“Revolutionary!” “Controversial!” What media talk about science really means

October 14, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Like science itself, mainstream media reporting of scientific findings can be confusing, not least because ordinary words are given specialised meanings. To help the perplexed, here’s a light-hearted gloss of some of the commonest terms used by media folk to talk about science and scientists.

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“Expert” – knows more than we do.

“A leading …” – we’ve heard of this person (and we can barely spell their research discipline), so they must be important.

“Professor” – can mean either a) a professor or b) anyone with a doctorate.

“Scientists believe …” – the ones we asked said …

“X says [something controversial]” – and so they did, with a little judicious editing. Whaddya mean, out of context?

“New” – almost certainly not, but if even the researchers aren’t thorough about their literature searches, you can’t expect us media types to know about previous work. We can barely remember what happened yesterday.

“Extraordinary” – it sounded weird to us (but then, so does most of this science stuff).

“Important” – we can see how this might have something to do with the real world.

“Groundbreaking” – it’s in Nature, Science, or PNAS. Or, it’s female, disabled, or ethnic minority.

“Breakthrough” – something useful may possibly result from this at some point in the future.

“Landmark” – every scientist we asked, the press release, and the journal’s editorial all said this might make a difference.

“Revolutionary” – contradicts something said by somebody else.

“Controversial” – we suspect the only researchers who think this are the study’s authors, but hey, it’s eye-catching.

“A study suggests” – even we recognize that this one’s so provisional we need to say so.

“Abstract” – we haven’t a clue what this means, let alone if it’s any practical use.

“Theoretical” – see Abstract.

“Challenging” – we have no idea what they were banging on about.

“Developing” – we’re pretty sure they haven’t either.

“Theory” – anything more than a guess, put forward by a scientist.

“Hypothesis” – an irate scientist complained about how we misused the word theory.

“Anecdote” – a term of abuse used by scientists to complain about the media. We prefer to see anecdotes as baby datapoints.

“X causes Y” – X has been linked Y to by some statistical method. You don’t want to know the details, do you? Good.

“Correlated with” – a patient scientist explained to us that correlation is not causation, so now we can show off.

“X doubles the risk of Y (no baseline risk given)” – trust us, we’re headline-writers. And we’re not telling you what the original risk was because it’s so tiny that you’d realise this is a total non-story.

“X doubles the risk of Y (baseline given)” – we know you can’t make any sense of this statement without knowing what was doubled, so we’ve fed you the number. What we haven’t told you is that there are probably so many other factors causing Y that you don’t need to panic over X, at least until you’ve stopped smoking, changed your diet, done more exercise, moved to somewhere less polluted, and stopped worrying about all the crap in the media.

“A gene for X” – this gene produces a protein which may have some small influence on something in the body which eventually has something to do with X.

“Brain regions associated with X” – these brain regions seemed to be doing something when the few people tested in the study were X-ing, so they may have something to do with X. They’ve also been associated with lots of other things, but we like to keep the story clear and simple.

“Brain activity” – some complex statistical measure which some specialised research-folk think may be quite highly correlated with changes in brain cells, and a lot more less specialised folk think may have something to do with the mind, whatever the hell that is.

“Neurologist” – anyone who does anything related to actual brains (i.e. not a psychologist).

“Neuroscientist” – any person working on brains who’s explained to us that they’re not a neurologist.

“Remarkable” – a scientist who shows signs of being successful despite being a woman.

“Brilliant” – this guy’s a better self-publicist than most of his colleagues.

“Maverick” – weird even by scientific standards, and quite likely to be wrong.

“Confident” – probably a bully, and even more likely to be wrong.

“A lone voice” – the probability of wrongness is close to 1.

“Professor X could not be contacted …” – Professor X has had dealings with the media before.

“Fluent communicator” – wow, a scientist who doesn’t just stare at their feet!

“Engaging communicator” – this one smiles!

“Brilliant communicator” – this one can talk and they’re not bad-looking, for a geek.

“Difficult” – we suspect this one has autism.

“Dedicated” – you really chose to spend your career doing that?

“Committed” – it’s ridiculous how seriously you take this stuff.

 

Freedom, from a neuron’s point of view

August 22, 2013 at 1:43 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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Like any well-meaning science communicator, I’m on the lookout for new ways to communicate about my favourite topic, neuroscience.

Thalamus small view

The location of the thalamus (in red) in the human brain. Image is by Life Science Databases (LSDB). (CC-BY-SA-2.1-jp (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.1/jp/deed.en)), via Wikimedia Commons.

Images, like the view of the thalamus shown here, look great, but they need words, or a lot of background knowledge, to communicate their meaning.

So it’s back to words. But what kind of words? Well, it’s said that fiction’s a good way of communicating … in some cases anyway!

I’m not too keen on the idea that science is science and should steer well clear of anything that smacks of the humanities. People have quite enough tricks for emphasizing their differences, and feeling superior in consequence, without barricading intellectual endeavours into disciplinary silos. (I know, I know, talk about championing a lost cause!) Besides, neuroscientists are happy to use the visual arts to put their work across, so why not other art forms?

All fiction is in a sense concerned with brains’ activities, but not many authors have tried writing fiction about brains themselves. Pondering this one day, I thought: “Someone should write a short story about brains! I’d read it! Probably.” Then I went back to reading whatever exciting science article had just fallen out of my inbox and onto my to-do list.

Some time later this short story wandered into my brain. It made me smile, so I caught the thing and submitted it to a writing competition (Writers and Artists) on the theme of ‘freedom’, where, to my astonishment, it was short-listed. You can download it as a PDF here (‘Freedom’, by Neurotaylor). I’m posting it on this blog as an exercise in alternative methods of science communication.

And If you know of any great fiction about brains themselves, let me know.

Here’s the story, set out as a taster so the post isn’t too long. The whole thing’s around 2000 words.

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Freedom

Alright mate? You on the tour? Welcome to the department. I’m Alfie.

Ever been inside a brain before? No? That’s unusual, not many people start their visit here.

Fully booked, eh? Don’t apologise, mate, we’re used to it. People wanna see the bits they’ve heard of. It’s all, “Ooh, can we go to the prefrontal cortex?”, like that’s the only department that matters. I tell you, mate, without us those guys in prefrontal would be twiddling their dendrites and rotting.

Yeah, they don’t half play up to it though. You’ll see ’em later. All that, “Oh yes, it’s a great responsibility”, and banging on about their dopamine levels, as if the rest of us never get a sniff of dopamine. They don’t half try it on, that lot. They’re just passing messages, same as the rest of us.

Load of posers, if you ask me. Don’t tell ’em I said that.

Anyway, welcome to the Thalamus Department. Here in the LGN section –

[read on Continue Reading Freedom, from a neuron’s point of view…

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