Science: It’s a Girl Thing!

The European Commission is trying to get more women involved in science, which is good, except…look at their Science: It’s a Girl Thing campaign. Jesus wept.

Serious man sits at microscope. Fashionable, slender girls slink in on ridiculous high heels and vogue to shots of bubbling flasks, splashes of makeup, twirling skirts, and giggling hot chicks. Seriously, this is not how you get women excited about science, by masquerading it as an exercise shallow catwalking. This is a campaign that perpetuates myths about women’s preferences. The lab is not a place where you strut in 3″ heels.

How do you get people excited about science and science careers? By talking about science. Ben Goldacre made some excellent comments on twitter about this.

The EU have funded a campaign to make women in science wear shorter skirts. #sciencegirlthing

Time and again with these high budget state funded science communication activities, they dumb down, shoot for the mainstream, and miss.

Meanwhile I can’t help noticing that the really nerdy stuff done by ppl like me and @robinince is commercially successful in the marketplace

I realise that sounds cocklike, but it’s true. Dumbed down state funded sci comms is patronising and fails to meet its stated objectives.

People – not just nerds – like nerd stuff. They like the details. They’re not thick.

@flypie @robinince we fill out rock venues, my book sold 400,000 copies, i dont know what more metrics you want. Nerd detail sells.

@edyong209 @robinince we make, a fucking, profit. we sell nerd details, and people buy it, while state £ sci comms patronises tiny audiences

The real tragedy is that somewhere, a marketing cock is celebrating that their “controversial” campaign is being discussed #sciencegirlthing

Also, to my vast surprise, for once the youtube comments are actually intelligent.

Oh wow, I can’t remember when I last felt this patronised. I’m pretty sure the message “scientists think that women are giggly, superficial and obsessed with fashion” isn’t going to get more of us doing science. Just eww. I have a physics degree. I managed to get it without strutting around a lab in a minidress and stupid shoes and doing ‘sexy’ pouts.

Rachael Borek

Please tell me that this is a sad joke. Being female and working in a laboratory I find it patronising in the extreme. I can’t believe that any intelligent woman watching this would not want to punch the advert-makers in the face. Is this REALLY what you think women interested in science want?? Go look at clips of Kari Byron hosting Mythbusters and then come back and apologise to everyone.

Catherine Du-Rose

Oh my god. I haven’t been this revolted by something since I heard about the human caterpillar. This is so insulting! I can’t find the words to properly articulate how irritated I am by this. Please tell me this isn’t a trailer – I mean, there’s not going to be more like this? I cannot imagine anything that would turn an intelligent girl off a subject faster than being patronised.


I’m a girl and I’m a scientist. I definitely do not go prancing around making make up. I work on a computer and do processing. Science is not a girl thing, it’s an everyone thing, everyone who is passionate enough about doing what they love. This is a terrible, terrible video, and I feel very offended, and I know my male colleagues do not see me like this. I feel rather disgusted.


Hey, next time an organization tries to do the right thing and encourage more diverse people to participate in science, how about if you actually talk to scientists and try to understand what motivates them, rather than dragging some refugee from the fashion and music video world to tell women how to be scientists?

Gosh, the grapes sure are sour over here

Benjamin Radford, a regular at The Amazing Meeting, has decided he doesn’t like blogs, and never has, no sir. This is a fact which he has chosen to announce in a blog by citing his first blog entry.

As I write my first entry for the sparkly new “Free Thinking” blog, I’m skeptical of its utility. While I have spent much of my career promoting critical thinking and skepticism, I’m concerned about joining the noise, the glut of words inundating the Web and indeed the world.

By most estimates there are over 120 million blogs out there on the World Wide Intertubes. It seems everyone has a blog; teens are blogging, grandmothers are blogging, almost anyone with access to a computer, an opinion, and some spare time has a blog. The Web has democratized the dissemination of information, but not necessarily improved the content quality. There’s incredibly good, useful info on the Web, but the signal to noise ratio is higher than ever.

Of course, some blogs are better than others, but according to a statistic I just made up (so you can’t check), 98.3 percent of blogs are irrelevant, self-indulgent musings and journaling, read by the blogger and one or two friends.

Blogs are inherently personal; they rarely include references; they are short, thus allowing for little or no detailed, critical analysis. In this age of blogging and Twitter, communication comes in smaller and smaller bites, conveying less and less information. For people to accurately understand the world around them, they need more information and context, not less.

So he makes up a statistic and doesn’t bother to cite anything, so blogging is all noise and doesn’t include references (hint, Mr Radford: it’s called a “link”, some of us use them heavily.) And nobody reads them, except a few of the bloggers’ friends. He could make a case for that, I suppose; I sure don’t read Radford’s attempts at blogging, and only ran across this one because DJ Grothe praised it on twitter. (Oh, I so want to see Radford’s critique of twitter — I’m sure it will be as perspicacious as his complaints about blogs.)

Then he concludes by announcing that blogs still suck.

The same problems and issues I identified are still around, if anything magnified by the exponentially growing World Wide Web. Since that first blog I have been witness to (and occasional victim of) flame wars, troll attacks, misrepresentation of others’ positions (both obvious and subtle), and so on. We’ve all seen bloggers resort to feigned outrage, insults, and invective in their efforts to stir up controversy and increase page hits. This sensational, shock-jock sleaze is nothing new, and has been immensely successful for Jerry Springer, Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern, and their countless blogging ilk. It’s not helpful or productive, but it gets attention.

Still, media has always had the inherent problem of separating out the wheat from the chaff, the insightful from the banal, the incisive from the divisive. Such is the price for the democratization of speech that the Internet brings: anyone with a computer has equal access. It’s probably true that most of everything is crap-but it’s a shame that we must work so hard to find the non-crap.

There’s a grain of truth to what he says, and I’m trying to think of some productive suggestion that would help improve the web, and I’ve come up with one: Ben Radford could stop blogging, and stop adding to the noise.

But he’s also deeply wrong. You could make the same arguments about books, or magazines, or newspapers: they’re mostly junk. The only solution, obviously, is for everyone to stop writing. Everyone, but especially Mr Radford, who can then go back to talking about chupacabras. And then he can ignore every criticism made of his work by telling himself they’re just trying to stir up controversy and increase page hits.

This claim that blogging is all about stirring up controversy to get page hits is also nonsense, but nonsense that gets regurgitated regularly by every old school pundit who objects to getting criticized. It’s wrong. I can tell you what gets you traffic: reliable, sustained writing on subjects of interest to an audience. Just controversy is never enough; it’s the people who can write well about controversy who win the audience. If you can’t do that — and Radford certainly can’t — you lose, and you have to resort to whining that all your competitors for eyeballs are all hacks and cheaters who don’t have the skill at communicating that you do.

But actually, his second to the last paragraph does get to the source of his unhappiness: he has been the victim of blogging. The poor man last got on our radar when he wrote a most ludicrous and appalling piece of pseudo-skeptical, evo-psych bullshit to justify sexism. It was piece that ignored reason and evidence, what few scientific articles he used to support his claims he understood poorly and mangled misleadingly. Rebecca Watson spanked him hard; I took him to school on his abuse of the science; Stephanie Zvan showed that his rationale made no sense; the blogosphere, that wretched hive of irrelevant, self-indulgent musings, lit up with pointed criticisms of Radford’s ghastly abuse of skeptical thinking. His response? Throw up more banal, divisive crap. And get slammed again.

This was a case where blogs were actually extremely good at separating the wheat from the chaff. It’s just that we’ve determined that Ben Radford is the chaff.

And now the chaff is complaining, on a blog.

(Also, I have to add: DJ, your proxies aren’t helping.)

Creationism is a marketing game

And they know it. Ken Ham has started a new billboard campaign for the creation “museum”, with a variety of different designs, all featuring prehistoric* creatures as draws to get kids and family to attend. Here are some examples:

Notice what’s smart about them? They’re focused, featuring an element that they clearly know is a key draw, dinosaurs; they’re eye-catching; they’re professionally designed and have thematic unity; and the Creation “Museum” knows that good marketing is a way to get people to come in to their propaganda mill. You know they invested a good chunk of money in this effort.

So now Ken Ham is openly gloating about his wonderful billboards.

…just like everything else we do at the Creation Museum, they are done professionally—first class!

To make matters even worse, he goes on sneer at the feeble efforts of real museums, and to mock several atheist billboard campaigns, posting examples of some of the worst. And the sad thing is — and you won’t hear me saying this very often — Ken Ham is right. Real museums are strapped for cash, and most of their money is going into curating scientific collections and paying scientists to do work for them, while atheist organizations are actually small time compared to the multi-million dollar operating budget of a commercial enterprise like the Creation “Museum”.

Ham doesn’t have a clue about any of the things real museums do. When an NCSE spokesperson says he wishes more science museums could engage in this kind of promotion, Ham whimpers defensively.

You mean our government-funded (using our tax money) Smithsonian would not have a marketing budget as big as the marketing budget of the Creation Museum? And what about all the other secular museums (no doubt most are funded by our tax dollars) such as the Chicago Field Museum and New York Natural History Museum—and the many, many others!

The Smithsonian, the AMNH, and the Field Museum are not about marketing! They’re institutions doing science. Ham is confused in thinking that his freak show exhibit and monument to bunkum is anything like those places. He does not have a museum, he owns a sideshow attraction!

The article reveals Ken Ham’s ignorance in so many ways. He really doesn’t understand the difference, and he doesn’t comprehend why scientists might be worried about his campaign.

As of writing this blog post, an Associated Press article about our new dinosaur billboards has appeared on many news sites, including ABC News and the Washington Post. The AP article and many blogs indicate that secularists are concerned about them. Isn’t it amazing that they are so worried about one Creation Museum. Think of all the hundreds of secular museums and thousands of secular schools, colleges, and universities where evolution and millions of years are taught as fact—and the secularists are really worried AiG’s Creation Museum! That shows how insecure they really are. Secularists just can’t stand it when information they have censored from the public is being disseminated by us. And they don’t want people thinking for themselves; they want them to swallow their anti-God religion!

Those billboards and his “museum” are not disseminating censored information. Information about creationism is freely available all over, and gets routinely spread in a common American institution, church. We are worried because Ken Ham is spending buckets of money disseminating slickly-produced lies, while scientists are trying to do science. Lies are cheap and easy; the truth is harder to come by. That he follows the cheap and easy route means he has more money to sink into public relations.

We’re not worried that Ken Ham has some uncomfortable truth that he’s getting across to people. We’re worried that he’s an effective charlatan.

And really, it’s easy to see what a lying fraud he is. Did you notice one of the billboards in that montage above?

Yeah. Ken Ham claims that fire-breathing dragons were real.

*Well, actually, if Ken Ham were right, these are historic creatures that lived within the last 6,000 years.

What’s the matter with TED?

I enjoy many TED talks. I especially enjoy them because I only watch them when someone else recommends one to me — I’ve got filters in place. The one time I tried to sit down and go through a couple of random TED talks, I was terribly disappointed.

Carl Zimmer explains the problem with TED.

The problem, I think, lies in TED's basic format. In effect, you're meant to feel as if you're receiving a revelation. TED speakers tend to open up their talks like sales pitches, trying to arouse your interest in what they are about to say. They are promising to rock your world, even if they're only talking about mushrooms.

So the talks have to feel new, and they have to sound as if they have huge implications. A speaker can achieve these goals in the 18 minutes afforded by TED, but there isn't much time left over to actually make a case–to present a coherent argument, to offer persuasive evidence, to address the questions that any skeptical audience should ask. In the best TED talks, it just so happens that the speaker is the sort of person you can trust to deliver a talk that comports with the actual science. But the system can easily be gamed.

In some cases, people get invited to talk about science thanks to their sudden appearance in the news, accompanied by flashy headlines. Exhibit A, Felisa Wolfe-Simon, who claimed in late 2010 to have discovered bacteria that could live on arsenic and promised that the discovery would change textbooks forever. When challenged by scientific critics, she announced to reporters like myself that she would only discuss her work in peer reviewed journals. Three months later, she was talking at TED.

The problem can get even more serious in TED's new franchise, TEDx, which is popping up in cities around the world. Again, some TEDx talks are great. Caltech physicist (and DtU editor) Sean Carroll talking about cosmology? Whatever you've got, I'll take. But some guy ranting about his grand unified theory that he promises will be a source of  unlimited energy to fuel the planet? Well, just see how far you can get through this TEDx talk before you get loaded into an amublance with an aneurysm.

So there’s the problem: audiences pay a shocking amount of money to attend a TED session, and what they expect is an epiphany delivered every 20 minutes. That’s not how science works. You know that every excellent talk at TED is backed by 10 or 20 years of incremental work, distilled down to just the conclusion. Most of the bad talks at TED are people trying to distort the methodical approach of science into a flash of genius, and failing. Some of the bad talks are simply cranks babbling; the example Zimmer gives is a perfect illustration of that. Cranks are really good at making grandiose claims, and in a setting in which no data has to be shown and no questions can be asked, pseudoscience shines (and by the way, what is it with kooks and swirling donuts?)

Another odd connection: I wonder if this tendency to inflate the baby steps of science into grand world-changing leaps contributes to or is fueled by Kurzweilian transhumanism and an exaggerated sense of progress in science?

The fake journal trend

It’s really easy to set up a completely fake peer-reviewed journal, which is a great boon to pseudoscientists, quacks, creationists, and con artists. They can be tripped up, though, since they aren’t aware of all the inside jokes and strange habits of scientists. Here’s one, a journal called “Molecular Biology”, that was exposed because they were a little to eager to recruit “editors”…editors who would never be called upon to edit anything, but would just provide a name for window dressing.

I’m delighted to inform you that Peter Uhnemann from the
 Daniel-Duesentrieb Institute in Germany was just appointed
 editor of the OMICS journal “Molecular Biology”:

For those of you who don’t know Peter Uhnemann: he is a fake
 person invented by the German satirical magazine Titanic.
 They created an FB account for him to make fun of social
 networks (he soon befriended on FB with various German

For those of you who don’t know Daniel Duesentrieb: this is
 the German name of the Walt Disney comic figure Gyro Gearloose.

For those of you who don’t know the OMICS journals: these
 are junk journals spamming around invitations to join their
 editorial boards.

On their web page they say that

 “election of the “right” editor for a journal is one of the
 most important decisions made by OMICS Publishing Group …
 Editors, Executive Editors & Editor-in- Chief of journals
 must be senior researchers, e.g. chaired professors.”

 As it looks, Peter Uhnemann from the Daniel-Duesentrieb
 Institute meets these criteria.

If you accepted an offer to join the editorial board of this journal and are on this list, you might want to get off of it fast — you’re being associated with a spammy bit of fraud. I’m looking at you, Peter Duesberg.

(Also on Sb)

Elsevier = evil

Along with SOPA and PIPA, our government is contemplating another acronym with deplorable consequences for the free dissemination of information: RWA, the Research Works Act. This is a bill to, it says, “ensure the continued publication and integrity of peer-reviewed research works by the private sector”, where the important phrase is “private sector” — it’s purpose is to guarantee that for-profit corporations retain control over the publication of scientific information. Here are the restrictions it would impose:

No Federal agency may adopt, implement, maintain, continue, or otherwise engage in any policy, program, or other activity that–

(1) causes, permits, or authorizes network dissemination of any private-sector research work without the prior consent of the publisher of such work; or

(2) requires that any actual or prospective author, or the employer of such an actual or prospective author, assent to network dissemination of a private-sector research work.

This is a blatant attempt to invalidate the NIH’s requirement that taxpayer-funded research be made publicly available. The internet was initially developed to allow researchers to easily share information…and that’s precisely the function this bill is intended to cripple.

Who could possibly support such a bill? Not the scientists, that’s for sure; and definitely not the public, unless we keep them as ignorant as possible. The corporations who love this bill are the commercial publishers who profit mightily from scientists’ work. And first among these is Elsevier, the gouging publisher scientists love to hate.

If passed, the Research Works Act (RWA) would prohibit the NIH’s public access policy and anything similar enacted by other federal agencies, locking publicly funded research behind paywalls. The result would be an ethical disaster: preventable deaths in developing countries, and an incalculable loss for science in the USA and worldwide. The only winners would be publishing corporations such as Elsevier (£724m profits on revenues of £2b in 2010 – an astounding 36% of revenue taken as profit).

Since Elsevier’s obscene additional profits would be drained from America to the company’s base in the Netherlands if this bill were enacted, what kind of American politician would support it? The RWA is co-sponsored by Darrell Issa (Republican, California) and Carolyn B. Maloney (Democrat, New York). In the 2012 election cycle, Elsevier and its senior executives made 31 donations to representatives: of these, two went to Issa and 12 to Maloney, including the largest individual contribution.

So Elsevier bought a couple of politicians to get their way. It’s typical unscrupulous behavior from this company; at least they stopped organizing arms trade fairs a few years ago, so we know their evil can be checked by sufficiently loud public opinion.

Tell your representatives to kill RWA. It’s another bill to benefit corporations that will harm science.

(Also on Sb)

How to inflame a young man’s passions

Hey! Remember that seven year old blogger who writes about paleozoic creatures? He’s going to be eight, and he knows what he wants for his birthday: A trip to the Field Museum at the University of Chicago. Friends and family are trying to raise money so he can go.

Wait a minute…I haven’t been to the Field Museum, either, despite having been to Chicago several times in the last few years. What’s wrong with me? I should be telling you to pay for my trip!

No, I’ll be altruistic: contribute to the young man’s dreams and inspire him to be a scientist when he grows up. I’ll just try to get their on my own — I’m a big boy now, I have an income and everything.

(Also on Sb)

Once again, I am embarrassed to be an American

I have really been looking forward to seeing David Attenborough’s latest, Frozen Planet, here in the US. I’ve seen brief snippets of the show on youtube, and like all of these big BBC nature productions, I’m sure it’s stunning. And then I hear that the Discovery Channel has bought the rights! Hooray!

But wait, experience cautions us. Remember when American television replaced Attenborough’s narration with Sigourney Weaver? And <shudder> Oprah Winfrey? And when the Oprah version dropped the references to evolution? What kind of insane butchery would they perpetrate this time around?

Well, the word is out. The Discovery Channel only bought 6 of the 7 episodes. They dropped the seventh because…it talks about global climate change.


It’s not just our dimbulbs in government, it’s active collusion by the media to suppress scientific evidence because it might be unpopular with our undereducated booberati. Jerry Coyne suggests that you contact the Discovery Channel’s viewer relations page and express your displeasure. I will not be watching a neutered version of the program on Discovery; instead, I’ll wait until I can pick up the BBC DVDs.

You know what else is annoying about this? My wife and I are having a pleasantly quiet evening at home, and what she’s been doing is watching youtube videos…of David Attenborough. She’s been gushing over these spectacular videos all night long, and I swear, I’m beginning to feel pangs of manly jealousy. At least I get to tell her that the American media has decided that he’s seditious and dangerous.

And that will probably make him even more attractive. I can’t win.

Just to end on a more pleasant note, Mary almost orgasmed over this one. You’ll like it too. Too bad the Discovery Channel thinks you hate reality.

(Also on Sb)

Mad scientists, start drooling

The future is arriving fast. Here are the instructions for assembling a $500 home molecular biology laboratory — you can do it! And it’s getting cheaper all the time!

The widespread and increasing availability of second-hand professional laboratory equipment or inexpensive new commercial surrogates means that it is now unchallenging to set up a fully functional molecular laboratory for less than $500 in equipment costs. Coupled with the presence of sources for all reagents and supplies needed in formats that are safe for general use, the work presented here demonstrates that capacity to set up functional molecular biology teaching modules is well within the reach of even the smallest educational facilities. When coupled with outsourced PCR product Sanger sequencing available from commercial sources at prices approaching $5/reaction, the capacity of such “home labs” to start undertaking research of real potential scientific value—such as surveys of microbial biota in unusual environments—at negligible costs should not be underestimated. Similarly, the potential for setting up labs of this type for medical applications in emerging countries may be worth considering. While current best methods have moved to real-time and array-based high throughput, contamination resistant methods, the methods demonstrated here were “state of the art” for clinical and research molecular diagnostics in the Western world only some 15 years ago.

Hmmm. The kids have flown, I’ve got more space than we know what to do with…maybe this summer I should tinker with setting up something like this.

(Also on Sb)