Monday, March 30, 2009

New media and the message

In the first Q&A on this blog, Brian Dunning gave a pessimistic assessment of new media that took me somewhat aback. Just to keep me on my toes, Dr. Harriet Hall and Dr. Stephen Barrett both gave a positive view of new media and it's impact. Derek Colonduno chimed in with a positive future looking opinion on new media. Most recently, Dr. Kirsten Sanford stated her opinion that new media is fragmented, or at least, it's presentation of information is.

I think the concept of fragmented new media can be helpful in reconciling these carrying assessments of the value of new media. Medical information is something that people will go out of their way to research and find out about. Keeping that in mind, it makes sense that Dr. Barrett and Dr. Hall would state positive views of new media. Get the good information about medicine out there, and people will make an effort to find it. Now it only it was as easy to steer them away from frauds and charlatans. Brian Dunning is looking to bring enlightenment to the masses, to lift up the veil and show reality as it is. People don't often use search engines to challenge their preconceived notions as much as they use them to look for medical information, so it is not that big of a surprise that Mr. Dunning has a different assessment of new media than the founder of quackwatch and the skepdoc. Perhaps Derek Colonduno is right and all this effort going out into new media is having a disproportionate effect on younger generations and will have a positive effect on the degree of skepticism and scientific literacy of people in the future. . . Well, I guess we can only wait for the future to arrive and find out.

In the meantime, I think there are some statements that can be made about what can and cannot be reasonably be done with new media. New media does seem to be effective in getting information out that people will look for, such as medical information. It is also good for preaching to the choir, hi choir. New media is not an on ramp to the mainstream media, your blog or podcast is not likely to get picked up and developed into a TV series by a major, or minor for that matter, network. New media is not the ideal tool to reach out to people who are on a different political or ideological wavelength. Still, I don't want to leave you all on a down note, so I leave you with the words of the Killer Dwarfs who said, "Stand tall, stick to your guns, show them what you're made of!"

Friday, March 20, 2009

Q&A with Dr. Kirsten Sanford of This Week In Science

Dr. Sanford is the founder and co-host of the This Week In Science radio program, among other things. To find out more about the scope of her work, . . . you are just going to have to read to the end of the blog entry.

Here, we'll treat this question like it's the first day of a graduate seminar. Could you introduce yourself to the group and talk a bit about your educational background and research interests?

I hold a B.S. in Wildlife, Fisheries, and Conservation Biology and a Ph.D. in Molecular, Cellular and Integrative Physiology from U.C. Davis, and am a specialist in learning and memory. I originally thought that I wanted to work for Greenpeace and save the whales, but I realized that was more interested in birds. I got a job as an undergraduate working in a lab that dealt with avian learning and memory, and I was hooked. From there I decided to go to grad school and follow my dreams of looking at bird brains, but along the way I realized that I enjoy teaching science more than being in the lab. So, I finished my PhD on bird spatial memory abilities, not with the intention of continuing in academia, but instead of finding new and different ways of talking to the public about science.

Talk about This Week In Science and how you came to be involved in the show.

I am the founder of This Week in Science, a weekly radio show broadcast from U.C. Davis and avidly followed by thousands of fans worldwide via rss feed. TWIS evolved naturally from late night beer-fueled conversations between myself and my friend (and co-founder) Ted Dunning. We used to stay up late at night discussing recent scientific discoveries, and one night I said, "Hey! I know the program director at the campus radio station. Maybe we can do this on the radio." And, the show was born.

What do you hope the impact of TWIS is?

I hope TWIS reaches people who at some point in their lives decided that they "hate science," or that science is "too hard" for them, and gets them to reconsider. I want TWIS to get people excited about science, and tear down the perception that science is only for "scientists." I once received an email from a listener who had quit school for whatever reason. He said that TWIS convinced him to go back to school and get a science degree. That is the best impact I could ever hope for.

This Week In Science actually goes out over the radio waves. Any thoughts about how science and technology are treated in the, "traditional media?"

Technology gets much better treatment than science by the traditional media. Science news if it is found in the traditional media consists of health and medical coverage and news relating to the strange or spectacular. Then, the average coverage consists of a regurgitated press release. Traditional media's lack of support for science is resulting in poorer and poorer coverage. There was a time when all major newspapers had a science section with fantastic writers covering interesting topics, but those days are over.

In addition to podcasting and providing a streaming version of TWIS, you are a blogger, vlogger even. What role do you see, "New Media," playing in facilitating scientific literacy in society in general?

Science is lacking in the traditional media. To get science reporting you have to go to specialized science publications. Newspapers are closing their science sections. CNN dissolved its science department. The future of science media is in new media. I've almost given up on the traditional distributors.
Unfortunately, new media doesn't allow a "mainstreaming" of science information. The information is fragmented, which will make it harder for people to access. Those who want science will find it, but it won't be generally available unless something is done to change the path we are on.

How do you think that increased scientific literacy can improve the functioning of a democracy?

I think that an informed populous is better able to make the decisions necessary for a democracy to function. Along with scientific literacy come critical thinking skills, which are essential for individuals to evaluate the information that surrounds them. If people continue to vote without thinking critically about the issues before them, we will not truly live in a democracy.
Who do you vote for? Why? Do you vote yes or no on a stem cell funding issue? What about water and agricultural regulations? How do you assess the possible options without some amount of knowledge and insight?
I vote for the people I think best represent the interests of the people. Predominantly, that means I vote Democrat, but I am somewhere between a Libertarian and a Progressive. I think the people are best served by a government that functions to protect them from harm. I voted yes on the stem cell funding issue. Water and agriculture regulations depend on the regulation. Fresh water is a scarce commodity, especially in California, and needs to be preserved for both people and agriculture. It is an issue of need, not desire.
I assess the possible options by doing some research. I try to find out who is for and against an option, and why. I talk to people. I read literature. I educate myself as fully as possible, and knowing that I can never fully understand an issue I am not immersed in, I use my best judgment.

Do you think that advancements in science and technology can impair, in any way, the functioning of a democracy?

I think that advancements in science and tech so far have benefited the functioning of our democracy. Never before have the youth been so involved in government as now in this age of the internet. Basic science led to the development of technology that now allows ever greater sharing of information. With that sharing of information, people are more able to understand the issues facing the government, and to be involved in helping to make decisions in an informed way. That is a real democracy.
The only way that advancing science and technology will impair the democracy is if the people allow the government to use that technology in such a way as to block the will of the people or stifle the people. But, then it will no longer be a democracy.

In his inaugural address, President Obama stated that he would, "restore science to its rightful place." If you were given an opportunity to talk to him about science, technology and education, what would you say?

I would talk to him about the importance of educating not only the children about science, but also interesting adults in science. If adults find science interesting and seek out science-based events or activities, this interest will be passed on to the children. Children learn from the adult role models around them. When a mother helping her daughter with her math homework (or, insert science for math) says to her daughter, "Oh, I never liked math... math's hard," it instills similar feelings in the child. We need to create a positive environment for science, math, and knowledge in general. When excitement builds around learning, it will only help our nation excel.

On your blog, you declare yourself a Tae Kwon Do black belt. Do you find yourself facing the, "so, you think you can kick my butt," question a lot?

Every once in a while I find myself facing that question. I never have to prove anything because I have bodyguards. Although, I did once kick someone on top of the head just for fun.

Finally, anything important I missed? Any shameless self promos you need to get out there?

In 2005, I was awarded the American Association for the Advancement of Science Mass Media Science & Engineering. Following the fellowship, I worked as a television news producer at WNBC in New York City with noted health and science reporter Dr. Max Gomez. In late 2007 and early 2008, I expanded my communications work into online video, starring in both On Networks successful series Food Science and Revision3's variety show PopSiren. I also appear regularly on Revision3's Systm, and hosted MacBreak during the PixelCorp's coverage of the 2008 and 2009 MacWorld conference. I am launching my newest online video venture, Science Word, in March, 2009. Additionally, I host Potential Energy, a podcast about alternative energy concerns and solutions, and am a regular guest on both This Week in Media and This Week in Tech. I contribute weekly to and to my own blog,, and am looking to launch a new scientific media venture with noted technology pundit, Leo Laporte. These new media efforts initiated my entry into television in 2008. Pending purchase of the pilot, I am slated to co-host a new, skeptical reality TV show called The Skeptologists. I am also reporter-at-large for the Science Channel and a contributor to their recently launched show, Brink, and have appeared on CBS's The Doctors.

I'd like to thank Dr. Sanford for taking the time to chime in with her insights. For those of you out there who are disappointed at the lack of clickable links in the blog entry so far:

This Week In Science

Potential Energy

This Week In Media

This Week In Tech


The Skeptologists

Friday, March 13, 2009

Q&A with Derek Colanduno of

Derek Colanduno is one of the hosts of the skepticality podcast. You can find out more about him and the podcast at the skepticality website.

Here, we'll treat this first question like it's the first day of a graduate seminar. Could you introduce yourself to the group and talk a bit about your educational background and research interests?

My education in college was a degree in Computer Science, but it didn't start that way. At first I was a Pre-Med student, then realized that, even though it interested me greatly, I knew I wouldn't have the rigor to follow through with the work that I wanted to do, time, amount of school, etc... I wanted to be a surgeon. When I talked to other surgeons at the time, I realized that I wouldn't make it in the end, so I switched to Computer Science, which was VERY easy for me, my father pushed computers on me since I was around 7 years old, and I learned how to program before there was even a 'real' home computer.

Tell us a bit about skepticality and how you became involved with the podcast.

Podcasting was just me wanting to do what I always wanted to do. Back in college I worked for old-school over the air radio doing engineering and also on-air DJ work. I worked as the engineer for National Sports Radio Network, (which I think was bought by ESPN), and also one of the last privately held Rock stations left, which was an Alternative Rock Station doing late night on-air stuff now and then as a fill-in. Swoopy would come to the studio back then and we'd like to toss on music WE liked, since it was the middle of the night and the boss types were all long asleep. So, when we heard about Podcasting, we had that moment of, "HEY we can do the show we ALWAYS wanted to do!" And since we had tons of Audio/Video equipment already, it was easy to start doing it.

What impact do you hope skepticality will have.

At first when we started our show, we were shocked at how many groups there were out there. We knew about the JREF, and CFI (CSICOP), but had no idea just how many other groups there really were. So, I don't know how much of a hand we had in 'growing' it, as much as giving people who were content that no one else was giving them. So it gave people who thought like us an alternative to what seems to be the mainstream of talk radio, or big media. Something that would speak to people who have always wanted to hear about the information/issues they identify with. That and the world needs more critical thinking in terms of history and science. And that was a big goal of our show when we started. Hope that continues to be the case.

Skepticality is the podcast of Skeptic magazine. Would you care to comment on how critical thinking and scientific literacy are being presented on both, "Traditional Media," and "New Media?"

I think the Skeptical message, when it gets out to the 'Traditional Media', is very much the same as the message on New Media. The big difference is that media is changing quite a bit these days, so things like Podcasts, Blogs, and Online Video are where the younger eyes and minds are going currently. So, hopefully, the Skeptical outlook won't be seen as 'fringe' come 5+ years from now.

How do you think that increased scientific literacy can improve the functioning of a democracy?

Definitely, if you look back at the beginnings of Democracy, it started with some of the first, great, minds of science and philosophy. Learning to think critically, which is what science does, leads you to embrace the power of ideas such as democracy and how laws and countries are run at their roots.

Do you think that advancements in science and technology can impair a democracy?

The only way I can currently see that to be the case, would be when bad people USE the advancements in science and technology in ways to hamper democracy. Such as, blocking access to specific information out on the internet, or controlling messages via censorship. Which, has happened in countries that are not democracies at all. But, I don't see how just the advancement of science and technology would do that on its own.

The word skeptic is a loaded term to some people. How do you define the term and what does it mean to you?

I think if you grab an issue of Skeptic Magazine and turn to the front cover, there is a great definition right there. " Some people believe that skepticism is the rejection of new ideas, or worse, they confuse "skeptic" with "cynic" and think that skeptics are a bunch of grumpy curmudgeons unwilling to accept any claim that challenges the status quo. This is wrong. Skepticism is a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas: no sacred cows allowed. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position. Ideally, skeptics do not go into an investigation closed to the possibility that a phenomenon might be real or that a claim might be true. When we say we are "skeptical," we mean that we must see compelling evidence before we believe. Skepticism has a long historical tradition dating back to ancient Greece, when Socrates observed: "All I know is that I know nothing." But this pure position is sterile and unproductive and held by virtually no one. If you were skeptical about everything, you would have to be skeptical of your own skepticism. Like the decaying subatomic particle, pure skepticism uncoils and spins off the viewing screen of our intellectual cloud chamber. Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, which involves gathering data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement. But all facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge, and therefore skepticism is a method leading to provisional conclusions. Some claims, such as water dowsing, ESP, and creationism, have been tested (and failed the tests) often enough that we can provisionally conclude that they are not valid. Other claims, such as hypnosis, the origins of language, and black holes, have been tested but results are inconclusive so we must continue formulating and testing hypotheses and theories until we can reach a provisional conclusion. The key to skepticism is to continuously and vigorously apply the methods of science to navigate the treacherous straits between "know nothing" skepticism and "anything goes" credulity. Over three centuries ago the French philosopher and skeptic, René Descartes, after one of the most thorough skeptical purges in intellectual history, concluded that he knew one thing for certain: Cogito ergo sum: I think therefore I am. But evolution may have designed us in the other direction. Humans evolved to be pattern-seeking, cause-inferring animals, shaped by nature to find meaningful relationships in the world. Those who were best at doing this left behind the most offspring. We are their descendants. In other words, to be human is to think."

In his inaugural address, President Obama stated that he would, "restore science to its rightful place." If you were given an opportunity to talk to him about science, technology and education, what would you say?

I'd probably have to mention some issues such as internet neutrality, and somehow making it almost impossible to have more push into schools by people who are anti-evolution or anti-science. Not sure what my exact words would be though! :)

Finally, anything important I missed? Any shameless self promos you'd like to get out there?

I think you covered the main points about me. I hope some of your readers will come and check out our show at And also, hope to see some of them at the big Skeptic Track events at North Americas Largest Culture Convention, Dragon*Con!

I would like to thank Derek for taking the time to thoughtfully answer some questions for this blog. While I have not made the trek out to Georgia for Dragon Con, I hear it is quite the event. The fact that the skeptic track of events is just one of more than thirty event tracks at the event give some idea of the scale of the convention. Mr. Colanduno's optimistic view on the future of new media and the gradual rate of change and influence is interesting. To twist an old cliche, "The hand that makes the podcast is the hand that shapes the world." Who knows, it could work out that way.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Who's science is it anyway?

In the February 24th issue of the New York Times (ancient history by blog-o-sphere standards), John Tierney penned an article titled, Politics in the Guise of Pure Science. In this article, Mr. Tierney discusses how scientists are prone to viewing themselves as either an aloof researcher, far above the concerns of the day, or as an impartial arbiter, interpreting groundbreaking science for the uneducated masses. Neither caricature is an accurate portrayal of the role scientists play in the political arena. Scientists will identify themselves as speaking for "science," to lend credibility to their political stance and to undermine the positions of their political opponents. At other times they will exaggerate their findings in order to steer the political debate in a direction more agreeable to their beliefs.

In the March 10th edition, Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote about how, Obama Puts His Own Spin on the Mix of Science With Politics. President Obama has directed the federal bureaucracy to select science advisers based on expertise and not ideology. This came amidst the reversal of the Bush administration's policy on stem cell research. The article continued to discuss the censorship of science under the Bush administration and contained the stock defense of the policies from the political right. Quoting Karl Rove may have been a subtle attempt to discredit the right wing defense of the treatment of science during the Bush years.

Both of the articles address the question as to the role of science in a democracy. One would have to be naive or extremely partisan to not admit that science took a back seat to party politics during the Bush years. Now the big question is, will science be taken seriously in the Obama administration or will it simply be that scientific voices that are in harmony with the political wind of the time will be heard? Perhaps it would be better for public dialogue if everyone admitted that science does not speak with one voice, not would you want it to, and that all scientists have biases and preconceptions, not matter how hard they may work to overcome them.

It is difficult to find the proper place for science in a modern democracy. Clearly, placing science as the final arbiter to truth and the direction of public policy is not the answer. You simply have to look back at the eugenics movement or phrenology to see how science can be disturbingly wrong. While science is usually self correcting in the long term, for the time frame public policy is shaped in, other factors need to be there to temper cold, analytical science.

Also, the role of the expert is problematic. With all the specialization in the arena of science and in society in general, experts are just a fact of life. It's just not possible to know everything anymore. So taking the advice of experts in one field or another is often unavoidable, in optimal conditions it is even desirable. The downside is that when you have fraudulent scientists for hire that will work backwards from their results to justify whatever political position you happen to have, the role of the expert becomes tainted. Having disingenuous people out there who will say that anthropogenic global warming is not happening in exchange for a generous enough research grant, it casts a shadow of doubt over all expert opinions. While I would like to present a quick and witty solution to this problem, I instead leave you with a famous X-files quote, "Trust no one."