rejection of group selection was mistaken and that the so-called alternatives are nothing of the sort” (p. viii).

One of the biggest problems with group selection is that it’s mathematically equivalent to other, better explanations of evolution like kin selection.  Wilson knows this:  he rather transparently tries to co-opt the criticism in the paper by stating it as though it works in reverse (“In addition, it has become clear that the supposed alternatives for the evolution of prosocial behaviour are actually equivalent to group selection”).  In what I consider a despicable move, he even quote mines Andy Gardner:  “‘Everyone agrees that group selection occurs,’ stated evolutionary biologist Andy Gardner in 2008.”  But it’s instructive to look at what Andy Gardner actually said, in this 2008 Nature summary of the ‘debate’:

 “Everyone agrees that group selection occurs,” says Andy Gardner of the University of Edinburgh, UK. Yet Gardner and his colleagues Stuart West and Ashleigh Griffin have trenchantly criticized David Sloan Wilson’s arguments on this subject — a critique to which David Sloan Wilson responded by initiating a lengthy debate in the community under the heading ‘If the theorists cannot agree…’.

Wilson leaves off the part where Gardner and his colleagues don’t agree with him at all, which is a favourite tactics of creationists.  I’ll leave the implication of that up to the readers.

So if everyone agrees that the two are mathematically the same, why not use group selection?  I’ll highlight the strong argument made by West, Griffin, and Gardner which you can read here.  In responding to Wilson’s critique of an article that the authors wrote, West et al. point out three things (p.376):

  1. “No group selection model has ever been constructed where the same result cannot be found with kin selection theory.”
  2. “The group selection approach has proved to be less useful than the kin selection approach.”
  3. “The application of group selection theory has led to much confusion and time wasting.”

If you’re interested in this issue, I urge you to read the linked PDF and follow up with some of the references they give.  I don’t know of clearer writers on this subject, and it’s a great place to start.

I disagree with a lot of what D. S. Wilson writes, but I respect his right to hold the opinions and his efforts to prove his position right.  That’s how science progresses, and if he can ever come up with some strong evidence for his position (which I don’t believe that he has yet), I’ll take a good hard look at it and make up my mind anew.  Until then, though, I would take him much more seriously if he would stop with the claims that everyone agrees with him when they obviously don’t.

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Outside your area…

This post at Ars Technica by Chris Lee says smart things about a subject that I’ve been thinking about for a while:

One of the most important things that I’ve learned in my time writing for Ars Technica is how little I know. Look at my back catalogue of stories and you will notice that most of my articles are combinations of quantum mechanics and optics. Every now and again I venture into the fraught territory of cosmology, materials sciences, and climatology. Even more rarely, I head off into the wild and write something about medicine or biology.

I only ever write these articles if the papers on which they are based are written clearly; I want to be reasonably certain that I haven’t mangled the research entirely. Yet, if you let yourself be flushed down the intertubes, you will find physicists and engineers like myself expounding on topics that are far outside their field of expertise. These people are often so badly wrong that it is hard to know where to begin in any argument to counter them.

I find it quite frustrating because these are supposedly smart people. So what goes wrong with us physicists?

(The rest of the post is great , so go read it!)

I truly don’t think that the phenomenon is restricted to physicists, mind.  I’ve met more than a few people from all different kinds of fields who feel that their Ph.D. or other advanced credentials makes them qualified to pontificate on any subject that happens to be at hand, and worse, makes them expect that they’re right without any evidence.  A favourite example from my own life might be the social psychology grad student who wandered up to me during an exam we were proctoring together and told me that this evolution stuff was bunk when it came to humans and that evolution had never had an effect on humans – we’re special, damnit.  And he wasn’t having any suggestions to the contrary – he nearly had his Ph.D. after all, and I was just a jumped-up Master’s student. And it’s worse these days.  If I have to deal with one more engineer who wanders over and tells me about how evolution is full of holes and s/he knows just what they are (after which they usually proclaim that evolution violates the laws of thermodynamics or something equally inane and well-refuted), I’m going to scream.

Of course, I’m convinced that the same is true for people coming from my patch of the woods;  I’m willing to bet money that there are plenty of biologists who wander all about the place spewing nonsense because they know about teh evolutionz.  (I wonder if doctors find biologists insufferable as patients?)  If anyone has examples, I’d love to hear about them!

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