Science touches our lives, daily. But far too many scientific concepts and terms are misunderstood and used incorrectly. Even those of us wearing a “scientist” badge sometimes misappropriate terms, which can act to reproduce the misuse.
A basic level of science literacy is so important for all of us. Why? So that when bombarded with comments about vaccination or climate change on a social media site, we are able to sift through the jargon, understand what’s correct and what is not correct, and make decision based in facts vs. internet gossip. With just a bit of knowledge of basic science terms, you are better protected against deception and you’ll know how to sort facts from fiction.
Here are a few general science terms that are commonly misunderstood and misused.
Have you read last week’s breaking story about the microbiome of the human placenta? Wait, stop, don’t run away to Google it! I’ll tell you all about it – this is a science blog, remember?
I’m asking because as I started reading about the topic in preparation for writing this blog post, I noticed two things. First, as a science writer who tries to stay well-connected with what’s going on in the world of biology research, it would have been nearly impossible for me to avoid this story. I get eight or nine daily digest emails from scientific publications every day, and I think over the course of last week, every single one came with a headline related to the placenta study. (Of course, I read them all. And the Nature study they were based on.)
Second, I noticed that each story I read had a slightly different angle on covering the research. As scientists, we like to believe that science is, well, just science. It’s factual. We pore over the data and reach a conclusion. If we aren’t sure of something, we search the journals. The story, if there is one, is about methods and controls, protocols and reagent quality. However, when information about that research is communicated broadly, outside of the journals, we can get a different impression based on how the author frames their article. Continue reading ““The Human Placenta,” or “Why I Love Science Writing””
We have published 130 blogs here at Promega this year (not including this one). I diligently reviewed every single one and compiled a list of the best 8.5%, then asked my coworkers to vote on the top 5 out of that subset. Here are their picks:
As a first-year grad student, I was so excited to start my thesis work. I brainstormed to make a list of experiments to try and then discussed them with one of the senior grad students in the lab. As I enthusiastically explained the goals of my experiments and what I was planning, he gave me a strange look. Puzzled, I asked for some feedback. He told me that, while these were good ideas, almost all of them had been published. Hence, my first lesson learned from grad school: immerse yourself in the field by reading relevant papers and then plan some innovative experiments to move forward. It’s critical to have a deep knowledge of your field of study—not just to be a good grad student, but to see what is being done and then build on it, or take a totally different approach to innovate.
Reading papers is a big part of keeping up with the latest research. And attending conferences can give you a sense of current work before it’s published. However, I’m sure that, at least once, you’ve heard a cool talk at a conference and then quite a while later, haven’t seen the corresponding paper (so that you can read about all the ins and outs of what they did!). Why would this be? They may have been discussing the data early on in their project. Or perhaps they submitted a manuscript and the review/publishing process is taking a long time. Maybe the data were so surprising that they felt they needed to do a lot of follow-up work to support their conclusions. Or maybe their PI takes forever to write/comment on manuscripts. Etc.
The sooner that you can find out what is going on in a field, the sooner you can design smart, relevant experiments. What can be done to get cutting edge work out there to facilitate the progression of a field as a whole?
Dennis Dimick has focused his journalism career on the collision between human aspiration and the planet. The son of fisheries biologists, Dimick grew up on a farm in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and he holds degrees in agriculture and agricultural journalism from Oregon State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In his 35 years at National Geographic, he served for over a decade as the magazine’s environment editor, and guided major projects on climate change, energy, freshwater, population, and food security. Dimick is co-founder of Eyes on Earth, a project meant to inspire a new generation of environmental photographers.
As a young man, Dimick witnessed firsthand the price of progress when his family’s farm was cut in half by the construction of an interstate beltway. This invasion of their farm, in addition to the clear-cut logging of nearby forests where Dimick had spent his youth, combined to sensitize him to the profound impacts of human progress on the Earth. Early photography experience and his personal connection to the effects of human progress led to a life and career spent combining these two dimensions.
In anticipation of hisparticipation in the 2018 Wisconsin Science Festival, I asked Mr. Dimick some questions about photojournalism, and what it’s like documenting the human impact on the environment. Some of his answers have been slightly edited for clarity.
March 21, 2018 is World Poetry Day, we’re getting into the spirit with some scientific poetry. Science and poetry overlap more than many diehards in either camp would like to admit. History is filled with poets who dabbled in science, as well as scientists who dabbled in poetry. In honor of World Poetry Day, I’ve pulled out some of my favorites. Continue reading “The Intersection of Poetry and Science”
The tactic of “telling a good story” is nothing new within the business of selling, marketing and even educating about science. The word itself, “storytelling,” achieved buzzword status a few years ago in the corporate world, so it’s no surprise that it now touches industry scientists. But the importance of telling a good story within the realm of scientific peer-reviewed papers? That is something new, and it may impact how scientists write up their results from this point forward.
In a provocative scientific study published in PLOS ONE in December 2016, researchers from the University of Washington showed that “Narrative Style Influences Citation Frequency in Climate Change Science.” Perhaps the results they report are unique to climate change science—an area of science especially susceptible to public perception. But then again, perhaps not. This paper may be worth considering no matter what field of science you call your own.
The authors—Ann Hillier, Ryan Kelly, and Terrie Klinger—used metrics to test their hypothesis that a more narrative style of writing in climate change research papers is more likely to be influential, and they used citation frequency as their measure of influence. A sample of 732 abstracts culled from the climate change literature and published between 2009 and 2010 was analyzed for specific writing parameters. The authors concluded that writing in a more narrative style increases the uptake and influence of articles in this field of science and perhaps in scientific literature across the board. Continue reading “Writing Scientific Papers: Is There More To This Story?”
Seq—shorthand for “sequence”— has become a more recognizable term thanks to a novel and provocative genomics initiative called the BabySeq Project. The project, officially launched in May 2015, was designed to explore the impact of whole-exome sequencing (WES) on newborn infants and their families. A randomized, controlled trial to sequence healthy and sick infants and then provide sequencing information, it is the first of its kind. Those infants randomized to receive WES undergo genetic sequencing of all protein-coding genes and analysis of about 1,700 genes implicated in childhood health, along with 18 years of follow up genetic counseling.
The project is directed by Robert C. Green, geneticist and physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School and the Broad Institute, and Alan H. Beggs of Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Funding, totaling $25 million, comes from the National Institute of Child Health and Development and the National Human Genome Research Institute. Continue reading “To Seq, or Not to Seq”
Last night I was helping my daughter, who is in fourth grade, with her homework. We had completed a math worksheet, a geography worksheet and had moved onto writing. For her paragraph assignment, she was supposed to write about a special place. So I began drawing the concept map that we typically use to help her organize her thoughts. She stopped me before I could get started.
“No Mom, wait,” she grabbed the pencil and paper from my hands, “I have a better idea.”
She drew five shapes on the paper.
“We should write the paragraph like it’s a hamburger. The first sentence is the topic—it’s the top of the burger, tells you what is inside—it makes you hungry to read more. Next comes the juicy, meaty part. Three details—three sentences. Then the bottom bun, the summary that supports the whole paragraph. It’s the hardest to write.” She proudly sat down with her drawing and pencil.
“I LOVE that,” I exclaimed. “That’s a great way to organize a paragraph.”
“Yeah,” my husband looked up from his Suduko that he had been working on, “and the cheese goes right here.” He pointed to one of the three boxes my daughter had drawn underneath the bun.
“And the lettuce over here,” my daughter giggled.
“Well, I like mine with lettuce and tomato,” I chanted with no apologies to Jimmy Buffett, “Heinz 57 and French-fried potato..,”
“A big kosher pickle,” my daughter joined in, and the evening’s homework activities degenerated from there. (Sometimes it’s the parents who are easily distracted.)
Media coverage of the Zika virus and colistin-resistant E. coli have introduced new terms for some people. What do they all really mean? Even people with technical backgrounds may benefit from a refresher. This set of eight terms covers topics related to diseases and nutrition. This article is a continuation of my previous blog post about scientific words that are frequently misunderstood.
Common misconception: A disease that is going to kill all of humanity or turn us into zombies.
What it means for scientists: According to the Centers for Disease Control, an epidemic is “an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area.” This could happen with a new strain of the flu or with something more devastating like Ebola. There is an endemic level, or baseline, for the number of people affected by the flu at any given time, and an epidemic would be a significant increase from this level. The endemic level for diseases like Ebola would be zero. Epidemic diseases that spread across multiple continents are considered pandemic. Continue reading “Common Misconceptions About Scientific Terms: Volume 2”