Is sensationalism in the media creating public distrust in science?

Oliver Wylde.

There is little doubt amongst the scientific community that engagement with the wider public is important. In fact, one could argue that it’s one of the most important parts of the process – after all, the policy-makers who pull the strings in the research community are at the beck and call of the government, and therefore ultimately the public and the media. This is reflected by more and more research grants requiring some effort towards public engagement as a stipulation, if not only to promote the science, but also to straighten out the discrepancies that are created when scientists interact with an often sensationalist media. Fear of misrepresentation is what one would hope drives this need for engagement, but how much is the media really at fault?

Whilst there are many examples of unnecessary hype and just flat out wrong science in articles across the internet, there can sometimes be spin on both sides of the line. There are several well-known examples of scientists being too hasty with publication – the “faster than light neutrino” discovered by physicists at CERN in 2012[1] certainly kicked up a storm in the tabloids, but was eventually attributed to a faulty connector handling GPS data. In May 2013, a team of stem cell researchers from around the world announced that they had succeeded in producing personalised human embryonic stem cells, which in theory could be used to grow any feature of the human body [2]. After a few days it was found that several figures in the paper were simply cropped versions of each other, and that the same image had been used twice with a different labelling convention, amongst other irregularities.

This list could go on and on, and would certainly include the “train-wreck” of 2012, where psychologists were called on to clean up their act after failed attempts to replicate the results of classic social priming studies [3]. In the same year, a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper reported, after the review of thousands of biomedical and life-sciences journal entries, that around two-thirds “were attributable to misconduct, fraud, duplicate publication or plagiarism”[1]. These examples of hype and systematic misconduct in science do nothing to aid its image in the public’s eyes, and in my view only create more distrust in peer-review and the scientific method, which can only be a bad thing. After all, it is the peer-review process which should look to expose and verify outlandish claims made by scientists – preferably before a story-hungry media comes along and distorts the truth. This apparent lust for new science coverage in the media is all the more reason for engagement.

Whilst “data fiddling” and un-replicability certainly pose threats to the public’s trust, it is the absence of data altogether which has recently caused worry amongst scientists and the media alike. In 2014 an argument was made by a group of researchers calling for a change in the way fundamental theoretical physics is done: that if a theory is sufficiently elegant and explanatory, it does not need to be tested experimentally. Many would argue that this breaks centuries of philosophical tradition in science, and even counters the basis of science itself – Karl Popper would no doubt have an issue with the falsifiability of this physics. The argument from the theorists is that ideas like string theory and the multiverse are the “only games in town” when it comes to explaining deep questions that we have about the universe, such as pre-Big Bang physics and the hunt for a Theory Of Everything. In addition, some argue that both of the theories are inherently untestable anyway, for example some parts of string theory rely on the existence of extra dimensions that a human could never hope to observe[4], and the “many-worlds” hypothesis poses a similar problem.

It’s for reasons like these that scientists look to the elegancy of the theory to discern its validity, rather than its ability to be empirically proven.  But most of those at the research level would not like this to become a running trend – when all that is required to claim that your theory is valid is elegancy and the lack of any other significant theory in the field, theoretical physics risks falling so far away from anything testable in the real world that it would become almost pointless in the first place, let alone alienate an already distrusting public. The image of several hair-brained theoreticians sitting in a dark room concocting a mathematical framework of something that doesn’t further our understanding of the real world is not one that science needs. When there are no limitations to what you can theorize and call science, you eventually end up with bad science, and in turn a bad image of science. From this viewpoint, it is clear the rife sensationalism of things like multiverse and string theory in the media is not just the fault of the media, but of the scientists as well.

In the end it is down to science to police itself. There is no doubt that the most ambitious modern science can seem at odds with the empiricality that has historically given the field its credibility, and that this often creates friction between the worlds of science and journalism. Despite this, many accept that to quell a sceptical media science must sort out the problems it faces from within. Without tackling the problems that peer-review and theoretical physics present, for example, public perception of science will surely take a turn for the worse. That is not to say, however, that it is totally the fault of science. Science media coverage will always look to seek out and expose sensational stories, and it is down to scientists to try and combat this. It is when they allow sensationalism and spin to happen for the sake of notoriety and funding that the problem only gets worse – misrepresentation of science eventually hurts its public image in the long run, even if the initial boon is tempting. In reality, the blame cannot be laid solely upon science, the media or the public – and one promising outlook is that an increase science sensationalism can only mean an increase in the interest in science in general. Even if the science that is being consumed is likely to be sensationalist.

References

[1] http://scitation.aip.org/content/aip/magazine/physicstoday/news/10.1063/PT.5.8119

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-h-bailey/scientific-research_b_3340682.html

[3] http://www.nature.com/news/nobel-laureate-challenges-psychologists-to-clean-up-their-act-1.11535

[4] http://www.nature.com/news/scientific-method-defend-the-integrity-of-physics-1.16535

[5] http://backreaction.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/post-empirical-science-is-oxymoron.html

 

Is sensationalism in the media creating public distrust in science?

The problems with the STEM shortage

Everyone seems to be talking about a worsening shortage of professionals qualified in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). Conversely, the number of STEM graduates is increasing, and a lot of them are slow to get into work. Andrew Clayton explores why this is the case.

The Government and media have, for a few years now, been warning of the impending skills crisis that the UK faces in science, technology, engineering and maths. In 2014, a report by The Campaign for Science and Engineering highlighted that there was a 40,000 annual shortfall of skilled STEM workers. Other estimates put it even higher, with a 55,000 yearly deficit in skilled engineers alone. However, despite a dip in the mid-2000s, statistics from the Higher Education Funding Council for England show the number of students enrolled on STEM undergraduate courses rose by 17,000, or 6%, between 2002 and 2013. Furthermore, between 2010 and 2015, there has been an increase in those taking ‘core’ A Level subjects, including a 20% increase in those taking mathematics. This is possibly, at least in part, down to efforts by the Government and industry to avert crisis by launching new STEM career inspiring initiatives such as the Your Life campaign, which encourages students to take Maths and Physics at A Level. But despite these recent trends, the shortages are set to continue.

One of the main arguments for the shortages is that those with STEM degrees often do not pursue careers where their technical knowledge is needed as opposed careers where to ‘transferable skills’, such as numeracy and problem solving , are valued instead. According to a 2012 study by the Institute of Physics, between 2006 and 2010, 18% of 516 physics graduate respondents were employed in the financial sector after one year. One of the reasons for this may be that STEM relevant graduate jobs tend to pay wages of around £25,000. Although this is higher than the average graduate salaries of other disciplines, some sectors outside STEM can pay considerably more. In November I received an email from the job advertising site GradQuiz, suggesting I could earn a graduate salary of around £30,000 as a Graduate Policy Advisor at HM Treasury. Although I have no personal interest in sectors outside STEM, the tendency of graduates to follow the money is hardly surprising considering the huge amounts of student debt placed on undergraduates, particularly since the new fee regime was introduced in 2012.

However, graduates leaving the STEM market should surely reduce the competition for graduates wanting to go into technical careers, yet many STEM graduates are slow to get into work, with a 6.4% unemployment rate after one year for physics graduates between 2006 and 2010. A factor to consider is where the shortages are within industry. The larger companies with well-publicised graduate schemes and large recruitment departments can afford to be selective with the graduates they take on. These companies, which are often sighted at university and national careers fairs, have multiple filtering systems that guarantee they get the ‘ideal’ candidates. Having myself applied for several such schemes, I can confirm that even before the first round of interviews, some companies pre-emptively rule out anyone without/not predicted a minimum of an upper second class honours degree, require applicants to complete online psychometric testing, and attend challenging evaluation days where candidates’ traits, including group work and communication skills, are meticulously scrutinised.

Conversely, other companies rely on recruiting a workforce that possesses more specific skills or relevant experience. Although graduates hold the relevant degree, it rarely means they have the level of skill necessary to do a particular job without further training. This recruitment method is understandable for smaller firms and new start-ups, which simply do not have the workforce or resources to run such training schemes. These smaller companies can also face the problem of having more specific, poorly understood product areas, and can often be located in far out rural areas that just don’t really appeal to aspiring professionals looking to get stuck into careers that have real prospects – big promotions just aren’t possible in small firms.

So, the solutions seem simple enough. Companies that struggle to find candidates need to advertise appropriately and provide better incentives to their target applicants. If they haven’t already, the companies that have the resources should be investing more in training schemes, and stop having the unrealistic expectations that applicants will already have the exact skills required. I also believe that graduates should keep realistic expectations as well, as the chances of getting on a graduate scheme with a major company are slim. Graduate job finding sites such as GradQuiz and Gradcracker are great to publicise graduate schemes from leading companies that ultimately generate far more applicants than places, and should not be solely relied on. Instead, graduates need to take a more proactive role in finding relevant roles, such as applying to smaller companies, which most people will have probably never heard of, that do similar work. Diversification is also key. Graduates should not be afraid to go into roles that aren’t exactly want they want in the long term in order to gain experience in the industry. It is also far more favourable to internally apply for a preferred role that may come up in the future if already employed in a related role within the same company.

However, if the UK really is haemorrhaging scientists and engineers at the estimated rates, simply finding jobs for existing graduates more easily won’t do much in the long term. The increasing number of STEM students should help, and George Osborne’s recent budget is certainly on the right track. Indeed, the Chancellor’s 2015 spending review which came out in November not only protects the Government’s annual £4.7 billion science budget in real terms, but also specifically addresses STEM issue. The main points are that from the academic year 2017-2018, tuition loans will be extended for all STEM students wishing to do a second degree, and over £1.3 billion in funding is to attract new teachers to the profession, with a particular emphasis on STEM subjects. This will hopefully lead to better quality and more specialised graduates being produced. Government investment in apprenticeships is also set to double from 2010-2011 levels by 2020, which will in turn help the smaller companies and new start-ups develop the vocational skills they really need.

Overall, I believe that the STEM shortage is certainly real and needs to be addressed on a national, industrial and personal scale. What has been done so far and what is set to be implemented in the future will no doubt help the situation, but no one should expect everything to be done for them. Every party must play a proactive role if a long term balance is ever to be redressed.

The problems with the STEM shortage

Bridging the gap

Jamie Spurgeon

With the popularity of physics related degrees steadily increasing year on year, it is important now more than ever that schools are doing their best to prepare students for one of the more challenging degree options. So the question is what should a physics A-Level aim to achieve in this regard? This can be broken down into two main areas; firstly creating a strong level of understanding and knowledge of the core concepts of physics, and secondly, fostering a sense of intrigue and passion for the subject which will inspire students to further their studies. These two areas feed into each other and are both crucially important in developing future generations of physicists. Unfortunately the physics A-Level falls short in both of these areas and some change is due in order to improve the situation.

Understanding and knowledge

Physics can be a very difficult subject and many students struggle to grasp the concepts. Without a solid foundation in the basics of the subject it can become very frustrating and demotivating. The recent trend of declining mathematical content within the physics A-Level is creating a big problem in this regard. It is not hard to see the benefits of reducing the maths – there has been a push in recent years to attract more students to STEM subjects such as physics at A-Level and without the somewhat daunting barrier of maths, more students will be inclined to continue studying the subject. However those students who are swayed by this are not those who will go on to study physics at the undergraduate level. And further to this it penalises those students who do want to study it further. Mathematics is the language of physics. Physics students need to get used to the idea that physics and maths go hand in hand, and this process of estrangement often leads to a shock at the university level where the first year is in some respects spent assimilating the two the subjects back together.

Another problem which can be applied to a broad spectrum of subjects right through from GCSEs to universities, is the exam focussed culture we have in our education system. Examinations are a convenient way for schools to monitor progress and categorise their students’ skill levels, but are they the best suited to improving the students’ knowledge? Preparation for an exam is one of the most stressful periods for young people as their future is reduced down to how they will perform in a brief window. Exam preparation can be a hard skill to master and many students find themselves ‘cramming’ as much information as possible as the exams draw closer. This can be detrimental in the long run as most of this information is committed to the short term memory and will be quickly forgotten once the exam has passed. The exam as a form of assessment is something that is almost entirely isolated to the school system and does little service in preparing students for challenges and assessments they will face in work and other areas in life. The alternative to this is continuous assessment; coursework, essays, presentations etc. which promote interdisciplinary skills such as team-working and communication whilst continually building on students’ previous knowledge. The strong focus on exams has created a worrying cognitive shift on the very purpose of school itself; teachers are under pressure to extract the best results out of their students as it reflects on their own performance, rather than their primary focus being on giving their students the best possible education.

Intrigue and Passion

Physics is a subject that requires a great degree of personal motivation in order to overcome the frequent challenges it poses. This motivation often comes from a deep seated urge to uncover and understand the mysteries of how our universe works and this ethos should be consistently present in the teaching environment.

Understanding many of the concepts in physics requires more than just being taught; it comes from self-discovery and experience. In some respects this has been achieved, especially through the use of practical lab work which, aside from improving experimental skills, helps bring to life theory that can often be dry and difficult to visualise. However, the lab work often comes in the form of a pre prescribed task, which doesn’t involve a huge degree of critical thinking from the students. It would be interesting to see if the inclusion of brainstorming sessions where the students, with some guidance, develop their own method to test the theories they have learnt. This would allow them to inject some creativity into the subject which can be a rare and undervalued opportunity in the study of physics.

From personal experience, some of the most impacting moments of school took place during field trips and, upon reaching A-Level, I was very excited to see where we would be travelling to. However, whilst humanities students had an abundance of trips lined up, including trips abroad, the science department remained very much grounded in the classroom with no opportunity to make that important connection between science and the real world. When you are able to see the things that you have learned being applied to life outside the classroom, you are provided with the inspiration to one day contribute to the world of physics.

To think that all of the ideas put forward here can be simultaneously utilised would be idealistic and naïve. In the real world where teaching is limited by budgeting and time constraints, it simply is not possible. Like all things in life there is a balance to be found. Nonetheless it is still important to bring light to these issues and explore ways in which our curriculum and pedagogy can be enhanced and refocused on the students’ needs. After having graduated from school, many students never look back and reflect on how the system can be changed, leaving it to those already involved in education to look after it. Perhaps if more voices were heard and opinions shared then the change we need would be realised.

Bridging the gap

Wooing the Public: The Potential Dangers of Pseudoscience

Profiting from pseudoscience is a disturbing consequence of scientific advancement. Jonathan Hodson asks if it’s damaging for science, and, if so, what can be done about it?

As a physicist, hearing the phrase ‘quantum healing’ probably makes you cringe. A troubling side-effect of the complexity of quantum physics is that its terminology is exploited to sell questionable concepts to the public. Of course, most of the time this is completely harmless. You have probably seen the ‘quantum mechanics can do anything’ trope in popular media where the word ‘quantum’ is used synonymously with ‘magic’. However, sometimes it can be damaging, both to people, and to science as a whole.

As science becomes more advanced, it becomes more difficult for the general public to understand. Phrases like ‘parallel universe’, ‘uncertainty principle’, ‘entanglement’ and the word ‘quantum’ itself are frequently used specifically to confuse the public. These ideas can be considered as being ‘odd’ and counter-intuitive, opening up space for interpretation that can be used to distort the facts, making quantum pseudoscience easy to sell to the public. The appropriation of these words also makes it difficult to argue against the peddlers of this pseudoscience, with them essentially ‘borrowing authority’ from actual experts.

Robert Lanza, a Professor from the United States specialising in stem-cell research, believes that he has proven the existence of an afterlife using quantum physics and ‘biocentrism’ – the idea that the universe only exists because our consciousness creates it. This idea, Lanza says, along with the multiverse theory, means that when we die we are reborn in another universe. He cites the double slit experiment to back up his claims, saying that photons behave differently when observed. This is obviously a complete misunderstanding of the observer effect, which does not require the ‘observer’ to be sentient for it to change the behaviour of a quantum particle.

Regardless, media outlets picked up on this story with gusto, trampling over the corpse of scientific rigour in their wake. Lanza’s concepts were reported to be linked to actual theoretical physicists’ ideas in an attempt to lend some weight to them, and journalists chose quotes based on their ability to sound intelligent without actually saying anything at all. For example; “Life is an adventure that transcends our ordinary linear way of thinking. When we die, we do so not in the random billiard-ball-matrix but in the inescapable-life-matrix.” All of this culminates in the distortion and corruption of science, and its misrepresentation to the public, and more worryingly, to politicians.

This worry stems from the fact that politicians have control over the funding for science, so their exposure to this ‘quantum woo’ can be detrimental to scientific advancement. If enough politicians were to subscribe to ideas like Lanza’s, funding could be directed away from useful research and funnelled into dead-end pseudoscience. Sadly, this is not just a hypothetical situation; there are still ongoing debates over whether to stop funding homeopathy as a part of the NHS.

Quantum quackery

However, the proliferation of pseudoscience isn’t just the fault of the media. Another much more harmful form of pseudoscience is propagated by people who stand to make a great deal of money from the public. Deepak Chopra, a former doctor, has written numerous books centred around ‘quantum healing’ as a form of alternative medicine, 21 of them becoming New York Times bestsellers. As of 2013, these books were netting Chopra around $8 million per year (Forbes) and had made him famous enough to be invited onto the Oprah Winfrey show and featured in ‘People’ magazine. All of this, including his 2.6 million twitter followers, shows that this particular brand of nonsense seems to be convincing enough for a very significant number of people to believe it.

This is alarming to say the least, since people might forgo traditional medicine to pursue pseudoscientific healing methods, especially if they are desperate. Chopra has been quoted as saying; “[W]hen all you do is prescribe medication, you start to feel like a legalized drug pusher. That doesn’t mean that all prescriptions are useless, but it is true that 80% of all drugs prescribed today are of optional or marginal benefit.” The reputation of science becomes a secondary concern at this point, since peoples’ lives could actually be in danger – it is worth remembering that even an informed person like Steve Jobs unsuccessfully attempted to allay the onset of cancer with alternative medicine.

What can we do about it?

Pseudoscience is a difficult thing to combat, especially when you consider that numerous surveys show that over 20% of Americans believe in astrology. It is also difficult to call out frauds, since most of them are unwilling to listen to conflicting points of view, and their superficial use of language makes accusations of quackery amount to threats of libel lawsuits.

The first step towards eliminating this quackery might be to include education in the scientific method and techniques for spotting pseudoscience in the school curriculum. This could include elements of how peer review works, scientific methodology, scientific writing, reliable information sourcing, and common scientific misconceptions. Students need to be made aware of the difficulties in actually discovering new science, and just how easy it is to be wrong. They should be able to question dubious claims made by the media or “professionals” which are cunningly disguised as facts.

There would be several benefits to this educational approach. Obviously it should stop as many people being taken advantage of, hopefully improving peoples’ confidence in real science, especially medicine, and stopping them from seeking inferior alternatives. It might also prevent people from latching on to reactionary articles that propagate conspiracy theories, such as those written by anti-vaccine advocates. Finally, it could be very valuable for students who want to continue in scientific study – the ability to spot fallacious reasoning or skewed data is very helpful in a scientific career, and I believe that the study of how science works in the ‘real world’ is underrepresented in the curriculum.

A second step in curbing the propagation of pseudoscience actually involves scientists themselves. Although you might not want to hear it, arrogance is widespread amongst scientists, and when confronted with outlandish theories, many of us are quick to mock. For many people, this would reinforce their suspicion of the scientific community and push them further towards ideas like Chopra’s. It is important not to dismiss these people as “loons” and instead try to educate them. Is it not understandable that they’d prefer to live in a world where treating their ailments is as simple as following some rules set out in one of Deepak Chopra’s books, rather than having to go through harrowing surgery or chemotherapy?

A large part of a scientist’s job is to communicate their knowledge to the public, and the public are much more likely to listen if the person explaining the science is friendly and approachable, and provides answers in a straightforward way. An effective way of doing this is through popular media. ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’ is a good example of a programme that helps the public to better understand science in an accessible way – more programming like this would go a long way in busting common science myths.

To conclude, it is clear that curbing the spread of scientific misinformation is very difficult. A lot of people will continue to believe in ideas like ‘quantum healing’ or astrology because it’s easier and perhaps more comforting for them to view the world this way. However, I believe that with a few changes to the school science curriculum, and a small change in scientists’ attitudes, we will prepare future generations to be more discerning of science that’s reported in the media and touted by dubious individuals.

Wooing the Public: The Potential Dangers of Pseudoscience

Corporate Interests in Science

Sam Irvine

Introduction

Currently in the UK most university research groups are typically publicly funded, as is most of the university system. Public budgets are under intense pressure with the ongoing financial crisis. As such, many universities are looking to court corporations to fund research relevant to that corporation’s interest. At first the benefits seem obvious, universities receive funding and the corporations receive the expertise of world class researchers in their respective fields. The extra funding will allow universities to reallocate funds, funding more than one research group and may be used to subsidise blue sky research. An area with mostly long term benefits and as such probably ignored by a profit driven body like a corporation.  In fact, the benefits may go much further than direct funding. Research groups may be given access to large data sets from previous studies they may not be able to recreate themselves. They may directly influence the development of new technologies and products, increasing the attractiveness and profile of the university. Finally, a university that can show many successful corporate partnerships will in turn attract more corporate partners and hence more funding and greater recognition. This is a facet becoming more and more important as universities need to compete with each other to justify their fees and attract new students. An important question to ask would be; should science stop worrying and learn to love big business?

Issues with Corporate Involvement in Science

There are many possible issues and pitfalls associated with corporate involvement in science. The aims of public science and corporations are very different as science is -nominally at least- based on openness and collaboration. Corporations conversely, are profit focused above all else. Openness and collaboration can in some cases drastically eat into the profitable nature of a venture, not least when patents are involved. Declaring results before obtaining a patent for the relevant innovation may allow rivals to poach the technology from underneath the corporation. Hence, some corporations request the results of scientific studies be kept secret, possibly indefinitely if the study casts doubt over the efficacy or safety of the product the corporation is investigating. There is a terrifying example of this from the pharmaceutical industry where safety is paramount and marginal gains in efficacy can have drastic consequences for a patient’s quality of life. The attempted suppression occurred in 1996 to Dr. Nancy Oliveri [1]. Oliveri identified an unexpected risk in a drug used to manage an inherited bone disorder.   When Oliveri attempted to warn patients and her colleagues, Apotex Inc. -the company behind the drug- prematurely cancelled the study and warned Oliveri that she would face legal action should the risks be disclosed to any third parties. Oliveri continued her analysis of the drug regardless and found a second more hazardous risk. Fortunately Oliveri ignored the further threats of legal action that followed this discovery to publish her results in a peer –reviewed journal. Oliveri was abandoned by her employing university and subject to intense criticisms from them and Apotex Inc. attempting to discredit her. Oliveri was finally vindicated in 2002 following a swathe of follow up studies confirming her results. Unfortunately the number of incidences of this suppression of results is hard to measure despite its worrying nature as it completely undermines the scientific principle of reporting all of your results.

So far, only the overt singular examples of undue corporate influence have been discussed. However, these are not the only way corporations may pervert the scientific process. Much more insidious are the quieter systemic effects, such as the continued blurring of the interests of big business and the public scientific interest as evidenced by the formation of the UK Department of Business, Innovation and Skills in 2009 from the merger of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform [2]. This means that business is consulted when government policy on universities is formulated. This leads to business interests influencing university directions and policy. This may not be in the public interest as while business will direct research to the commercialisable technologies, less commercialisable technologies may fall to the wayside along with blue sky research. A short-sighted view, as blue sky research has multiple hard-to-track economic benefits in and of itself, even if the potential economic benefits from future technologies are ignored.

Last but not least is the effect a close partnership with an unethical business may harm a universities reputation or the reputation of its research. The power and funding of a university is dependent on its reputation, well respected universities receiving more funding and hold more sway in public sciences and science debate. If this is compromised by a scandal such as the one that struck Oliveri the public may question the integrity of said institution, potentially limiting the student intake of the university as well as the funding available to it.

Addressing These Issues

How to address the power imbalance between universities and corporations? One could suggest completely banning corporate involvement in public science. A churlish response that would address the issue but hamstring the UK’s research and development apparatus. Instead what is required is a powerful regulatory framework to limit the effect of corporate influence on publicly funded research. The first step would be to separate the regulation of the two sectors as their differing aims and methods have already sparked conflict between researchers, universities and business. This framework needs to be able to limit the demands corporations can impose on universities such as limiting the amount of time results can be supressed for. I personally would completely ban any suppression of results but then few businesses would agree to a framework where they cannot patent any of the resulting technologies. Although, if public money is used to perform any research then I argue these results should eventually become public, if only so corporate claims can be effectively vetted. This will limit the growing use of university research departments for corporations and so it will inevitably limit the amount of corporate funding some universities receive. Hence, it needs to be assessed as to whether this is an acceptable loss to retain the university independence and maintain basic standards of trustworthiness and integrity.

Universities need to demand minimum ethical standards from the business they choose to associate with. Firstly to protect their own reputation but more importantly to just reassure the public and their own academic and student bodies that the university is trustworthy and ethical.

Conclusion

Corporate interests in science will not disappear any time soon despite concerns over their influence on public research. Instead a comprehensive discussion needs to be commenced on how to protect researchers and limit the undue influence some corporations may hold over their partner research groups. I recommend the implementation of a protective framework to universities and researchers from each other and corporate interests. Ultimately corporate funding is now a part of modern science, this partnership has the potential to flourish and deliver many new technologies to the world but care needs to be taken to ensure public money is used to for the public good, an aim that may not line up with corporate interests.

References

[1]Langley, Chris, and Stuart Parkinson. “Science and the corporate agenda.”Scientists for Global Responsibility. http://www. sgr. org. uk/publications/science-and-corporateagenda (2009).

[2]https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/department-for-business-innovation-skills/about [Accessed on 23/11/15]

 

 

Corporate Interests in Science

The Reality of the Search for Intelligence

Hinesh Charadva

For generations, man has gazed into the starry night sky scanning the stars and constellations, pondering the thought of whether we are alone in this vast universe and for the most part, believing that we on Earth are not alone. Finding intelligence or simple life forms is an imperative question to answer. Our views on our existence would inevitably shift knowing that we are not alone, not unique and actually part of a much bigger society. According to NASA there are approximately 8.8 billion habitable planets like Earth, orbiting a sun-like star in a goldilocks zone in our Milky Way alone. Since the 1960s SETI have searched for signals from intelligent life and digital information has been transmitted into space for alien explorers to discover. Unfortunately we have only been met with deafening silence. Is it possible to be the only intelligent life form in the entire galaxy?

Recently, NASA announced its discovery of liquid water flowing down steep relatively warm Martian surfaces. Using imaging spectrometers, researchers detected signatures of hydrated minerals on these slopes where the streaks were seen on the red planet. The first piece of evidence for water on Mars was found in 2000, where gullies discovered were suggested to have a liquid origin, but this has been debated for many years. NASA observations have indicated that rivers and oceans were prominent features in its early life. Billions of years ago Mars had been thought to have appropriate conditions for microbes to develop due to the amount of water present. However, as Mars is relatively small and with a weaker gravitational pull relative to Earth, it has been suggested that over time the liquid water had evaporated and escaped the atmosphere, leaving less water on the Mars surface and a less suitable condition for life to evolve.

Intelligent life forms do not spontaneously appear (apologies to creationists), but instead evolve over billions of years. The approximate age of the universe is 13 billion years and Earth formed roughly 4.6 billion years ago. After 500 million years, the Earth’s atmosphere begun to stabilise and slowly cool down to a suitable condition for life to exist. Fossil evidence suggests that life on Earth existed approximately 3.5 billion years ago, undergoing five mass extinctions caused by various factors such as sudden methane release and volcanic eruptions. The most famous mass extinction took place 65 million years ago, in which a 10km wide comet or asteroid smashed into the Earths rocky surface releasing energy equivalent to a billion nuclear bombs and wiping the dominant species, the dinosaurs. Steve Brusatte, a palaeontologist at Edinburgh University says that “if it wasn’t for that asteroid, then humans probably wouldn’t be here. It’s as simple as that”. We are indeed extremely fortunate that we exist, that organisms on Earth have survived five mass extinctions due to catastrophic natural hazards and continued to evolve over the years into intelligent life forms. This success story seems highly unlikely to occur regularly throughout space. If intelligence was common throughout the galaxy, we would probably find more evidence, for example on Mars, but it seems that intelligent existence is a scarce phenomenon.

The presence of intelligent life may be improbable, but it is not impossible and our existence is proof of that. Earthlings survived against the odds and a similar journey could have taken place elsewhere in the universe, we just haven’t discovered it yet. There could be an extra-terrestrial intelligence thousands of light years away pondering the same questions, asking itself, are we alone? But in this moment in time, as incredible as telescopes may be, they are not advanced enough to explore distant star systems in detail and find intelligence. Astronomers have broadcasted radio signals radially outwards for nearly 100 years, but the furthest distance it has reached due to attenuation is 70 light years, which is microscopic compared to our 100,000 light year wide galaxy. To quote Neil deGrasse Tyson “Life doesn’t exist anywhere but earth? That’s like filling a cup with ocean water and saying there aren’t any whales”. It would be greatly ignorant to suggest that we are alone in this universe based on the lack of evidence, we are only just getting started.

In January 2016, our search for intelligence continues as Yuri Milner funds the most extensive search for life yet, the Breakthrough initiatives project. This study will allow astronomers to eavesdrop on planets that orbit millions of the closest stars to Earth and up to a hundred nearby galaxies. The radio surveys will cover ten times more of the night sky than previous programmes and cover five times more of the radio spectrum. This project is backed by SETI founder Francis Drake and cosmologist Stephen Hawking amongst other profound astronomers. Hawking says “It’s time to commit to finding the answer, to search for life beyond Earth”. Breakthrough initiatives will not broadcast signals into space because the scientists on the project believe there is more to gain from listening than transmitting signals into the cosmos.

Although there has been a lack of success in our search for intelligent species, we have been successful in other areas. From looking far into the distance we have expanded our knowledge on various aspects of astronomy; from star systems to habitable planets and technological limits. However, the motivation to find alien life is not like any other research project, if successful, it would change the entire world’s perspective on life in similar ways as Darwin’s work did. The answer does not only apply to the astronomers studying the cosmos, the search for intelligence affects us all. In my own experience, my interest in physics was sparked by the idea of discovering alien life, I continued to read and watch documentaries related to astronomy and physics and as a result, I sit here writing an article near the end of my degree on the very same idea which ignited my interest physics. This is why I believe promoting projects like Breakthrough or SETI are extremely important, it is a captivating area of science which will not only continue to progress but also grasp the attention of younger generations, inspire and provoke thought amongst millions.

The presence of intelligence signifies a tremendous several billion year journey of evolution and survival. The existence of humans is down to the survival of very few life forms surviving mass extinctions and fundamentally the extinction of the dinosaurs. In my view, the reality of human existence, based on scientific evidence alone tells me that we are extremely lucky, through billions of years of life and death, eventually Earth became host to intelligent life.

Unfortunately, our search for alien life has been unsuccessful so far, but worth it. The search for intelligence is a motive to sweep the night sky, study and learn more about the cosmos, but not only will it benefit scientists, it will continue to inspire younger generations and bring the public closer to science. In an era where we are less dependent on religion and ancient myths, the search for intelligence can provide the answers we as a race have been looking for, it will shift the world’s perspective on the universe and ourselves, whether we are alone or not.

The Reality of the Search for Intelligence

Social media’s impact on scientific journalism

Anthony Whitfield

Communication between the academic world and the general populace has always been vital to both parties for a number of reasons, it builds public trust in the scientific community, allows the distribution of current research and can inspire ordinary people to become extraordinary scientists. Before the dawn of the information age, scientific research in the form of journal articles were translated into easily digestible reading by a select few scientific journalists. Their stories were then distributed into the public domain by a few select “classical networks”, for example news channels, newspapers and magazines. More recently the rise of the internet, and with it social media, has granted anyone the ability to distribute their own interpretations of current research across the globe. Is this a good thing? Could this lead to greater scientific productivity? Or will it simply lead to the mass distribution of misinformation?

There are a variety of social media networks such as: Facebook, twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and numerous blogging sites. These all allow anyone to spread the work they have produced to the general population. Classical networks also have an online presence. Most news channels will have a website and subscription magazines have online copies that can be read for a discounted price. While it is unlikely that social media will replace classical media as the sole provider of scientific news and the news in general, currently 30% of Americans use Facebook to acquire their news. A further 10% use YouTube and another 15% use their LinkedIn, Twitter or Google+ [1]. So almost half of the American population uses some form of social media to get their news, proving social media as a powerful news distribution platform. Based on a survey conducted in 2013 of all the Facebook users, 37% regularly see a news story about science and technology [1]. This means Facebook is supplying roughly 10% of the American people’s scientific news. It can only be assumed that this information is provided by a mix of purely digital news publicists and classical news networks.

A great example of a purely digital news publicists is IFL Science. IFL is a science and technology news service which has grown in popularity massively mainly due to its utilization of Facebook and twitter to increase its readership. Another example would be the YouTube video channel “In a Nutshell – Kurzgesagt”. They produce animated videos on mainly scientific topics such as the Fermi paradox, the video for which has massed slightly over 3.1 million views in 6 months.

Whether the content is produced by an independent digital news publicist or a classical news network, social media has greatly increased the speed and ease that their content can be accessed. Combined with the fact social media spreads this information for free (or be it with much lower costs than a magazine or newspaper) this greatly increases the readership of any information produced by either media type. New readers stumble across blogs, video channels and articles on their social media “newsfeeds”. This greater level of exposure is sure to lead to more people learning about current developments in the scientific community.

Although many independent digital news publicists create scientifically accurate work there are some who will spread misinformation. This can occur simply through poorly explaining something or through the manipulation of information so that it supports their personal views. Classical media is not as susceptible to this as they enforce stricter editorial measures and have larger teams of experts to help. They also tend to be more impartial and therefore write articles that look objectively at the research done. A classic example of misinformation spreading through the public domain is the results of a study [2] that appeared to show the MMR vaccine caused autism. The anti-vaccination movement were quick to seize this opportunity while the scientific community dismissed these results due to the small sample size. A multitude of larger more intensive studies were carried out which overwhelmingly showed there was no link between autism and the vaccine [3].

Yet the anti-vaccination movement continues and this could in part be due to independent digital news publicists such as “GreenMedinfo”. These sites look very professional and like many news sites have links to the journal articles their stories are based on. But this site also has strong anti-vaccination and anti-pharmaceutical stance.

I decided to find the original paper for one of these articles, which claimed “Coconut oil fights deadly yeast infections” [4]. On comparing with the original paper [5] it’s clear that the author of the “GreenMedinfo” article had manipulated what was said in the journal article to convey their own message.  Cutting quotes from the paper with hearsay in order to convince readers their points are equally valid, when in reality they are unsubstantiated. This shows how easy it is to create believable disinformation which can then distributed to the masses using social media. It is exactly how the myth that the MMR vaccination causes autism still persists, even though the original paper has been formally retracted. It can still be accessed and people use it to make their arguments sound credible. While failing to mention all the evidence against its findings and the flaws in the study itself.

Social media however has one form of defence against misinformation. The simple ability for anyone to comment on an article, share their views and ask questions. This allows people to read an article on a social media site and let everyone else know if they think it’s valid. A few people disagreeing is expected however if the overwhelming majority disagree and highlight flaws in the article then future readers may question the articles legitimacy as well. Many services such as IFL have begun using suggestions from the comments to correct there articles effectively peer reviewing everything that is published.

There are those, however, who seek to purposefully provide destructive criticism, hiding behind the anonymity that the internet provides. They are “trolls”. People who actively seek to slander other people work in order to anger the content creators, effectively bullying them until they cannot continue to create new articles or videos. They can be reported, their accounts can be banned but this rarely stops them. Many content creators have simply no choice but to try and ignore them.

The comments can also be used constructively, allowing debates to take place between readers and can be used to open a direct dialog between content authors and the readership. Something only achievable before through mailing the editor of the magazine or paper. This gets the public involved with science, and allows them the opportunity to learn even more than the article originally offered. For example, the recent black and blue or white and gold dress controversy was only discovered when people commented on the photo and realised they disagreed on the colours. This sparked a huge debate across social media, people asked why it was that people saw different colours. Quite remarkably the scientific community responded and answered there questions through various social medias and even classical medias. This created a whole host of new videos and articles on colour constancy and perception [6].

This goes to show that even though social media does help propagate some misinformation, the majority of the news relayed is legitimate. It has brought the public and scientific community closer together allowing ideas to be freely discussed between scientists, journalists and members of the public. Finally, questions asked by the public can be answered by the scientific community and then that information can be relayed back to the public far faster than ever before.

References

[1] Pew Research Centre, aivlablie at: http://www.journalism.org/2014/03/26/8-key-takeaways-about-social-media-and-news/

[2]Wakefield, a J., Murch, S. H., Anthony, a, Linnell, J., Casson, D. M., Malik, M., … Walker-Smith, J. a. (1998). Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. Lancet, 351, 637–641. http://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(97)11096-0

[3] Madsen, K. M., Hviid, A., Vestergaard, M., Schendel, D., Wohlfahrt, J., Thorsen, P., … Melbye, M. (2002). A Population-Based Study of Measles, Mumps, and Rubella Vaccination and Autism. New England Journal of Medicine, 347(19), 1477–1482. http://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMoa021134

[4] http://www.greenmedinfo.com/blog/coconut-oil-fights-deadly-yeast-infections-study-suggests

[5] “Manipulation of Host Diet To Reduce Gastrointestinal Colonization by the Opportunistic Pathogen Candida albicans” Kearney T. W. Gunsalus (ORCID)[a,b], Stephanie N. Tornberg-Belanger[b][*], Nirupa R. Matthan[c], Alice H. Lichtenstein[c], Carol A. Kumamoto[b]

[6] http://www.iflscience.com/brain/explaining-perceptions-dress

Social media’s impact on scientific journalism