Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Brief items, public science outreach edition

Here are a couple of interesting things I've come across in terms of public science outreach lately:

  • I generally f-ing love "I f-ing love science" - they reach a truly impressive number of people, and they usually do a good job of conveying why science itself (beyond just particular results) is fun.  That being said, I've started to notice lately that in the physics and astro stories they run they sometimes either use inaccurate/hype-y headlines or report what is basically a press release completely uncritically.  For instance, while it fires the mind of science fiction fans everywhere, I don't think it's actually good that IFLS decided to highlight a paper from the relatively obscure journal Phys. Lett. B and claim in a headline that the LHC could detect extra spatial dimensions by making mini black holes.  Sure.  And SETI might detect a signal next week.  What are the odds that this will actually take place?  Similarly, the headline "Spacetime foam discovery proves Einstein right" implies that someone has actually observed signatures of spacetime foam.  In fact, the story is the exact opposite:  Observations of photons from gamma ray bursts have shown no evidence of "foaminess" of spacetime, meaning that general relativity (without any exotic quantumness) can explain the results.   A little improved quality control on the selection and headlines particularly on the high energy/astro stories would be great, thanks.
  • There was an article in the most recent APS News that got me interested in Alan Alda's efforts at Stony Brook on communicating science to the public.  Alda, who hosted Scientific American Frontiers and played Feynman on Broadway, has dedicated a large part of his time in recent years to the cause of trying to spread the word to the general public about what science is, how it works, how it often involves compelling narratives, and how it is in many ways a pinnacle of human achievement.  He is a fan of "challenge" contests, where participants are invited to submit a 300-word non-jargony explanation of some concept or phenomenon (e.g., "What is a flame?", "What is sleep?").  This is really hard to do well!  
  • Vox has an article that isn't surprising at all:  Uncritical, hype-filled reporting of medical studies leads to news articles that give conflicting information to the public, and contributes to a growing sense among the lay-people that science is untrustworthy or a matter of opinion.  Sigh.
  • Occasionally deficit-hawk politicians realize that science research can benefit them by, e.g., curing cancer.  If only they thought that basic research itself was valuable.


Anonymous said...

I guess this doesn't bother you.


Douglas Natelson said...

Anon, sure it bothers me (though it's old news since I regularly read Retraction Watch). The issue of people (particularly in countries where incentives are strongly based on sheer numbers of publications) trying to game peer review and citation systems is depressing but not new. Attentive editors (and even some automated systems) should be able to avoid much of this.

That being said, I'm not sure I get your tone - am I somehow obligated to write a post about this, in your view?

Anonymous said...

With respect to your second bullet point, I stumbled on this (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cmf6GgjmHmU) video a little while ago, which is very much in the same vain. I was hoping that you could perhaps share it as well if you think it is worthy?