Category: Communication

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If you catch measles, what are your chances of dying? When I was a kid, measles was one of those things you were expected to catch.  I had it when I was five, and must confess, I don’t remember much about the experience.  I do remember being confined to bed.  And I also remember being told that measles could cause blindness – as a budding reader, this scared me.  But I don’t recall anyone hinting at anything worse.  If my parents were worried, they didn’t show it. And I’d certainly never heard of kids who had died – even in playground rumors. So as the current outbreak of measles in the US continues to spread, I’ve been intrigued by statements that the disease has a mortality rate of somewhere between one and three young children per thousand infected. Of course I know as a public health academic that measles is highly infectious and can cause severe harm – even death.  But there was a dissonance between what I was reading and what I felt was correct. Surely if one out of every few hundred kids died as a result of measles as I was growing up, I’d have got wind of it? The mortality rate of around 1 in 1000 though comes with a sound provenance.  It’s there in black and white on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) web pages: “For every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die from it” A 2004 review in the Journal of Infectious Diseases provides further insight.  Using CDC data on reported measles cases in the US between 1989 and 2000,Orenstein, Perry and Halsey indicated that approximately three children under the age of five died for every thousand that caught measles, and that the overall mortality rate for all ages was also around 3 per thousand people infected – the table below gives the

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The health impacts of concussions suffered while playing sports have been receiving increased attention in recent years.  According to the National Athletic Trainers’ Association,  An estimated 3.8 million concussions occur each year as a result of sport and physical activity in the U.S., with sport-related concussions account for 58% of all emergency department visits in children, and 46% of all concussions in adolescents. Part of the problem is a culture around sport that has a tendency to discount the seriousness of head traumas against the importance of winning – a culture that was highlighted all too visibly in Michigan last September, with the return to play of quarterback Shane Morris after a head injury. As institutions, players and parents grapple with the potential health impacts of sports-related traumatic brain injuries and how to avoid them, I asked Doug Martini — a PhD student in the University of Michigan Neurosport Research Laboratory — what he thought it was important for people to know about concussion.  These are captured on this latest video from Risk Bites:   And just in case you are too impatient to watch the video for two and a half minutes, here are the highlights: If you suffer a concussion, you should get an early and accurate diagnosis. Follow-up care is important. It’s not yet clear what the long term health impacts of concussion might be. Multiple head impacts that don’t lead to a diagnosis of concussion may also be significant. Helmets are designed to stop skull fractures, not prevent concussion.   For more information on concussion, it’s worth checking out the following resources: General information: University of Michigan Neurosport Research Laboratory Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) information on concussion CDC Heads Up on Concussion Consensus statement on concussion in sport: the 4th International Conference on Concussion in Sport

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I had a roller coaster of an interview with Seth Shostak (Director of the Center for SETI Research and host of Big Picture Science) last week on risk and black swan events. I was poised to talk about rare but high impact events like a mega-eruption at Yellowstone National Park, or a major asteroid hit. I was going to put these into context with more common risks – such as getting cancer, dying from excessive heat, or being killed by a dog bite (yes, it happens more than you’d think). I was prepared to talk with authority about micromorts, and the relative risk of being killed in a fall versus a car crash (surprisingly similar as it turns out). I’d done my homework. Not that it mattered.  Like all the best interviews, this one went off piste at frightening speed. We talked about the risks of new technologies; the dangers (or not) of  using cell phones; probability distributions and sparse risk-event data sets; insurance companies and premiums; to fear – and sharks; dread;  emotional responses to perceived risks; getting your kids vaccinated (do); familiar risks; unfamiliar risks; ebola; confusing concern with fear; making sense of big numbers.  We even talked about how extending our lifespans to centuries might change how we think about risk. We didn’t talk about micromorts. But with hindsight, that may have been the wafer thin mint that pushed us over the edge of risk-gluttony.  A black swan event well-avoided. You can hear the full episode at Big Picture Science on the Tale of the Distribution.  My segment begins at 37:55 (And, just in case you’re wondering, your chances of dying in a mega-eruption at Yellowstone during a one month vacation, are around a tenth of a micromort.  Probably.)

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As an academic, speaking with reporters can be nerve wracking.  The gut-wrench is palpable as you click on the article that follows, unsure of whether the person you spoke with has got it right, or created a train wreck with your name splattered all over it. Building trust Over the years, I’ve learnt to to calibrate my expectations and to trust the reporters I speak with to do the job they are paid to do – and in most cases they do it exceptionally well.  I’ve also learned the value of developing a trusting relationship with reporters that cuts both ways – they can trust me to be available and provide fast, clear, concise and accurate information; I can trust them to use the information they get from me with sense and integrity. But a recent incident has left me wondering whether I’m being overly naive in thinking of my relationship with reporters as a two-way street.  And surprisingly, it has nothing to do with the malicious misrepresentation of academic nightmares. Personal guidelines Although I’ve never formalized this before, I have a fairly clear set of internal guidelines I follow when I’m approached by reporters.  If written down, they would probably look something like this: The job of a reporter is to tell their story, not yours. Reporters are usually on deadline – respect this by responding as fast as possible to requests. Respect the professionally and expertise of the person you are speaking with. Provide clear, concise and accurate answers to the questions asked. Don’t try to use reporters for self-promotion. Be just as willing to provide background information as you are to provide quotes. Accept that what you say may not fit into the story the reporter is telling. Accept that what is written after an interview may not come up to

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Science Magazine has just released an update of it’s list of Twitter’s most popular researchers – now expanded to “100 of the most followed scientists on the social media platform”.  Having played around with the data, here’s an alternative listing, based on the Engagement Index (E-Index) – a measure I admittedly just made up! (jump straight to the list) The original list got quite a bit of flack for its lack of diversity, and who it missed off.  The update corrects this a little, but the ranking it is still based on number of followers – a valid index of popularity, but probably not a lot else. The good news is that the folks at Science have once again kindly made their raw data available, allowing alternative rankings to be played around with. Looking down the list, I was particularly interested in active and influential researchers who are also active on Twitter – fully engaged researchers if you like.  A really quick and dirty way to get a handle on this is to rank by the product of H-index and number of tweets. H-index is a useful measure of publication rate and citation rate.  Like all measures of performance it has its problems.  I like it as a measure of academic engagement though as it compresses the range of achievement across the spectrum – early investigators can rack up an H-index in single digits quite fast, while you have to be a stellar performer to get much above 40 or so. Moving over to social media, an H-index equivalent in Twitter would have been useful, but has yet to be invented.  In its absence, number of tweets is a really crude proxy for social activity – if not quite engagement. By multiplying H-index and total number of tweets and dividing

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Sometimes the scientific method is a little messier than we’d like to think! 2020 Science Notes are short comments and reflections on stories that grab my attention – browse them all here.

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Following up on my previous analysis of university news releases and whether they link to the papers they highlight, I’ve extended extend the analysis to 30 of the top universities in the US as ranked by US News and World Report. Here are the rankings, based on an assessment of the ten latest news releases for each institution, working back from September 12:     The mean percentage of news releases that link to the papers they refer to is 52% – lower than the number obtained from the top ten universities (59%). Update: Updated September 16 2014 at 12:32 PM EST to include data from 10 news releases per institution Update 09-16-14 1:39 PM EST – updated graphics to remove amateurish use of color!

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People who abuse scientific evidence can really get on your wick sometimes.  Fortunately, Sir Paul Nurse – president of the UK Royal Society – has the solution: crush and bury them! Sir Paul was speaking about silencing politicians, lobbyists, religious figures and leaders of organizations who serially misuse scientific evidence.  But why stop there?  The world is rife with people who seem intent on misunderstanding, misrepresenting and misusing science.  Taking Sir Paul’s lead, maybe we need a “crush and bury” list of science offenders, starting with the following: University press officers that spin fantasy around science to make it more sexy; Authors of scientific papers who make solid policy recommendations on the back of tenuous of data; Press releases that don’t link to original articles; People with decimal point diarrhea (e.g. the chances of rain today are 7.4325667865%, plus or minus 5%); People who insist on using “data” in the singular; People who interpret data the wrong way; People who think that there’s more than scientific evidence to making decisions; Social Scientists; Philosophers; People who say “nucular”.   And this is just the beginning.  Who’s on your list? Just in case it isn’t obvious, I don’t agree with Sir Paul’s language or the underlying stance here!  Sure, I understand where he’s coming from – discarding scientific evidence for speculation and dogma can be downright dangerous when it comes to making real decisions with real consequences.  But decisions aren’t made on science alone, and scientists are just as prone to inserting their own subjective views into their words and actions as anyone else. According to The Guardian, [Sir Paul] urged researchers to forge relationships with politicians, lobbyists, religious figures and leaders of organisations in the hope that they might feel ashamed to misuse scientific evidence. But if that approach failed, Nurse urged researchers to call offenders out in

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An article passed through my Twitter stream today from Gizmodo shouting out “Change Your Hair Color By Etching Nano-Patterns Into Each Strand”. It pretty much mirrors a press release from the University of New Mexico claiming “New technology allows hair to reflect almost any color”. Carbon-copy reporting is pretty much standard these days in science and technology – and this is fine for getting the word out on new research.  As long as the source makes sense. Unfortunately in this case, it doesn’t. The University of New Mexico press release makes some bold statements.  After claiming that a new technology has been invented that enables people to change the color of their hair, it states “Individuals can live with a new hair color or simply wash it out”.  To hammer the message home, there’s an impressive photo of a woman changing her hair to bright magenta, all with the aid of a flatiron. Sadly, the headlines, the story and the photo are all science fiction, based on an audacious piece of hyperbole. The research this press release is based on is a new paper in the Journal of Cosmetics, Dermatological Sciences and Applications by Khawar Abbas and colleagues.  Under the title “Nano-Patterning of Diffraction Gratings on Human Hair for Cosmetic Purposes” the authors describe experiments in etching diffraction gratings onto single human hairs. Using a technique called Focused Ion Beam Milling, the authors etched fine diffraction gratings onto small sections of individual hairs.  These were engineered to reflect specific colors when illuminated with visible light. Because hair doesn’t conduct electricity, the hairs to be etched needed to be coated with a fine layer of carbon first – probably from a vacuum carbon evaporator.  From the paper, the lengths the etched sections of hair were around 100 µm long and 100 µm wide.  These etched areas did show preferential

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A recent paper in the journal Science Communication suggests, amongst other things, that reading science blogs leads to a decreased factual understanding of nanotechnology, and that the effect is greater for readers with lower socioeconomic status (SES).  The paper by Su et al. (Leona Yi-Fan Su, Michael A. Cacciatore, Dietram A. Scheufele, Dominique Brossard, Michael A. Xenos (2014) Inequalities in Scientific Understanding.  Differentiating Between Factual and Perceived Knowledge Gaps.  Science Communication.  DOI: 10.1177/1075547014529093) addresses the so-called science ‘knowledge gap’ that is thought to develop between lower and higher SES groups because of the nature of the material they are exposed to.  The authors use nanotechnology as a specific topic area to correlate actual knowledge and perceived understanding with SES and exposure to newspapers, television and science blogs. There’s a lot of information packed into the paper – which is unfortunately behind a paywall – but what caught my eye was an apparent decrease in factual knowledge of nanotechnology amongst people who self-report a high use of science blogs.  A little over 1,000 people completed the survey, representing a cross-section of the US population.  Participants in low SES and high SES groups were asked five questions about nanotechnology, and their factual understanding quantified.  They were also asked how much they read science blogs. For respondents who didn’t read science blogs, factual knowledge in the low SES group was slightly lower than in the high SES group.  For low blog usage, factual knowledge increased for both groups, and the gap between the groups narrowed quite a bit.  But for people that read science blogs a lot, factual knowledge about nanotechnology decreased compared to people who didn’t read blogs that much.  And here’s the kicker – as well as the gap between high and low SES participants increasing, low SES participants who read a lot of science blogs appeared to know less about

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After nearly two years and four hundred posts, the science communication course at the University of Michigan that feeds the Mind The Science Gap blog is coming to and end.  In between running a department, directing a research center, teaching, and actually doing research, something had to go.  And sadly, Mind The Science Gap was it.  The existing posts will remain, but there won’t be any new ones.  Sorry!  And thank you so much to everyone who has written for, promoted and commented on the blog – you have always been deeply appreciated.

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From Risk Sense: Six months ago, Risk Bites launched as a somewhat quirky YouTube experiment in science communication. Twenty-seven videos on, how are things going?

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Cross-posted from Risk Sense This week’s Risk Bites video takes a roller-coaster ride through some of the hottest topics in risk science. Admittedly this is a somewhat personal list, and rather constrained by being compressed into a two and a half minute video for a broad audience. But it does touch on some of the more exciting frontier areas in reducing health risk and improving well-being through research and its application. Here are the five topics that ended up being highlighted: BIG DATA   Despite pockets of cynicism over the hype surrounding “big data”, the generation and innovative use of massive amounts of data are transforming how health risks are identified and addressed. With new approaches to data curation, correlation, manipulation and visualization, seemingly disconnected and impenetrable datasets are becoming increasingly valuable tools for shedding new insights into what might cause harm, and how to avoid or reduce it. This is a trend that has been growing for some years, but is now rapidly gaining momentum. Just four examples of how “big data” is already pushing the boundaries of risk science include: High throughput toxicity screening, where rapid, multiple toxicity assays are changing how the potential hazards of new and existing substances are evaluated; “Omics”, where genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, exposomics and similar fields are shedding new light on the complex biology at the human-environment interface and how this impacts on health and well-being; Risk prediction through the integrated analysis of related datasets; and Designing new chemicals, materials and products to be as safe as possible, by using sophisticated risk data analysis to push risk management up the innovation pipeline. CLOUD HEALTH, or C-HEALTH   Hot on the tails of mobile-health, the convergence of small inexpensive sensors, widespread use of smart phones and cloud computing, is poised to revolutionize how risk-relevant

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A guest post by Candace Rowell MPH. Candace is an alum of the University of Michigan School of Public Health Department of Environmental Health Sciences, and a former contributor to Mind The Science Gap.  She is currently a research associated with the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute in Doha, Qatar. The traffic in Doha is horrendous. Ask anyone who lives here. It might take you 45 minutes to commute a mere 15 km. The summers are brutal – the temperature bounces around the 50⁰C mark and the humidity threatens to drown you on the doorstep. Yes, this is Doha;

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YouTube intrigues me.  Having been dragged into the YouTube culture by my teenagers over the past two years, I’ve been fascinated by the shift from seemingly banal content to a sophisticated social medium. But what has really grabbed my attention is the growth of YouTube as a unique and powerful platform for informal education which is being driven not by the educational establishment, but by an emerging educational counterculture.

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Cross-posted from Risk Sense “Why should I wash my hands if I only pee?” It’s the sort of question most parents have had to handle at some time – especially if you have pretentious kids who delight in telling you how pure pee is! It’s also the subject of the first post in this semester’s Mind The Science Gap – a student science-writing blog I have great fun in overseeing. Mind The Science Gap takes ten public health graduate students and helps them hone their science communication skills in one of the toughest but most effective ways I know – by requiring them to post articles and respond to comments every week (without fail) for ten weeks. The rules are pretty simple –

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It had to happen – despite deluding myself that I could squeeze everything into a 140 hour work week, something’s going to have to give.  And that something is going to be regular posts on 2020 Science.  I’ll still be posting here, just not as frequently.  Chairing a department, directing a center, teaching, research, doing cool stuff with cool people, writing killer blog posts – it should be possible to do it all.  But apparently I have a family who would like to see me occasionally.  And I’ve heard that other people have this thing called “a life” – I’m intrigued to find out what that is! I’ll still be doing plenty of stuff on line, so please do carry on engaging with me and my work in these places: On Twitter at @2020science – 140 characters is so much easier than a 500 word blog post.  What do department chairs tweet about?  I guess I’ll find out! On the Risk Sense blog – I’ll be putting more energy into building up the Risk Science Center blog – please spread the word, as this has the potential to be a great resource and forum on the science of human health risk.  Also, please follow the Risk Science Center on Twitter at @umrsc On the Risk Bites YouTube channel (and also on Twitter at @microriskbites).  This is a tremendously exciting project we’re launching that provides bite-sized and highly accessible nuggets on cool stuff about science, risk and health.  We officially launch in November, but there will be a number of teasers posted before then.  Please spread the word and subscribe! At Mind The Science Gap.  I’m running this science communication course twice a year now for our students – please subscribe to get notifications of blog posts, and support the students

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Hot on the heels of yesterday’s announcement on the Higgs Boson, some of YouTube’s most viewed science communicators have been burning the midnight oil to explain why this is so exciting.  Wrapping up this series of posts on YouTube, I thought I would call out three prominent YouTubers who were at VidCon this last week, yet still found the time to pull together a video following the news. First out of the blocks was Brady Haran with this video on the SixtySymbols channel, following the CERN seminar surrounding the announcement: Next came Vi Hart’s “Sonnet on a Higgs-Like Particle” And at 9:00 AM promptly this morning, Henry Reich of MinutePhysics posted his much-anticipated piece on the Higgs Boson: What interests me especially with all three videos is how fast they were pulled together and posted, how effectively they connect with a broad audience, and how many views they have already had (not to mention the comments).  Vi Hart’s and Brady Haran’s are well over 30,000 views at the time of writing (around 24 hours after posting), while Henry Reich’s video had over 1600 likes and 450 comments within the first couple of hours of going up.  Compare this with the more mainstream (but still excellent) video from Cara Santa Maria at Huffington Post: At the time of writing (2 days after being posted), it had 2,580 views and 19 comments.  Not shabby by any means.  But it’s clear who had the further reach here! Update: Henry Reich pointed out that Cara gets most of her views on the Huffington Post video channel, not YouTube.  You can check out her HuffPo Higgs Boson video here [link] And while I’m at it, here’s a late-breaking entry from Derek Muller (Veritasium on YouTube)

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YouTube is gearing up to transform the way we learn.  At least that’s the message that came across loud and clear at this morning’s VidCon breakout panel on education. In an overflowing room of well over two hundred conference goers, head of YouTube Education Angela Lin led a panel of five leading video makers in a lively discussion, that gave a compelling glimpse of the future of online education.  And it was a future that didn’t feature too many conventional lessons or institutionalized videos! As the panel included John and Hank Green (SciShow, CrashCourse and a gazillion other things) I was expecting a room packed to the brim with their incredibly engaged teen fans – which it was.  An odd audience you might think for a panel on education.  But this was a serious, intelligent and engaged crowd, eager to listen to the panel, ask questions and provide their own insight on online learning.  Joining the Green brothers were physics blogger Henry Reich (minutephysics), science YouTuber Brady Haran (The Periodic Table of Videos), Mike Rugnetta, host of the PBS Idea Channel and Vi Hart of Mathemusician and the Khan Academy. What was notable was that these panelists are all a) successful online educators (extremely so in some cases), b) not formally trained in teaching (to my knowledge) and c) not representing mainstream educational institutions (not counting PBS).  This is important, because there was no doubt here that the excitement and impact surrounding online education is occurring outside conventional educational circles – and in many cases leaving them standing.  John Green talked about this emerging online education community as being “disruptive,” while brother Hank talked about a “new kind of learning.” And everyone the panel agreed that education content on YouTube is where online music was five or six years ago,

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I‘m over half way through the first day at VidCon 2012, and thought I would jot a few notes down on the science scene here.  OK, so maybe 7,000 people haven’t come to the Anaheim Convention Center to hear the latest on the Higgs boson and other interesting science stuff (although you’d be surprised by how many of them are interested), but after last year, I’ve become increasingly interested in how YouTube is developing as a platform for science communication, education and engagement. After last year’s experience of a distinctly counter-culture nature, I wrote this: Next year, VidCon will be held at the Anaheim Convention Center in LA, and I suspect will attract a much larger crowd than this year.  As planning gets underway for the event, it would be really good to see participation from some of the big names in science communication on YouTube, and a greater integration of science and technology YouTube communities into the program. I doubt very much that Hank Green – the driving force behind VidCon – is a sufficiently avid reader of 2020 Science that he read this and acted on it.  But nevertheless science has clearly moved up the agenda this year.  This in part reflects a massive increase in science content and viewership on YouTube over the past year – including the launch of Hank’s own channel SciShow.  It also reflects the fact that grass roots and alternative science communicators on YouTube are – not to put too fine a point on it – smokin’ it when it comes to connecting with today’s youth. In this morning’s opening main stage session, Henry Reich (MinutePhysics) gave a packed audience in the Anaheim Convention Center Arena a quick lesson in quantum mechanics and the paradox of Schrödindgers cat.  And it went down a

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2020 SCIENCE
 
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Andrew Maynard is a Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan, and directs the U-M Risk Science Center.  His interests focus on effective science communication; the responsible development and use of emerging technologies – most notably nanotechnology and synthetic biology; and how understanding risk can help inform smart decisions.  

As well as writing a regular column for the journal Nature Nanotechnology, Andrew posts regularly on his personal blog "2020 Science", and on Twitter as @2020science.  He also produces short (and hopefully entertaining) educational videos on understanding health risks on the YouTube channel Risk Bites

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