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.