Category Archives: Popularization

Medical Journalism is Ill

Gary Schwitzer asks,

Is the news media doing a good job of reporting on new treatments, tests, products, and procedures? Ray Moynihan and colleagues analyzed how often news stories quantified the costs, benefits, and harms of the interventions being discussed, and how often they reported potential conflicts of interest in story sources [1]. Of the 207 newspaper and television stories that they studied, 83 did not report the benefits of medications quantitatively, and of the 124 stories that did quantify the benefits of medications, only 18 presented both relative and absolute benefits. Of all the stories, 53% had no information about potential harms of the treatment, and 70% made no mention of treatment costs. Of 170 stories that cited an expert or a scientific study, 85 (50%) cited at least one with a financial tie to the manufacturer of the drug, a tie that was disclosed in only 33 of the 85 stories.

Moynihan et al. (2000) inspired some Australians to do a similar survey in 2004, which found after six months that Australian print and online news coverage of medical advances was “poor.” Now, Schwitzer has done a more extensive survey of United States media. The punchline is as follows:

In our evaluation of 500 US health news stories over 22 months, between 62%–77% of stories failed to adequately address costs, harms, benefits, the quality of the evidence, and the existence of other options when covering health care products and procedures. This high rate of inadequate reporting raises important questions about the quality of the information US consumers receive from the news media on these health news topics.

Details are available at PLoS Medicine. Now, we just need somebody to pay for a similar survey of non-medical science reporting.

(Tip o’ the fedora to Steve Novella.)

Gah! But Yay!

I grew up (to the extent that I have grown up) reading the works of Larry Gonick, expositor of science and history in cartoon format. As Cosma Shalizi wrote, “When I think about it, I realize a truly substantial proportion of my basic knowledge of the world derives from reading Larry Gonick’s Cartoon Guides and Cartoon History of the Universe.” So it was with great interest that I read in the Mercury News of 10 April 2008 that Gonick “hopes to work on a cartoon book about calculus” once he’s finished The Cartoon History of the Modern World Part II, which is really the fifth installment in the Cartoon History of the Universe series. However, that Mercury News article commits a serious gaffe:

Gonick hasn’t actually yet put in cartoon form a subject he knows at least as well as history: mathematics.

Ahem. The Cartoon Guide to Statistics (1994), coauthored with Woollcott Smith of Temple University. And that’s not even mentioning his “Science Classics” feature in Discover magazine, a regular two-page comic which often covered mathematical topics. We could go on to list the mathy subjects addressed in his other science books and even in his histories, but really.

An Alloy of Pleasures

REVIEW: The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, edited by Richard Dawkins. Oxford University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-19-921680-2. A PDF copy of this review is available here.


During the Christmas holidays last year, my mother and I were visiting a bookshop, and we passed by a display of general-audience science books. As a child, I had devoured such things, and propelled by sentiment mixed with curiosity, I looked over the titles, browsing for ones which I’d seen recommended or were written by authors I knew. Momentarily, however, a harsh edge cut through my sentimental reverie. “Look at this,” I said. “This book props up its thesis with phony numbers and citations which point to papers that don’t even discuss what the book says they do! And this one, here, tells a version of 1990s physics history which, to put it mildly, doesn’t match up with what other physicists remember. Oh, and this author, well, everybody is just astonished at how the clarity of his thinking implodes halfway through, when he stops thinking and starts faith-ing. And what’s this — quantum healing?

If the Gentle Reader were to deduce a “moral” from the story, it might be that I am a cantankerous individual with an acerbic disposition, and the reader would not be gravely in error. Beyond that, one could say that a science education nearly killed the general-interest bookshelf for me, and what University did not do, the science-blogging world definitely tried to finish. Caught up in this electronic tangle of opinions, discoveries and arguments, where new findings and reactions to them are all free for the taking, I’d seen the flaws of a great many books exposed. Precisely because online science writing makes irascible iconoclasm a way of life, though, it teaches the joy of discourse and the admiration of written words which, finally, work. Both of these aspects play into the value of The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, edited by Richard Dawkins.

This book collects passages written by seventy-nine scientists over the previous hundred years; though Dawkins himself has more than proven his talents as an expositor, his own writings are confined to introductory remarks giving context for each selection. Biology is represented quite strongly, and physics makes a good showing. Astronomy, other than the cosmological variety, makes mostly cameo appearances, and chemistry seems rather the poor stepchild. (Max Perutz, a Nobel Laureate, contributes a bit on X-ray crystallography which is largely an admiring biographical sketch of fellow laureate Dorothy Hodgkin, and the well-known neurologist Oliver Sacks is roped in to give a quirky reminiscence about tungsten! Primo Levi‘s tale of a carbon atom, though, is not to be missed.) Truly commendable is Dawkins’s inclusion of mathematics, a subject which provokes an unnatural fear even in literate readers who appreciate science and enjoy reading about the latest fossil or the most newly discovered extra-solar planet. The selections chosen for The Oxford Book are clear, memorable and not infrequently poetic. Upon occasion, they deliver on that great promise of science education: to provoke the learner into seeing the natural world and the products of the human mind in a new and unforgettable light. After reading what Stephen Jay Gould wrote about Charles Darwin‘s take on the humble earthworm, for example, it is difficult to see in the same way such a simple thing as worms coming out on a pavement after the rain.

The Oxford Book would serve as an excellent smörgÃ¥sbord of introductions for the reader who has grown interested in science but doesn’t know where to begin. Likewise, those who catch the biggest headlines and read about the flashiest new breakthroughs will likely benefit from a book about science which has stood the test of time, about discoveries which have kept on inducing breathlessness for several decades. A specialist trained in one scientific field could also enjoy an interlude of lateral thought, poking into a new domain of learning to flex the thought-muscles.

When I’ve heard people talk about a movie or a book being “an unalloyed pleasure,” they mean it to be joy without stopping, all good and nothing bad. Given that an alloy is a mixture of metals, the phrase also carries a trace contamination of the idea that the book or the movie being talked about only offers one kind of goodness — all drama and no comedy, let’s say. Consequently, I find myself describing The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing as an alloyed pleasure, a mixture of different satisfactions, in unequal amounts. The amazing facts, the flashes of wit, the moments of rapturous wonder are all there to be had, but Dawkins has also provided a series of portals to debate. I’m not talking about a nasty kind of political infighting, with accusations and character assassination, but rather the academic version of the same process: the rolling up of sleeves, the setting down of the teacup and the declaration of intellectual combat.

The book club meetings for this volume can, and should, be. . . volatile places.
Continue reading An Alloy of Pleasures

Survey: Teachable Controversies

Today, John Timmer posted on the ‘tubes a brief summary of current debates in evolutionary biology, as unfolded at a recent Rockefeller University symposium. Timmer takes the position, and PZ Myers agrees, that these controversies don’t belong in the high-school curriculum. They require too much background knowledge to understand, and if the students haven’t spent time learning the basic principles, they’ll be sunk. On these specific points, I’d tend to agree; however, other debates might provide “teachable moments.” If trying to build lesson plans around the questions currently rocking the symposia is going too far, what about the problems which have been wrapped up in the last ten years or so? For example, in a post-Bullet Cluster world, a high-school physics class could well include some talk of dark matter.
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The Web Spinning ‘Round

Both T. Ryan Gregory and Abbie Smith have moved into new digs. In the former case, the move was voluntary, while in the latter, it appears to have been a choice expedited by the mysterious vanishing of her old site. Update your blaggregators, and say hello to them both!

I’m actually somewhat skeeved that the old ERV site upped its chucks and huffed the æther. Last summer, before Michael Behe’s The Edge of Evolution had turned out to be a complete flop, I had started compiling a list of debunkings, several of which resided at the old ERV. Hopefully those pages can get pulled from the various archives and republished at the new site.

Other stuff of note which I’ve seen lately in my local neighborhood of Network nodes:

Both Isabel Lugo and Brian Switek have discussed the relative roles of concrete examples and abstract reasoning in mathematics education. Elsewhere, Glennda Chui points us to a description of an “ILC Fan Club” in Tokyo. Which is better: that the International Linear Collider has a fan club, or that it meets in a bar basement? Two weeks ago, the ILC Fan Club hosted an all-women panel discussion on gender equality, an area in which physics has plenty of problems still to solve.

We fret a lot these days about how to “communicate science with the public,” but reading about the “Accelerator Ladies’ Night” reminded me, in an odd way, that while science is a global enterprise, the public to which we’re trying to communicate is divided into all the diverse cultures of the human species. Consider the analogy which novelist Aya Kaida proposed for explaining neutrino experiments:

Some experiments, like the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, have measured particles zinging our way from the Sun. Other investigations produce neutrinos here on Earth; for example, K2K uses the proton synchrotron at the KEK facility in Tsukuba to make a beam of neutrinos, which is fired toward the Super-Kamiokande detector in Kamioka, 250 kilometers away. By measuring the neutrinos which arrive at Super-K, physicists can figure out what happened to them en route. Aya Kaida says that the neutrinos in the K2K beam are “cultivated fishes,” while the ones from the Sun are “wild.”

Vive la différence! In the U. S. and A., we might speak of animals “raised on a farm” versus “caught in the wild,” but when it comes to fish, I’m not sure we care. By and large, it’s not a distinction to which we are sensitive, and a person explaining neutrino research would reach for a different analogy. While the physics is the same everywhere on this spinning world of ours, its encounters with culture vary in all the ways we maddening mammals are able to differ.

Finally, David Guarrera, a string theory Ph.D. student at the Institvte, has posted the first in a series of essays on false vacua. Happy reading!

Open Books

Hmmm. It appears that I get to spend this week working on something which is not this website. However, it’s not in my nature to leave whatever readers I’ve got without something else to read, and fortunately for me, the Internets have delivered some juicy material recently. Two books are in the works, and you, Gentle Reader, have a chance to contribute to both of them.

Both are mathematical in nature. The one geared to a more general audience is Jason Rosenhouse’s big book on the Monty Hall Problem. He’s finished the first draft, and is gathering feedback on the first chapter. Go, read the PDF, and offer your comments!
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Wilson on Wikipedia

Geologist Mark Wilson has an interesting opinion piece at Inside Higher Ed,Professors Should Embrace Wikipedia.” While it was published on April Fool’s Day, one can take it in full seriousness. I don’t agree with it fully, but I believe the points it raises are well worth discussing. Here’s the nub of his argument:

What Wikipedia too often lacks is academic authority, or at least the perception of it. Most of its thousands of editors are anonymous, sometimes known only by an IP address or a cryptic username. Every article has a “talk” page for discussions of content, bias, and organization. “Revert” wars can rage out of control as one faction battles another over a few words in an article. Sometimes administrators have to step in and lock a page down until tempers cool and the main protagonists lose interest. The very anonymity of the editors is often the source of the problem: how do we know who has an authoritative grasp of the topic?

That is what academics do best. We can quickly sort out scholarly authority into complex hierarchies with a quick glance at a vita and a sniff at a publication list. We make many mistakes doing this, of course, but at least our debates are supported with citations and a modicum of civility because we are identifiable and we have our reputations to maintain and friends to keep. Maybe this academic culture can be added to the Wild West of Wikipedia to make it more useful for everyone?

And here’s his proposal for action:

I propose that all academics with research specialties, no matter how arcane (and nothing is too obscure for Wikipedia), enroll as identifiable editors of Wikipedia. We then watch over a few wikipages of our choosing, adding to them when appropriate, stepping in to resolve disputes when we know something useful. We can add new articles on topics which should be covered, and argue that others should be removed or combined. This is not to displace anonymous editors, many of whom possess vast amounts of valuable information and innovative ideas, but to add our authority and hard-won knowledge to this growing universal library.

An old saying has it that of all kinds of politics, academic is the nastiest, because the stakes are the lowest. One might fret that legions of quarrelsome professors would trample all over the pages pertaining to the controversies in their own specialized fields, bringing all the fury of the Dawkins/Gould or Fodor/Dennett deathmatches to the world of Wikipedia. However, I know of no evidence suggesting that these arguments would really be any more vituperative than the ones which already occur. Furthermore, Wikipedians with advanced degrees already exist; Wilson’s proposal would only bring in a larger number of them, perhaps with a shared ethos or sense of common purpose.
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Connections, Episode 10

This is the sort of thing which tends to get taken off the Network once the Powers Which Be notice that it exists, so we should enjoy it now. Here and there, in chunks of different sizes, we can find James Burke’s original Connections (1978) TV series. Embedded on this page is the tenth and last episode, “Yesterday, Tomorrow and You.” I could say many things about it, but for now, I’ll just note that “network robustness” has become a subject of quantitative investigation, that I can’t escape the feeling the arguments which perennially perturb the science-blogging orbit still aren’t addressing the points which Burke raised thirty years ago, and that you can’t go wrong with Ominous Latin Chanting.

Continue reading Connections, Episode 10

A Counter-Proposal

Expelled the movie -- Exposed!A while back, Paul Gowder suggested we scientists get our act together and make our own movie, for general consumption, countering the damnable and insipid lies of Ben Stein’s Expelled. Shortly thereafter, PZ Myers noted that, while he was sympathetic to the idea, it would be foolish to neglect the practical experience of filmmakers in doing so: the people who write the screenplay have to know how movies work.

Today, a variant of this proposal occurred to me. Somebody else may well have thought of it first, but I haven’t noticed the suggestion being made. Instead of explaining what evolution is all about, why not make a movie which explains why the Holocaust happened? To be sure, one historian will argue with another about which factors were most important in causing a sustained programme of cruelty to arise when and where it did, but a good documentary could lay all those factors out and, in so doing, make the point that Darwin and Wallace are not heading up the list.

Something tells me this project would be an easier sell than a feature-length nature show (I bet you could get Spielberg as an executive producer). And, at least in general terms, there’s a bit of a precedent for scientists entering this territory:

Discuss: what could be done that hasn’t been done before? What are the up-sides, down-sides and middle-sides of this idea?

Specific and the General

TR Gregory finds a particularly egregious and galling mismatch between the headline of a press release and the story itself. He asks, “Do the people who determine headlines not even read the stories?” One more entry in the file of evidence that science journalism isn’t working right. . . and on that note, Brian Switek has some general observations, leading to the following conclusion:

We all bitch and moan about how inaccurate news reports are, but unless we actively become engaged in this sort of reporting (infiltrating the “system,” as it were) our complaints will essentially make little difference outside our own little circles of science enthusiasts. Science bloggers are starting to change this and may play a bigger role in the future, but if we’re to ultimately improve science communication in the media more people with a solid grasp of science are going to have to get involved in the active generation and promulgation of stories rather than just complain about the result.

I always get a Life of Brian vibe when the discussion turns in this direction. “We could sit around here all day talking, passing resolutions, making clever speeches. It’s not going to shift one Roman soldier!”

Hypothesis Testing

Hypothesis: if you can take an idea which most people thought was the most hated concept in America this side of al-Qaeda’s mission statement and turn that idea into a book which stays on the New York Times bestseller list for almost a year, publishers will let you write your own ticket at least once.

Evidence: Richard Dawkins is being paid $3.5 million for his next book, Only A Theory? (to be published in 2009), which will lay out evidence for evolution.

Hypothesis: People who have a vested interest in portraying Dawkins and other “uppity atheists” as detrimental to science education and/or Western civilization will ignore or undervalue this book, along with all other attempts by “uppity atheists” to parlay their notoriety for good causes.

Evidence: Consider the reception (or non-reception) of Dawkins’s television series, The Enemies of Reason (2007). This is a lamentable oversight, since the struggle to keep pseudoscience out of medicine is surely an area on which atheists and at least some moderate theists can find a genuine common ground.

Hypothesis: I could sure have a lot of fun with $3.5 million.

Evidence: Forthcoming. Come on, in the interests of science, pretty please, with blueberries on top?

(Tip o’ the fedora to Tyler.)

Simonyi on Popularizing Science

A while back, we merry wanderers of the Net got into a discussion about who would be the best Presidential Science Adviser. While a candidate for that job must meet many qualifications, many people focused on the ability to be the “go-to guy” for science, the voice and face which can be trusted to represent an issue or a discovery accurately, fairly and concisely, as appropriate to the audience. Now, those names will be brought out and debated again, although I expect we’ll see less concern for their ability to work inside the Beltway. The occasion is that, after more than a decade in the position, Richard Dawkins is retiring from the Charles Simonyi Chair at Oxford, a professorship endowed in 1995 to support the “public understanding of science.” Having reached the chair’s mandatory retirement age, Dawkins is moving on, in his words,

to be even more strident, shrill etc etc etc. I expect to be busier than ever, with two Foundations to run (the British and American branches of RDFRS), books to write (I have already started the next one) and who knows what else?

Oxford has put the application requirements online, for those who wish to fill Dawkins’ shoes. Americans are eligible, too, and the professor himself has sent the advertisement to Carolyn Porco, Lawrence Krauss and PZ Myers, among others. Not being qualified for the job myself, I would like to draw attention to a point Charles Simonyi made when he endowed the chair, all those many years ago:
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Square Roots by Hand

A little while back, several of my fellow math-and-science bloggers and I got into a discussion of a particularly hare-brained way to reform math education, and I mentioned that nobody in my generation seems to have learned how to take square roots by hand, or at least, not within any formal school curriculum. The comments I received suggest that cheap calculators made this phase out of the grade-school math classes by the early 1980s, or thereabouts. Today, I found that 360 has written a nice post explaining a geometrical interpretation of an algorithm for doing so.

Of course, there’s no way such a lesson would be allowed anywhere near an elementary school, because it emphasizes understanding why a method works.

Open Lab Reviewed in Nature

The second annual anthology of science blogging has been reviewed in Nature. Joanne Baker writes,

The editor of this second anthology of the best scientific communiqués from the blogosphere thinks blogs offer new ways to discuss science. The Open Laboratory 2007: the Best Science Writing on Blogs (, 2008) takes the curious approach of using dead tree format to highlight the diversity of scientific ideas, opinions and voices flowing across the Internet.

It is a little paradoxical, when you think about it. To pick the “best” science blog posts, you have to find the ones which work in a non-bloggy format!

Next they’ll be asking which blog posts make the best plots for movies. . . .

Every year a different guest editor — here Reed Cartwright, a blogger and genetics and bioinformatics postdoc from North Carolina State University — picks the best posts to coincide with the Science Blogging Conference (in North Carolina on 19 January). First-hand accounts bring to life the stresses of a graduate student, a mother returning to the bench and an archaeologist’s joy at unearthing mammoth fossils. Topics tackled are as varied as the writers, from Viagra and tapeworms to trepanning. Explanations are often offered with a personal twist, such as a father’s tale of his child’s Asperger’s syndrome. The measured voices of trustworthy academics make medical research easy to swallow.

Just a spoonful of authority helps the medicine go down! Incidentally, do these selected highlights sound slanted to the life sciences? Well, I should really be asking the same question about the full list of entries, but on that list we’ve got the perils of taking averages, what a “year” really means, the life and death of cold fusion, cyberwar and quantum algorithms, not to slight a more philosophical piece on testability in Earth science.

If you are overwhelmed by the surge in science-related blogging and don’t know where to start, then this compilation may help you steer a course through the sea of perspectives on offer — or inspire you to start a blog yourself.

Well, I guess I didn’t screw things up for everybody else, after all.

(Tip’a the fedora to Bora.)

Spraying Habits of Pop Science

OK, my fellow specimens, it’s time for a rant. This subject came up at lunch today, and I noticed it again at Terra Sigillata; the second occurrence managed to ruin the good mood I’d achieved by reading Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish (2008), which is a great book that everybody should buy.

The subject of this rant is the role economics plays in debates on science education, and more broadly, on a meta-level of rantery, the way people are deciding the roles which different tactics should have in science education. To illustrate the problem, let’s have a story. You’re a scientist, I’m a concerned parent, and we’re at a PTA meeting. You say, “We have to teach evolution in our schools, because evolution is the central concept in biology, and the biotech sector is a big part of our economy.” You’ve got my attention — that’s step zero! Job well done. Isn’t the appeal to the pocketbook — and the “think of the children” ploy — an effective tactic?
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