Category Archives: teaching

Science in the mass media

I’m working a day a week at UCL this term, teaching the ‘Science and the Mass Media’ course in the Department of Science and Technology Studies.

Nosey people can see the full syllabus here (pdf). Or, if you want to play along at home, I’ve pasted some of the essay questions below.

Yesterday’s news(papers).

A couple of thousand words due by the end of term. No, I won’t mark your answers (unless you are actually registered on the course, obviously, in which case I am very much looking forward to reading your work).

1. In early 2010, an expert group working on behalf of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills published a report entitled “Science and the Media: Securing the Future”. To what extent do you believe this report reflects what Steven Hiltgartner, writing in 1990, described as the then “dominant concern” of popular science? Has anything changed in approaches to science in the mass media over the last 20 years?

2. Have the roles of science journalist and PR officer blurred too much in recent years?

3. Last year, the UK’s chief scientist Sir John Beddington was reported as saying: “We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of racism. We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of people who [are] anti-homosexuality… We are not – and I genuinely think we should think about how we do this – grossly intolerant of pseudo-science.” Do you agree that such gross intolerance is the correct approach to take here, or are there alternatives?

4. Are bloggers the new science journalists?

5. To what extent can an NGO do effective science communication? Is the case different for environmental campaigning groups compared to medical charities?

6. John Rennie, a former editor of Scientific American, recently argued against what he calls the “big paper of the week” approach to science journalism. He went on to suggest an experiment where everyone agreed not to write about research until six months after publication. Do you agree that a focus on the publication of papers is a bad approach to reporting science? Should journalists wait six months, as Rennie suggests, and/ or write about science pre-publication?

7. What is the ‘inverted pyramid’ of news reporting, and how are science writers using online tools to re-invent science storytelling?

8. How might we go about studying the representation of women in science media? Your answer should discuss both possible research questions and methods for analysis, referring to the body of work already undertaken in this subject.

The plagiarism business

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran a piece by a man who makes his living writing ‘bespoke’ essays for university students: The Shadow Scholar.

I’ve been keeping an eye on this business since I was flyered by one ‘Oxbridge Essays’ on campus about five years ago. At the time I was officially a PhD student, so possibly a customer (they’ll do you an 80,000 word PhD thesis in a month for a bit over £10000). I was also a part-time lecturer though. I’d just dealt with my first case of plagiarism, and the dude flyering got rather an earful.

I can recommend spending some time on the Oxbridge Essays website. Their cynicism is an eye-opener if nothing else. is also worth a read. They both stress that the essays are for research purposes only, a way of finding a model answer. They present themselves as a support center for students. Oxbridge Essays has a blog covering issues like the increase in fees. Both also stress their openness. You can see photos of the UK Essays writers, and visit Oxbridge Essays’ offices. According to an interesting piece from the Guardian, they are both owned by Barclay Littlewood who, via a link on his wikipedia page, I learnt had made the 2008 Sunday Times Rich List (see also a piece from 2007 and another from 2006).

If any of those links depress you, you might find the scepticism of this student forum page cheering.

Such ‘bespoke’ essays are unlikely to be caught by plagiarism checks (e.g. turnitin) and more likely to fit the coursework brief than cutting and pasting off the web. I do know a tutor who once caught a student who had bought an essay from such a site. She noticed a sudden rise in a student’s standard of coursework, so pulled him into a meeting to discuss the essay’s topics, at which point he broke down and admitted it. But she only spotted this because she is a good tutor who knows her students, one that thinks about their development as she works through her marking. I think it’s fair to say that tutors like that are less likely to get students cheating in the first place.

When I first caught that undergrad cheating, I was angry with her. I thought she was being phenomenally lazy (it was a real doozy of a cheat) not to mention downright cheeky to think such laziness was ok when other students had bothered to produce original work. But part of me also felt like I’d failed her slightly, that she either felt unable or simply uninspired by the coursework. I don’t think I was just being hard on myself. I think any sign of student failure (and this includes them making ‘stupid mistakes’ as well as dishonesty) should be taken as a signal for the teacher to at the very least check themselves. I think assessment is not just a part of measuring learning, but helping to develop it. I put a lot of effort into setting and marking coursework. I think most (good) lecturers do. Still, it is difficult, and even the best lecturers will set coursework students cannot do well in. This isn’t (just) because we set challening work, it’s because it’s bad coursework: confusingly articulated, uninspiring. As another bespoke essay writer puts it ‘Imagine trying to write a novel, for a grade, under a tight deadline, without ever having read a novel’ (hat-tip Paula Salgado for that link).

I’m not saying we should ‘spoon-feed’ lazy students or set easier work (or let cheaters get away with it), I’m just saying a good coursework assignment is a project students can and want to work on.

So, educators: read up on this bespoke essay business. Keep an eye out for students using it, but take their existence as a challenge to yourself too. As the guy in the Chronicle piece put it ‘I live well on the desperation, misery, and incompetence that your educational system has created’. If you find him disgusting, think about how you can most productively help cut off the food supply.

Blogs a science communication student might like

A colleague asked me for a list of blogs that next year’s science communication MSc students might like to read. I figured the only way to share this information was in a blogpost.

Warning: there is no such thing as a reading list of science blogs, you need to explore for yourself. These are just starting points.

Twitter is a good way of engaging with the science blogosphere. My “awesome science” list of people who write and/ or link to great science writing on the web should be a useful starting point. Twitter is also brilliant for discussing/ eavesdropping on debates about science in the media and policy, so I can recommend people on my science policy and science communication lists too. Please note, many of these accounts will tweet about other things too.

These links are really just the tip of the iceberg. Or, a small section of a big chunk of ice, as I’m not sure something iceberg-shaped is the appropriate metaphor. I should also add that I don’t agree with everything these people blog/ tweet about. Not even close. They do, however, tend to write about topics a science communication student might be interested in. At the very least, they’ll point you towards some new ideas and make you think.

Click on a few links here and see who they link to. See what entertains, educates or enrages you. Go, have a play.

Student Sci-Art

Some examples of the interpretive practical group project we set our MSc students every year. They work in groups or three or four to produce something (and it can be about anything…) which reflects on some of the history, philosophy and social studies of science they study in the first term.

Four Scientists 2 Mendel's peas
Science Comic - inside Enlightenment Edward - close up

From the top-left clockwise, four scientists of the televisual age argue over how they see “the public”, Mendel’s pea (part of a knitted history of genetics), a philosophy of science influenced comic book, and “Enlightenment Edward” (part of a collection of history of science action men).

Each of the photos are links to flickr, where you can find more notes. You’ll also see further examples of this year’s group projects, including: bottles of cider which they actually brewed (or rather sci-der), some clever photography, an experiment in Romantic Scientific painting, and a mashup of the Large Hadron Collider with Cologne Cathedral.

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.