18 February 2017

“Explain it like you would to...”

People like to tell scientists what sort of explanation counts as “clear.”

So you get clichéd advice like, “You don’t really understand something unless you can explain it to a six year old child.” (Maybe this is why doing a Google Image search for “explainer” gives me the results above: the top results are all simplistic, almost child-like, cartoon images.)

Well, I’m sorry, but there are some things that a young kid is just not ready to understand. Differential equations? Quantum mechanics? Tesseracts? There are tons of perfectly fine scientific concepts that are no less legitimate because kids won’t get them.

Meanwhile, at the AAAS meeting in Boston, Mike Taylor tweeted another “explainer” cliché:

Claudia Dreifus: “If you can’t explain it to your grandmother, don’t bring it to a reporter.”

The “Explain it to your grandmother” cliché makes me even grumpier than “Explain it to a child.” Why is “grandmother” become a synonym for “uninformed person”? And it’s always, and I mean always, a “grandmother.” Never a “grandfather” or a “grandparent.” So there’s an assumption that women are the uninformed ones that need to have things explained.

Then there’s the age issue. Plenty of older people are perfectly clever. Indeed, some of them are called, “professors.” Other examples:

All three of my children’s grandmothers have college degrees, including graduate degrees and a law degree. - Keith Bertelsen

My kids’ grandmother was one of first women to enter IT in the 1980s, and she does not appreciate condescension. - Miriam Goldstein

My grandmother is one of the sharpest and most well-informed people I know, so def seems like an odd use of “grandmother” to me - Rachel Fritts

Friend of the blog Al Dove raised one good point in defense of the “grandmother” advice:

I’m 99.9% certain grandma was picked to mean “be RESPECTFUL,” not because she’s old and dumb.

Being respectful is a good goal in communication, but given the baggage that “Explain it to your grandmother” has, I think it’s best to look for a new metaphor. The desiderata might be someone who is:

  • An adult with some education, although not an expert.
  • Someone you should treat with respect.
  • Someone whose time is limited and valuable.

My suggestion for an imaginary target audience is:

“Explain is like you would to a world leader.”

A prime minister, president, and the like are all people that any scientist should aspire to be able to coherently and concisely explain what they do and why. Justin Kiggins arrived at similar advice to me independently. But while he was being facetious, I am being sincere.

But even that will have it’s limitations. Politicians are people who often think very short-term (new cycles and next elections), which can be tough for a scientist. This reinforces a lesson I have seen many writers: “There is no ‘general public.’”

14 February 2017

More March for Science thoughts

A while back, I noted that the planned March for Science had gotten a lot of flak, much of which seemed... unhelpful.

I want to be clear, though: this is not to say that March for Science should be immune from criticism.

I reckon it’s fair to say they are not making everyone feel welcome to the march. They’ve also made other communication missteps, like tweeting outdated news articles and misleading science facts. That said, I have not been following everything the March organizers have been doing or saying super closely (though I’ve collected a lot of links in this post).

I think the March for Science is important. It has excited a lot of people, but soured some. I hope that the organizers do better. Sometimes, even reviewer two has a fair point.

Update and correction, 16 February 2017: The claim that Science March had tweeted out an out of date news article was incorrect (strikethrough above). It may have come from supporter of the March, but not March organizers themselves.

Related posts

March for Science and Reviewer Two
An outsider’s perspective on protest

External links

March for Science

12 February 2017

Bilingual university plans; more program woes

The Texas observer has a profile on UTRGV focusing on plans to make the university a bilingual institution.

When this has been brought up on campus within faculty, I had heard that there was a law somewhere that said the language of instruction for public universities had to be English. I could not find it, so maybe this was just a rumour. It used to be that the state’s K-12 schools were English only... but that was over 40 years ago.

While I’m here, on top of our institution’s issues with accreditation, the nursing program is under warning.

External links

Inside the Nation’s First Bilingual University
Bilingual education
UTRGV nursing program under warning

10 February 2017

My heart beats true

It’s only the second round, and I am absolutely hooked on the AFL’s women’s competition.

Why am I hooked? Check out the 8 February edition of the Outer Sanctum podcast. Listen to how people flooded out to the first round of games because they recognized it was something historic. Listen to people admitting they were moved to tears, particularly a lot of women who never had a chance to play in a top competitions. Listen to the presenters talk about the diversity in the league, and how different the players’ stories are from the men’s competition: the men footballers had a pretty straight line into professional sports. The women have day jobs of all sorts (one Demons player is a dairy farmer), and many excel at several sports.

And what other sporting league – particularly football of any code – would have an openly gay couple playing for two different teams and competing against each other? The bigger, longer running men’s competition has never had a single out gay player, never mind a couple.

I am so enthralled that I decided to become club member, even though I will never get to a game in person this year. I barracked for the Demons since I lived in Melbourne years ago, and I’m continuing that in the AFLW. Go the Dees!

Related posts

The best ad during a football game was in AFL Women’s, not the SuperBowl

External links

Outer Sanctum podcast
First openly gay AFL player couple: "We're proud, and proud of each other"
Melbourne Demons

Staying active in the lab and/or field when you’re the boss

For many scientists, there comes a point in their careers where they are not collecting their own data. They supervise students, and the students collect the data, leaving the senior scientist (or, to use grant-speak I hate, the principle investigator or “PI”) to write grant proposals and help draft papers.

I’m a beleiver that senior scientists should have at least one project of their own. One project where they collecting their own data and write it up themselves as first author. I know that this is overly optimistic, and not a lot of people can do this. But even if you don’t have your own project, it’s still valuable to be in the field or in the lab doing something.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week. I’ve been spending quite a bit of time in the lab collecting data. I’m quite excited by the small amount of data I have so fa.

But the project I’m collecting data for started as an incidental observation last summer. I was helping one of my students on a project, and noticed something interesting. Just happenstance while we were looking at something mostly unrelated.

That incidental observation last summer is probably going yield at least one paper.

No matter how good and dedicated students are, the likelihood that any of them would have noticed what I noticed, and recognized it as interesting, is low.

There are benefits to having experienced observers, and that’s almost always the PI. You transition from lab bench to office desk at your own peril of missing some cool stuff.

09 February 2017

The name game and fame

There have been several “Scientists need to do more outreach!” editorial lately. Some have reminded people that most Americans can’t name a living scientist.

The “Do more outreach” editorials got some justified pushback from science Twitter. People listed the many, many things that scientists have been doing for outreach, not least of which was the #ActualLivingScientist hashtag on Twitter. Teachers in K-12 schools started printing out their favourites and stuck them to boards for students to see (above).

But while I love this stuff to death, I don’t think that it will make a big dent in the ability of people in polls to name a living scientist.

If you were asked in a poll to name a living lawyer, would you name a local attorney whose billboard you pass every day on your commute?

If you were asked to name a living football player, would you name your kid’s friend who plays on the high school team?

Probably not, because when you are thinking about answering a poll, you tend to think have to think fast. The names that pop to people’s heads are probably people who have some national fame. So no matter how much grassroots stuff scientists do, in a poll, people are still going to answer with names like Bill Nye or Neil Tyson or Bill Gates or Albert Einstein.

Related posts

Do you know this man?
Who gets to be a scientist?
I want to be Carl Sagan, but can’t

External links

A lot of Americans don’t know a single scientist. We need to fix that
Meet some #actuallivingscientists on Twitter
Picture from here.

07 February 2017

The current and future fights between universities and the White House

I make a cameo appearance in this Times Higher Education piece that focuses on the US administration threats to stop sending federal money to the University of California, Berkeley if they don’t allow a bigot to speak there. The article wonders if the UC Berkeley story will just be the first in a long series of battles between the current administration and academia.

External links

Trump's Berkeley threat spotlights future battles

Tuesday Crustie: Sticker shock

Last week, I polled people on Twitter, asking what people thought was the highest price paid for any invertebrate.

I was surprised that most people guessed over $10,000.* If you had asked me, I could not think of any invertebrate that could command that sort of price tag.

I polled because I had read about this crayfish, named “Chao Khun Chang.” It’s an unusual colour morph, but otherwise, it is the ubiquitous Louisiana red swamp crayfish, Procambarus clarkii.

As far as I know, it was sold for the highest price ever paid for a crayfish, and possibly for an invertebrate:

It sold for 1 million baht in Thailand, which is in the neighbourhood of US$28,500.

By way of comparison, I’ve been examining the price of crayfish in the North American pet trade for several years now (Faulkes 2013, 2015). The average sale price is $5 to $25 (depending on species). The highest asking price I’ve ever seen for a crayfish was $80, and the highest price paid (including shipping) was $65 (Faulkes 2015).

This crayfish is the invert arowana. It’s amazing.

* Winner of the best response was David Dobbs, who wrote:

Way over $10,000. Paul Ryan doesn’t come cheap.


Faulkes Z. 2013. How much is that crayfish in the window? Online monitoring of Marmorkrebs, Procambarus fallax f. virginalis (Hagen, 1870) in the North American pet trade. Freshwater Crayfish 19(1): 39-44. http://dx.doi.org/10.5869/fc.2013.v19.039

Faulkes, Z., 2015. Marmorkrebs (Procambarus fallax f. virginalis) are the most popular crayfish in the North American pet trade. Knowledge and Management of Aquatic Ecosystems 416: 20. http://dx.doi.org/10.1051/kmae/2015016

External links

Crayfish with rare colours sets B1m record
Distinctive species of ghost crayfish fetches one million baht price
Man sells cow-patterned crayfish for 1 million baht

05 February 2017

The best ad during a football game was in AFL Women’s, not the SuperBowl

Nope, the best advertisement I saw this weekend was during Round 1 of the inaugural AFL Women’s competition. Powerful and emotional.

(There are a lot of shorter versions that snip out a section of this longer ad. The first one I saw was this one.)

I amazed by how directly it attacked tropes about the importance of looking a certain way, the double standard faced by women athletes, and about having the ambition to do what you want. Whether or not it was intended, it may be the most overtly feminist ad I’ve seen in a long time.

I have been watching the formation the of the women’s competition with interest, and I think this ad crystallized why I think this league is so important. When I lived in Melbourne, I was just so astonished by how much passion for footy was part of the city. It was unavoidable and infectious. That bloke’s game was an integral part of the culture.

This is a big cultural change.

Imagine being a young girl seeing an ad like this. Suddenly, a dream that you might have had that was impossible – playing professional AFL football – is suddenly possible. And if that is suddenly possible, what other things can you accomplish?

If a male wants to be a ballerina, he can be a ballerina. If a kid says they want to be an astronaut... then you be an astronaut. - Moana Hope

Even though my team, the Demons, lost in round 1, this first round has left me anxious to see more. I’m telling you, there are going to be doctoral dissertations about the creation of the AFL Women’s league in years to come.

P.S.—There is a website that streams AFL games to locations outside of Australia, WatchAFL.com. There is a free trial period that allows you to try the service until 22 March. This gets you through the regular season for free; the Grand Finale is 25 March 2017.

External links

AFL Women’s
Watch AFL