The Seven Wonderers of Beakerhead: Telling stories about science

The Seven Wonderers of Beakerhead (Photo courtesy of Raj Bhardwaj @RajBhardwajMD, used with permission)

The Seven Wonderers of Beakerhead (Photo courtesy of Raj Bhardwaj @RajBhardwajMD, used with permission)

In the warm glow of vintage stage lights, with a full house packed into worn leather and velour seats, a woman approaches the mic almost tentatively. “I used to be a dancer”, she says, “and I would probably be a lot more comfortable on this stage if I were dancing”[i]. It wasn’t a typical opening line for a science talk. Read the full post »

You can’t win ’em all: My (unpublished) letter to PNAS re Hiring Bias Study

A few months ago I wrote a blog post in response to Williams and Ceci’s paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science: National hiring experiments reveal 2: 1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track. I was concerned about the way that the findings were interpreted, generalized and compared to the wider literature. In the media comments that followed their piece, Williams and Ceci were very clear, however, that they felt that critics of the paper were being unfair and unscholarly. I didn’t agree and I wanted to ensure that genuine scholarly concerns were discussed not only in a blogged and public venue but also through traditional channels. So I wrote a letter to the editor, expressing the concerns raised in my blog post.

I think Rosie Redfield’s dual work in criticizing NASA’s arsenic life paper both on her blog and through a letter to Science, for example, is a very important model. High visibility science, reported in large media venues, often doesn’t receive public critique. People may write letters to the editor or complain to each other at conferences, but too often that critique is not available to most of the people who have read about a story in the news. Or it is only available so long after the initial results are reported that it has little impact on how that science is understood publicly. As I’ve written before, the back channels of criticism of cold fusion were quickly refuting the findings, but those of us reading about it on the sidelines were left out of that conversation for a long time. Blogged commentary and social media responses are a very important way of making all of science–including the messy processes that go into building scientific consensus about a topic–available. Read the full post »

Be careful saying “The Myth about Women in Science” is solved

When a CNN article titled “The Myth about Women in Science” came crawling across my feed, I have to admit that I wasn’t optimistic. I wondered what could possibly count as “THE Myth about Women in Science”. Maybe that women and girls have lesser skills in mathematics and spatial reasoning? That is truly a myth about women in science but I couldn’t see why it would be news as it’s been widely disputed.

A quick skim of the article resulted in a briskly raised eye brow. The myth apparently is this: women are less likely to be hired than equally qualified men when they apply for tenure track position. The authors (Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci, both of Cornell University) claim that this misunderstanding is the major cause of women’s underrepresentation in scientific careers. Read the full post »

Call for papers: Personal stories from women in science

Me and my daughter admiring a penguin at the Calgary Zoo.Diving headlong into motherhood this year has meant less blogging (obvious to anyone who subscribes here…), but it has also made me think a lot more about the scientific life that I would hope for my new daughter and girls like her. Currently her research interests include ceiling fans, her toes, her soother, the dogs and the penguins at the Calgary Zoo. But should she be interested in pursuing science as a career, what would I want her to know?

Read the full post »

Please don’t blindly follow PopSci’s lead and get rid of comment spaces

A tiny explosion happened in the online science communication world yesterday. Popular announced that they will be closing off opportunities to post comments on their news stories: no more public comment spaces. Why? They argue that uncivil commenters have an overly negative effect on readers, so negative that it isn’t worth maintaining the comment spaces. They make some scary claims too about a small number of negative commenters poisoning the way readers perceive the stories and about a war waged on expertise. They use an New York Times Op-Ed written by Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele to back up those claims.

I must, however, respectfully disagree. Read the full post »

Adventures in Science, Creativity and Research Openness

Many times during talks about social media in science, I’ve argued that there is a lot of room for researchers to be more open about the research process. Following along with Rosie Redfield as she blogged her lab’s attempts to grow the GFAJ-1 bacterium of arsenic life fame and publish the results was a fascinating window into how a university research lab works. I’m really excited about the possibilities that openness like that offers to high school students and anyone with an interest in science. It’s a first-hand opportunity to learn about the real day-to-day work of scientists in a way almost not possible before blogs and social media. Read the full post »

How do students figure out whom to trust in a scientific controversy?

Scientific literacy is a difficult idea to pin down.[i] To some people it means having a basic level of scientific understanding, though nobody fully agrees on how much understanding is needed or even which specific ideas should be understood. To others, it is more important to understand the core processes of science, which can be applied to any area of science. Again the problem exists of figuring out exactly which processes are most important (and which are distinctly scientific).[ii]

Even when people disagree about what it means, there is almost always this common thread: scientific literacy somehow involves preparing students and adults for the science they will encounter outside of school, very often in media reports. George DeBoer highlighted this in his history of scientific literacy: Read the full post »

“The power to predict your world”: interviewing Samuel Arbesman and Mark Daley

Here’s a new one for the coincidences-leading-to-cool-ideas file: Who would have guessed that stacking up old journals in someone’s office could inspire a new field of research! For my latest Skeptically Speaking episode, I spoke with applied mathematician Samuel Arbesman about his book The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date. He filled me in on the many ways that mathematical modeling can be used to better understand scientific knowledge, from predicting how the number of scientific studies will grow to how quickly different types of knowledge are overturned or modified.  One of the fields that is most concerned with these questions, scientometrics, got some of its first inspiration when Derek J. de Solla Price was asked to store some journals on the floor in his office. The library at Raffles College (now part of the University of Singapore) was undergoing renovations and they sent various volumes out to staff offices for safe keeping. De Solla Price wound up with the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society from 1665 to 1850 stacked up in piles on his floor. The piles looked suspiciously like an exponential growth curve, and he was struck with a great idea. During our interview, Samuel shared many more stories like this of unexpected patterns that are found in everything from operas to how cities grow.

Continuing on that theme I also chatted with Mark Daley from the Brain and Mind Institute at Western University. Mark is a professor of both computer science and biology (and a musician and composer!). He uses computational modeling to understand the network connections in our brains and how different areas work together on tasks. Much to my delight, he also surprised me with some cool examples of how his work applies to popular music, but I’ll let you check out the episode to hear more about that one.

So why do an episode about why mathematical and computational models are so valuable? Mark expressed it perfectly:

Math is a tool for helping you understand the world. It’s by far not the only one, but it’s a very useful one, a profitable one. So when kids ask “Why should I learn math?” — because it gives you power to understand your world, to model your world and maybe even to predict your world.

You can find the episode on the Skeptically Speaking website: Episode #224 The Half-Life of Facts

When it comes to scientific words, simple is harder than it seems

[Yes, it’s been a long time since I posted something new. One reason is that I’ve been busy preparing for a big move. You can read about it here.]

After our discussion about using dry ice with 8 year olds had died down, this year’s crop of space camp counsellors asked a question that plagues almost everyone who teaches, writes about or in any way works to share scientific information: what are the right words to use to explain difficult concepts?

Questions like that come up every year in my undergrad science ed classes and in almost every science communication workshop I’ve ever attended. And they’re hard questions to answer. The answers always depends on exactly who the audience is and on the purpose of the article, video or lesson. But the message often boils down to: Scientists and science communicators of all kinds need to cut the jargon and explain things simply.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Read the full post »

Big move coming up!

So. Here I am. Once again trying to find a creative way to explain why I haven’t blogged for a while. It’s the usual business of course, plus some other stuff. But this time at least, there is an exciting development that has been taking up a fair amount of my free time this spring. I am very pleased to say that, as of July 1, I will be moving to take up a new position as Research Chair in Science Education and Public Engagement at the University of Calgary. The position is being created as part of a larger science, math and technology education initiative taking place there. And I’m even more pleased to say that in addition to continuing and growing my research in language, identity and participation in science, the faculty has been very encouraging of my public outreach and communication work, both here at Boundary Vision and as part of the Skeptically Speaking team. Read the full post »


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