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Last week, the Media Standards Trust launched a fun little tool for detecting how UK newspapers regurgitate press releases – often with little further original reporting – a practice known as ‘churnalism‘.

Unsurprisingly, some old media types voiced their scepticism of the tool, saying all it did was highlight commonly used phrases such as ‘a spokesman for the company said’ and other unavoidable terms. No doubt this is true of the majority of, say, ‘important’ news items like political coverage. It’s the filler items (and unfortunately, science articles are sometimes regarded as such by certain press institutions) which are more likely to be churn.

And lo and behold! The first article I pasted into the tool was replicated by two other newspapers. An article on human papilloma virus (HPV) appeared in almost exactly the same format in the Daily Mail, the Express and the Mirror. No additional analysis or quotes were obtained by any of the papers.

In all fairness after some lunchbreak copying and pasting, I didn’t find many more articles which had been regurgitated quite so blatantly, suggesting the practice isn’t as rife in the nationals as people might think. Having said that, there were still many instances of newspapers churning out substantial quotes or phrases used in press releases – see this instance where the Times clearly couldn’t be bothered to source its own quotes.

I have often witnessed science journalists (and indeed other journalists) attributing this regurgitation to the increasing demands of the newsroom – namely that there’s no time to spend on the phone with contacts. There is a simple retort to editors – cover less, and cover better.

Google has launched Ngram viewer, a tool which lets you compare phrases appearing across the entire corpus of Google books.

We compared “science” against “religion” in books written between 1800 and 2008. The results are interesting – see how science begins to overtake religion during WWII.



The ‘big story’

The Royal Society book prize was awarded to Nick Lane for his ‘explanation of life as we know it’, Life Ascending. One of our favourite bloggers Pharyngula reviewed the book on its publication last year:

…what enlivens the book is the biochemist’s perspective: Lane isn’t so much interested in the superficial matters of morphology, but in the emergence of new properties in the molecular machinery of the cell, and how it affects the world around us.

Judge and former Tomorrow’s World presenter Maggie Philbin explains the choice on Guardian’s science podcast this week. To the outrage of science journalists, this Royal Society book prize will be the last due to a lack of funds.

The misreporting

Sexologist Dr. Petra Boynton frequently flags up misreporting in the media around that most British of embarrassing issues – sex and sexual dysfunction. This week, she picked up on a science story (reported by many health and science journalists across the national press) which reported that women with lower sex drives have ‘different brains’.

This is a screen capture of Dr. Petra pointing out some of the flaws in these reports (read from the bottom up):

It might seem the good doctor exaggerates the harmful effects headlines like these can have. But given the commonness of sexual dysfunction (in men and women alike) vs. the lack of genuinely informative articles in the media, one sometimes questions how much the press is really out to inform.

Comment piece

A late entry from Alice Bell’s ‘Who’s the geek?’ piece for the Guardian science blog. While Bell is generally an excellent blogger, this is essentially a piece of Thursday afternoon fluff. However, this is one of the few CiF pieces which is worth reading for the comments alone. Bell’s closing question – what’s the geekiest thing you’ve ever done? My favourite:

I once cycled around all the London Monopoly board locations IN THE CORRECT ORDER. Took three and a half hours and involved more trips along oxford street than any cyclist should have to endure in a week, let alone a day.

If you’re ever tempted to try it be aware that the house-hotel properties are mainly in the West End but the stations are in the City. The low point was having to go from Bond Street to Park Lane… via Liverpool Street station.

(Link)

Slightly quirky/interesting article

A slightly meta reference this week – an interesting thought in New Scientist with one of those pieces-of-research-wot-everyone-knew-already-but-hadn’t-proved: should students be typecast into science? Students who choose science subjects tend to be introverted/shyer, more conscientious and emotionally stable. A great quote from one of the researchers:

“There’s a feeling that science students have nerdy characteristics,” she says, “but we were surprised to see it in our results, and to see it as early as age 15.”

I was noodling around what little of the Times was available online the other day. Plenty to keep the average science geek happy, as it transpires. Look at this gem from 1919:

For the first review of Darwin’s the Origin of Species, a collaboration with Gugliemo Marconi and other such historical awesomeness, see this list from the Times Archive.

…and that’s all he would say on the subject of God during last night’s lecture at the Royal Albert Hall (chaired by the dreadful Jim Al-Khalili). @ianvisits has already described the actual experience of listening to Hawking speak.

Talking about his latest book, The Grand Design, and his early life, Hawking was a surprisingly engaging, charming and humorous speaker. I would recommend anyone with even the slightest interest in science to see him lecture. There has been media controversy since The Grand Design‘s publicatication, principally around Hawking’s claims that God did not create the universe. From the BBC’s coverage:

Citing the 1992 discovery of a planet orbiting a star other than our Sun, he said: “That makes the coincidences of our planetary conditions – the single Sun, the lucky combination of Earth-Sun distance and solar mass – far less remarkable, and far less compelling as evidence that the Earth was carefully designed just to please us human beings.”

He adds: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

Disappointingly for us mere mortals, Hawking chose not to expand this statement beyond clarifying that he was not making a ‘God is dead’-style claim; more indicating that God was simply a name for existing laws and phenomena. [I think…].

Not being a cosmologist, I was rather lost when Hawking went through the finer points of black holes, singularities and space-time. Fascinating for scientists and non-scientists alike however was hearing how his interests and mind developed. Born in Oxford to intellectual parents, he was unable to read until the age of 8, though he loved building systems with his trainsets and was later given the nickname ‘Einstein’ at school. He moved to and remained in North London (Highgate, Hendon and St. Albans) through his childhood and adolescence, losing the battle with his father to specialise in mathematics at the age of 17. This was the last formal tuition in maths he would receive. He would go on to be Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge.

Hawking told the audience that during his undergrad days at Oxford, his lax habits resulted in a borderline degree classification between a 2,1 and a first. Up in front of the board, he told examiners that he would remain in Oxford if he got a 2,1, and go to Cambridge if he got a first. “They gave me a first,” he said.

Citing the field as ‘ripe for development’, Hawking focused his efforts on gravitational physics while at Cambridge. He was diagnosed with motor neurone disease soon after – and credits the illness with giving him the drive needed to make his work exceptional: “When you are faced with the possibility of an early death, it makes you realise that life is worth living, and that there are lots of things you want to do.” (There was a long hush at this point).

In The Grand Design, Hawking claims to have found the unifying theory which Einstein and all subsequent physicists have been seeking. This should have been the most riveting part of the lecture, yet I found it the least convincing. Perhaps that’s why Hawking chose to distribute the book at the end of his lecture, rather than explain it to a lay audience in ten minutes. If true, however, the discovery of M Theory will end a search which has been going on for 2,000 years.

Asked whether he foresaw a time when man would know everything there is to know about the physical universe, Hawking simply replied, ‘I hope not’.

Before going to the Hawking lecture, I saw this from XKCD. Though amusing, I think the point it makes is a good one – it’s good to encourage intelligence, dangerous to revere it.


Hawking is one of those  rare scientists who has made it as a household name. I knew who he was when I was 7. I’m pretty sure I didn’t know who Freddie Mercury was when I was 7.

I’ll be heading to his lecture at the Royal Albert Hall and reporting back on that most mundane of topics, the mysteries of the universe.

This is 5 day old news to anyone who follows the left-wing bloggers like Sunny Hundal and Left Foot Forward, but some of us only have time to follow stuff up on the weekends.

Longtime climate sceptic and Mail science editor (there’s an alarming combo) Michael Hanlon wrote an experience piece this week from Greenland, where he underwent the following realisation:

I have long been something of a climate-change sceptic, but my views in recent years have shifted. For me, the most convincing evidence that something worrying is going on lies right here in the Arctic.

Read the rest of this entry »

Who the hell is Gillian McKeith?

This lady. You know, the ‘nutritionist’ who analyses poo, and creates gravestones out of the amount of chocolate her prey supposedly eats, and similarly awful things:

This kind of behaviour on TV prompted scepticism in the science blogosphere, which promptly got on the case and discovered that her PhD, famously, is from an institution which is also happy to give an accredited qualification to a dead cat. Pretty sure you wouldn’t catch Warwick doing that kind of thing (although I can attest they will give pretty much anyone an English degree). She was subsequently taken to the ASA and had to drop the title of ‘Doctor’ from her show. And her books. It’s not that she hadn’t written a thesis. It’s just…more of a mockery of a thesis.

Why has this come up again?

She’s actually been on Twitter for a while, judging by her 1000+ tweets, but it seems like the science community only took note this morning (see the Guardian science man Adam Rutherford’s response). Presumably having noticed a Google Alerts/done a search for her own name – McKeith attacked one Bad Science reader Rachel Moody for this. Which then prompted this. And this and this and this. There are several things wrong with McKeith’s @ replies. This is a quick list:

  1. Oh Lord. Is she so arrogant she monitors the entire web/Twitterverse for mentions of herself? Presumably to tackle legal threats. Not like it works anyway. Read the Goldacre post I referred to above.
  2. I shouldn’t have bothered posing the above point as a question. I just looked at some of McKeith’s subsequent tweets. Viz: CLOSER MAGAZINE just gave a great book review on my new book, Women’s Health. It is truly a great book!!!. May I refer you to Terry Pratchett’s law of multiple exclamation marks.
  3. That was one tweet from Rachel Moody commenting on McKeith’s PhD. How does that morph into ‘anti-American bigotry‘?
  4. Speaking of legal threats, isn’t this, um, potentially libellous to Ben Goldacre?

You can also read Rachel’s plea for support on the Bad Science forums. Cue outrage across the science blogosphere – which can, admittedly, be a giant echo chamber but in this case the approach was justified.

Despite being active across various social media networks (across which she has, astonishingly, remained unscathed. Or she deletes negative comments, I don’t know), McKeith has declined to comment on the more recent aspersions being cast on her qualifications.

Maybe it’s time constraints. But then again, she seems to have found the time to block Goldacre.

Update: 13th July

Gillian McKeith (still failing to understand how social media works) has now deleted all of her semi-abusive tweets. Luckily, Ben Goldacre screengrabbed her tweets here yesterday, so scroll down to see the deleted tweets.

While Kubrick was devising the musical accompaniment to 2001: A Space Odyssey, he ordered hundreds of classical records trying to find the perfect match to the scene of a spaceship floating through space.

Waltzing across a vinyl-filled garage to the strains of the Blue Danube, he told his wife that he wanted to make space travel seem like “child’s play”.

Not the case in 2010, but the enormity of that vision hardly fails to impress. Particularly if your first time seeing it is with a live orchestra on Southbank during the See Further Festival over the last coupleof weeks. Although I don’t quite see the logic of the giant space baby.*

But the reinterpretation of 2001 by Bowie Jr., Moon, made me wonder if our view of space travel and exploration has changed over the last 40 years. Kubrick began to create 2001 in the aftermath of the Second World War and more pertinently, the Cold War. With a constant tone of apocalypse, however, exaggerated, it isn’t entirely surprising that Kubrick explores the breadth of human achievement, epitomised by that famous flipping bone sequence.

Moon, by contrast is one man (well, several men, but let’s not spoil it), and completely skews Kubrick’s grand theme of rebirth and eternity. Perhaps unsurprisingly in our current decade of networks built in the solitude of our rooms, Moon explores loneliness and our connections with intelligent machines and other individuals.

This is about as far as my brain has grappled with our current perception of space travel. If you have more intelligible thoughts, then please leave them below.

*Spoiler: The meaning of the ‘star-baby’ has eluded most mainstream audiences. Understandably, perhaps, since it represents a confusing mix of tropes. Let’s list a few: the human condition, the womb,  evolution, Jesus,  reincarnation, enlightenment. Arguably the most symbolic foetus in cinematic history.

This is easily the only most interesting science article I’ve read today, from the Frontal Cortex blog. I’ve pasted the opening paragraph below. Can you guess what the ‘activity’ might be…?

I’d like to tell you a story about a routine of modern life that is really bad for your brain. Everybody performs this activity – sometimes multiple times a day! – and yet we rarely realize the consequences. In 2008, scientists at the University of Michigan did a very clever study illuminating how this activity led to dramatic decreases in working memory, self-control, visual attention and positive affect. Other studies have demonstrated that people who are less exposed to this activity show enhanced brain function. They are better able to focus and even recover more quickly in hospitals.

Read the answer (and the rest of the article, if you can concentrate long enough) here.

Who?

Amit Ghosh does mathsy things for an actuarial firm. He read Physics at university, and they even let him loose in the Cavendish laboratory one summer on a research project. He is @bexleylister on Twitter.

Shona Ghosh read English, then did an MA in Journalism. She knows nothing about science. She wishes she did though, so she sometimes reads New Scientist and tries to make Amit explain quantum physics to her, preferably through the medium of pictionary. She is @shonaghosh on Twitter.

They combine their thoughts on this blog.

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