John Rennie: Good science journalism can save kittens from drowning

Former Scientific American editor and now freelance science writer John Rennie visited us in Madison this week.  The journalism program was clearly excited, he spoke to three of my classes this week. Today, his talk focused on science and controversy, and how the hell a well meaning journalist should try to navigate.

Rennie explained the problems with the traditional journalistic style of balance with a succinct example. Let’s say there’s one person over here who wants to drown 100 kittens.  That’s pretty extreme.  Then, let’s say that there’s another person over on the other side who doesn’t want to drown any kittens. That’s obviously the other extreme.  So the best answer must be to meet in the middle, and drown only about 50 kittens, right?

This Kitten would prefer not to drown. Good science journalism can save her! Source: nicsuzor, CC BY-SA 2.0, via flickr

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Why plants are awesome! (part 1)

This is a post for my sister, Emily, who is currently working at a camp in the mountains, teaching about nature  to Los Angles middle-school kids.  Apparently, she’s having trouble getting them interested in plants.  Luckily, I love plants.  So, this is only the beginning of  my kid-friendly reasons that plants are awesome. In no particular order:

#1 Plants use showy colors, fragrances, and free food to entice insects and birds to help them have sex.  Okay, you can say mate or reproduce if you are worried about the repercussion of talking about sex with 6th graders, but the point remains that when we talk about flowers, we’re talking about sex.  Most plants, rooted to the soil, can’t get up and chase a mate, they can’t decide to mate with the male who sports the best display of tail feathers or the strength to win fights. They are stuck. Which is where the flowers come in.

Can you see the bugs crawling around, drunk on pollen? Beavertail Cactus in bloom. Opuntia basalaris

Plants give away free food, pollen and nectar, because as the pollinators go from flower to flower, they spread the reproductive cells in the pollen around.  Promiscuous sex!  Flowers have evolved for the pollinators they want.  Specific smells, colors, and shapes, all attract specific pollinators.  This specificity matters, because, from a plant’s perspective, they don’t just want to spread themselves out every which way.   Continue reading

Plan B, Bad Science, and the Blogosphere

Crisis in the  female reproductive system is hitting the “I’m a woman who’s not afraid of science or sex” section of the blogosphere. Given, it’s not a huge group of writers, but these ladies mean business. Since I am a proud member of the club, I thought I’d take a moment to catalog the action:

The drama begins with a “health” and beauty columnist at XOJane (a new feminist web magazine) writing about a shortage of Plan B in New York City. Which is a legitimate issue. However, her piece is a disaster. She’s trying to be chatty and funny about sex and birth control, which, is a good way to approach a touchy subject (I know from experience) but she crashes and burns. An example from her list of birth control options:

2) Birth control pills. NO. They will make me fat; they will make me “spot” (another thing I squeamishly just DON’T LIKE TALKING ABOUT; don’t worry, though, everyone else who works here does); they will give me acne; and quite frankly, they will NOT prevent me from getting pregnant! I know this because IT HAPPENED TO ME™.

She’s not funny and she’s spreading patently wrong information.  The pill does work, and it does not make you fat.  Studies have proven this, again and again.  However, it doesn’t work if you don’t remember to take it, which is what she uses as her justification in the next paragraph. Continue reading

Media Bias and Science Illiteracy: What the hell am I getting into?

Do you ever feel like the news is biased?  Obviously, sometimes it is, but in a lecture last Friday, Al Gunther explained that often we perceive that the media is biased against us, even when it is not. It’s called the hostile media effect, and it’s pretty frightening.  Let’s say that you have a divisive issue, like reproductive rights.  A purposely neutral article, written to have a balance of points from both sides, is shown to two people who are passionately on opposite sides of the issue.  The pro-choice activist will probably report that the article is biased in favor of her opponents, and the anti-choice activist will probably report that the article is biased in favor of her opponents.  The media is biased against everyone and can’t be trusted!

In his research to understand why we perceive media bias, Gunther also gives some of the partisan test subjects the same neutral text, framed as a college student research paper instead of a newspaper article.  Suddenly, the biases people report disappear, and the text is found to be neutral or even in support of their perspective.  The same text!  How crazy is that, we interpret bias in “news” or “media” that we don’t see in other places. Gunther believes that we see bias in the news is, in part, a result of our perception that other people are strongly effected by media messages, more so than we are.  This is called the Third Person Effect, and they discuss it a lot in communication classes.

As the lecture wrapped up, a fellow journalism student asked, “So what can we, as journalists, do about this?”  Gunther’s best response was that if he knew, he would be making a lot more money. Since we can’t pay him for the secrets yet, we’ll just have to write balanced, responsible news that lots of people might disagree with. Fun!

This all got me thinking about the exhausted climate change debate, and why we still call it a debate, and why journalists writing about it still feel pressure to include a comment from some scientist who does not believe that carbon accumulation in the atmosphere is causing long term, unpredictable changes to the earth’s climate.  Journalists work to build a “balanced” story so that “climate deniers” can decry it for dealing with a made-up issue and environmentalists can decry it for given even one quote to a naysayer.  It can feel like nobody is reading to learn anything new.

Obviously, climate science is struggling with more than just hostile media effects.  Science journalism is also just struggling with science.  Public fear of science, that is.  Science illiteracy seems to be a constant concern for science journalists, especially those writing for a broad public, not just the science-inclined audience that reads Discover and follows Carl Zimmer on twitter. I wrote an article trying to explain a research paper in Science about potential collapse of an ice sheet in Antarctica.  The advice from my prof was that I was trying to be too technical, I needed to simplify my explanations.  I am learning how smart you have to be to simplify.  Complex things don’t become accessible easily.

But, it has to be done, or I worry for the fate of the future.  Here’s a scary statistic, only 40% of Americans believe in evolution.  40%!  It’s been declining in the past few decades.  Only half of college graduates in this country believe in evolution! How we can act to protect a planet if we don’t understand or believe in one of life’s primary principals?  As a writer, I feel totally overwhelmed to try and conquer science illiteracy.  Is it the journalist’s job to bring people on board? That’s a tough challenge, if people are unwilling to read about science to begin with.  It’s hard to believe that if journalists just wrote better stories about evolution, people would change their beliefs.  Beliefs are just harder than understandings, and I’m not sure how science should tackle that.  I am sure that the answer starts in our schools, teaching kids that science is relevant and exciting.  Then, I’ll just have to do my part to make sure that I write science stories that are relevant and exciting (fingers crossed).

From the Ashes

There were times this summer when it seemed like the whole southwest might go up in smoke.  Huge wildfires destroyed acres of forests and dozens of homes in Arizona in June and Texas in September. The National Ocean and Atmosphere Association reports that 7.7 million acres have burned this year, about 1.3 million shy of the 12-year record for January-September, which was set in 2006. Although Arizona and Texas were the headlines, fires were burning across the west, plus in Minnesota, the largest fire the state has seen since 1918.  The map below shows the distribution of large fires burning on Sept 1st.

National Interagency Fire Center map for Sept 1st, 2001

In June, 4.7 million acres had already burned, by far the largest burnt acreage on record in June.  Usually, the fire season pick up later in the summer, as hot weather dries out the spring vegetation, but this year June was already hot and dry.  The Wallow Fire, Arizona’s largest fire on record, burned half a million acres during the month of June.  According to NOAA, nearly a 1,000 fire-fighting crews battled the blaze.

There has been a significant increase in the number, size, and intensity of wildfires in the US since about the mid 1980s.  While increasing fire intensity is linked to fire-suppression history, research also suggests that climate change is a driving factor. Higher spring and summer temperatures and earlier snow-melt trends are causing significant increases in wildfire incidents, shown by data from areas like the Nothern Rocky Mountains, where there was little history of fire suppression, according to a 2006 article in Science.

If increases in wild land fires is going to become a new normal in our warming world, it makes the question of post-fire restoration increasingly relevant. In ecosystems adapted to fire, like lodgepole pine forest, low intensity fires are good. The pine-cones do not release their seeds until cued by a fire, which typically opens up some canopy so that the new seedlings recieve some sunlight.  In other ecosystems, like the Mojave desert, fire is not naturally a frequent event.  However, changing climate and exotic grasses has made fires increasing frequent and destructive. After a burn, native species are not adapted to resprout or seed, and the exotic grasses gain even more territory, potentially leading to more fires.

Research teams across the west and southwest are testing a variety of post-fire restoration techniques, aimed at protecting ecosystems from the establishment of exotics or just encouraging natural re-growth.  Methods under investigate include artificially applying seeds of native plants by hand or helicopter, soil treatments, and keeping cattle off of the range-land.  How these restoration efforts develop will play a huge role in how the southwestern landscape will look after another decade or two of record-setting fires. I’ll be looking into more research on post-fire restoration’s hopes and challenges soon.

Scientific Sleuthing and Bad Beers

Highlights from my conversation with Jon Roll, a UW professor of Bacteriology.  Roll teaches a brewing class for undergraduates, using professional equipment donated by MillerCoors.

I wrote a news story for my Science Journalism course about a beer tasting Roll led as part of the Wisconsin Science Festival, with some of the information from this interview. But, Roll had more interesting things to say about the science of brewing and the need for an conscious tasting than I could possibly fit into my 500 word story.

“We tend to be somewhat oblivious,” Roll said about the sense of taste.  He explained that learning about taste is a process of educating your tongue and educating your senses.

For him, the aha moment came when drinking beer with Roy Desrochers, a professional beer taster. Roll said he became much more aware of things he had not been aware of before, as Desrochers pointed things out.  “He was fascinated with the progression of flavors,” Roll explained, “From sweet to malt to bitter that slid down the back of your throat. The whole thing took like a minute from when you took the sip.”

In Roll’s class, his students have to learn to taste the subtleties of beer as well. There are common problems in the complex brewing process that can create a variety of “off-flavors” in the beer. To go back in the process a fix the mistake, brewers have to know what chemical compound is creating the off-flavor.  You can buy a kit of common off-flavors to practice with. They train themselves to identify these compounds by drinking beer purposely spiked with a common chemical culprit, so they form conscious associations between off-flavors and specific chemicals. Tastes and smells are hard to accurately convey to someone else, one might think “woodchips” and someone else might think “file cabinet”, in an example Roll gave.  By having all the tasters try the same chemicals in beer, they can learn to associate the taste with the compound, even if they describe the sense of that chemical differently.

In the brewing classes that Roll teaches at UW, his students use scientific sleuthing to track down how these specific chemicals were produced. Figuring out where that specific chemical came from requires tracing back through genetic regulation and biochemistry. Maybe the temperature was off slightly, causing certain enzymes to catalyze and unwanted breakdown. With their sense of taste attuned, the students can track the problem. This way, they understand how to alter the brewing to prevent the off-flavors. They can use the same techniques to replace specific successful flavors as well. At this point, Roll explained, human taste is still the most sensitive instrument we have for detecting trace amounts of certain things in our food and drink.

Although he’s not a tasting professional, Roll enjoys teaching about the science of beer. “Beer is all over in our society, history, heritage. The brewing industry is big in Wisconsin.  People enjoy learning about it.”   He also explained that beer is a great place to start talking about science because everyone is excited about beer and “there is so much science involved. Engineering, chemistry, gene regulation, put together in something very tangible.”