Archive for the ‘science in the media’ Category

Earth’s Trojan

My PhD supervisor was involved in the discovery of the first Trojan asteroid of Earth. It made the cover of Nature and everything! It’s all over the space news websites, as well as in pretty much every Canadian paper. The best resource for information seems to be the university webpage, which has links to animations, interviews, and the Nature paper itself.

Cool stuff! Happy long weekend, everyone!



For some reason, James Cameron (director of Titanic and Avatar) and his visit to the oil sands in Alberta has been making the news pretty consistently over the last few days.

Am I missing something here? Who gives a crap about his opinion on such things? Does he have some sort of expertise that I’m not aware of? Why are we holding press conferences to hear his opinion after three whole days of touring the area?

I don’t get the whole celebrity champion for a cause thing. They don’t know ANYTHING!! I get that it can bring attention to a cause because of their celebrity status. Sure, we can use them as spokespeople…I guess…if you’re into that kind of thing and somehow have great respect for these people. But, when they take it upon themselves to “investigate” an issue and then hold press conferences about it? Come ON, people! Should we really be taking their opinions to heart on such matters?

Maybe celebrities should stick to their day jobs, and let us scientists do our thing too.

Misuse of "Theory"

At the CASCA conference a couple weeks ago, there was an interesting conversation during the education session about the use of the word theory.

The United States National Academy of Sciences defines a theory as:

Some scientific explanations are so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter them. The explanation becomes a scientific theory…the word theory refers to a comprehensive explanation of an important feature of nature supported by facts gathered over time. Theories also allow scientists to make predictions about as yet unobserved phenomena.

(Wikipedia source). So, in a scientific sense, theory means the same thing as model – an idea, or system of ideas, that is based on tested experiments, data, facts, etc.. We think of a theory as the top of the food chain when it comes to an explanation for something. For example, the “theory of gravity”, “theory of evolution”, or “the Big Bang theory”.

On the other hand, the media has turned the word theory into meaning something like “hypothesis”. For example, how many times have we heard the phrase “it’s a good idea, in theory” to mean an idea won’t work in reality? This portrays a theory basically as a guess. So, the public sees theory at the bottom of the food chain, whereas fact is at the top.

This poses a problem when talking to the public about scientific theories. When someone hears a scientist say “the theory of evolution”, they immediately equate that to meaning a guess about what happened – not something based on numerous experiments, data, etc..

How do we address this? One idea during the conversation was to instead use the word “model” when talking about such things. What other things can we do as scientists and/or educators to minimize the misunderstanding of the word “theory”?


Something to break up the seriousness of the worry posts:

December Scientiae: Time for Thanks and Wishes

This month’s Scientiae is hosted jointly by Jokerine and Cherish. Since the holiday season is upon us, they ask the blogging community to write about:

…things about which you are thankful for in your work, what gets you through.


What is it you would like for yourself or others in STEM fields? Stories of cheer are also encouraged (and encouraging!)

Many of you know that I’m not exactly keen on my work these days (or months, or years), but there is still much I am thankful for – especially things that get me through the hard/boring days.

In terms of my work, I am thankful that I have a job that seems interesting to a lot of people. Chatting with others about my work, especially those outside my field, makes me remember why I love astronomy in general. I am lucky that people find my line of work interesting, and want to know more, instead of shying away (or running away) once I tell them what I do.

There are lots of things that get me through the days where I am totally hating my job – reading blogs, PhD comics, coffee with DH or with friends, going for walks, and playing Habour Master on my iPhone. Seriously, without these things, I would be in a terrible, terrible place some days.

What I am truly grateful for though has been my experience in science education and outreach. Without it, I don’t think I could have pushed through and finished my PhD. I’m crossing my fingers that I can continue in this area as I move forward in my career.

As for a wish list for myself and others in STEM, one major thing comes to mind: a media that was scientifically literate so that a) the public would be getting the correct information and b) scientists aren’t made out to be the “bad guy”.

Here is an example of what I mean. The Hubble Heritage Team uses scientific data to create beautiful astronomical images. Because of the way Hubble works (taking multiple pictures of the sky in patches), many of they images look like this (note the black “blocks”):

Fig. 1 – Bad blocks! M16 Eagle Nebula NGC 6611, “Pillars of Creation.” Photo Credit: NASA, ESA, STScI, J. Hester and P. Scowen (Arizona State University)

The team would receive many phone calls asking why they are cutting and pasting pictures together, and/or why are they trying to “hide” the real data (for example, maybe there was a UFO there!!). So, to appease these people, the Hubble Heritage Team started cropping images so they didn’t have these black blocks in them:

Fig. 2 – Bad blocks gone (credit: same as Fig. 1)

The phone calls stopped. In essence, the team either had to extrapolate data, or crop some data out, in order for people not to think they were hiding something. Ah, the irony. Of course, this hit the media and perpetuated the misunderstanding. Wouldn’t it be nice if these people had known that, to cover such a large area in the sky, the Hubble telescope had to take many pictures?

Even with this confusion, I think Hubble has done an amazing job bringing astronomy to the eyes of the public. Many people know of Astronomy Picture of the Day, and are excited by astronomy in general. So, I think the whole professional astronomy community owes much thanks and gratitude to the Hubble Heritage Team.


Academic Snobbery

Perhaps I’m getting more sensitive to this kind of stuff because I’m not a huge fan of academia, but I seem to have witnessed more and more situations which can only be described as academic snobbery.

Just the other day, a bunch of astronomers in the department were chatting. At first people were bitching about how little undergrads know (a typical conversation between profs, TAs, etc.). Even though it’s a bit disrespectful, it really is unbelievable what some first year students don’t know (ratios for example, or simple algebra), so I can understand the frustration.

However, the conversation then turned to include examples of things “everyone should know”. One professor was absolutely disgusted that less than half their class thought it was possible for the Moon to be up during the day. Well, I’m going to admit this right now: I didn’t know this until I was in my undergrad. I know plenty of PhDs that wouldn’t know this now! You know why? Because the general public doesn’t stare up at the sky every day, monitoring the positions of celestial objects! It’s not that they’re stupid, it’s just that they’re not totally engrossed in astronomy day-in, day-out. Once you tell them that’s the case, most will understand and realize that yes, in fact, they have seen it in the day-time sky.

Another person said “If you asked a person on the street what one of Newton’s laws are, they wouldn’t be able to tell you!! I think that’s so sad.” Again, why would someone not in physics/astronomy know this off the top of their head? What’s interesting is they probably know the laws, they just don’t know them as Newton’s laws. This does not make them stupid or ignorant!

What these people don’t get is it’s a two-way street. Someone from business could ask these people what process management is and be appalled when they couldn’t answer. Or someone from geology could ask them to categorize a bunch of rocks, and the same thing would happen. It’s all about what you do on a day to day basis, and to be self-centered enough to think your work should be known and understand by everyone on the planet is just plain naive.

The most annoying case of academic snobbery is when people complain about the accuracy of science in movies. This has come up recently with the movie, 2012. I don’t know about you, but I don’t go to movies to learn about science!! I go there for the entertainment, to get away from science and real life, and to have a good time. If all movies were scientifically, historically, politically, etc., etc. accurate, we’d just be watching documentaries all the time. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some documentaries, but I like to go into a fantasy world too.

So, to all you academic snobs out there – get your heads out of your asses, lighten up a bit, and have some fun already!

Ah, "Science"

I was watching Dr. Oz a couple weeks ago and was completely appalled. Now, before I continue, I want to say that I appreciate what he’s trying to do with his show. I completely agree that the public needs more health-based education, and he’s able to explain things to the laymen pretty well. My problem comes when he promotes something as “science”, and it clearly isn’t.

On this particular show, he was discussing sleep deprivation and how it influences our motor skills (specifically driving abilities). He goes on to say something along the lines of “You know me – I don’t just like to say things; I like to put science behind it.” Then he describes the experiments.

He has one woman stay up for 24 hours. After that amount of time, he gives her three tests. The first one is reaction time. She had to watch a computer screen, and when a green box pops up she had to hit a certain key. This is all fine and dandy, except they never did it before she was sleep deprived.

The second test was on her memory. A person read her a list of ten grocery items. She then had to write the list out after a certain time period. No, we were not given that time period. Also, my memory sucks at the best of times – hence why I make lists – and there was no control experiment here either.

The third test involved a driving simulator. It was actually done in a car, but the car was rigged up so that she had to wear a virtual reality head set, but she got to use the regular controls of the car. Now, I know that when I first play a video game I have a hard time getting used to the controls. So, they showed her weaving all over the road, clearly not because she wasn’t aware (because she was constantly saying things like “I don’t want to go there”, or “The car is going the wrong way!”), but because she didn’t know the feel of the controls. Plus, they had all sorts of things going on in the simulator that wouldn’t generally happen in real life, like having cars coming directly at you in both lanes, or having people pop up in your path out of thin air. In the end, she ended up “killing” six people.

I understand what Dr. Oz is trying to show here – look how much sleep deprivation can influence your motor skills! But, to tote it as “science” just so people will listen? Not cool, Dr. Oz. Now perhaps they did do control experiments before hand, and really did use the scientific method, but they didn’t show it on TV.

This kind of stuff gives science a bad name – like we just do random stuff once, and call it a day. The public needs to understand that science is a way to systematically study things, and the results should be repeatable. It wouldn’t be difficult for Dr. Oz to show the control experiment, or do the experiment more than once – and it would be a heck of a lot more credible.

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