18 February 2017

“Explain it like you would to...”

People like to tell scientists what sort of explanation counts as “clear.”

So you get clichéd advice like, “You don’t really understand something unless you can explain it to a six year old child.” (Maybe this is why doing a Google Image search for “explainer” gives me the results above: the top results are all simplistic, almost child-like, cartoon images.)

Well, I’m sorry, but there are some things that a young kid is just not ready to understand. Differential equations? Quantum mechanics? Tesseracts? There are tons of perfectly fine scientific concepts that are no less legitimate because kids won’t get them.

Meanwhile, at the AAAS meeting in Boston, Mike Taylor tweeted another “explainer” cliché:

Claudia Dreifus: “If you can’t explain it to your grandmother, don’t bring it to a reporter.”

The “Explain it to your grandmother” cliché makes me even grumpier than “Explain it to a child.” Why is “grandmother” become a synonym for “uninformed person”? And it’s always, and I mean always, a “grandmother.” Never a “grandfather” or a “grandparent.” So there’s an assumption that women are the uninformed ones that need to have things explained.

Then there’s the age issue. Plenty of older people are perfectly clever. Indeed, some of them are called, “professors.” Other examples:

All three of my children’s grandmothers have college degrees, including graduate degrees and a law degree. - Keith Bertelsen

My kids’ grandmother was one of first women to enter IT in the 1980s, and she does not appreciate condescension. - Miriam Goldstein

My grandmother is one of the sharpest and most well-informed people I know, so def seems like an odd use of “grandmother” to me - Rachel Fritts

Friend of the blog Al Dove raised one good point in defense of the “grandmother” advice:

I’m 99.9% certain grandma was picked to mean “be RESPECTFUL,” not because she’s old and dumb.

Being respectful is a good goal in communication, but given the baggage that “Explain it to your grandmother” has, I think it’s best to look for a new metaphor. The desiderata might be someone who is:

  • An adult with some education, although not an expert.
  • Someone you should treat with respect.
  • Someone whose time is limited and valuable.

My suggestion for an imaginary target audience is:

“Explain is like you would to a world leader.”

A prime minister, president, and the like are all people that any scientist should aspire to be able to coherently and concisely explain what they do and why. Justin Kiggins arrived at similar advice to me independently. But while he was being facetious, I am being sincere.

But even that will have it’s limitations. Politicians are people who often think very short-term (new cycles and next elections), which can be tough for a scientist. This reinforces a lesson I have seen many writers: “There is no ‘general public.’”

14 February 2017

More March for Science thoughts

A while back, I noted that the planned March for Science had gotten a lot of flak, much of which seemed... unhelpful.

I want to be clear, though: this is not to say that March for Science should be immune from criticism.

I reckon it’s fair to say they are not making everyone feel welcome to the march. They’ve also made other communication missteps, like tweeting outdated news articles and misleading science facts. That said, I have not been following everything the March organizers have been doing or saying super closely (though I’ve collected a lot of links in this post).

I think the March for Science is important. It has excited a lot of people, but soured some. I hope that the organizers do better. Sometimes, even reviewer two has a fair point.

Update and correction, 16 February 2017: The claim that Science March had tweeted out an out of date news article was incorrect (strikethrough above). It may have come from supporter of the March, but not March organizers themselves.

Related posts

March for Science and Reviewer Two
An outsider’s perspective on protest

External links

March for Science

12 February 2017

Bilingual university plans; more program woes

The Texas observer has a profile on UTRGV focusing on plans to make the university a bilingual institution.

When this has been brought up on campus within faculty, I had heard that there was a law somewhere that said the language of instruction for public universities had to be English. I could not find it, so maybe this was just a rumour. It used to be that the state’s K-12 schools were English only... but that was over 40 years ago.

While I’m here, on top of our institution’s issues with accreditation, the nursing program is under warning.

External links

Inside the Nation’s First Bilingual University
Bilingual education
UTRGV nursing program under warning

10 February 2017

My heart beats true

It’s only the second round, and I am absolutely hooked on the AFL’s women’s competition.

Why am I hooked? Check out the 8 February edition of the Outer Sanctum podcast. Listen to how people flooded out to the first round of games because they recognized it was something historic. Listen to people admitting they were moved to tears, particularly a lot of women who never had a chance to play in a top competitions. Listen to the presenters talk about the diversity in the league, and how different the players’ stories are from the men’s competition: the men footballers had a pretty straight line into professional sports. The women have day jobs of all sorts (one Demons player is a dairy farmer), and many excel at several sports.

And what other sporting league – particularly football of any code – would have an openly gay couple playing for two different teams and competing against each other? The bigger, longer running men’s competition has never had a single out gay player, never mind a couple.

I am so enthralled that I decided to become club member, even though I will never get to a game in person this year. I barracked for the Demons since I lived in Melbourne years ago, and I’m continuing that in the AFLW. Go the Dees!

Related posts

The best ad during a football game was in AFL Women’s, not the SuperBowl

External links

Outer Sanctum podcast
First openly gay AFL player couple: "We're proud, and proud of each other"
Melbourne Demons

Staying active in the lab and/or field when you’re the boss

For many scientists, there comes a point in their careers where they are not collecting their own data. They supervise students, and the students collect the data, leaving the senior scientist (or, to use grant-speak I hate, the principle investigator or “PI”) to write grant proposals and help draft papers.

I’m a beleiver that senior scientists should have at least one project of their own. One project where they collecting their own data and write it up themselves as first author. I know that this is overly optimistic, and not a lot of people can do this. But even if you don’t have your own project, it’s still valuable to be in the field or in the lab doing something.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week. I’ve been spending quite a bit of time in the lab collecting data. I’m quite excited by the small amount of data I have so fa.

But the project I’m collecting data for started as an incidental observation last summer. I was helping one of my students on a project, and noticed something interesting. Just happenstance while we were looking at something mostly unrelated.

That incidental observation last summer is probably going yield at least one paper.

No matter how good and dedicated students are, the likelihood that any of them would have noticed what I noticed, and recognized it as interesting, is low.

There are benefits to having experienced observers, and that’s almost always the PI. You transition from lab bench to office desk at your own peril of missing some cool stuff.

09 February 2017

The name game and fame

There have been several “Scientists need to do more outreach!” editorial lately. Some have reminded people that most Americans can’t name a living scientist.

The “Do more outreach” editorials got some justified pushback from science Twitter. People listed the many, many things that scientists have been doing for outreach, not least of which was the #ActualLivingScientist hashtag on Twitter. Teachers in K-12 schools started printing out their favourites and stuck them to boards for students to see (above).

But while I love this stuff to death, I don’t think that it will make a big dent in the ability of people in polls to name a living scientist.

If you were asked in a poll to name a living lawyer, would you name a local attorney whose billboard you pass every day on your commute?

If you were asked to name a living football player, would you name your kid’s friend who plays on the high school team?

Probably not, because when you are thinking about answering a poll, you tend to think have to think fast. The names that pop to people’s heads are probably people who have some national fame. So no matter how much grassroots stuff scientists do, in a poll, people are still going to answer with names like Bill Nye or Neil Tyson or Bill Gates or Albert Einstein.

Related posts

Do you know this man?
Who gets to be a scientist?
I want to be Carl Sagan, but can’t

External links

A lot of Americans don’t know a single scientist. We need to fix that
Meet some #actuallivingscientists on Twitter
Picture from here.

07 February 2017

The current and future fights between universities and the White House

I make a cameo appearance in this Times Higher Education piece that focuses on the US administration threats to stop sending federal money to the University of California, Berkeley if they don’t allow a bigot to speak there. The article wonders if the UC Berkeley story will just be the first in a long series of battles between the current administration and academia.

External links

Trump's Berkeley threat spotlights future battles

Tuesday Crustie: Sticker shock

Last week, I polled people on Twitter, asking what people thought was the highest price paid for any invertebrate.

I was surprised that most people guessed over $10,000.* If you had asked me, I could not think of any invertebrate that could command that sort of price tag.

I polled because I had read about this crayfish, named “Chao Khun Chang.” It’s an unusual colour morph, but otherwise, it is the ubiquitous Louisiana red swamp crayfish, Procambarus clarkii.

As far as I know, it was sold for the highest price ever paid for a crayfish, and possibly for an invertebrate:

It sold for 1 million baht in Thailand, which is in the neighbourhood of US$28,500.

By way of comparison, I’ve been examining the price of crayfish in the North American pet trade for several years now (Faulkes 2013, 2015). The average sale price is $5 to $25 (depending on species). The highest asking price I’ve ever seen for a crayfish was $80, and the highest price paid (including shipping) was $65 (Faulkes 2015).

This crayfish is the invert arowana. It’s amazing.

* Winner of the best response was David Dobbs, who wrote:

Way over $10,000. Paul Ryan doesn’t come cheap.


Faulkes Z. 2013. How much is that crayfish in the window? Online monitoring of Marmorkrebs, Procambarus fallax f. virginalis (Hagen, 1870) in the North American pet trade. Freshwater Crayfish 19(1): 39-44. http://dx.doi.org/10.5869/fc.2013.v19.039

Faulkes, Z., 2015. Marmorkrebs (Procambarus fallax f. virginalis) are the most popular crayfish in the North American pet trade. Knowledge and Management of Aquatic Ecosystems 416: 20. http://dx.doi.org/10.1051/kmae/2015016

External links

Crayfish with rare colours sets B1m record
Distinctive species of ghost crayfish fetches one million baht price
Man sells cow-patterned crayfish for 1 million baht

05 February 2017

The best ad during a football game was in AFL Women’s, not the SuperBowl

Nope, the best advertisement I saw this weekend was during Round 1 of the inaugural AFL Women’s competition. Powerful and emotional.

(There are a lot of shorter versions that snip out a section of this longer ad. The first one I saw was this one.)

I amazed by how directly it attacked tropes about the importance of looking a certain way, the double standard faced by women athletes, and about having the ambition to do what you want. Whether or not it was intended, it may be the most overtly feminist ad I’ve seen in a long time.

I have been watching the formation the of the women’s competition with interest, and I think this ad crystallized why I think this league is so important. When I lived in Melbourne, I was just so astonished by how much passion for footy was part of the city. It was unavoidable and infectious. That bloke’s game was an integral part of the culture.

This is a big cultural change.

Imagine being a young girl seeing an ad like this. Suddenly, a dream that you might have had that was impossible – playing professional AFL football – is suddenly possible. And if that is suddenly possible, what other things can you accomplish?

If a male wants to be a ballerina, he can be a ballerina. If a kid says they want to be an astronaut... then you be an astronaut. - Moana Hope

Even though my team, the Demons, lost in round 1, this first round has left me anxious to see more. I’m telling you, there are going to be doctoral dissertations about the creation of the AFL Women’s league in years to come.

P.S.—There is a website that streams AFL games to locations outside of Australia, WatchAFL.com. There is a free trial period that allows you to try the service until 22 March. This gets you through the regular season for free; the Grand Finale is 25 March 2017.

External links

AFL Women’s
Watch AFL

03 February 2017

An outsider’s perspective on protest

Here is the latest criticism of the March for Science.

William Happer, a physicist from Princeton University who met with Mr. Trump before his inauguration and who has been cited as a potential science adviser to the administration (said) that scientists could risk losing some of their public support with a large-scale protest.

“It’s quite possible that this kind of public exercise could actually be bad for science — it’s like the toddler banging his spoon in the highchair,” he said. “It may not turn out to garner a lot of sympathy.”

Comparing a peaceful protest for science, by a group that is highly educated and slow to enter the political fray, to a baby’s temper tantrum is insulting. As a potential advisor to the administration, Happer has a vested interest in trying to dissuade scientists from protesting.

Between now and 22 April 2017, when the March for Science occurs, many more people will try to tell scientists all the ways that a peaceful protest could (as in maybe, as in might, as in hypothetically if some bizarre circumstances were to occur) make the situation for science worse than it is now. 

I am no social scientist, nor historian. But it seems to me that this pattern has occurred in the past:

There is unfairness in the world. People, justifiably upset, organize against it. Some people plan public protests about that cause. Others warn that the public protests will hurt the cause, and instead advise people to “work within the system” for change. For instance, Randy Olson asked if a public protest for science was more or less effective than a petition.

But the naysayers never seem to be able to point to cases where movements were clearly halted because of protests (possible exception: violent protests), or cases where not having protests yielded demonstrable progress.

Petitions rarely make national news or become events that people remember years later. On the other hand, protests often become important cultural touchstones for the communities involved and go down in history.

Related posts

March for Science and Reviewer Two

External links

March for Science
‘Listen to Evidence’: March for Science Plans Washington Rally on Earth Day
Will a March Help Science?
Scientists plan to march on Washington — but where will it get them?
In Age of Trump, Scientists Show Signs of a Political Pulse
Why I’m marching for science
The War on Science Is a Trap
I’m going to #sciencemarch in Washington. Here’s why
A lot of Americans don’t know a single scientist. We need to fix that
The March For Science In Washington Is Political Whether You Like It Or Not
Out of the lab, into the streets: Scientists, feeling threatened, plan an Earth Day march
The ‘March for Science’ is gaining mainstream momentum
Science entering a new frontier: Politics

New neuroscience – excuse me, neurosciences – institute for UTRGV

This morning, the university announced it received at $15 million gift to start an “Institute for Neurosciences.”

You might think as the only person on this campus remotely doing any kind of research related to neuroscience for years (the better part of a decade, I reckon), I might have gotten some sort of heads up about this. I did not. This was a surprise to me.

It reminds me of when UTRGV created a “School of Earth, Environmental, and Marine Sciences.” Probably half my research involves marine organisms, but nobody thought to ask if I wanted to be involved. There is a lot of “left hand knows not what the right hand is doing.”

And by the way, there are not multiple “neurosciences.” It’s a single discipline.

External links

UTRGV School of Medicine receives $15M gift to start neuroscience institute

01 February 2017

March for Science and Reviewer Two

It’s always Reviewer Two who screws you over.

Every academic knows Reviewer Two. This is the person sends back your paper with comments that are not helping.

It’s not the experiment they would have done.

They think you should do more experiments.

They want you to cite these unrelated papers.

They just don’t believe the results, even though they can’t or won’t point to a single flaw in the methodology or error in the analysis.

Reviewing journal articles was not a big enough venue, so a lot of people want to be Reviewer Two on a planned March for Science.

The March for Science is an event planned for 22 April 2017. It emerged a couple of days after the current US administration began, with the gag orders of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and US Department of Agriculture (USDA), with the EPA also having all grant activity frozen.

Second reviewers appeared almost instantly. So far, I’ve seen these as the most common complaints about the March for Science.

  • “Why doing you care about science rather than this other thing that I care about more?”
  • “Why are you mentioning anything besides the science?”
  • “Scientists should not get involved in politics.”

Probably the most widely circulated critique was an editorial in the New York Times by Robert Young. It proves yet again that if you look hard enough, you can find someone with a Ph.D. who will support any position you care to name.

The frustrating thing is, Young is someone who does policy work and does outreach. He writes:

I learned was that most of those attacking our sea-level-rise projections had never met me, nor my co-authors. Not only that, most of the public had never met anyone they considered a scientist. They didn’t understand the careful, painstaking process we followed to reach our peer-reviewed conclusions.

Young points out that scientists are invisible, and argues that scientists need to be visible, but does not want scientists to be visible in a march. A march would make scientists more visible than they have been in a long time. There will be media coverage, nationally, guaranteed.

Young wants people to play the long game and get involved in local politics. This is important, but there is no reason not to do both. Arguing for “long term outreach and education” is normally a sensible position. But this is not normal. There has never been an American administration with spokespeople proposing “alternative facts” over simple and verifiable information. There has never been an administration threatening to abolish federal science agencies. There has never been an administration complaining about social media accounts for tweeting facts.

What’s even weirder about Young’s argument is that he doesn’t even have an anecdote suggesting that this “long game” approach will work.

The coastal commission ignored it. The authors, myself included, were widely slandered. And the Legislature passed a law that barred state and local agencies from developing regulations or planning documents anticipating a rise in sea level.

There isn’t a happy ending here with politicians changing their mind. On the other hand, we have the “Science is Vital” campaign in the UK and the “Death of evidence” demonstration in Canada. How did they do? Science is Vital got something done:

Back in 2010 our efforts, along with that of many others, resulted in a ring-fence for the publicly funded science budget – a freeze rather than a cut.  

The Death of Evidence campaign’s outcomes are maybe a little harder to point to a specific outcome, but it led to formation of Evidence for Democracy. (Interview here.) But in neither case did public demonstrations lead to anything bad happening.

When a wrecking ball is swinging towards you, you don’t try to gently nudge it out of the way. This is shaping up as a fight for survival for science in the United States. I do not say this lightly.

In The Ridonculous Race (an animated spoof of The Amazing Race), two competitors are “geniuses,” Ellody and Mary. One challenge is to build a sandcastle. The geniuses write a complicated plan in the sand that chews up time and then gets washed away by a wave before they even start their castle. And they are cut from the competition because of it.

Scientists are so used to being careful, slow, and critical. This is our strength. It is also our weakness. Addressing every concern of all the second reviewers of March for Science could take scientists out of the race.

Related posts

The political attack on science escalates with EPA granting freeze

External links

March for Science
Are scientists going to march on Washington?
Scientists are planning to march on Washington. Here's why
A Scientists’ March on Washington Is a Bad Idea