Category Archives: science communication

Chaos in the studio

bright_pods

This is me guest hosting my colleague/friend Meg O’Connell’s program, Bright Pods, on 2XX FM a few months ago. The show had a great format whereby a serious interview with an expert (a “bright pod”) is preceded by an elaborate, absurdist introduction.

I lined up an interview with my mate Mat McGann about chaos theory, which he studies as part of his physics PhD. The interview’s pretty good as a 20 minute digest of a cool topic in an irreverent manner (we’ve both worked as professional science communicators) but I’m particularly proud of the intro. It’s done as a live read with no mistakes, covering some pretty wordy content and is basically the apotheosis of my Micalef-inspired sense of humour; you might not think it’s funny but I do.

Even though we’re generally interested in experimenting  science communication nerds can note a few classic techniques:

  • me playing dumb about chaos theory to position myself with the audience;
  • starting with a framing question rather than a direct one (like, what is chaos theory?); and
  • only asking the expert about their particular speciality at the end because researchers are notoriously boring on their own work and better at the more general stuff (Mat excepted).
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Science communication: hopeless?

Last year my colleague (and  I suppose  friend) Mathew McGann and I participated in the Canberra focus group for the Australian Science Communicators (ASC) audit of how the discipline is doing in Australia. The results of this audit should be out soon and I look forward to seeing if anything from our session makes it into the report.

Mat and I put forward the views that we’ve been debating among ourselves for years. No doubt those views will continue to change as we learn more, but at the moment I think I can summarise what we see as the problems with science communication (SC) with a few questions which don’t seem to be answered at the moment.

How do we measure the effectiveness of an SC activity?

Even if we devoted funds to measuring how SC events are implemented, it’s not clear that we have any metrics for measuring “science engagement” — whatever that is. Should we test people before they enter Questacon about their knowledge of seismology and then quiz them again upon leaving and then follow-up the study six months later? Continue reading

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My own prophecy for December 2012

when-prophecy-failsThe great thing about end of the world predictions is that they’re always wrong. In fact, 100% of them have been so far. Of course, as soon as one is correct that will greatly change the state of affairs. Nonetheless, one prediction I always make ahead of end of the world predictions is that once it doesn’t come to pass, the millenarians will revise their prediction, saying they miscalculated the date. Despite the general lack of predictive power of most of social science, it’s one of the few aspects of the future we can predict with near certainty.

There was a famous study in the ’50s of a doomsday cult called When Prophecy Fails. It’s germane to the current dross being cycled out by harmless hippies and credulous conspiracy theorists. The study examines how people’s beliefs are actually redoubled in the event of a disconfirmed prophecy because of cognitive dissonance and wanting to save face. It’s a cool study of additional interest because it happened to take place when Scientology was considered the bizarre, mainly benign, nonsense-based cult that it is.

I recommend checking the book out as a balm when you hear things on the news like, “If the Mayan calendar is correct…” — the opening of a sentence which presages not the end of the world, but the just as frequently prophesied death of journalism.

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Sand under a microscope

sand

Auguries of innocence… A nice pic so my site isn’t just text.

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