Category Archives: Popularization

More on New Scientist

I felt sort of bad saying all that stuff about Wired when the guy who wrote the piece I did like showed up to say “Thanks for the link.” But hey, I’m not going to stop criticizing bad science reporting, nor can I imagine shutting myself up about the practices which I think cause bad science journalism. (Nor do I have the vanity to think that by myself, I’ll make any difference.) I’d feel considerably more uncomfortable if Greg Egan didn’t go and provide a whole new plateful of reasons to be upset with pop science.

Egan has been masochistically plowing through New Scientist ever since the EmDrive incident, when he had found himself “gobsmacked by the level of scientific illiteracy” the magazine had put on display. Now, commenting at The n-Category Café, he gives two additional recent “absurdities.”
Continue reading More on New Scientist

Great Moments in Duplicity

It’s late enough (the Boston sky is violet and orange outside my window) that I feel like posting these without much additional comment:

As this matter of faith is so much talked of, I have to reply that we accept it as useful for the multitude, and that we admittedly teach those who cannot abandon everything and pursue a study of rational argument to believe without thinking out their reasons.

— Origen (c. 185–c. 254), theologian and early Church Father
Continue reading Great Moments in Duplicity

Bad Science Stories in 10 Easy Steps

TR Gregory offers advice on how to write really terrible, horrible, no good, very bad science stories for widespread distribution. By following these ten simple guidelines, you too can keep the public ignorant and hold back the Enlightenment!

Here’s a taste:

Appeal to common misconceptions, and substitute your own opinions and misunderstandings for the views of the scientific community.

It is important that readers’ misconceptions not be challenged when reading a news story. In fact, the more a report can reinforce misunderstandings of basic scientific principles, the better. This can be combined with step 6 [Use buzzwords and clichés whenever possible] to good effect. It is also helpful to insert your own views and misunderstandings as though they were those of the scientific community at large. For example, if you find something confusing, mysterious, or (un)desirable, assume that the scientific community as a whole shares your view.

It’s a great essay, and I don’t just say that because of the references he cites.

And while you’re visiting Prof. Gregory’s place, why don’t you help find out how much good one blog post can do?

Return to Reasonable Arguments

Eric Michael Johnson at the Primate Diaries:

Collins can believe whatever he likes about his experience, as can anyone. We all live with our private fantasies to a certain extent. However Harris’ point is that in the admirable attempt to be inclusive, Nature‘s editors were foregoing their primary role as skeptical inquirers of sound science. Should they favorably review the next book on astrology if it also includes a reasonably good description of cosmic evolution? I think the point Harris makes is a good one and something we should seriously consider as scientists and citizens. We’ve seen how effectively faith has led the way in foreign policy decisions. Perhaps a return to reasonable arguments based on solid evidence would be a wiser course for the future.

A return to reasonable arguments. . . based on solid evidence. . . You know, I rather like it.

So, one might gather, does Sandra Kiume at Neurofuture, who made that catchphrase the recurring theme of Encephalon #30.

I’ve been trying to study the way science journalism works — and, often, doesn’t work — for a while now. Way back in March, whole eons of Internet time ago and before I even had a blag of my own, Russell Blackford and I discussed serious inaccuracies in media coverage of Wikipedia. Later, here at Sunclipse, I described a rough taxonomy of science journalism failures, and hypothesized that a tendency to “false balance” may well have skewed coverage on string theory when Smolin and Woit rolled their books out. Then, I summarized the story of an incident where New Scientist magazine was not just careless, but downright irresponsible.

These topics fall under the general rubrics of physics and technology, but popularization and journalistic coverage of neuroscience is also a big concern. I have the suspicion that brain and cognitive sciences will provoke the same reaction in the near future that evolution does today — and I’m far from the first to say so. Learning about how people learn about this science is, therefore, quite important.

And the outlook is not good. Compare the size of the wheat and chaff listings at the Neuro-Journalism Mill: the sheer quantity of misinformation stymies the attempt to summarize or classify it. Encephalon #30 brings two more relevant essays. First, the Neurocritic takes New Scientist to task for a sensational headline and an exaggerated claim about genetics and memory. Then, at Pure Pedantry, Jake Young takes the New York Times to task for an article which gets the facts of rodent spatial memory correct, but bungles the interpretation.

Interesting stuff. Now, I’m just waiting to see what the experts say about the possibility of glutamine-based antidepressants and the coverage it receives. I note that Denise Gellene’s story in today’s LA Times works a little to counteract the infamous “it’s all serotonin” story, a glib line spread by advertising but unsupported by science.

Carnival of Mathematics Research?

Over at Michi’s blog and John Armstrong’s place, there’s lately been some discussion of starting a new carnival devoted to higher-level mathematics. John Armstrong summarizes his view thusly:

The Carnival of Mathematics has become a de facto carnival of lower-level mathematics, brainteasers, and mathematics education. And I’m fine with that. I’m leaning towards letting it be and just starting a new carnival for actual mathematics. There are certainly many more mathematics weblogs than there were when CoM began, and they could support at least a monthly carnival on their own now. Or maybe this more academic community is inclined to disdain the carnival approach entirely.

Other people have suggested that there’s something to be gained by mixing the levels, and while I agree that something could be gained, I don’t think anything is being gained. People coming from the lower-level and dilettantish weblogs are not reading the higher-level material. And higher-level people can still read the Carnival posts and find what’s new in sudoku-land if they want, whether high-level blatherers submit to CoM or not.

Alon Levy suggests that the composition of the CoM could be changed by a host soliciting posts from a different set of blog- um, blatherers. I wonder if this could be sustained over multiple editions.

Head on over and discuss!


In the brief interlude between my morning of debugging PHP code — Semantic MediaWiki isn’t compatible with Cite.php, the bastards! — and my afternoon of category theory, I’d like to call attention to a few items.

First, an observation: for some reason I can’t quite fathom, I was able to adapt myself to using HTML entities for punctuation marks, writing — for — and the like, but my brain didn’t process the fact that HTML entities also exist for accented letters. Instead of typing, say, à to get à, I would hit Ctrl+T to open a new Firefox tab, hit the Tab key to move to the Search bar, type a French phrase which I knew had the accented characters in question, copy the characters I needed from the search-result summaries, and paste them where I needed them.

Searching was easier than typing. Now, that’s either a sign of advanced Internet-induced brain rot, or an indication that our interconnected world has definitively left TwenCen far behind.

OK, it could be both.

Next, interesting items recently spotted on the Weboblagospherenet:
Continue reading Link-Love

Neuro-Journalism Mill

The Neuro-Journalism Mill is a website (with a slightly different organization than your average blag) which is dedicated to sorting good journalism from bad, where the brain is concerned. The former is labeled wheat, while the latter is sorted into the chaff. The Mill carries the sponsorship of the James S. McDonnell Foundation, which seems to have a brain-heavy focus, naturally making me wonder if there are analogous places one could get paid to critique the journalism of physics. (Perhaps the JSMF would give me money for writing about “complex systems”?)

Questions of my own financial gain aside, I’m glad to see people providing this kind of critique. Getting anybody to listen is, of course, the next step, and given the stakes involved, it’s a step we should devote serious effort to taking. I’ve opined before — and I’m not the only one — that our advancing knowledge of the brain will become an increasingly hostile front in the struggle against anti-science. What is happening with evolution today will happen with cognitive science in ten years, and so learning how the people are informed — and, often, misinformed — is vitally important.

(Link via Mind Hacks and Brain Waves.)

“Framing” in the Funny Pages

OK, I know I said I wouldn’t write anything more about “framing science.” I mean, when Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet used Lakoff’s concept of “frames” to say that Richard Dawkins was doing wrong, and when Sean Carroll used the public-policy notion of the “Overton Window” to argue that Richard Dawkins was doing right. . . “Windows”? “Frames”? I think it’s time for a beer. Or more.

Despite all that, I think I need to say just one more thing. I’ve discovered why scientists are apt to hate the terminology of “framing,” no matter what they think of the challenges involved in communicating science. And, believe it or not, I made this discovery thanks to Doonesbury.

Brief Vacation-but-not-really

Posting will be light this week. With luck, I’ll get a rerun of some old material I wrote at another site up here Wednesday or Thursday. In the meantime, here’s a lengthy discussion at Russell Blackford’s place about emergent properties and consciousness.

When you’re sated on that, check out Mark Liberman’s “Thou shalt not report odds ratios.” See, this is why the denizens of the science-blogging community should include Language Log in their travels: problems like bad math reporting in science journalism affect us all.

QUICK UPDATE: Isabel has more on the bad math in journalism issue at God Plays Dice.

Overbye on Hunting the Higgs

Dennis Overbye has an article in today’s New York Times on the search for the Higgs boson, and naturally, I’ve got complaints about it. It’s a pretty good piece: Overbye can do solid work (he went a little overboard looking for journalistic “balance” in the Bogdanov Affair, but that was a while ago). Still, I wouldn’t be myself if I couldn’t gripe and grouse.

First, I’m definitely not alone in asking people to please stop saying “God particle.” Leon Lederman has a great deal to answer for after coining this term; I’ve never heard or seen physicists use it seriously, and it keeps inviting unwarranted metaphors. (Incidentally, there was once detected an “Oh-My-God Particle,” a cosmic-ray proton of astonishingly high energy; for recent developments in this ultra-high-energy regime, see here. Physicists joke about the term, but they don’t use it.)

Second, this part rubs me the wrong way:
Continue reading Overbye on Hunting the Higgs

The Physics of Nonphysical Systems

We just heard Steinn Sigurðsson complain that there’s no science in Harry Potter, and therefore the book title The Science of Harry Potter is a non-starter. Jennifer Ouellette then leaped to its defense:

I think in this instance, I’d conjure the spirit of Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” :)

But then, that’s just the sort of viewpoint you’d expect from somone who wrote about the physics of the Buffyverse.

In a display of the kind of synchronicity one might expect whenever the system is large and the selection criteria are loose, Bee at Backreaction just pointed to a new paper on the arXiv, “Hollywood Blockbusters: Unlimited Fun but Limited Science Literacy” (9 July 2007). C.J. Efthimiou and R.A. Llewellyn declare their intentions as follows:

In this article, we examine specific scenes from popular action and sci-fi movies and show how they blatantly break the laws of physics, all in the name of entertainment, but coincidentally contributing to science illiteracy.

Movies under their microscope include Speed (1994), where projectile motion is thrown out the window; Spiderman (2002), which stretches Newton past the breaking point; Aeon Flux (2005), whose muscles really have to torque; The Core (2003), which just doesn’t float at all; Superman (1978), which ought to make a physicist’s head spin; X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), whose finale is cut loose from reality; and The Chronicles of Riddick (2004), which I haven’t seen.
Continue reading The Physics of Nonphysical Systems

TR Gregory on Fr*ming

ERV points me to Genomicron, where TR Gregory has a good post on “framing” science. Gregory outlines three major reasons for which the Mooney–Nisbet thesis causes dissatisfaction:

I will say that I found much to agree with as far as the descriptive components were concerned. That is, I think Mooney and Nisbet make some good arguments with regard to what is and is not working in scientific communication. This is Nisbet’s subject of research, and it was useful to see actual data applied to the question. My sense was that “framing” likely is something that nonspecialists do use when evaluating complex issues, and that this is a problem for scientists who want to convey complicated ideas with societal ramifications to them. However, I think the discussion runs aground in three major areas: 1) How it is presented to scientists, 2) In the failure to distinguish it from “spin” or “marketing”, and 3) When it shifts from description to prescription.

Gregory’s three points parallel, to a considerable extent, my seven points. He also points to Hayes and Grossman’s A Scientist’s Guide to Talking with the Media (2006), which I had noticed in the local Barnes-and-Borders-a-Million but haven’t had a chance to read (sometimes, The Tale of Genji takes priority). Now, Gregory has had his own not-so-good experiences with science journalism, so I think his opinions are worth consideration.

The first of Gregory’s three points bears closer examination:
Continue reading TR Gregory on Fr*ming

Missing No More

Richard Feynman’s second Messenger Lecture, on the relation between physics and mathematics, is missing no more:


This is the lecture in which Feynman presents an example I have appropriated before, concerning the necessity of knowing math before being able to do science, and how popularizations of physics often fail because they leave out the mathematics.

Feynman’s example goes like this: I can say that when a planet travels in its orbit, a line from the planet to the Sun sweeps out equal areas in equal times. I can also say that the force pulling on the planet is always directed toward the Sun. Both of these statements require a little math — “equal areas,” “equal times” — but it’s not really math, not a kind to give the layman heebie-jeebies. Given some time for elaboration, one could translate both of these statements into “layman language.” However, one cannot explain in lay terminology why the two statements are equivalent.
Continue reading Missing No More

Fr*ming in the CJR

The framing kerfluffle has reached the Columbia Journalism Review‘s website, with a piece entitled “Just the Facts, and Opinions Too” (5 June 2007). Curtis Brainard does a pretty good job of setting out the scenario, but his story leaves out an aspect which I think is significant.

I have come to hypothesize that there are the reasonable Mooney and Nisbet, who get written up in places like Brainard’s article, and then there are their insane twin brothers who keep trying to kick those uppity atheists back into the corner. (Similar statements about rational and bizarre twins have been made for Thomas Kuhn and Lee Smolin.) To a first approximation, if I heard some people saying what Curtis Brainard records Nisbet and Mooney as saying, my response would resemble the following:
Continue reading Fr*ming in the CJR

Framing is Back

Framing is back. Sheril Kirshenbaum is writing guest posts over at Chris Mooney’s place (1, 2 and 3 so far). In her first three posts, she’s talking sense, though her writing isn’t exactly rocking my geological column.

(That sounds a little dirtier than I intended. Ah, well, I’m not an old fossil yet.)

The interesting thing is that nothing of what Kirshenbaum has written involves deep anthropological foundations. You could have said exactly the same things before the framing kerfluffle and with no knowledge of Lakoffian whosiewhatsits. Now that the subject has been called back to my mind, I think I can offer an executive summary of what bothers me about the whole “framing” business.
Continue reading Framing is Back