Taking a break part 1

The blog is taking a break and will be back in about a month. In the meantime a few odds and sods to go along with. Part 2 later today.

The road to Damascus

Recently a Greenpeace anti-GM activist rather upset his Greenpeace colleagues by announcing at a farming conference that he had been utterly and tragically wrong on genetically modified organisms in food.

A really good quick summary of the events and the case are in Tony Jaques’ Managing Outcomes newsletter (May 15 2013 Vol 4 No 10) which can be found at www.issueoutcomes.com.au  As Tony says: “Mark Lynas was once an angry anti-corporate anarchist who wrote about the evils of GMOs; ripped up GM crops; attacked the GM company Monsanto; and helped organise a Mayday riot central London which smashed windows at McDonalds.” His arguments, and the response from Greenpeace, can be found at  http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/mar/09/mark-lynas-truth-treachery-gm  It must be said that Greenpeace, despite being a rather undemocratic multinational marketing business, didn’t react according to normal best practice in crisis management preferring to respond in a way which would have made Tony Abbott proud. GM debates are still complex but the reaction of Greenpeace says more about the organisation than it does about the complexity. Declaration of interest: The blog in a previous life helped clients confront Greenpeace and also promoted GM benefits.

Science reporting

It is moot whether science reporting is always a product of bad journalism or sometimes over-enthusiastic promotion of findings (made necessary by the demands on academics to promote their work) although generally speaking it is mainly bad journalism.

Much of the poor reporting is due to innumeracy which is regularly exploited by activists but much of it is also due to plain ignorance. Recently phsiscworld.com has tried to make it easier for journalists, and others, to get accurate information on scientific issues. It has established a site http://iop.msgfocus.com/q/1MGWWHW6uHAgmU/wv which provides simple answers to your scientific questions “by specialists in less than 100 seconds.” For instance if you want to know what fracking is, or how you recognise a penguin in a crowd the site is the best place to go. You can also find simple explanations of super symmetry (is there one), polymers, dark matter, the hunt for planets outside the solar system and lots lot more.

The site is another example of a phenomenon the blog has talked about before, and spoke about at the recent Mumbrella conference, where organisations are setting up alternative news sites to communicate directly to the public. Such sites can make journalists irrelevant or make them look very clever. Once again thanks to John Spitzer for forwarding the site details and information about the book cited below.

Neuroscience and marketing

Neuroscience is, to say the least, being drawn into many disciplines and activities and encouraging many to promote its profound implications for their work. For instance some marketers have been claiming that MRIs and EEG scans are helpful in assessing customer preferences.

There’s no doubt that it is very, very important and the s.xiest research area around at present. Descartes would have loved to have been around to watch it all unfold. But unfortunately we still don’t know that much and we are still unable to derive the sort of functional conclusions politicians, marketers, psychologists, philosophers, the media and others would love to be able to find. Recently Sally Satel and Scott D. Lilienfeld have published Brainwashed: the seductive appeal of mindless neuroscience which is a set of essays on “unproven or incorrect claims about the applications of neuroimaging.” The blog hasn’t read the book but a review by Charles Gross (www.sciencemag.org 28 June 2013) from Princeton’s Departments of Psychology and Neuroscience Institute, highlights much of the confusion in the area both in the popular mind and among scientists. The scientists don’t agree on the best directions for ‘neuroscience’, philosophers are struggling to keep up and may well be rendered irrelevant in the area and marketers may be better off sticking to focus groups.

Scientific social sciences

When the blog was younger he loved Isaac Asimov, particularly the Foundation series about what he called psychohistory which the series’ hero, Hari Seldon, uses to understand and predict large group behaviours. Much of the drama comes when things make the predictions go wrong and much of the later interest comes when he weaves together his Robot books and the Foundation series. All grand stuff.

Now, according to The Economist (February 23 2013) some social scientists are trying to do a Seldon if a bit more modestly. The annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) earlier in the year devoted a session to research into how data from mobile phones and social networks “might yield more modest patterns of predictability.”  Some of the people working in the field who presented include: Drs Song Chaoming and Alessandro Vespginani at Northeastern Universty at Boston; Boleslaw Szymanski at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; and Dr Dirk Helbing of the Swiss Federation Institute of Technology. The presentations covered: predicting probably locations at any point in the day from mobile phone usage (between 80% and 93% accuracy); epidemiological predictions about the spread of viruses; how societies change their collective minds; and even steps towards a general computer model of society.

With his collective mind changing model Szymanski can predict the point at which a committed minority (just under 10%) can convert almost everyone else. So far it works as a model only so communicators should try to avoid being too ecstatic too early but he hopes the insights might be able to applied in the real world. Come to think of it Isaac Asimov also wrote a short story about exactly that process – starting with a social scientist’s formula which, when used with a women’s group, gets them taking over the country.