Category Archives: Scientific life

Science journalism blows it, dolphin rape edition.

A few weeks ago I got into a discussion on Twitter with Ananyo Bhattacharya, online editor of Nature News and writer for The Guardian’s science section, after he put out a call asking for ways to improve science journalism. During that conversation, I argued that one way to do this is to create a culture of journalism that values scientific knowledge and expertise as a core value[1]. Ananyo seemed unimpressed with my viewpoint, and suggested that the main point of science journalism was to pry into the dark corners and root out biases, fraud, and the like in science. He views scientific communication and scientific journalism as two distinct things (and thinks that journalists doing ‘PR for science’ is ‘drippy’). Indeed, when asked directly during a Royal Institute forum on science journalism whether journalists should read the original papers behind the stories that they write, he dismissed the idea:

“If the question is ‘must a good science journalist read the paper in order to be able to write a great article about the work’ then the answer is as I said on Tuesday ‘No’. There are too many good science journalists who started off in the humanities (Mark Henderson) – and some who don’t have any degrees at all (Tim Radford). So reading an academic research paper cannot be a prerequisite to writing a good, accurate story … So I stick to the answer I gave to that question on the night – no, it’s not necessary to read the paper to write a great story on it (and I’ll also keep the caveat I added – it’s desirable to have read it if possible).”

He further suggests, in the same comment (original source), that if journalists had to read original papers than no one could report on particle physics[2].

I’m not going to try and hide my bias here: I don’t like Ananyo’s viewpoint on this. I don’t think that it will lead to good writing, either of the communication or journalistic variety, but more importantly I think that forcing journalists to read the papers before they write an article might have stopped stupid @#$@ like what happened today from happening at all.

The story: I received an e-mail this morning from Dr. Bill Sherwin, a member of the Evolution and Ecology Research Centre (E&ERC) here at my current institution, the University of New South Wales. Bill is one of the authors on a new paper coming out in the Proceedings of The Royal Society (B), entitled ‘A novel mammalian social structure in Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops sp.): complex male-male alliances in an open social network’. The paper is a nice little exploration of the characteristics of social networks in dolphins found in Western Australia; in essence, they were testing whether two hypotheses about the nature of these social networks were tenable given the data they’ve observed. In particular, they tested whether dolphins show signs of engaging in ‘community defence’, where higher order alliances of dolphins form to patrol and defend a larger community range, similar to chimpanzees, or if it follows a ‘mating season defence’ model where male groups shift their defence to smaller ranges or sets of females when it’s mating season. The comparison to terrestrial species with complex social cognition (such as primates and elephants) is an interesting one, because it provides yet more insight into the relationship between the development of complex cognitive faculties and social relationships.

So far, so good. Bill gave a simple explanation of the paper in an email that he was sent out to the E&ERC this afternoon:

We put out a paper that said “dolphin male alliances are not as simple as other species”, but it has stirred up quite a lot of interest, because somewhere in it, the paper mentioned “bisexual philopatry”, which when translated out of jargon means  “males stay near where they were born, AND females stay near where they were born” – nothing more or less than that.

‘Quite a lot of interest’ is one way to put it. ‘Idiots crawling out of the woodwork’ is another. Here’s the headlines of four stories that were written about this paper:

Dolphins ‘resort to rape’: Dolphins appear to have a darker side, according to scientists who suggest they can resort to ‘rape’ to assert authority. [The Telegraph]

Male dolphins are bisexual, US scientists claim. []. (Note that this is an Australian website, and Bill is Australian).

Male bottlenose dolphins engage in extensive bisexuality. []

And by far the best of the lot (guess who it’s from?):

The dark side of Flipper: He’s sexual predator of the seas who resorts to rape to get his way. [That’s right, The Daily Mail].


Are you kidding me? If the ‘writers’ of these articles had read the paper, they would have noticed that it contains nothing about the sexual behaviour of the dolphins they studied, bisexual or otherwise, aside from brief mentions of the possible consequences of social networks on reproductive success. It certainly didn’t mention anything about bisexual behaviour, homosexual behaviour, or rape. Now, it’s well known that dolphins engage in homosexual behaviours, and I’ve seen papers arguing that they use sexual coercion as well (Rob Brooks confirms this). But these topics have nothing to do with this paper at all. Even a cursory glance through the original source would have killed these headlines – and the first few paragraphs of the Mail story – which aren’t just a miscommunication but border on outright fabrication. The articles themselves are weird mixes of sensationalist headline with a regurgitated paraphrasing of the much better Discovery News piece that they are treating as the primary source. Here’s the problem, though: it’s Discovery News that makes the original mistake about ‘bisexual philopatry’, interpreting it as bisexual behaviour (hot male dolphin-on-dolphin action, as it were). A reporter who had read the original source could have corrected that mistake fairly easily, or could even have been driven to ask further questions. Without that, however, the press cycle grinds mercilessly forward to Flipper the bisexual rapist.

For my part, I was happy to see that James Randerson’s informal survey of science and health writers showed that many of them do read the original papers. And the kind of people who write things about science that I trust, whether they’re professionally trained in science or not, are not the sort of people who do boneheaded things like this. Ananyo might retort that ‘asking questions’ is enough (he suggested as much in his comment above). Matt Shipman said much the same thing in the piece that Ananyo was commenting on. Yet of all people, Ananyo should be wary of this answer, with his focus on investigative science journalism. A scientist writing an email or doing a phone interview can tell you just about anything that you want to hear; a press officer can write a terrible press release; a wire service will probably distort what comes down the line. But a scientific paper is the One, True Source. It is a public record of what was done, and it is the first and best place to start for answers about a study or a scientific topic[3].

Don’t mistake my criticism of Ananyo’s position of reading scientific papers as a general attack on scientific journalism. I think that there’s a lot of great science journalism out there, and that there are even more great science journalists and communicators. Despite the perennial swirl of internet discussion on the topic, I don’t actually think that the whole field is hopelessly broken like some seem to. I just happen to believe that scientific papers, the products of our time and energy as researchers, form an integral part of the process of talking about science (and it’s part of the reason for my support for Open Access publishing). And I think that disgraceful trainwrecks like the reporting on Bill’s paper are a perfect illustration of the need for these papers to be a part of that process.

[Update: Rob Brooks has also discussed this issue over at TheConversation].


[1] Because of Twitter’s space constraints, this was misconstrued to mean that I was agitating for all science journalists to have a Ph.D. in a scientific discipline. Though I wouldn’t be upset if this happened, that’s not what I meant: it is more than possible to have a deep love and knowledge of science without having a degree in a scientific field. Hell, Carl Zimmer probably knows more about viruses and evolutionary biology than I do, and his only training is an undergraduate degree in English. My argument is only that having scientific training increases the probability of a writer or journalist having a good grasp on how science works, not that it’s the only way for that to happen. I will continue to argue, though, that those having a love of science (professional or amateur) will, on average, produce better science writing and science journalism than those who don’t.

[2] He also claimed that most of the people asking journalists to read papers are biologists and medical people, who write easier-to-understand papers. I would have to turn this back on him: if biology and medical papers are so easy to understand, why shouldn’t journalists read them every time?

[3] Yes, there’s no guarantee that what is written in the paper is true. But the chances of detecting fraud are essentially zero if you don’t read the paper to begin with, and if you’re a journalist looking to catch the next Stapel, chances are that you’ll have to wait for the scientific community to find him and tell you about it anyways.

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It’s true!

As seen on Twitter:

The "what X does" meme for evolutionary biologists...

I really have nothing to add to this...

Also, don’t miss the closely related Scientists version…

Nerd fight!

I got into a bit of a scientific nerd fight today online with @hylopsar, and I thought that I might make a record of our duel for the internets to see.  It’s good for a laugh, so go check it out:

View the story “Nerd fight!” on Storify

(I tried embedding it but that failed miserably, so until I can do that you’ll have to view it on Storify’s website).

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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The creationist is still in charge…

Stephen Harper, Canadian politician

This guy isn't helping. Image via Wikipedia

In the cabinet shuffle being reported by CBC today, it seems that Harper declined to make a change in the minister responsible for science, Gary Goodyear.  You may remember Goodyear as the guy who “won’t confirm his belief in evolution” (as if it matters what he believes on the topic);  David Ng has a great piece at Discovery about how the Harper government – with Goodyear at the tiller – is kicking the beejezus out of science in Canada.

I spoke to my Master’s advisor the other day, and in the conversation he mentioned that he has to renew his grant this year and that he’s concerned about it.  Truthfully, reading these articles, I am too.  Thankfully, I’m moving to Australia where they seem to have money for science right now;  I’ll come back when (if?) Canadians elect a government that gives a damn about basic research.

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Things I have learned in the past couple of weeks…


Image by roberthuffstutter via Flickr. This picture of Marconi was suggested by WordPress, and is in no way related to the subject of the post.

  1. Everybody and their dog goes on holiday starting right about … oh, the time you need to talk to them because your house is on fire.
  2. I’ve heard it again and again, but I never listened:  when you start a collaboration, be damn sure that you know who’s doing what, who’s getting what credit, and where the project is headed.  Otherwise, you’re begging for one huge train wreck at the end.
  3. When you narrowly avert said train wreck, thank your lucky stars.
  4. Universities suck at writing regulations about doctoral theses.  Just sayin’.
  5. I need a damn vacation.

An ode to statistics..

I was pretty sleepy after my Ph.D. seminar, and was browsing on Facebook when I saw that one of my friends was talking about a possibly significant interaction in her data.  The form was quirky, though, and started off:  “Hark…”.  For some reason, this inspired my sleep-deprived and addled brain to bastardize a bit of Shakespeare (which is apparently from Cymbeline, Act 2, Scene 3).  Since she got a kick out of it, I thought that it might be blog worthy:

Hark, hark, the lark at Fisher’s gate sings,
And Student ‘gins arise,
His p-values to water at those things
On data values that lies;
And significant ANOVA tests begin
To show their golden prize;
With everything that significant is,
My conclusions sweet, arise:
Arise, arise!

With apologies to The Bard. And anyone who read this exercise in sleep deprivation.

From my upcoming PhD seminar..

I haven’t had a lot of time to post in the past few days as I prepare for my Ph.D. seminar at UQAM on the 15th, and I get on a bus Monday to go to Montréal (from Edmonton!), so it’s unlikely I’ll be doing anything inspiring from there either.  So, just to prove that I’m still alive, here’s a slide from my slide deck for the presentation I’ll be giving…

Note:  this is the required seminar that I have to give, not my thesis defense.  (That’s still to come, hopefully in a couple of months!)

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I’m in the final few months of my Ph.D., which means that I’ve been at this nearly four years. If you count the two years for my M.Sc. Before that, it’s a total of six years as a postgraduate student. Being a student is, in many ways, a fairly straight-forward affair. You (should!) have a clearly defined role, a sense of where you fit in the hierarchy. As a modeller in a lab of empiricists I’ve worked on my own a fair bit, but I’ve also been the go-to for a couple of collaborations now; however, whether I was setting my own project or working on someone else’s, the goals were fairly clear and the work was well-delineated. I got to work hard on something I loved, and I did most of the work myself. It was great: I produced the work, we talked about it, I helped write the paper, my supervisor approved it, we shipped it out the door. Rinse, repeat.

In the past couple of months, though, I’ve noticed a shift which has left me a little off-balance. It started with a side-project with my M.Sc. advisor, where I ended up pitching in on a paper that he was working on with a student of his. For various reasons, I ended up in something of a liaison position, where I spent time working with his student before we took what we had to the big kahuna. It was hardly a major shift – I’ve collaborated before – but there was a faintly different air about the whole thing. It’s not that I was in charge, but because I’d done previous work with my advisor on this topic and we were revisiting it to an extent, I ended up in an advisory position while my advisor’s student did most of the heavy-lifting that I would normally have had to do. Similarly, I’ve just started a new side-project in my current lab in which, for reasons including a time crunch, I’ve had to similarly hand-off a large part of the work to a new Ph.D. student in the lab.

Before you say it, I know that this isn’t exactly a ground-breaking revelation. In fact, in many labs I know that it’s a regular part of daily life; there are plenty of labs out there with a much more rigid hierarchy and levels of responsibility that start at the advisor and flow downwards by seniority. But both my master’s and doctorate labs have been fairly egalitarian, and it’s not something I’ve really experienced before. Combined with the impending end of my own degree, it was an interesting bucket of cold water that reminded me that – hopefully! – I’ll be a postdoc soon, and as I continue upwards in academia, I’ll be faced with ever-growing responsibility. If things go according to plan, I’ll have students of my own to guide in the coming years, a lab to run, duties to those looking upwards like I am now. And as my supervisor said the other day: nothing in the Ph.D., which is supposed to be all about how to do science as a faculty member somewhere, actually teaches you how to do any of those things. It’s a scary feeling.

What makes the feeling even more scary is that I hardly feel like I know what I’m doing yet, myself. I can’t be graduating, surely! I’m still so ignorant! But the truth is: I’ll never know enough, and yet I have to keep moving forward. I’ve been hiding under the mantle of student for long enough – it’s time for me to get out there and make my contribution while the candle is still burning. I just hope that I can be as helpful to my future students as my advisors were to me. It’s a hell of a thing to have to live up to.

(Anyone with similar experiences is welcome to share their stories in the comments!)

I’m not American, but …

… if I were, and I was listing things to be thankful for this weekend, one of the top things on my list this weekend as I slog through this project would be LaTeX and BibTeX (thank you, TeXShop and BibDesk!).

How people write scientific literature in Word, I will never understand.

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