Category Archives: scienceproject

Science Hoaxes

A week or so ago I asked my students and the wonderful world of twitter for examples of websites showing some sort of science-themed hoax, or at least a bit of artistic play with credulity and/ or realism in talk about science. I promised I’d compile a short blogpost with some of the best ones, so here it is.

Several people mentioned Dihydrogen Monoxide, a hoax which played with public fear over “chemicals” by using the unfamiliar name for water (see more background on the wikipedia entry). There were sites developed by artists interested in issues of belief and attitudes to new technologies:, now slightly dated perhaps, and the rather spooky GenPets.

It was especially interesting to see a spoof sites set up as publicity for health information campaigns. For example, the site advertising a downloadable tan (see also Nursing Times article about it). Also, the Sense About Science/ Office for Fair Trading “miracle cure” sites for Fat Melting Pads and an “all-natural” diabetes breakthrough (see also SAS press release).

There is arguably a big difference between hoax sites and satire done for a more straightforward laugh, although there are also overlaps. A lot of the humour on satirical sites such as the Onion stem from the fact they are a mix of the believable and the unbelievable: they depend on an ability to reproduce and twist the real. Hoaxes are also different from sites which we might happen to simply disagree with, have accidentally got things wrong, haven’t bothered to check their sources, or even deliberately aim to deceive in order to, for example, dupe people into buying things. Although, again, if such sites didn’t exist, many of the spoof ones wouldn’t either. In some respects, the diversity of wikipedia-alikes is illustrative of this. Uncyclopedia, Scholarpedia, CreationWiki, Conservapedia, Wikipedia itself, and Britannica for that matter: all very different entities, and yet also (self-consiously) similar.

To give a little background as to why I was looking for such sites: it was for a class on realism, science and the web. An awful lot of traffic on the web, especially science-themed traffic, is a matter of shifting information around, often shifting it quite far from its material points of origin. What’s more, we use visualisations and mashups and embedded media and metaphors to communicate. This can make the information easier to understand, but sometimes decontextualises it too. It can be easy to loose a sense of where, who and how it came about, which in turn can make its validity hard to assess. Arguably, lot of modern life is about (a) symbols (b) trust and (c) shifting quite immaterial information along giant production lines. Social theoriests have been banging on about these issues for years. People seem to get especially worried about it online though, perhaps because there is so much information there, or simply because of fears of the immaterial ‘virtuality’ of the web. People can get especially worried when it comes to science-themed information too, again perhaps because there is a lot of it, perhaps because it’s seen as especially important, or perhaps because of the history of associations between science and truth, openness and honesty (or perhaps all these reasons).

To boil bookloads of social theory into something simple: We do not have time to learn how to build a computer, programme it and do brain surgery. Instead, we do one of these skills (or another entirely), trading our own specialisation for the products of other people’s. In some respects this is very efficient; we get to utilise a lot of very specialist knowledge and skills this way. Many of the key advantages of modern life are built on such a model. However, it does mean we end up spending the bulk of our lives in ignorance. We are all very stupid most of the time. Personally, I think we should accept, even embrace, this. Ask questions: wear our ignorance and curiosity on our sleeves. This means we shouldn’t be put off by other people’s questioning either and, in accepting ignorance, hold off from too much pointing and laughing when people get something wrong and/ or are quicker to trust than they necessarily should.

If you are interested, but would rather avoid too much pomo theory, I can recommend Howard Rheingold’s short essay on online ‘crap’ detection, and this week’s Guardian Science podcast includes some thoughtful chat about trust and incredulity around scientific expertise. If you are really keen on science-themed fake sites, you might like this compendium, and, just to underline that crisis over public trust of the promises of science and technology isn’t exactly a new issue, one of my students sensibly added this story of an 18th century chess-playing machine to the mix.

ADDED 18th Jan 2011: this year’s students draw our attention to one of the sites connected to the male pregnancy site, Genochoice, which invites you to scan your DNA by putting your thumb on your computer screen. We also talked about news stories that Bush voters had lower IQs, or that Microsoft was buying the Vatican, as well as the Save the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus campaign. Matt Parker’s recent press release on mobile phone masts is worth a look too.

Media Coverage of Science Education

Cross-posted from The Science Project.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills have just published a report on the state and possible future of Science and Maths Secondary-School Education. From a group headed by Sir Mark Walport of the Wellcome Trust, it is one of a series interrogating issues in science and society (see also one on engagement from Roland Jackson of the British Science Association, and another on the media from Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre).

I’ve been in and out of meetings most of the day, so haven’t had time to read any more than the executive summary. Well, the executive summary and the news coverage, which was pretty interesting in itself. So, I thought it was worth putting off reading the full report for a bit longer, and doing a quick blogpost pulling out the issues that the press seems to have decided to pull out of the report.

If you want to read the report itself, for yourself, you can download it here, complete with cover-pictures of hair-raising play with a Van der Graaf generator. Ah, where would science education imagery be without Robert Van der Graaf.

DBIS education report cover
First up, BBC online news, with Science and maths exams ‘need shake-up’ . They start by reiterating the report’s point that science and maths education have clearly been priority issues in recent years, but that nonetheless, people are still worried about it. They emphasise the report’s call for specialist teachers and more maths to be taught within science teaching. They also pick up on concern that the science and maths community want a greater say in school science. This is significant, considering a recent trend in science education to curricula that aims to serve the needs of “the public” before professional science. Note it was the director of the Wellcome Trust (which funds scientific research and some education and engagement), not a full-time educationalist, asked to lead this report. But I’m editorialising.

Next, The Times: Science lessons need more explosions and pyrotechnics, report says. This starts: “Science lessons should be more hands-on and exploratory, according to a new report that criticises a dangerous obsession with results that has stripped science teaching of explosions and pyrotechnics”. According to my rather rough Ctrl-Alt F research methodology, the word “pyrotechnics” doesn’t actually feature in the report. They then go onto reflect on the way “teaching to the test” has pushed out more “exploratory learning”. As they quote Walport, the “danger that assessment becomes the tail that wags the dog”. They cover the smaller issue of the report’s call for science and maths specialists to be paid more, before running through quotes from various stakeholders in the area.

I would now like to pause for a little rant. This is directed at the world in general, not the Times in particular, although they inspired it. Exploratory does not equal explosions. Similarly, just because an activity is hands-on, or demonstrated live in the classroom (as opposed to described in a textbook), it doesn’t mean it is an “experiment”. It certainly doesn’t make it investigative or “exploratory”. Simply being hands-on doesn’t necessarily mean the student is allowed to explore. Quite the contrary, some of the most explosive demonstrations are not only done by a member of staff for students to watch, but have exceedingly tightly defined and predicted/ predictable outcomes. The point of an explosive demo is generally that we know what’s going to happen (i.e. it’ll explode – a brilliant big bang of a dramatic ending). They are used to demonstrate why and how science already knows something. They can be exciting, inspiring and explain some aspect of science with immense clarity. By they allow little space for creative exploration. There is difference between expository and exploratory, explanation and experiment. I know they all start with the same three letters people, but get a grip.

Ahem. Rant over, onto The Telegraph: School science undermined by ‘easy’ exams. Their lead paragraph, interestingly I thought, stresses a language problem; that multiple choice questions leave students unable to express their understanding of scientific concepts. They also highlight, early-on, the ways in which examination boards sell their own textbooks to schools (and therefore fuel an exam-driven bite-sizing of curriculum). Like the BBC, the Telegraph are keen to note that science education has been a priority. They also pull out the report’s insistence that science courses have remained popular among young people. The focus of the piece though is (what I read the focus of the report to be…): problems endemic in the curriculum, qualifications and the structure of exams.

Next, the Daily Mail, who’s How Labour’s ‘reforms’ of A-levels have dumbed down exams pulls no punches. Apparently the report is “devastating […] a damning indictment of the exam system”. Content-wise, their emphasis is again on the way the structure of exams and associated bite-sized curriculum effects (/prevents) understanding, referring to worries about the “use of the English language”. They make liberal use of the phrase: “dumbing down”. They also quote schools minister Iain Wright. As with some of the other pieces, this places Wright in a rather defensive position, as if he is only brought in for journalistic balance, to defend himself. I thought this was an interesting positioning: these BIS reports come from groups led by independent(ish) experts, but they are basically government publications, reflecting government desires for change (though they are also from BIS, not the DCSF…). The Mail’s piece ends with a reasonably tame quote from Malcolm Trobe, of the Association of School and College Leaders, underlining the distaste for modular assessment within teaching communities.

Finally, The Independent: Make maths and science exams tougher, says report. A relatively short piece, heavily reliant on quotes from the report itself. As their headline implies, their emphasis is a lack of challenge in the current curriculum (they aren’t clunky enough to use the “dumbing down” phrase, but they breath the sentiment nonetheless). They note complaints that the current system dose not give students enough of a chance to display or develop their depth of knowledge of the subject, that a “tick-box approach” to teaching and assessment lacks depth, and finish with a call for examiner to “devise searching questions for pupils”.

The Guardian haven’t at time of blogging, bothered. Which I thought was odd seeing as they have such strong science and education pages. I’m oscillating being saying this is probably because the issue is just a way to bash Labour (so the Guardian are avoiding it) or that they prefer more nuanced expert analysis on these topics (so are waiting to have a more thoughtful comment is free piece later in the week). Either prediction is largely (rather ridiculous) guesswork on my part though. They’ve likely just got other things to worry about. It’s easy to get your knickers in a terribly self-important twist about science education, especially worries that it’s just not as hard as it was in my day. Whether this generates anything more than rhetoric is another matter.

Before I sign off, I’d also like to note that none of these pieces quotes a child. There are all sorts of very understandable reasons for this, to do with press reporting as much as cultural norms (not to mention legal issues) surrounding education and/ or the voice of children. Still, I hope that as/ if the report’s recommendations are developed, young people are used are more than just cover- boys and girls.