Media coverage, skew, and general not-in-the-Christmas-spirit ranting

Bah, humbug.

A little earlier I nonchalantly and lazily microblogged using the oh-so-professional channel of my Facebook status about something that slightly irritated me whilst watching the news. Here was what I wrote:

One attempted act of terrorism: Almost 24/7 news coverage. Thousands of scientific breakthroughs every day: Not even a few minutes of airtime. No wonder the general public feel isolated from science, in fear of technological advancement and generally depressed at the state of the world…

Anyway, seeing as the comment sparked quite an interesting conversation, I thought I’d relay these thoughts on this, my slightly more traditional soap-box haunt.

Obviously my comment pertained to the recent attempt to bring down a plane travelling from Amsterdam to Detroit. How much about this could there possibly be to report? Hours worth of television time, apparently.

It just depresses me that the news programs, day after day, cover crime, terrorism, war and political unrest as their main stories, then attempt to lighten this doom-riddled cake of hopelessness with a cherry in the form of a ridiculous human factor story about some family’s cat being rescued from a tree (or something equally banal). Earlier today I watched a story about freak weather in the UK – the seemingly important aspect of this being a woman who gave birth in an ambulance because it was stuck in the snow on a sliproad on the A14. Oh, and then there’s 10 minutes of football news!! If I were sat at a desk I would somewhat non-figuratively be slamming my head against it at this point. Luckily for me I’m on a sofa.

I’m not just going to have a long rant here about what I think the news SHOULD be covering, I think that much is pretty obvious from my list of interests ~superconducting flux qubits, yey!~ <-excuse the voices in my head.
Moreover, I'm wondering: What can we actually DO about it?

During my time in a University setting, I think I've only once been invited to a seminar by a person from the Press (in this case it was Radio 4). I think that the press just do not engage enough with scientists. There is so much cool research just waiting to be explored and popularised. There is also a large body of enthusiastic, young PhD students who would be willing to talk about what they are doing, which would not only help popularise their respective subjects, but also break that 'mad professor / scientist' stereotype which seems to still be hanging around a couple hundred years after it was actually representative.

However, until the 'media approaching scientists' kind of thing reaches a critical mass, it will be up to the scientists to shout louder and more ingeniously to make people take note. It will be up to them to chase down the media opportunities.

And I believe that there is a somewhat insidious problem here – primarily that it's not considered a worthwhile activity amongst science/engineering peers to communicate and popularise your research. Carl Sagan et al. are very much the exception rather than the rule. Popularisation is certainly not taught alongside science, or encouraged, even though there are lots of external grants available for this kind of thing. We rely on the rebellious defector amongst academics to propagate the enthusiasm. Instead, we should be supporting those who wish to act as spokespeople for their research.

A lot of media types are also looking for the ‘scare story’ angle. They will try every trick on the book to hype the negative angle of your research, especially of you are working in disruptive or controversial technology areas. I think that academics should be trained to answer media questions a bit like politicians: Get across the positive impact at all costs (short of actually, you know, lying..). And for goodness sake don’t mention Skynet. Or nano greygoo*ahem* tech. It’s ‘submicron’ or ‘molecular’ engineering, guys!

Ultimately, the goverment hands out the money to the funding councils, and therefore if we as scientists aren’t in the forefront of their minds (I mean look, we’re competing with the NHS, the education system, the war in Afghanistan, etc….), if they don’t see our science and go “Wow, you know – that’s not only the future of our country, but it’s actually pretty interesting too”, then funding for our research will indeed be cut.

So go out there and tell people that your research, be it Physics or whatever, is awesome. In any way you can. Ignore anyone who tells you that it isn’t worthwhile. And if you do it right – if you do it *really* right – then those people might just mention it to their friends the next time they have tea and cake πŸ˜‰


Note: On this topic with a slightly more transhumanist slant, inspired by the conversation, Stuart has also written a blogpost.

Merry Christmas by the way people.

Coffeebreak links 070809

Quantum Happenings

Reliable quantum operations performed on an ion trap QC:
Complete Methods Set for Scalable Ion Trap Quantum Information Processing
Here’s a Science Daily writeup of the article

More work towards scaling up macroscopic quantum behaviour:
Observation of strong coupling between a micromechanical resonator and an optical cavity field

Error correcting codes are robust against errors!
Thresholds for Topological Codes in the Presence of Loss

Other cool stuff

Via Next big future: Synapse Project to Make a Artificial Human Brain Gets $16 million more from DARPA More progress towards whole brain emulation….

Via Singularity Hub: Stainless steel printing Make whatever you can design in a CAD program into a metallic meatspace reality!

Via WIRED: Clever Crows Prove Aesop’s Fable Is More Than Fiction
I love crows, and enjoy reading about experiments to determine their levels of intelligence. Here the crows solve a simple puzzle by placing stones in a tube of water to raise the water level in order to obtain a floating snack. Watch the videos, they are very impressive.

Just for fun

Tron legacy concept art takes you inside cyberspace If you like TRON, you will want to check out this concept art for the new movie, TRON LEGACY (IMDB reference here)

Woo-rant: Mystics invade my Sunday morning

I spent some of my Sunday morning watching a program called ‘The big questions’. This is usually fairly good, they invite a general audience and some people considered knowledgeable in their field of speciality, and debate political issues. This week one of the questions was about ‘Life after Death’.


When I first heard the premise of the show, I thought that there would be at least one clued up scientist debunking the myriad of mediums, pentecostal ministers and downright crazy people making up stories about receiving personal visitations from their closely departed friends with tales of how pleasant the afterlife is. Alas, I was sadly mistaken. In fact, the only guy on the program who had any scientific background made the whole thing WORSE by completely fumbling his description of what is currently understood in the field of neuroscience and reducing it to ‘we really don’t understand at all how the brain works’ – wrong – ‘but we understand how vision works, for example, and if you remove a person’s eyes they cannot see, therefore how can they claim to have seen things after death’? – this was a.) irrelevant and b.) incorrect. The brain can simulate the experience of vision through memory prediction, (think about for example when you ‘see’ in a dream). It can also link other sensory inputs with predicted visual input (e.g. identifying objects whilst wearing a blindfold allows you to ‘imagine’ how the object looks).

Having just read Jeff Hawkins’ On Intelligence (thank you Geordie for recommending that one), the counter-arguments to a rational, physical theory of intelligence seem all the more strange. This book puts forward a beautiful computational model of the brain, which explains how intelligence can arise, why humans are so much better at certain tasks than computers, and also explains the hiaracy of intelligence in animals in terms of this model.

Indeed, after reading this book, I have now become even more of a Strong AI supporter.

How can people not acknowledge that the brain could be explained by a beautiful theory, instead wishing to attribute some ‘mystical’ connotations to it? Why does someone not having the wish to understand how something works give them the right to argue that no-one will ever have the capability of doing so? Why do their mystic arguments hold any water at all?

Because it’s easier to resign yourself to some fuzzy, warm, but completely incorrect way of thinking than to actually work damn hard towards the real understanding. And this laziness perpetuates itself.

Of course, people can resign themselves to this if they so wish, but they should not be allowed to preach it on live television as though it’s a scientifically sound point of view: Just some equally viable ‘alternative’ to the best possible scientific enquiry with which people have been diligently pushing forward the boundary of understanding for centuries.

What a horrible, deepening blow to the scientific community to let the people who know the least appear as experts via this incredibly popular and trusted style of information dissemination. And it’s downright wrong to give the impression that the argument is stronger from the mystical side and that the science itself is weak, just because you invite more passionate and ‘knowledgeable’ *cringe* mystics than scientists themselves.

This all makes me slightly annoyed, but all the more determined to actually a.) understand the cutting edge research in this field so I can b.) disseminate it correctly to these people.

To top off the woo-week, I watched What the Bleep Do We Know!? – Basically because I’d heard from the physics blogosphere that it was really, really awful. And hail! The physics blogosphere was correct πŸ™‚ I would still highly recommend the film to anyone who works in QM or even Physics/Biology in general, because we should be aware that stuff like this is not only in circulation, but is actually believed to be factual by many people. Maybe we should make a sequel: What the Bleep Do We Know!?: Quite a lot actually, if you ask reputable scientific people… Subtitle: – And don’t edit their responses to favour your own warped point of view –

I also felt that the copy of the film was better off in the relatively safe quarantine of my woo-antivirus vault (aka DVD shelf) than publically accessible (I found it in HMV). I did however feel slightly wrong after actually paying for a copy :S

One thing I did actually quite like about the film were the Dr. Quantum animations, I think they were very visually appealing. They would be a great way to enhance the teaching of (correct) science to kids, and indeed to interested people of all ages.

OK, end of PZMyers-esque-ness πŸ™‚