15 December 2006

Would you hyphen it?

From the headline you have to ask yourself if this press release from Battelle is about a new type of fuel cell, or a new way of making, or even designing, fuel cells.

The title "BATTELLE DEBUTS MULTI-PURPOSE FUEL CELL GENERATOR" could mean that they have a fuel cell that generates electricity for many purposes, or it could be a new generator of fuel cells.

It might help to add a hyphen in "fuel cell". Come to think of it, why not just drop the "generator"? Anyone who understands the term "fuel cell" will know what this is all about. Fuel cells are, by definition, generators of electricity.

Do not copy this press release

I have been looking for an example of this puzzling phenomenon for a while. The press release that you cannot copy. I have found this lot of Press Releases. Retrieve any of the PDF files beneath the links and you will find that you can't copy and paste text from the file.

The press releases come from a company called Acacia Research Corporation, part of which "develops, acquires, and licenses patented technologies".

Now the whole idea of a press release is that people will reproduce it, preferably using as much of it as possible. What possesses someone to put out a press release with security such that you cannot even extract text? Is this also why they break another rule of good communications and do not offer an html version of their press releases?

I have written to the company for their take on this. No reply yet. Maybe they have broken another law of good communications by ignoring emails.

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12 December 2006

Is solar power pissing in the wind?

What are we to make of this proud press release proclaiming that altPOWER Inc. Installs 1.1 MW of Solar Power? Are they serious. A megawatt and they boast?

Younger readers may not know that we went through an energy crisis in the 1970s. Then there was a rush into "renewable" energy when we faced the threat of a world without oil. Now it is climate change that makes us turn to the Sun, although talk of "peak oil" suggests that that one isn't dead either.

Megawatts are for minnows. After 30 years, you would hope that we had got beyond such piddling amounts. We need gigawatts, and lots of them.

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14 November 2006

A quote for our times

I don't usually warm to George Monbiot, more like Monbiassed, with his unrealistic view of the world, but you have to applaud, his take on the Monckton papers as they appeared in The Sunday Telegraph. (Some pea-brained aristo thinks climate change has nothing to do with humans.)

I wonder how the science writers on the 'graph' take the comment that "For newspapers such as the Sunday Telegraph the test seems to be much simpler. If they don't understand it, it must be science."

In reality, with Melanie Phillips on the Daily Mail also being in the ranks of climate deniers, you have to ask yourself if this is a political thing, with the right denying any cause that the Government espouses.

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26 October 2006

Capnography – word of the year

A paper in the BioMedical Engineering OnLine, A novel application of capnography during controlled human exposure to air pollution, brought me a new word. What, or who, is capnography?

Google threw up no less than a site dedicated to the subject. Just one problem, you have to dig around even there to find a definition of the word. Nothing on the home page, but way down in the terminology we read that capnography is "A graphic display of instantaneous CO2 concentration (FCO2) versus time or expired volume during a respiratory cycle (CO2 waveform or capnogram)."

Wikipedia has it as "the monitoring of the respiratory carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration as a time-concentration curve".

So you you know. Maybe.

13 October 2006

Yet more picking on science journalists

Over on The Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer has written a sensible piece Don't Blame Science Journalists. It has smoked out some of the usual claptrap from folks who simply don't have a clue. There is, though, much sense in his complaint about the harmful influence of embargoes.

The embargo system is simply the puppet master pulling the strings. But the science writers collude with this, partly because they have their backs to the wall and they like an easy life.

Most newspapers cover science because they feel that they have to, not because there is an audience out there desperate to read the stuff. So the science reporter constantly has to wheedle space out of reluctant news editors, many of whom think that science is something that the dog brought in.

News editor have this funny idea of what constitutes news. To them it is the material that has just appeared in the rival press and on the broadcast media that day. If the front page of The New York Times covers a paper in PNAS, then heaven help the science writer on the Washington Post for passing on it.

Embargoes just make it easier for everyone to know what will appear in tomorrow's newspapers. (Don't be surprised if there is a lot on large-scale solar power or autism next Monday.)

The scientists go along with this game because it benefits them too. After all, a paper in Nature, Science or PNAS is often a crowning achievement in a scientist's career. What better for the next grant application than to have that paper splattered all over the newspapers?

If everyone heeded Jonah's words and went to find their own leads, you would rarely read the same stories in different media. Get out and about. Visit researchers in their labs. Attend conferences. There's plenty of genuinely interesting science out there. Not all of it is in university labs, and yet we rarely read about the results of corporate research.

Sadly, another nail in the coffin of science journalism is, paradoxically, the Internet. It means that science writers can sit at their desks, waiting for the flood of press releases to come in. Then they can research away to their heart's content. Much easier, and cheaper, than getting on a plane and spending hours trying to fathom some hard science.

Is it any wonder that much of today's science coverage is bland?

10 October 2006

Oh dear, more ranting about the state of science journalism

Had any journalist I know written anything as tortured as this item in the otherwise usually sensible Adventures in Ethics and Science, or the even more confused original that provoked it, their job would evaporate overnight.

Underlying this guff is a complete lack of the scientific method that upsets these folks. They simply do not back up their theses with anything in the way of evidence. Anecdotal observations don't add up to a case.

Many years in the business have taught me that most complaints about inaccuracy of science reporting are down to two factors:

  • the reporters fail to present absolutely everything they are told, with all of the provisos and references to "co researchers" that are the stuff of science;

  • the scientists simply do not understand how the media operate.
There is a third one, misspelling the researcher's name, but we can overlook that.

Without any evidence of what it is that upsets these folks, it is hard to know which of these might apply in this case.

The first thing that a writer does is to check their spelling and to read what they write to see if it makes sense. For example, as well as an "obeservation" in this one, the original post contained:
"basic facts that had already been masticated in the form or press releases"
Apart from the smarty pants used of masticated, and the fact that any mastication would have been checked by the researchers involved, they probably mean "in the form of press releases".

Actually, the sentence itself smacks of an amateur writer. Why is there that phrase "the form of" in there, "masticated in press releases" says the same thing in fewer words. While I am at it, what are "basic facts"? Do they differ from other types of facts?

While it is not usually fruitful to dismember the writing that appears in blogs, grammatical correctness is an alien concept in blogdom, it is different when they rant on about writing. People who cannot write should think twice before commenting on the subject.

I could go on, but when the thing descends into a ramble about the state of education, you know that you are entering alien territory.

On the original post, they seem to be complaining about a TV reporter. These people are very different from newspaper reporters. Which brings us back to the point of knowing about how the media operate. To dismiss the whole of science journalism, as "Pinko Punko" does, on the basis of the behaviour of one TV crews is perverse and unscientific. It is like rejecting the whole of medical science because of the behaviour of Josef Mengele.

09 October 2006

Does the public really care about scientific journals?

The answer would seem to be "yes" if we are to believe this CORDIS story. They have given it the headline "Public supports overhaul of European scientific publication system".

I find it hard to believe that the person in the street knows what scientists get up to in the privacy of their own labs, let alone has a view on it. It turns out that this was a "public consultation" only in a very limited sense. It seems that the public was really 174 stakeholders who "responded to the Commission's 'study on the economic and technical evolution of scientific publication markets', which marked the start of an open policy debate on access to, quality and preservation of scientific publications in Europe". Hardly "the public," not really "a public".

Pity, the EU doesn't usually get that sort of thing wrong.

08 October 2006

Another silly headline

It says here, "Less expensive fuel cell may be possible". I have news for the fine folks at Los Alamos National Laboratory, so might more expensive fuel cells. It is also possible, but less likely, that I will be able to walk on water, or that PR people will stop writing silly headlines to press releases.

Rather than just sniping at this inane torrent, let's be helpful. Here's a headline that isn't obvious and that still tells the story "New catalysts could cut the cost of fuel cells".

Not only does this actually say something, it even flags up the sort of writer who might want to cover the development.

05 October 2006

"Scientists Make World Breakthrough" shock horror

This is Nobel Prize week, and it is a fair bet that the none of the scientists who collected the gongs described their results as a "breakthrough". Even PR people rarely do so. But, believe it or not, "Scientists Make World Breakthrough" really is the headline on a press release that has just gone out on Newswise.

This headline breaks two of the cardinal rules of science journalism. The first of these, which is actually true for just about every press release, is that it tells you nothing about the content. So a busy journalist will laugh and move on.

Breakthrough on what? Cosmology? Cloning? Pencil sharpening? It is actually supposed to be a breakthrough "in understanding how bacterial toxins cause severe gastrointestinal diseases".

The second crime against humanity is to even use the B word. Not just because you never know at the time of a new discovery if it is a breakthrough or not. (That's why the Nobel committees take so long to reward a particular bit of science.) But because the scientists who made the discovery almost certainly don't see it in those terms.

You do see "breakthrough" in too many newspaper headlines. But that it down to the subeditors and even there there's a fair chance that the person who wrote the piece cringed when they saw that headline.

24 September 2006

A right royal megaphone

Whoever, or whatever, The Scientific Alliance might be, you have to agree with its statement that this has been "an extraordinary week for the UK scientific establishment". That's how they kick off their latest newsletter, which, because it does not seem to be on the alliance's own web site, we read thanks to the Cambridge Network.

The alliance was moved to make this comment by the recent attempts by the Royal Society to bully Exxon, the world's most hated oil company, into pulling the plug on any funding it hands out to climate dissidents, folks who don't buy the party line on climate change.

According to a report in The Guardian, Bob Ward of the RS sent a letter to Exxon, or its UK arm Esso UK, complaining about the company's support for these crackpots, as some might dub them.

The first complaint in the alliance's newsletter is that "putting [the letter] into the public domain in this way is unprofessional and, at the very least, discourteous to Exxon, who seem to have been in discussion with the Royal Society in good faith". The alliance seems to have jumped to the conclusion that it was the RS that did the leaking. All that the newspaper report says is a copy "has been obtained by the Guardian".

The alliance is upset partly because The Guardian fingered it as one of the climate deniers. We'll leave it to others to fight about climate change. More interesting is the propensity of the Royal Society to issue statement left right and centre. In this case, they have latched on to an important issue, but sometimes they seem to utter forth for the sake of it.

This is a far cry from the old days, back in the 1970s, when I asked one President of the Royal Society (PRS) why they didn't come out and say things in public, he answered along the lines that they preferred to work through the corridors of power. As a noble lord himself, the PRS was probably talking about Westminster and the House of Parliament.

That attitude is long dead, fortunately, but has the RS gone too far? It seems to put out policy statements on a weekly basis. It churns them out on nuclear waste, evolution, and education. The RS even let the world know its views on "the UK Marine Bill consultation".

Then there are all those press releases and statements from the current PRS. At last count there were nearly 80 press releases this year. To single out one at random, do I really care what the Royal Society has to say about fishing quotas?

I guess they expect us to care because they are, after all, the country's brightest scientists. Then again, too many of the really bright scientists I meet may be experts in their subjects, but when it comes to the real world, it might as well be another planet.

I'm sure that all of these statements are world shattering, but you do get the impression that the RS feels that it needs to justify the existence of its policy machine. Doubtless they realise that media enthusiasm for these statements is a diminishing resource. Science writers have only so many pages for these Very Important Pronouncements. How long will if be before the "not them again" response kicks in?

23 September 2006

How often do violins burst into flames?

An item from Reuters, adds to the kerfuffle over incendiary batteries. The story, Sony investigates notebook fire, reports that a battery "caught fire at Los Angeles International Airport last weekend". This reinforced a question that I have been pondering for some time. After the recent, almost certainly over blown security scare, why did the Government allow portable computers on aircraft while banning the carriage of musical instruments?

As far as I can recall, there have been no recent sightings of spontaneous combustion of violins. Yet we get daily reports of exploding batteries. And you don't have to be a terrorist, just a tourist, for this to happen.

For some reason, airlines still allow you to board their 'planes with an unexploded battery. Must be something to do with the relative spending power of PC toting business folks against that of orchestral musicians.

07 September 2006

Would you let the world edit your copy?

Journalists hate it when people they are writing about ask to see their copy before it appears in print. They only put up with editors and subeditors because that is a part of the deal. So Ryan Singel must have had qualms when he posted a story he was working on for Wired so that the world could intervene and Wiki" it.

He recounts the result of the exercise in Wired News: The Wiki That Edited Me. It is an interesting account of how the story changed.

There may be little surprise in his conclusion that the exercise did little to improve the story. But his explanation of why this was so strikes home. "The edits over the week lack some of the narrative flow that a Wired News piece usually contains. The transitions seem a bit choppy, there are too many mentions of companies, and too much dry explication of how wikis work."

One bit that caught the eye was his observation that most of the edits merely made the story longer, until someone stepped in and did a proper edit of the piece. This is something that should happen to most of the material that appears in Wikipedia.

No matter how good the information there, it is often let down by lack of any editing to make it readable. But that's what you'd expect of something cooked up by experts. A bit like the result of Ryan Singel's experiment.

Hot science from Siberia

It is always interesting to see science publications from other countries. Usually, though, I am reduced to admire the pictures, such are my language skills – I'm not what you'd call a cunning linguist. So it is nice to find
Science First Hand, which describes itself as "A good journal for inquisitive people".

This is an English language version of a Russian publication founded by the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences and published since January 2004.

Unfortunately, the web site is no more than a place to check the contents and buy a subscription.

04 September 2006

The headline that got lost in space

The headline on the RSS feed was "One giant crash for mankind". It was the only light relief for one of those terminally tedious "so what" stories.

Decades after the US landed people on the Moon, Europe managed to crash a pile of expensive metal and electronics on to the Earth's biggest satellite. (How come the only stuff we can do in space is to crash into things?) The first response was to excoriate these scientific litter louts, but life's too short. Move on to something significant.

Then that headline came along, bringing back memories of the days when The Guardian gained a joint reputation for excrutiating typos but great headlines, mostly puns. You click the headline and lane on a far less entertaining version

Giant leap for mankind ... or just a big crash?. Ho hum.

29 August 2006

Communication is a risky business

A note over on the EurActiv web siteEurActiv web site adds to the growing debate about the way in which risk is presented to people. The main message is that "A report on the EU-25's national risk-communications practices recommends involvement of stakeholders in the risk-management process." There are links there to a rather large study of the way in which risk is communicated in electricity, chemical waste and GM food.

Another take on a similar theme comes up in Wordblog in a message entitled "Journalists need remedial maths". As the poster says:

Many of the young people who want to become journalists say they have always loved writing and want to use that skill to communicate with people. How I long to hear one substitute "maths" for "writing".

Pity they sometimes confuse maths with simple arithmetic. But at least they don't commit the American crime of calling it math.

17 August 2006

Big money to think small

Nanodot has a brief item, Converting nanotechnology cash into public engagement, showing that the US National Science Foundation is to spend "$20 million over five years to a network of science museums and related institutions" for "a program in Nanoscale Informal Science Education".

The money will include weekends of molecular model building, a three-hour lecture/discussion event and two artworks.

Nanodot's observer is "a bit dubious in terms of educational value". My take is that the US is putting almost as much money into this as some ostensibly scientific countries can afford for research in nanotechnology. And the US, where they love new technology, isn't exactly the place where you expect to find an anti-nano lobby.

11 August 2006

Naked Scientists swamp their hosts

One of the world's most popular podcasts is straining the internet as servers struggle to keep up with demand. Cambridge University tells us that the Naked Scientists science radio show has gone platinum. The show gets 50,000 downloads a week, they tell us.

This may not look like a large number when set alongside the numbers for the BBC's radio programmes, but it seems to be enough to cause waves in Podland.

About that name, the press release tells us that it derives from the aim of its presenter, Dr Chris Smith, a medical doctor and lecturer from the University of Cambridge, "to strip science down to its bare essentials and promote it to the general public".

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04 August 2006

EPSRC has money for media savvy scientists

They used to laugh at scientists who wanted to talk to the media. Some still moan that being a "media tart" provokes derision from colleagues who consider any second away from the lab to be a waste of time, or even a crime against science.

Now researchers can get money from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to beef up their media cred.

EPSRC has just put out a Call for Proposals for Senior Media Fellowships. The idea is to "enable leading researchers to devote time to develop a higher media profile".

It would be interesting to see if this sort of thing adds to, or takes away from, a researchers scientific stature.

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26 July 2006

Vanity publishing goes mad?

There is an interesting article in The New York Times. "Technology Rewrites the Book" is about one-off book printing. So anyone can create their own professional looking productions.

This raises a couple of points for science writers. Should all those awards for science books start to specify a minimum print run for entries? Or is it perfectly acceptable to give an award to a book that no one has read? (Did someone mention Hawking's runaway success here? That was one of the great unread books of all time.)

More interesting to some of us, though, is the possibility of keeping books in print. Thirty years ago, I wrote a book on energy technology in the wake of the "crisis" of the 1970s. It sold reasonably well and even went into a reprint. But eventually it reached its "sell by" date and became of purely historic interest.

That book, like many written around the time, still has lessons for those fresh to the whole energy caper. Would it be a good idea to put the thing back on the market? Printing a copy at a time makes this much easier. First, though, I have to scan the thing to create all that text.

23 July 2006

How do you define a science writer?

The Science Writer Awards promoted by The Daily Telegraph and Bayer are an admirable attempt to raise the profile of science writing among young persons. But they send a funny message on the page where they offer "Advice from top science writers". The science writers are outnumbered by luminaries.

There are some honourable examples in there, but the idea that they consult the words of the CEO of Bayer in the UK/Ireland is puzzling. The Daily Telegraph probably realises as much as anyone that words appeared under the CEO's byline were probably the work of a paid writer who "ghosted" the text.

When it comes the the famous names, Professor Steve Jones has written more books than most. And Lord Martin Rees once confided to us that the easiest money he had ever made was an afternoon's work writing something for The Daily Mail, or maybe it was some other tabloid with money to throw around. But another writer in their list, Sir David King, can hardly claim to be a science writer. (A trade secret here, he certainly uses a professional writer to help to craft some of the words that appear under his name.) They don't even seem to feature their own famous science editor.

05 July 2006

Hot papers, cool media?

Sci-Bytes runs an interesting slot on "hot papers" in particular areas of science. The latest SCI-BITES: Hot Paper in Physics is "Universal intrinsic spin Hall effect," by Jairo Sinova and 5 others, Physical Review Letters, 91(12): 126603, published on 26 March 2004.

Now, this is hairy science. But when the rest of the scientific world thinks it is worth referring to, and often, it certainly looks like something that should interest science writers.

A search for "Universal intrinsic spin Hall effect" AND "Jairo Sinova" on Google found 270 hits. None of them, though, at a quick glance, looked like something written by a science writer. Maybe they did not put out a press release.

Searching for "spin Hall effect" AND "Jairo Sinova" turned up 864 hits. One was for a paper a bit later than the one most cited. That did make it into journals like Science. So the word is getting out.

There is an interesting research project here for one of the many students of science in the media. What is the link, if any, between how the scientific community rates a paper and the media coverage it garners? Maybe it is something I can do in my retirement.

02 July 2006

Scientists don't have time to communicate

It is a sign of the times when the Royal Society can write a press release that begins "A 'research driven' culture in British universities is a key barrier to scientists communicating their work with the public".

It isn't that long ago when uncommunicative scientists would have surprised no one. With a few wonderful exceptions – J B S Haldane still bearsreadingg – communication by researchers really only took off in the 1990s. This was thanks mostly to a report commissioned by the Royal Society (the famous Bodmer report) and the subsequent work of something called the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science.

COPUS brought the RS together with the Royal Institution and the British Association for the Advancement of Science to do all sorts of neat things. Before then they ignored one another, with only the BA doing much really "public".

Public Understanding of Science and Technology, far too condescending a label, gave way to Public Engagement in Science and Technology. (At least gave an acronym with some bite.) Such was the mood the times times that research councils even started to specify communication as a condition in the grants they awarded. Some actually set up programmes to pay people to expose themselves, and their science, in public.

The RS's press release is a trailer for a new report. (Be warned that the PDF file of this report is a dog's dinner – too big and hard to read thanks to some tricksy designer bollocks.) The report says that researchers have put communication on the back burner because of other pressures, such as churning our unreadable papers to justify their grants. (The release doesn't put it like that, but it is the best way to describe it.)

We haven't read the full report yet, so we'll stick with lifting another bit from the press release. It says that "45 per cent of respondents said that they would like to spend more time engaging with the non-specialist public about science. 74 per cent of those surveyed reported that they have taken part in at least one science communication or public engagement activity in the past 12 months."

Apart from the last bit being rather vague, and open to exaggeration by researchers wanting to prove their public credentials, this shows a massive change from those pre-COPUS days. It also shows why it was a good thing to shut down COPUS, or not to strive too hard to prevent its meltdown when that happened. The world has moved on. No need to tell scientists to communicate.

There is, though, if we are to believe the press release, a land mine buried in the report. It seems that the more highly rated the research group, the less likely they are to get into PEST.

Far be it for us to suggest that this raises questions about one of the shibboleths of academia, that you have to be great at research to be able to teach. You'd think that the same would apply to telling the public what you do.

01 July 2006

Flash in the PAN

Public awareness mania is spreading. We now have the EU banging on about something called the Public Awareness of Nuclear Science – shouldn't that be public engagement?

It doesn't seem to be about nuclear power so much as about nuclear physics.

"The objective of PANS (Public Awareness of Nuclear Science) was to establish a European-wide network for communicating information on positive achievements, techniques and diverse applications of nuclear physics to the general public."

The announcement is infuriatingly devoid of links to the stuff it writes about. So we had to go dig out a link for something called webSCS. Er, we failed. They don't mention it in the text, but perhaps they meant us to look at NUPEX.

"NUPEX is a free knowledge database on the Internet that offers teachers, pupils and students the opportunity to access information on nuclear science of excellent content and in outstanding form. NUPEX is maintained and monitored by experienced nuclear physicists in Europe. It is prepared in accordance with national teaching plans and the needs expressed by teachers."

Don't you love the bit about "excellent content and in outstanding form"? Not only does it read like a translation into English, it also begs the question. Shouldn't it be up to the reader to make those judgements?

20 June 2006

Chemistry and its image problem

It is bad enough having scientists complaining about their public image, as it if they are somehow different from any other arcane professions in being misunderstood, but when it gets down to the problems that chemists face you wonder if the world of Public Engagement in Science and Technology (PEST) has gone too far. Still, if you are a chemist worrying about being loved by the public, you might do well to read this Special Issue of a journal called HYLE, which somehow stands for the International Journal For Philosophy Of Chemistry, on "The Public Image of Chemistry".

The editorial in this issue points out that "chemists have always been complaining about their low prestige, the lack of public acknowledgment of their achievements, and the misguiding popular associations with chemistry, such that we now have a long record of complaints of almost two centuries".

The piece then goes on to say that there isn't much research out there on chemistry and its image. "Even the recent boost of academic research in Public Understanding of Science (PUS) has virtually excluded chemistry and, instead, focused on topics such as 'Frankenfood' and genetic engineering."

What next? Do we need a conference on the public perception of amino acids?

09 June 2006

Medical journalism and meetings of the mindless

As someone who believes that science journalists spend too much time following press releases and papers, and that they should attend research conferences for real stories, I naturally leapt on a press release proclaiming Important study facts often missing in media reports about medical research. This goes with a paper published in the Medical Journal of Australia which, the release tells us, warns that "News stories about medical research, often based on initial findings presented at professional conferences, frequently omit basic facts about the study and fail to highlight important limitations".

Steven Woloshin and Lisa M Schwartz of the "VA Outcomes Group" at Dartmouth Medical School wrote the paper. Their bottom line is that because of the journalists' failure to hedge their bets "the public may be misled about the validity and relevance of the science presented".

There's any number of comments that a media observer could make about this. First there is the fact that there just isn't room to go into all of the fine details in a short newspaper story. Then there is the fact that the people who present the papers hardly shout from the rooftops about the possibility that their findings may be a load of tosh.

You also have to wonder what world these people inhabit. For example, they assert that "there are many anecdotal complaints about how well the media cover scientific meetings". Really? Most scientists of my acquaintance, and there are some, reckon that the media do a poor job of covering meetings other than those at which there are serried ranks of PR folks pushing their researchers into the limelight.

Here is what the researchers in this project found:

"Basic study facts were often missing. About a third of reports failed to mention study size, and 53% did not mention study design or were so ambiguous that expert readers could not determine the design with any certainty.

"Forty per cent of stories did not quantify the main result. Twenty-one per cent quantified the main result, but used only relative change statistics without a base rate — a format known to exaggerate the perceived magnitude of findings."

In other words, these people seem to want newspaper reports to be as thorough as scientific papers in reporting the details of a conference presentation. Tell that to the news desk, an animal that is probably unknown to Woloshin and Schwartz.

Actually, it would seem that they just do not want us to get into this territory. "The most direct way to improve the media coverage of scientific meetings," they say, "would be to have less of it."

This is because "Work presented at scientific meetings is generally not ready for public consumption: results change, fatal problems emerge, and hypotheses fail to pan out."

Woloshin and Schwartz don't have much idea of how the media works. For example, they admit that their study "has two limitations". The first is that they looked at just five meetings. They reject this as an issue on the grounds that "these are extremely prominent meetings and the coverage appeared in well known media outlets".

That's just the problem. They looked at events where the media machine operates in top gear. They just might find that the reporters who go to conferences that don't come with this hype do a better job.

Another point is that this is all very patronising. While the public does not know all of the intricacies of how science works, there are so many reports of early medical research that you have to be wilfully ignorant to believe that a newspaper report of a conference is a guarantee that miracle cures will appear the day after tomorrow.

Yes, medical journalists should get their facts right, but every story cannot offer a potted introduction to how science works.

My own complaint about a lot of medical reporting is that it is the same boring stuff churned out again and again. It gets into print only because, as Woloshin and Schwartz admit, "the public has a strong appetite for medical news –‚ particularly about new, 'breakthrough' treatments and technologies". And that is down to the medics trying to con the world into believing that they can solve the world's health problems, if only we would throw more money at them. Tell them to tone down their conference papers before fingering the media for any alleged shortcomings.

Chinese Academy goes popular

Interesting to see that the The Chinese Academy of Sciences has set up a Panel on popular science & publication .

This announcement tells us that "The functions of the Committee are to exercise overall leadership of science popularization and publication of CASAD; to organize major academic activities and symposia for the exchanges and cooperation with learned bodies at home and abroad; to disseminate scientific knowledge so as to promote S&T development and literacy of the entire nation; and to be responsible for editing, publishing and managing the publications of CASAD so as to give a full play to its publicity work."

China is churning out scientists like there is no tomorrow. Now, it seems, the rest of the populace is going to get a dose of science. Pity this initiative is unlikely to be a source of income for freelance science writers in the UK, where linguistic skills rarely stretch to Chinese.

05 June 2006

Journalism does matter, despite the web

The Scobleizer blog often strays from the IT straight and narrow, rarely to much effect. So we have to applaud his hitching a ride on another blog about journalism.

Mark Cuban got the ball rolling in a piece Why Journalism Matters. Cuban makes some interesting observations, but it isn't clear from his piece why he thinks that journalism matters.

Scoble's message is more succinct. Most bloggers, he suggests, "aren't really here to do journalistic work, but rather to tell the world what we think (the two are different)".

One thing that gets missed in the continuing debate about blogging versus journalism is the role of the "back office". Few bloggers have a news editor asking them why their story is important, and demanding evidence to they back up all those assertions. And the idea that you have a subeditor knocking copy into shape is an alien concept. That's why you see so many typos and grammatical howlers even in "professional" blogs, where the writers are paid for their input.

27 May 2006

Another ITERation towards controlled fusion?

The CORDIS: News service is just one of many reports of the signing of a pointless piece of paper in the saga to achieve controlled nuclear fusion. The next machine, ITER, comes after an increasingly large, and increasingly expensive, series of magnetic confinement machines.

Another title for this could have been "Bunch of old men in suits sign pointless pieces of paper".

The only reason for mentioning this non-event here is that my short lived career, all of three years, as a research physicist was in nuclear fusion. Way back then, the world was a younger place, nuclear power had yet to blot its copy book, and climate change was something that happened in science fiction (read the excellent Hothouse by Brian Aldiss).

The timetable for nuclear fusion back then in the mid 1960s was that it would take 25 years to get to a commercial power station – 40 years on and the timetable is more like 40 years before commercial electricity flows from fusion. Makes you wonder where we will be 40 years hence.

The whole fusion programme has a fascinating history. The first revelation that there was a peaceful fusion effort came with claims that an early machine, Zeta, had produced thermonuclear neutrons. That is, neutrons produced by banging together isotopes of hydrogen and creating atoms of helium. Zeta had done no such thing. The neutrons happened because particles had smashed into the walls of the machine and knocked off the neutrons. (Did someone mention 'cold fusion'?)

Maybe there'll be time to go into some more of this history later. At the moment we can only marvel at the acres of coverage that the media gives to this event, very little of which shows any understanding of the history of fusion power. Maybe someone will find time to go into the subject in enough detail to explain just why it has taken so long. Then again, that would require some fairly detailed description of things like magnetic instability, H modes and stuff.

26 May 2006

Eat British lamb

A sign of the times. Spotted last weekend in the car park of the Half Moon, Warninglid.

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17 May 2006

Book worms need feeding

If you can afford to spend £250,000 a year for a bit of publicity, you might like to support the Science Book Awards run by the Royal Society. The RS has put out a press release explaining that the Aventis Foundation is pulling out after 16 or so with its hand on the wallet in one guise or another.

First sponsored by the Science Museum, corporate sponsorship started with Rhone Poulenc and moved to Aventis after one of those name changes that companies like to go through every now and then. In recent years, the Aventis Foundation has picked up the tab. The foundation is a charitable operation "established in 1996 as the Hoechst Foundation with an endowment of €50 million".

We have a spot spot for the prizes because the Science Museum set them up when we made a throwaway remark at the end of a meeting of the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science. But they have always been a bit of a disappointment, constantly returning to the same tired old subjects – life, the universe and everything – for winners. There was also a tendency to overlook science writers in favour of academics slumming it.

This year they manage to break one of these traditions by choosing what is, if memory serves us, the first prizewinner with a technological theme. We have to rely on memory because someone seems to have forgotten to pay the fee to renew the web site for the prizes.

At a rather nice dinner at the Royal Society on Tuesday, David Bodanis picked up the £10,000 prize for his book "Electric Universe - How Electricity Switched on the Modern World". On the day after the event The Guardian reported that Bodanis will give the cash to the family of the late government scientist David Kelly, quoting Bodanis as saying that he hoped his gesture would, "tell some people in England something about the importance of truth."

With luck this will not deter potential sponsors. One thing they could do would be to spend a bit less on employing expensive events organisers to lay on the bash. At least one staffer at the RS muttered about duplicating all of their kit resulting in a larger than necessary bill for the sponsor. But we would not want anyone to cut back on the dinner bill. The food and wine were rather nice for a mass event.

15 May 2006

How big is a quantum?

Defending the meaning of "quantum leap" is now a lost cause. But that's no reason not to point the finger at the twits who make the mistake of thinking that a quantum leap is something big. It isn't.

Quantum mechanics deals with stuff around the size of atoms. And you probably don't need me to tell you that atoms are small. This does not stop the EU's energy commissioner, Andris Piebalgs, from talking about "a quantum leap in the production of renewable and low carbon energy".

Quantum leaps are discrete leaps. Discrete and tiny. That means they are like rungs on a ladder. You stand on one run or the next one up. You can't hover in the middle.

The commissioner probably meant an order of magnitude leap. But given the status of many renewable energy technologies, maybe he was right after all. Adding another solar powered battery to the world's energy output would bring about a tiny and imperceptible increase in energy production. A bit like an electron jumping from one quantum state to another.

Insider dealing as a science writer

There is an interesting "disclaimer" within the latest ACS weekly press package. There is also a reference to a useful tool for science writers. The slot billed as Journalists' Helper of the Week mentions something called Patent Watch. This points to a useful RSS feed.

The intriguing bit is the observation at the end of the whole package, although it isn't clear if it is about Patent Watch or everything in the mailing.

The health warning reads: "This information in this press package is intended for your personal use in news gathering and reporting and should not be distributed to others. Anyone using advance ACS News Service Weekly Press Package information for stocks or securities dealing may be guilty of insider trading under the federal Securities Exchange Act of 1934."

Whether this applies outside the USA is one question. The point is that this is the first sighting that I can remember of advice to science writers suggesting that they too could get done for insider dealing.

I've warned about this for years. After all, medical journals carry details of clinical trials that can move the price of drugs companies in a big way. That is why there has been some talk of theindustryy manipulating the journals in devious ways.

12 May 2006

Clash of the headlines

Headlines are important. They also cause more anguish than any other part of a publication, partly because they rarely come from the pen of the person whose byline appears on an article. As a connoisseur of these things, I delight when headlines clash.

Take these two:

WTO faults European Union for blocking genetically modified food imports

US did not win transatlantic GM trade dispute

The story is the ruling by the World Trade Organisation on Europe's stand on genetically modified (GM) foods and crops. The USA wants to force feed them to Europeans, who aren't that keen.

No prizes for guessing that the second headline comes from British environmentalists. The first is from an American tech operation, SiliconValley.com.

Unfortunately, the WTO's own web site doesn't seem to have anything that would tell us which of these headlines reflects the actuality. But read both stories and it seems that they have read the same report, but their spin is very different. Which is where the headlines come in.

Who should write press releases?

The Royal Society continues to offer advice to scientists with research to communicate. Its latest stone tablet is the report Science and the public interest: communicating the results of new scientific research to the public.

The 26-page document has a section on "lay summaries media releases". Here we read that "Researchers should seek advice, when needed, about what the appropriate context for their results is and should be alert to how their results may be used by
other individuals and organisations, such as campaigners or policy-makers."

This goes on to urge researchers to tip of "relevant regulatory bodies" if "research results are considered to have implications for the public". We then read the somewhat surprising claim that "Most regulatory bodies have well-established
mechanisms for assessing the implications of research results".

For once, the report does not point the finger solely at the media. Far from it, it tells us that "Misleading media reports have occurred because of inaccurate press releases about the results of new research."

The blame isn't totally down to the scientist, Sometimes, we read, "researchers whose results have been described have not always been consulted about the content and style of the press release. Sometimes too researchers produce inept summaries of their work in an attempt to gain publicity for their work."

The report makes a lot of sense – after all the committee behind it may not have anyone from the "Grub Street" side of the media it does include some experienced journals folks, such as the editor of Nature. However, it also raises a few questions. Won't the whole process of releasing results become even more bureaucratic if even press releases have to go through peer review?

Then there are those of us who feel that only a lazy journalist relies on press releases to set their agenda.

11 May 2006

What does "independent" mean?

When you read the sentence "A new independent report into the UK'’s energy needs has claimed that climate change targets could be achieved without the use of nuclear power" you naturally think that you may have landed on a devastating critique of nuclear power. But that thought swiftly vanishes when you read that the people who commissioned the report were no less than WWF, an organisation that once had something to do with wildlife. The stories becomes even more cloudy when you read the report concerned.

The revelation comes in a story that we first saw in a story at Green Consumer Guide with the title Nuclear not needed - report. No matter how respectable the people who carried out the report, ILEX Energy Consulting, and these are no bunch of lightweight academics masquerading as the Centre for Research by Very Clever People, anyone knows that a survey depends on the questions you ask, so you'd need to know the brief before deciding on the credibility of the report.

From reading the report, it turns out that "WWF has commissioned ILEX to provide a realistic assessment of the potential to achieve significant CO2 emissions reductions in the UK power sector by 2010, 2016, 2020 and 2025 without new nuclear build." Sort of makes nonsense of that first sentence.

Reading the report, albeit quickly, you get the impression that it all but ignores the question, because it was not asked to consider it, what could CO2 emissions be if we built more nuclear power stations?

When a consultant writes a report like this, they usually have some control over the way in which it is presented. Are they really happy, you have to ask, to see this report touted under the headline on WWF's press release "Energy gap is a nuclear myth"? After all, the full title of the document is "The balance of power - Reducing CO2 emissions from the UK power sector". Not qute the same thing as a damning critique of the nuclear industry after all.

10 May 2006

Why inventors are a wind up

There is something about inventors that makes them even worse than engineers when it comes to whining about their lot. At least engineers have a point. But it really is time for Trevor Bayliss to stop banging on about being ignored for years when he wanted to sell a clockwork radio.

Had he been left to get on with the project that is all we would have now. Bayliss gives no credit to the large team that had to cope with his self aggrandisement and get on with building a business.

At one time, James Dyson was also on my hate list. But he has grown up and now acknowledges, positively proclaims even, that his own inspiration alone was not enough. He acknowledges all the design engineers and manufacturers who had to turn his brainwave into reality.

By the way, Bayliss fails to point out that the real reason why his wind up radio works is that electronics is now "energy light". You can run a radio because it needs very little juice. Actually, as one leading engineer once put it to me, who needs wind up when you can use solar power? That too is enabled by modern electronics.

09 May 2006

Does your chewing keep its flavour?

Even when left overnight a bed post, your chewing gum does not have to lose its flavour. This horrible stuff, which threatens to raise the level of city pavements by several inches, makes lots of money for the food industry, so there is fierce competition to innovate. The Financial Times today reports that Cadbury plans to storm the USA with a chewing gum that keeps its flavour.

Where do these ideas come from? Does Cadbury have a pile of scientists on the case? Could be, but we can't help noticing a similarity between this idea and one that comes from Quest Foods and which is reported over on Just-Food. This is a flavour encapsulation technique that controls the release of the ingredients.

Chernobyl fallout continues

I have a slightly amusing anecdote about the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station 20 years ago. At the time, New Scientist was working on an article about nuclear power in the Soviet Union. As a result we had most of the pictures available in the UK of "Russian" reactors. When the meltdown started, we decided that we would conveniently "lose" the pictures so that no one could beat us into print with them.

Twenty years on the issue now is of the effect that the accident had on the health of the people in that part of Europe. As you would expect the media piles on the dangers. For a contrary view read this piece by Zbigniew Jaworowski, a Polish expert who just happened to have his Geiger counter handy when the balloon went up. He demolishes the view that people are dropping like flies from thyroid cancer, among the various scares we have seen in recent weeks.

30 April 2006

What is an expected discovery?

We shouldn't pick on these people, they were among many web sites to recycle the story about an Unexpected Plasmonic Discovery from NetWorlddirectory. The original press release even had it. Sure, there are some expected discoveries, like when you are seeking the source of the Nile. But in science, good research is all about finding the unexpected. The reason for mentioning things, apart from protecting the language, is that far too much research these days knows the answers before the experiment begins. That's not science: it is stamp collecting.

Can you detect bogus science articles?

ScienceDaily reports that "Scientists Devise Means To Test For Phony Technical Papers". How long, we wonder, before these bright persons come up with a way of spotting junk science articles in other places?

23 April 2006

Engineering Media Challenge

Engineers are sad souls. They do these wonderful things, and yet they have a planet sized chip on their shoulders about not being loved. They are trying to do something about this. A bunch of engineering institutions have launched the Engineering Media Challenge.

The money on offer, £35,000, is far from peanuts, but are they going for the right people? Writers are the bottom of the media food chain. Great ideas will sink without trace if the people who run the media outlets show no interest.

18 April 2006

Well-informed citizens consider CO2 storage to be acceptable

When a research project shows that, as the press relesase puts it, "Well-informed citizens consider CO2 storage to be acceptable," you have to ask yourself if the world has gone mad when people think there is nothing wrong with CO2 storage while getting all frothed up over nuclear waste.

The case against nuclear waste is that it lasts for thousands of years and might escape. The case against CO2 storage is, er, that it last for ever and might escape.

Big bother is watching you

Medical journalism is not the same as science journalism it certainly isn't the same as health journalism, which is where you can get to the fruit cake end of the spectrum. That's partly because medicine is more applied science than "real" science. Unlike engineering, though, which is mostly the applied side of the physical sciences, we don't take medicine for granted. We expect medics to get it wrong, but we trust the folks who builds bridges to know what they are doing.

A new web site, FIMDM Health News Review, promises to "support and encourage the ABCs of health journalism". To them ABC is accuracy, balance and completeness.

The first two are fine, but the last one smacks of a researcher who wants all the qualifying crap that makes their papers unreadable.

OK, so the medical media are under the spotlight, and about time too. But this could well be the usual stuff. Giving medical hacks a star rating really doesn't get you very far. What about the research they miss? Are reporters led by the nose, and the press releases? While this is no excuse, if the reports that appear in the newspaper do no more than reflect the stuff they were fed, then maybe fingers should point in different directions.

12 February 2006

Anyone for sileage?

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02 January 2006



Who would have thought that the tech market would worry about sugar prices? But here we have a web site dedicated to fuel cells alerting its audience to one of the not so sweet facts of life in world trade.