Tumbleweed…

Hello! If you’ve arrived here searching for Josh Howgego you’ve come to the right place – sort of. This is a blog I wrote during my PhD and for a short while afterwards. These days if you want up-to-date info. you should really head over to my new website.

Thanks!

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What is ‘editorial quality’?

The UK’s National Union of Journalists (NUJ) is worried that there will be a huge loss of so-called ‘editorial quality’ as academic journals move to Open Access publishing models. With publishing now digitised, there seems to be a feeling among academics that academic publishers are losing their value – so why not just sidestep them altogether?

At an NUJ-hosted discussion in February, Pete Wrobel, the managing editor of Nature until 2004, argued that editorial work in scholarly publishing does add value to research, and we should be slow to abandon it.

There’s a video of the event here:

As evidence, Wrobel pointed to a 1991 study in the New England Journal of Medicine. The research looked at two groups of articles published in the journal. Continue reading

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What’s wrong with ‘wonder’?

Last week there was a very interesting piece in the Guardian about Brian Cox. The author, Eliane Glaser, seemed to be arguing that Brian Cox and his ilk are something like the priests of modern science. The rhetoric of  wonder, according to Glaser, is something like: ‘let’s reflect on how amazing science is’. The trouble is, she argues, that although all this wonderment, mediated by Cox and co., is designed to make us engaged with science, it does the opposite. She suggests that popular depictions of science make the public feel less and less able to cope with the complexity of the subject, and more in need of ‘priests’ like Cox to guide us.

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Is Cox a preist of science? So the organisers of this street art campaign are asking.

The piece did not go down well on Twitter. I think Ed Yong’s criticism, summed things up. I agree with him: wonder in itself is not ‘anti-intellectual’ – I certainly feel a wonder at the complexity of the universe, and amazement at how far humans have come in understanding it. (And I would consider myself intellectual, at least to the extent that I have a science PhD.)

But the Glaser article does have some points of interest tucked into it. There are  problems, I think, with the idea of selling science based on the idea of wonder.

Continue reading

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From Devil’s Bargain to Postmodern Uncertainty: How the media ‘packages’ science

I’m learning a lot on my MSc course, but one thing I’m enjoying more than I thought I would is applied semiotics – the study of signs, symbols and meaning(s). I just had an essay back in which I looked at an article in the Financial Times (pictured) and tried to work out what it says.

Decisions, decisions: all the elements of this page turned out the way they did because of editorial choices.

Continue reading

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Messing around with a Marantz…

For about the last five weeks I’ve been having an awesome time being a student again. But this time around I’ve been learning how to shoot videos, record podcasts and direct TV studios. Why, oh why, didn’t I do an arts degree in the first place, I’ve been asking myself?

One of the things I’ve learnt is that I flippin’ love radio. I love how it forces you to use your imagination. I love the sound of the spoken word, and I love how, unlike film, you can be free to think about the topic, rather than being shown explicitly what someone else understands by it.

Mainly for my own organisation – but also in case anyone fancies having a listen – I’ve put one of the little podcast-lets I made online:

We’re at South Kennsington tube station talking about the ‘internet of things’. (Don’t know what that is? All the more reason to have a listen!) I really liked the background sound effects we worked into it; a great example, I thought, of how radio can instantly transport you to a location with just a few simple noises.

Another thing we did was have a go at working a mocked-up TV studio. My directing was fairly shoddy, but that was nothing compared to my Tony Blair eat-your-heart-out gesticulating hands. I kind of knew I did this, but boy – did I go to town on this particular day. Maybe I was nervous? Anyway, my friend Lucy decided to make this little treasure, just to show how over the top I went…  and embarrass me, of course. Enjoy!

Posted in Amusingly budget video, Science | 1 Comment

Why sci-fi references can be unhelpful in science writing

So this week I was typing away on my laptop, writing a story about how chemistry is becoming more automated, and what this might mean for the future. This is something, that as a (kind of fledgling) science writer I quite like to do. I look at some current trend in science, think about it, and try to discuss what it might mean; whether it’s a good thing and if there’s any way we might steer it on to an interesting or helpful path.

But in doing this. I’ve noticed a strong temptation to make references to science fiction. What I want to write is something like:

There will always be those who think that automation will lead to [insert reference to dystopian sci-fi film/book here], but of course, we have no reason to think it will.

I want set up a straw man, then smash it down, as a literary device for moving on to a new point. In my mind, it’s also a way of trying to get the reader to identify with what I’m trying to say – everyone knows something about popular sci-fi, but they might not know loads about academic chemistry! But this week, I was trying very hard to avoid using sci-fi references.

People know that robots are not about to take over the world. Journalists don’t need to explain it to them.

Why you might ask, what’s wrong with the odd Star Wars reference? I have even been quite irritated with myself when I have missed the opportunity to use them in the past. I wrote this piece earlier in the year about a visor which can help blind people see (in very poor resolution), and another guy (a journalist I quite admire, Leigh Phillipswrote it up for Nature News and used a reference to Geordi La Forge (the blind dude in Star Trek) to help explain the discovery. I completely missed that reference! And it seems cool, and helpful, right?

Phillip’s example is a bad one for my argument because (I think) his analogy is a good one. But references to science fiction can also be a problem in science writing, according to my new favourite-ever academic paper from Jenny Kitzinger at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. I should admit that this is not a new paper, and I didn’t even dig it out myself. Instead it’s something  we’ve been looking at in my MSc course.

Kitzinger’s main point is that science fiction should not be blamed for people’s fears about what scientific developments might lead to. When she carried out an analysis of how the media treats science fiction she found a media that ‘berates itself (or other less ‘quality’ media) for misleading the public through fiction and fictional references’. She says that it is more often than not the proponents of scientific progress who mobilise references to  ‘Frankenfoods’ leading to a ‘Brave New World’ (or whatever) in order to knock these ideas down, and show that they’re silly fears.

Referring to one of the specialists she interviewed during her research, Kitzinger says:

One specialist in nanotechnology, for example, remarked that images of ‘self replicating robots taking over the world’ could be ‘disastrous for what we’re trying to do’.

But in point of fact, most people are sensible enough to realise that science fiction is just that. And according to Kitzinger’s research people’s fears about science – if they have them – are more likely to be motivated by very tangible things, like nuclear disasters and atomic bombs.

So science fiction references can be useful in journalism. But there is also scope for a lazy recourse to these themes, and this should be avoided. We shouldn’t assume that people need to be informed that a Brave new World dystopia isn’t around the corner – they are smart enough to realise that for themselves.

References

Kitzinger, K, (2010) Questioning the sci-fi alibi: a critique of how ‘science fiction fears’ are used to explain away public concerns about risk, Journal of Risk Research, 13, (1) 73-86.

IMAGE: Dead Air, Flickr.

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The ‘cultural imagination’ and counting to base six

So yesterday night, as I was falling asleep, I was reading John Gribbin’s book ‘The Reason Why’ which is all about why humans exist the way we do, on this particular planet we call Earth.

One of the interesting questions Gribbin examines is how long it would have taken a creature of human-like intelligence to have evolved from the dinosaurs, had they not been wiped out. In this regard, Troodon, a small dinosaur about the size of a man is quite interesting, says Gribbin. It had one of the largest body size to brain size ratios we know of among dinosaurs. And it would have taken a paltry 25 million years for typical evolutionary processes to produce a lizard with an equivalent body-brain size ratio to modern humans. That means sentient lizards might have appeared about 40 million years ago. (For comparison Homo erectus appeared about 1.5 million years ago).

But what really hit me was what Gribbin said about how these smart lizards might have counted. Since Troodon had three ‘fingers’ on each hand, its hypothetical descendants would probably have counted using a base six system. It’s tempting to think that using base 10, the way we humans do, is the logical way to count, but of course, that’s only because we are so used to using 10. There’s nothing objectively special about the number

This ties in with a theme I have been thinking about in the modules I’m taking as part of my science communication course. It is all very well talking about the stories that get covered in the news and analysing them. But also important is the way things are not covered. Because the things that don’t enter our cultural consciousness will never happen – because we just don’t think about them. We can’t imagine having a revolution in this country, over-throwing parliament or something*, because we’re just never exposed to that sort of idea in the mainstream media.

This limits what humanities types call our ‘cultural imagination’. And it must apply to science too, right? The way that science is not done is important and worth thinking about. Just because we always count using 10s doesn’t mean six is an irrelevance.

*I hope it’s not necessary, but for the record, I am in no way suggesting that over-throwing parliament would be a good idea!

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