Archives for posts with tag: media

This is the third part of my overview of QED 2016. To see the previous entries, please check out Part 1 and Part 2.

This post covers some of the talks on Sunday. Matt Parker did a fantastic job as MC for the QED conference. Matt, who did a talk on maths some years ago, was uncannily witty and able to manage any situation effortlessly. Who knew that a maths training could lead to such important skills?

That video

Hot off the presses is the video of the event. It was shown for a second time on Sunday morning with a very subtle modification for the second day.

Mermaids and Crappy Science TV

The headline speaker on Sunday Morning was Cara Santa Maria. Cara is known to many in the skeptical movement as a new co-host on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast. She talked about her upbringing into a Mormon family, and her mental health challenges during her early career in media.

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It’s clear from her presentation that she is passionate about science and science communication. She has huge experience negotiating the American media landscape and  has a few thoughts on it’s merits and downsides.

The Discovery Channel has really shit the bed recently.

The American science media landscape is very different to Europe. There is a strong culture of anti-intellectualism and there are few incentives from government to provide quality, honest programming. In the past, news programs and factual programs, though not profitable in themselves, were funded from game-shows. Nowadays everything has to show a profit. This has lead to a race to the bottom: and lowest common denominator programming is the result with ratings beating truth each time. Recent examples include speculations about the continued existence of mermaids and megalodons on popular science channels.

Would you be opposed to dinosaurs still being alive in the Amazon?

Unnamed Discovery Channel executive after pitching a science show.

There are no easy answers to the problem, but Cara believes that it can be tackled through strong science role models such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, fighting back against the worst excesses of bad programming, creating popular DIY content, financial supports for good content and demanding change in the industry. It will be a long war.

Stop trying to sound so goddamn smart.

Cara has some thoughts on good science communication:

  1. Know your audience.
  2. Never underestimate the intelligence of your audience, but always underestimate their vocabulary.
  3. A big effort in communicating science should be put into the process of thinking, not the spouting of facts. Teach people to think critically for themselves.
  4. Be yourself. If you are pretending to be someone you’re not, people will disengage.
  5. Meet people where they are. We need to understand the cultural background and unchallenged assumptions that people have before we can talk to them meaningfully.
  6. Stop trying to sound so goddamn smart. The best science communicators talk to people in their language.

Here’s Cara talking about GMOs on the Dave Rubin show.

Duck Vaginas? Yes. Duck Vaginas.

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You had to be there. Sally LePage’s presentation was mind-blowing. Sally is an evolutionary biologist doing a PhD in sexual selection in Oxford. In a marvellously entertaining talk, she talked about the history of study into animal sex organs, noting that Darwin was really the first person in two millennia to take an academic interest in the field.

When a male has lots of sex it’s called sex. When females have sex, it’s called promiscuity.

She contrasted the research done on male animal genitalia to female animal genitalia, noting that the former category had been studied much more than the latter. Which is a pity, because without understanding the female reproductive organs, it’s difficult to come to conclusions on the variety of male sex organs. The duck is a case in point. Everyone knows that the duck has a corkscrew penis, but far less people (at least until this weekend) would have been aware that the duck vagina is even more elaborately shaped, allowing the female to decide which of the prospective males will become the father.

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A beetle’s penis. Just in case you were asking.

Even eggs are much less passive than sperms. Where conventional wisdom has the active sperm penetrating the egg, recent research shows that chemicals in on the surface of the egg actively collude in accepting the male DNA inside.

Sally delivered a master-class presentation here. She is a clear, entertaining presenter with a marvellous sense of humour and timing. Great work.

Here’s Sally talking about the Tragedy of the Commons.

Not done yet…

Let’s say you were watching a programme on house building, but every time the builder spoke up about using concrete blocks, the camera panned afterwards to a person who believed that instead of concrete, Christmas tinsel should be a better building material.

Or, you were watching a motoring programme with a mechanic talking about putting oil in the engine to keep the parts moving. After he had spoken, the programme sought the views of a person who felt that Fanta Orange was a much better alternative than oil to lubricate the engine.

Imagine, in both cases, how the builder or the mechanic would feel about this. Imagine what they would think about the programme makers. “Short changed” would be putting it mildly.

With due consideration to the Christmas Tinselists and Fanta Orangeists out there, we might consider it completely mad for a programme to devote time to people who clearly were off the range as regards issues that are generally accepted as mainstream ideas. Not only that, but it would be seen by many as sowing confusion and distraction where no such thing was warranted.

The principle of balance is ingrained into most broadcasting organisations. To be fair to all sides, they will often invite people with different viewpoints to debate particular points. This is a good principle in the main. It minimises the chances that we are being excluded from hearing important contrary information when making your mind up about various issues. It also makes for good, entertaining TV and radio.

In the cases above, however, you can see that the principle of balance can be overextended, particularly when subjects are largely decided and incontrovertible. In many situations, therefore, the broadcaster is not required to create a “balanced” debate; they are perfectly entitled to represent the single accepted position and get on with it. This is the picture acknowledged by most experts in that field. It’s accepted because there is overwhelming support for it. Why create debate when there is none?

Take evolution for instance. There are people in this world who deny evolution, primarily for religious reasons. That’s their choice. It is a nonsense, however, to employ the principle of balance when discussing evolution, because unlike evolutionary scientists, creationists have no real evidence supporting their position. In the many decades since Darwin first published his ideas, creationists have utterly failed to provide reliable support for an alternative, while the scientific underpinning have multiplied in size. The scientific evidence is so overwhelming that it’s a complete nonsense to suggest that a debate even exists. Pitting a creationist against an evolutionary scientist – no matter how many people feel there is a debate to be had – is quite ridiculous. It only serves to elevate a faith based position to be seen as a plausible alternative to the scientific research – a position it does not deserve.

After so much debate and so much evidence, we are also entitled to question the motives of those who would continue – to this day – to promote creationism or intelligent design as credible alternatives on a par with evolutionary science. Since their positions have been refuted in so many ways and for such a long period of time, we can safely say that such people are no longer interested in an honest pursuit of the truth. Denial has a propaganda value. Thus, it’s not just false balance: anyone organising a debate between creationists and evolutionary scientists nowadays must accept that the creationists are not coming to the table with pure intentions, despite what they might say publicly.

Such is also the case with climate change. The vast majority of climate scientists are in agreement that a) CO2 and other greenhouse gasses are warming the planet, b) that intensive human activity is the major factor in this warming and that c) this issue needs to be tackled urgently. Deniers take issue with some or all of these statements, but their arguments have little scientific merit. Pitted against decades worth of evidence building and hypothesis testing, the denier community has come up short. They are losing and they know it. Having singularly failed to develop a plausible scientific alternative, they resort to sowing doubt and muddying the waters. It’s the Creationism vs Evolution debate all over again. Because it too has only got worse for deniers in the past years, we have to ask ourselves what the underlying motive for maintaining their stance might be.

It’s for these reasons that I don’t think it’s useful to be giving a platform to climate change deniers on broadcast media. Like Christmas Tinselists or Fanta Orangeists, they have no scientific argument to make and thus they are a distraction from the real issue. But more than this, just like creationists, I have a problem with their motives. When the evidence is so overwhelming, there has to be an underlying reason for maintaining their stance. An honest debate in such circumstances is impossible.

I want you too forecast the weather on the 21st of May next year. 2015. Off you go.

The options are quite few. Sunny, cloudy, rainy, showery, windy. Snow? Not so much. We’re talking about May after all.

Ken Ring predicted snow in May last year. Furthermore, he predicted regular quantities of snow for every month leading up to May. According to Ken, the first months of 2014 in Ireland would be bitterly cold. As it happened, we barely got snow in January, not to mention the fact that our winter was mild, as winters go. What’s worse, he failed to predict the intense winter storms of 2014. As predictions go, Ring’s analysis was well of the mark.

Here’s the thing. If the options are relatively few, then there is a good chance that some of your predictions will turn out correct. Even if you guess at random, you won’t get everything wrong. Sometimes you will predict sunshine, and you’ll be right. Ken Ring, who is wont to make a huge number of predictions, knows this very well. He’s made a career from crowing about his correct answers, all the while expecting that few people will call him out for getting it wrong. If they do call him out, he’s got plenty of stock answers to give. “Forecasting is an inexact science”, “It was partially right”, “I was out by just a few days”, “it wasn’t quantity, it was regularity” – special pleadings that allow him wiggle room from what, ultimately, was just guesswork.

If one prediction can be excused, a whole year of them is more difficult to explain away. That’s what one Irish blogger has done – taking his predictions and scoring him on each one for accuracy. So far, at just over 26% (and that’s being generous), he’s not doing that well, and is well short of the 80% accuracy he claims to have.

Ken Ring was on the radio a few days ago (96FM Cork Opinion Line November 14) and as usual he captivated his audience by giving specific predictions at specific locations for days many months in the future. When I was listening to this, I wondered why this guy didn’t have the ears of every major weather forecaster in the world? I can think of two answers to this. Either he’s right and they’re too arrogant, stupid and/or conniving to listen to him, or he’s talking – how can I say this delicately? – ah yes – bullshit.

Weather forecasting is a critically important field, affecting our lives in all sorts of ways. Bad weather can cause financial hardship, destroy livelihoods, ruin economies and cost lives. Flooding, storms, droughts, freezes and heatwaves all cause damage, sometimes into the billions of dollars.  If we knew for certain that an enormous hurricane was going to roll across our city in 3 months time, imagine what could be done to save lives and protect homes and businesses. Who wouldn’t want better, more accurate forecasts? According to Ken, the world’s met offices don’t want them. Maybe they want to keep such fantastic knowledge away from the public? Maybe Big Weather is in league with Big Pharma or the CIA or whatever you are having yourself, to ensure governments and insurance companies are on the receiving end of huge damages claims? The mind boggles.

A little bit of scientific understanding tells us that the atmosphere is hugely complicated, and that errors, even in the best prediction models, get larger and larger over time. Five to seven days is the limit these days, and let’s face it – it’s not bad. Governments and agencies will continue to push back this envelope as much as they can, because ultimately it’s worth it. The science of weather forecasting has, er,  a bright future, so to speak.

It is reasonable, therefore, to assume that Ken Ring is not a great forecaster, but instead, a crank. The type of crank who thinks he’s Galileo because he thinks he’s stumbled across something amazing, yet nobody who cares about their credibility will listen to him. There was just one Galileo. Cranks who think they are Galileo, or Einstein, or Steven Hawking? Thousands and thousands. Just ask physics professors, who are sick to the teeth of receiving unsolicited and unreadable manuscripts from armies of lone geniuses.

It’s a pity Ken gets such publicity. Clearly he’s answering a desire in people to know what the future holds. In this way, he’s no better than a fortune teller or astrologer. What’s bigger the pity is that media organisations line up to listen to his words of wisdom, all the while discrediting real weather forecasting organisations. All they would need to do is to measure him by his predictions.

99 Percent InvisibleOver the past few weeks, I have been listening to the 99 Percent Invisible podcast on my journeys to and from work. If you are a fan of This American Life, you will love it. It discusses the influence of design in contemporary society and how its presence is often overlooked, as if, er, by design. Over the past few weeks I have been listening to the nuances of fire escapes, nuclear bomb shelters, and signage designed to last ten-thousand years. From these few episodes alone, I’m eagerly looking forward to hearing some of their older offerings.

I thoroughly recommend their recent episode “The Sound Of Sports“. It opens a window on audio production in sports television and radio. It was originally produced in 2011 for the BBC, and is slightly dated because of it. Despite this, it makes compelling listening. 

I never fully appreciated the lengths to which sports producers introduce a sense of hyper-reality into our living rooms. Their aim is to make the experience much better than being there in person. The cameras are up close to the action, the microphones strategically positioned to pick up the nuances of the play, and at times, sound effects are introduced because the real effects are, well, not good enough. This might seem like cheating, but sports broadcasters will tell you that some of their biggest competitors are video game designers. TV audiences now expect experiences at least as good as what gamers will encounter. It’s a kind of arms race, with both teams borrowing ideas from each other so that the end effects excite us in a way the actual event might not.

We have become accustomed to the hyper-real. While long the stock-in-trade of Hollywood with their foley artists and special effects departments, such enhancements are now available to the public for free. Photos are now routinely scrubbed and filtered by the likes of Photoshop and Instagram. Home movies are slowed down, sped up and dispensed of shake and stutter. We don’t see this as a problem because it’s all about pleasuring the senses and getting across the desired intent than portraying hum-drum reality. Perhaps there will be a backlash to this, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Hyperreality is likely to push us in directions we cannot imagine today. It’s going to be a fascinating journey. 

Ah yes, advertising. The crude oil powering the engines of modern media. It pays the bills of television, radio, newspapers and the Internet, and as such it is a necessary evil. Most of it, of course, is godawful: woefully wide of the mark, superlatively irritating and completely absent of even the slightest smidgen of creativity.

Nevertheless, there are some real gems out there, and I’ve just discovered a blog that brings us the best of them.

Like this, using red paint to emphasise an important message:

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Or this, demonstrating the braking ability of a Mercedes..

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Or this one, from Amnesty International

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This is very powerful stuff.

I got to see CBS Evening News last night. It featured a lot of coverage of the Iowa Caucus and the snowstorms on the US west coast. At the end of the program was a longish feature on a 7 year old boy who was about to climb Kilimanjaro. “If you put your mind to it, you can do anything” he said to us all. Aww bless.

No mention however of Kenya, and the huge struggle for democracy going on there at the moment. It’s been the number one news item for the rest of the world over the last few days, where a positive result to this crisis might issue in a new era in African politics. A negative result, on the other hand, could cause the biggest humanitarian crisis since Rwanda.

A little boy climbing Kilimanjaro was more newsworthy, apparently.

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