30 September 2013

The Zen of Presentations, Part 64: The power of story is not absolute

People might say, “Oh, the math is too hard, I’m not a numbers person.” But nobody says, “I can’t deal with stories, they’re too hard.” (Paraphrased from last week’s Sackler science symposium.)

Stories are wonderful, powerful things. There was so much talk about it at last week’s Sackler symposium, there’s a new book out about it (Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking), and I’ve written about it here before.

But your presentation won’t automatically be good just because you’re telling a story.

For example, here’s a story has been told several times.

Ambitious man takes team to remote island, where woman is captured by huge gorilla. The team rescues the woman and captures the gorilla, taking it to civilization. The gorilla escapes into the city, causing havoc until it is shot down from a skyscraper, falling to its death.

At some level, all three versions of King Kong are the same story. The 1933 version is one of the finest fantasy films ever made. It inspired generations of artists and countless imitations. Everyone knows the name, “King Kong.” Its eightieth anniversary this year was woefully under appreciated.

The 1977 version did not live up to the promise on its poster as being “the most exciting original motion picture event of all time.” Most want to forget it. (I still love John Barry’s score, though.)

The most recent 2005 version falls somewhere in the middle. It has brilliant high points stuck mired in an overly long telling.

Movie remakes show that even when you have the same basic story structure, the success of that story in connecting with an audience can veer all over the map.

You can no doubt think of bad stories you’ve endured. Some stories seemed doomed to fail at the start, because of how they are structured. Some have logical gaps and plot loopholes. Some are long-winded and complicated. Some don’t have interesting characters. Some have endings that leave you feeling cheated.

Some stories, like King Kong, have greatness within them, but their story can still be killed off by a crummy execution. You can have movies that are brought down by decisions in the editing room, the actor’s performances, poor production values, or strange narrative choices.

No story is foolproof (because, as the saying goes, fools are so ingenious). There’s always a way to screw them up.

Yes, you absolutely should tell a story when you give a talk. But you have to go further and make sure that you’re telling a good story.

Related posts

The Zen of Presentations, Part 16: Tell a story
The Zen of Presentations, Part 34: Lessons from the blind
Sackler improves
Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking review

25 September 2013

Sackler improves

After criticizing the Sackler science symposium yesterday for looking stiff and not communicating well yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised by day two. For instance, two business marketers, Peter Zandan and Davis Masten, gave a very engaging talk with a different, non-academic perspective.

Later, Deb Koy got away from “death by PowerPoint slides.” Many people, including me, asked on Twitter how much time and money went into producing his excellent data animations. I suspected the costs, either financial or person hours, are not trivial. And I was correct. Koy answered (my emphasis):

My #sackler visualizations were result of 4-month collaboration with Philip DeCamp. Storyboards -> vis software -> feed real data

This is important. Excellent communication is hard work. And it seems people want to outreach, but want it for free. Peter Zandan and Davis Masten showed a graph showing much much money is spent on marketing and advertising, and science communication is dwarfed, probably more than ten to one. Via Twitter, I asked, “Who’s going to pay for science communication?” The answer was that the barriers have been lowered because of social media, and that good messages can “go viral” for very little cost. True, but resources still matter.

The panels looked more energized:

And it even got a little sexy when Julie Downs discussed communication with teenage girls about sexual health. Randy Olson often talks about communicating through the “lower organs,” including the sex organs, but it’s rare to see it this literally...

But not all was well. Claire tweeted:

Can someone please translate? I don't speak research scientist...

Related posts

Sackler symposium still doesn’t practice what it preaches

24 September 2013

Tuesday Crustie: Hitting the bottle

Perhaps these gooseneck barnacles need an intervention...

Photo by spinster cardigan on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

Sackler symposium still doesn’t practice what it preaches

Last year, I was fairly critical of the National Academy of Science’s Sackler symposium on science communication. A second one is running now, and I was hoping to see some improvements. And there were  maybe a few. There seemed to be a better mix of men and women, for instance.

I was not able to watch and listen to all of the talks on Monday, but still... I was left with a very familiar feeling.

Rob Simmon tweeted this picture, saying:

Slides at #sackler haven’t been great, but not bad. However, we’ve reached the dreaded wall of text:

I cannot quite believe that at a symposium devoted to excellence in communication would showcase such a completely tone-deaf attempt at communicatiom.

Shortly after that, I flipped over to the live stream and saw this:

Tiny legend, the ubiquitous boxes (overlapping text), and a virtual rainbow of colours, title overlapping the data, and pointless branding in the bottom. Does anyone think these are excellent examples of visual communication?

A typical image of panelists in the life feed was like this:

My reaction:

Hardly anyone looks comfortable. It’s the impression I keep getting from this symposium, both years: terribly earnest, and terribly conservative.

Related posts

Self-defeating prophecy
Science communicators need to lead by example

23 September 2013

Just how multicultural can a university be?

Last Friday, Julio León visited our campus to discuss the plans for the new South Texas university. León has been named a special advisor to help with the transitions. He’s apparently getting a pretty penny for the consultation.

León had several messages. One of the things that interested me was in discussing the ways that the new university might be different and innovative, he brought up a Canadian university as an example of something our new institution might do: the University of Ottawa.

The University of Ottawa is a completely bilingual university. You can get a degree in French or English.

León suggested that an example of potential innovation and multicultural nature of the new university would be for the institution to be completely bilingual. He suggested that if the new university offered degrees in both English and Spanish that people from Latin America would flock to this new institution.

While León was saying this, I was doing a facepalm. Because I’ve occasionally heard of the experiences of faculty from University of Ottawa. And the bilingual aspect of the university is an incredibly difficult challenge, from every account I’ve heard. Of course, that’s just gossip, but it gives me pause.

I had not heard of any other university besides University of Ottawa that is officially bilingual. A quick Google search revealed the University of Fribourg is bilingual; German and English. So there are obviously a few places where this is done, but there can’t be that many good role models.

How would a completely bilingual university work? Do you offer every class in duplicate? Would all students have to show bilingual proficiency? Would you only hire bilingual faculty? (Doing that would pose some interesting challenges in attracting new faculty.)

On the one hand, I do like that León is thinking more about bringing new people here rather than the usual line we’re heard from higher ups about local people not having to leave.

León also talked about the new university having several “instructional sites” rather than “campus branches.” How those two things are supposed to differ, her did not explain.

Whereas when this new university was first announced, statements were made that no faculty would lose their jobs. León, however, pointed out the legislation around the new university only required the new administrators to keep existing employees when practical and prudent. He did say that it made no sense to fire a lot of people when part of the rationale for the new university is that it is supposed to be creating jobs. I don’t think faculty in our department is in trouble, but this was a little less reassuring than we’ve heard before.

Additional: On Twitter, Chris Harrod raises two points: English language degrees may be perceived as more prestigious in Latin America. It can be hard for students to get a visa to come to the U.S.

Update, 26 September 2013: Video of the presentation:

External links

UT names advisor to help plan new Valley university

21 September 2013

Fake it until you make it? The case of Louis LaPierre

Louise LaPierre, 71, has been working and teaching biology at the Université de Moncton for 31 years. He’s published original, data-driven ecology papers in peer-reviewed journals.

He’s a member of the Order of Canada, which is near the top of honours the Government of Canada can bestow.

And now people are saying he is “not a real scientist.”

For years, LaPierre said he held a doctorate in ecology from the University of Maine. Instead, he has a doctorate in education from Walden University. Initially, at the start of September, LaPierre claimed there was a cooperative agreement between the two institutions, but that turned out not to be the case.
LaPierre admits that he mislead people about his credentials.

That said... does that mean that is is “not a scientist”, as several reports are claiming?

This case represents an interesting examination of the tension between credentials (the doctoral degree) and performance (papers) in a profession.

In listening to this story described on The Current, I get the impression that the degree matters to those outside the profession. Journalists are tending to be the ones using the phrase “not a scientist” in describing this story. At one point, the host calls him, “Mr. LaPierre.” That he holds a doctoral degree is not in dispute, so it would still be correct to address him as “Doctor,” not “Mister.”

Here’s one from the student federation president at University of Moncton:

(University of Moncton student federation president Kevin Arseneau) acknowledges that LaPierre has done a lot of respectable work over the years. But he says that's little reassurance to those who studied biology under him.

“He still did work in those fields so he must have gained some experience,” said Arseneau. “But still it’s all experience gained over a lie.(”)

Likewise, another group of people who would tend to emphasize credentials are those people now have a vested interest in sowing doubt about LaPierre’s credibility at every turn. Listening to some of the people interviewed on The Current, it seems that LaPierre’s willingness to give policy advice to provincial and federal governments made him unpopular with people who disagreed with his recommendations. .

This quote from Memorial University’s Ian Jones is interesting in that regard:

“Seems like they’ve appointed somebody who is in a very powerful position who has a lot of expertise in hob-knobbing with politicians, and hob-knobbing with industrialists, but who doesn’t have the scientific credentials so - how cynical does that make you?” said Jones.

When I have discussed this to people who either are professional scientists or are closer to professionals scientists, most are reacting with, “What does it matter, as long as he was publishing papers?”

Personally, I am more interested in his performance than the credentials. I am not in the “Once a scientist, always a scientist” camp. I think people should only call themselves scientists when they are active in the profession. That generally (but not exclusively) means publishing original journal articles.

La Pierre’s biography (below) emphasizes his honours and panels on which he served. It’s too bad there is not a line about his publication record.

If you are on the side that his performance matters more than his credentials in whether to call LaPierre a scientist, this still doesn’t necessarily mean that LaPierre’s action is a mere faux pas. There have been many, many cases where one discovery of a researcher doing something dishonest becomes just the first tug of the thread. Soon, a few more tugs, and entire careers are unravelling. This is how you researchers end up with double or triple digit numbers of retractions.

It will be very interesting to see if anyone uncovers problems with any of LaPierre’s papers.

Additional, 27 September 2013: Some interesting discussion emerging at Justin Kiggin’s G+ page:

Related posts

Who gets to be a scientist?

External links

Faking academic credentials
N.B. academic Louis LaPierre's credentials face scrutiny
Students pay for Louis LaPierre's deceptions, says leader
Alward government downplays impact of LaPierre resignation
Louis LaPierre resigns from federal board amid PhD turmoil

Some of LaPierre’s papers

Female Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) Reproductive Tracts from Fenitrothion Treated and Untreated Forest of Southeastern New Brunswick
Persistence of fenitrothion insecticide in poplar Populus tremuloides and gray birch Betula populifolia
The model forest concept: a model for future forest management?
Canada's Model Forest Program

LaPierre biography


Louis LaPierre is Professor Emeritus in Biology at the Université de Moncton since October 2003. At this same university, he was holder of the K.-C.-Irving Chair in Sustainable Development from 1993 to 2001, professor of Wildlife and Environmental Ecology from 1970 to 1999, and Director of the Master in Environmental Studies program from 1994 to 1999. Between 1990 and 1994, he was also director of the Environmental Science Research Centre.

Since 1996, Dr. LaPierre is chair of the Institute for Environmental Monitoring and Research associated with the low-level flying program in Labrador and northeastern Québec (appointed by the Minister of National Defense). He also serves as a Council Member of Sustainable Development Technology Canada since 2003. And in September 2008, he was named as a member of the list of prequalified members of assessment panels for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. Since April 2010, he is a member to the NB Power board of directors. Since July 2011, he is a member of the Environmental Assessment Panel for the Marathon Platinum Group Metals and Copper Mine Project. And in May 2012, he has been named as Panel Chair for the NB Shale Gas.

Dr. LaPierre was appointed as a member of the Order of Canada in 2012 for his contributions to the protection and preservation of the natural environment at the local, provincial and national levels.

As a concerned citizen and active member of several environmental groups, Dr. LaPierre has dedicated the past 40 years to the protection of the environment at the provincial, national and international levels. He served as chair of the Fundy Model Forest for 10 years. He was chairman of the Environmental Council of New Brunswick between 1981 and 1990 and, between 1989 and 1991 was chairman of the Sustainable Development Task Force for the Premier's Round Table on Environment and Economy. From 1998 to 2003, Dr. LaPierre co-chaired the Round Table with the New Brunswick Minister of Economic Development. In April 1997, he was invited to develop an integrated strategy for the protection of natural areas in New Brunswick. From 2004 to 2006, he was a member of the Canadian Standards Association. From 2004 to 2006, he was a member of the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council. In 2005 and 2006, he was a member of the Environmental Review Panel for the environmental assessment of the Sydney Tar Ponds. In 2007, he was Chair of the Advisory Committee on Used-Tire Management for the Nova Scotia Department of Environment and Labour. From 2001 to 2010, he was a Tribunal Review Officer for the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. From September 2008 to August 2009, he was chair of the joint review panel for the Bruce Power New Nuclear Reactor project. From November 2009 to February 2010, he was a member of the Advisory Panel on the proposed NB/Québec electricity transaction.

In 2006, Dr. LaPierre received a crystal maple leaf award from the Canadian Model Forest Network. In 2001, he received an Honorary Doctorate in Science from the Université Sainte-Anne. He was recognized as Alumnus of the Year for 2000 by this same university. He received the Governor General’s 125th Anniversary Medal in 1993, as well as Environment Canada's Ecocitizenship Award in 1992, and the Lifetime Achievement award in 1991. Rotary International/Dieppe Club presented him in 1994 with the Paul Harris Fellow award. He was recognized as Alumnus of the Year for 1994 by the Université de Moncton. He was a member of National Defense’s Environmental Protection Task Force. He was a founding member of the Nova Forest Alliance of Nova Scotia. He was a member of the scientific team reviewing PEI's fixed link impact on the environment. In 1996, he was awarded the Tree of Life Award from the Canadian Association of Forestry for his work on forest ecosystems. He served as a member of the National Round Table on Environment and the Economy Private Woodlot Task Force. He was the recipient of the 1997 Greater Moncton Excellence Award in Environment, and the Town of Dieppe honored him with the New Brunswick Heritage Day Outstanding Citizen Award in August 1997.

In 1998, Dr. LaPierre was awarded as an honorary citizen of the Town of Bouctouche for his work as Chair of the Bouctouche Dune Eco-tourism project. He was the recipient of two Professional Service Awards, one from Jacques Whitford Environmental Limited for his contributions on the Fixed Link Environmental Review Committee and the other from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency for his work on the Nuclear Waste Disposal panel. Dr. LaPierre was also awarded the Environmental Professional Award from the Greater Moncton Chamber of Commerce.

18 September 2013

Having a job outside STEM is not evidence of good STEM training

Despite continuing evidence of an oversupply of the high-end STEM trainees (that is, people with doctorates), people are still trying to push for students to take STEM degrees in higher education.

One argument that I am starting to see goes like this: “Yes, it’s true that most of the people who have STEM degrees don’t land STEM jobs, but that just shows how valuable all that STEM training is! STEM training must be in demand in all those other fields! STEM graduates are critical thinkers, problem solvers, and they contribute to the economy regardless of whether they’re in a STEM job or not.”

I saw an example of this claim a while ago that eludes me and I can’t find now, but Elizabeth Blackburn comes close to saying this in this interview (my emphasis):

I notice my trainees… and there is never enough jobs for all the trainees, we are training 'too many'…but, for example, management consultants love people like this because they are so well able to deal with certain things. And then of course they can get trained on-the-job in their specialties. So that's one way I'm thinking about how we would deal with this disconnect with… we keep training more people, and you say, well, partly we are training more people because they are the producers of science a lot, and so why don’t we acknowledge that that’s what we are doing during the PhD and post-doc. And there will be, we hope, people who will go on, but not to say the only reason for the training is to get a career.

In the US, 13% of PhDs go on to the kind of traditional academic science sorts of jobs that you might say they were trained for. So to put that another way, you could say it’s an 80% failure rate…87%, excuse my mathematics. So if you put it that way, it’s terrible…but the other fact is if you look at all the people who have…you know, what about these 87%? They are employed in all sorts of jobs, they are not unemployed, and they’re doing all sorts of things. And so the question is, well, did they feel, that 87%, that somehow they were cheated and it was disappointing because their expectations were, well, you are supposed to be trained for such and such.

Blackburn has done well for herself, and obviously knows what it takes to succeed in science. In fairness, she’s making a more nuanced argument than the one I want to link to but can’t find.

It smacks of desperation to say that the lack of people in a career is evidence of how good the training is.

If lots of people went to performing arts schools to learn how to play musical instruments at a professional level, nobody would claim with a straight face that the reason so many trained cellists were not employed in symphony orchestras or in the music field was due to the high demand for cellist-related skills. Nor would we say that for physicians, dentists, or other professions.

For one, what are the vaunted STEM skills that employers find so valuable? Can you only get those from STEM training? I doubt that. What I hear consistently from employers about what they want from people they want to hire – communication skills, problem solving, critical thinking, initiative, teamwork – are all talents you can get in a lot of different ways. I think my colleagues in philosophy, languages, and so on are often as committed to giving their students those skills as my colleagues in science.

Here, I’m reminded of a comment Ivan Oransky made when he visited our campus. He said he did not learn critical thinking during his STEM training to become a physician. He learned critical thinking when he got training as a journalist.

Plus, even if those STEM skills are things employers outside STEM want, how much training do you need to get those skills? Do you need to do two post-docs to be desired by employers? The six years of experience that a lot of American doctorate holders have? Why not just a master’s degree? Why not a bachelor’s? Because much of the emphasis from,say, funding agencies, is on creating people with “terminal degrees” (doctorates, usually). The master’s is disdained as a “consolation prize” for people who can’t hack a Ph.D., and the bachelor’s is just a stepping stone. But that terminal degree may be overkill for employers outside STEM. Indeed, that terminal degree might make someone “overqualified” and harder to hire.

The huge number of highly trained people with graduate STEM degrees not working in STEM is not an advertisement for the success of the training. It’s an indictment.

Related posts

PACE 2013 Bioethics conference, day 3

External links

Excessive supply, uncertain demand
The Aussie scientist who challenged George W Bush
Remember the “alternatives”

Cellist photo by Jonathan Dy on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

16 September 2013

Granting credit

One of the main criteria that researchers are evaluated on in academia is grants. I’ve always found this tricky to evaluate.

With authorship of journal articles, you either are an author, or you are not. And there is no limit to the number of authors a paper can have. There are subtleties, to be sure (leading to “co-first author” goofiness), but authorship of papers is is tidy compared to grants.

With grants, you can be the principal investigator (PI), co-principal investigator (co-PI), or senior personnel. With some agencies, you are limited in how many people can fulfill each role. For the agency I know best, you can have one PI, one co-PI, and a finite number of senior personnel. If you have a genuine three part collaboration between three people, two of them are short-changed, and one is short-changed badly.

I’m curious at other universities as to who gets “credit” for promotion and tenure when a grant is awarded. Can only the PI claim credit? Or can the co-PI and senior personnel claim some credit when they go up for promotion or tenure? How much weight do the different levels of grant personnel get given?

Comments for first half of September 2013

Doc Free-Ride asks if scientists have any special obligations to society that others do not.

13 September 2013

Zombie takeover

I am incredibly pleased to report that the symposium “Parasitic manipulation of host phenotype, or how to make a zombie” has been awarded support from the National Science Foundation! So thank you, NSF, for supporting zombie research.

The symposium, co-organized with Kelly Weinersmith, will take place at the next SICB meeting in Austin this January.

But wait! There’s more!

We are also holding an associated workshop, “Parasites and links to host phenotype.”We want to help share skills between parasitologists, neurobiologists, ethologists, ecologists, each of whom have skills relevant to understanding how parasite manipulate host behaviour. We will be getting some help from the American Society of Parasitologists with this.

This SICB meeting is shaping up to be great, so don’t miss it!

Related posts

How to make a zombie: The SICB symposium

External links

Parasitic manipulation of host phenotype, or how to make a zombie
Parasites and links to host phenotype

Zune journals

Remember the Zune?

Apple changes how people listen to music with the iPod, makes a lot of money. Microsoft tries to get in on the action with the “me too” Zune.

The story did not end well for the Zune. I never saw a Zune in anyone’s hands, ever.

In my email inbox today:

The Society for Neuroscience (SfN) is exploring the possibility of publishing a new online-only, peer-reviewed open access journal.

The email asks me to take a survey, which I do. The Society is looking at a journal that would be supported by article processing fees of a couple of thousand bucks, open access, that might be a little light on the copyediting. You know, like PLOS ONE or Frontiers journals or the PeerJ (albeit the suggested charges make the proposed journal significantly more expensive than PeerJ).

You know, for all that some people criticize PLOS ONE, an awful lot of publishers seem to want to make pointless duplicates of it. And like the Zune, such a journal might limp along for a while. Author submissions expand to fill the available journals, just like clutter expands to fill the available space, and data expands to fill the available hard drive.

Is the problem facing authors, readers, the scientific community in general a lack of places to publish? No, it is not. We have enough places to publish. We do not need new journals, unless they can show they do something different in their editorial practices (PLOS ONE) or business model (PeerJ), or maybe focus attention an new field of research. We need existing journals to stop slavishly following the traditions and patterns of behaviour that made perfect sense when only paper journals existed.

Stop it, SfN. Just stop trying to reinvent the wheel. Stop believing that the imprimatur of the society is so strong and so meaningful that we are all going to be submit papers to your Zune journal.

Beyond “Bring back the money”

“What’s good for us us is good for society as a whole. So you should fund us. If there’s no funding for us, there will be doom! DOOM, I tell you!”

Hm, there’s an argument that I don’t think politicians will have heard, other than always.

But that seems to be where arguments over American science funding are stopping these days. Honestly, this is an improvement, given that we finally seem to be reaching the point where scientists are realizing that writing more and better grants faster is not going to be the solution to their woes. As Mike the Mad Biologist noted:

Rather than viewing (funding) as a problem requiring political mobilization, the gradual nature of the crisis has led to scientists to run that much faster, write even more grants, and view failures as personal failures, not systemic ones.

So scientists are starting to warn people about how bad sequestration is for science. People are sending this message that the U.S. is hurting this generation of scientists, long-term research projects, drive talent away, cause brain drain...


Politicians are used to people walking in with hat in hand, claiming that what Group X does benefits the common good. They are used prognostications of doom. Much more serious ones. Predictions don’t get much more dire than climate change, which has produced almost zero political action in the United States. And the political climate is not friendly to spending right now.

But there are not many suggestions that I have seen from out in the scientific community besides “Bring back the money.” Fred Grinnell deserves some credit for trying to start a conversation about how the scientific community should be pushing for structural changes in funding. Among his suggestions are proportional funding instead of “first past the post, all or none,” not funding salaries, and looking at “bang for the buck.”

The party may be over. Asking for things to go back to how they were seems based more in wishful thinking than anything else.

Related posts

Call a cab, buddy, the party’s over

When British and Canadians are angrier than Americans

External links

It is time to update US biomedical funding
Boiling frogs, sequestration, and science funding
Unlimited potential vanishing opportunity 

12 September 2013

“Academia or bust?” should not be a new question

Nature’s Lauren Morello covers the cold water that is finally waking up American scientists to a situation that has been brewing for years. Federal funding for sciences has changed, probably irrecoverably. Nobody seems to have contingency plans.

The piece ends with this revealing quote from Laura Niedernhofer:

Although (Niedernhofer) is continuing her ageing research with her three postdocs, she has a new standard question she asks before hiring them: will they consider only academic research as a job? “I can’t guarantee that they will get that,” she says, “and I don’t want to be the one to break their hearts.”

There is just so many presumptions built into that statement.

First, there’s the presumption that academia is the One True Career Path. There’s the implication that anything else is a failure. Why else would it be viewed as “heartbreaking” to not get an academic job?

Second, there’s the presumption that somehow, having trouble getting an academic career is a new thing, when the stats have shown for years that most people who get doctoral degrees don’t go into academia. Academia is the “alternative career,” and has been for a long time. This situation didn’t start with sequestration, and won’t end if every federal science funding agency got a 10% budget increase. It won’t end if every federal science funding agency had its budget double.

It’s always good to ask people you’re hiring about their career aspirations. But if this is a good question today, it would have been even better if people had started asking it ten years ago or more.

Additional, 13 September 2013: See Scicurious’s take on the pressures of “academia or bust.”

External links

More cuts loom for U.S. science
Renaming alternatives

11 September 2013

The Zen of Presentations, Part 63: Take photos

“This is the best picture I was able to find on the Internet.”

There’s no sin in finding images on the Internet. I’m a big fan of Flickr and Google Images, too.

But there are two problems here. First, it’s rarely a good idea to draw attention to aspects of your talk that you recognize are weaknesses.

Second, I’ve seen people put up crummy pictures taken from the Internet of scientific equipment that they use practically every day. And these are not difficult pieces of equipment to photograph because they are very large or very small. No, these are very mundane objects that sit on a benchtop, like PCR machines.

I’ve seen people put up crummy pictures of some other lab doing a procedure when it’s a procedure that they themselves do all the time.

You look witless and lazy when you say, “This is the best picture I could find on the Internet” if you could have taken a picture yourself.

High quality cameras are almost everywhere now. Even if you are one of the increasingly small number of people who does not have a smartphone, you probably know someone who does who would be happy to take the picture for you.

10 September 2013

Tuesday Crustie: Across the Bass Straight

This is called a “mountain shrimp” on its Flickr page, but Anaspides is so much more interesting than that description lets on. (The species isn’t given, but it is probably Anaspides tasmaniae, the biggest of the genus.)

Most crustaceans that people call “shrimp” are decapods, but this is a syncarid crustacean. Its body is jointed all the way along its length, and its paired legs look much more like something that you see on early fossil crustaceans.

Yet there are neurons in this beast that are recognizably similar to those in its far distantly related relatives, the shrimp that you and I know.

Picture by zosterops on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

09 September 2013

Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking review

I bet a lot of scientists can relate to this little anecdote (my emphasis):

I wanted to learn why I could teach a course in marine biology and say that giant clams don’t live in the ocean more than a couple hundred meters depth, yet Hollywood could make a movie showing them two miles down and my students were more likely to believe the crazy movie than me.

It grates on us working scientists when wrong information gets out there. We get grumpy and write long blog posts. And the entertainment industry is often, shall we say, lax in accuracy? But maybe the solution is not to blame Hollywood, but to use their methods. Therefore, Randy Olson, Dorie Barton, and Brian Palermo have teamed up to unravel how Hollywood makes its best stories in Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking.

There’s good stuff in this book.

This book has three main sections. The first, by filmmaker Randy Olson, talks about the importance of story, and offers a few tips for focusing in on what your story is. For instance, he introduces the “And, but, therefore” template that I used in the paragraph above. It’s an excellent, clear little tool that anyone can get if they want to make sure they are telling a story, not just dumping information. Honestly, the discussion of the power of “but” in creating a story is worth the price of admission alone.

This first part of the book contains much that Olson has been blogging about over on The Benshi for the past few years. I'm a regular reader, so this section was mostly familiar territory for me.

The second section, by Dorie Barton, is mostly an extended analysis of the movie “logline.” A logline is a short summary of a movie that contains nine elements. If you watch movie previews, you’ve probably heard loglines (“In a world of oppression, one woman will fight the system...”) , even if you haven’t heard the term before.

The third section, by actor Brian Palermo, discusses the benefits of improvisational acting. It encourages listening. Improv encourages you scientists to look more like an actual human instead of a being containing strange esoteric knowledge that happens to come in a human-like shape.

I’m sold on the benefits, but not sure how I can practice. While the first two sections discuss writing, and therefore can be practiced by one person (say, a book reader), improv is a fundamentally social activity. It might not be easy for a reader of this book to find a group where she could practice improv. (Palermo does include some games in an appendix to get people started.)

Olson proposes a storytelling oath:

You have to believe there exists a way to get completely disinterested people interested in what floats your boat. ... With communications you should swear, “Nothing is impossible to communicate.” And even add to that, “I just may not be good enough to do the job, but I shouldn't just give up and call it hopeless.”

Unfortunately, this is more asserted than demonstrated here. There are examples throughout of people who found their stories, but many of the examples fall into two categories:

  • One person learning and using one of the techniques presented here.  
  • Big organizations or big issues (Center for Disease Control, climate change) using some of the techniques here.

Near the end (section 4), there are three examples presented of people using the “Word, sentence, paragraph” model. These are all good, but none of them are researchers with original, data-driven research; a typical doctoral student, say. Given that this book is aimed at people who want to improve technical communication, the examples of a parent, litigator, and university undergraduate seem odd choices.

Maybe now that the book is out, the team will be able to find people who go through this process, and can share those in some other forum.

Let me try some examples of my own.

Olson talks about the “WSP” model for communication: Word, Sentence, Paragraph. It’s all about finding the essence of what you want to say. First, you try to distill what you're talking about down into a word. Once you've got the word, then you can relax it out into a sentence. Then you can let the sentence join with a few others into a paragraph.

I'm going to try this out with one of my lines of research, on the crayfish Marmorkrebs.

Word: “Responsibility.”

Sentence: “A new crayfish is invading countries around the globe, but we can slow it down if pet owners take responsibility.”

Paragraph: “In crayfish research, biologists are stunned to learn about a crayfish that reproduces asexually. Realizing that these crayfish could be an invasive pest, scientists begin studying the crayfish in the lab. But the crayfish start being found in the wild, in more countries, more often, faster than the biologists can publish papers about them. The researchers realize that the behaviours of people are as much to blame for the problems as the crayfish. Working with pet owners might be the only way to limit ecological damage from the crayfish.”

I’m not sold on my paragraph (pretty much a straight plug of elements into the movie logline), but it’s a start. Not every story is written in a day.

Let me try again, this time with “And, but, and therefore.”

“I’m a scientist, and I do important work, but nobody knows about it. Therefore, I decided to be a better communicator.”

Having read through the book, though, I might be able to make that sentence better:

“I’m a biologist in South Texas, and I study an invasive female crayfish that could cause millions of dollars in damages, but not many people know about it. Therefore, I decided to try something different than standard PowerPoint talks.”

Why is this one better? More details. More specificity almost always makes for a better story.

There is lots to try here. I look forward to putting the lessons in this book to use, and teaching them to my students.

Additional, 10 September 2013: This review was made possible because I received an advance PDF copy from one of the authors, gratis.

Related posts

Review: Don’t Be Such a Scientist
Flight of the dodo
Passion for evolution
Promoting the head dodo
This blog don’t have a video: the many niches of science communication

External links

Connection website
The Benshi
Amazon link

03 September 2013

Tuesday Crustie: Better than a pony!

This one positively cries out for a caption contest.

“This was but the first sign of her destiny to return to her undersea kingdom...”

Spotted at I Can Haz Cheezburger, of course.

01 September 2013

Comments for second half of August 2013

Blog posts worth talking about!

Dennis Eckmier looks at glamour publications.

DrugMonkey looks at non-glamour manuscripts - the least publishable units, as it were.

Peter Adler, guest blogging at Dynamic Ecology, looks at whether things get easier after grad school.

Girls are Geeks finally takes their summer road trip series to Texas.

BuzzFeed is the latest to flog the inaccurate “lobsters and jellyfish are practically immortal” meme.

Octopus Chronicles looks at the latest on cephalopod nocicpetion.

Small Pond Science says extra credit is unfair to students.