While I put way too much effort into becoming a journalist to share all of our secrets with you, I do have a few odds and ends from my experiences that the general public (or the five people who manage to find this blog) might be interested to know. 1. Headlines: The people who write the stories don't always write the headlines. Writing a simple, eye-catching headline is a special skill (one that I find embarrassingly difficult) and sometimes it takes some outside help to get it right. A consequence of this collaboration is that, on occasion, the headline doesn't really represent the story. Please keep this in mind next time you rip a writer apart in the comments for a misleading hed. (Still point out the deception by all means, just temper the personal attack.)2. For Interviewees: The relationship between a writer and their sources is vital to the writer's survival. Yet somehow, it feels much scarier being a source. If you ever find yourself in this position, there are a few things that I think it would be good for you to know.
3. Sex Ratio: SHERP (my grad program) has had 31 classes. The gender ratio is about 75% women. While science journalism generally caters to a male audience, it is a profession chock-full of the opposite sex.4. Quoting versus Paraphrasing: In journalism (again, not press releases), if there are quotation marks around a phrase or sentence, it should be a quotation. In some cases, journalists will cut out um's, uh's, like's, y'know's, and other filler words and stutters but there should not be any rearranging or word replacement. If a writer feels the need to make those kinds of alterations, they should take the quotation marks away. (It's good to note here that Q&A's, which often leave off the quotation marks, are generally paraphrased.5. Magazine versus Newspaper Scheduling: How many times have you picked up a science magazine and read stories you already knew about? Probably too often. The problem here is that stories for monthly magazines are usually pitched about half a year before they appear on newsstands. It takes that long to check the viability of the story, interview sources, and then write, edit, copy edit, fact check, proof-read, and print it. Because of their fast turnaround, newspapers are not always fact-checked. Neither are most books (think James Frey). I don't know the reason for that one...
- If a writer is going to grant a source anonymity, it has to be for a very good reason. You can ask for it, but it (generally) is hard to get.
- Sources are not friends. This can be a difficult rule to keep but it must be done so that a journalist can tell the story in a fair and professional way. (On the rare occasion that sources are someone near and/or dear, a journalist should disclose that.)
- Journalists do not like (and are sometimes prevented from) giving quote approval. This isn't -- or shouldn't be -- because we want to make people look bad. It's because sources should not have the power to alter the story. In some cases journalists will allow their sources to check their quotes for factual accuracy but they should make it clear that the source has no power to actually change anything. (FYI: Press officers -- the people who write press releases -- are a different story.)
- Stories are killed every day in all steps of the process. Until you see the story in print, there is no assurance that it worked out. So, if you are super excited to show up in a future piece, be aware that it is not yet a sure thing. (In the case of some internet stories, it may even disappear after it's been published.)
In some parts of East Midtown, the Empire State Building was our best source of light.
Like many New Yorkers, I lost electricity and water as a result of Hurricane Sandy. Luckily, many wonderful people took me in and I was never in any real danger or dire need. In consideration of the big picture, what I went through was only a minor inconvenience. Regardless, here is what it taught me:
1. People here didn't believe we would lose power.
My area of Manhattan isn't notably special but we were smug enough to think the city would do anything to keep our power on. Hence, the scramble for hurricane-unfriendly foods at my supermarket. While I was stocking up on water and granola, my fellow shoppers decimated shelves of eggs, raw chicken, and ice cream. I'm all for a pitch black ice cream binge but I'll pass on the salmonella. My hypothesis? The impeding lack of delivery food was a much more convincing threat than possible powerlessness.
Moving out of the powerless and waterless West Side.
2. New Yorkers seem to have something against stairs.
Even when Sandy was whistling outside, the hum of our elevator continued. First thing I did when the power went out was take my flashlight into our horror movie of a hallway and knock on the elevator door to check if anyone was stuck on our floor. (No one was.) Additional fun: my building has two stairwells but only one goes to the lobby. The other leads its victims into a labyrinth of other stairwells. Wonder how many of my poor neighbors learned that the hard way...Should I go check down there?
3. Plumbing does strange things during hurricanes.
When power went out at my apartment (I was one of the neighborhoods affected by the blown transformer
at 14th Street) my roommate and I turned our attention to the sounds of the hurricane...coming from our sink. It gurgled and howled throughout the night and we have no clue why. Also, the water in the toilet bowel swayed. My subsequent Googling has offered no explanations.
Webistas (n.): people who surround Starbucks to get their internet fix during blackouts.
4. Starbucks is always popular.
As I migrated to my first refuge in the West Side, I noticed a strange abundance of people gathered around closed Starbucks. (Starbuckses???) These people were always pressed right up against the windows and while using their phones. Only later did someone explain to me that these people were scavenging internet from our well-known Grand Poobah of free wi-fi.
5. Get a power strip and go to an ATM vestibule.
For some reason, many vestibules have easily accessible power outlets in them. Add that to the geniuses carrying around power strips and you get: everyone's BFF
The other day someone recommended that I write about the connection between iced tea and kidney stones. These painful deposits of minerals and salt that form in the urinary tract are of particular interest to me because I am the daughter of a 10-time kidney stone
sufferer. As soon as I started Googling about for more information on my possible story, I saw that my curiosity had company. Articles all over the web were citing a new study that said iced tea drinkers are at an increased risk for this painful ailment.
Unfortunately, that study everyone was so hyped about doesn't exist.
It all started with a Loyola University
news release. In it Dr. John Milner, a urologist and an assistant professor in Department of Urology at the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, warns that iced tea contains high levels of oxalate* (a chemical known to cause calcium stones, which are the most common type of kidney stone) and that, therefore, drinking a lot of iced tea might increase an individual's risk of developing kidney stones. (In case you're wondering: Dr. Milner went on to say in the release that hot tea -- which also contains oxalate -- is less of a concern merely because people in the U.S. don't consume as much of it as they do its iced counterpart.)
All together the information in the release was pretty interesting stuff and I actually learned a lot from it. What I didn't learn was why Loyola University wrote it. So I did what I would think most journalists would do and I called the press office (the phone number for which was conveniently located at the top of the news release). I spoke with one of the media relations people and asked whether there was a study attached to this release or if it was just a helpful tip. I was told it was the latter and we said our goodbyes. That call of less than 2 minutes killed my story and gave life to this blog post.
As a reader of science journalism you deserve to know that it is (regrettably) common for reporters to rewrite press releases without doing any additional reporting. Sometimes it's as blatant as cut-and-paste, other times it's more subtle, like using a expert's quotation** from a press release while neglecting to mention that you never actually spoke with the expert.*** These things are frowned upon by many journalists but seem to survive thanks to the high demand for quick turnarounds in science news. But are journalists really earning their keep if they are just copying another person's work?
What's worse about the particular case I've outlined here is that it wasn't just deception, it was a lie (albeit probably an unintentional one). Although there has been research
questioning the link between kidney stones and iced tea in the past, the science hasn't been conclusive and there was no new study about this topic. And yet, this place
and this place
and this place
said there was. Maybe they read something I didn't...or maybe I just spent an extra two minutes on the phone.
You may be shocked by this fact fabrication but it's not uncommon. When deadlines are flying by and the pressure to produce is at full force, accidents are bound to happen. In other words: don't make the writers of the articles I've cited here into scapegoats, look at the bigger picture.
Press release dependence isn't going anywhere, neither is it's instigator, publishing pressure. So long as they exist, mistakes (like made up studies) will happen. That doesn't mean we can't do something about it. As a journalist I can make sure I don't end up having a PR person ghostwrite for me. As a reader, you can protect yourself from ramshackle reporting. Here's how:
- Look up the studies you read about in the scientific literature. (I know, when pigs fly.)
- Read other articles about the studies. Do they have conflicting facts? Do they have disturbingly identical facts? Yes to this second question means the writers just cut-and-pasted the press release (or that it's a syndicated piece from the same writer, which is perfectly acceptable -- don't go crazy until you compare the bylines).
- If you're reading an article all about one study: Does the article tell you anything about the study besides the fact that it exists? (For example: Does it say who the participants were, how many people were involved, what happened during the study?) If the article you are reading is about one single study, it makes sense that the writer would include the most basic facts about that study. If these aren't present you might be looking at another case of press release = study.
I don't like calling out other journalists and I don't intend to make a habit of it but saying there is a study when there isn't is a BIG deal. Hopefully these writers will present me with some study I overlooked and I can just be ashamed that I've been a big jerk. If not -- and that scenario does seem unlikely -- I can at least pretend that someone will learn something from this post and that journalism will be a little better for it.*Oxalate can also be found in spinach, nuts, chocolate, and many other foods and drinks.
**If you want to all proper about it: "Quote" is a verb, "quotation" is a noun. Mind blown? Courtesy of my UCSD writing lecturer, Dr. Madeleine Picciotto.
***If a journalist does use a canned quote (one from a press release), they should say it. Ex: "I can't believe this blog post is ridiculous enough to have footnotes," said Dr. Scienceperson in a press release.
[Author note from 8/28/2012: Some readers have noted a couple of grammar errors in this piece which I have happily fixed. I mistakenly used a "your" where a "you're" should have been and "altogether" instead of "all together." Thanks for looking out and I apologize to all you grammar lovers out there.]
My classmate and I were absolutely terrified.
Like any self-respecting science nerd early Monday morning, I was giddily awaiting the landing of Curiosity
. Unlike most, I was doing so in Times Square, where NASA reserved two screens just for the the special occasion. While the landing was a non-smashing success, my own adventure was quite the opposite.
Tired from a day of walking, I chose to take the subway to the Seven Minutes of Terror
event -- something I rarely do and may not do again for sometime. I nearly boarded a train in the wrong direction, thus losing $2.50, and while crossing the street to the correct subway, I nudged some piece of sidewalk who-knows-what.
Actually, I know what. Lucky, me I decided to look back at what I'd toed and saw -- wait for it -- a dead rat.
Let's play spot the NASA logo.
After laughing off the trauma as I waited for my (correct) train, I made it to Times Square around 11:30pm (Sunday night). I met a classmate who was up to some proper reporting
and reserved our spot for the big show. And by big, I actually mean disappointingly tiny. The two screens used by NASA looked, together, less than a fifth of the size of American Eagles' display and not nearly as absorbing. (After all, no one at NASA was dancing around in their underwear. At least, not that I saw...)
When I first arrived, there was a subtle hum about Mars and lasers and alien life drifting through the crowd. But mostly there were people navigating the slippery TKTS stairs, taking group photos in foam Liberty hats, and gawking at themselves on one truly massive screen that reflected the square below it.
By 1:00am on Monday -- around 30 minutes to touchdown -- the stairs had closed, many Mars fans had retired their squints, and even the American Eagle sign had posted away messages.
A well-deserved celebration.
Lucky for us, a NASA cameraman informed my friend and I when the Seven Minutes of Terror officially began (on Mars time, about 14 minutes ahead of us according to him). We looked to the screen but it lost our attention well before the landing
and when historic Curiosity finally ended its 352 million mile journey, the watchers around us celebrated with a vague whoop. By that time, most of the Square stragglers found a digital dunk tank so all-absorbing that they missed the moment altogether. Even I just barely caught the first jumps and hugs of elation and, still, the joy was less than contagious.
My disappointment was thawed by footage of Mission Control's endless embraces as I weaved my way home through the crowd, many of whom continued to watch for the awe-inspiring moment that would signal the release of their collective gaze. I'm still unsure whether these people were unaware that Curiosity had landed or if they were in denial that such a landmark event could seem so subtle. But it was that belated attention -- sprinkled with the occasional smirk of vicarious accomplishment -- that assured me that the viewing was nearly a success.
In the end, my experience was small and I am due to address the bigger picture
: congratulations NASA, congratulations Curiosity, and sorry dead rat, I didn't mean to kick you.
Hello readers of Taylor’s blog! I’ll be your guest blogger today. A little about me: I’m currently in the
process of getting my Masters of Science degree at a well-respected institution. My thesis is based on
original scientific research and I consider myself a scientist.
Actually, that’s all I’ll say for now, because that’s all you need to know to answer my next question,
which is: if you had to draw me, what would I look like? Also consider, where am I standing? What am I
wearing? What am I doing?
(Take a moment to ponder this. I’ll wait. There are pictures of cats on the internet that require my
Ok, so let me guess: I was wearing a lab coat, wasn’t I? Maybe holding a pipette, standing in front of
fancy looking beakers and such? Oh, and I was probably a guy. With bad hair and maybe even a slightly
crazy facial expression.
Well, hate to break it to you, but you’re all wrong. (Gotcha!) Not just about me in particular, but about
the majority of scientists. As it turns out, the average public has a very specific view of “science”
and “scientists.” To investigate this phenomenon, researchers came up with the “Draw a Scientist Test”
(DAST), which is basically what I just asked you to do, except with pen and paper instead of solely your
imagination. (Like any good scientist, I’ll provide data to back up my claim – here’s an example of a DASTchecklist
But like I said, you were probably wrong about me and you’re not the only one. So let me break
down a couple common stereotypes about science and scientists. There are more misconceptions/
preconceptions than these, but since this is a blog post, not a dissertation, I’ll stick to a few basic ones:
1) Science is always conducted in a laboratory.
This isn’t true, for many reasons. For example, part of my research, the actual collecting samples part, is
conducted out at sea. (I didn’t mention that part, did I? Surprise!) In my field, ecology, data collection is
predominantly an outdoor activity. In fact, a lot of disciplines under the broad umbrella of “science” take
place outside a laboratory; the image of a scientist as someone wearing a lab coat and gazing pensively
through a microscope or expertly wielding a pipette applies to only a small portion of “scientists.” Even
then, I guarantee that those scientists don’t spend all their time in an actual laboratory. Which leads
me to a point that some of you may find depressing: most science takes place at a desk. I’m sorry to
dispel your illusions, but the majority of a scientists’ time is spent slogging through data. Consider my
life: every month, I spend maybe three days out in the field collecting samples with my lab, four days
sorting and identifying organisms (yes, I do use a microscope!) and the rest of the time working with
spreadsheets. In fact, I spend most of my time working with a huge data set collected over a couple
months back in 2010. That’s two YEARS ago and people are STILL working on it. Which leads me to the
2) Scientific tools are pipettes, microscopes, beakers, and other such “science-y” equipment.
Sure, this is partially true, but again, this only applies to specific disciplines and even they spend only a
minority of their time working with these tools. I spent one summer working on nutrient analysis, and
let me tell you, I felt super science-y in my lab coat, handling acid and such, using all kinds of “classic”
science equipment. But after one day in the lab, I’d have a bunch of data and I’d spend the rest of the
week (or month) analyzing that data. This becomes even more pronounced the higher up the academic
ladder you climb. My office mate (yes, I have an office, weeee!) recently commented that being in grad
school feels less like science and more like learning computer programs. That’s not far off the mark:
in the past year, I’ve had to learn four (count ‘em, FOUR) new programs to help me with mapping/
interpreting/analyzing data. I spend the majority of my time in front of my computer, using these
programs to (attempt to) transform my data into something meaningful.
This is where the magic happens.
Because what does raw data (collected with “science!” tools) actually mean? Nothing helpful, that’s for sure. Scientists spend most of their time on analysis
because those are the big questions. (“What does it all mean?!”) And although this analysis and interpretation most often occur outside
of a laboratory, using “non-traditional” science equipment, the general public has the image of scientists as laboratory-dwelling geniuses. Which brings me to the final (for this post, at least) preconception:
3) Scientists are only the elite; science is intimidating and a non-scientist couldn’t possibly understand it. Don’t even try.
Let me begin by saying that variations on this preconception are well established in the scientific education literature: “science” appears hard, cold, and very much out of reach for many people. This simply isn’t true, but the perceived
inaccessibly of science is extremely widespread and ultimately damaging: if we can’t get kids interested in science at a young age because they’re scared off, they’re going to miss out on something amazing. And it’s not just kids we need to worry – most members of the voting public have only a rudimentary (and often inaccurate) understanding of science. With the politicization of science and the debate over “policy-neutral science” (topics which are worthy of another blog post or twenty), being science-savvy is becoming a requirement for being a well-informed citizen.
But back to me: I truly believe that science can be for anybody and everybody can do science! Science is fun! (And you get to wear lab coats!)
For those of you who have been paying attention, right about now you may be thinking “Gee, mixed messages much? You just told me that science is boring computer work in an office and now you want me to believe it’s all a good time in a lab coat? You can’t have it both ways.” My answer is: Yes you can! It’s ALL science!
As it turns out, nature is incredibly complex and multifaceted (surprise!) and in order to investigate this complicated earth, we have a hundred different types of science and just as many types of scientists. Science is beakers and microscopes, but it’s also computer programs and spreadsheets, tromping through forests and spending months at sea. Science is all around us. And it takes all different disciplines (ecology, geology, physics, biochemistry, genetics, oceanography, etc. – I could literally fill pages with scientific disciplines and sub-disciplines) to make sense of what we see around us.
From my perspective, this third preconception exists because
of the first two preconceptions: most people simply aren’t cognizant of the fact that science is more
than beakers and lab coats and scientists are found in all kinds of places – in a lab, in the field, in a classroom, in an office building. Furthermore, while science used to be reserved for the “elite” (read: upwardly mobile white males), those days are pretty much gone. My program and my lab are dominated by women. (Of which I am one, surprise!) Institutions put a lot of effort into recruiting minority groups and outreach efforts are often designed specifically for underserved populations. These days, if you have a passion for science, there are endless opportunities to get involved, whether it’s through traditional classes and internships or through citizen science
projects. Science is much “friendlier” (for lack of a better term) than most people realize and most scientists are more than willing to reach out and demonstrate this.
So please, next time you meet a scientist, don’t ask “Where’s your lab coat?” (It gets old.) And don’t assume that if a person doesn’t work on what you
consider “science,” he or she isn’t a “real” scientist. (True story: during a community outreach activity, I had a kid tell me she wasn’t interested in hearing about my work in benthic invertebrate communities because she was only interested in “real” marine science: “like whales and stuff.” As if the only things going on in the ENTIRE OCEAN are whale-related.) Instead, ask about that person’s research, what he or she does during an average day. More often than not, the answer may surprise you.
- Your Friendly Neighborhood Scientist
A generic superhero drawn by my uncle [Image credit: TK]
This past weekend my uncle (really my dad's best friend -- whose initials also happen to be "TK") came to visit and we discussed the surprising amount of science he learned from comic books as a kid. Now, I'm not exactly a Comic-Con regular but I enjoy learning about fun ways to explain science. So, here are five superheroes who have taught young readers a thing or two about everything from ants to atoms.
(Proceed with caution
: It's really difficult to thoroughly research superheroes, so I depended on my uncle, my dad, and not-so-scholarly sources from the Internet to educate me. In other words, please send me a comment to let me know if I've messed something up royally. Also, this post is BY NO MEANS saying that any of these characters consistently feature quality science.)
1. Metal Men
: A group of robots who each represent -- and are made of -- a single metal. The characters were Gold, Iron, Lead, Platinum, and Tin.Lessons learned
: Each character took on features of their namesakes. Gold could be pounded very thin and was a good conductor, Iron was strong, Lead could stop radiation, Mercury could liquify (and was hot headed), and Platinum could stretch or flatten. As far as I can tell, Tin was rather useless. One Metal Men website
(which is fairly educational) quotes him as saying, "I turn to powder at 200 degrees centigrade but I'll do my best to be worthy of you all, if you'll give me a chance."
[Image credit: TK]
2. The Atom
: The Atom is a superhero who has the ability to shrink down to subatomic size while maintaining his usual mass. Therefore, he could be microscopic but still weigh as much as -- and have the strength of -- an average sized man. In at least one version of the character, the Atom also had an "atomic punch."Lessons learned
: There are things called "atoms
" that are really small. Mass
is determined by more than just size. Large amounts of energy can be produced by atomic (nuclear
: This superhero has the ability to embody any element found in the human body or any combination of those elements.Lessons learned
: Different elements have different properties and can be combined. Metamorpho also offers readers a glimpse of which elements
reside in the human body. (Here is some of what those elements
[Image credit: TK]
: I will assume you know who Superman is but I learned in some incarnations he only had his superpowers
under a yellow sun and that his super strength was due to the fact that Krypton's gravity was stronger than Earth's.Lessons learned
: There are different kinds of suns
can vary on different celestial bodies, and the sun
can serve as an energy source.
: Another small guy, like the Atom, he is able to shrink down to the size of an ant while maintaining strength proportional to his regular size.Lesson learned
: Ants are crazy strong
for their size.
*6. The Flash
: Again, you're probably familiar with this guy but he can get some extra credit for his ability to create sonic booms.Lesson learned
: Sonic booms
occur when an object moves through air faster than the speed of sound.
Got any more instances of superhero science? Let me hear about them in the comments section below.*I know, I cheated, there are six.
Apologies for the unintentional hiatus. I'm interning 30+ hours a week (at Women's Health Magazine), while also going to school, and surviving my first NYC heat wave. Now that I've also gotten through my requisite bi-yearly cold, I should be back to blogging!
[Image credit: Lynda Marchant]
Anthropology is the study of humans. At UC San Diego I majored in biological anthropology (also called physical anthropology) which, in short, is the study of human evolution and primates. There is also sociocultural anthropology (study of human society and culture) and paleontology (using a whip to recover ancient artifacts while dodging poisoned arrows and giant, oddly-spherical boulders).The following is a list of 5 things anyone interested in human evolution should know:
1. Evolution is not about perfection.
There is no end goal. Just because one species has taken on more mutations than another or seems more complex doesn't mean it's evolutionarily superior. Oftentimes a specific trait is advantageous at one point in time, then hurtful at another (humans' excellent ability to store calories
for example). Sometimes species seem to lose some of their complexity as they evolve (consider "blind" cavefish
). All in all, evolution is not interchangeable with a time line from worst to best.
2. There is no such thing as The Missing Link.
Contrary to the drawing on your witty t-shirt, the evolution of humans does not go 1) monkey 2) monkey/man thing 3) caveman 4) us. There aren't clear steps, evolution is gradual. For that reason we will never find that glorious half-ape, half-human creature that proves evolution to everyone. If you really want to hold on to your missing link, consider every individual hominin
a missing link because that's as close as your going to get.
3. "Survival of the fittest" is a ridiculous saying.
It's redundant. "Fitness" in evolution means the ability of an organism to survive and pass on its genes. Thus, this saying means "survival of an organism that is the best at surviving." (Also, my mom would never let me hear the end of it if I didn't take this opportunity to mention that, if you say "ATM machine," you are saying "Automatic Teller Machine machine.")
4. It is pronounced NeanderTAL, not NeanderTHAL.
I see that there is a "th" but it's a German word so it's pronounced like "t" is pronounced in English. Yes, I'm being an anthro-snob but if you want to speak Anthropologist, there you have it.
5. Chimps are not monkeys, neither are gorillas.
I know this is annoying to most people but it's an important distinction. Are you a monkey? I didn't think so (but if you are, give me a call because I would love to interview a monkey that reads). It's like believing a killer whale
is actually a whale -- not the worst thing in the world but a little irritating. Need help telling the difference? Apes (us, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans, gibbons, siamangs) don't have tails, whereas most monkeys do.
My dad using the pinhole camera.
Today, around 6:30 pm (PT), there was an annular solar eclipse in my part of California. You can read the science behind the "ring of fire" just about anywhere. (Here's something quick from Huffington Post Science
if you can't stand to wait.) What I'd rather talk about here is the fun you can have with eclipses because I -- at 23-years-old -- just found out about that myself.
My dad and I were outside with the usual eclipse essentials: a homemade pinhole camera
and five pairs of polarized sunglasses stacked together like a modern art sculpture. As a result, we could see either a tiny version of the eclipse or a blurry one.
Tree shadows on our neighbor's house.
Then, as I was heading inside to assemble the rest of our family, I glimpsed our tree's shadows and wondered out loud, "Do they always look like that?"
On the pavement, on fences, and neighbor's garages, the leaves of our front yard foliage had transformed into thousands upon thousands of eclipses, scattered about like hole punch refuse on New Year's Eve. (At least that's what my family used for confetti.)
While taking pictures of this, I saw the trees weren't alone. The tips of my hair looked as though they bent back on themselves, my hands looked like claws. This realization prompted my dad and I to begin a giddy session of posing and bending. My dad's hands lost digits while my wrists all but disappeared.
My best werewolf impression.
Making a pinhole with his hand = hold and eclipse in his shadow!
Count the fingers!
You can see a bit of our sunglasses collection here.
It seems silly now -- it actually felt pretty silly at the time -- but it was a whole new way for us to engage in what we thought was typical front yard astronomy. And it wasn't just new for us. We shared our shadow play with our neighbors, meeting some of them for the first time in the process. That specific part of our eclipse experience is what inspired me to share it with you.
So, welcome to the neighborhood and happy eclipsing!