Archive for the ‘science communication’ Category

‘90% of all data was created in the last 2 years’ – WTF??

July 9, 2013
Big data

Oooh big data!!

It’s been a while since I last posted (I have a good excuse, I was organising my wedding and then off on honeymoon!). But something’s been bugging me – a strange claim I’ve seen in a few places. Legend has it that 90% of all data was created in the last two years (ta @james_randerson for the link).

I find it difficult to get my head round this. I think the statement is supposed to convey the humungous amount of new data that is being created every day – from genetic sequencing to personal data recorded by smart phones. But it seems to be one of those statements where the story has been simplified so much as to be almost completely meaningless – what kind of ‘data’ are we even talking about? (more…)


Science and culture – a symbiotic organism

April 21, 2013
Martian canals

Canals on Mars?

My job is all about ‘selling’ science – making it sound exciting, interesting and inspiring. Often this isn’t hard, because a lot of science is (I think) self-evidently amazing. The raw material doesn’t usually need a lot of polishing.

But writing about the process of science is harder. It involves a lot words like ‘trying’, ‘hoping’, ‘investigating’, ‘if’ and ‘but’. It sounds alarmingly human and error-prone, not at all like the shining quest for truth that science is ‘meant’ to be. (more…)

The risk of accuracy

February 6, 2013
Percentage symbol

Watch those percentages… (image by NavBack)

I love reading about risk. As someone who finds maths a bit of a challenge, it always becomes more real to me when the numbers relate to the real world. Using numbers to explain the risk of something happening seems like an excellent way to harness the power of maths – numbers are objective, concrete, and not vague.

But as always in the messy real world, it’s not quite that simple. That’s why I was really inspired by this blog post from the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan, explaining how extra levels of ‘accuracy’ – more numbers – can actually make risks harder to understand. (more…)

Do fish and crustaceans feel pain?

January 17, 2013

Don’t eat me! (photo by Rafael Ortega Diaz)

It would be amazing if we could put ourselves inside the minds of other animals – do they think, feel and reason like we do? Or are they little more than glorified robots? Or something in between? At the moment, we don’t know much. It’s impossible to experience the consciousness of another human, let along another species – and extremely hard to figure out what other species ‘feel’.

This problem was not conveyed very well by last week’s ‘news’ that ‘fish don’t feel pain’. This was actually based on a review article – not on new evidence – which only concluded that ‘fishes are unlikely to feel pain’. Not quite the same as saying they definitively don’t (something that would be impossible to prove, anyway). There’s an interesting analysis of the review on the Practical Fishkeeping website that disputes the review’s conclusion, with help from an expert in the field.

What really didn’t come across from the media coverage is how difficult it is to draw any conclusions at all about what fish actually feel. The arguments can go either way – if fish recoil from painful stimuli, does this mean they consciously feel pain, or that they are unconsciously and ‘instinctively’ removing themselves from danger?

Luckily, another news story this week – about pain in crustaceans – shows how a cleverly designed experiment can shed a bit more light on a tricky subject like this. The study showed that crabs can learn to avoid electric shocks, going to the extreme of leaving shelter and venturing out into the open – something they’re not normally keen to do. (more…)

Animal research on BBC Radio 5 Live

December 4, 2012
Mice at a research facility

Mice at a research facility (credit: UAR)

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I found out BBC Radio 5 Live were doing a 2-hour programme from an animal research facility in Oxford – they love a bit of controversy. I certainly didn’t think they’d feature a mouse being humanely killed live on air. Presenter Victoria Derbyshire got some great interviews with researchers and lab technicians, but some tired old cliches lived on, courtesy of Animal Aid. (more…)

Dave the Worm – getting creative with basic research

November 22, 2012

C. elegans – a worm like Dave

Have you met Dave the Worm? He’s the star of Parkinson’s UK‘s latest fundraising campaign, and I LOVE him. He’s cute and funny, but he also comes with a serious message about so-called ‘basic’ medical research and why it’s so important.

It’s quite hard to make basic research sound sexy, and even harder to be open and honest about animal research – but little Dave manages to do both. He’s a nematode worm – C. elegans to be precise – and researchers are using worms like him to understand more about Parkinson’s disease. (more…)

Science in writing: discovery vs. debate

November 4, 2012

Phases of the moon – by Galileo, who enjoyed a lively debate.

I love words. I also love science. So anything that sits in the overlap of my nerdy Venn diagram makes me rather excited – just as well I get to write about science for my job! But although I spend a lot of time thinking about how to express a particular concept, or explain something in a new and creative way, I don’t often get the chance to step back and get a bit meta.

So when I found this article by Daniel M. Wegner on Twitter (thanks @ivanoransky) I had a little nerdgasm – writing about science writing, fun! It’s all about the language of science, and it’s a really interesting take on what science communication is all about. The author sets up two conflicting ways of communicating science – the language of discovery vs. the language of debate. (more…)

Why do people believe crazy stuff?

October 13, 2012
Black cat

A black cat – lucky, unlucky, or just a cat?

We all like to think of ourselves as rational beings. Trouble is, this immediately sets up a paradox. If we are rational, we should be swayed by convincing evidence. And convincing evidence shows that human beings are very often not rational at all – we play the lottery, we are superstitious, and we ‘go with our gut’.

That’s why the beautiful concept of ‘rational thought’ will nearly always be a goal we can only strive to achieve. I have to remind myself of this every time I think ‘why would anyone sensible believe in homeopathy/conspiracy theories/creationism/hell/delete as appropriate’. It’s easy to tell yourself that these people must be stupid and irrational. But that’s not what the evidence really shows. (more…)

Time to shout about animal research?

October 2, 2012
Lab rat

Lab rat (credit: Understanding Animal Research)

Last week, the University of Leicester announced the opening of its new Central Research Facility. If you think this sounds like one of those rather boring press occasions with a ribbon to cut, then you’d be half right. But look closer – a surprise is lurking in the second paragraph of the press release. The Central Research Facility is actually a new building for animal research.

And amazingly, the University press office are shouting about it – good on them! Paragraph three gets straight to the point: ‘Medical research done at the University of Leicester involving animals has a direct relationship with the treatment of patients in hospitals locally and beyond.’ Yes, that’s right. Animal research saves lives. It shouldn’t be a newsflash, but for too many people this still isn’t common knowledge. And without more bold steps like this publicity, this fact will carry on being ignored. (more…)

Should ‘boffins’ be banned?

July 10, 2012

Is ‘boffin‘ a bad word? That depends on whether you’re a scientist or not. The average researcher would probably cringe if this word was used to describe them. It evokes a rather faded image of a 1950s professor, closeted in his (NOT her) ivory tower, out of touch with the great unwashed.

So I was pleasantly surprised to see that ‘boffin’ is on the Telegraph’s list of banned words, deemed too cliched, offensive or just grammatically unpleasant to be seen in the paper. But never fear. Boffins are alive and well in the pages of The Sun, doing useful thinks like creating e-fit images of Christian Grey, fictional star of Fifty Shades of Grey. (more…)