Neither the Bang nor the Butt

Before I get started, I would like to define, “science” for the purposes of this post. Please note that science does not equal academia. Academia has its own problems and I am not going anywhere near those (right now)…

science noun
  1. the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment

Like a lot of the things I come out with, this is a preemptive explanation.

This week I filmed a three minute segment for the NBN children’s show, “So There!” One of the producers contacted me after seeing a piece about my outreach work in the Newcastle Herald aaaand I got quite excited.

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It’s a pretty straightforward segment. I perform three “experiments” (which can be easily repeated at home) whilst narrating the science behind what’s happening. This is the basic premise of my kids’ parties, with the obvious difference being those are interactive!

Now, because I am me, and because I am not the most optimistic of individuals, I’d like to think I am aware of most of the pitfalls and judgements attached to science communication – especially with children. Hence this pre-emptive explanation, which should hopefully roughly translate as: Trust me, I know what I’m doing.

Most of the attempts to get children interested in science is based on the (other) Big Bang Theory. This is the theory wherein, if something makes a big enough Bang, then kids will be impressed – and the job is done. Now, I’m all for making kids happy, but as you can imagine, there’s a lot more to science than Bangs. The Big Bang Theory is one of the reasons why IFLS has been so popular – but it’s also one of the reasons why many scientists feel the site can really let the side down when it comes to science communication.

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All credit to the lovely Cyanide and Happiness guys, check them out http://explosm.net/comics/3557/

It’s one of the reasons scientists can shy away from communication and outreach. I was actually talking to one of my colleagues who is very pro-active about spreading the word about his work, but yet he is disappointed by this mentality. He was telling me about a trip to a science museum where he witnessed a kids’ science show which consisted entirely of things which go Bang. Now, because I am me, I took this as a slight towards my TV work (hehehe “my TV work”). I asked him how he proposed we SHOULD get kids interested in science – and of course he didn’t know.

Good scientists need to be a number of things. We need to be inquisitive, organised and creative. We need critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills. If we can encourage kids to develop even a few of these skills, we’re getting there. And remember, we’re not trying to cultivate a generation comprised entirely of scientists. We do not need a world full of researchers – we cannot support a world full of researchers! What we’re really trying to cultivate is a culture. A culture wherein everyone would be aware of science, everyone would respect science and everyone would appreciate science. In this ideal world, logic would prevail – and also there would be more funding for scientific research (!). No one would have to waste their time explaining why Paleo is nonsense, why vaccinating your children is the kindest thing you can do (unless they are immuno -compromised or otherwise unable to receive the injection! Can’t catch me, anti-vaxxers!), why coffee enemas are never going to cure cancer or why climate change is real (just ask John Oliver). People would make decisions based on evidence. People would ask intelligent questions. People would face the world with an open mind.

The truth is, the science is not the Bang – the science is in the asking WHY? In showing kids something so surprising or loud or colourful, we’re encouraging them to ask, “Why?” – this “Why?” is the first step to encouraging a scientific mind. Yes – the kids are looking at Science’s butt as it walks by. And THAT’S when the hard work comes in. Anyone can drop a Mentos into a bottle of Diet Coke, but it’s making the explanation accessible and interesting that’s the tricky part. Also encouraging further questioning – leaving some things unsaid and waiting for the dots to join so you can make way for hypothesis building and fill in the blanks when the time comes (this can be tough on TV…).

My point is, that just because I am taking advantage of the Other Big Bang Theory, it doesn’t mean that I am “selling out”. I still consider myself a scientist, and I still hold the values of science very close. I’m using the Theory as leverage. It’s my “in” for building the foundation for inquisitive minds.

Trust me, I know what I’m doing.

As far as developing this mind even further – beyond the Bang, beyond the butt– what do you think? How can we encourage appreciation for the scientific method – hypothesis forming, how to scrutinise sources, critical thinking – as children get older and we have a bit more faith in their attention span?

I’ve had a few lesson plan/ outreach activity/ museum ideas around this theme and I’d love to share them with any interested teachers or communicators!

Love, Trust, Science and Ducks

Several weeks ago, a well-respected and widely popular Australian cartoonist, Michael Leunig published what appeared to be an anti-vaccination cartoon in The Age.

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I, among others, was disappointed. Others were angry AND disappointed. Predictably, plenty of people took to twitter to criticize the artist’s work and opinions.

This is pretty typical of non-anti-vaxxers’ response to anti-vaxxers. On the one hand, it’s nice to know that the majority of us regard the anti-vaxx message as one of ignorance as opposed to one to be taken seriously. On the other hand, treating these people with such disrespect and aggression isn’t really getting us anywhere.

While respecting the individual’s right to opinion is a valuable moral to hold, respect in this instance can be a pretty hard thing to find. Parents who elect not to vaccinate are putting other babies and immuno-compromised individuals at risk, whilst putting an unnecessary strain on health care systems.  Many of us are lucky enough to never have witnessed the devastating effects of these preventable diseases thanks to the technological advances in modern medicine. Some of us are unenlightened enough to regard this luck with such complacency that they will consciously make the decision to leave their children unprotected.

However, the reality of the matter is that these people are standing up against vaccination because they are scared. They are standing up to defend their children and their community for what they perceive to be a very real danger. This is all despite the fact that government, scientists, health care workers and journalists (or at least those worth their salt) have struggled for so long to reassure those of us who may be worried about the adverse consequences of vaccination.

There is, to date, no scientific evidence which suggests that not vaccinating a child is a healthier choice than vaccinating a child. Searching the term “anti-vaccination” in a science publication database brings up nothing but communication guidelines for health care workers and sociological studies. I could copy and paste infinite links to scientific publications here (Oh go on, have a few [ref] [ref]), but it would do nothing to sway the opinion of an anti-vaxxer.

So we can review. Aggressive techniques for reasoning are, unsurprisingly, ineffective. Educational techniques for reasoning are ineffective (see, “The Backfire Effect” and a wonderful This American Life episode which explores this theme). Even bribery techniques are /would be ineffective (and immoral…).

Why is this? Why does the anti-vaxx movement persist?

At the root of these educational techniques for reasoning i.e. the scientific argument, lays a major factor which often gets forgotten about.

Trust.

Doctors and scientists are asking the public to trust them. More than that: they are asking the public to trust science.

Many of us view science as a collection of facts. It’s unsurprising therefore that the public can distrust science. One day scientists are telling them that red wine is good for you because is decreases risk for cardiovascular disease, while the next day they’re reminding them that alcohol is a carcinogen, so don’t go crazy now. Who are these idiot scientists if they can’t even get their facts i.e. science right?

Where the idea of science being a collection of facts came from, I have no idea. But it’s a poisonous idea and it’s getting everyone into a lot of unnecessary trouble.

Science is a discipline. It’s an ever-evolving collection of ideas and evidence, constantly being constructed and deconstructed by people who dedicate their entire lives to this discipline. A career in scientific research is a blood bath. You are continually having your work ripped to shreds by your colleagues. And rightly so: researchers are building the legacy of their generation. There are strict systems in place to ensure that sub-par science will not make it into publication (and thus into the legacy). This system itself, the academic system, is forever evolving to improve the quality of the science it produces.

It makes sense therefore that science will contradict itself. It’s the very nature of the beast. Maybe this is why the public has so many trust issues with doctors and scientists. Who’s to say we won’t find anti-vaccination evidence tomorrow?

The thing is, we can’t promise that. By the same token though, I can’t promise you that I won’t wake up a million dollars richer tomorrow. But I’m pretty bloody sure about it. No one has ever randomly deposited cash in my bank account before, I haven’t entered any competitions and I haven’t been promoted. I’m using evidence to inform my conclusion that I am “pretty bloody sure” I won’t wake up a million dollars richer tomorrow.

In a recent interview with Michael Leunig on ABC News, he states,

“I think the science is incomplete, I honestly do.”

Well, I should hope so. Science is never complete. But what’s important to remember is that the evidence we have so far demonstrates that i) vaccinations aren’t dangerous (aside from some minor and temporary side effects) and ii) the diseases they protect against are. NOT vaccinating is like me assuming that I WILL wake up a million dollars richer AND going out and making a tonne of business deals with shady characters who have a habit of shooting off knee caps.

So how do we go about addressing our trust issues? I know this is often suggested as a “cure for all” in science communication circles, but improved education is certainly one way to go about it. If we were to teach how academic culture is designed to optimise the production of “good” science, children should begin to spot the variation in quality between different sources of information.

But then again, is an appreciation of science something we can physically teach?

Perhaps distrust is just an embedded human instinct, and we are forever destined to argue with each other. Alternatively, is our marketing-obsessed culture priming people for distrust? Is this age of distrust a consequence of the increased availability of (mis)information over the internet? A skeptical mind is a valuable thing, but a skeptical mind with access to misinformation could actually be considered dangerous.

Leunig made an interesting point during his interview,

“Is science the final say on everything?”

Well, no. Science will never have “a final say”. But it has a say. In fact, it has the only say. It’s the only real tool we have to maneuver ourselves and our families safely through this wonderful and mysterious thing we call life.

The Pointy End

I just returned home from a wonderful conference (and holiday – cue strange looks from fellow scientists). I’m feeling inspired but also terrified. I’ve realised how awesome my project (potentially) is, but also the huge amount of work I have to do before I get there. I digress; I have a lot of stories to tell from last month’s experiences, and this realisation of what my future potentially holds is just one of them. And it’s not the one I’m supposed to be telling right now. Ahem.

On the first morning of the conference I sat myself at a breakfast  table with a pair of senior (ish) scientists who I had been introduced to the previous evening. They told me about another great conference which was coming up in 2016, and advised me to attend if not just for the science, then the venue. I replied that I hoped I’d be finished up with my PhD by then, so maybe I couldn’t attend.

Them: “Oh, but you’ll still be in the field.”

Me: “Yeh, maybe.”

Them: *genuine blank faces* “What do you mean?”

Me: “Well, I don’t know if I’ll stay on in research.”

I don’t think I can quite describe the looks on their faces, only that they led to my immediate realisation that I had made the scientist faux-pas equivalent of farting loudly at the dinner table, or maybe proudly admitting to killing my own mother. I felt extremely ashamed and unprofessional, worried that I had just casually blown several career bridges.  These guys were going to be warning anyone and everyone about that crazy bitch who thought there was a life outside of academia.

As well as ashamed and unprofessional, I also felt viscously defensive. For once, I was able to keep my opinions to myself and instead internalised my rage, ready for a highly emotionally charged text marathon with my supervisor later that evening.

How many other senior scientists are completely unaware of the fact that they are in the pointy end of the research career triangle? What do they think happens to all those PhD students who waft in and out of their peripheral vision while they’re busy leaning back in their office chair, hands behind their back, legs spread wide in a macho stance, while they tell everyone to “JUST GET IT DONE.”?

(sidenote: I may have had several unfavourable experiences with these Silverback types.)

This ingrained ideology of academia being the One True Path is many things.

  1. It is unrealistic (see above: IT’S A TRIANGLE).
  2. It is unsupportive (see above: invocation of shame, inadequacy and unprofessionalism).
  3. It is unhelpful.

So what should “we” (i.e. scientists, research community, universities) do? What IS helpful?

Here is when I call upon a recent episode of RN’s Life Matters, “Early career scientists trapped in ‘perpetual adolescence’”. The show featured Prof Doug Hilton (Director of WEHI in Melbourne) and Dr Melina Georgousakis (founder of Franklin Women and senior research officer, National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance). Both of these fantastic scientists emphasised the idea that we need to see a change.

We need a change in culture in science; we need to let scientists know, from an early stage in their training, that if you don’t stay in academia, you’re not a failure and you’re not letting the system down. We also need more training for postgrads where the assumption isn’t made that they will be the Silverbacks of the future. By the time we graduate, we already have obtained so many skills, on top of the “technical stuff”; we just need to get better at realising this and promoting ourselves and our talent.

This all being said, the idea of leaving research forever does make me sad. My project is part of me, and I can’t imagine letting it go completely. I’ve actually spoken to several scientists in industry, who all recommend that I try to make it in research before trying in any other field. This makes me mad. I don’t want to get to the point where I’m forced to surrender a particular career. I want to call the shots!

To quote Amy Poehler, it’s best to, “treat your career like a bad boyfriend.”.

“Your career won’t take care of you. It won’t call you back or introduce you to its parents. Your career will openly flirt with other people while you are around… it is healthy to remember you can always leave and go to sleep with somebody else”.

But the question is, can I really break it off with my “bad boyfriend”, before he breaks it off with me? Do I have the courage? What if he really does turn it around? From experience, it hurts like hell whether you are the dumper or the dump-ee.

There is always be that period of mourning.

My career strategy has always been: don’t have one. Keep your eyes open for every opportunity that comes your way, and do what interests you. As Tina Fey says, “Say yes, and you’ll figure it all out afterwards.” I know I hardly have a lifetime of experience to reflect on, but this strategy has worked for me so far.

In conclusion I guess, I’ve learned/ reinforced to myself:

  1. I need to keep my eyes open for every opportunity.
  2. I need to be aware of my own awesomeness.
  3. The One True Path is BS (i.e. fuck the haters.)

No Control

Things had been going pretty well. I was meditating daily, keeping a record of my distractions and negative thoughts. I was attending mindfulness workshops, paying attention to my relationships. I was feeling good, my experiments were working, and my data was looking interesting.

Then one morning I finished analysing the next batch of data and something didn’t quite fit. I didn’t know how to explain anything anymore. In short, it was all a mess.

I thought that all my hard work on myself was the explanation for my happiness. But in a matter of minutes, I realised that was bullshit. The main reason for my happiness had been my data. Once I realised that the “quality” of my work was on a down turn, my mood swiftly followed.

I really don’t know what else to do to protect myself from bad days.

Stormy Seas

Yesterday I had a missed phone call from my real-estate agent. First thought: “Oh great, the owners have decided to sell and they want us to terminate the lease early.”

I ran a routine stats test on my data and it spat out a p value of 0.0001. First thought: “I must have put the wrong numbers in.”

I got some data back which suggested that all of the work I was planning on doing for the next six months would have to be completely altered, and that I had no idea where to start. First thought, “I don’t have time for this.” But then, “I won’t have time to finish my PhD.” And then, “I am going to have to forfeit my visa. I am going to have to go back to the UK. My boyfriend and I will probably end up splitting up due to the distance. Everyone will talk about me behind my back, my friends will all forget about me.”

As you can imagine, these negative tendencies can make things a bit more difficult than they necessarily need to be.

I genuinely try and do everything I can to put myself in a position of strength so that when the worst does happen, I can try not to panic. Of late, this has meant that I have been attending a mindfulness workshop, provided for free by my university. The techniques themselves aren’t exactly ground-breaking. Anyone who has been in counselling, or even just to a yoga class, will most likely have tried meditation. They will probably also know how much of a pain in the arse in can be and how much discipline it can require.

Two weeks into the course, I had a bit of a break down at work, which just happened to bleed into my whole weekend. In my head (luckily, not out loud) I was so pissed off with everyone at the workshop, and all the concepts they had taught us. How ridiculous that you can be expected to sit down and meditate when (excuse the cliché), it feels as though your world is closing in around you. What’s the point in practising for a raging storm, when all you’re equipped with in preparation is a kiddy pool?

Somehow, with the help of time, friends, some fresh air, my supervisor and my family, I was able to pull myself out of that particular rut. I’ve “recommitted” to the concepts of mindfulness and meditation. I think that the concept of weathering a storm still stands here, and yes, maybe we are only equipped with limited tools in order to prepare for it. One of the most basic tools that we have, however, is our capacity to take care of ourselves.

Self-care is a preventative measure, like exercise, brushing our teeth or not smoking.  Yet so often, it gets swept under the rug. How often do we take time to check in with ourselves? When things start to get rough, and I can feel a panic attack pending, there might not be an instantaneous resolution. But I’m pretty sure that if I commit myself to self-care on a regular basis, I will spot the signs of negativity far in advance of a panic attack even happening.

Being mindful and taking time out to meditate regularly is a way of looking up at the clouds, checking for icebergs and performing a stock check, so we can decide whether to change course, call for help, or restock our supplies.