Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Question of Code Revisited: I Think I Can, So Can't I?

“All of the true things I’m about to tell you are shameless lies.” Is it ever acceptable to walk into an interview with a mentality straight out of the Books of Bokonon from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle? In addition to being what is possibly my favorite literary quote ever, I think the idea of telling true lies really epitomizes an issue that so many science writers trying to break into the business are facing: when asked what our skills are, is what we feel comfortable knowing, all that we really know? 

I’ve been turning this over in my brain for a couple of months now. In September I wrote a blog post about whether or not learning to code should be required for journalists. Since I admittedly can’t code, I took the position that it doesn’t need to be required. I also said that in interviews it is totally unacceptable to claim that you can code when you can’t. I didn’t expect that statement to be a part of the post that would get any discussion going, but as it turned out it became for me the most interesting part. When the #sci4hels got talking about it, what seemed like a black and white issue (of course you shouldn’t stretch the truth in an interview!) became a lot less clear and a lot more complicated.

Degrees of truth
A lie is a lie, right? As journalists don’t we value the implicit requirement of honestly above nearly all else? Doesn’t this extend from what we say in a piece to the way we conduct ourselves professionally? So then, can you sit in an interview and when asked if you can code, edit video, make a podcast, etc. say that you can when you’ve never done it before? Is the skill that you have the ability to code or is the skill that you have the ability to learn to code? Learn quickly. In a way so that your potential employer never finds out that the moment you told them you could code you actually couldn’t. Is stretching the truth about your abilities lying? Even if it is lying, is it wrong or is it just a smart business move?

For me, the idea of claiming to know code when I don’t is absurd. Mostly because I don’t stand a chance of learning code in the time between getting hired and needing to use it on a professional level. I know, I know code isn’t THAT hard. I’ve heard that argument, the “you can do if you try” talk. I’m not scared to try, I just know myself enough to know that I’m not going to learn to code in a day. It took several weeks of my seventh grade school year for the Pythagorean theorem to make sense, and that's not exactly hard. I try, but I’m not always a quick study. Maybe as far as being a millennial goes this puts me in the minority, but I know that if I sat in an interview and promised to code at a professional level in a days time I’d be telling a Vonnegut style shameless lie.

Why was this the bane of my middle school existence?
Via Wikimedia Commons
But, I’m not everybody. If the light bulb in your brain turned on a little bit faster when you were twelve and learning that a² + b² = c² then maybe you can learn to code in a day. Maybe code is the most logical thing you’ve ever seen and you will be its master by dinnertime. If you tell a potential employer that you can code, and you are completely sure of your ability to be able to deliver when called upon to use those skills, are you telling a lie? Is knowing what you need to know in order to know how to code the same as just knowing how to code?

I said before that I wasn’t afraid of code, but by sitting in an interview and swearing to the things I can’t do, am I selling myself short? Some of us might just be hiding behind a list of things we can’t do or won’t do and simultaneously shrinking our career prospects. Self sabotage, as it were. Is it principled, or pathetic? Being honest might be a one way ticket straight to the rejection pile. If I communicate the fact that I’d like to learn to code, and would gladly rise to that challenge enough to make someone want to hire me?

I have no faith in common sense
How do you know whether what you know is enough to claim that you know it? As #sci4hels were discussing this issue, what came up over and over was that you have to use common sense. You have to walk a thin line between what you know, what you know you can learn and how you present yourself and your abilities to your employers. If you claim to know something, and you fall flat on your face and don’t deliver the goods, you could do some real damage to your career. Not just because you’ll make your boss angry, not just because you might lose your job, not just because it might be embarrassing; but also because when you fail to deliver what started as a stretched bit of truth unraveled into a shameless lie. Getting caught in a lie in this business is a nail in your career’s coffin.

Sure, telling a lie about your ability isn’t the same as telling a lie in a story. I’m not saying that getting caught lying to an employer about what you can do is going to send your career to Lehrer type depths, but it isn’t going to help you get hired anywhere else. You run the risk of ending up labeled as someone who can’t deliver. Getting paid jobs as a science writer is hard enough, getting them once a pissed off editor tells all their connections not to hire you because you aren’t going to produce the work you say you will is going to be impossible.

This is a business about connections, if you start burning bridges so early in your career, you can really back yourself into a corner. It also speaks to character, doesn’t it? If you’ll lie about your abilities, what else will you lie about? How is anyone supposed to know where your professional ethics fall when you establish yourself as someone for whom a lie isn’t a lie it’s really more of a gray area.

So should we be telling young journalists that it’s okay to claim to be a master of science communication so long as you don’t fall flat on your face? It’s okay to lie, as long as you don’t fail and get caught. Is that really the lesson here? I have zero faith in advising journalism students to use common sense. Zero. If common sense were a clear boundary we wouldn’t still be spending entire class periods discussing what is Facebook appropriate (yes, even that cute picture of you playing beer pong with your Grandma probably doesn’t convey that you are serious about your career) and I’ve sat through those classes so I know very well what kind of questions students are asking. Use common sense doesn’t satisfy.

It's raining code, and apparently we're in the Matrix.
Via Shutterstock
So then what are you supposed to do? The only answer that doesn’t present an ethical dilemma is to just learn code and then you’ll know you know it and you won’t be in a position where stretching the truth even comes up. Even someone with my stance has to agree that code is a nice skill to be packing in your arsenal. But this goes further than code. It could apply to any kind of program or web application; you can’t be an expert in everything. There are definitely going to be jobs that you might want where you don’t know the technology that is being used. It comes down to a personal risk vs. benefits assessment.

There is a lot to lose if you get caught claiming you can do things and not rising to the challenge – your reputation and your future prospects to name a few. There is also a lot to gain by forcing yourself to rise to the challenge to learn new things, get the job and stay competitive in this field. Maybe what new and young science journalists need is the kick in the rear that promising to deliver upon a skill brings. Maybe if I put myself in that situation I’d find that code isn’t nearly as bad as the Pythagorean theorem, and a lot of doors for future job prospects would get opened. Maybe I would torch my promising young career in a blaze of gray area glory.

Common sense is itself a gray area. If we are going to advise journalism students of anything, I’d say informed decision making is probably the way to go. You should be aware of the risks you take when you climb out on a limb with no safety net, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still climb. It has to be a personal case by case call, which really doesn’t help much. Hopefully though, if you think through the risks and the benefits of how you can present your skills, you’ll come to a decision that is the right one for you and your career. So proceed with caution. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Media Consumption 11/12/12-11/18/12

Curating links from last week. But before you do any reading, watch this PSA on train safety, because it completely cracked me up. Perhaps a little morbid, but a really interesting example of how to get someone's attention. This song has been stuck in my head all day.

Cancer Pick
Move Over Movember – problems with the global campaign Gary Schwitzer for
Since it is November aka moustache month, it’s a good time to think critically about what awareness campaigns (in this case for Men’s health and prostate cancer) really accomplish, and what role journalists play in supporting or participating in them. Personally I know several guys growing moustaches who aren’t doing anything for prostate cancer, some because they don’t know what to do and some because they just want an excuse to rock a moustache. This post also raises some good points about the necessity for informed screening, especially in prostate cancer where screening is often associated with unnecessary treatments.

Science Pick
Mummy Proteins Tell A Different Tale Andrew Wiecek for BioTechniques
Blatantly biased in this pick considering I used to write for BioTechniques, and this was written by my boss who IMHO is a wonderful editor and science writer.  I think for a story that is highly technical and uses multiple sources the structure is a huge issue. This piece flows really well, and makes sense (a little jargony but BTN’s audience is largely grad students and post docs, so understandable) plus it has to do with ancient proteomics, which is a pretty incredible topic.

Writing Pick
Trying to dispel myths and falsehoods is a huge issue in science communication. I liked this post because while it is essentially an article about a new plugin for Chrome that helps debunk ridiculous claims that get made in forwarded emails it also makes some good points about how to confront someone in denial about the truth, and what the facts show.

Bonus Pick
This week I decided to choose the recipients of the 2012 Kavli Science Journalism Awards, which were just announced. If I had to select a favorite from the bunch, I’d go with Michelle Nijhuis’ What is Killing the Bats for Smithsonian Magazine about white nose syndrome.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

On Admiring Moustaches and Hating Children

I don't actually hate children, there is a story attached to this title. Please don't send me angry emails. Also, since I'm about to rant about charitable giving for full disclosure you should know I work for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. There will also be sarcasm, so read accordingly.

A few weeks ago I was checking out at a national grocery store chain that shall remain nameless. I had stopped in after work and was rooting through my giant bag for my wallet when I got asked the standard "would you like to donated $1 to fill in the blank" in this case it was "healthy school lunches." My answer, as I was swiping my card, was "no thank you." Not because I don't think children should have access to healthy meals through their schools, but because I had no idea what this charity was. Sure, I could have peppered the woman at the check out with questions about which organization the money was going to benefit, what schools did it work in, what kind of food were we talking about, but if I demanded calorie counts would she have known? On top of that I, and I'm sure everyone behind me in line, had somewhere to be. I was in a rush. I donate to other things. If I gave my obligatory $1 every time I got asked, I'd be giving away money every day. I had reasons for saying no so I expected that to be the end of the exchange.

It was of course not the end of the exchange. As I was swiping my card, the woman at the register responded to my "no thank you" with "why, you hate kids?" Yes. Obviously. That's it. Little bastards needing all that nurturing and attention. It's not like they're the future of America or anything, they definitely don't deserve healthy lunches. Let's just give everyone the physical and emotional burdens of obesity! Nothing like a little diabetes to set the kids straight. Come, on! Just because I don't want to fork over my $1 for an unknown charity doesn't make me a child hating monster. I don't work with kids regularly, but I've made it my mission this year to write a blog post every month introducing first graders in my hometown to different scientists that I've met on Twitter. I care about education, and yes I care about issues like obesity and access to healthy food.

In retrospect, I should have done more than just fix the woman working the register with my best dirty look, but I didn't. Upon seeing my reaction she quickly covered with "just kidding" which for me just amounted to, "please don't ask to speak to my manager."As I said, I was in a rush so while still pretty ticked I just grabbed my bag and walked out of the store but this whole incident bugged me. I'm blogging about it weeks later, so clearly it has lingered.

It wasn't just that I thought the women was rude. Or the insinuation that because I won't give to that specific cause, I hate children.  It has much more to do with how we give to charities as a whole. The give $1 to support fill in the blank model works. It works very well. Just look at places like St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital who raise millions every year doing just that. But St. Jude's is recognizable, I'm more inclined to say yes to them because I at least have some idea that they are legitimate. But a completely unknown charity, no thank you. So why was the response to my "no" public shaming? When did we become a culture where taking the extra 30 seconds to think through the request to give was cause to embarrass me at the register?

via Wikipedia
Coming through the months of October and November, marked for breast cancer and prostate cancer awareness respectively, I think we can all identify with feeling a little bombarded by pleas to donate. But donate to what exactly? Buy a cookie, buy a bracelet, buy a pair of windshield wipers. Particularly with breast cancer awareness month, everything turns pink, and we are supposed to believe that our consumption of these products is helping cancer patients. But is it? I saw many examples of the ways that all of this product consumption doesn't help the people you intend it to chronicled on twitter - especially with the hashtag #pinknausea started by Xeni Jardin of Boing Boing. Why aren't we more careful with our money when it comes to supporting causes? There are any number of cancer charities or research organizations you could donate to when October or November roll around. But we keep buying the cookies and the bracelets, despite warnings to "Think Before You Pink."

Is the worst that we are doing just spreading apathy toward doing our duty to ensure that our money goes to a responsible place where it will have an impact? Is "slacktivism" relatively harmless? I'll answer my own question here with no, it's not. When you support an awareness campaign, don't you wonder what their action is going to be? What is the increased awareness actually going to do?

This brings me to the moustaches. You may have spotted many of your male friends or relatives sporting a little excess facial hair this month, I certainly have. It is November, also known at Movember a month dedicated to moustaches...and prostate cancer. Although what moustaches and prostates have to do with one another I'm not sure exactly, I suppose it is the association with manliness. Regardless, the Movember campaign encourages men to grow a moustache for a month to help raise awareness, and funds, for prostate cancer. Now I admire moustaches as much as the next gal, although sometimes things just go too far (oh, the things that can't be unseen!) but really are the men out there growing and grooming their facial hair doing anything for prostate cancer?

via Wikipedia
I've known that my friends grew moustaches in November for at least two years. I've known that this had something to do with prostate cancer for about three weeks. Shame on me I guess, but clearly this is a problem for an awareness campaign, and it isn't the only one. While some people are out there growing moustaches just for the awesomeness, for people who do take Movember seriously when we say we want to raise awareness of prostate cancer, what are we advocating for? More screening? Prostate cancer screening, like most screening, is a giant kettle of worms.

The issues associated with Movember and prostate cancer screening are summarized really well in this post by Gary Schwitzer on (and reading it is what really motivated me to write this!) Essentially, when it comes to prostate cancer sometimes routine screening can lead to unnecessary treatments and procedures that can do some harm. There are also benefits to screening. In general when it comes to screening the answer is to talk it through with your doctor and figure out what is right for you. Still, these are not clear cut issues and even doctors have different opinions. The New England Journal of Medicine featured prostate cancer screening in their Clinical Decisions column which pits opposing medical views against each other and asked readers to vote on them (see here and here, though I'm not sure about your access situation.) The results came back in favor of screening with the prostate cancer specific antigen (PSA) test. But, it wasn't a landslide.

So does that mean we shouldn't give to Movember when our moustached brethren ask us? No, if you want to support the Prostate Cancer Foundation or LiveStrong, then you should. But you should at least know that those are the organizations that Movember supports. We need to think more critically about these awareness campaigns, and what we are doing when we agree to give $1 to any charity that asks. All of this - my grocery store I don't hate children episode, the pinking of America, and all the moustache growing - all come together with one main point. It isn't enough to just participate or toss in your $1. You need to know and understand what you are giving to and why. Supporting cancer research is so important, especially in these days when funding from the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute is so hard to come by. All the more reason why if you are going to give, you should give intelligently. Make sure it matters.

I said at the beginning of this post that I work for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. This little fact makes me undoubtedly biased when it comes to charitable giving, so I'm not going to give you any recommendations about where to give. Your money is yours, and you should make those decisions yourself. That's what I do. But, since I've spent this whole post ranting about giving smarter I am going to recommend that should you find yourself interested in giving to cancer research or healthy lunches or veterans or anything else you check out where your money is going. Charity Navigator is one tool that I really like to help sort through which organizations handle their money well and might help you figure out where you can do some real good.

In the meantime I'll just be over here ranting, admiring moustaches, and hating children.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Media Consumption: 11/4/12-11/10/12

In case you missed the memo, I'm providing a weekly round up of things I've read recently for my colleagues at work and I'm cross posting them here on the blog. So, there's that.

Cancer Pick
Cancer’s Funny? – Nara Schoenberg for The Chicago Tribune
When choosing a cancer story from the past week’s media coverage there seem to be two ways to go. Either choose the glaring example of that weeks “x reduces cancer risk” and how it was written about, or you can choose the human interest stories. This week I went with a really nice (I think) story about how as cancer becomes more ingrained into our lives and culture, it is becoming more acceptable to find humor in the disease.

Science Pick
Smilodon the Vampire – Brian Switek for his Wired Blog Laelaps
The idea of bloodsucking saber cats is really something that needed to be debunked. Really. Also the title, I don’t know how you could see that and not click on it. Some background on the LaBrea Tar Pits might be helpful if you aren’t familiar. (Also of note, this post appeared on Bram Stoker's birthday - thanks for that bit of information Google Doodle.)

Writing Pick
In Praise of the Big Old Mess – Carl Zimmer for his Discover Blog The Loom
This was a re-read for me, but it was something I was thinking about this week. When Carl Zimmer rants about science writing, I listen. I picked this piece for two reasons, one I closely followed the Jonah Lehrer debacle (Perhaps the greatest case of a young journalist torching their career since Jayson Blair, for background see this Slate Article the other reason I chose Zimmer’s blog post is because the issue of how we cover the messy business that is scientific research is something that is always up for debate.

Bonus Pick
Triumph of the Nerds: Nate Silver Wins in 50 States – Chris Taylor for Mashable
Perhaps I just follow the nerdiest people on twitter (okay, I do follow the nerdiest people on twitter, and I love and appreciate you all so very much) but in terms of election coverage, the story of Nate Silver blogger/analyst for The New York Times at FiveThirtyEight was a huge topic this week. Cheers for math!

Monday, November 5, 2012

SFSYO Scientist of the Month: Philipp Schiffer

Science For Six-Year-Olds (SFSYO for this school year) is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak's first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year the posts are inspired by #iamscience (also a Tumblr) and #realwomenofscience two hashtags on twitter that drove home for me the importance of teaching people who scientists are and what they really do.

Hello first graders! I hope you are all okay and back at school after hurricane Sandy. Now that it is November we have a new scientist of the month. I am so excited to introduce you to Philipp Schiffer who is finishing up his PhD at school in Cologne, Germany. Like I did with Dr. Penny, I asked Philipp a bunch of questions to find out more about what he does. I hope you will enjoy learning more about him. Below you can read my interview with Philipp, and if you'd like to ask him any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments!
At work in the lab. Courtesy of Philipp Schiffer.
Erin: What type of scientist are you?

Philipp: I'm an evolutionary biologist [this means he studies genetics, DNA, and how different living things came to be,] currently I've morphed into a computer geek but I'm hoping to move away from the computer screen a bit more in the future. 

Erin: What did you study in school, and where did you go?

Philipp: I studied Biology, majoring in Zoology with minors in Genetics and Palaeontology. I did most of my studies at the University of Cologne, Germany with some time in Australia studying and catching wombats.  I'm currently finishing my PhD thesis in Cologne, but I've also studied at the University of California Riverside where I was learning about nematodes. I also got to spend some time in Edinburgh in Scotland. 

Erin: Where do you work and what does a typical day at work entail?

Philipp: It's called the Cologne Biocenter, in the middle of K├Âln am Rhein. At the moment I am spending most of my working hours in front of my computer, doing science in-silico, which means I am analyzing data from the genome sequencing assays I conduct. In between I hop over to the lab to study the nematodes, look at their DNA or run some other experiments. 

Erin: Why did you decided to become a scientist?

Philipp: I have always liked to think about things. I guess when I was in the 9th or 10th grade I wanted to tackle the big problems/questions like finding a cure for diseases. Now of course, I do something totally different, which I actually like better!

Out of the lab! Courtesy of Philipp Schiffer.
Erin: What is your favorite thing about your job?

Philipp: There is a new and intriguing question to answer every day, more than one on most days. That is the main thing, I am really interested in answering questions about life - why it is the way it is and how did it become like that? Why are species different and how does it happen. There is a woo hoo! moment when things finally click into place and make sense, which is really cool. It is also really nice to work with people around the world - I like the exchange of thoughts and ideas in different cultures. I enjoy talking to colleagues very much, and working with students. It is also fun to be able to listen to music when working, and so much more. 

Erin: What is something about your job that might surprise us?

Philipp: There is no magic in science, actually most ideas or experiments don't work the way you think they will, and once something really works the main thing is to wonder why did it work this time? So there is a lot of frustration in being a scientist, but then there is also a lot of fun. Still, the first thing is the most important, science is hard work. 

Erin: What are your favorite things to do for fun?

Philipp: Science IS fun. I also like wind surfing and sailing, I like rugby too and wish I had more time to do that. I also read about history, politics, and the world in general as much as I can. I very much enjoy chatting with friends over coffee.

What do you think first graders? I think Philipp has a pretty cool job, and he's gotten to go to school in so many different places, can you find them all on a map? If there is anything you'd like to know about his research, make sure to ask him questions in the comments. 

For any of my regular (adult) followers you can catch Philipp on Twitter @evolgenomology. If you'd like to be featured as a scientist of the month send me an email or DM me on twitter, I'd love more volunteers and thank you Philipp for lending us your time to share what you do!