Return of the Living Brain-Dead

The DAMOP conference was good; the physics was excellent and the services mostly good (my one complaint is that the chairs turned my back into that Edvard Munch painting). There was an emphasis on precision measurement and fundamental constants, which included one session on atomic clocks (and “clocks”), and much of the rest included the kind of cleverness needed to do these precision measurements that is very engaging to me.

Not enough sleep all last week, long days of being engaged full-time and travel (with the inevitable travel delays) make Homer something something. I’m still too fried to discuss physics.

But ranting doesn’t require higher brain function, so I will point out shortcomings of the current bureaucratic implementation of travel. A lot of this trip was last-minute; I didn’t get my official travel approval letter until 11 days before the trip, which meant no early registration savings. I was required to stay at a lodging which cost government per diem, which meant no conference hotel (even though the rules allow an avenue for paying extra to stay at a conference hotel this was not approved, and getting one of the few government-rate rooms the conference organizers had arranged wasn’t in the cards at this late date). Having a rental car was specifically forbidden, and I thought the combination of the two restrictions had put the kibosh on the trip, but taking a taxi everywhere was approved (!) — which cost about twice as much as the expected hotel savings. The logistics of getting a cab to go in each morning also cost me some attendance time, so it was less bang for more buck. Penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Still to come is finishing up the wrestling match with the travel voucher system and the game of “Gotcha! You screwed this up and won’t get reimbursed!”

One the bright side, having professionals run the conference logistics was mostly a good thing, and there was beer at all of the poster sessions. Plus all of the physics…

Not a Difficult Concept: Don't Take It if it's Not Yours

Second of a short series. Summary of and commentary on some talks at ScienceOnline 2014

Two of the sessions I attended involved legal and ethical issues of content use online. One was a Q&A session with an intellectual property lawyer and the other was a session entitled “Combatting Online Parasitism”.

The legal “advice” (which, disclaimer: does not actually constitute legal advice) confirmed several things I already knew; I had read up on copyright some years ago when I started trying to get cartoons published. The big concept that both talks had in common was this general idea:

If you didn’t create the work, you don’t control the copyright to it. You are NOT free to use it without permission.

There are some caveats. Some content creators don’t own the copyright — it could be a “work for hire”, i.e. it’s your job to create the content and your employer owns it, or (like me), you work for the US government, and content created for work carries no copyright at all. It’s also possible to transfer copyright (must be done in writing), and some content is in the public domain. Some content carries easy-to-use licensing, such as creative commons.

In the parasitism discussion, I think it was agreed that pictures and artwork are generally abused more than written works, though that does happen (some sites are just bots that mirror other sites), and Twitter is where a lot of the image-copying abuse takes place, since it’s so easy to just link to a photo and post it. It’s so commonplace that there is little social stigma attached to the act. The common justification “but you get free exposure” doesn’t fly as an excuse — it’s the copyright holder and only the copyright holder who gets to make that decision.

There are several Twitter accounts where all they do is link photos and artwork, and very often with no attribution and probably without permission. The two are actually separate issues.

Attribution does not solve copyright, it solves plagiarism. It is not a cure for infringement

That means that simply posting an image credit does not get you off the hook for stealing the image. (Using the lay definition of “stealing”. I’m not entertaining the semantic argument here that intellectual property theft falls under civil law and therefore is technically not stealing. It’s still illegal, and wrong.) Giving credit is better than not giving credit, but absent permission as discussed above, it’s still a copyright violation.

There were a number of people in the room who had had their work used without permission, and I was one of them. I’ve seen my cartoons show up in various places on the web — on an academic blog, in a newsletter (where they had the audacity to say “used with permission”). A few times I’ve had cartoons appear on popular Facebook pages, and in no instances did they ask. It’s not like I would have declined, but they should still ask.

On the other hand, I should point out that’s I’ve had a number of requests over the years to use my cartoons in academic talks and even in a book, so there are a lot of people out there doing it right. I almost always say yes to such requests, and generally offer higher-resolution copies of the work, but limiting the quality of available works doesn’t do much to combat online abuse. (it might work in the cases where print quality or magnification is needed)

Another way of stating the above is

www does not mean public domain

So, what do do about all this?

For some of us in the audience, a missing attribution was the primary problem rather than the lack of permission (which they would have been happy to give), so simply contacting the people works in some of these cases. Some abusers simply aren’t aware of the law, and are happy to comply. Others, not so much — there were some anecdotes about attribution being posted for the one case, but no change in overall behavior of the site.

When a simple request fails, public shaming can work. It turns out that some vigilante-esque negative publicity can go a long way, according to some of the stories that were told. It was suggested that a twitter hashtag (#picbatman was mentioned) for “attribution rangers” would help rally folks to bring attention to some abusers.

There was also some lamenting that some of the larger names online don’t take attributions and copyright infringement seriously. “Takedown” letters go to the service providers, not the sites themselves, and formal legal action may be too involved for an individual. To me this is especially disappointing; there are entities out there that are very protective of their own intellectual property but seemingly not as vigilant when it comes to matters of infringing others’ IP.

I think the general mood was that while getting permission is the proper thing to do, using works without attribution feels much worse. (This may reflect a room demographic of people whose job is not primarily creating such content and who don’t have employers with resources to fight the copyright battle.) In that regard, one of the ending sentiments was

Crediting others for their work costs you nothing


Edit to add (3/14) Post by Matt Shipman with some tips and links: Science Communication and the Art of Not Stealing


Thinking Like a Scientist

First of a short series (I hope). Summary of and commentary on some talks at ScienceOnline 2014

“What is Science Literacy”

I had some high hopes for this session, since this is a topic I’ve discussed before and care about. Unfortunately (for me) a fair fraction of the talk was dominated by discussion of science engagement. This is no small matter, and I concede that if you can’t engage with an audience they won’t become literate in the first place, and also that the audience seemed to be interested in that discussion, but I was hoping for more discussion on what literacy actually is. If you haven’t defined the problem, it’s hard to come up with an answer. I was anticipating more discussion on science not being a list of facts to be memorized and literacy being a combination of knowledge and the ability to apply the knowledge, which only came up late in the session, and not in a lot of depth.

At the beginning, though, the problem was framed in terms of a discussion the moderator (David Ng from UBC) had had with an 8 year-old, who asked (1) are unicorns real, and when that got a “no”, asked (2) could they be real (again, no), and finally (3) what if you actually saw a unicorn anyway, leaping over a rainbow. How would that change your answer?

The questions were in the context of the mythical creatures, rather than horses that might have something growing out of their forehead, so even though there might be some creature that looks like a unicorn and biology doesn’t rule such an animal out, it’s the magical things they do that tell us that they don’t and could not exist (violation of conservation of energy was offered as a prominent reason).

But what about question 3? We never really got around to answering that, but here’s my take, which I covered just last week: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The non-existence of unicorns and the reasons for this are quite well-established. If anyone were to report seeing a unicorn, the general reaction would be that they were mistaken — their eyes were tricked, or their video was a fake — and what evidence they had would be closely scrutinized, because it contradicts a large volume of careful science that has already been done. And THAT is a bit of science literacy — an understanding of the process by which we accept things as true or not within science. It’s too bad we ran out of time before the discussion could go there.

One other bit that came up was that the true goal of literacy is to get more people thinking scientifically even if they aren’t scientists, something with which I agree and tends to get lost in discussions that are focused on how many scientists we may or may not need, and falsely assumes that science understanding is or should be an all-or-nothing affair.

Status Update

I spent the last several days at the ScienceOnline conference in Raleigh, and I am exhausted. These conferences, even more than technical conferences I attend for work, require me to be “switched on” for most of my waking day — there is only one session each day that involves someone standing up and talking to you, for just an hour — the rest of the time you are engaged in a group discussion, or talking to people between those session. The energy is amazing, though and that, plus a good dose of caffeine kept me amped up until I crashed.

I got to meet quite a few people, and as always, they were all people working on impressive projects and programs. I always feel a bit overwhelmed, in an imposter-syndrome sort of way, finding out what everyone else is working on, though my line of “I build atomic clocks for the navy” usually elicits a “that’s cool” response, and I haven’t gotten tired of hearing it. Physics+astronomy was fairly well-represented — better than in previous years, from what I can tell. (We had a lunch group and filled up two tables (16 slots) of people talking physics).

I intend to write a few session summaries once I’ve recovered and when I get a little time in the next week.

I Just Love Reading My Name in the Paper, Butch

Science Online 2013: Science Comics

My contribution in the session was apparently good enough to repeat, so of course I’m going to link to it. It’s actually a different take on the jargon discussion — cartoons have a limited word count and restricted ability to convey information, so sometimes you have to limit the audience to whom you are trying to appeal by requiring that they will be familiar with the unexplained context of the cartoon. Exactly the scenario of a cartoon which is based on the physicists’ spherical cow joke — if you aren’t already familiar with the joke, you won’t understand the cartoon. So there’s a delicate balancing between the scientific literacy (or scientific cultural literacy) of the audience and the humor you’re trying to convey.

Watch Out or Someone Will Drop a Textbook on Your Sister

I wasn’t at the Science Online session that, in the Nth retelling, sounded like it might have turned into “the Sharks vs the Jets at the dance” square-off. But Matthew Francis was, and gives his perspective: In defense of jargon and expertise

Carl Zimmer—a writer I greatly respect, even if he does write about parasites, a subject that makes me squirm—began the pile-on by saying that when a Ph.D. scientist wants to explain something, they often start with a question, then drop a textbook on you. (Ironically, Carl is one of the few people I know who actually wrote a textbook.) Some other people evidently took that as permission to speak ill of all professional scientists and experts. One person stated strongly that experts are all bad at science communication, because they use too much jargon.

I do have some strong opinions on this. I’ve posted on this before and I think there’s a danger in asserting some of the extreme positions on the topic. There’s also the problem of properly defining the problem so that the scientists and journalists don’t just talk past each other. Plus the issue of the job of scientists as compared to the job of journalists.

What constitutes jargon? Some is obvious — when acronyms and abbreviations appear, you might just be a redneck using jargon. In my field of atomic physics I will throw around terms like MOT and AOM, or occasionally speak of a BEC. That’s the terminology of the job, and I don’t expect people outside my field to necessarily know what I mean. (in case you are curious, MOT = magneto-optical trap, AOM = Acousto-Optical Modulator and BEC = Bose-Einstein Condensate). I think it’s pretty obvious that not explaining what these terms mean is a barrier to be avoided. I don’t think that’s the problem. If you’re throwing those terms around while attempting to communicate with a lay audience, you’re not winning.

I believe the issue is at a lower level. I think there’s an element of “I know it when I see it” to other terminology, but where to draw the line is a grey area. To use some examples from physics, are momentum or energy jargon? If I speak of the conservation of either, is there a barrier to understanding which is the terminology, or is it a lack of scientific literacy? This is an ongoing debate and I think that the testy exchanges between scientists and journalists will continue of we don’t resolve what we mean. When do basic concepts and their names or descriptions become jargon?

There is also the issue, as I mentioned, of defining what the job is, and I come at this from the perspective of being a scientist. Most scientists are not hired to communicate their work to the public. That’s an acquired skill. If you want to speak to a scientist, you need to learn the language, just as if you want to go to an area that doesn’t communicate in your language, it behooves you to learn that language. That is would be a good idea to train scientists to do a better job of communicating to the public (and I think it is) is a separate issue. But I suspect most scientists would think it a waste of time: We have a Public Information/Affairs Officer for that! coupled with I want to do research. There has to be a general feeling that such effort has value. Scientists have to prioritize their time, so if this is a desired goal, make sure that such communication is valued by the institutions where the scientists work.

If this communication is in the form of a discussion, we get back to the issue of meeting the scientists halfway. When someone with little to no background in a certain subject wants to pop in and be a part of the conversation, it’s a huge waste of time to expect a scientist to fill all of that background in — imagine someone chiming in on a discussion of an atomic physics experiment but has no idea what conservation of angular momentum is, or someone claiming that evolution is wrong because humans don’t have wings. Or this. In situations like that, I feel no hesitation to “drop a textbook” on someone.

To be fair, I don’t know exactly what Carl meant by the phrase, but I also haven’t seen anything that clarifies the issue on his blog. I would love there to be a reasoned discussion on the subject rather than having people reach for their blamethrowers every time this comes up.

Are You Trying to Get My Goat?

More thoughts from Science Online 2013

Another of the themes that ran through multiple sessions was how to deal with disruption in comments: what to do with trolls. My reason for attending these sessions was not truly blog related — I don’t get the level of commentary where it’s much of a problem. It’s my involvement with Science Forums (dot net!) that led me to the sessions. Some of the sub-text of one of the sessions included how to tell a troll from a cynic or someone who is simply disagreeing, while the other did not, and this inconsistency made the discussions somewhat less useful to me. I make a distinction (and mentioned this in one session) that in the forums there’s a distinction we draw: a troll is someone who is deliberately stirring up trouble by saying outrageous, contrarian things, but a crackpot (or crank) is someone who truly believes the outrageous things they say.

The common behavior of saying outrageous things can make the two indistinguishable at the outset; one possible distinction is the troll’s predilection to appeal to emotion, because an emotional response is what they are after. Lacking that, though, it’s only after some interaction that the differences can be seen: the troll comes up with some new claim to stir the pot, while the crackpot tends to stay on message. The crank, however, (I make a distinction) tends to react emotionally to being corrected and will whine about being personally attacked, but both the crank and crackpot are thoroughly convinced they are right. As an example, someone who shows up on a climate blog and claims that there has been no global warming for the last 15 years may be saying that because they know it will stir everyone up, or because they mistakenly believe it’s actually true (even if they aren’t George Will). After a rebuttal, the troll jumps to the next crap argument, but the true believer continues, on-target. They will not be swayed by mere facts.

In a blog setting it may not be worthwhile to make a distinction — disruption is disruption, and it’s probably best to shut it down so that cooler heads may have an actual discussion. But in a forum, one has an advantage: you can split some types of crackpottery off into its own discussion, and it can be fun trying to pick apart the subtleties of somebody’s pet theory, even though they will never admit to the contradictions you uncover.

There was some discussion about whether it’s better to shut comments off completely, or perhaps just ignoring comments altogether, and that really depends on the goals of traffic and participation. It’s not something I’ve had to worry too much about. Commentary I get is pretty well-behaved, for the most part, and I don’t have an issue with shills (paid trolls) showing up to repeat some message. Aside from Conservapedia, most of physics is pretty controversy-free from that perspective.

74.2% of Statistics Are Made Up and 91.4% of People Don't Understand Them

Further thoughts from Science Online 2013

Two of the sessions I attended dealt with probability and statistics in some fashion, and how to deal with them. The really big-picture take-away from the discussions was that people don’t understand statistics and related subjects, so one needs to be extra careful in conveying this information. It’s necessary to provide context when citing any numbers in order to minimize the potential to misunderstand them.

One need look no further than the hubbub raised by Nate Silver’s predictions and how they were misinterpreted— the “80% probability that he will get 51% of the vote” and similar predictions. Once you get past “4 out of 5 dentists recommend Crusty toothpaste” heads start swimming. One can go to the next step and look at situations where you have low probability but devastating consequences — examples were things like an asteroid impact or the possibility that the Large Hadron Collider would destroy the earth. Some people get very upset over topics like these when they adopt the “I could be the one” thinking that prompts people to buy lottery tickets every week.

This leads into issues of not properly understanding risk, something humans are really bad at assessing. Fear of issues that are not under our control can evoke strong responses, even when the odds are slim. We see reports of every plane crash and they tend to affect many people, so one might get the impression that plane travel is unsafe, even though it’s safer than driving.

Related to this is the fact that science is inherently tied in with uncertainty, and that can be innocently misunderstood or cynically exploited. The LHC example, in which one of the opponents said that since it either would blow up the world or wouldn’t, the odds were 50/50. That’s such a laughably horrible misunderstanding of probability that it was really effective when The Daily Show responded by mocking it. Unfortunately, not all misuse of probability is so egregious that people can see how ridiculous it is.

Beyond this, there are those who are quite happy to undermine the credibility of science by exploiting statistics and the uncertainty. Science is always subject to change when more and better data are obtained, but even though this is a strength of the system, there are those who use it to imply that we can’t trust it — peddling the idea that the only choice is between knowing everything and knowing nothing.

It’s a difficult problem. Unfortunately, with such a wide spectrum of issues, we’re short on answers on the best way to deal with them.

Edit: I like this commentary regarding the recent Jared Diamond blurb I had linked to, and rare+spectacular risk vs everyday risks, and how we react. (Though I think shark attack might work better than tiger attack as an example.)

Across the Great Divide

More thoughts from Science Online 2013

There’s still a divide between bloggers and journalists that hasn’t been fully addressed by the “unconference” format. The emphasis of some sessions were identifiable by their title or description, but others were not. For example, the session on how to keep your public/work/private lives and identities separate was pretty clearly aimed at bloggers (and said so in the description) but in a session that is not so specific, there can be a different perspective on how a scientist-blogger sees and reacts to a situation that is different from how a science journalist sees it. And there were instances where a discussion ended up being heavily skewed toward the journalism side. That’s at least partly a moderation issue; in some sessions moderators wouldn’t hand the microphone to the same person if there was anyone who hadn’t had a chance yet, while in others the same people were getting multiple chances to give their perspective. I’m a fan of the wider spectrum of responses, so I’d like to see that a more conscious effort on the part of the moderators — even a simple “Is there a blogger perspective on this issue?” before going on to the next topic would suffice.

I think this is a real issue; I was first exposed to it the first year I attended the conference when I attended a session on journalism standards (knowing it would be mostly journalists attending) and listening to them discuss credibility. I realized that a professional journalist tends to look at credibility in a very different way than I, and probably other bloggers, do. I also realized that other advice that was being given was valid only under certain assumptions, which did not always apply. There’s no one answer to many of the questions of how one should write or otherwise communicate, and I think the whole science communication ecosphere is strengthened by diversity, so I feel that you have to foster that diversity in these discussions. To borrow from something Chad posted on the topic, answers to questions should not be framed as “What would Ed Yong do?” (not to pick on Ed, whom I respect greatly, but that’s the name that came up. Feel free to substitute any of the names of top science journalists) since we’re not all approaching our craft in the same way.