Scientific literacy in an age of (mis)information

There has been an ongoing discussion about how to improve scientific literacy in the broader community. In part this is in response to the attack on science in recent years, over things such as climate science, genetically modified food, nanotechnology, vaccination and other apparently controversial topics. To address the widening gap in the public’s appreciation and understanding of science, some have said that we need to have better (or more) science communication. Others say we need more scientists in parliament and part of other key decision-making bodies. I’m not so sure.

The number of scientists in politics has always been traditionally low. That’s in part because people trained as scientists typically end up working in research and development, education or IT (and occasionally in finance, but that’s another story). I’m not convinced that increasing the number of politicians with science degrees would make much of a difference.

What is really needed are politicians who appreciate and understand the scientific process; they don’t necessarily have to be scientists themselves. Sadly, just because you have a science degree, doesn’t mean you have these attributes. You only have to look at some of the climate change deniers out there to see that. Or creationists or intelligent design proponents for that matter.

Two great examples of politicians with an appreciation for science are Senator Kim Carr, the former Australian science minister and Adam Bandt, the MP for Melbourne; I’m sure there are others. Neither of these politicians have scientific training that I’m aware of.

I once heard a story about Kim Carr during the Square Kilometre Array bidding process. There was a two day workshop held in Perth during the preparation of the Australian bid for the telescope. Kim Carr – as science minister – was invited to give an address. Apparently he gave the address and stayed around for the rest of the day. The story goes that he came back the next day for the technical discussion. That’s remarkable.

Adam Bandt is a great supporter of science. He recently hosted a public forum called “Why Science Matters“, which brought together a group of scientists to discuss why science is important for Australia’s future. He has also take on a scientist (Dr Krystal Evans) as an intern for a few months.

Not at all politicians are this passionate about science obviously (some might say “enlightened”), but it’s certainly not all doom and gloom. What does seem to be true is that the “anti-science” brigade are louder and arguably more organised, especially in countries like the United States. On the political front then, I agree with those who say that scientists should be more organised, although there are great efforts made by professional societies and groups such as Science Technology Australia.

Now to science communication. Science communicators are generally pretty damn good, and they’re not all journalists. There are stacks of passionate and wonderful scientists out there busily communicating their work and commenting on the work of others to the general public. You can learn a lot by: following them on Twitter; listening to them on the radio; watching them on TV; going to various public forums to hear them; and so on and so forth. They inform and inspire.

The bigger problem in science communication is not the quality of the people doing the communicating or their subject matter; to me, it’s their relative isolation from the broader community. People are interested in science, but many feel that science is not accessible, or they don’t know where to look. In Australia, if you don’t watch or listen to the ABC, or maybe SBS, then chances are you don’t have access to many scientists.

If you read a tabloid newspaper, you have more chance of reading a science story in the “Strange but true” section of the paper than in the news. This has been referred to as “banishing science to the fast food news ghetto” by Lyndal Byford of the Australian Science Media Centre. I’ll look at the issues surrounding science journalism in a future post, but it’s definitely true that when it comes to major daily newspapers, the quality of science reporting is declining.

As an aside: the regular use of the word “boffin” by the mainstream media makes me feel like they believe scientists are from another world. I hate “boffin” with a passion, and I certainly don’t identify myself as one.

Another big problem is the growing gap between the details of cutting-edge science and whether the community feels they can understand them, whether they’re appreciative of science or not. The Universe is a complex place, and it’s up to scientists to make it comprehensible for everyone. At the very least, science should feel more accessible than I think it does, and the public should feel they can trust scientists and the scientific process. This comes down, at least in part, to science literacy, but there’s more to it than that. Another topic for future post.

Of course, there are also (sadly) people out there with an anti-science agenda, and they are loud, obnoxious and often powerful. Many of them are scientists or science literate, which makes things more confusing for those that aren’t.

So do we need to improve science literacy? Well, yes, but I’m not convinced that this is the biggest problem science faces in modern society, and I’m not alone here. The folk at the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at ANU are working on ways to better understand what’s really going on. They’re making a documentary about the communication of science in complex situations, and have followed climate scientists on a listening tour of rural and regional Australia. I’m looking forward to watching and learning.

Science literacy is a major issue that needs to be addressed though. There is no magic solution, but I do believe that we lay do the ground work to improve the situation as much as possible. Education is key, but I don’t mean shoving more facts and figures down peoples’ throats; I’m talking about understanding how science works.

First, we need to distinguish what science is and what it is not. Science is not a set of opinions based on gut feelings, political ideology, or personal interest. Science is based on evidence, derived from observations or controlled experiments. Science produces theories that make predictions, which can be tested by further observations or experiments. Hunches and ideology do none of these things. I’m all for scientific debate, but only when it’s actually scientific.

Any balanced debate about scientific issues need to be based on all the evidence, not just cherry-picked snippets. We need to consider causal relationships and not simply correlations. And finally – and this is something that I will almost certainly rant about in the future – we need to understand or at least appreciate the statistics involved in the results.

Next, you need to determine who is qualified to comment. I was heartened to read this wonderful article on the value of an opinion; it’s one of the most read ever on The Conversation. You cannot simply state an opinion on science-related matters without backing it up with evidence. Opinions here are not all equal. If, for example, over 95% of all scientists accept human-induced climate change is a reality, and 100% of climate scientists do, then this is pretty good indication that it is a reality. Have a look at who sponsors and supports the scientists who don’t accept this consensus, and you’ll find an undercurrent of ideology and personal interest. Scientists are human and suffer the same flaws as everyone else. In short, go with the consensus view.

And finally, we need to improve science education. In the West, science is still seen as something for people with no social skills, nerds in lab coats. We need to change this, to move science out of the “geek ghetto“. This has to start with our education system. Science and scientists are too often painted as somehow separate to society, even in the classroom. It’s more than just a question of getting the curriculum right, it’s about how you teach science as well. Science is hard, but it needs to be seen as worth the effort.

Student interactions with working scientists can help here. I’d like to think that programs like I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here! and Scientists in Schools play a significant role. One of the expectations of the students in the most recent I’m a Scientist competition was that the scientists would all be awkward and anti-social. Needless to say, I think the students were all pleasantly surprised.

Societal issues like this cannot be changed overnight. I really think that most people are generally interested in science and are open to hearing about it. There’s a lot of work to do.

Posted in Education, General Public, Outreach, Science, Science Literacy | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Spending a day in a Tardis with Dr Karl

A week ago on Thursday, I spent the day in a Tardis with Dr Karl Kruszelnicki. Also with us was Elizabeth Hagen, a human biology and anthropology student.

No really, I was in a Tardis. (Image Credit: Neerav Bhatt)

Yes, that’s right, we were in a Tardis. At the ABC in Ultimo, this is what a small studio used for radio work is called. The nickname came about back when the ABC Radio studios were in Forbes St, Darlinghurst. The equivalent studios were apparently about the size of a phone booth. Perhaps they were bigger inside than they appeared as well, I don’t know. Anyway, the name stuck, even though the studios no longer exist, and now the sign on the doors at Ultimo say “Tardis Booth 1”, “Tardis Booth 2”, etc.

So, how did this visit to the Tardis come about? It was more straightforward than I would have ever imagined. A friend of mine suggested I give it a go, so I emailed Karl’s research assistant and asked how I would go about it, what the procedure was, etc. A short while later I received a phone call asking when I was free. We arranged a date, and that was it. I wonder if they did a background check of some kind on me, to make sure I wasn’t some random fanboy.

Elizabeth and I were guests of Dr Karl as part of his regular Thursday radio spots on ABC and BBC radio. We spent the first two hours answering science questions on four different ABC Local Radio stations: Far North Queensland, Brisbane, Darwin and regional South Australia. The format of the talkback shows was quite informal and lots of fun, with some great questions. I’ve done a few of these before, but for Elizabeth it was a little new and perhaps daunting, but she seemed to warm to it well.

After this, we all raced up to the Triple J studios for Mornings with Zan Rowe. Here Karl’s slot is a bit more formal: Elizabeth and I were allowed in as observers only. Apparently for us to appear on the show would require some weeks of notice, which would allow Triple J to advertise and promote it. Still it was interesting to see how the calls came in and were prioritised (sorry, no trade secrets :P).

Following an hour in the Triple J studios, it was back to the Tardis for an hour-long slot at 3am on BBC Five Live. Karl told us that the BBC had a similar policy to Triple J, so we’d probably be observers only again. Happily, the normal presenter was not in and the fill-in (Andy Crane) let us on to answer questions and talk a little about ourselves. You can find the podcast here for your listening pleasure. I got to talk about my favourite exoplanet topic – planets orbiting two stars at once – along with a bunch of other great stuff, including the Hubble eXtreme Deep Field and of course, Mars Curiosity.

Elizabeth had to leave after this, and Karl had a pre-recorded TV gig on ABC News 24. I hung around during make-up and filming, but it was relatively uneventful. I will say that the station is pretty low budget though: the presenter, a cameraman and the producer and that was it. I always figured that television was a more involved process, but the only difference between it and radio was the cameraman.

We had one more radio talkback show after lunch, this time with regional NSW, and then it was time for me to head off home. All-in-all, a highly enjoyable experience. Dr Karl is a lovely bloke, especially given I effectively invited myself along to his show. He’s as energetic in real life as he is on radio and television, but perhaps not quite as frenetic. I definitely have a new found appreciation for what he does: it’s very impressive stuff.

So that was my day of talkback in a Tardis. Hopefully I can go back and do it again sometime. 🙂

Posted in Astronomy, General Public, Outreach, Science | 4 Comments

The canyon, the moons of Mars and the retired engineer

Most of my correspondence with the general public is on the phone. People either ring me directly or ring the observatory and get put through to me. I get a few emails too, but I don’t get many letters. In fact, I’ve only ever received one.

A retired engineer – let’s call him John – once wrote to me, explaining his theory about the formation of the largest canyon in the Solar System: Valles Marineris on Mars. It’s the 4000 km long gash across the middle of Mars; you can see it in most of the images taken by NASA orbiters. John’s hypothesis was on the formation of the canyon: he suggested that it may have been formed when a large asteroid collided with Mars at an oblique angle and gouged out material from the surface. The remnants of the asteroid then flew off into space, two of them becoming Phobos and Deimos, the moons of Mars.

I admit that I’m not a geologist, but this hypothesis seemed unlikely to me. Not whacky like the ideas espoused in “let me tell you why Einstein is wrong and I’m right”-type letters, but just not very likely. It’s also not the accepted theory of formation of the canyon. The letter had John’s phone number and asked if I could call. If someone goes to the trouble of writing (and it was a hand-written letter), then I’m happy to call for a short chat. Little did I know then that we’d be having these chats for the next two to three years.

John was very keen for me to forward on his letter and hypothesis on to someone at NASA who worked on Mars-related science. He had a particular scientist in mind (whose name I’ve since forgotten unfortunately), but I could find no trace of him online. I forwarded it to an eminent researcher at NASA who worked on Mars. It’s very difficult to do that without sounding like a nutter yourself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I got no response. I rang John to tell him this; he was not perturbed. He asked if I could keep trying, so I sent a few more emails. Nothing.

Every few months John would call me to ask if I heard back, and each time we would have a nice chat about NASA, Mars and his hypothesis. I would always tell him I thought it was unlikely, and that there was an accepted theory, but he would always politely ask for another opinion. This lasted a couple of years. Eventually, I spoke to a local researcher about John’s ideas, and he agreed with me that they were unlikely.

I must admit developed a slight fondness for John and his idea. He had old-fashioned manners from an earlier time, manners I wish more callers had (see this previous post, for example). He was determined to the point of stubborn. When I told him that another researcher thought his idea was unlikely, he accepted it with grace. A true gentleman.

Over the years, I also noticed that that John developed a nasty cough and seemed increasingly out of breath. He assured me he was okay when I asked though. I can only hope that he’s still going strong and that he has been able to see some of the amazing images coming from the Curiosity Rover and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. I know that he’d love them.

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Why I hate science by press release

I read today about another exoplanet that is high up on the Earth Similarity Index, meaning it has a reasonable likelihood that it is habitable. By habitable, we normally mean that it’s at the right distance from the star that liquid water might exist on the surface, NOT that it has life on it, or even an atmosphere. The planet in question is Gliese 163c, which comes in at number five on the list of known planets in the Habitable Exoplanets Catalog. This is exciting stuff in an exciting – and cutthroat – field of astronomy and astrophysics.

I was reading about the system in an article on Discovery News: it’s made up of two planets, one a so-called “Super-Earth” in the habitable zone of the cool red star Gliese 163 (a Super-Earth is something that’s Earth-like but bigger). It was found by a European team using a purpose-built spectrograph to look for planets. They’ve found a lot of the planets that we’ve discovered from the ground. All good so far. Then I got to this line:

The research has been submitted for review and publication.

Wait, WHAT? You mean it HASN’T been peer-reviewed yet? They put out a press release about an exoplanet discovery BEFORE anyone else had independently verified the discovery or check their methodology and interpretation? That is dangerous, and to be frank, downright irresponsible.

Okay, I said I’d try to keep rants to a minimum in this blog. However this is an issue that has reared it’s ugly head too many times before in science. Perhaps the most famous example of this “science by press release” is the Fleischmann-Pons Cold Fusion debacle. In that case, the “results” generated a lot of media attention, due to their implications, but was soon discredited to the point where the phrase “Cold Fusion” sends researchers into a cold sweat and is avoided wherever possible.

I should point out that I’m not saying that the Gliese 163c result is wrong. But one of the KEY things about science is the peer-review process. If you subvert it in this way (by going through the media first), and then get it wrong, you end up with egg on your face, and the general reputation of scientists takes a hit. And the thing is, this team has a history on this front.

In 2007, they announced that the first detection of an exoplanet in the habitable zone of any star. The planet, a Super-Earth called Gliese 581c, had a mass of 5 times that of Earth and took only 15 days to orbit its Gliese 581, but since the star is a cool red dwarf, the team claimed that it was in the habitable zone. They had a done a back-of-the-envelope calculation to come to that conclusion.

This result garnered a huge amount of media attention. The planet was referred to as “Earth II” in headlines around the world. I remember commenting on the result to the media at the time, and warning that the paper had only been submitted when the press release went out. This is a perhaps subtle point that not many seemed to pick up on.

After a day or so, the submitted paper was made available to the world, and other astronomers did some more detailed calculations that showed that the planet was not in the habitable zone at all! Another planet in the three-planet system is in the habitable zone, but it weighs in at almost 8 times the mass of Earth, so it is far less likely to be habitable. It is this planet that quietly became the poster child of the Search For Life. But what if the third planet around Gliese 581 wasn’t there?

So – the announced result was wrong, but kind of right in the end, so why the fuss? Because this is not how science works! What’s the point of the peer-review process if you announce your results to the world first? The general public and media will simply accept the result as correct and move on (Cold Fusion was an exception case). This kind of thing leads to sloppy science, which in turn can lead to a mistrust in scientists. The last thing we need at the moment!

I note that the Higgs Boson result was accepted recently by Physics Letters B as two papers, three months after it was announced to the world, so this phenomenon is not limited to astronomy and astrophysics.

Has science now reached the stage where it is really better to be first than right? It would seem so.

Aside: The Gliese 581 planetary system is controversial, but not because of planet c or d. An independent team claimed the discovery of another planet that – if confirmed – would at the top of Earth Similarity Index as the most habitable planet we know of. Trouble is, a lot of people don’t believe the result. That’s story for another post though.
Posted in Astronomy, Outreach, Research, Science | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Make your own pretty pictures of the stars

Credit: Sydney Girls High School, Travis Rector (University of Alaska), Ángel López-Sánchez (AAO) and the Australian Gemini Office.

Have you ever wondered how those beautiful pictures of planets, galaxies and space are created? Now you can too!

Images from telescopes are originally in black and white, so they have to be put together to create a colour image. This was once a laborious task, but is now straightforward with good image manipulation software.

Travis Rector (University of Alaska) and Chris Onken (ANU) have put together a simple tutorial so that you too can make beautiful colour images of your favourite galaxies, nebulae or planets. You can find it on the website of the Australian Gemini Office. All you need is Photoshop or Photoshop Elements or The GIMP (the latter is free). We also provide the raw images so you can get started.

The image used for the tutorial is the first image from the Australian Gemini School Astronomy Contest, which was of the “Glowing Eye” Nebula. The contest is an annual event we run to give school students the chance to observe their favourite celestial object with the 8-metre Gemini South telescope in Chile.

When you’re done, we’d love to see the results, so please post images on our Flickr Glowing Eye Tutorial page. 🙂

And stay tuned for next year’s contest!

Posted in Astronomy, Education, Outreach | Leave a comment

Taking Public Outreach seriously

A recent conversation on twitter with AstroKatie started me thinking about how seriously employers take public outreach, and how seriously funding agencies take it. She questioned whether including her outreach work on her webpage might not be taken seriously, but included it regardless.

When I talk about public outreach here, I’m not talking about publicising your own research; you’re expected to do that when possible. What I’m referring to is answering questions from the media about other people’s research, answering questions from the general public, doing school visits, giving public lectures, using social media, etc. These are things that can educate and inspire people about science, but will they help land you your next job? Sadly, I’m not so sure.

I’m lucky enough that my organisation values the contribution that I and others make in the sphere of public outreach. I’m not convinced it was always the case, but in recent years there has been a noticeable improvement in the situation. Just last week, we sat down and started to discuss the development of a social media strategy; this was unthinkable even a year ago. We are supported to take part in things like Scientists in Schools, Fresh Science, Science Meets Parliament, I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here! among the many different schemes that exist. But what about at other workplaces?

In astronomy, most observatories have someone (or a team of someones) dedicated to public outreach in some way. Generally the people involved have some sort of background in astronomy; they may be PhD astronomers, but not necessarily. Universities have a press office, and occasionally an outreach officer attached to a department (but only if there is a critical mass of researchers). Most research astronomers do some form of outreach themselves, especially with visits to amateur astronomy clubs and societies. The question is: when you apply for a job, or for grant funding, how valuable is this for your prospects?

My hunch is that it’s not taken that seriously, and is therefore not that valuable. I’m happy to be corrected, but I’ve heard enough anecdotes and experienced enough over the years that the perception is strong.

Let’s take a look at Australian Research Council grants, for example. One of the selection criteria for this year’s Future Fellowship scheme – worth 10% – is “Collaboration/Outreach”. The question you have to consider here is: “are there adequate strategies to encourage dissemination, commercialisation, if appropriate; and promotion of research outcomes?” (This is horribly worded in my opinion… adequate strategies to encourage dissemination?? Blergh!) This is where you say how you will disseminate or promote your research; from what I can tell it has little to do with what you’ve done before. The other ARC schemes include the same basic wording.

Now, I realise that the ARC funds research, not public outreach. Surely though the two things are not independent? If I want to understand the latest results in marine biology research, I want to hear the opinions of a working marine biologist. By why would that marine biologist give their time on a regular basis if they get no credit from their employers or funding agencies? Surely we should be encouraging this effort to popularise science by at least recognising it.

On the job front, how often have you read “must have excellent oral and written communication skills” in a list of selection criteria? Just about every job these days asks this of applicants, so one can only assume that everyone now has excellent oral and written communication skills! Sadly, this is not the case… so what is being measured here? Is all you need to do publish papers and give talks at conferences to satisfy this criterion? My feeling (granted, it’s a feeling only) is that outreach activities don’t count for much. The one selection panel I’ve been on didn’t consider communication skills in discussions of the candidates, even though it was a criterion.

Public outreach is valuable of course, for many reasons. We do it because we enjoy it, because we feel that science should be accessible, and because the public are interested. People are interested in science; not just in controversial topics like climate change and nanotechnology. They want to know what all this stuff we’re doing means, and they appreciate someone with authority who tells them in language they can understand. They take us seriously. In a time when we are worried about science literacy in society, perhaps it’s time we took outreach more seriously.

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Reflections on I’m a Scientist Australia

Readers of this blog will know that I’ve just taken part in I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here! What you probably don’t know is that I won the Boron Zone! YAY! For my efforts I will receive $1000 to spend on communicating science. Double YAY!

Now, that the questions are answered and the chat sessions are over, I thought I’d post a few reflections on the competition. I’ve already touched on some of the questions that kept coming up here and here, so I won’t go into too much detail on that front.

Overall, I thought it was a fantastic way to connect with school students. The kids got a chance to interact with working scientists, while the scientists got to hone their communication skills and attempt to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. Even if students do not go into science as a career, my hope is that they came away with a deeper appreciation for science and research.

I got the impression that this time around, I’m a Scientist was more popular and “bigger” than previous events. We were originally told to allow about two hours per day to work on it, but in the end considerably more time than that was needed, at least in the Boron Zone.  We were pretty popular, possibly because we covered a big range of science: astronomy, quantum physics, geology, marine biology, and ecology. That’s not a complaint, it was fantastic to see the students’ enthusiasm!

From our chat sessions, it was clear that they came in to the program with a fixed idea of what a scientist is like: nerdy with poor social skills. Hopefully that old stereotype was put to rest! We all know that these days scientists are nerdy with reasonably good social skills. 😉

One of the interesting things to come out of our discussions with the students was that there are two things that kids love about science: experiments and blowing things up. This probably explains why Mythbusters is so popular! Conversely, theory seems to be universally disliked. Part of me understands this, since I find one of the fun things about science to be using observation and experiment to disprove or challenge theories.

Finally, a big thanks to the organisers, Kristin and James, who in the Boron Zone alone whittled over 2000 questions down to just under 350, moderated 23 live chats – some of them a little unruly at times – and were very supportive and responsive to all of us. Great job guys! 🙂

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