Your conference audience doesn’t care about you.

When you give a talk at a conference or present a poster, to what degree is your audience invested in what you’re presenting?  This question occurred to me as I was gabbling away at a poster I was interested in while attending ESEB in Lisbon the week before last.  I was highly motivated by this poster, which touched directly on research that I was doing, but it struck me that of all the times I’ve given talks or presented posters, this level of audience interaction with the material was probably in the minority.  That’s not to say that nobody at your talk cares about your research:  they made the time to show up, so they are obviously (at least somewhat) interested.  But it’s easy to forget that your audience will see a dozen or more talks that day, that they will walk by a hundred posters in a poster session.  In short, their level of engagement with the subject matter of your talk or poster is not nearly the same as yours1.

  1. This is exemplified by that academic in the back of the room, writing their own paper on their laptop while attending your talk.

Who are we reaching with Twitter?

Ciber Cafe

Lars Kristian Flem via Compfight

Some weeks ago, Morgan and I had a conversation with Christie Wilcox on Breaking Bio about communicating science with Twitter. It was a spirited discussion that I thoroughly enjoyed, even if Christie and I disagree on a number of points regarding the value of social media to science communication. Her belief is that using Twitter and other social media is a fundamentally new way of communicating science that will significantly impact how the public engages with science and scientists1. This is a belief that I remain deeply skeptical about. My feeling is that social media is similar enough to the older ways of communicating science (print, TV, etc.) that it is subject to many of the same problems and limitations of those methods, and that simply giving more scientists Twitter accounts and encouraging them to tweet often won’t solve our science outreach problems. I was reminded of this disagreement when I was reading this paper by Scheufele (2013) and came across this section:

Education-based gaps in knowledge are a phenomenon that communication researchers have been studying in the fields of health and political communication since the 1970s under the label “knowledge gaps.” When tracking the dissemination and adoption of health information in communities over time, scholars noticed that, “[a]s the infusion of mass media information into a social system increases, segments of the population with higher socioeconomic status tend to acquire this information at a faster rate than the lower status segments, so that the gap in knowledge between these segments tends to increase rather than decrease” (36). In other words, highly educated people are able to extract information they receive from museums, media, or other informational sources more efficiently and therefore learn more quickly than their less-educated counterparts. (emphasis mine)

This is an incredibly important point for advocates of social media use for science outreach to consider. Who is the audience on Twitter? Well, in the first place, it’s skewed to people of a higher socioeconomic status by simple logic: using Twitter requires regular access to a computer or other internet device such as a tablet or phone, and it is well known that such access is easier for people of means. Thus, our audience starts out WIRD out of WEIRD. And the audience for science-specific tweets is very likely to skew towards the E (educated). It is not likely to be exclusive to such a demographic (ahem), but it is reasonable to assume (I think) that it is a highly self-selected and biased group who will see and interact with science tweets. Besides the issue of preaching to the choir, the quote above suggests that this dynamic will exacerbate an already serious problem with science communication: we’re probably tweeting disproportionally at the people who are interested in science and also educated enough to learn from and gain value from these tweets more quickly .

I feel that the burden of proof to demonstrate that social media is different and not subject to this problem lays with #scicomm social media advocates here. However, I remain hopeful that research will be done to explore this important issue with #scicomm and social media (and I’m starting to work on it a bit myself), if only to help us better target out energies online and perhaps reach those people that traditional media has failed to reach.

  1. I think that I’ve represented her fairly here, but you can watch the episode yourself to make up your own mind

Evernote + Automator = Auto-combine PDFs

Quick Tip: Use Evernote to back up your blog in real time

Creative Commons License Joe Ross via Compfight

I’ve been using Evernote to wrangle my notes for a little while now, but I found myself in a situation today where I needed to deal with a bunch of PDFs.  I was putting them into Evernote from the desktop and marking them up in Evernote (using Skitch), but I wanted to avoid having multiple notes for a single group of related .PDFs, so I hoped to combine them.  In OS X, it’s possible to do this in Preview with some dragging and dropping of thumbnails, but I was hoping there would be a way to automate this.  A little googling led me to a 10 minute hack I put together for this purpose, which I share here in case anyone else can benefit.

Don’t throw away the Twitter manual yet!

Is this really what academics see when they read a guide to Twitter? (Credit: Joel Wong)

Claire Warwick, writing in The Guardian, has a problem with introductory guides to Twitter. They’re too simplistic, she argues, and they insult the target audience of academics by explaining things that they surely know already.

Can tweeting really be so difficult that it must be explained in such terms? Perhaps the tone is not be intended to patronise, but instead to soothe and reassure, as if introducing us to a scary world that we might barely comprehend. The writers of such guides seem to assume that the only reason we are not all tweeting is because we either don’t know its value (so they will tell us) or because we are terrified to get it wrong (so they will reassure us).

It’s hard to be sure exactly what she means here, because she only links to one example and that link is broken. But taking her words at face value, I have to disagree.

Academics and social media: the talk that you helped me write!

When I asked about academics’ use of social media, I got a gratifying number of responses that helped inform the content of the talk I’ll be giving next week at the GSA 2013 conference here at UNSW.  I even used some direct quotes from people who responded, which was a great help in giving context to the benefits of social media for scientists.  Since I’ve finished the talk now, I thought that it would be appropriate to share what was essentially a crowd-sourced talk back to the community.  So, take a look, and if you have any thoughts or suggestions, please feel free to leave a comment.  One thing to note:  this is a longer version of the talk that I’ll actually giving;  my practice talks went over the 12 minute limit, so I was forced to cut some slides (which I anticipated).

View this on SlideShare, or page through below:


On the use of the word ‘rape’ for non-human animals…

I wrote earlier today about a post clarifying a misinterpretation of a study which was itself misinterpreted.  A short recap:  the original post was meant to correct a furore that had arisen around a paper on dolphin social networks;  the journalists covering the story ended up playing a version of the Telephone game that turned the phrase ‘bisexual philopatry’ into ‘Flipper the bisexual rapist’.  In writing the post, I was simply trying to untangle the mess, but somehow people mis-read the correction so badly that they believed I was painting dolphins as cuddly underwater teddy bears.  In fact, I was just pointing out that the original study had nothing to do with the sexual behaviour of dolphins, not that dolphins don’t display coercive sexual behaviours.  When I found out this morning that I was being linked to – again – in the same garbled way, I decided that it was time to put a lid on it.

Dolphin-assisted birth is stupid, and yes, dolphins rape.

Dolphin-assisted birth is stupid, and yes, dolphins rape.

Despite the title, the stupidity of dolphin-assisted birth isn’t actually what this post is about. The reason for the title will become clear in a moment, but before I get there, let’s recap. As was reported in the Charlotte Observer some days ago, Heather Berringer and her husband Adam plan on travelling to Pohoa, Hawaii, in an attempt to let Heather have her child in the company of a dolphin pod there. To be honest, I’m a little fuzzy on the supposed mechanics of this birth method, other than the fact that it occurs in the presence of dolphins in the water. How the pregnant mother is supposed to be assisted in the event of an emergency is beyond me, but I’m sure the “Sirius Institute” has it covered1.

  1. The astute reader will notice that this comment is dripping with sarcasm.

Academentia and the iPad: an update from 2010.


Daniel Bogan via Compfight


Prompted by a conversation on Twitter yesterday, I revisited my old ‘how I use my iPad in academia’ post and since it’s been about 2.5 years, it seemed time for an update.  So, some quick notes on how I’m using it now:

  • Reading.  I don’t use iAnnotate any more, since Goodreader added annotations and nice Dropbox syncing.  I keep a Dropbox folder with my current ‘to read’ pile of articles and books, which is slurped up to my iPad by Goodreader.  I read articles on the iPad, annotating and highlighting as I go, and then I sync it back to Dropbox.  Back on my Mac, I file the papers away in BibDesk (I haven’t seen a use case for ‘social’ reference managers like Mendeley yet – at least for me – and I’m not sure if I’m going to any time soon).  Other ebooks, including an increasing number of textbooks, are read via the Kindle app and iBooks.  I prefer the iBooks software, to be honest, but right now I read it where I can find it.  Truth be told, I’ve gotten so used to ebooks now that when I can’t find something in digital format it noticeably irritates me.
  • Calendaring:  I sync my Google calendar to my iPad and iPhone, and read my calendar on the iPad with Agenda.  I prefer Agenda for the clean interface, though it’s a minor preference for me.
  • Organisation:  I wrote back in 2010 that Things was moving too slowly for my taste and that I was going to search for alternatives, but I never found one I was comfortable with.  I tried a lot of them:  Today, Remember the Milk, Appigo’s Todo, Wunderlist, and more.  All of them had some sort of problem that turned me off, be it bad syncing or subscription plans for useful services (hell, no) or something else that bugged me enough to make me switch back to Things.  I honestly don’t think that Cultured Code really deserves as much of my money as they’ve gotten, but I keep coming back to them for some reason.  This is a highly individual thing, though, and your mileage is going to vary.  A lot.
  • Social media, of course:  I still prefer the stock Twitter app on the iPad over alternatives so far, though if I do switch it will probably be to Twitterific.  I’ve written blog posts using Blogsy and I use the WordPress app to administer the blog.  I’ve made a few Skype calls with the iPad, which turned out all right (though I prefer wired connections for video calling), and the iPad is really the only way that I check Facebook any more.
  • News:  now that Google Reader is going the way of the dodo, I’ve switched to Feedly and I couldn’t be happier.  For saving stories to read later, I rely on Pocket.
  • Navigation: I’ve found that Apple Maps has gotten much better recently, so I’m no longer unhappy that Google Maps isn’t on the iPad (still not sure why that is, though).  I use maps more on my phone anyways.
  • Note-taking:  This is a category with a lot of change since 2010.  Nowadays I’ve switched largely to Notability for note-taking.  I find its handwriting set up easy to use when I’m jotting down notes in a meeting or a seminar, and it’s intuitive for scribbling on manuscripts and sending them back to colleagues.  I use a stylus for these tasks;  I’ve enjoyed the Pogo Connect, but my wife enjoyed it so much for drawing that she actually stole it from me.   So while I wait for the Adonit Jot Touch to shop (grrr, delayed), I’m using a $10 Dausen stylus that actually works quite well. I’ve also used Noteshelf as a notetaker for its nice writing tools and early integration with the bluetooth styli like the Pogo Connect;  when the Touch comes, I’m not sure exactly what I’ll end up using full time.   And when I’m looking to do more free-form scribbling, or I’m noodling with equations or just sketching something, I like Paper; it’s simple but pretty and powerful enough to get the job done.  I’ve also become more and more reliant on Corkulous to make notes in.  Unfortunately, despite protestations to the contrary, Appigo shows no sign of giving a crap about further development of Corkulous, and I’m reaching the limits of what the app will handle in terms of notes.  Also unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a good replacement out there, so I’m considering making one myself.
  • Information collecting:  some people would put apps like Evernote into the notetaking category above, and the Evernote + Penultimate setup works quite well for some people;  I haven’t looked at it in a while, but I may revisit it.  Until I do, though, I’m using Springpad as a dumping ground for random bits of info that I need (travel plans, receipts from conferences, paper work I may need to reference, books I want to buy, etc).
  • Mathematics and programming:  when I feel like playing around with a bit of math or I need to plot a quick graph, I use apps like SpaceTime1, PocketCAS, and Quick Graph.  Programming on the iPad is still a bit of a non-starter, though that’s starting to change a bit.  I’ve had fun playing with Codea, which embeds a Lua interpreter, and if you feel like learning Haskell, there’s iHaskell (must have an internet connection, though).  I recently used Codea to whip up a quick simulation of genetic drift (Fisher-Wright model), and it worked great.  I’ve seen a few Python apps and the like, but I haven’t had any experience with them;  if you had, please leave a comment!
  • Drawing / diagramming / presentation :  Another category with big changes to it.  When I last wrote about academic iPad usage, there wasn’t much to speak of here.  In the intervening time, though, this space has exploded.  Now, I use apps like Procreate (others like Sketchbook Pro) to sketch and draw with the Pogo Connect,  iDraw to create vector diagrams for talks and posters, and Omnigraphsketcher to work up quick hypothetical graphs.  Most of this gets fed into desktop apps like Keynote or Pages (or other design programs);  the iPad versions of these apps are good as well, and I use Keynote regularly to present with, but I’m still hamstrung by the lack of font support in Keynote for iPad.  Another long-awaited and massively useful tool to arrive is LaTeX snippet tools;  on the desktop, I use LaTeXiT pretty regularly, and now apps like Mathbot are serving the same purpose for me on the iPad:  I can write a quick line of LaTeX and copy the typeset equation into another app like Corkulous.
  • Writing: big changes here, too, driven by changes in my desktop workflow.  With my recent shift to using Markdown as a major format for writing, I’m now free to use some of the great cloud-syncing editors for the iPad to start things off.  So, a lot of my papers, blog posts, etc. now start their lives in Byword, which is incidentally the first app to really turn me on to iCloud syncing.  When I have to interact with Microsoft formats – yuck – I use still use Quickoffice.  LaTeX on the iPad has come a ways, with apps like Texpad, but I still find them too clunky for common use.  I’ve also gotten into collaborative writing of LaTeX through web apps like Spandex (and a new one that I’ve been meaning to try, Authorea), so I’m not really fussed about dedicated apps for LaTeX any more.
  • Misc: A few other apps I can’t live without include Dropbox, OPlayer HD for entertainment on the go, Calcbot for quick arithmetic, Convertbot to … well, convert stuff, Photogene / PS Express for quick photo edits (especially to screenshots I take to paste into other apps), and probably a dozen others that I use regularly but can’t remember right at this moment.

Going back to my old post, it’s clear that my usage of the iPad has changed significantly since I last wrote about it.  Some of the frontline, day-to-day apps that I use have changed or clarified (e.g. I use only Goodreader now instead of GR+iAnnotate), and entire new uses for the device have popped up, like drawing and writing in Markdown.  Increasingly, the iPad has become an indispensable part of my daily workflow, and though I could live without it, I certainly don’t want to!

What are your favourite apps and workflows for mobile devices (iOS or otherwise)?  If you have any thoughts, please leave a comment or let me know on Twitter.

  1. which is apparently now called MathStudio?

On the good and evil of scientific stories.

tl;dr: telling a good story is a vital tool in science communication, but it’s easy to go too far for a simple narrative.

If you’ve read this blog, attended a talk that I’ve given, or sat in on one of our lab meetings, you would know that one of my pet issues in science is communication. Scicomm, as it often goes by now, means more than explaining science to the public, though that is of course a large part of it. It’s also about how we communicate our science to other scientists, either in our field or ourside of it. Journal publications, conference talks, seminars, monographs, all of these things – and more – fall under science communication to me. And if you had found yourself as a fly on the wall when I was editing one of the Ph.D. students’ papers or critiquing conference slides, you would almost certainly hear me talk about story.

More precisely, you’d probably hear me say something like “what’s the story?” when I got through a rough draft of a manuscript, or after I watched a practice talk for an upcoming conference. When I say “story”, what I mean is the narrative and plot that ties together the work that you’ve done into a cohesive whole that the audience can follow and emphathise with. In the first chapter of his book Storycraft, Jack Hart cites this definition of story from Jon Franklin:

A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.

Story, as Hart says, consists of a recounting of a chronology of events (narrative), and the selection of arrangement of material so that a larger meaning can emerge (plot). Hart says:

For Eudora Welty “Plot is the ‘Why?’” Or, as the novelist E. M. Forster famously put it, the narrative is that “the king died and then the queen died.” The plot is that “the king died and the queen died of grief.”

I raise these issues because this is a problem that I’ve thought about at length when it comes to scientific communication. You might object that communicating science isn’t about a story, a narrative, or a plot, but I would strongly disagree. When you give a talk at a conference, you do exactly as Hart recounts: you construct a narrative and select material to form a plot (‘we identified some limit to our knowledge, we formulated some hypotheses, we did a test, we got some results, OMG science”), even if this looks nothing like what actually happened. You might be more familiar with this process in its rage form. Don’t fool yourself, this is story crafting. In its simplest form the scientist is the protagonist, the complicating situation is the unknown s/he is trying to banish as described in the introduction / methods, and the climax is wrapped up neatly in the results before the gentle falling action and dénouement in the discussion.

Story in formal scientific writing is often limited to the imposition of this narrative and plot structure, though stating it this way belies its importance; if you’ve ever reached the end of a journal paper and thought ‘what the hell was that paper about?’ (and we all have), chances are reasonably good that you’ve just experienced a failure of story. But when science is communicated to a wider audience, story begins to feature even more strongly. Whether written by scientists, science communicators, or journalists, it is easier to see this in action when the masters of the craft are in action. David Quammen, in his book Spillover structures his description of the hunt for Ebola and its reservoir around the story of the medical researchers who have tracked it through the jungles of Africa, winding in and out of their struggle to identify the source of the disease and the effects that it has on the people of Africa and elsewhere. It’s a detective story, which Quammen uses as a hook to lubricate the discussion of everything from molecular biology to mathematical epidemiology. But it’s the story that drives us through what would have otherwise been a textbook on epidemiology.

If I haven’t made it clear by now, I think that story’s important. Yet I also think that story has a dark side, one that we must be ever vigilant about as scientists, and it’s this: the push for a good story can obscure the truth. Science is messy, and full of complications and stumbles. There’s not always an answer, or a happy ending, and sometimes what we thought was right for a long time turned out to be incomplete, or even wrong. This fact is what makes writers like Quammen and science communicators like Carl Zimmer so valuable; they capture that messiness without letting it overwhelm the story, and in so doing make our science interesting to people. But if the push for a story goes too far, it can result in over-simplification and even simple and dangerous untruth.

I was reminded of this when I came across a post by one of my favourite writers on visual design, Garr Reynolds; Garr wrote the book Presentation Zen, and a series of other books like it, and I still recommend them to other scientists as a good way to get a handle on how to make your presentations suck less, visually. Recently, however, Garr wrote a post praising a video containing the work and narration of Paul Zak. The post, entitled “Neurochemistry, empathy & the power of story”, is itself curiously meta, as it disucsses work by Zak on neurochemical responses to the ‘dramatic arc’; in short, Zak claims that oxytocin and cortisol are part of the neurochemical suite that responds directly to the structure of a story, and can even be used in a predictive fashion (here, to predict the amount of donations that will be given when viewing a tearjearker story of father dealing with a young child dying of cancer versus the same father walking in the park with his son).

The irony of this, of course, is that Zak himself is an adept storyteller who has constructed a narrative around oxytocin as the ‘moral molecule’, reducing good and evil to the action of a single neurotransmitter. Here’s an excerpt from a Guardian article1 on Zak from last July:

What drives Zak’s hunger for human blood is his interest in the hormone oxytocin, about which he has become one of the world’s most prominent experts. Long known as a female reproductive hormone – it plays a central role in childbirth and breastfeeding – oxytocin emerges from Zak’s research as something much more all-embracing: the “moral molecule” behind all human virtue, trust, affection and love, “a social glue”, as he puts it, “that keeps society together”. The subtitle of his book, “the new science of what makes us good or evil”, gives a sense of the scale of his ambition, which involves nothing less than explaining whole swaths of philosophical and religious questions by reference to a single chemical in the bloodstream.

Here, we see the danger of story. In constructing a simple story with a compelling and digestible arc, Zak has swept the truth of this research under the rug, and the truth is that research on oxytocin is messy, contradictory, and provides few clear answers. As Ed Yong describes it, oxytocin can have distinctly contrasting effects depending on who receives it; some people may exhibit more social behaviour, while others in the same situation may exhibit more antisocial behaviour under the same dose of oxytocin. It can promote trust, or increase xenophobia. It may be that oxytocin is part of some motivator system: for example, people like James Goodson have worked to show that in birds like the zebra finch it2 is implicated in the ‘social behaviour network’ and may be instrumental in zebra finch flocking, though as in many other animals, this effect can be strongly sex-specific (usually to females).

All of this complication and mess is ignored in Zak’s story, which does a disservice to the reader who comes away with a simple view of the world that just doesn’t hold water. A friend of mine, a lawyer, asked me awhile ago if what he’d heard about this ‘cuddle chemical’ was true, and was visibly disappointed to learn that it was much more complicated than that. The problem here is that we are disposed to like a good, simple story; it has more emotional impact, which in turn makes it easier to remember and explain to others. Certainly, nobody wants to spend as much time reading journal articles and learning about nonapeptide hormones like oxytocin as I did for my PhD exam in order to tell a story at a party. This is why we have people like Ed, and Carl Zimmer, and Maryn McKenna, and all of the other great science communicators, writers, and science / scientist bloggers: they do the hard work of curating the facts and telling the story without losing the truth. Contrast Zak’s writing with Ed’s takedown of the oxytocin mess. It’s just as good a story, but it treats the truth with respect, and the truth is that we’re just not there yet. We have tantalizing ideas and scraps of evidence on how oxytocin affects us, but we can’t draw definitive conclusions. As Ed discusses, the hype around oxytocin has even led to people using it in an attempt to treat autism, with unknown and possibly harmful effects.

This isn’t an isolated problem. The TED talks have become a serious problem in this regard, and though I’ve seen some great TED talks over the years, they’ve grown to the point where the push for good stories has overwhelmed the ability of science to provide them. I saw the most recent example on Boing Boing when Maggie Koerth-Baker pointed to a problem in the widely-circulating story spun by 19-year old Boyan Slat on a plan to remove plastic from the oceans, namely, that it won’t work. Here again, we see the elements of story at work, this time surrounding Slat himself. A 19-year old phenom who rises to glory on the back of an award-winning school research paper, a hands-on problem-solver producing solutions and starting a foundation to implement them. It’s a feel-good story with a likeable protagonist who is tackling a problem that scares us all; it’s a shame that the scheme probably won’t work, and may even do more harm than good if ever implemented. The issue at hand, though, is that the story told by and about Slat is compelling but oversimplistic and potentially dangerous, just as the one told by Zak is3. As Maggie points out in her post:

Here’s a mantra to remember: TED Talks — interesting if true.

And the same is true with anything you read in the popular press about science. It’s interesting, if it’s true.

Now, I began this post by pointing out that I’m a big proponent of story in science, and I stand by that statement. Story is an important, and I would argue, necessary tool when we come to communicate the results of out work, for the same reasons that it can go badly wrong. A carefully crafted story draws the audience through the science, ties it together in a way that they can understand and remember, and adds punch to the work so that the audience cares enough to pay attention. Yet this process, while vital, needs to be kept in check by the demands of the search for the truth and the admission of messy detail and incomplete knowledge. The tension between story, which yearns to be complete, and science, where more research is always needed, must be respected and maintained lest you end up with bone-dry science or a compelling – but misleading – tale.

  1. or as Ed Yong puts it, ‘ad’
  2. under the name of mesotocin
  3. as an aside, I’d like to say that despite the problems inherent in Slat’s plan and how it ended up going viral, I hope that he keeps trying. He sounds like a smart guy, and failure is a great first step on the road to success.