Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Auntie Em joins the Fourth Estate (Part 1)

Day -5: I've just received a phone call from my editor (that still sounds incredibly strange... "my editor") Clive Cookson at the Financial Times. He's suggested an article that he wants me to write for an upcoming special edition on the environment and climate change. It's all starting to feel very real.

In a few days I will start my BA Media Fellowship at the Financial Times. Each year since 1987, the BA and assorted hosts give a handful of scientists the opportunity to spend a short time working in broadcast or print media. The lucky fellows get some hands-on experience of science communication to a wider audience. I'll be spending most of September on my placement, and will write about my experiences here.

Given that repeatedly watching "His Girl Friday" doesn't seem to be adequate preparation, I thought I'd prepare with an interview.

Emma Byrne, from the Financial Times interviews Emma Byrne of Middlesex University, about the BA Media Fellowship:

EB(FT) Why did you apply for this fellowship?
EB(MU) "I am, and always have been, passionate to the point of being anti-social, about science in general and Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Cognitive Science in particular. I have only just started to realise that this may make me slightly odd. I learnt a salutary lesson about this when trying to explain some of my research to a PR person who actively wanted to promote what we were doing. I found that I couldn't explain to her why "robots doing science" was exciting. I mean. to me it's quite obvious that "robots doing science" is exciting, but to other people it may be (at best) irrelevant or at least not as interesting as robot butlers and flying cars. At worst, the thought of robots doing science may seem more terrifying than GM foods and 'Grey Goo' combined. I was mortified that I didn't know how to communicate the awe that I feel to other people, or at least not in a way that would cause them to be awestruck too."

EB(FT) Isn't it more important to get on with the research, communicating with other scientists in related fields. Why take the time out to play writer for a month.
EB(MU) "You're right of course (and strangely attractive too, I notice). Time is short and my primary job is research. But if I can't answer the most basic questions about my work "why are you doing this?", "what do you hope to achieve" at a level that everyone can understand then I'm lacking an essential skill. Firstly, I'm paid for (at the moment) out of government research funds. People have a right to a better answer than "I'm not sure I could get you to understand" when they ask about work that they've paid for. That should apply to all civil servants by the way."

EB(FT) What do you want to communicate to people outside your field?
EB(MU) "Specific findings aside, I'd like to start with the fact that science is important - hugely, all pervasively important. The products of science have given us most the benefits and many of the calamities of the last couple of centuries and there is no sign of that changing. Many people who would die before admitting they'd not read Hamlet exult in their ignorance of, say, the evidence pertaining to the theory of evolution. This terrifies me. How can they join in the discussion about these great changes when they are proud to be on the periphery? We need to change the misconception of science as sterile, specialist and remote. At its best research is pursued out of joy and curiosity and passion and its results should belong to the whole of society.

"Secondly - I'd like to address the huge problem of "method blindness". No child should leave school without at least a rudimentary understanding of philosophy and the scientific method. We seem determined to instill in our children the idea that arguments from authority are ok. They're not: at best they're a handy shortcut when you don't have time to do the research yourself. We need to do some consciousness raising, to show people that in science the only authority is the data: not your supervisor, or the Nobel prize winner down the hall, or your priest/rabbi/imam, or your president or king. If the data contradicts them all, tough."

EB(FT) So will the FT be full of your pro-science polemic then?
EB(MU) "I should think not. I'm not sure what proportion of the FT audience suffers from method-blindness, but the FT has extremely good science coverage so the readers have plenty of scientific roughage in their diet. I hope to be turning out 400 - 800 word stories about topics of scientific interest. You may have noticed that I have a tendency to be somewhat unnecessarily circumlocutory, one might almost say I verge on the prolix from time to time. If one could get a word in edgeways, one might anyway. The discipline will be extremely good for me. Telling people: what is known; what is contentious; how we know the difference and why it's interesting, all on the back of a fag packet. So the next time someone asks me why robots doing science is cool, I will be able to give them an answer. In 400 words or less."

Emma Byrne (MU) becomes Emma Byrne (FT) for four weeks from the first of September.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Why I don't get American Politics

The two logos of Obama - one of these you may have seen, whilst the other looks a little bit like something in Revelation (allegedly).

First some context: In a giant leap backwards to the middle ages, millennial fever is big in the US. In a Gallup poll, 70% of respondents believed in the existence of the Devil. That number has been rising, from around 50% in the 1990s to around 68% in the 2000s[1].

70 million copies of the Left Behind books have been sold in the US. In these books a charismatic politician, Nicolae Carpathia becomes president of Romania due to his intelligence, charisma, knowledge of international affairs, sane-sounding policies to unite the world in peace. But wait! Nicolae Carpathia is none other than... the Antichrist.

There are already several odd people out there who are pushing the Obama/Carpathia "comparison".

Some seem to have genuine concerns which makes me want to take them by the hand and give them the history of millenial cults from Roman times till now.

Others deliberately use the comparison between an antichrist figure from popular novels and Obama, who was calling for peace and cooperation whilst in Berlin. And this is why I don't get American politics - the arguments aren't about who has the best plan for the economy, the successful ending of two overseas wars, the protection of US interests. No, it's about whether one of the nominees looks like a fictional Antichrist (I know - tautology).

Mike has (rightly) complained that I lumped him in with the sadly deluded. He and those like him know exactly what they're doing - they're using a specious comparison with a widely known hate figure to groundlessly tarnish a candidate in an election. "Look everyone - Obama is a successful politician. Carpathia was a successful politician (though fictional) and you wouldn't want to vote for someone like Carpathia would you. He was the Antichrist."

Mike's comparison is based on the fact that Obama seems to be, well, statesmanlike as far as I can tell. That he's had the audacity to visit countries outside the US, to be well educated, to speak foreign languages - these all, obviously, make Obama a bit dodgy. Not on their own, you understand, but if we can make success seem like a bad thing by tying the "Carpathia" tin-can to it's tail, well, let's just see that dog try to run now, eh?

If it were just the blogosphere that would be one thing. No-one on the internet has the duty to promote meaningful political debate. But the politicians themselves have a duty to campaign on issues that mean something to their constituents. Or so you'd think. But now the McCain camp has joined in the name calling and is blowing that dog whistle for all it's worth. A professionally made campaign video aired in the last few days was supposed to look like a satire (all be it of New Yorker Cover unfunniness). But with fonts and imagery taken directly from the Left Behind cover artwork, and a very odd choice of the old, barely used, not widely recognised Obama "presidential seal" logo, Time Magazine thinks there may be more to this than meets the eye:

"The seal, which features an eagle with wings spread, is not recognizable like the campaign's red-white-and-blue "O" logo. That confused Democratic consultant Eric Sapp until he went to his Bible and remembered that in the apocalyptic Book of Daniel, the Antichrist is described as rising from the sea as a creature with wings like an eagle."

"Mara Vanderslice, another Democratic consultant, who handled religious outreach for the 2004 Kerry campaign, agrees. 'If they wanted to be funny, if they really wanted to play up the idea that Obama thinks he's the Second Coming, there were better ways to do it'."

[1]Interestingly, the percentage of those polled who believed in the devil reached 68% in May 2001, before the 9/11 attacks. It has remained consistently high in the Gallup polls since that date.