The quick and the dead

About 180 writers, scholars, legislators and journalists involved in science and technology communication gathered 22 May in the Pacific resort of Acapulco to discuss for a whole day the challenges of our trade, and try to find mechanisms to convey our society the knowledge of science’s benefits.

Well, did we find them? Sadly, I think we didn’t. For a lenghtier summary of the seminar in english, please go here: http://bit.ly/DfAr3. In this post I’ll just put on my philosopher hat and try to figure out what happened there.

There were good intentions everywhere. There was enthusiasm. There was even a breath of some freshness. There was also a kind of low level buzz that murmured: “Haven’t we gone through this all many times before? Haven’t we?”

To be sure, I think this was the first time the summons came from two very different entities. The Foro Consultivo Científico y Tecnológico (FCCyT, http://www.foroconsultivo.org.mx/home/) is like a consulting body that gathers ideas from research and production communities and takes them to an upper body in order to formulate policies and programs related to scientific and technological research. And the Sociedad Mexicana para la Divulgación de la Ciencia y la Técnica (Somedicyt,http://www.somedicyt.org/) is more like a loose body of science communicators, both from media and from higher education institutions. Bot the FCCyT and the Somedicyt decided it was a good time to gather people from all over Mexico and lock them together in a room to discuss possible futures.

While I sat there, taking notes, recording what I could, talking to people, hugging old friends, making new friends and in general trying to get the idea of what this was about, I slowly realized not many of those present there were really ready to transform their day to day activities to adapt to the future. They were there trying to find how to survive the waves while still doing the same.

I’m growing restless, reading about the pressures and issues that science journalism is facing, for instance, in the United States (an excellent and recent take can be seen here: http://bit.ly/3bztG), but I saw that very few were actually concerned about what was going on there. Correction: the main guest, Pere Estupinyá, did, but of course he lives in Washington, works for the NIH, blogs from the MIT and writes for the Knight Science Tracker. He should know.

What I concluded at the end of the nice exercises we had there was that I was seeing the difference between quick individuals and slow organizations (this is not a critique of organizations, I’ve had my share of managing and I know it is hell trying to move ahead without sinking). Many good ideas came from many people: it’s difficult to have so many talents together and not to get the brain gears giving off sparks, but in general the tone was: ok, let’s put these ideas in writing, discuss them in one or two committees and then take them somewhere else, higher, for another round of discussions. Yawn.

I told the audience I wanted to instill fear in their hearts and brains so that they embraced collaboration and networking and crowdsourcing as a salvation from the abyss. Many just moved in their chairs waiting for me to finish, because I exceeded my time limit. Well, I did, but I’m not really that sorry because I felt like a kind of Cassandra, spelling doom and not being heard.

The point of the seminar was to try and find ways of getting science content to the public, of ensuring a correct appropriation of science and technology products by the public at large. What I feel came out was the perception that there needs to be a network of peers. Good. Now, who’s going to build it? And who’s going to assume some responsibility about it? Juan Pedro Laclette, head of the FCCyT, rightly said the forum had agreed to work with Somedicyt and to gather the writers and journalists. Another meeting? Sure: the FCCyT will help with half the cost, but the other half better comes from the Somedicyt or from another instance, perhaps the wished for journalists association. When? I really don’t know.

The fact is we do need to network; we do need to collaborate; we do need to work in teams, virtual but well built. We need to think about the future and to be ready to burn the bridges if need be to survive and thrive in the future context, whatever it brings. But I don’t know if the thrust, the push, will come from an institutional body.

From what I’ve been reading here, I know some countries in Europe, Africa and Asia have overcome obstacles such as these and have created powerful or at least well coordinated collective bodies. I think we might, could and should learn from others, but I can’t speak for everybody. I’m not even a member of Somedicyt (although Estrella Burgos urged me to send the application) so I’m not entitled to a collective voice.

But I’ll say this. I will personally try to plant a seed that might grow to be a group of science writers/journalists in Mexico. I’ll do my best to help and push and provoke and agitate the waters and push again. I know that in a few years, those who won’t move, wont’ change or won’t adapt, will be left behind. We need to make sure that doesn’t happen to us. So please help us, help me. I know we can do much, much better. And I know this is the place to ask. Thanks to you all.

Scientific controversies and the media, part 2

Mass media are often blamed for playing a role in the construction of scientific controversies. For instance, the last couple of years multiple voices have been accusing the media of greatly contributing in creating the controversy around climate change. The May issue of the journal Public Understanding of Science carries two articles on the role of the media in scientific controversies. The second article argues that media controversies can actually sometimes be beneficial for the scientific community.

The article in the May issue of Public Understanding of Science is written by nanotechnologist and science writer Mary Ingram-Waters. She analyses a controversy that arguably found closure due to the media frenzy created around it.

In 1996 sheep Dolly, the first cloned animal, saw the light of day. In the following years scientist tried hard to make the distinction between therapeutic cloning, in which cells or tissue is cloned for therapeutic reasons, and reproductive cloning, which involves the cloning of an entire living creature, indisputable. Most scientist were in favor of the first type of cloning, but were careful towards the other, because of the ethical questions surrounding it. Anti-cloning advocates argued it was all the same, since for the most part it involved the same technology, including the need for stem cells.

The controversy turned into a media frenzy when in the year 2000 different people claimed to be able to clone a human being soon. Amongst them were a few physicians with a more or less respectable reputation and a religious group called the Raëlians. Their leader, a man calling himself Raël, said he was visited by aliens almost thirty years before. These aliens supposedly created the human race by making clones of themselves. They told Raël the (peaceful) future of mankind would lie in cloning a selected group of individuals over and over, thereby making them immortal.

The race was on. Then, after two years of continuous media attention, the Raëlians were the first to announce they had created a human clone: a healthy baby girl called Eve. But they refused to give any proof. They didn’t want to reveal anything about the science they had used, nor did they want to reveal any details about Eve or her whereabouts. From the start, the media reacted skeptically to the claims of this somewhat peculiar religious organization. Scientists immediately jumped to the opportunity to, in the media, explain the difference between good science, with decent regulations, controlled experiments and attention for ethical questions; and bad science, which pays little attention to such issues. In the wake of this, scientist were eager to point out the distinction between human cloning and therapeutic cloning.

They succeeded. All over the world, strict laws were adopted concerning human cloning, settling that ethical controversy for the time being. At the same time, therapeutic cloning became less controversial. So a scientific controversy that gets a lot of media attention can actually be beneficial to the scientific community. But who knows how things could have turned out if it hadn’t been the Raëlians who made the first claim of creating a human clone?

Scientific controversies and the media, part 1

Mass media are often blamed for playing a role in the construction of scientific controversies. For instance, the last couple of years multiple voices have been accusing the media of greatly contributing in creating the controversy around climate change. The May issue of the journal Public Understanding of Science carries two articles on the role of the media in scientific controversies. The first shows that creating such a controversy is not necessarily a simple, linear process in which media misinterpret or bend scientific publications.

One of the biggest scientific controversies of the last few decades is without a doubt the case of ‘water with memory’. In her article, media scholar Dominique Brossard analyses how this controversy was created. To refresh your memory: the case dates back to 1988. Jaqcues Benveniste, a French immunologist with a more than decent reputation, claimed that his laboratory had showed white blood cells still react when a solution that contained antibodies is diluted to such an extent that no antibodies can possibly be present anymore. Thus, the water must have some kind of ’memory’ of the antibodies, to which the cells reacted. This finding could mean that the controversial theory of homeopathy is actually true.

Benvenistes findings were published in the highly esteemed journal Nature. Which has been under fire for it ever since. But Brossard’s analysis shows this is not the full story. Not only did the issue of Nature with Benvenistes paper contain an editorial that showed the editors were critical of the research. Natures editor-in-chief, John Maddox, also admitted in an interview that Nature felt urged to publish the paper because of an article in the French newspaper Le Monde. In France, a buzz had already been created around Benvenistes work. Not just because of presentations on congresses, but also fuelled by Le Monde, the most respected French newspaper which is read by most of the French elite. And since on top of that no-one could discover any flaws in Benvenistes methodology, and five other labs had repeated his experiments with the same outcome, the staff of Nature felt they couldn’t miss out on what was most certainly going to be a big issue in the scientific world.

Numerous important newspapers all over the world, for instance the New York Times, reacted skeptically on both Benvenistes research and Nature for publishing it. But Le Monde hailed it. It even blamed the rising controversy on the fact that Benveniste was not much liked amongst fellow scientists. Nature reacted to the controversy by composing a team which redid Benvenistes experiments in his own laboratory under highly controlled circumstances. In this test, the water memory effect was not found. According to the theory of the scientific method this was enough to prove Benveniste wrong; one black swan is enough to prove not all swans are white.

But Le Monde didn’t agree and published articles to keep the controversy alive. It accused Nature of putting together a flawed research team, since there wasn’t a single immunologist in it, and also put to question the idea that a single negative result is enough to disprove a theory. Le Monde managed to keep the controversy alive for years. Their last article about the case dates from 1997, in which the respected newspaper blamed the scientific community for never giving Benveniste a fair chance. Homeopathic practitioners still refer to the controversy to claim that homeopathy is a scientifically proven remedy.

Why did Le Monde act this way? Brossard thinks it probably has to do with feelings of nationalism, Benveniste being a French scientist. Also, in France homeopathy isn’t as controversial as it is in many other Western countries. Around the time Benvenistes work was published, almost half of the medical consultations in France involved homeopathic practitioners. Was Le Monde wrong? Should the editors at Nature have acted differently? Of course, in being an objective scholar, Brossard doesn’t raise or answer these questions. But they are interesting questions for a science writer to think about.

What this case does show is that mass media can be very influential in creating scientific controversies. And not just in a linear way: they can be in the middle of the controversy, functioning as a catalyst and influencing the scientific community and even top-end scientific journals.

Fantasy is cheap, facts are expensive

“By the end of 2013, 100.000 Europeans have died of starvation.”

“One solar storm could destroy power grids all over the world…”

Sometimes I wonder why I don’t change my profession from being a science journalist to being a fantasy writer. Just writing whatever sells. It would save days of checking facts.

This thought was running through my mind when I was doing research for an article for the Dutch popular science magazine NWT about the effects of a geomagnetic super storm on modern societies. A geomagnetic super storm? Yes, sometimes the sun blows out a bubble of charged particles, a solar hurricane. When the solar hurricane hits the earth, it can create a geomagnetic super storm, which – in principle – can knock down power grids.

In principle – that is the clue here. In fact, only hundreds of kilometers long electricity lines are vulnerable. Nobody knows exactly what is going to happen. And what is going to happen will change from country to country, depending on the latitude and the electricity infrastructure.

In my research I was first reading scientific reports and papers. Later I started calling electrical engineers and power grid specialists. While in the beginning of my research, New Scientist published the article ‘Gone in 90 seconds’, about exactly the same subject. The author sketched a worst case scenario for the US. It was a dramatized extrapolation of an American scientific report.

The crucial question remained whether the American situation is typical for countries on other continents. What about the situation in China, India, Argentina, Poland, Cameroon…? Don’t these countries count?

No, the American situation is not typical, as the article doesn’t mention. For example, Europe has hardly any of the very long electricity lines that the US has. Therefore, the quote from the New Scientist-lead, the second quote with which I started – “One solar storm could destroy power grids all over the world…” – is rubbish.

Does this article lead sell? For me it works the opposite way. As soon as somebody claims that ‘all over the world’ things will be destroyed, I rather think: “Oh no, somebody is trying to fool me.”

A month later a colleague – and the editor of my article-in-the-making – sent me a link to another article about geomagnetic super storms, this time from UK’s Daily Mail: ‘Meltdown! A solar super storm could send us back into the dark ages – and one is due in just THREE years’.

An exclamation mark and a word written in capitals in the title…Another reason to put aside the article. However, I was doing my research on geomagnetic super storms, so I wanted to read everything I could about the subject. It turned out that the New Scientist-scenario that was sketched for the US was shamelessly translated to a European context. No critical question was asked to what extent this can be done. No own research at all. Add a bit of spice to what you hear from others.

Some extra fantasy was added, with little creativity though. The scenario only got worse. No electricity, no delivery of food to shops, fridges breaking down, and soon the first people start to die… 100.000 Europeans would die of starvation after the geomagnetic super storm would hit the earth, the article states.

100.000 dead? It takes a fraction of a second to fantasize the number. But even weeks of research wouldn’t lead to a reliable number. Impossible to give arguments for any reliable number. Even irresponsible to speculate about it in a journalistic article.

Fantasy is cheap, facts are expensive. I hope that the world wide cuts in (science) journalism will not lead to even more fantasy and even less facts. Bad fantasy is so much harder to swallow than good facts.

Science, Technology and Innovation National Week in Guatemala

Every year since 2004, Guatemalan scientists get together at the Science, Technology and Innovation National Week, that aims to spread amongst the target audience (high school students, university students, businessmen, as well as the general public) the latest research done by local investigators.

This event is a big opportunity both for scientists and Guatemalan society to get informed and to raise awareness that in our country there are people working in that interesting field, and that science does not belong only to developed countries.

The activities carried out during those days are organized by a committee settled by the Secretaría Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (Senacyt, in Spanish) and the Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (Concyt, in Spanish).

Concyt has a god idea of the quantity of people who attend the conferences. People are given a “barcode passport”, so they are automatically registered when they enter the conference rooms.

Also, in Guatemala´s departments (we are divided in 22 departments) there are seven technological community centers, where people who do not have computers or Internet connection can go to watch and listen to the conferences. They can also receive computer courses.

During that week the winners of the School Scientific Olympiam are awarded; the best scientist of the year is also awarded with the Science and Technology Medal. So, students and young people look forward to those contests and the technological week.

The greatest hit is that since 2007 the scientific contents produced during the week are transmitted in real time and all over the world by Internet. Another achievement was the fact that this scientific production was nominated for a World Summit Award 2009, the best in e-Content & Creativity. This award is promoted by the European Academy of Digital Media – EADiM and the United Nations’  World Summit on the Information Society.

Even though the e-content of www.concyt.gob.gt did not received an award, it was an important step in order to spread Guatemalan science and technology.

Besides, this activity is a great source of information for science journalists, because at this event you can get in touch with scientists and their work. Also, you can obtain the thoughts of the people who attend the conferences, and make a good journalistic coverage: obtain not only the official facts, but also the opinions of the people involved in the subject or who will obtain some benefit of the scientific local advancements.

However, I believe there is still a lack of good coverage of such an event. More than publishing just the new, journalists could write more interesting stories; they could to go deeper into the many scientific subjects the activity offers.

Armando Cáceres, a well-known Guatemalan scientist, who received a grant for his research on medicinal plants, says: “Scientific research is an attitude; an attitude that lets people discover our truths or our lies. That´s the reason why is so important to promote it”.

News that is fit to tweet

The other day I logged into my “home” page on Twitter and immediately knew that there was an earthquake in California, that swine flu has spread to 16 countries, and that the new movie X-Men Origins: Wolverine was out and it was getting pretty average ratings.

Interestingly though, I read about the earthquake before I read it on the BBC. I knew about the 16th country to confirm swine flu before getting it from any other place. I was also reading Wolverine reviews before they were on RottenTomatoes.com.

Ever since the scare of swine flu hit the world, it has been the most talked about word on Twitter, becoming what is called there a Trending Topic.

In my opinion, the use of new media has been quite interesting when it comes to swine flu. Never before had it been such a powerful tool for us science journalists. And the potential in it for us science journalists has been huge as well.

I believe this is a result of the community growing and becoming more experienced in applying all the different new media tools to give a more complete product at the end.

So let’s look at what was done.

First there’s Twitter, which was buzzing with news. The 140 character limit was not very helpful in providing news but users were pointing to articles, news stories, interesting blogs etc. At the same time, people were using it to decimate quick information such as symptoms and precautions. This became the source for fast information and updates for me.

Then there was the excellent tool that tracked the spread of the virus across the globe using Google Maps. The new layer was being updated real-time by people to provide information on which new countries are hit, the number of cases, etc.

Then came discussions on Friendfeed, another tool that can be used to show the best posts on certain topics, as well as thousands of blogs that sprung all over the globe. Then there were groups and communities being formed on Facebook to discuss the virus.

Now this was a very rich source of information, but it was a two-edged sword as well. For us journalists, searching for information online is a tedious task of wading through the world wide web to find a good signal-to-noise ratio. We have to go through so many pages that contain a lot of needless non-sense while we search for the information we want.

With the amazing amount of information that was being dissipated on Twitter, it became very tricky to maintain a proper signal-to-noise ratio. What is real and what is not? What is important and what is blabber? And you also had to deal with people in your network who were posting information such as what they had for breakfast this morning or what color they will wear while going out tonight. More chatter and noise to wade through while searching for the real gems hidden.

The real gems are varied. For example, you could find first-hand reports from people in Mexico. You could learn about information before they made news and when they did make news, you were directed to good information that can make a difference to your understanding or coverage of the virus.

But does that mean that these tools are not good or useful for our work? Absolutely not! It just means that we need to adapt to the tricky parts of these tools in order to make the best of them.

When it comes to Twitter, it really depends on how you want to use it. If you will use it as a journalist, then the secret is choosing to follow people who are not using it for lifecasting (such as the examples given above). Rather, you should be following people who are doing mindcasting, a term coined by journalism professor Jay Rosen (Twitter: @jayrosen_nyu). These are people who are actually posting useful information.

By following these, and unfollowing others who are posting useless blabber, you will have a much better signal-to-noise ratio.

You can then take some interesting information from there and feed it into discussions in Friendfeed. This will refine that ratio even further as you host interesting, useful discussions with the community that you choose to build. The same with Facebook as well.

And this is where the secret to using all these tools lies. It is all about forming the proper networks and communities to serve your purposes. After all, community forming is the heart of all these new tools of blogging and microblogging.

Having the right community will give a collective, comprehensive edge to your coverage – giving you access to a large amount of information that would have been near impossible to gather with the old tools.

And now for the million dollar question. Does new media replace traditional media here? For me, definitely not. I was still checking the BBC, Nature, and a host of other websites daily. But it did give me much more information than I would usually get from these sources. And it did put me in touch with people on the ground in ways that traditional media could never do.

And most importantly, it made my work the result of a collaborative effort of tens, if not hundreds, of people, rather than my own.

Oh, and I also now know that I should not be in a hurry to watch Wolverine. It can wait.