Sunday, April 29, 2012

Science For Six-Year-Olds: Groundwater in Africa

Science For Six-Year-Olds is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak's first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year in first grade we've also learned about noctilucent clouds done an experiment with butter, talked about hurricanes and sugar maple trees, and learned a song about the states of matter.
Hello First Graders! I heard that you are participating in a fundraiser for P&G Children's Safe Drinking Water campaign. This is a great project, because having access to clean water for drinking, cooking, and washing is necessary to stay healthy. This campaign supplies water purification packets to communities that don't have a way to access clean water. In addition to drinking and cleaning access to water is also important to take care of crops  because it helps provide food and money for people to live off of and support their families.

There are many countries in the world where water is difficult to get, or the water that is available is not clean enough to use. Many of these countries are located on the continent of Africa. Due to your work on this safe drinking water project, I wanted to share with you some background information about groundwater, which is one source that people around the world use to get water for drinking, cleaning, and watering crops. 

Have you ever heard the term groundwater? Groundwater is exactly what it sounds like, it is water that is located underground in soil or in tiny crevices or cracks in rock. When it rains some of the water will go to nourish the plants and living things in that area, but some of the water will travel deep into the ground until it hits a level of rock that it cannot as easily travel through as it does the soil. The water will collect in a layer above this rock. There is groundwater nearly everywhere, but how much groundwater there is can vary by location based on the type of soil and bedrock, how much or how thick the soil and bedrock is, and what kind of precipitation there is in that area.

Even a place that is very dry and hot like Africa has groundwater. In fact, some scientists recently found out that there is a lot more water deep underground in some of the North African countries like Libya, Algeria, Egypt and North and South Sudan than they had previously thought. But, just because there is water deep underground doesn't mean that the people have access to it. Getting water from deep underground up to the surface where people can use it can be very difficult and expensive. 

One way that you can get water out of the ground is by drilling or digging a well. A well is a piece of pipe that fills up with ground water that can be brought to the surface with a pump. Look at the picture above from the USGS website, can you see how the well sucks up the water?

In Africa, small wells and hand pumps may be the best way to extract groundwater for people to use. This is because large projects that drill for the water are expensive and could deplete the reservoirs too quickly in addition to causing other problems. In some areas even smaller projects aren't a very good option because there are difficulties pumping the water up due to depth, or the pumps are too expensive. Hand pumps also need to be maintained because they can sometimes break, and this can be expensive. In some areas the problem is not access to water but improvements needed to better collect and store the water. 

We all live in a part of the world where we just have to turn on the faucet to have water, but you can tell from all the problems listed above that it is not so easy in other places. Sometimes getting access to clean water is very complicated. There are an estimated 300 million people living in Africa that do not have access to clean water, and only 5% of land on which crops could be grown is set up to water the plants. Having clean water is very important to keep people healthy, and by raising money to help provide water purification packets for areas of the continent where they will be useful is a great way to help out. Good luck with your fundraiser and if you have any questions about groundwater let me know!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Thoughts On Science Writing In The Age of Denial

This week I was lucky enough to be among the attendees at a conference called Science Writing in the Age of Denial, hosted here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. What a great experience. Truly I couldn't say enough to thank all of the organizers, speakers, panelists, and other attendees for all of the thoughtful discussion. For those of you who aren't as familiar with the concept of science denial, it is simply the idea that despite scientific evidence that certain things are true (evolution, climate change, there is no autism/vaccine link, etc.) people will still claim (sometimes with serious vitriol) that science is wrong. This happens because the scientific evidence questions their world view or the mental model they have in place for understanding an issue.

I just wanted to share a few of the thoughts and ideas from the conference that I'm walking away with:

Respect is key. Our job as communicators is not to slap people around, name call, or put them down for thinking a certain way. Calling someone an idiot isn't a good way to get them to take your point of view seriously. It is our job to communicate facts and evidence in a way that is compelling and approachable. I thought Dan Fagin from NYU's SHERP program put it brilliantly when he said that as science writers we can't stay walled off in our castle, acting like we're on the defensive from the attacking hoard. We need to come down and really open up a dialogue if we want to make any progress.

We can not change minds with facts alone. It is our job to tell our audience a good story. A good story has the power to change minds. Telling scientific stories in a narrative way is one of the best ways we can go about trying to communicate about these controversial issues. Narrative is what will hook people, and hopefully get them thinking critically about issues and avoid them shutting down from the start simply based on the topic.

As science writers we have a tremendous ability to do harm. It could not be more important that we do our homework, and tell stories with all the nuance and shades of grey required to tell them accurately. For me this point was really driven home by Ivan Oransky, co-founder of the blog Retraction Watch, when he said that a all science/medical writers should have a biostatistician in their back pocket. It is unacceptable to spread misinformation because you as the writer didn't understand it in the first place. We need to be reading the papers (including the graphs and methods) and asking questions of the researchers or qualified third party sources if we are unclear about something.

One of the most important things we can do for our audience is help educate those who are unfamiliar with the scientific process about how it all works. Deborah Blum raised this point, and pointed out that the problem with claiming a scientific consensus about a topic is that over the course of history scientific consensus about any number of issues has been revised. This is inherent in the nature of science, a constant search for new information is bound to result in new information. Sometimes this new information will confirm the previous conclusions, sometimes it will contradict and present more questions. This isn't a reason to distrust what all scientists say, or to distrust conclusions for which there may be unanswered questions but for which there is very little contradictory evidence. We need to help the public understand that uncertainty is inherent in scientific research. Uncertainty doesn't mean that scientists are liars, because unsure is not the same as false. The more we can do to help make the public comfortable with the scientific process, the more likely we are to help them learn to trust it.

We need to try to understand our audience. Knowing where your audience is coming from and what is driving their perspective is critical to being able to communicate ideas to them. You won't change minds if you don't establish an ongoing dialogue that addresses their point of view.

Another point I thought was really important was that the best way to help dispel misinformation is to stop repeating it. Articles like, "the top five misconceptions about climate change" just help keep the misinformation in the public eye. We need to focus on truth. I thought this was perfectly captured with the example of asking the audience who originally said the quote "I can see Russia from my house" I was among the people who thought Sarah Palin, but the real answer is Tina Fey. Palin made a comment about having foreign policy experience due to the proximity of Alaska to Russia, and Fey made fun of it by saying the above quote in a skit on Saturday Night Live. Palin never actually said it, but it has been repeated so much that it has taken on a life of its own. Thus, the misinformation lives on.

Those are just a few of the ideas I'll be taking away from Science Writing in the Age of Denial. There were so many great sessions and panel discussions that I couldn't possibly list every great idea and point here. If you are interested in what went on at the conference I seriously recommend checking out the twitter activity on the hashtags #denialconf and #sciencedenial. A lot of people were tweeting, myself included, and you will get a really great summary of what was said and went on. If you do check out the hashtags though, don't be surprised to see some spam. We experienced several spam attacks throughout the conference.

I'll close this post by just repeating my thanks to everyone who participated. I met some seriously fabulous writers (and only had one moment where I was freaking out in my brain trying to figure out what to say to someone so smart and famous). I had a great experience and I'm looking forward to hopefully meeting them, or at the very least reading more of their work, in the future. In the meantime I'll be trying to incorporate the ideas and suggestions that came out of the conference into my own work.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Book Review: Moby-Duck

Recently I departed on my first trip to Europe, to visit a friend who was studying abroad in Germany (Bonn, to be exact.) I traveled armed with several books lest I get bored on my flights or train trips, and one of these books was Donovan Hohn's Moby-Duck. I really, really want to be able to tell everyone I know to go read this book, but I can't. It was hard to get through, I kept stopping and starting and coming back to it, reading in short bursts which I don't usually do because I could only focus on it for small intervals. I feel like someone who isn't really invested in the subject matter would be likely to put it down and not go back to it. But even though I don't think it is for everyone doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it. Actually, I liked it a lot.

Moby-Duck starts with the seed of a great story, one so great it has been misinterpreted and told erroneous many times over the last decade. In 1992, a shipping container fell off the back of its transport ship in the Pacific Ocean. The container was holding small plastic bath toys, sets containing a beaver, a frog, a turtle and a duck. These bath toys, set afloat in the ocean traveled the high seas, and ended up washing ashore in high numbers on the Alaskan coast. Hohn is really captivated by the idea of the bath toys, particularly the rubber duck, lost at sea and ends up quitting his job as a teacher to chase the story and find out how far the ocean could have carried the toys. There were rumors that they had washing up in Maine, which would have meant traversing the arctic. It's a good little story, if you don't mind the fact that the ducks didn't actually end up in Maine and Hohn spends the majority of the book chasing a figment of a duck. I really didn't because this book is about much more than bathtub toys.

If you can see past Hohn's sometimes difficult to relate to fascination with the rubber duck, you will start to notice though that this isn't actually a book about rubber ducks. Sure, the science is there. It includes plenty of facts about pollution, plastics, and ocean currents. But really this is a book about fatherhood. Only speaking from my point of view as a 20-something woman who has no children, it feels like the book, the whole fascination with the ducks is Hohn having a hard time with becoming a father. That's not to say he doesn't want to be a father, the relationship with his son that he describes in the book is very sweet, but ultimately I think what the duck represents is childhood - Hohn having to let go of his and focus on making his son's the best it can be.

One of the most likeable parts of the book is Hohn himself. While his self-deprecating descriptions of his participation in his various sea-faring adventures can get a little tedious (we get it, you are not particularly adept at this) at the same time you can't help but feel a little jealous. Jealous that while you sit at your day job doing all the things you are supposed to, this guy had the balls to quit his job and travel through Asia, Hawaii, Alaska and the Arctic because he was just interested in something. Would you want to do that? I would. I respect Hohn for going in search of his own adventure, for chasing his own personal white whale, and for having the guts to do something unexpected.

The book is also beautifully written. Hohn writes like an English teacher, but in this case it works. His romanticizing of the ducks and the sea works in this book whereas in a different story I think it would drive me a little nuts. The descriptions of what he sees and experiences are pitch perfect for me. For example:
"One imagines, before setting sail, that seafaring promises excitement or romance but on calm tropical seas, the hours pass through one's mind like cubic meters of water through a manta trawl, leaving a sprinkling of impressions snared in memory's gauze." (pg. 168)
Overall, Moby-Duck is a good book, it is well written, it has a great cast of characters, and there are a lot of interesting facts in it. Looking at it as a story about rubber ducks, will leave you disappointed. You have to see it for what it is, Hohn's own adventure tale as he comes to terms with his life at home. I wouldn't recommend it for everyone, but I enjoyed it and would certainly recommend it to people with an interest in the ocean, in pollution, or in personal narratives. I would recommend this book for people who normally read narrative non-fiction. There was a lot of good in it, even if it did take me a while to get through.

Monday, April 16, 2012

A Science Writer's Mistakes

Do as I say my friends, not as I have done. Recently I read this post by Genomic Repairman (@genomicrepairman) in which he provides 10 basic tips for grad student science bloggers, which are really just good tips for any novice blogger. I also read this post about whether or not science writers should always read the academic paper they are writing about, something I try my best to do but haven't always done. These two posts inspired me to assemble some of my own tips and thoughts about science writing. I've made the executive decision to frame this post around the stupid things that I've done, in the hopes of helping writers new to the blogging scene avoid my mistakes (so that they can make their own, of course). Also because it is always more interesting to know how someone has messed up than to hear them talk about how great they are. So I've decided at the risk of public embarrassment, to bare my little science writing soul and share three of the things that make me shake my head at my own silliness.

This is not me, but it is a nice stock photo no?
via Wikipedia Commons, Harumphy
1. Comment on other people's blogs. I read between 5 and 10 blog posts a day, yet I am terrified of adding comments for fear that I will sound like a moron. I have written more than 200 posts here, but leaving a sentence in the presence of the likes of Carl Zimmer scares the hell out of me. I can't tell you how many times I have written a comment, stressed out about it, re-written it, stressed out about it some more and then deleted it completely. I've heard over and over that you shouldn't leave comments unless they serve a purpose, otherwise you aren't adding to the discussion. However, most of the time I feel like I just want to say "I like you" "I like this" "This is really smart" and thus I end up saying nothing. This is problematic for two reasons, the first being that people I admire put themselves out there in a way that allows me to tell them I admire them and I never do. The second reason is that I can't very well expect people to leave me comments if I never comment on anyone else's site. I have a new resolve to get involved in the conversations, but new bloggers should train themselves to comment before they become comfortably silent. Make a habit of it, so that you don't have to break a cycle of complacency later on.

2. Put an RSS feed and subscription options on your blog. Simple enough. People want an easy way to filter through all the blogs out there, and if they can't subscribe there by RSS or email the odds of them obsessively checking your site everyday to see if you have a new post (especially if you post sporadically like I do) is slim to none. Why did it take me a year and seven months to put these things on Science Decoded? Hell if I know. I guess I figured, well I have all the share buttons so that's good enough right? No. No, it is not. I should have had RSS and email subscriptions from day one, and I'm kicking myself that posts that did fairly well from being RT'd on Twitter probably didn't get me any actual followers because I didn't have an easy way for people to keep reading posts after they found my blog. Face palm on that one.

3. Read the study, link to the study. If you are going to talk about a paper, you need to link to that paper, even better you should look at it. I mentioned in the beginning of this that I was inspired to write based in part on a discussion about whether science journalists should always read the academic paper. In general, I agree with what I believe is the more popular view that you should always read the paper if you intend to talk about it. However, I also agree with the fact that journalists aren't always going to understand the methods and technical terms. I think the rule I go by is that I have to feel like I understand the study, either by reading the paper, talking to the researcher, or talking to another researcher in the same field to back up what the study author said. Any combination of these things could make for a well written science article, but you can't just regurgitate a press release. Just don't do that. No one likes it when you do that, and all those people you admire from afar because you're afraid of the comment section? They aren't going to respect you doing that either. Have I done it? Yes. Is that the work I'm proudest of? Not in the slightest.

Bonus tip: If you want to be a science writer, you should hold yourself to a higher standard than that of EurekAlert. Hold yourself to that standard. For me, one of my biggest mistakes was allowing others to put priority on how quickly I could get a story out rather than the quality. Don't put yourself in the position where you see your name on a piece that you know you could have done so much better. Don't settle for easy. If it is easy to do, who is going to be impressed and want to talk to you? You need to offer something to your readers that they aren't going to get from a press release. This might be an interview, it might be your own analysis, or maybe it is added context but you still need to give something. Leaving a story exactly as you found it, or perhaps just going so far as to rearranging the words isn't why we're all here. I for one am here to learn, here to listen, and here to talk. But, how much of those things can you really do if you aren't actually interacting? Unless you start saying something of value, you're just going to be talking to yourself.

So there you have it, three of my mistakes. I sincerely hope they won't be held against me. I also sincerely hope that they will help some other poor soul just getting started as a writer. This isn't an easy field to break into, and we all stumble sometimes. But if you are open, honest and sincere in your desire to produce good science writing I think you will find that there are people out there willing to give you a chance.

Monday, April 9, 2012

UnMarketing A Science Writer

I've mentioned before that I'm taking a class this semester on social media for the life sciences. This class has been a crash course in the internet. Before taking this class, I considered myself relatively savvy about the internet. I've been blogging for a year and a half, on Twitter for a year, I've written a dozen E-Newsletters for my day job, hell I've even been to 4Chan and back. Still, however much I knew about the internet I was grossly uninformed about how to engage with people online. Reading Scott Stratten's book UnMarketing for this class has me convinced that the most valuable thing you can get out of the internet is engagement. If you checked out my book review of Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit, I talked about having my mind blown by something painfully obvious. UnMarketing took that sensation to a new level.

The idea of UnMarketing is that traditional methods of marketing don't even come close to the kind of success you can have if you just start listening to and interacting with people. Simple enough, right? Well then why aren't I doing it? I'm a science writer, looking for a steady job. I've tried, and failed, to freelance my work in the past. I'm firmly convinced that my freelance failure had everything to do with marketing myself in traditional ways. UnMarketing is about making connections with real people. You make those connections based on mutual interests, you build a relationship around it, and later down the road you'll be in a position to help that person or they'll be in a position to help you. People will be way more likely to give you a chance if they trust you and they like you.

That lecture about how to freelance? All those tips about getting to know the publication, introducing yourself sincerely, writing a persuasive pitch letter... didn't amount to a hill of beans for me. I didn't sell anything, I ended up posting the articles I was trying to sell here instead. What all the people who tried to help me find freelance success were trying to tell me was to UnMarket myself, and it went right over my head. I thought I got it, but clearly from my results I did not. 

You want to get yourself published on a specific website? Find out who runs that website's Twitter account, follow the official account, follow the editors, follow the writers. Throw some link love in the direction of those people. Comment on things they say. Use them as a case study for a blog post. If you mention them, and tell them you mentioned them, odds are high that they'll start trying to figure out who you are and what you're saying. They'll look at your blog and website, and if you have solid content to back yourself up, they'll probably follow you in return. Build a relationship where you can start asking them questions. They'll get to know you and how you operate. Then, when you have an article to pitch instead of your email getting immediately deleted they'll recognize your name and at least give you some consideration. 

Well, duh. I feel like dozens of people have been trying to explain all that to me for the last two years, but it took Scott Stratten's book to shift those puzzle pieces in my brain into alignment. This is a business book, the majority of the examples have to do with corporations and sales, but I still think every writer should read UnMarketing. Writers are selling their brain and what they can do with it, and I firmly believe it is a lot harder to sell an intangible product. (I suppose my brain is tangible, technically, but I'm not going to let you poke around in it to figure out if you want to invest your time, reputation, money, etc.) UnMarketing was so worthwhile as a writer because so much of the content applied to what I am trying to do as I establish myself online. 

The science writing community is tremendously strong online. If you want to get into this industry, you need to be on Twitter and you need a website or a blog because that is where the people you need to convince to give you a chance are, that is where the people you are going to learn from are, and that is where the people who are going to read what you write are. UnMarketing is the best guide that I've read for how to get yourself into that community and show people what you're made of without falling flat on your face. It takes a really honest look at things like transparency and the term best seller, dealing with trolls and even how annoying captchas are. Stratten just calls bullshit on so many things that I've seen online but wasn't sure how to handle. I really wish I read this book years ago (it only came out in 2010) but better late than never.

If none of that convinced you that science writers need to UnMarket, let me just say that the book is also wonderfully written. By that I mean that Stratten has a very clear and distinct voice. You will walk away from reading feeling like you just had a conversation with the guy. I will also say that my favorite part of the entire book was the footnotes. When I write my Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece (you know, someday...) I'm going to have footnotes like that. I read every single footnote because the funny commentary contained in them was awesome and unexpected. I enjoyed reading this book, and I found a tremendous amount of valuable information in it - that's just a win all around.