Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Communicating Science: "It's Peer Reviewed"

"Why Science Works" panel, SLC FanX, Sept 2018
Interesting Why Science Works panel at the SL Comicon, er, FanX... whatever, Nerdfest. Before I could ask a question the conversation veered organically into communicating science, denials, and politicization.

Moderator and Weber State University professor Eric Swedin steered the panel through some great topics, from the value (for others) in engaging and climate deniers to the wave-like nature of anti-science sentiments.

Directly, the topic of scientists communicating science to the public was broached in the context of fighting anti-science pols and a better educated electorate. One of the male panelists (I was looking for an outlet) sort of shrugged, almost as if the question was already answered.

"Credible science is peer reviewed, and the public has access to that," he said.

The panel ended and I was halfway into my next when the weight of that answer really set in. I mean, the panelist isn't wrong. But the question was about fighting back against misinformation and bad faith "debate me" trolls or pols. Is this how researchers and scientists think about this question?

If it is, do they have a responsibility to rethink it? Do they have a responsibility (or opportunity?) to be a bit more engaged than that in our current situation? I know universities put a lot of effort into press releasing or even spotlighting important research with campus or community events, but is that enough?

I keep thinking about Princeton historian Kevin M Kruse 's willingness to engage uber-troll and not-so-bright-person Dinesh D'Souza on twitter and that exchange making it's way into publications with a broad audience. Kruse fed the troll and anyone exposed to the exchange was better informed (also, it was hilarious). That seems valuable. Maybe more valuable than a press release to local media when researchers and scientists have something important, useful, and urgent to convey?

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Communicating Science: Narratives

Exploring some of the more complex arenas of science communication and public engagement. Beside concern of formats, engagement tools, framing and breaking out of information silos, there are also legitimate questions about passive vs. formal engagement, and with who and when? Would scientists at a public university accomplish more working with local city, county, and state governments to inject in or even create conversations tied to local issues? Where passive (traditional PR/press release) styles fail, would formal and direct engagement succeed?

What is the value of a sparsely attended panel event in contrast with a noted researcher getting down in the Twitter mud to challenge a poorly informed elected official? What crashes gates and what reinforces tribal political walls? Because part of the problem here is ignoring the politics of science talk. It may not originate in or because of political circles but that is most definitely where it's being heard and discussed most.


Furthermore, people with lower numeracy are more likely to rely on these heuristics when engaging in complex judgments and decisions such as those that involve science, and especially scientific uncertainty (Peters et al., 2006Sinayev and Peters, 2015). They also rely more on narratives and the way information is presented in particular lights (discussed below) instead of applying the probabilities and other numbers critical to understanding science (Peters, 2012a). Of course, highly numerate individuals also sometimes misunderstand numeric information and use heuristic processing, but to a lesser degree (Chapman and Liu, 2009Peters et al., 2007). Careful attention to how scientific uncertainty and other numbers are presented can reduce the use of heuristics and increase understanding and use of provided numbers, especially among the less numerate (Institute of Medicine, 2014).
...what is the narrative? Is it too often an apolitical "You might find this interesting"? If you (like journalists) are going to be perceived through a partisan and tribal lens in the end, could you more effectively communicate scientific ideas and foster deeper understanding among traditionally marginalized or non-engaged groups by, if not owning, at least ignoring that?

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Communicating Science

In October, I'll be speaking to USU Quinney College of Natural Resources and the College of Science graduate students and faculty on communicating science to "the media" as part of their Climate Adaptation Science project.

It's a topic I've developed a personal interest in previously, so I'm excited and have thoughts. Scientists sit out too many city and state level policy debates. Universities have too many "gatekeepers," even in USU's decentralized PR model. Three pages press releases. Why?

In prep I've been delving into recent science related public policy debates from Florida to Arizona, looking at the quality and quantity of coverage. Some obvious questions arise frequently. What's the real value in filling valuable newspaper real estate or evening news minutes with "man on the street" reactions or, worse, statements from elected partisans? Am I missing something? They aren't informative or even interesting, yet they make up a good 30% of the reporting on, for example, the 2017 debate in Florida over a bill dealing with science curriculum and school texts.

"Scientists say the textbook in question presents an accurate and comprehensive look at the relevant science, and educators defend the curriculum as an important engagement opportunity with students. But Bob, retired electrician and television owner says it's all bulls**t written by Latte Libruls and a left-wing conspiracy to make the President look stupid.  Congressman [X] says it's important we give both sides an opportunity to be heard in this important debate."
I'm barely exaggerating the average local story. Who is benefiting from this kind of coverage?

Anyway, here are some previous presentations from the same communicating science series. I don't see how I can leave politics out of my own, but we'll see.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Bruce Sterling ruins my day

One of my least favorite science fiction writers wrote a thing on "smart cities."

Sterling seems like a smart man, despite being a boring writer. But I've spent several years now working voluntarily with coalitions and cities in Utah, Idaho and Wyoming on transparency standards and "smart city" ideas to engage and understand residents. So, a little defensive at his dismissive tone as I read.

But he's right, the bastard.

If you look at where the money goes (always a good idea), it’s not clear that the “smart city” is really about digitizing cities. Smart cities are a generational civil war within an urban world that’s already digitized. It’s the process of the new big-money, post-internet crowd, Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft et al., disrupting your uncle’s industrial computer companies, the old-school machinery guys who ran the city infrastructures, Honeywell, IBM, General Electric. It’s a land grab for the command and control systems that were mostly already there.
If smart cities don't exist -at least not in the "ground up" and "citizen driven" way they're talked about in transparency, open gov, and city planning circles- what happens to all this energy and increasing interest in being "smart" sprouting in small to mid-size cities of the west?
The GAFAM crowd isn’t all that well suited to the urban task at hand, either. Running cities is not a good business fit for them because they always give up too easily. America’s already littered with the remnants of abandoned Google Moonshots. Amazon kills towns by crushing retail streets and moving all the clerks backstage into blind big-box shipping centers. The idea of these post-internet majors muscling up for some 30-year urban megaproject—a subway system, aqueducts, the sewers—seems goofy.  
These Big Tech players have certainly got enough cash to build a new, utopian town from scratch, entirely on their own software principles—a one-company Detroit for the Digital Initiative. But they won’t do that because they’re American. The United States hasn’t incorporated a major new city in almost 70 years.
Sterling barely touches on the philosophy or ideology of "smart city" agendas except to brush them off, but he's right about the futility and cynicism of "ground up" mythology built around such agendas. If "smart cities" are to actually be grassroots oriented and citizen driven it has to be, paradoxically, somewhat severed from "tech." Not technology itself, but the world of "tech" as most of us understand it via GAFAM.

Really smart cities won't be built around Silicon Valleys or Slopes, tech hubs, innovation corridors or Amazon warehouses, but, as Sterling is trying to say in too many words, very few "smart" cities are making the distinction. The danger for cities now is becoming yet another data funnel rather than savvy data consumer, the declared goal of a "smart city."

[Another take on the matter via the Guardian. Interesting, but always read Poole skeptically.]

Monday, August 20, 2018

Trump, fascism and action for action's sake


Fascism became an all-purpose term because one can eliminate from a fascist regime one or more features, and it will still be recognizable as fascist. Take away imperialism from fascism and you still have Franco and Salazar. Take away colonialism and you still have the Balkan fascism of the Ustashes. Add to the Italian fascism a radical anti-capitalism (which never much fascinated Mussolini) and you have Ezra Pound. Add a cult of Celtic mythology and the Grail mysticism (completely alien to official fascism) and you have one of the most respected fascist gurus, Julius Evola. 
But in spite of this fuzziness, I think it is possible to outline a list of features that are typical of what I would like to call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.
For most people questions of definition don't arise all that often. Maybe it's an instinctual "Ick" or a more thoughtful "this is bad," upon recognition. But not many people are watching the news and pondering the label or definition of what they're seeing and hearing. Thoughtful or emotional responses are limited (in time, not influence) to "I like" or "I dislike," with an occasional "WTF? Oh hell no." Once in a while, we're prodded, poked, guilted, or accidentally stumble upon a ballot and cast a vote and if asked at the polls, well, of course we're against fascism (and racism and tyranny and authoritarianism). But fascism, authoritarianism, tyranny, and to a large extent even racism are understood as a negative to be avoided, but not understood enough to recognized in subtle form. Throughout history fascists, authoritarians, racists, idiots, cynics, douches, and that one loud contrarian guy who reads CATO have their most crazy ideas and opinions elevated by this lack of depth to understanding. "Fascists" are things from history books and impoverished countries. "Real Racists" predate the 1960s. Dictators and authoritarians only rise to power in Central America and Africa. There will never be another Nazi rise or Hitler. Don't believe me? Ask around your workplace or bus ride home. Sure Trump is scary and crazy, but the next election is coming soon and the majority of Americans are wealthy enough, and comfy. 
This isn't an elitist criticism of those with better things to do than immerse themselves in politics, history, or theory. Just an observation. Nor is this some extreme warning we're on the doorstep of Nazi Germany. We ain't. So far. Still, Eco's writing of the Ur-fascist and fascism's constant elements amid it's variations seems important to understanding what's happening today and, most specifically, what the morons still cheering this president on are embracing and responding to in their excitement. His proposed definition offers a chance to really ruin your own afternoon spotting hints and elements of Ur-Fascism in the halls of state houses, Congress, and the words of President Stable Genius.
Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes. Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism, from Goering’s alleged statement (“When I hear talk of culture I reach for my gun”) to the frequent use of such expressions as “degenerate intellectuals,” “eggheads,” “effete snobs,” “universities are a nest of reds.” The official Fascist intellectuals were mainly engaged in attacking modern culture and the liberal intelligentsia for having betrayed traditional values.
Know anyone thinking this way? Of course you do. We all do. 
I recommend reading Eco's entire article. His distillation of fascism to a cult of tradition embedded in a rejection of modernism, embracing irrationalism as action for action's sake, and feeding on misplaced (or benefiting from misplacing) social frustrations and fear rooted in social identity will make it even more fun to read the news each day.
You're welcome.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

"The kids know how to look out for it"

Appalling must-read from a columnist touring Louisiana's poorest industrialized communities.

Can't shake these paragraphs:
But the most tragic story involves the schools. Not only are Reserve children being poisoned with a known carcinogen but, “they’re not teaching our black boys anything except sports,” says Taylor. “They’ve taken out shop, they’ve taken out home economics, they’ve taken out music!” Remember, Wilma Subra had said, “the industries in these community become partners in education and have total control over the topics that are taught. If you have a student who wants to do a project about plant emissions, they get told, ‘No.’ And the school board members need money to run for election, and where do you think their money comes from…?” 
Louisiana is intentionally raising a generation devoid of the knowledge necessary to comprehend their own toxic situation. Not only is the state poisoning its people, but it is taking away their means of being able to understand that they are being poisoned. And it doesn’t stop there. Louisiana State University and many reputable institutions across America receive large sums of money from the petrochemical industry, so who, Subra asks, is going to do the research that actually critiques these corporations?
A lot of legitimate panic now over the Trump administration's deregulation without thought, but this political cancer is rooted in decades (centuries?) of federal, state, county and city policies in the name of industry, infrastructure, blind capitalism and the cruel convenience of ignoring those most effected by the consequences.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016


The Donald's education secretary pick is... what you'd expect. Teachers, keep your eyes open.
Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State described Betsy DeVos as the “four-star general” of the school privatization movement shortly after DeVos announced the formation of the “new” American Federation for Children (AFC) in March 2010. As Boston noted, the American Federation for Children was not new, but a rebranding of an organization called Advocates for School Choice.The American Federation for Children is now the umbrella organization for two nonprofits that have been at the center of the pro-privatization movement for over a decade. In addition to the renamed Advocates for School Choice, it includes the Alliance for School Choice, formerly known as the Education Reform Council.

Monday, November 21, 2016


Recent NYTimes editorial on potential Trump pick for DHS:
Mr. Kobach is pushing the myth that voter cheating is rampant. But he has utterly failed to document that, despite his Javert-like zealotry as secretary of state. In fact, the federal ruling against him said there was evidence of only three instances across 18 years in which noncitizens voted in Kansas.Mr. Kobach has not stopped at his state’s borders. He has been a principal contributor to the Republican Party platform. He wrote two pages of hard-edged immigration policy centered on Mr. Trump’s hateful fantasy of a wall that the plank trumpets “must cover the entirety of the southern border.” He helped write a plank condemning the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. He also helped write another setting the Republican Party squarely against any ban on assault rifles and large-capacity ammunition magazines.
@KansasDems have been documenting this guy for a while. Follow.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

"Monstrous Scapegoats"

Pro-Brexit voices have succeeded in creating two monstrous scapegoats in the public mind that supposedly congregate around London: the rootless, wealthy cosmopolite and the shifty, job-stealing foreigner. If that funhouse mirror rhetoric doesn’t ring a bell to American readers, I suggest you try cleaning your ears.


Thursday, June 18, 2015

10 years?

Halfway through 2015 before it dawns on me this blog is 10 years old this year.

It's been pretty quiet here lately, but that doesn't mean I haven't been mouthing off elsewhere. You can hear me warping hearts and minds two hours daily on KVNU's For the People, and I write sometimes at Utah Politico Hub (where long time readers will find a lot of familiar names writing). And less frequently than I like, I contribute to JM Bell's media empire at Defenestrate Media and The Left Show.

Realizing the ten year mark had come, I also realized how many of us making noise then are still making noise now. Holly still fires up HollyontheHill.com regularly, and is now a member of the State Records Committee. JM Bell, mentioned above, has a whole team of podcasters doing his evil wishes. John Dougall has gone legit as a lawmaker and State Auditor but still builds as much space to debate on Facebook as his blog did then. Ric "It's just a webcam, Mr. President" Cantrell's baby The Senate Site is still full steam ahead and much more than just a blog now. Connor's Connundrums has morphed into a group effort at Libertas Utah. Jesse Harris is active at Utah Politico Hub, Coolest Family Ever and FreeUtopia. Curtis Haring, of Blue in Red Zion fame, is now writing (for money!) at Utah Political Capital. Bob Aagard still peddles his wit and insight at The World According to me. I even see Frank Staheli, The Third Avenue, and Jeremy Manning pop up in comments here and there still. [Update: I forgot the most important one! After a few year hiatus working for The Man -- or in this case, The Woman -- Joe Pyrah's The Sausage Grinder is returned, in UPH's Midday Commentary, with all the links and wit you've missed.)

Utah Amicus is silent. Ethan Millard has forsaken SLCSpin (and Twitter! Why, cruel world, why? That guy cracked me up in 140 character zingers.) but you can still hear him nightly on Nightside. Weber County Forum is still buzzing. Dave Fletcher's Gov and Tech is still a fun read. Paul Mero never had a blog that I remember, but he was at every Blogger Brunch, and once debated with Vince of Wasatch Watcher (now gone, with Vince living in Colorado) through an entire meal at Roosters. 

For some reason Utah Rattler still exists, and still goes on about all those illegal immi-gants and their identity thievery, or something.  UtahBloghive.org is still up, and even has a "Memories" section (Davis Didjeridu!), but One Utah is gone, and I'm not sure anyone misses it.

I'm sure I'm forgetting many more either still around or lost to careers or political frustrations. There are also a lot of new faces, like Chris Herrod's new outfit "Unconconunicorns" or some such, if you've run out of glass to chew.

I've met most of these folks mentioned IRL over the years, and even count several of them close friends. Everyone of us has a long history of debate, activism, failures, successes, and a hell of a lot of fun. It's interesting to see how everyone's involvement has evolved, but even more interesting to realize how many of these folks are still around since I first started reading and writing here back in 2005.