Archives for posts with tag: stem

On a walk today with my teenage kids, I found myself talking at length about science and astronomy: meteor impacts, dinosaurs, evolution, genetics, putting humans in space, the prospect of alien life. I was on a roll. This is the kind of stuff I have been interested in since I was a kid. The whizz-bang story of how we got here and where we are going. Like a great opera, the story of our universe stretches across spacial dimensions and time scales that are literally incomprehensible to the human mind. This is the stuff of dreams, of awakening, of wonder.

It got me thinking: as an occasional sceptical communicator, am I doing it wrong? Are we, as skeptics, sometimes doing it wrong?

Important though scepticism is, there is an unavoidable negativity about it. We are in the business of bursting balloons, raining on parades and exposing emperor’s clothes, when the science and evidence tell a different story. We are the debunkers, the critics, the nay-sayers. We play the bad cop, leaving ourselves open to anger, ridicule, smears and legal threats. We lose friends and find ourselves isolated, simply because we dare challenge an orthodoxy that is based on nothing more than wishful thinking. Conflict is inevitable, because many people have built reputations and fortunes on magical thinking and delusions. 

I greatly value scepticism, but I didn’t arrive at scepticism from day one. First came the wonder; the amazement that came with science and discovery. Astronomy was my passion, and remains so to this day. The scepticism appeared later, when I started to appreciate the importance of science, how it was being misrepresented and how easy it is for us to be fooled by empty rhetoric and soothing words. Scepticism is incredibly important, but without a sense of wonder it can be a very difficult message to convey.

Maybe as a sceptic, I need to spend more time talking about the things that got me into science in the first place, and less time, at least up front, pointing out the flaws in other people’s thinking. Persuasion is rarely accomplished by enemies or rivals. It’s easier to accomplish when you are a friend. So much science is accessible and uncontroversial, that this should be the main ingredient of science-based conversations. Give people a chance to feel your passion; to sense your humanity. Then you have a much better chance to open their minds to other ideas and help reconsider their beliefs.

The most powerful science communicators talk about their passions first and foremost. They are successful communicators because people have a sense of affection for them. Their thoughts on scepticism come later, often only when trust is long established. 

There is a lesson here for me: to talk more forthrightly about my passions, to give the listeners a chance to get to know me and to allow respect to flow both ways. It’s easy, it’s fun and there is a better chance that they will take on board the important messages we need to convey.

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.


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.


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.


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…

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