How to Not be an Expert.

Trust me, I’m not an expert.

Bora Zivkovic has a fantastic post up on his blog concerning the future of science writing: The Other Kinds of Expertise.  I love the great majority of this piece. His description of what it will take to be a good science writer in the future (or now) is spot on, and I love that he includes accuracy as an important aspect of good writing.

However, his description of who should be able to talk about a subject strikes me as overly narrow. He limits the people who can write about a topic to people with “expertise”. He does say that people who write longer pieces outside of their field can gain a “temporary expertise”, but then qualifies that those fields should be related to the original expert field.
The quote that really got me thinking was this one:



Every one of us is an expert on something, at least one thing, probably several things.
This also means that each one of us is completely non-expert on many other things.

The first part is not true of me, though the second part is. I am not an expert in any subject. Academically, I have studied historical geology, epistemology and forensic anthropology, but not to the extent that I could be considered an expert.

That doesn’t stop me from teaching. That doesn’t stop me from writing. That doesn’t stop me from talking.

The list of things I’ve taught over the years is long and rather more inclusive than exclusive, including, but not limited to:

entomophagy, tall ships, karst geology, ice age geology, megafauna evolution, human origins, origins of agriculture, human anatomy, dance, folk arts, water pollution, sustainable architecture, puppetry, volcanoes, trilobite diversity, beavers, historical gold panning, steamships, the civil war, science of baseball, stream ecology, deep sea taphonomy, American Indian cultures, human migration, crab migration, history of trains, physics of trebuchets, human genetics, cat genetics, evo devo, anthropology of race, Vatican archaeology.

And those are the things that I remember off the top of my head.

The thing you’ll note is that only two of those topics even slightly overlap with my formal education (ice age geology and human anatomy). These aren’t all topics that I would have necessarily chosen to talk about, and several I’m not even interested in at all, but they are things I had to teach about for one reason or another – some I was tying in with current events or exhibits that the museum had, others I was going along with the topic of the nature center summer camp I was teaching.

The wide range of subjects is nothing unusual for someone in my line of work. Informal educators aren’t specialists. Or if they are, it’s to the extent that they teach in an institution located in a specific ecosystem, or in an institution with a specific focus. That can limit the subjects they are required to talk about on a daily basis, but it’s an artificial limit, and not often one that has anything to do with formal training.

So, are we all talking out of parts of our anatomy with no mouths when we discuss things outside of our “expertise”?

Not necessarily.

You see, we’ve developed different expertises. The expertise to know how to quickly research an entirely new subject. The expertise to find trustworthy sources in a field we’re completely unfamiliar with. The expertise to know what other people will want to know about the new subject. And the expertise to be able to explain to the limits of our knowledge in a way that will be accurate, relevant, engaging, thought-provoking and will, hopefully, make the person we’re talking to go look up more information.

Would someone get a better lesson on physics from someone who actually studies it formally? Probably. Not just from the formal study, but also because that person, presumably, is familiar with the best ways to teach that particular subject, where I need to not only learn the subject, but find a way to explain that subject quickly and concisely. If I could, I would love to see every person take a physics course to learn how trebuchets works, as well as a course on chemistry to study cave formation, and one on the history of traversing the ocean to learn about tall ships. All, of course, taught by experts in each field.

If my career path wasn’t necessary, I would be the first person celebrating. If people had the time to pursue full education in every subject they’re interested in, the world would be a much more interesting place.

Unfortunately, we all know these things aren’t true. People can’t learn everything from experts. There just aren’t enough experts or (more importantly) places that will pay experts to teach.

There is a place for the generalist educator in this imperfect world. I may not know every detail of the subject I’m teaching, but that’s not necessarily important. I do know one important detail, that makes all the difference: I know what I don’t know. And I know not to make stuff up when I come across something I don’t know. I also know how to steer people to the real experts, which can be just as important.

Likewise, there is a place for the generalist science writer.

Yes, Deborah Blum, Maryn McKenna and Emily Willingham and too many other fantastic writers to name are experts in the fields they write about, but that doesn’t mean everyone is immediately aware of them. The act of writing something, as a non-expert doesn’t take away from the expertise of the real experts. A quick summary post on breaking news, or an introductory post on a topic that people are interested in shouldn’t be considered competing with the experts, but as providing a bridge to the experts.

We all have different audiences. When I am in the role of informal educator, and even when I am just posting things on Facebook, I am talking to people who wouldn’t necessarily go read a science blog at Wired or Scientific American or any of the other media outlets that tend to specialize in the subjects that interest me. They might be talking to me because they came into the museum wanting to know what the weird rock they found in their yard is. Or they might know me on Facebook because we know each other from any number of contexts. I know the people I talk to aren’t going to have folders full of bookmarks of experts on every subject under the sun. They are more likely to go to a site that covers a whole bunch of topics quickly, and then follow up on the ones they’re most interested in.

What I’m trying to say is this: if you are a generalist writer, or a generalist educator, or are considering being either, don’t feel like you *need* to be an expert to talk. There is a place for your voice. The more people reaching out about important subjects, the more people will be reached, often in unpredictable ways.

This doesn’t take away the requirement of accuracy from the generalist writers and educators. We have to be just as careful to not spread misinformation if not more so, since our audiences are generally going to not be as engaged with science as the audience of an expert. We have to make sure we know who the *right* experts are to link to, and the best resources to throw at people who are interested.

And, most importantly, we need to know when we can stop talking and let someone else take over.

Individual Media Streams in the Information Watershed

I have a Sunday morning routine when I’m alone and have no reason to get up early. I sleep in, then I make a latte (or two), gather my cat, a bowl of oatmeal and my iPad, open the curtains and sit on the couch.


I’ll glance at my Facebook notifications, look through the first few posts on Google+, check my email and then turn to Twitter, where I find an ever-fascinating stream of articles and commentary on just about every topic, trending mostly to science, but with other things thrown in.

Am I a bit of a social media addict? Yes. Am I isolated? No. No more than I would be if I had a newspaper spread out in front of me.

At my sister’s wedding in October, my father gave a beautiful speech. He talked about togetherness and communication, about love and strong relationships. Even my normally-stoic brothers and I had tears in our eyes by the end. The man is an amazing speaker.

One of his main points was the distressing trend he sees in people constantly having their heads bowed over electronic devices. It’s a fair enough complaint. He sees people not communicating with each other as they sit in the same room. Our family does this a whenever we’re all together. We all have laptops, iPads, cell phones out, and we’re all doing our own things.

My dad sees this as isolating, and to an onlooker, it probably is. We’re all caught up in our own separate streams of information. My sister is on Facebook on the iPad while her husband is playing a game of their laptop. My brother is surfing reddit and showing us cute animal pictures he finds, in the effort to get an ever-more rapturous squeal of “aww!” My mom is on, gathering research about our ancestors. My father is reading the newspapers. And I’m on Twitter, catching up on what the science communication community is talking about.

We are  isolated, in a way. But we’ve always been this way. even when there was no computer in the house, we would all be in our own little worlds: the worlds of books and magazines, of newspapers.

We are information-seekers, all of us. The typical advice for turning your child into a reader is that you need to read in front of them. They need to both have books around and see the people in their lives as People Who Read. I grew up in a house where my parents were always reading. I saw them read every evening before bed. Even if one was watching a tv show,the other one was usually in the same room with a book. My siblings and I adopted this same behavior. We all read constantly and voraciously.

It is a common refrain that the Internet has made us lonelier, that we no longer talk to people around us, that we live more in a world of “likes” and “retweets” and “+1s” than a world of true, person-to-person sharing.

I look at my Twitter feed on Saturday morning and I know this isn’t true. My feed, at any given time, has links to the most thought-provoking articles in mainstream media, the best blog posts, breaking news, and beautiful works of art. It has my friends sharing their triumphs, and asking for a shoulder in their sadness.

Twitter is not just a world of sharing what you ate for dinner or making inane comments about celebrities. Sure, that’s there, in the same way it’s everywhere.  Like any other medium. You choose what you want to see. You can choose to read the  celebrity-stalking pseudo-journalism of People, or you can choose to read the cultural touchstone of The New Yorker. You can pick up a romance novel or formulaic thriller, or you can read the newest Paolo offering. You can watch Transformers, or you can watch Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

They all have their place, and the same person will switch between all levels of media depending on mood, interest level and time. Yes, we are all in our own little worlds, our own little filter bubbles or hall of mirrors, or whichever trendy phrase os chosen, but those worlds are no different than the media consumption worlds in which we’ve always placed ourselves. They are no more deserving of exaltation or recrimination just because they happen on an individual device rather than the more public tv or library selections.

I may not be sharing the same newspaper that thousands of others in my city are reading, or watching the same tv broadcast, but I never would have been. I would have always been selecting the articles that I wanted to read, the segments that I wanted to watch. And often, I would have left the room for the tv parts that weren’t interesting to me.

Yes, our heads are bowed over our separate digital worlds, but they always have been. And they still look up when we find something interesting, whether a quote from whatever my father is reading, a clever way of solving an in-game problem from my brother-in-law, an update on a family friend from my sister, an obscure fact about out history from my mother, a science factoid from me, or The Most Adorable Baby Goat Video Ever from my brother. We may have all created our own media streams, but we still take pleasure in the sharing of something delightful from those streams, the moments where we all can enjoy the gem that someone else has found without having to wade through the parts of their interests that are boring to us.

After all, we can share those little moments of togetherness because we can all be in the same room, experiencing our individual worlds in the way that works for us.

Widening Inclusion by Including the Details

This was my second ScienceOnline, the excellent annual science communication conference held in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Last year was an amazing experience, but it was all about the rush of a new experience. I was new to the community. I hadn’t started blogging seriously. I didn’t know anyone in person. It was, quite frankly, absolutely terrifying. The moment I arrived I got a hug from Bora and sat down next to Jason only to immediately get dragged into a conversation on the eating of keystone predators. I knew I really didn’t have to worry about fitting in. However, there were other worries: how was I going to get around without a car; would the food accommodate my dietary needs; would my batteries last the day.

This year, I knew a little more about what to expect. I didn’t have to worry about what the atmosphere would be like, or if I would get along with these people face to face. I was comfortable enough to propose a panel topic. I knew not to worry about exactly which sessions to attend, since they would all be thoroughly tweeted. This  left me free to concentrate on the details, and it turns out that the main message I took away from this year was just that: details.

From the moment the conference started, it was clear that the organizers had put a great deal of thought into even the smallest things. The first thing that stood out to me was that the badges were printed the same on both front and back. It made for a much more painless process of figuring out who people were, and is such an easy fix to the problem of flipped badges that I’m amazed I’ve never seen any other group or event do this.

This year, they also switched from a tote bag full of swag to a little notebook. This seems like it would be a downgrade, but really it was a brilliant change. This little notebook was the swag of previous ScienceOnlines distilled into the platonic ideal of conference swag: It had tradable stickers, tickets for the book lottery, temporary tattoos advertising various sites or ideas (that were immediately stuck to people’s faces, hands and other body parts in what was either a beautiful showing of group togetherness, or a future study for Maryn McKenna), there were coupons for coffee and ice cream and, most importantly, note space!

Another detail that seems small and insignificant, but really improved the flow of the conference, was the lunch setup. Last year we had fantastic food from a variety of lunch trucks and buffets. The food was fantastic, but there was that ever-present problem of having to run directly from the last presentation to the lunch line in order to get food in time, thus cutting short interesting conversations or other interactions. This year, that wasn’t a problem; all of the food was boxed and clearly labeled. The vegetarian and gluten-free options were off to one side. The drinks were off to another side. This set-up made it really easy to grab what we wanted and find a seat. We didn’t have to wait in a never-ending buffet line while the person in front of you agonized about whether they wanted croutons. Even when we did have a buffet, it was set up so that there were several buffet lines, thus serving people more quickly than one long table ever would.

Okay, why am I writing about specific details of a conference for a general readership, that may not know or even care about what the lunch arrangements were in a small science communication conference in North Carolina? Because they’re all about details. They were things that no one *needed* to think about. Most people would have an enriching experience without those little details. But what about those who might have food anxiety, or worry about trying to remember names when badges are flipped? To those people, those little details become huge, glaring problems, eating away at their ability to enjoy an event. I’m going to go on the record and admit something embarrassing at this point. I’m terrified of interacting with people I don’t know very well. I worry that I’m not going to recognize someone I should and that I will offend them. Or I worry I’m going to forget how to make smalltalk. I worry about my blood sugar and whether I will have enough vegetarian food to eat. In some circumstances, these things even leave me hesitant to go places that should be safe spaces. Going to a conference where badges were always easily viewable, we had things to interact over (stickers, tattoos, legos, etc.) and where everything, down to the smallest detail, was thought through carefully went a long way towards making this one of the best social experiences I’ve ever had.

This idea has wider repercussions. As I was free to focus on the subjects being talked about, and the issues being brought up, more and more details started jumping out at me. It started with Mireya Mayor’s keynote, which focused on themes of placing herself within a culture of science, when so many aspects of her life would have seemed to exclude her. Dr. Mayor is an excellent speaker, and the pictures of beautiful scenery and cute critters didn’t hurt, but something struck me. She talked about how much it meant for her to recreate the journey of Dr. Livingstone in the show Expedition Africa. On the surface this is a lovely sentiment about being part of a tradition of explorers and scientists. In this, it fit very well with her theme.

These stories we tell about science and scientific tradition are important to the culture of science. They offer a shared mythology and a collective background for how we conduct ourselves as scientists and citizens. As a group, we hear them and repeat them. We shape our own experience of the world and of our fields around them. However, they don’t always tell the same story to everyone. Dr. Livingstone is a cornerstone of our experience as the heirs to an imperial culture. I would imagine that even many people who couldn’t correctly place either the temporal or geographical position of his adventures. He brings to mind vague ideas about pith hats and adventure, exploration and mission work. However, if you look beyond the surface at the real story the man tells, you find a much more problematic idea. Yes, he was an explorer, but he was an explorer with the goal of converting the ‘poor natives’. He was anti-slavery, but he took help and refuge from the very slavers he rebuked in his writings. He hated the colonial exploitation of Africa, but by his very presence as a man funded by colonial societies, he allowed for an easier transition from an autonomous land to a foreign-controlled land*.

These are details that don’t generally make it into the mythos, but they’re important details. Yes, you can leave them out, play with the common ideas and end up with an interesting surface-level story that will, in all honesty, appeal to a majority of your audience. However, if you bring some of the extra details into your narrative – if you acknowledge the problems, the conflicts and the downright disturbing parts of the past – you have the ability to bring in a far-wider audience. Why? Well, the people who were on the losing end of these historical narratives know the details, and when they hear the ‘inspirational story’ while brushing aside the problems, then you have brushed those people aside as well. You may have established your own place within the history of science, but you have unintentionally told other people that their place is in the shadows. I’m guilty of this. I’m an educator and have spent my entire career telling simplified stories. I have always been careful to include the stories of women within my educational endeavors, but as a white woman, it never even occurred to me that there were many, many other stories I wasn’t telling. It took stepping outside of science education for me to realize this.

I started taking history classes more or less on a lark. Up until that point I had been entirely focused on the sciences, but I needed a sequence of humanities credits that didn’t fall under one of my majors. There was a European History course at a time that didn’t conflict with my job. So I took it.

It was one of the most frustrating educational experiences I had ever had. This wasn’t the fault of the professor. He was doing a really good job with a huge lecture survey class. He covered the material he needed to, and in a way that made it engaging and easy to draw parallels. I’m sure people from that class will be correctly answering trivia questions about the Habsburgs for years because of that class.

We covered large swathes of history. We learned about battles and people. We learned about religious changes and culture turns. We got a good overview of a top-down history of Europe. But something was missing.

At the same time as taking that class, I was working in a museum exhibit about a sunken ship. This sunken ship had originally been a slave ship before being captured by pirates and taken on a rampage through the Caribbean and finally sunk in a storm off the Massachusetts coast. You would think that working in an exhibit like this would have helped me to learn my European history. It didn’t. The men who sailed on this ship were nowhere in European history, except as statistics. They’re the details that were left out of the bigger picture.

They were slaves. Then they were pirates. They were the disenfranchised. They were men who had no place in the world of kings and scholars except as possessions, criminals or boogeymen. Yet in this exhibit there was such an in-depth look at the lives that these men (and yes, I use ‘men’ intentionally. The world of the 18th C. sailing ship was not a world of women in general) were rich and deep and fascinating. They were full of tragedy and triumph. What was more interesting was what they weren’t. They weren’t the fine words and fine clothes of the princes of Europe. They were a diverse group of people, from Dutch-Africans to 13 year old British boys. They were a (comparatively) educated surgeon and a (comparatively) well off pirate captain. This exhibit managed to tell the story of a variety of people without hiding the messy bits or the issues. This was done in the three hours it took to go through the exhibit (if you read everything and didn’t have a 4 year old pulling you ahead).

Why couldn’t my actual history course be like that?  I thought about this a lot. I loved the class I was taking, but there was so much that was left out. It was the story of the highest levels of society, or at best, the second-highest. It bothered me. I actually became incredibly frustrated and asked my professor directly.

His response? That he was teaching to a curriculum for this survey course. He had a little bit of flexibility in what he taught, but not much. In his upper level courses, he made more of an effort to include stories from everyone. Unfortunately, in the survey class, if he wanted to put in that extra information, he was limited to adding it at the periphery – in his choices of books for essays and in extra credit.

Then he said something that stuck with me: I have to teach to the curriculum, but you don’t. Isn’t that why you’re in a museum and not in front of a class?

Checkmate. Yes. Yes it was. I had specifically gone into informal education. I had heard the horror stories about curriculum standards and tests. I had watched my own brilliant teachers struggle against what the school district said they had to teach.

But I wasn’t stuck in that. I could teach whatever I wanted to, as long as I could get people to stand still for more than 5 minutes to listen to me.

From that moment, I’ve tried to make more of a point to look at the stories I’m telling in my teaching. What do they say, both about people who look like me and about people who don’t? What stories are they telling the people who might have a different perspective?

This is why it bothers me when people tell the same old stories, without examining them. Not because I’m upset that they’re taking an interest in the story itself, but because the myth that floats at the forefront of society’s mind and gets itself told over and over again often hides something much more interesting, something much deeper and much more inclusive.

My professor was right. I don’t have a curriculum to teach to, so why would I use those same repeated stories? Why not dig a little deeper into the details of things. Pull out the parts that could be problematic when viewed from a different background. These details are completely invisible when done right. However, when done wrong (and usually they are), they can leave someone with a feeling of unease if not being actively pushed away. Bora, Anton and Karyn put so much thought into the details of Science Online 2012 that we could stop worrying about them and focus on the issues we came to discuss. If we can work just as hard to get the details right in regards to the stories we tell, then those we are trying to bring into our world won’t be left outside while they worry if there’s enough room at the buffet for them.

* For a great book on Colonial Africa and the characters involved, King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild is a must-read.

How Science Online Discovered Pubic Lice

Every community has some sort of juvenile humor. That makes sense. It’s a talent we master somewhere around the age of 5, and like tying our shoes or riding our bikes, it’s something we never quite forget how to do, even if we haven’t actively practiced one of those arts in years.


That said, the community at the Science Online conference seems to take sex jokes and raise them to an art. Where another group of people would be content with a “That’s what she said” thrown into an opportune moment with a smirk and several groans, we construct beautifully written blog posts about bat fellatio, or give lectures on duck penises, or make a story about pubic lice into the capstone of banquet entertainment, as the frighteningly talented Bug Girl did during the The Monti storytelling at the Science Online 2012 banquet this past Friday.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write a wrap-up of Science Online 2012, which just occurred in North Carolina last weekend. I considered serious posts. I considered emotional posts. I considered personal stories, anthropological studies and technical analysis.

But I just kept coming back to the sex jokes.

Why? While I do have a slightly suspect sense of humor, I don’t generally dwell on that kind of humor, and I certainly try to keep it out of most professional settings.

So why is it, when I go to write about a professional conference, why do I find myself writing about pubic lice?

Well, because I think that this tendency to focus on the sexy or the gross, the morbid or the taboo, is not just a symptom of our four days of very little sleep, more than a little alcohol in some cases and a deep sense of intellectual and cultural overstimulation.

No, this is an integral part of who we are as a group. We focus on duck penises because we almost have to.

We are all story tellers, whether scientists, journalists or educators.  We take data and create hypotheses. We take facts and construct narratives. We take a curriculum and transform it into inspiration.

We teach ourselves to recognize oases of interest in the driest deserts. We  develop a nose for the questions that remain unasked, the research that remains hidden away in a corner, and the boring subject that will transform someone’s life into a quest to know more.

We will grab on to the slightest thing that we think will pull people into a subject. If we can’t find something readily available, we will blunt force bash one out. We’re pretty good at this. It’s what we do.

So, when given such a nice, easy hook as duck penises or pubic lice, we grab onto it and refuse to let it go. We turn it every which way and generally beat it to death, just like any other group would.

However, jokes don’t just stop at being jokes. Even if they did, they could have shared use to our community as a sort of in-group language, and that would be okay, but they don’t. We tell the jokes. We share the humor and the group-building, but while we’re telling them, each of us is thinking ‘now, how do I use this? how do I make this something more?’ We then create stories around these facts. We use fruit bat fellatio as a way to explore non-reproductive activities that enhance reproductive fitness. We use barnacle sex to explain different methods for overcoming a lack of mobility. I personally research Syphilis as a way to explore social inequalities that remain major issues today.

In telling her story about strange questions entomologists get asked, Bug Girl created an even bigger story. The comment I heard over and over again was that while it was an inherently funny story, what really made it perfect was her delivery. She recognized the best way to tell it, she tailored it to her audience and she made it her own. In doing so, she made it all of ours.

This is the essence of what science communication at its best does. When a good writer or a good researcher or a good educator takes the time to unravel the threads of what seems like it should be a common subject and then weaves those threads back together, they don’t just imbue the story with their own style, and make it their own. They take that story, that otherwise would have languished in data or in nature or in the inbox of a harried entomologist, and they put that story in front of an audience. When they do it right, some members of that audience will take that story and fold it into their own experience, bringing it up and retelling it in ways that the original author never would have considered. That story will go on to spawn new and utterly unpredictable questions and new and unpredictable stories.

When you identify yourself as as science writer, people tend to immediately think one of two things: Very Serious National Geographic articles or about whatever big controversy is raging in the public eye at the moment.  And yes, we could stick to telling stories about ‘serious’ topics, but sometimes it’s just fun to take a side step from trying to explain, very seriously, what exactly the Higgs Boson is, or why it’s so important to protect biodiversity. Sometimes that side step involves an explanation of how duck penises work. You never know how each story is going to end up affecting people.

And some day, some *very* inspired writer is going to use duck penises or pubic lice to explain the Higgs Boson. With the stew of ideas that is percolating in the collective intelligence I witnessed last weekend, I imagine it will be sooner rather than later. And then, as an educator (and science geek), I will have the chance to gleefully recount that story to as many people as possible, making that story grow and maybe even get people more interested in the plain physics or biology in the process!

Give the Gift of Herd Immunity!

As a science communicator and educator, it isn’t the successes that stick in my mind the most. It’s the failures. The person who just didn’t get geologic time is 20x more memorable than the 20 Cub Scouts who can now tell me when trilobites lived. Every person who still thinks that the world is going to end in 2012 has a special place in my mind and psyche.

How does the old phrase go? Everything that succeeds succeeds in the same way. Everything that fails fails in a new and exciting way.

Okay, that’s not how it goes at all, but that’s what I can’t help but thinking each time I don’t get my message across.

I don’t hide these failures. I can’t. I talk about them, whether as funny anecdotes or as the moral of a blog post. The funny anecdotes are the best because I can talk about them without seeming to beat myself up. I can tell them as a story at the pub and maybe get a little of my original point across to a new audience.

That doesn’t stop them from being what they are to me: failures at worst, evidence of where I need to improve at best. They haunt me.
The guy who believes that penguins discredit evolution? Entertaining story, Yes. Great vector for debunking what used to be a fairly popular (in my area) Creationist argument? Yes.

The woman who told her children that museum employees were going to hell within their hearing? Another entertaining story, as well as a good example of the need for tolerance.

The guy who told me that I didn’t know anything about volcanoes because he had heard on Rush Limbaugh something different? A Nice parable about relying on evidence for authority.

The professor who believes the moon landing was faked and geologic time was a joke? Another argument against the argument from authority, as well as a useful way of explaining how an expert in one area doesn’t necessarily know anything about another area.

These stories are useful. They’re funny. I will continue to retell them: to laugh at their absurdity and to use them to teach other, less formal, audiences. However, at the end of the day, they are what they are: a failure to achieve the entire goal of my career. The failure to explain basic facts about the universe in a way that is understandable, engaging and not combative. These failures hurt, but the pain is easily subsumed with laughter.

There are other stories that don’t lend themselves as well to humor: The friend who decides to delay vaccines because her ‘family has a history of autism’. The friend who refuses to protect her extremely high risk children from diseases that could easily kill them with a routine shot. The friend of a friend who won’t vaccinate because their fellow churchgoers are misinforming them.

I will never be able to laugh at these stories. These stories hurt in a way that is much, much more personal. These can’t be pushed away with laughter or their use as an educational tool. I may not always agree with people, but seeing them suffer or the thought of possible suffering in the future because of their ill-informed choices today is too much for me.

So I find a different way to act out. A different way to fix what I see as wrong. To that end, I just had to support this:

JAYFK Holiday Vaccine Drive

I donated a measles vaccine for every person I could think of who has refused to be vaccinated, or delayed vaccination, or refused to vaccinate their children.

It’s not much. It does nothing directly to protect those friends I worry so much about from diseases that are a very real threat to them, but it’s something.

If I can’t make sure that my own herd immunity is solid, then maybe I can at least do something to make sure that the global herd immunity is just a little bit stronger.

American Red Cross Vaccine Donation Page

There is Grandeur (Really)

Today I sat outside and looked at a fallen tree for about a half an hour.

This isn’t as crazy as it sounds.

In that time, I found a little blue and red treehopper, a nifty jumping spider, a vividly yellow slime mold that was wandering off in search of food, fruiting bodies of…something, and a pretty orange mushroom.

I was looking at the tree in hopes of finding things for close-up pictures, and I handily found them, all on this one tree.

Was I lucky? Well, yes and no. I wasn’t lucky that my particular rotting tree had things growing on it and living around it. I knew they were there.

Well, I didn’t know for sure they were there. I guessed. I knew that in theory rotting tree + sunlight + damp = critters (and interesting fungus). I also knew that this particular tree was a couple years on in its decomposition, and had a nice blend of still-solid wood and decay, so there would be a variety of things calling it home.

So in one way of looking at it, I wasn’t lucky. I made educated guesses and found what I was looking for.

In another way of looking at it, I was even more lucky than one would first suppose.

Why is this? After all, it was knowledge, not luck that led me to my pretty little blue and red hopper.

I was lucky because a number of people over the years had both the patience and the knowledge to show me how this works. I lived in suburbia like many other kids. There wasn’t really any “real” wilderness around, but that never seemed to stop my parents from treating the backyard like its own wilderness adventure. My dad taught us how to catch the crawdads that lived in the occasionally-marshy area that ran along the back of the yard. My mom pointed out the toads that lived in the window well. They both spent hours watching/helping us catch Pennsylvania leatherwings that frequented the black-eyed susans next to the swingset. They helped us catch fireflies and pitched tents in the backyard. They imitated bird calls and pointed them out to us. They called us from whatever we were doing when owls were hooting or coyotes howling. They brought home turtles and rabbits and kept them for a day so that we could see them, then they would take us out to help release them back.

None of these simple activities were overtly educational, and I doubt any of the neighborhood kids, my siblings or I ever noticed that we were learning during any of this. We just thought we were having fun doing something exciting.

But we were learning. We were learning that certain animals preferred certain habitats. We learned that plants attract different kind of insects. We learned that the locust tree had a particularly effective protection against predators or small feet that seemed to belong to predators. We figured out that lightning bugs showed up at the beginning of the summer, with the heat and humidity, and left when cold regained its hold on the area. We learned that owls are awake at night and songbirds are awake during the day.

Most of all, we learned how to observe. We weren’t taught to observe, in the way we were taught math or history. We just picked it up from watching the adults around us observe.

Once the habit of observation was in place, the learning became, in a way, autocatalytic. I was in a t-ball team when I was a child, but to this day, the only thing I remember learning from that team was that the butterflies in the outfield would come to you if you stayed still long enough, and that the gully next to the church where we practiced was wet enough to harbor toads, dragonflies, and all sorts of stream rocks, which were duly put in pockets and taken home (the rocks, not the toads or dragonflies). I was delighted by these discoveries. The fact that I wasn’t particularly delighted with t-ball was an entirely different topic.

None of these things are huge, groundbreaking ideas, but they’re groundbreaking to each and every child involved. We decry the lack of the natural world in our increasing technological lives. We whine that our children can’t experience nature the way we did because it’s just not there in the same way. We justify our lack of nature time by the fact that we live in cities, or suburbs, or apartments and don’t have “nature” around.

But it is. It’s all in the way you see it. Yes, a marsh was drained so that the subdivision I grew up in could be built. This was a huge loss to biodiversity and the health of the local environment, but it wasn’t the death blow to children’s experience of the world that it’s made out to be. That former environment can still be seen in remnants – in the crawdads, and the flooding during rains, in the area of the neighbor’s yard that never quite dried out, so it had cat tails and long grass. In the suburbs nature might be constrained by neatly manicured lawns and strange non-native plants being carefully tended, but you can still find the bugs, the birds and the fungus.

Even a careful walk through the city will show off bits of the natural world that you never noticed and that can easily provide valuable background awareness, if pointed out. Look up. Do birds prefer one type of building over another? Where are spiders building webs? Are butterflies near one window box but not another? Look down. Why are plants pushing through the pavement? What kinds of critters are in the little bit of dirt around the scraggly planted tree?

You might live in a suburb or a city and feel like you can’t provide the kind of Nature Experience(TM) that you want your kids to have, but remember, to a kid, all of the little bits add up. They may not be seeing grand stretches of untouched wilderness, but at the end of the day they’re going to babble at you just as excitedly about the sparrow they saw eating a french fry on the sidewalk as they would about a bald eagle soaring majestically over a forest. Your job isn’t to take children somewhere spectacular and educational. Your job is to point out the spectacular in their own backyard. Trust me, the education part will come naturally from that.

Gamers and Scientists: Exactly who Failed?

I have been on more limited internet time recently, so I’ve been skimming over a lot of the science blogs that I would normally read. Because of this I’ve missed a lot of good stuff, I’m sure. However, it has also forced me to prioritize my reading away from the the more press release-y sites. This means I haven’t been reading many of the things that the general populations of social media sites have been talking about.

In particularly I have been refusing to click on a link now for a couple days. I’ve seen it posted *all over*, mostly by people who have absolutely no connection to the sciences in their everyday lives. That link is Gamers* Succeed Where Scientists Fail and others of a similar nature.

Even though I hadn’t read the post, I had made a pretty good guess about what I would see. I guessed they were talking about something from the Foldit project, and subsequently guessed that it was a case where the websites were denigrating scientists more for hits than for any accuracy of the headline. Had I had more time I would have at least skimmed through, if just to find out what they were looking at. However, on a limited time budget, I passed it by.

Today I was reading up on some citizen science projects that I want to incorporate into one of my programs and I remembered that link that I’ve been ignoring. After all, I rather like the idea of Foldit, and if I could tie a current media story into my program, then I probably should. (Hey, hit counts matter for online science communicators, number of returning visitors matters for this offline science communicator.)

Once I saw that connection, I read the posts. Guess what? I was right. The posts themselves weren’t bad. Most nicely explained Foldit and how the researchers decided to use a distributed computing force made out of gamers to solve this problem. And most of them limited their aspersions of scientist imcompetence to one or two pointed remarks.

However, I think that all of the articles, even the particularly good ones (io9‘s stands out as a nice summary), missed a great story underlying the whole thing.

The scientists didn’t fail.

The scientists succeeded.

They succeeded because they used SCIENCE.

What is the hallmark of the scientific method? You need a specific and measurable question. You need a good experiment or model to give you a precise answer to that question. And then, most importantly, you need to know when to abandon that original model and adopt a new one.

Dr. Khatib and his colleagues did just that. They had been working on a question, an answerable question. However, they had been unable to find an answer to that question.

So what did they do?

They employed a new method. That new method just happened to use gamers to do the modeling at which computers had failed.

The scientists knew that computer modeling had failed at identifying the answer to their question, so they turned to the thing that is at once both the opposite and the analogue of a computer system. The human mind. In this case, they turned to the Foldit community, a citizen science project that breaks down the tasks required in large scale knowledge processing into manageable chunks that don’t require extensive training and background to complete.

The Foldit community (the “gamers” of the headlines) made short work of the question, producing usable models in a surprisingly small amount of time.

Does this mean that the “gamers” succeeded where the “scientists” failed?

Not in the least! It meant that the gamers AND the scientists succeeded. The gamers succeeded in answering the question that the scientists had posed. This is an impressive feat, and one that is worthy of headlines.

However, the modeling of the enzyme by itself doesn’t do anything on its own. So, there’s an enzyme that has been modeled. Okay. Now what?

The meaning of the enzyme modeling is determined by the (trained and expert) scientist who had originally been researching the subject. The modeling itself is an interesting artifact, but it is the question that led to the modeling that makes it useful.

The thrust of the Foldit efforts was directed by the scientists who had previously been working on this enzyme, and who knew what questions needed to be asked in order to further the research needed. In this case that research could help develop new treatments for retroviruses.

The idea that the the researchers identified where there previous methods had failed and were willing to turn to a new and relatively unproven method in order to find an answer is a much more interesting story to me than the popular framing it as a story of the failure of scientists. How cool is it that not only did they say “hey, our previous approach isn’t working, but these guys over here have something that could work…”, but then were willing to work with people who do not have the same background in biology that they have. Even the idea of admitting that people not completely ensconced in the ivory tower could have valuable insights into a question is an interesting story.

What it isn’t is a story of failure. In admitting their initial failure the scientists succeeded beyond what anyone could have expected.

So why has this story taken hold in the public in the way it has? As I wrote earlier, I saw people on various social media networks sharing and retweeting and +1ing this story who usually don’t touch a science story with a ten foot pole and quietly ignore me when I get on a kick about a specific subject. Could part of this be due to the very thing that rubs me the wrong way – the celebrating of the “failure” of the scientists involved?

It doesn’t seem like it should be. And these are the same people who do tend to get interested in citizen science projects, at least ones involving space (I’m not sure why). They’re not dumb, uneducated, anti-intellectual or any of the other labels thrown around when people are angry.

Could it just be that they’re so used to living in a political and social environment that encourages the denigration of scientists?

This particular story upsets me, not only because I take it personally when people start saying scientists are out of touch or irrelevant. It saddens me because it’s a missed opportunity. This was a great chance to tell a story about *everyone* having a chance to achieve an important scientific result.

News like this gives us a chance to say “Hey, you! Yes, you who failed college biology and get hives when you see chemistry equipment. There’s a place for you! That place is right here at the lab bench beside me.” Instead, most of the reporting about it sent the message of “Why would you want to be here among these silly people who can’t even achieve what gamers can.

The scientists weren’t the real failure here. The reporting was.

*There could be a whole other post on how the title of “gamers” is used as an insult, but I’ll leave that for someone else.

My Inner Wonder Woman Refuses to Stay Inside

So, you spent all of summer being the wonder woman that you are, vanquising both supervillains and research with a kick of your trusty heeled boots.

But now it’s almost time to go back to school, and every superhero fashionista knows that booty shorts and thigh highs should only be worn between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

So what is the stylish academic amazon to do? After all, to face your 9am Philosophy 101 lecture, you’re going to need every ounce of superpower that you can find. A pair of jeans and sandals is as yawn-inducing as the early hour and the Lasso of Truth just looks out of place with a business suit and boring pumps.

Ladies, I present your solution:

Continue reading

Creating More Skeptics – My Elevator Pitch

Thanks to the amazing generosity of Surly Amy and the Women Thinking Free Foundation, I was able to attend The Amaz!ng Meeting 9 in Las Vegas two weeks ago.For those who are unaware, this is a large Skeptics conference put on by the James Randi Education Foundation. Leading up to the meeting, I tried to explain to my friends and coworkers who weren’t already in the skeptics movement what I was up to. Now, I work in a museum, so it’s a little easier to explain my interests than it would be at other places. Really, I just had to say “Bill Nye will be there!” and they were completely convinced that was a good enough reason for a trip. Any other excuse was unneeded.

That said, I felt uncomfortable with my attempts to articulate my interest in attending a conference of “skeptics”, and even my ability to articulate what exactly a “skeptic” is. I’m not used to not having a quick and easy way to explain a concept. After all, I explain things for a living. All sorts of things, and not just things that generally considered easy to explain.

At the conference there was a fantastic array of speakers and workshops. We all listened intently to Pamela Gay as she told her story of becoming interested in science through the space program, and her eulogy for said program. We laughed uproariously at Richard Wiseman’s whirlwind tour of pareidolia. We took sides as the diversity panel argued about how to attract a wider audience. We learned about how to teach evolution in the classroom from the lovely people at NCSE and how to debunk medical myths from the Science-Based Medicine crew. We seemed to cover every angle on “how to get our message across” that could be considered.

Except one.

The one thing we didn’t do so well was the same thing that had bothered me in the weeks before: we weren’t good at explaining our presence to the rest of the hotel guests. One thing that has remained consistent through every trip I’ve taken to Vegas has been the elevators. In the mega-hotels, you spend a disproportionate amount of time waiting for the elevators, watching them stop at each floor and futilely hitting the door close button in hopes it will ignore the fact that the people in your elevator are collectively over the weight limit by a good 300 lbs.

There were two other events going on in the hotel at the same time as TAM, a BMX event and a martial arts event. As could be expected, our 60s pulp inspired conference shirts and our very decorated badges gained a certain amount of interest among the other guests, who would inevitably get into the elevator and ask who exactly we were.

I watched every level of conference attendee, from “first TAMmers” to experienced science communicators, fumble for an explanation. Usually it started something like this:

“Well, we’re skeptics…”
“Of what?”
“Umm, everything.”

Then the hapless attendee would fumble their way to a better explanation, often to a receptive response. One person I talked to responded “Well, it’s really sad that you need to have a conference on that, but it’s good that you do.”

So, while listening to the fascinating Desiree Schell talk about Skeptical messaging, I tweeted “After listening to us fumble for explanations, I think next year we need a workshop on the Skeptic Elevator Pitch.”

It was an offhand remark, but made seriously. If we are intending to get our ideas out to a wider audience, how can we expect to do so if most of us are so very bad at explaining exactly what our message is?

Now, it’s an artifact of the Vegas elevator situation that we usually had a chance to finish what we had to say by the time the ride was over, but a little tightening up of the “elevator pitch” seems to be in order, and I don’t seem to be alone in this thought. Tim Farley has made an excellent post on the topic over at the JREF: “My Skeptic Elevator Pitch”.

I guess this means I actually have to think through my own elevator pitch.

So here goes…

“My job as a skeptic is to equip people with their own tools for discerning bad evidence and false logic from reality so that they can prevent harm to themselves or others through bad information and to teach people that what’s really going on is so much cooler than any false theory!”

(Yes, there’s an exclamation mark. I get really excited whenever I talk about science.)

I guess you could say this is my meta-skeptic pitch. I’m not trying to debunk, I’m trying to make more skeptics. This really isn’t surprising since, for me, everything comes back to education. As an educator, my job isn’t just to correct false facts or debunk bad theories. My job is to teach other people how to recognize theories as false. It is to help people hone their inate critical thinking skills to do better research and recognize when something is likely to be false.

I can shoot down new “toxin removal” campaigns as quickly as they come up: master cleanse, foot pads, ear candling, and on and on. I will continue to do this. People ask me about the new ones with a distressing frequency. Is this effective? Yes, it is. The people I talk to know that I can generally give them a good explanation for what is really happening, and if I can’t off the top of my head, I’m going to go look it up and come back to them.

So yes, it is a functional method of debunking. However, this is not the most effective one by far. A much better method is to teach people the pattern rather than each specific fact. If I can teach them to be wary of people emphasizing TOXINS!!! and to look and see if there’s some sort of reaction that is explaining the so-called results, then they don’t need to ask me every time.

The same with fighting against creationism. Yes, I can (and do) continue to teach museu staff and volunteers about every little argument the creationists bring to us, but in the end it’s more effective if I explain how the creationists are arguing, and the kinds of things they use for “evidence”, so that with a little thought, the other person can come up with a good counter-argument without asking me.

I’ve had a great deal of success with this, though it takes a greater intellectual commitment and patience than it does to just say “No, it’s wrong. You’re really seeing residue of the burning wax.” or “No, this radiometric dating false numbers argument is wrong. Just like the last four you brought me. Here’s why.” It also takes a commitment on the part of the other person. Most of the time you need to start out with debunking first and then move on to more theoretical information.

Luckily you have evolution on your side in this, we are, as the skeptic canard tells us, equipped to see patterns even where there are none “so we could survive on the serengeti….” Given half a chance and a little bit of patience, this pattern seeking behavior will work for you too, as your fledgling skeptics start to connect the dots that you’ve so carefully laid out for them into a pattern that can carry on through their thinking for the rest of their lives.

Narrating Science and Fear

The great narratives follow a formula, a common theme. We see this theme repeated from fairy tales through action movies. From Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark” all the way through the real stories of the 20th and 21st centuries. The conventional framing of the sinking of the Titanic follows this theme, as does the story of nuclear power.

This narrative is one of hubris, of gall. It is a story of challenging God and failing. It tells us the danger of trusting our own faulty creations and brains and over fate. It is a modern fairy tale, but a fairy tale of the old style. This is not a story of Prince Charming whisking us away to a castle with our singing rodents. No, this is a story of the dangers of disobeying one’s parents and the tragedies that come hence, a story of wandering too far into the woods and being captured by a wicked witch.

This narrative structure has power over us, all of us, whether we are blind to it or painfully aware. We absorb the moralizing stories from an early age. We internalize that we shouldn’t go into the woods alone, or try to fly too close to the sun. We learn that we shouldn’t build our ships too big and that our wondrous new source of power could kill us, slowly, horribly, in the end.

Every child is taught to fear the wicked witch, that old woman who lives alone at the end of the street. Every teen learns the perils of the beautiful ships of the men and their icy or fiery deaths. Every adult learns that Prince Charming has a habit of picking up peasant girls on the side and that Jack grew up and works in middle management in the employ of the giant and his Fortune 500 company.

So why, in this world soaked with warning and foreboding, do people still strive? In older times, there was a counterpoint narrative – the heroic epic. There were Odysseus and Beowulf, Columbus and Genghis Khan. There were heroes who succeeded – or failed – in glorious ways and for great goals.

We also have equivalent stories today. We have Luke Skywalker and John McClane. These are stories of hubris, but a different kind. These stories are about belief in one’s self, and belief in outside forces, Whether that force is a deity, love or, well, The Force.

These are beautiful stories, of heroism and competence, of overcoming limitations. For every story of a dark and dangerous forest warning one not to stray too far, there is another of a determined man making his way through that forest in service of his higher principle.

While these narratives can prove a helpful counterpoint against the warning tales, they are also problematic. These stories model that one can strive to be greater than their current place in the world if and only if they fulfill a condition. This condition is that they must be in service of a greater power.

This narrative element, that of higher service, doesn’t seem to have anything to do with science knowledge on the surface. After all, don’t we all like to imagine ourselves as pursuing a more noble calling? Whether we are sequencing Drosophilia genes or digging up dinosaurs, or writing about the efforts of others to do so, we are doing so in the pursuit of knowledge, right? Unfortunately, unless carefully used, this narrative plays right into the hands of those who are actively anti-intellectual. While the value of the pursuit of new information to add to the sum of human knowledge is obvious. Everyone working in the sciences understands the need for research that may not have immediate benefit, but will form the basis of other research in the future which may help us in unimagined ways.

The key phrase in that previous sentence was “everyone working in the sciences”. While people in the know are good at communicating their information to each other, they’re not so good at getting their message across to those outside of the sciences. This isn’t necessarily a problem of their own. There is a previous framework that they must fight against before they can even begin to show the importance of the scientific endeavor in general. This is the framework of the higher purpose. The cultural baggage of portraying scientists as the self-serving villains or hapless centerpieces of the warning narrative runs deep. We read the romantics in school – the warnings of Shelley and Hawthorne. We learn about the Manhattan project. We watch countless B movies from the 50s and 60s where the scientist unleashes hell on earth through his studies.

The collected marginalia of our culture underlines the industrious scientist and says “here is the villain” or “here is where he went wrong.” Even our current cultural intellectual obsessions highlight this point. The Collapse of Jared Diamond’s hypothesis is that society strove to do too much in too little space and abandoned the harmony in which they used to live. The warnings about the internet changing the brains of young people are the collective fear of the new and unfamiliar fruits of technology. The yearning for a more “natural” way of eating of the Paleodiet and the “chemical-free” nonsense is a push-back against a world where understanding benefits requires a more in-depth and specialized knowledge than the ability to point to a plant and say “if you eat this, you will die”.

People want to understand. They really do. Even those who tout the power of ignorance do so because it is easier to understand a world defined by a lack of knowledge or by rules from on high. The idea that something is good because my ancestors did this and my gut tells me so is a much easier rule than searching through fifty studies on the effects of caffeine on the body and determining the costs and benefits.

On top of the ease of ignorance, the narrative arc that we so desperately cling to also tells us to trust the gut, trust the traditions, listen to our parents. There is no traditional narrative to evaluating evidence to find the best course. Even the stories of the great scientists are simplified into leaps of faith and moments of decision rather than the slow accumulation of bits of knowledge into a coherent idea. Think about Newton, what is he known for? By society, I mean, not by scientists. If you asked someone in a coffee shop about Newton, the first thing that they would likely mention would be the story of the apple, the gut instinct or the insight literally falling from above, not the careful thinking that made the insight possible or translatable.

Why is this all important? Why do we care about narrative ideas and cultural baggage? After all, we, as scientists or the interested public, know that science is important. We know that the careful thinking, the seemingly irrelevant studies, the wrong turns and occasional disasters are important to the way every person on this planet lives their life. We see the future gains that outweigh the temporary setbacks. We are the toddlers who can resist grabbing the cookies in front of us long enough to gain the greater rewards later. We’re even probably pretty good at communicating these ideas, at least among ourselves and a few open-minded outsiders.

We tell ourselves that we can continue chipping away at the biases person by person, and we can. We may not reach a large audience individually, but exposing those around us one by one can slowly create a sort of herd immunity to the distrust of new ideas and careful analysis. This is a worthwhile goal and one that we should continue to pursue. The popular format of research blogging papers is an important piece of that. By explaining, carefully, small pieces of the scientific canon, we slowly and subtly give people the tools to analyze the other bits of science that filter into their world, whether through the dubious claims of Dr. Oz or the New York Times’ science page.

That way is useful, but there is another way that seems to be emerging and even more effective. We can use the heroic narrative to communicate that the sciences do fit in with the traditional idea of a good and worthy pursuit, and not just as the villains or warning character. In order to do so, we have to understand the narrative of the culture in which we are working. We have to first of all acknowledge that the traditional storytelling has a tendency to demonize the work we’re doing. We need to write stories like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and The Emperor of all Maladies, which take the methodical understanding at which scientists excel and write those pieces into the narrative format that resonates, a larger audience starts to open up.

The recent explosion of longform, narrative explanations of science and scientists is the best thing that can happen for an understanding of science in the larger public. It brings us into the fold of cultural striving. It opens up the woods as a valid place to explore rather than just the abode of the wicked witch. It gives you a method to not only disobey your parents safely, but to systematically and carefully test what of our ancestor’s collective wisdom is good and what needs to be supplanted with new understandings. It allows us to see past the tragedies of melting wings and sinking ships and see how those, as horrible as they are, add to the collective knowledge as well. Rather than forbidding each person’s desire to fly closer to the sun, science, with the backing of good storytelling, shows us how to do it in a way that will let us all soar.