28 July 2016

It doesn’t matter if the Ice Bucket Challenge gave us a “breakthrough” or not

We are in the middle of a science news hype cycle.

First, the inflated expectations. Lots of news sources reporting that funds from the Ice Bucket Challenge were used to make a “breakthrough” in ALS. Note that the original press release didn’t say “breakthrough” anywhere in the headline or the main text. It said a “significant... discovery” was made.

We’re now in the trough of disappointment. Serious science journalists are poo-poohing the claim that the results reported can be described as a “breakthrough.” Some are warning that just proves this whole crowdfunding thing is a dangerous idea. Boing Boing, for instance:

As useful as the funds raised by the Ice Bucket Challenge are, they can’t replace the big, institutional, steady spending that has been under assault since the Reagan era.

I’m right with people saying that neither pretentious press releases nor hyperexcited news coverage do us much good.

But I worry that downplaying good new research (which as far as I can see, everyone admits this was) because it’s not a “breakthrough” accidentally reinforces the notion that only the “breakthroughs” matter. It also implies that because the results are not a “breakthrough,” that they are trivial findings. Of course, the “not a breakthrough” article admits:

This is intriguing and important research.

Guys, if you’re going to criticize press coverage for bombastic headlines and burying the qualifiers and nuance near the end of the story, I think it’s fair to ask for the same in return.

Focusing on the resulting science also buries some of the less tangible benefits of the crowdfunding campaign. People had fun with the Ice Bucket Challenge. People might have learned what ALS was for the first time. Scientists got to do their research were less likely to shut their labs down. Those are positive benefits regardless of whether the money raised led to any particular scientific outcome.

I’ve seen the argument that crowdfunding somehow poses a threat to federal funding since I got involved with #SciFund. What’s been missing every time I see this claim is any actual evidence. I have yet to hear one politician say something like, “We’re thinking of cutting funding to ALS research because we saw the Ice Bucket Challenge was a big success.”

All I see is fear. And I get that fear. Many people’s labs and careers have depended on federal funds for so long that anything that gives the hint of deviating from the cry of “MOAR funding!” is open for criticism.

But what else are we supposed to do?

Yes, we’re supposed to advocate for our science to politicians. We’re supposed to communicate our discoveries to the broader public. We do that. And, in the United States, all that advocacy over more than a decade has yielded us... 

A set of flat research budgets in real dollars (check the “nondefense” line). Labs shutting down, and an endless stream of complaints about the amount of time spent trying to get money for research instead of doing research.

It’s frustrating to be told that scientists should not even try any other plan because it might threaten the plan that is not making any progress, even after more than ten years.

Related posts

What the Coburn report has in common with arsenic life

External links

Here's the Exact Way That the Ice Bucket Challenge Helped ALS Research (from September 2015)
Remember the ice bucket challenge? It just funded an ALS breakthrough
Ice Bucket Challenge “breakthrough”? Experts pour cold water on superficial reporting
The Ice Bucket Challenge did not fund a breakthrough in ALS treatment
Federal Budget Authority for R&D in FYs 2014 and 2015 Turns Modestly Upward, but Extent of Increase in FY 2016 Uncertain

22 July 2016

Reasons to go back to blogging

Because my blog is a place I don’t have to put up with the proliferation of political memes.

12 July 2016

Tuesday Crustie: Today the bucket, tomorrow the world!


Lobster (sic) in a bucket looks like a gigantic monster on a metallic planet, and the waterdrops look like stars.

From here.

11 July 2016

Pokémon in real life: biologists catch them all!

Pokémon are back in the news. The property that was a mega-popular trading card game in the late 1990s is back with a new smartphone game, Pokémon Go, that launched last week and is suddenly thing the thing on everyone’s lips.

You are going to read about a zillion hot takes and think pieces about this game, but remember: the Southern Fried Scientist, Andrew Thaler, got there first.

In our afternoon of wandering, it was clear there was no ‘typical’ Pokémon Go player. We saw parents with their kids, young adults, older couples, grandparents, and one gnarly Harley rider who excitedly called to his buddies in the Yorktown Pub “Hold up, I found a Pidgey!” The Colonial Triangle (Yorktown, Jamestown, and Williamsburg) in general is so snow-blindingly white that no one even thinks twice about calling it the Colonial Triangle. Yet, this afternoon was the most diverse gathering of people I’ve ever seen in Yorktown.

Asia Murphy has came up with the idea of creating a pokédex for real organisms. Thus, the #PokemonIRL hashtag was born.

I made mine up at the top, and you can, too! A template is here. You will need a graphics editor and a bit of experience, but you can make one pretty quickly. It’s a cool idea to spread the joy of finding critters, which are just as wild and exotic as any that the Pokémon Company creates.

Additional: The person who created Pokémon was a frustrated insect collector, Satoshi Tajiri (Thanks to Jon Mooallem).

Alex Lee points out that Pokémon is doing a much better job of inspiring kids than nature is. This is perhaps to be expected. To paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock, “A game is life with the dull bits cut out.”

External links

The power of Pokémon Go
#PokémonIRL (blog post) 
Pokémon in real life blank templates
Is ‘Pokémon Go’ Good for science?
If you must play Pokémon Go, ‘catch’ some real animals while you’re at it

08 July 2016

“Proper” technical writing?

I’ve been struggling with a frustrating manuscript revision this week.

First, the manuscript was turned back to me because of formatting. I think this was the first time that a journal didn’t send the article out for review just because I hadn’t followed their style guide. In fairness, I had not followed their style guide closely enough, but it wasn’t fixing the reference format that frustrated me.

What frustrated me was that I had submitted the paper months ago, and had been waiting for something to happen. The journal had sent it back for reformatting a couple of days after I submitted it.... but never sent me an email notification about it. I only found out because I logged into the manuscript handling system just before I was about to email the editor saying, “Hey, what’s going on?” I had wasted months waiting for a decision because of that lack of notification.

After I found this out, I talked to one of my colleagues who’d had a similar experience. A paper she’s submitted sat in the editorial system, with no notifying email, because the recommendation was not “Accept,” or “Reject,” but, “We think this paper would be more appropriate to our sister journal.”

The moral of that part of the story is to log in to the manuscript submission system after a week or so to check on your paper.

I made the changes and resubmitted it. It came back again fairly quickly – and I did get an email telling me about it this time – with another style request.

Please eliminate pronouns like ‘we’, ‘I’, ‘our study’, and ‘my study’ throughout your text. Proper technical writing should not use such phrases.

I had a Return of the Jedi flashback:

Han Solo: “Well, why don’t you use your divine influence and get us out of here?”
C-3P0: “I’m sorry, that just wouldn’t be proper.”
Han: “Proper?!”

First, that little detail about not using the first person is nowhere in the journal’s rather extensive style guide. I would have avoided it if you’d told me not to do that.

Second, the comment that using first person is not “proper technical writing” is annoying. Look, I’ll try to follow your journal’s style. But don’t tell me that using first person in a scientific paper isn’t “proper.” There’s no Académie française for scientific writing that determines what is and is not acceptable. There are just common community practices. There’s been articles (in higher ranked journals than yours, by the way) arguing that we should write like we speak. For instance, Gregory (1992) wrote:

With no guidance, scientists copy what they see, and we see thing like this: “The author is of the opinion that it is appropriate to write papers in the third person.” This is ridiculous. I am the author, not a third person.

The insistence that “data” must always be always a plural noun is another example of a stylistic preference that is confused with some sort of “proper” use. I used to believe this, but argument, analysis, and common use has softened my position. The example that convinced me was that we say, “Eight hours is too long to wait.” There’s a plural noun followed by a singular verb, and nobody bats an eyelash.

There is no ultimate authority of what “proper” technical writing is that someone can appeal to. I realize that people disagree about writing style. That’s fine. But asserting that something is wrong or improper is annoying when you can find examples of that style in many journals, and there is no ultimate authority to appeal to.

Update, 13 July 2016: People on Twitter (mostly) agree: first person is technical writing is not a horrible thing to be avoided at all costs.


Gregory MW. 1992. The infectiousness of pompous prose. Nature 360: 11-12. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/360011a0

External links

The data is in, Pt. 2

05 July 2016

Tuesday Crustie: Under the microscope

Arthropods are wonderfully charismatic and photogenic under a scanning electron microscope. Here are a few pictures of Emerita benedicti that my student Claudette and technician Tom took for no reason than they look cool.

The animals were under the microscope for a research project that we have going on. We got some other nice pictures that may make their way into a manuscript. These were just a bonus.