Tuesday, January 29, 2013

ScienceOnline 2013

This week I'm heading down to the Research Triangle—aka where I was born and where I returned to go to college—for ScienceOnline 2013. In short, it is a gathering of 450 people who love science and particularly love writing about science. It may well be the nerdiest (said inclusively and with endearment), smartest, and most nitpicky collection of conference goers of which I've ever been a part. I'm thrilled.

I'm fortunate to be one of only 28 to make it on the list for the Duke Lemur Center tour on Wednesday afternoon. The Duke Lemur Center, established in 1966, is the world’s largest sanctuary for rare and endangered prosimian primates. There are about 250 animals, including 233 lemurs encompassing 15 species, along with lorises from India and Southeast Asia and bushbabies from Africa. Speaking of babies, there's a new one. And we get to meet her.

As the tweets (#scio13) have increased in number as the conference approaches, there have been mentions of candy poker games, glitter, an open mic night, and repeated references to the hotel bar. I repeat—I'm thrilled... if not a little bit wary.

Sessions officially start on Thursday. Here's how my schedule of choice looks:

Session 1A: Narrative: What is it? How science writers use it?
T. Delene Beeland and David Dobbs
Thurs, Jan 31, 10:30-11:30 am, Room 3


Description: We writers like to toss around the term "narrative," but what we mean isn't always clear. Discourse theory tells us that narrative is one of four rhetorical modes, the others being exposition, argumentation, and description. Webster calls narrative "a representation … of an event or story" — which reflects common sense but passes the buck. For what is a story? Most would agree that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a story — two or three, in fact, woven into a single fine narrative. Yet we might argue over whether, say, Richard Dawkins' brilliant description of the rise of the "replicator" (the first gene) also constitutes a narrative; or whether a narrative requires people; or whether narrative can be driven mainly by ideas. In this session we hope to demystify what narrative is so we can better discuss how to create it. First we'll spend a few minutes trying to define narrative in a way that broadens but firms the concept into something actionable. Then we'll talk practice. Why or when should a writer/journalist use narrative? How does one transform a topic into a story? How do we conceive, report, structure, and write to enliven this story. How do we create a sense of movement through time, of tensions raised and (maybe) resolved? How must we do our reporting to turn an abstract idea into an earthy narrative? Drawing on a few prime examples and the experience and perspectives of the moderators and audience, we'll aim to firm up a working definition of narrative and send everyone out with a list of practices and skills needed to create one. Hashtag: #ScioStory. Freelancer T. Delene Beeland took the narrative challenge in first book, The Secret World of Red Wolves, to be published in spring 2013. David Dobbs tilts narrative in his pieces for the New York Times, National Geographic, and other magazines, and in his book-in-progress The Orchid and the Dandelion.


Session 2B: Scientific storytelling: Using personal narrative to communicate science
David Manly and Jeanne Garbarino
Thurs, Jan 31, Noon-1:00 pm, Room 4 


Description: The famous American General, Douglas MacArthur said that "rules are mostly made to be broken and are too lazy for the lazy to hide behind." The same can be said for writing and blogging. There are a whole host of "rules" that writers tend to shift to, and they get drilled into you by the news you read, magazines you flip through and classes you take in school - have a central argument or thesis, pretend the reader knows nothing, use an active voice and avoid the first person. But why? Why are such restrictions taught in journalism school and pounded into us? Humans are a social species and enjoy telling and hearing a good story, which is how history was first shared. Science can be boring to some people, but if framed within a personal story and made relatable, it can have much more of an impact. This session, proposed and moderated by David Manly and Jeanne Garbarino, will delve into the often neglected writing style and demonstrate how to use personal experiences to make your posts and articles more engaging, engrossing and exciting for the reader. The official hashtag for the session will be #MySciStory.

Questions:

- How can you achieve balance in a personal science narrative and why isn't it used more? #MySciStory

- Why are personal narratives frowned upon in science storytelling? #MySciStory

- How can you frame your experiences in the context of a narrative that anyone can enjoy? #MySciStory

Reading

Here are some suggestions of first-person narrative journalism out together by the moderators, David Manly and Jeanne Garbarino.

Some of these will be discussed during our session, but will primarily be used as examples to the different styles of writing a first-person narrative.

David Dobbs describing just how strange (and fallible) his memory can be - http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/05/the-hole-in-my-hippocampus/

Deborah Blum on the perils of using first-person narrative journalism - http://ksj.mit.edu/tracker/2013/01/science-writing-and-me-me-me-me

The posts that inspired Deborah's post, by Gary Schwitzer, can be found here and here

Maryn McKenna on becoming part of her own food poisoning story - http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/10/salmo-peanut-butter/

David Manly on the difficulties associated with establishing a separate identity as an identical twin - http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2011/03/15/mirror-images-twins-and-identity/

Jeanne Garbarino on her experiences and revelations with during her pregnancy - http://www.doublexscience.org/2011/12/pregnancy-101-on-cervical-mucus-plug.html 



Session 3C: Into the unknown: What we don't know, and how to talk about it
Maggie Koerth-Baker and Maryn McKenna
Thurs, Jan 31, 2:30-3:30 pm, Room 6 


Description: Uncertainty is something scientists take for granted. There's always a possibility that your results could be wrong. There's always a possibility that the situation will change. There's always questions you can't answer yet, and always details still undelved. Trouble is, the public doesn't know that. For many people, results are facts and unknowns are failures (or, at least, good reasons to mistrust the experts). This disconnect between what science actually is and what the general public believes it to be creates serious communication problems, and makes it hard for people to know how to apply scientific data -- both in their personal lives, and in public policy. To bridge that gap, bloggers and journalists need to do a better job of building an understanding of uncertainty into our work. But how? Come to this session to hear our stories, share yours, and help curate a list of tips, tricks, and resources that everyone can use. Proposed hashtag: #SciOUnknown

Questions:

- There's stuff we know. Stuff we don't know. And stuff we don't know we don't know. How do you talk about unknown unknowns in science?

- Science is uncertain. Do you think the public understands that? Share your thoughts on what we don't know, and how to talk about it. #Scio13



Session 4D: Lightwaves and brainbows: Seductive visual metaphors at the intersection of science, language and art
Cedar Riener and Michele Banks
Thurs, Jan 31, 4:00-5:00pm, Room 7a 


Description: Visual metaphors are crucial to science communication, both among scientists and between science communicators and the public. To start with a metaphor, they provide a familiar peg on which to hang new information. A well-chosen visual metaphor (particles as billiard balls, benzene as a snake eating its tail) can provide an instant jolt of recognition and understanding to a complex concept, while a badly-chosen one can complicate and obscure. This session will explore the best and worst, the pros and cons of devising and deploying visual metaphors for science. How do these cases make the science more compelling? For example, how do pictures of brain areas “lighting up” give us the feeling that we are peering inside the brain? How do these cases perpetuate errors or biases? In the case of brains lighting up, the color of the map of the brain is in comparison to a baseline. Most of your brain is lit up, most of the time. The moderators are a cognitive psychologist with an interest in visual illusions and the history of psychology and an artist who turns depictions of structures into amazing works of art. We’ll kick off with a little bit of science about visual perception and image processing, then we’ll talk about some good, bad and confounding examples of visual metaphors, and then open up to discussion.

Questions:

- When does a visual metaphor in science clarify and when does it obscure/confuse?

- What makes a good visual metaphor in science?

- What’s your favorite visual science metaphor? Early candidates: benzene ring, brain maps, neurons as wires, particles as billiard balls?

- What visual metaphor in science is the biggest cliché?

- What’s most important in a sci metaphor: originality, accuracy or familiarity?



Session 5E: How to make sure you're being appropriately skeptical when covering scientific and medical studies
Ivan Oransky and Tara Smith
Fri, Feb 1, 10:30-11:30 am, Room 7b 


Description: When it comes to writing about health and medicine, we all want to be the smartest kid in the room, but no one likes a show off, and scientists don't always like to hear their work criticized. Explore how to find flaws in studies, be skeptical, and include important context that separates you from scaremongerers (OMG this new bug is going to kill us all!) and practitioners of "gee-whiz" (this will be on the market in two years and cure diabetes!). And learn how to do that so the scientists who read your stuff end up with more respect for you, not less.

Questions:

- What are some mistakes veteran science writers learned from when first writing about medical studies?

- How do you ask the right questions about studies without being an expert in everything?

- How do you write critically but respectfully about studies so you don't alienate authors?

- How do you find a biostatistician to keep in your back pocket?

Some links to get the ball rolling, and that we'll discuss:

HealthNewsReview.org's criteria for what should go into a story about a medical study

Similarly, 7 criteria to think about when reading medical studies

Why criticizing the work is a good idea, but making it personal or labeling something "fraud" isn't

How to avoid "he said, she said" science journalism

Cutting through the hype to find smart stories



Session 6B: Citizen scientists and ethical research (part II)
Kelly Hills and Dr. Judy Stone
Fri, Feb 1, 2:30-3:30 pm, Room 4


Description: Many ethical issues arise while conducting research. What happens when citizen scientists start doing research outside the scope of institutional review boards, medical ethical committees or institutional animal care and use committees? While there is a long history of researchers experimenting on themselves, there is an equally long history of vulnerable groups being taken advantaged of without proper ethical oversight. How does this history and experience dovetail with citizen scientists and researchers who are not a part of this narrative history, and may not have the experience - or ethical self-regulation - to know where to draw a line in the proverbial sand? While there are standards for traditional medical research - still too frequently violated - how are they, or should they, be applied to citizen science research? Join us as we discuss the historical context of ethical research and examine contemporary influential issues, and how this affects and applies to citizen science.

Questions:

- Who provides ethical oversight for the maker/DIY bio culture? (Who does, and who should? Are they the same people?)

- Who should be responsible for insuring that research undertaken by non-institutionally affiliated researchers is ethical?

- Is there a need for a citizens ethicist group, to provide oversight in to research?

- What are the most effective and efficient ways for a citizen scientist to educate herself about ethical regulations and issues?

- Are you obligated to tell research subjects that you may profit from their tissues and other contributions?

- Many consumers felt misled by 23andMe's consent form [see Legal Genealogist & The Scientist]; how does this affect disclosure needs?

- Ownership of research is contentious in trad research; how should it be handled in citizen groups? [See, for example, this styrofoam example.]

- What does research - and consent - mean to different populations/communities?

- Should crowd-sourced projects be required to seek IRB approval?

- Does placing ethical constraints on DIYbio/art hamper creativity?



Session 7C: Explanatory journalism, &%$£ yeah!
Mark Henderson and Ed Yong
Fri, Feb 1, 4:00-5:00 pm, Room 6


Description: Many discussions of science journalism are increasingly focusing on the need for investigative reporting -- deep digging that exposes something someone wants to hide. This is important. But it isn't the only type of science writing with value. Is really good explanatory science writing becoming a poor relation here? You don't have to expose a scandal to create original, well-crafted content that has real value to the reader/viewer/listener. Sometimes, to explain something really well is enough. Yet with newsrooms cutting back, and focusing the limited resources they have for off-diary research on investigation, good explanation of science for general audiences is taking a back seat. It's time consuming and expensive, but doesn't either carry the kudos or attract the eyeballs that makes news organisations take notice.

The Wellcome Trust (where Mark is Head of Communications) is about to launch an online project that will commission high-quality explanatory content (including infographics, animation, video as well as long-form writing) about the areas of science the Trust funds -- but not restricted to its actual scientists. An alpha or beta version of the site is likely to launch soon after Scio 13. Meanwhile, Ed has been writing a column for the BBC that tries to take a more detailed explanatory look at the more far-flung promises of typical news reports. He's also found that his explainers, like an oxytocin piece for Slate, and an ENCODE mega-post on his own blog, have been some of his most popular work this year.

Ed and Mark will argue for the value of explanatory content, and explore what makes it good. The questions that we're particularly interested in discussing are:

1) What makes good explanatory science writing? How do you make explainers utterly compelling without doing a turgid Q&A?

2) Who's doing explanatory journalism and commissioining it? How do you as a writer get commissioned to write it?

Here's a list of some explainers from the last year:

- Ian Sample's ping-pong video about the Higgs boson and PhDComics' strip about the same- Rose Eveleth's animation about invisibility cloaks

- Carl Zimmer on norovirus - a study in puked perfection

- Ed Yong on the dodgy science of oxytocin



Session 8E: 24/7 Health: The role of mobile technology in healthcare
Pascale Lane and Peter Lipson
Sat, Feb 2, 10:30-11:30 am, Room 7b

Note: Peter Lipson isn't going to make it to the conference... we'll see what happens to this session.

Description: As smart phones and tablets permeate the market, many people carry a potential all-knowing personal assistant that can help them learn about health, remember their medications, and track their diet and physical activity. Apps now bring HIPPAA compliant connections to providers and medical information. On the other side, providers have access to more information than ever before. How can we maximize these systems to increase health? What new models can be developed to help people and providers? Hashtag: #24/7Health

Questions:

- Can mobile technology improve health?

- What can we do with massive amounts of individual data?

- What new models can bring us better health on an individual and population level?



Session 9C: How do you actually get a book written?
Katherine Sharpe and Maria Konnikova
Sat, Feb 2, Noon-1:00 pm, Room 6


Description: So, you have a great idea for a book. Or at least you think you do. But is it a book, or just another article? How can you tell the difference? And once you do, how do you go from the idea to the actual book? What's the process like, and how is it different from every other writing assignment you've taken on? How do you take a massive amount of information and turn it into something not only readable but a joy to read? And how do you stay sane—and excited—in the process? Writing a book can be one of the most rewarding things you’ll ever do. But it can also pose a challenge to your skills and your peace of mind?? Veteran and aspiring authors are invited to join Katherine Sharpe, author of “Coming of Age on Zoloft,” and Maria Konnikova, author of “Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes,” in a discussion of how to tackle writing’s ultimate long distance event.

Questions:

- How do you know which idea is “the one”?

- What makes a book different from a long article?

- How do you know if you’re in trouble—and what do you do if you are?

- What are the resources available to you, and when is the right time to use them?

- What do you need to know about writing a book proposal?

- What should you know going in? / What do you wish you'd known going in?

- Authors in the house: what would you do differently next time?

- How can you get the most out of your relationship with your editor?

- How do you know when to stop researching and start writing (or should you do them at the same time)?

- A happy writer is a good writer? (How do you take care of yourself under pressure?)

- How do you balance writing with your other commitments?

- What do you do if writing your book isn't enough to pay the bills?

- I delivered my first pass manuscript. Now what?



Session 10A: Life in the venn - What happens when you're forced to wear many hats?
Mireya Mayor and Ed Yong
Sat, Feb 2, 2:30-3:30 pm, Room 3 


Description: Increasingly, people in the science world seem to play multiple roles. Some are scientists and journalists. Others are journalists and PIOs. Some teach with one hand, research with the other, and blog with their faces. How do we handle the tensions between roles that can have conflicting priorities and values, and how do we partition our different identities online?

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"We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world." — Buddha