For the record, I managed two whole plenaries in AMEE before I was overcome with opinions and had to blog about it.
First things first, AMEE 2017, an International Association for Medical Education, has been a bit of a revelation for me. Sitting in a crowd of 3800 medical educators, when you’ve only been on the job for fourteen months, is a bit overwhelming. But this has been one of the friendliest, most accessible conferences I’ve ever attended. It’s been a delight so far.
But I want to talk about the Finnish Education system here. Our second plenary of the conference was by Pasi Sahlberg, whose talk was titled “What can medical education learn from the Finnish experience of educational change?”
First off, it’s important to talk about the conference crush. It’s a thing that happens when you hear another researcher talk and their passion and excitement, and their insight into a topic, just sets your heart racing and before you know it you’re having idle fantasies of working in another research group. It happens to me about ten times a conference. I got a case of it listening to Sahlberg talk about the Finnish education experience. In about 15 years they managed to make massive improvements, and top the global league tables in many arenas of literacy. They improved so much they surprised themselves.
I think Sahlberg will be posting his slides on his website, but I quite enjoy taking my own things away a talk. The highlights to me were:
Teaching must be respected (in Finland you need an Masters degree to do any kind of teaching)
School systems should not be competitive with one another for ‘clients’
Value play and failure
The society you teach in needs to have high equity
Whether or not this is what Sahlberg intended to communicate, this is what I walked away with. There are so many questions that come tumbling out when I think about this. For us in Scotland, I really worry about the equity in our educational society. Any three students in my lecture could have paid three different fees to hear the same material. That worries me greatly. With the changing politics of the UK, we risk losing many of our hard-earned gains in society.
Sahlberg presented a slide which talked about ‘Global Educational Reform Movement’, and how it had spread (like a g.e.r.m.) from the UK in the eighties, and moved forward. I can’t be the only person in the room who was thinking about dear old Maggie Thatcher. Whether education must always be political is an interesting question (one opinion, one more). I have always been a political creature, and I believe there is politics in all we do. I found Sahlberg’s slides very convincing that we must create certain kind of systems in order to promote better educational outcomes.
Sahlberg also highlighted the value of play, briefly, and the value of what he called ‘small data’. These are subjects close to my heart. As someone with a big-data PhD, I now spend a lot of time on small data, and explore qualitative ways to evaluate what we do, because sometimes that’s the best method you can use to answer the question you’re interested in. I like these two elements because they are both things that are sometimes frowned upon in the environments I work. When I did my M.Sci, I had this feeling that I wasn’t allowed to get emotional about the animals, I wasn’t allowed to have fun in my job. Where did this come from? No one ever told me this, but it was part of my culture nonetheless. I still struggle a little with this.
This blog is called ‘Fluffy Sciences’ because I want to kick back against the ideas that ‘soft’ things, play, small data, feelings, are less valuable. What we do is massively complicated, asking questions like “how do we change a whole community in order to improve our education”, and not recognising how valuable that is results in any old person doing teaching, being given no support, and students who are treated as commodities, not people.
Here at AMEE, it’s incredibly empowering to be around so many people who recognise the importance of education research. Let’s hope that we can all take that confidence back with us to our schools as a beacon.
I don’t think it’s any of these. I think the real cause of the scientific crisis is specialism.
Before going any further I want to point you towards two comics in the venerated xkcd. Purity and Degree Off. As an interdisciplinary scientist who named her blog ‘Fluffy Sciences’ I open many of my lectures with these concepts. I used to open with Purity long before Degree Off was posted because it makes such an important point. The culture of science has a deeply ingrained problem with application. The more applied a scientist is, the more we look down on them. A mathematician is worth a dozen engineers because at the end of the day, the mathematician can be taught to do anything the engineer can. As the mathematicians say, everything comes down to numbers eventually.
I am not immune to this belief. I’ve spent a lot of my scientific career fighting my own applied nature. When I was specialising in behavioural ecology I maintained that I was interested in the broader – and more serious – sphere of ecology. When I started working in ethology I clung to that behavioural ecology badge like a shield. When I realised I was getting deep into interdisciplinary territory I started reaching for the word ‘ethology’. If I had an ology I’d be fine. Interestingly, in my interview for my current role I was asked what attracted me to educational research. My answer was that I liked working at the coal face, I liked being able to quickly see the impact of a change.
My answer was honest, and applied, and reader? I have never been happier professionally than I am in my current role.
Recently I feel as though I’m hearing the same thing, over and over. Whether it’s what I have been writing in my application to the Higher Education Academy, whether it’s listening to how the Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare MSc has changed over the years, or whether it’s listening to Dr Chatterjee’s SEFCE plenary on functional medicine, the problem that each person describes is the same: the specialists are only interested in teaching their subject, not the skills that the world desperately needs.
Chatterjee’s talk was interesting precisely because it set off many of my little professional bugbears. Chatterjee preaches Functional Medicine, a holistic approach to a medical problem that advocates multiple small harmless changes as a first line of treatment. In theory I love the sound of it, its very similar to the approaches I advocate for welfare assessment. But Chatterjee spoke of several case studies, he couldn’t evidence sustained behavioural change for his patients, and I was desperate to ask how such a change could be implemented in a health system which needs measurable metrics both for the assessment of new medics and the quality monitoring of existing medics. These are all serious questions for advocates of functional medicine.
During the talk I tweeted my thoughts, as I often do, and I tweeted that my quantitative heart and qualitative brain were at war when thinking about functional medicine. My heart, which truly loves the comfort of describing things mathematically, rejected functional medicine’s case-by-case approach. My logical brain, which sees the value of qualitative science, understood that the real goal was not making numbers perform on a chart, but changing the intangible and immeasurable experience of the patient.
We specialise early in life. Maths is separate from English in school. You can be better at one subject than the other. I think back to my early years at university. In first year I had three courses, biology, chemistry and archaeology. Learn the facts about biology, this fish does that, this dinosaur likely moved like this. Learn the facts about chemistry, hydrocarbons are stable, lab safety is important. Learn the facts about archaeology, these people lived then, this is the evidence they leave behind. Facts that can be regurgitated in multiple choice questions (a very efficient and useful method of assessing knowledge). Then in second year, 8 separate biology courses. In third year, four separate biology courses, in fourth year another four separate courses. All these courses that are set up independently, assessed independently, and brought together at the end with a dissertation project.
This approach is a relic of university history where expert lecturers stood up to regurgitate everything they knew about their subject. We know that this is not the best way to teach (1, 2, 3) , and indeed even that it prevents students from making connections between subjects. Yet we persist in creating these divisions. Why?
In some respects it comes back to the need to measure success. It is always easier to measure something when you break it down into smaller chunks, and students need to be measured and to be told how well they’re doing. No student wants to study for four years and then have everything assessed at the end (well as a student that would have suited me perfectly but I don’t think I was normal). So there must be some break down of both the information and skills. The question to me is: what’s the most important thing you want every student to be able to do?
In the first year of your science degree what do you need to know? Do you need to be able to say that parrot fish are able to change sexes in single sex environments? Is it important for you to name every type of bridge structure? These may be reasonably interesting facts, but what is the application? In the last five years I have never been in a situation where that sort of knowledge wasn’t accessible via the small device in my pocket. We have out-brains now that deal with fact retention. Fact retention is the least important part of my role as a scientist.
Not only is fact retention not important for me, as an actual academic who works in research, but most of the students I teach are not going into the hallowed halls of academia. The zoologists are becoming bankers, the engineers becoming salespeople . . . regardless of what you think of it, the undergraduate science degree does not mean you will become a scientist. For those people, what’s the most important thing I could teach them? What’s the most useful thing for them to learn?
It is not the parrot fish.
Imagine a first year science degree where the first year looks like this:
Introduction to Science
By the end of this year you will be able to:
Identify an appropriate sample frame for a range of populations
Distinguish between interview and focus-group data
Discriminate between positive, negative and historical controls
Describe a manipulative study
Describe an observation study
Those learning outcomes are all assessable via variants of multiple choice questions, but also easy to evidence in class, providing excellent opportunities for both formative and summative feedback. This meets our need to measure and give feedback for our students. I would be delighted to even work with an MSc student who could do all of these, but they are still basic skills that any psychologist, chemist, physicist or biologist should really be able to do. Not only that but the banker and the salesperson, the people with the degrees who have no intention of ever doing research. These are skills that the world needs.
You could use examples from many different fields while teaching this subject. You could show how a focus-group responds to a new bread recipe, bring in some accessory knowledge from everything from agriculture to chemistry (Learning Outcome 2). You could look at the testing of a bridge’s strength and compare that with observation of the bridge in use (Learning Outcomes 4 & 5). Even those students who do want to become scientists are interested in the how of the world, and all of these examples are interesting and worthwhile learning a little bit about.
Specialist knowledge is important, but specialists are by definition an expert in one thing. We need more people with more general knowledge. Science needs to get over its specialism fetish if it hopes to help the world move forward. Science needs to get over its specialism fetish if it hopes to help itself.
Being a physicist is not better than being a stamp collector. We shouldn’t be teaching students otherwise.
John Bradshaw, a scientist at Bristol, wrote two fabulous books: Dog Sense and Cat Sense. They are some of the best popular science books I’ve ever read, and helped me to decide that the Animal Personality book could be a good pop science book. I cite Bradshaw a lot in this blog, if you take a look over the companion animal and cats tags you’ll see his name come up a lot.
So I was interested to see the Guardian’s regular “You Googled It So We Asked the Experts” column had been given to John Bradshaw to answer “Why Aren’t Cats Loyal?”
You know from the number of Guardian links that appear on this blog that I enjoy a good Guardian article, but there is the phenomenon “Below The Line” where the Guardian commenters turn their rabid, foaming fingers to the columnist.
In this article I was near in stitches reading the likes of:
I thought that study was pretty superficial. My cat is more out going and more assured when I’m around. It may not be immediate like for a dog but they do miss us. At least mine does.
Superficial, this is why I have decided to go into great depth and talk about my one animal.
My cats have a range of facial expressions and have several vocal expressions to let you know what they want.
Which is why your cats have ten times the facial muscles everybody else’s have . . . oh, they don’t? Perhaps your ability to ‘understand’ them is part of this whole scientific question? Who knew.
The studies are a heap of crap I reckon, my cats are totally loyal more loyal than dogs I’d say without a doubt. With dogs its their nature, cats choose who they are loyal to, there is a big difference when comparing the two.
Science communciation, what a joy.
To all those who read the article and feel their cats were misrepresented, I urge you to pick up Cat Sense which is a sublime read and puts a huge amount of effort into communicating the science, because as another recent Guardian article points out, it is everybody’s responsibility to try and understand the science.
And if that’s not enough science for you, on the 2nd October I have wrangled some of our SRUC Animal Behaviour and Welfare scientists together to talk about the Five Freedoms at Fifty.
You can watch by signing up at the Google + Page here, or watching direct on YouTube. If you want to submit a question, please feel free to do so by tweeting @SRUCResearch using the #Freedoms50 hashtag 🙂
You will have noticed lately that the posting schedule has been a bit erratic. That’s partly because of work commitments, but also partly because I’ve been got some big news.
I am writing a book!
What? How? Why? Where?
Well after the MOOC and winning the Living Links competition, I was contacted by a publisher to ask if I would like to write or edit a book on animal personality. They, and I, felt there was a gap in the market for such a book. Was I up for it?
What a question to ask!
Surprisingly, it’s a question that does require some thought. Firstly: what kind of book do I want to write? A text book, a manual for personality studies, a review much like those I’ve already written? It didn’t take me long to realise that what I really wanted to write was a popular science book, something that anyone could pick up and better understand animal personality by the end of it.
I suggested this to the commissioning editor a little nervously. A fancy academic text is one thing, but would this be something marketable? Moreover, would anyone want to read something I’d written? So imagine my delight when the publishers responded enthusiastically. They were really interested in popular science books and liked the idea.
The funny thing I’ve learned about the book commissioning process is that after being approached to write a book, you then have to pitch your idea to the commissioning board. Because the topic was unusual, I also had to write a sample chapter to demonstrate that I could write about such a complex topic in an accessible manner. My proposal and sample were sent to reviewers, and I was left bursting with news I wanted to share here but didn’t want to jinx myself.
Well today I got the contracts through and it’s all going ahead. I’ve had some lovely reviews in about the proposal and sample chapter and felt really supported by my publishers (5M Books).
So what does this mean for Fluffy Sciences? Well much as I love and enjoy this blog, I simply won’t have time to update it while also writing a book on the side, so blog posts will become sporadic.
I hope that when the books comes out you’ll all be ready to enjoy it – because I am so excited about writing it!
Seeing these two articles so closely together was interesting.
The first thing that jumps out is that in America, there is a 51 percentage point gap between scientists and the public regarding whether or not it’s safe to eat genetically modified foods. You can play about with the day at the Pew Research Centre’s site where they have a fun inforgraphic to demonstrate how this changes with gender, age, science knowledge, etc. The story of the double muscled pigs then should evoke some concern in these people, no? Scientists meddling where they don’t belong?
But of course double muscling is old news – in fact we understand it pretty well. It’s a genetic mutation that inhibits the production or uptake of myostatin, a muscle growth regulator. So these animals have big muscles. There are a few breeds of cattle that have been selected for this mutation, such as the Piedmontese breed, and it’s a mutation that occurs in some whippets too. Deliberately adding the gene in a line of pigs is cool, but we also have pigs that glow in the dark.
The concern about double muscled pigs might come from the idea that humans shouldn’t genetically manipulate animals, but seeing as we’ve been doing it for a long time, I think it’s more the tool that some people object to. This innate distrust of the mad scientist.
But what really interested me in the double muscling article was the assertion that this development might help feed the world. I agree that it could, but not because we’re suddenly doubling down on our bacon production. After all, the world’s beef production isn’t purely carried by the Piedmontese and Belgian Blue (although they are important breeds). But the technical capacity we have to engineer our animals, with appropriate ethical supervision, really will help us in one of the theatres of world food production.
We just need to overcome that 50% point difference between us and the public to help us get there.
There was a great article on Gawker recently about the Food Babe blog, calling out her bad science.
Now I’ve never come across the Food Babe blog, as a scientist working in agriculture I don’t think our circles mix. The article is really interesting though. I do follow It’s Okay To Be Smart, though, and Joe posted a really interesting question in his reblog of the article.
Anyway, I shared the above article on my personal Facebook page yesterday, and one of my friends left a comment that really made me think. By calling her out, by trashing her ideas and shining light on her unscientific fearmongering, are we actually helping her? To paraphrase my friend Scott, by using scientific expertise as a bullying tactic and by spreading this story around in the Name of Science™, could this be the best PR she could ask for? Does this play into her hands, The Food Babe vs. The Establishment?
Misinformation like this needs to be called out. People should not be lied to and made to fear science. But do articles like this help her more than they hurt? How do we continue to battle misinformation without creating martyrs for the misinformed?
I don’t have the answer, but I do have another component of the question I want to ask. Last week, io9, Gawker’s sister site, posted an article titled “Your Pet Rabbit Hates You”. That was the title on the page, the title on Twitter, the key to making people click on the article. It certainly made me click.
The article itself is an interesting piece on tonic immobility, where some species of animals go immobile when placed on their backs. Jones (1986) describes tonic immobility as an unlearned response, e.g. instinctive, where the animal goes catatonic-like state with reduced reaction to external stimuli. People like to show off tonic immobility, and it does have a place in animal management, but it’s also related to fear, either causing it, or caused by it (Gallup, 1977) – as a side note, I like the fact that one of the more recent studies linking tonic immobility to a personality trait uses Bayesian statistics. Consider my brain melted (Edelaar et al, 2012).
And this is really just the point the io9 article is making – that people who turn their rabbits upside down are subjecting it to unnecessary and unpleasant stress. That’s good for rabbit welfare on the whole, right? It gives people evidence to come to their own conclusions.
But that title, “Your Rabbit Probably Hates You”, immediately pits the article (and ergo the science) against the rabbit caretaker. Against the people whose behaviour your are trying to change for the good of the animal. It’s what I said last week, it’s what I said in the MOOC, it’s what I’ve been saying for ages.
If you want to improve an animal’s welfare, you have to be an ally of their owner. This smug, click-bait style reporting of scientific news innately pits the uninformed audience against the facts. Hungerford and Volk (2005) talk about the importance of empowering people when getting them to change their behaviours regarding the environment. By giving people solutions and tapping into their attention to act, you may find it easier to change their behaviours.
What if, instead of “Your Rabbit Hates You”, people saw “Your Rabbit Will Love You Even More If . . .”
What if, instead of “The Food Babe Blogger is Full of Shit,” people saw: “The Evidence Behind Food Claims”.
Not as clickworthy, possibly, but would it help people change their behaviours?
There’s a great article on Vox.com talking about science reporting and why most news reports claiming there’s a new cure for X, or that Z causes cancer, are wrong.
And I use Bernard Black specifically here for an important reason – he’s smoking and drinking. We [that’s the scientist we] are pretty clear that we know causes cancer. And drinking wine, which we [again, the scientist we] are less clear about.
The article includes a great visualisation for thinking about cancer risk – studies which show an increased and reduced risk of cancer.
I love this graphic so much. I think it communicates so much – but if I’ve learned anything in the last few years it’s that science literacy can’t be taken for granted.
So while I think this is a great example of science communication, I want to know from you guys – what do you think? Is this informative?
I have some wonderful news, readers – my amazing skill at being able to see both colours in the dress is down to the fact I’m a tetrachromat – a marketer says so.
Firstly I’ve always known I was special. When everyone else said I had poor colour vision, I just knew I was discerning subtle differences in colours that they couldn’t even perceive. When people said how much they loved spring green, I knew how tasteless they truly were. When nobody believed in me, I would look at the glorious colours that surrounded me and quietly comforted myself in their glory.
The LinkedIn article discusses some truly groundbreaking new research. View the above rainbow, seemingly created by Professor Diana Derval who’s an expert in neuromarketing. Crazily enough, she uses something very like Articulate Storyline to build her website – we are clearly bound by fate! Derval asks you to count how many colour nuances you see in this rainbow. I see 36 on this screen, 38 on my phone and 34 on my screen at work. Let’s take an average of 36.
If you see less than 20 colours, Derval suggests you are a dichromat, like dogs, which would be red-green colour blind typically. You would struggle to see the ’57’ in this image.
If you see between 21 and 32 colours, Derval suggests you at trichromat, like . . .well . . . the majority of humans.
If you see between 33 and 39 colors, Derval calls you a tetrachromat. Still not as cool as a mantis shrimp, but apparently you’re more able to see purple (?) and you’ll be irritated by yellow. I’m irritated by spring green tinged yellows, and lemon yellows wash out my skin tone, but a golden yellows are everywhere in my wardrobe because I fricking love yellow.
In her article, Derval points to a paper by Jameson et al (2001) which investigated the genes linked to tetrachromaticity and colour perception in 64 people (38 women and 26 men, all based in California if that influences your thinking any).
First Jameson et al investigate the genetic sequence that’s responsible for the light-sensitive parts inside our eyes. First for a short physics lesson: the rainbow is made up of what we call a spectrum of light, and each colour has its own wavelength. We say humans are trichromats because we have cells in our eyes that can pick up three broad wavelength bands: red, green and blue. Because light is a wave (at least for the purposes of this blog post) – we can see the rainbow as its the overlapping wavelengths. We can see orange because it sits in the overlap of red and green.
The parts of the human genetic code that make all the light sensitive parts of the eyes are complicated. Our genetics hold more possibilities than our eyes actually come out with – which makes figuring out how people see very complicated!
If a human has two different amino acids (amino acids are basically important things the help the body do its body stuff) coded on a particular gene – there’s a possibility they could be tetrachromat. That is to say that as well as the three light wave frequencies ‘normal’ humans can see, they have another which is sensitive to a fourth.
Of the 64 subjects they had 23 women had these two amino acids on the gene (possibly genetically tetrachromat), 37 people who were trichromats (or ‘normally’ sighted), and 4 men who were dichromat (or red-green colourblind).
After checking the genes, the researchers investigated what these 64 people saw. To do this, they didn’t use a computer screen. Instead they shone a light through a prism, like the old school experiment, and asked the subjects to draw lines demarking where they saw ‘colour partitions’.
What’s different between this methodology and the LinkedIn article? Firstly – no computer screens, or monitors of any type. The subjects were looking at pure light – light scattered through a prism – which is different from a computer attempting to display colours based on RGB numbers (or worse, html). The computer also has to be told what colours to display, there are only 39 colours in Derval’s rainbow (each one a fixed width apart so we ‘know’ where a colour demarkation should be, even if we observe it as a broader band. This is very poor design as well, you could at least randomise colour band width to stop people from assuming they should see a colour difference. For the record, I’m positive this is why I’m scoring so highly because my colour vision really is poor), and so we’re not really choosing what colours we see – not like the subjects were in Jameson’s experiment.
So what were the results? The genetic tetrachromat women (n = 23) saw on average 10 spectral delineations, the 15 trichromat women saw 7.6 on average. This was significantly different at the P<0.01 level, though it’s very important to recognise the small sample sizes and also that the tetrachromat women were very variable (e.g. one tetrachromat woman might see 7, another might see 13). The trichromat people in general (n=37) saw 7.3 delineations on average, and dichromat men (n=4) saw 5.3. This was also significantly different.
Jameson et al concluded these results demonstrated that their rainbow test was a good, non invasive indicator of whether someone is tetrachromat or trichromat. They also suggested that we aren’t very good at detecting tetrachromats with our traditional colour testing, which I more than agree with.
I disagree, strongly, that Derval’s method has any chance of trying to identify who these people are. The methodology is not sufficient. But more than anything else, Derval suggests that tetrachromats are not tricked by the dress. This tells me that not only is a professor of marketing cashing in on a phenomenon to plug her book (and more power to her – I use search engine optimisation to do the exact same thing), but that she doesn’t understand how the Dress illusion works because it has nothing to do with how good your colour vision and everything to do with how your brain is primed to interpret images.
These kind of internet tests are fun – but for heavens’ sakes, don’t trust them! They are as precious as the paper they’re printed on.
And I promise I will stop talking about the dress.
My colleague Arjan, who’s much wittier than I am, suggested the label go something like this:
Product may contain trace amounts of DNA; DNA has been linked with cancers and other disorders; There is a high probability pregnant mothers will pass DNA to their unborn children
The Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University has a project called the Food Demand Survey which surveys Americans regarding their attitudes and sentiments to their food. Before we’re even going to address this claim about DNA, let’s think about the methodology.
The information comes from Volume 2: Issue 9 (January 2015) of their self-published online reports. So the first point to make is that this methodology is not peer reviewed. However we can glean some of the methodology from Lusk and Murray (2014). The survey has been running since May 2013 and goes out each month online to survey at least 1000 people, but no word on what their response rate is like. Each month they add an ad hoc question which doesn’t follow the basic survey layout and the DNA result comes out of the question.
So the question this month was:
Do you support or oppose the following government policies?
A tax on sugared sodas (39% Supported)
A ban on the sale of marijuana (47% Supported)
A ban on the sale of food products made with transfat (56% Supported)
A ban on the sale of raw, unpasteurised milk (59% Supported)
Calorie limits for school lunches (64% Supported)
Mandatory calorie labels on restaurant menus (69% Supported)
Mandatory labels on foods containing DNA (80% Supported)
Mandatory labels on food produced with genetic engineering (82% Supported)
A requirement that school lunches contain two servings of fruit and veg (84% Supported)
Mandatory country of origin labels for meat (87% Supported)
Really, without further methodology questions all we can really say is more of these particular Americans (a number we know is less than 1000) want mandatory labelling on foods containing DNA than a tax on sugared sodas. Without sample size data we have no idea whether that difference is significant or not (although if they surveyed 100 people, and 80% want DNA labelling, then that is significantly different from a random 50:50 distribution).
But here’s the thing: regardless of methodology, the idea that there are any people in a survey that aims to be informative who are concerned about DNA being in their food is very concerning indeed.
In the title of this post, I used an old journalistic trick by using DNA’s more formal name which is long, hard to pronounce and contains the scary ‘acid’ word. It’s the kind of question that we’d laugh about if it caught out our most hated politician. But the survey appeared to ask about DNA. I can only conclude this is a sample of people who have never even watched Jurassic Park, never mind the one respondent who said they’d read the bible as an agricultural text (this led me to the best site ever – Biblical Research Reports: Farming).
DNA has been one of the most amazing discoveries in science, and has been so completely misunderstood by the respondents of this survey that it’s unbelievable. And yet these consumers, by the same survey, place the highest value on the safety and nutrition of their food. Instead of laughing at them, it’s my role as a self-professed science communicator to give them the tools and understanding to interpret the information they need to achieve those values.
In America, it’s just a particularly obese mountain to climb.