Keeping up

Oct. 30th, 2015 12:35 pm
liv: ribbon diagram of a p53 monomer (p53)
Some time ago, [personal profile] cjwatson and [livejournal.com profile] siderea asked:
it generally seems that working scientists have to spend a sizeable proportion of their time keeping up with other people's research, since after all that's at least theoretically the point of publishing in the first place and unless you're a genius in a tiny field you'll get further that way than by ignoring everyone and striking out on your own! But scientific publications are generally pretty information-dense and there are a lot of people publishing in most fields, so I'm guessing that just keeping up with your reading could use up all your time if you let it. What strategies do people use for selecting out the most important things and keeping the firehose of incoming information under control?
It's a good question, so let me give it a go, albeit belatedly. I'm not sure I can talk about what strategies people in general use, only what I do, but I don't think I'm that much of an outlier.

work nerdery )

Does that help? Please feel free to ask more questions, including the rest of my readers beyond the ones who asked me in the first place.
liv: ribbon diagram of a p53 monomer (p53)
It's Nobel day! And [personal profile] vatine very aptly asked for your thoughts on the Nobel prizes. In short I think the whole concept of them is really cool, even if I don't always love the exact decisions made.

yay science )
ETA: I hadn't seen it at the time of posting, but apart from Malala being awesome, the highlight of this year was May-Britt Moser's amazing neuron dress. Neuron dress! I am in love.

[December Days masterpost]
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[personal profile] ajollypyruvate asked me about Science! Why science? Also, is science awesome? Or what?

bit about science, bit about me )

[January Journal masterlist; there's still quite a few spaces so do feel free to add some more prompts even if you didn't get to it in December! Or indeed to make a second request if you're already in the list.]
liv: ribbon diagram of a p53 monomer (p53)
Seems to be yet another variation of this synthetic outrage being forwarded all over the internet. Sometimes it's zombie stories from years ago being recirculated, because people have seen the story but not the debunking. Sometimes it's a very slight variation on the theme: the amazing discovery that's being suppressed seems to have mutated from a cheap wonder drug to a cancer-killing virus recently. But otherwise the elements of the OMG this is so terrible!!!! screed are suspiciously similar. And it's just as much bullshit as every other iteration of this.

I'm sticking my neck out and saying this, even though I only seen the rumours and outraged Twitter and FB posts, I haven't traced the detail of the story back to its source and verified how little is factual. There's a pattern to these stories, and it's based on several misconceptions about how the world actually works.

several reasons I don't buy it )

The other big reason to be extremely skeptical about these kinds of scare stories is that very often they originate from quacks who are peddling some kind of miracle cure. They want desperate cancer patients to believe that the whole medical, scientific, political and commercial establishment is conspiring against them, so that they'll be good little marks for whatever someone's selling. That could be magic, it could be something that is completely untested and unvalidated, it could be a genuine drug (perhaps even the very one that's supposedly being suppressed by evil corporations) being manufactured without the appropriate quality control and safety checks.

This is pretty much a potted version of a rant I subjected [personal profile] jack to when he innocently asked me about the cancer-killing virus story. So I thought I should put it on the internet for posterity! I should note that I know quite a lot about cancer research, as it's been my profession for ten years, but my knowledge of IP law comes from the fact that my childhood was pretty much as portrayed in this Calvin and Hobbes strip.

For a more detailed takedown of the story, with actual citations rather than just ranting, see this excellent piece by David Gorski on DCA. As far as I can tell the DCA story from 2007 is the memetic ancestor to all the related scandals that keep doing the rounds, though even DCA itself hasn't died out, it shows up on social networks every so often.

Thwarted!

Jan. 4th, 2012 08:35 pm
liv: cast iron sign showing etiolated couple drinking tea together (argument)
Grr, I got most of the way through drafting a long post about this article on brain sex differences when I discovered that the article in question had gone behind a paywall between my starting my post and being ready to publish it. Somebody posted it on Twitter, I think [personal profile] ruthi but now I can't find the link I was looking for, so perhaps it was somebody else?

My point was going to be that I think it might be an interesting starting point for discussion with people who justify sexism because sex differences have a supposedly innate or biological basis. Eliot doesn't sound as polemically feminist as people like, say, Cordelia Fine or Deborah Cameron, both writers I strongly admire, but that's coming from the standpoint of someone who basically accepts their conclusions already. But since the article has now been hidden from public view, I can't discover whether I'm right that it might be more persuasive to a skeptical reader. Most annoying; I really do hate charging readers for access to scientific papers.

Anyway, the bit of my post that I'd already written compared Eliot's article with the NYT article about dieting that everybody was linking to at the end of last year. So I've put the half-written post behind the cut since I think the topic is still at least somewhat interesting even without the key point I wanted to make.

truncated post, mentions dieting and body image )
liv: ribbon diagram of a p53 monomer (p53)
This entry is going to contain a lot of stuff that's been swirling around in my mind for several weeks, and I'm not sure it all quite fits together, but I want to put some thoughts out there.

The first trigger was that I tangentially got involved in one of those discussions about whether science is better than religion. I normally don't bother with that argument because it's boring and frequently stupid, and also because I don't think it's a meaningful comparison. Science is not only no good, but completely irrelevant, for organizing a regular rota of visitors to check up on an old lady with Alzheimer's who is estranged from her daughter. Religion is not only no good, but completely irrelevant, for understanding how prions in the old lady's brain aggregated to cause her to lose her memory and functionality. (I have no intention of asserting that atheists never visit lonely senile people, just that they don't use science to do so, because they are not idiots.)

But anyway, I joined in with this discussion because [livejournal.com profile] pw201 is intelligent and interesting, and there was an issue of terminology I was curious about. The discussion led to Paul asserting (relevantly):
I think it is fair to say that the established results of the physical and biological sciences are less likely to be overturned than those of the social sciences. Evolution is a fact, current theories of anthropology will be outdated in a few decades.
Woah! That really, really brought me up short. I mean, it's trivially not true, but even if it were it wouldn't be a good thing! The whole point of why science is "better" than religion as a way of understanding how the world works is that scientific theories and models get changed when someone finds new data that contradicts the old view. This is a really good example of the way that selling science as an alternative to religion does a massive disservice to science (I care surprisingly little about vocal atheists misrepresenting religion): it leads to people, intelligent people I respect, trying to treat science as a source of eternal verities. I also absolutely disagree that physical science is inherently better than social science; it just isn't, but trying to cram science into the niche where religion or Humanism or other philosophical systems belong can really easily lead to that sort of misguided hierarchy between branches of science.

The thing is, "believing in" science in this way doesn't just offend me as a scientist; it kills people. science is not magic! )

And yes, that goes for medicine too; there is lots of really vital medical information that just isn't going to be found by doing randomized controlled trials and measuring the physical outcomes and applying statistics. Partly because a lot of randomized controlled trials that would be informative are also unethical. And partly because the information that can be measured physically isn't always the most important; "how fast do babies put on weight?" can be measured easily, but a more important research question is "how likely are babies to die for no discernible reason?"

Drug trials are (relatively) easy to carry out in the time-honoured "hard" science way; you give the drug to half the patients and a placebo to the other half, and you measure objective parameters about how well the two groups do. I'm in no way arguing against doing this kind of experiment – hell, I spend most of my working life doing that myself – but it doesn't mean that drugs are the best possible treatment for all possible conditions! For example most patients with joint pain would prefer physiotherapy and exercise rather than strong painkillers (and by the way, the reason I know this is because social scientists did serious research into the issue, not because some arrogant biologist assumed that his credentials totally qualified him to throw together an internet survey.) There is some evidence that the former has more benefits and fewer side-effects for a greater proportion of patients than the latter. But it's rather harder to do a double-blind trial of physiotherapy, and you can't use pure bioscience to answer questions like "how well do patients on this regime integrate into their communities and lead normal lives?" which may be as important as "what is the level of pain-related chemicals in the bloodstream of patients taking this drug versus a placebo?"

And thirdly, I suppose, don't put too much faith in the scientific process. In the best possible circumstances it is slow and inefficient and people get harmed while science is sorting out the answer to difficult questions. When we're talking about medicine, individual variation within the population is inevitable, and however good the evidence is for a particular treatment, that best treatment will do nothing for or actively harm a proportion of patients. And to be honest, the best possible circumstances don't always apply; it's hopelessly naive to believe that all science is pure and unbiased and free of the influence of culture and political and financial considerations! Criticize superstition and woo and political bias, of course, but don't couch your criticisms in terms of assuming that the scientific mainstream is always right. That's bad rhetoric and it's atrociously bad science.
liv: ribbon diagram of a p53 monomer (p53)
Author: Rebecca Skloot

Details: (c) Rebecca Skloot 2010; Pub 2010 Macmillan; ISBN 978-0-230-75277-1

Verdict: The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks is a heartrending work of journalism.

Reasons for reading it: Although I know quite a bit about the origins of the HeLa cell line, I'm interested to learn more, and I'd heard some very good reports of Skloot's book.

How it came into my hands: Waterstones had it on special offer when I was looking for something else.

detailed review )

STEM girl

Mar. 25th, 2010 09:32 am
liv: ribbon diagram of a p53 monomer (p53)
Lots of fun posts celebrating Ada Lovelace day (yesterday, but I was busy writing a grant and planning a communal Passover celebration). I particularly enjoyed [personal profile] helenic's piece on confidence and how it affects women who write about tech in public.

Also [personal profile] rmc28 asked for women in science and technology to represent, so I thought I might have a go. Among other things it will serve as an introduction to my professional side for all the new people who just subscribed.

so what do you do? )

I am a little uncomfortable with the concept of Ada Lovelace day, to be honest. I think it can make a difference to see visible women doing STEM subjects. It's just that when I was a kid I found it really frustrating that I was always expected to have female role models, I was pushed into fangirling Rosalind Franklin when I wanted to fangirl Francis Crick, assumed because of my gender to be more interested in Dorothy Hodgkin than Max Perutz and so on. In some ways the message I want to send out to girls and young women is that they can do anything they want and gender doesn't matter, not that we can manage to find one or two female names in the list of influential scientists in your field, so that makes it ok for girls to have science ambitions.

But then, I did have one very important female role model growing up: my grandmother, who qualified as a doctor around the start of WW2 and devoted her whole life (literally, she died in the middle of a consultation with a patient) to women's and children's health, especially in deprived parts of the country. She also worked closely with Isabella Forshall, a surgeon born in 1902 who pretty much invented paediatric surgery.

Soundbite

Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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