6 Minutes on the Fly in Radioland

I finally realised I was old when the balance of my radio listening involved more people talking and less people playing music. I haven’t descended into talkback territory but I do listen to current affairs. And quizzes. I’m listening in no small part because there seems to be space to explore a wider range of stories told with a bit more warmth than TV allows.

Recently I had the chance to appear fleetingly on a small segment that is a regular part of Radio National Drive on a Friday night. It’s a pretty simple set-up – person who has a social media account shares stuff from that social media account that got them interested over the week. Obviously I agreed for all sorts of reasons, not least being the chance to gain some experience in a completely different area. Along the way I got to see many clever things happening in the squeezing crush of live radio and fell victim to a big storm and a VIP.

A step or two back first though.


This started because I knew a person. Dr Mel Thomson, former alumni of the Twitterati segment had passed my name on and soon enough an e-mail popped up testing my interest. Now I had actually been on radio twice as a before and after set of interviews when heading out to undertake a medical student stint in the remote community of Warburton. That had been on a Central Australian station which trumpeted its massive geographical reach. In an area with less people per square kilometre than just about anywhere on earth.

Looks bigger and has more cool stuff by the looks of the link this came from [see below]

Warburton looks bigger now and has more cool stuff by the looks of the link this came from

5 stories in 10 minutes all up of chat was the brief. Easy. Actually 10 minutes of stories took this novice way more in preparation. I tried to cover my inexperience by taking a few preparation steps, which I think I’d now apply to any other chances to do media (but I’d be glad to hear different takes on how to go about this stuff).

1. Know the Show

I had actually heard the segment before but there was a whole archive available via their website. Listening back gave me a sense of how I might slot in. It also emphasised that a range of story styles would be worthwhile, as much as I’d generally be keen to talk about the research or stuff from work at either CareFlight or the kids’ hospital. That would have been mostly about stuff for me, not the listener.

2. Crowdsource

Maybe social media would be good at pointing me to good social media, I thought. I wasn’t wrong and one of the stories we covered came directly from a general shout out for help. It was definitely one I would have missed. My hope was that it also might just mean a couple of people were more engaged with the radio bit because they had a hand in it.

3. Use the  Pros

The people who produce a radio show all the time probably know more about radio and their show than I do. Once I’d settled on my suggested stories, I prepared a briefing sheet with the links, where they came from and why I’d chosen them (plus some links around the topic). I suggested the ones I was most keen on, but gave some extra links so they could make some editorial decisions and pick their favourites. The producer Mark was then kind enough to send through the running plan, and make adjustments when I fired through a late option. A key point in using the pros of course, was to actually use them and not just pretend. There were some stories I was really keen on but the same as editing a bit of writing or a journal paper, you can’t get too attached to anything.

4. Prep the Stories

For each chosen story (plus my research project, places I work and bio) I drew out a plan for stuff I’d like to say. It was actually just a few key numbers and words squeezing amongst a tangle of arrows, but it made me distil my thoughts on all the stories into a couple of key points. And I could talk about the PhD project long enough that a listening bat would grab an adjacent electrical wire just to make it stop.

Once I’d put something on paper I also said some stuff out loud a few times. Each time I cut down how long I spoke, while still trying to hit the key points. I have a tendency to prattle on and it responds only to brutal handling.

The Actual Amble

It came to the evening and I had actually got there on time (no small feat). On my arrival it took quite a while to get up to the right level and through various locked doors thanks to kind wandering souls. It turned out that I’d pitched up just as a series of phone calls with the Queensland Premier had fallen through while they were covering the big storm with the underwhelming name, Tropical Cyclone Ita. This unfortunate confluence of chances truly sucked for them and was truly excellent for me. Safely tucked away at the back of the producer’s booth I got to watch live radio being replotted on the fly.

A pretty image, a gentle name but a serious storm. [via 28storms.com]

A pretty image, a gentle name but a serious storm. [via 28storms.com]

I’m sure they must have been a little frustrated that the interview was effectively suspended somewhere in the 4G network. From my perspective right there in the moment it’s all business as bits are slotted in, promos aired, new guests interviewed on the fly and pre-recorded bits repackaged. It is all digital but as snippets are cut I can see discarded bits of audio tape wriggling on the floor.

Once things are back on track, the tension eases a little and I’m lining up to chat on time. Then the lost call re-emerges. Good for them, but a bit less so for me. It’s all business again as the VIP slots back in.

Listening through the headphones while Premier Campbell Newman is being interviewed on serious matters of a storm, I watch “my” minutes tick away. I have become one of the wriggling worms of audio tape. Unsurprisingly for someone who names Jerry Seinfeld as a research mentor, I utter a few quiet oaths formerly employed on a postal worker (“Newman!”). And now I’m inappropriately picturing the Premier wearing a postal worker’s uniform. This helps. A lot.

Finally he is done and while I’m absorbing the factoid that host Rebecca Huntley actually crosses her fingers in the air when she says “fingers crossed” in the unseen world of a studio we’re into it. The next 6 minutes is a bit of a blur of stories about sloths, princes and chest bound immune glands being brought back to life. 2 stories are dropped on the fly due to time and the order therefore jumps a little but I’m handled by a pro and honestly, it’s not that hard to chat.

Then it’s done, I’m shuffling out, others are shuffling in and I’m out into the rain.

Now here somewhere beyond the immediacy of the moment it still feels like good fun.  It was a little frantic. I’ve learnt a bunch about curating a story and editing on the run. There’s only one downside – I’ve unfairly tarnished postal workers in my mind.


The Links:

If you have any interest, here’s the spot to find the audio.

Here are the stories:

Slothageddon via @meganchapman

The Little Prince via @brainpickings

The Regenerated Thymus via @upulie

@BuzzHootRoar on Critters that Light Up (as an account to follow is excellent but this spot featured the work of @jameshutson)

Here’s the ones that bit the dust:

Rwandan Reconciliation – amazing photojournalism on stories of reconciliation 20 years after the Rwandan genocides (I originally saw this via @rosepowell).

The Rwandan genocides need some broader perspective, so here’s a bit of general coverage, a bit about those left with scars, an amazing set of resources from MSF and, most importantly, coverage of the emerging crisis in the Central African Republic, which is a pretty stark reminder that these stories aren’t just about history.

The Joy of Dance – Jamie Smith (also of the XX) has a new bit of music. He asked a director to come up with a video prompted by a note he received from a deaf lady – ‘Watching you dance to the music in your earphones, I felt like I experienced the music’. They got the help of people from the Manchester Deaf Centre, who danced with the director.



Annual Traditions and Charity Hysteria

Everybody has traditions to observe at this time of year. It may be the annual venting of decades old family disputes. It might be the experiment to see if gastrointestinal alcohol fermentation plus massive sugar loading can lead to the generation of new life forms. It might be the pilgrimage to those quaint buildings known as “department stores” to exercise a bloodlust absent since the cessation of public ritual sacrifice.

Almost as guaranteed are the expected but not entirely welcome traditions. Like the coverage of the annual road toll. Or the “year in celebrity culture” review. Or all too often, the “charities don’t really give much money to causes” stories that spring up like freshly fertilised zombies (OK, zombie biology is not a strong point for me).

Some things should not be a tradition. [via dailymail.co.uk]

Some things should not be a tradition. [via dailymail.co.uk]

The Disclaimer

Let’s get the disclaimer out of the way. I spend some of my time working for a charity. That charity also supports the research that forms part of my PhD, so I am likely to have strong feelings on this topic. So please read on in an appropriately forewarned fashion and tell me at the end if my logic is undeniable or entirely spurious.

Just Add Outrage

The common feature of these stories is the headline grabbing motif that runs along the lines of “you give money to charity and they waste it all on fundraising/overheads/all the things that are not charity”. The linked article is a typical example and at first reading, it’s pretty persuasive.

Read a little closer though and the manipulations of the story are obvious. Even more annoyingly these types of stories all too frequently ignore the actual bit of the story that matters  – the impact that the charity is having in the area they are working in.

Comparing Apples with Boutique Cider

The first bit of false equivalence here is to compare smaller, local charities with international giants like World Vision and the Red Cross. Smaller charities tend to have relatively limited infrastructure for raising funds. So if they pursue telemarketing or mail outs as part of their strategy, chances are they will lose a fairly decent wedge of money right there. However, the reach of that campaign may be well beyond what they might otherwise manage just by pursuing local events.

To compare the small charity operator with global organisations that need very little marketing due to their massive historical presence is absurd. Each time there is a major event where charities need to step in, you’ll rapidly find those organisations are promoted through all forms of media and even government as being the location to donate (as they should be because they can rapidly do really good stuff because they have economies of scale). To compare those organisations with something operating through the passion of a relatively small local group of committed souls is entirely pointless.

False Metrics

There’s another major problem here. The implication is that the money spent on the fundraising process is a marker of how effective a charity is. That’s complete balderdash. The measure of how effective a charity is should be whether they produce an impact. Here’s an example from that article:

“The National Heart Foundation collected more than $51 million from fund-raising last year but spent more than $20 million on fundraising, $8 million more than it put towards research.”

Sounds awful! Read the next sentence though:

“The bulk of its revenue went to health programs.”

So most money is spent on exactly what is advertised on the cereal box (and then you can add the spending on research, which the Australian Society of Medical Research would tell you has a pretty good return on investment).

The story doesn’t make any effort to actually measure the impact of these health programs of course, but that is the real measure of what happens with your donated money. If you want to measure if the National Heart Foundation is effective, then measure whether their work helps reduce the rate of heart attack (because looking after someone with a heart attack is quite expensive as stated here by the NBER in the US).

I can understand why the casual writer dodges this question – it requires work and, to be fair, better reporting from charities. The further issue is that there are some areas where charities provide vital services to the good but would struggle to put that in money terms. Make-A-Wish is the perfect example because I wouldn’t question for a second the value of creating superheroes but I don’t know how you’d attach a money value to that benefit.

An Alternative Viewpoint

For a different way to look at how the outrage goalposts we set for charities put them at a disadvantage, it’s worth a look at this TED talk from Dan Pallotta. While I wouldn’t agree with everything he says, and there are elements that are as obsessed with the US perspective as labelling your local sporting comp the World Series, there’s some bones to gnaw on. Why is it that we focus on the costs of fundraising and overheads rather than the total good achieved for the sector? How do we hope to let the not for profit sector grow while prohibiting the time and investment that we’d expect of businesses?

It’s worth the time taken to watch it.

Honest Appraisal

I’m not saying charities shouldn’t be accountable or seek to be efficient. They should definitely be reporting to a consistent and transparent standard. I just think it’s time pockets of the media stopped being so damn lazy.

Just because it’s that time of year where you put on the tracksuit pants, gorge on pavlova for breakfast and carve a couch groove with your back doesn’t mean it’s time to rehash the leftovers from the last ill-founded charity attack.

And if you were thinking of finding a charity to help rewrite someone else’s story, then focus on the quality of the new script they produce, not the details of the edit.  I’d venture you won’t be disappointed.

Can video make a PhD star?

Like many parents, I have a complicated relationship with kids’ television. There are times when I enjoy the pure joy in a song composed entirely of nonsensical whimsy. Then there are times when I would like to find an appropriate furnace to burn Thomas and all his shunting friends.

Like some parents, occasionally when I watch a kids’ performer pretending to be a bed-hopping monkey, I think to myself  “I could do that. And my monkey would have more mischievous glee too.”

The PhD – Delivering Reality Checks for Free

 Of all the unlikely vehicles to allow me to test my front of camera skills, I have this PhD project. When I embarked on it almost accidentally (pretty clumsy, right), I assumed it would mostly be me and a computer and lots and lots of data. One day it might be. What I didn’t expect was that 2 years in the surrounding bits would be such a major part of the process.

As I’ve said before here, it has become massively apparent that if you have an idea you believe in communicating is part of the job. Who else is going to talk up your thing if you won’t?

Coupled to this is the fact that I’m doing this within a charity organisation. Unsurprisingly, they also want to tell people about stuff they do. Of course, there’s not really any way I can think of getting funded that wouldn’t involve communicating what the work involves.

And so it is, that I ended up in front of a camera.

The Brief

To explain a bit about the research, we’ve created a short video pitched at the layperson. If you care to view it up front, you can look here (the link is at the bottom of the page).

The target we set was to try and answer a few questions in these 3 or so minutes:

  • Who we are and what we do.
  • Why do we give a damn about trauma and particularly traumatic brain injury?
  • What’s the problem we’re trying to address and what the hell is the monitor with the fancy name all about?
  • What are we actually doing about it?

We did this armed with a script from me, a volunteer called Cam on the camera, a bunch of black drapes in an office and 3 props. Now it’s out there for anyone to judge if we were successful.

What did I learn?

1.     Imagery is everything

One of the hardest elements to get across was the idea of how the monitoring might reveal stuff that’s going on in the brain. That’s where the balloon (and some textas plus a rather saintly wife) came in. This concept was developed in the preparation for the Bright Sparks PhD Pitch Night from earlier in the year and I still like it, although I’m always looking for a better one. A good image can demonstrate a concept way quicker than many, many words.

The search for a way of demonstrating this idea also led to a really clear focus on exactly what it is we’re doing and made me understand the complex stuff better. There are all sorts of benefits in communication.

2.     A Camera is a Strange and Unrelenting Prison

I can talk plenty in a small group. I can talk in a big room. I am seriously unnerved by a flashing red light (and no there’s no hidden associations with red lights and a long suppressed past).

Practice felt easy. In the dark room, with the light on I rediscovered the self-consciousness of a big-haired teenager. It’s truly strange how the unblinking glint of a camera lens makes it feel like you yourself are blinking way too much. It felt as if my eyelids were convinced they had a chance to live out their dream of stepping up to the big leagues and delivered a performance akin to wipers trying to clear dead bugs off a windscreen.

My hands, usually friends of mine, became massively oversized. They felt so big and everywhere I wondered if I’d forgotten the point earlier in the day where I washed my hands in a particularly angry hornets’ nest. My hand acting clearly followed the teaching of this serious actor.

So enough daydreaming. I can happily acknowledge now that there are reasons pros are pros. Which just means it’s time for practice.

3.     There’s Room to Improve

When I see it, I think it’s a start. There are things that I wish were more slick and professional looking. Actually, that’s mostly just my face I’m talking about. I am very impressed at the efforts of the CareFlight team in building on top of a little idea, supported only by 2 balloons and 3 takes.

It turns out a PhD delivers way more than just an experience in research, or the fascinating pain of literature reviews and revision. It takes you in unexpected directions. Although next time I watch Play School I’ll have to acknowledge the harsh reality that maybe I won’t be disputing the rider with Big Ted, Humpty and friends any time soon.

If you made it this far before checking it, here’s the direct link. I submit it to the court of public (well, not that public really) opinion. And if you’ve got the time, let me know what you think. How did we go? Is there a better option than the brain balloon or am I going to be popping those things for the next few years? Should there be more gags? Is it even easy to include jokes about brain injury in this sort of thing? I’m all virtual ears. After all, my future in research may well depend just as much on my communication as my stats.

No textas were harmed in the decoration of this balloon.

No textas were harmed in the decoration of this balloon.

The Science Break-Up

We are approaching the end of another week. Yet another week where those who are actually quite keen on science could be forgiven for getting a little disillusioned at the unmitigated rubbish being mounted on walls as posters to support unscientific propagandists on a bunch of different subjects. Just this week there’s been rallies against wind turbines, partly on the basis that they are responsible for every medical symptom listed in Harrison’s Internal Medicine, anti-vaxxers likening doctors to terrorists, politicians suggesting a public review process on the evidence for fluoride in water and folks promoting pseudoscientific sexcereal (and no, I’m not putting many links in because there’s a balance to covering stuff and providing too much oxygen to these particular organisms). On top of the now constant hum of people still disputing the consensus on anthropogenic climate change, it’s enough to make a person go a little bit Hulk (although I’d probably only be able to unleash my muscled up rage on a crisp bit of celery, given the state of weakness I start at).

It’s easy to get frustrated with those who pretty much choose to selectively disregard everything science has to contribute on a topic to support a flawed paradigm. Particularly as sometimes that paradigm can impose real risks to others. There’s part of me that just wants to say:

“Look, if you’re planning to break up with science over vaccination/climate change/wind turbines, then it’s only fair to make a clean break. So science would like its stuff back. You know, all that stuff it has given you. Please hand back your mobile phone. Actually, you should really just hand back all means of telecommunication. It would be a little awkward for you to keep using that stuff. You can keep interacting with gravity though. I’ll have to get back to you about fire. The whole thing could be a bit awkward of course. Now that you’ve made the break, science expects you’ll take up with all sorts. Like homeopathy. Anyway, science already knows it’s not them, it’s you.”

I want to just point out all the good stuff out there debunking some myths, like this on vaccination. Or maybe some of these explanations around climate science (that one from @drkarl). Or I could point to the words of that well known tree-hugging unicorn apologist, the head of the World Bank (that one via @bencubby), who has not only said everyone should get on with addressing it, but suggested that disputing the evidence was to deny science itself. The evidence I could point to on all these fronts would be everywhere. To point it all out though would be unhelpful (although my moral superiority would get a good feed).

While some of the people stoking these fears and spreading misinformation aren’t covered by the next statement, the majority of people questioning the science are probably just good people with worries and fears. Most people at some point will look for information on a topic, and if they’ve landed on the side of those denying the science, then isn’t it possible that the real issue is that the window to communicate the science effectively has been missed? Maybe the problem is that the “crazy zealots” are actually being pretty effective at communication.

Maybe there wasn’t enough out there. Maybe people don’t like how those doing the science bit are engaging. What is undeniable is that those promoting the other side of the equation are sometimes effective. As covered most eloquently by Will J Grant here, the “Stop these Things” campaign demonstrates that these campaigns are not to be underestimated. So if the goal is to win hearts then minds, maybe those communicating on the science front need to double their efforts. It’s all too easy to see things from your side if you’re out there banging the drum, but maybe it’s more important to consider what other influences are striving to reach the person you’re trying to persuade (this idea has been much more elegantly explained and visualised by Heather Bray here).

So if I’m going to be someone who supports science and the evidence that’s out there, it’s important to reconsider what I could do better. Maybe in this break-up it’s more about me, than them.

The Bright Sparks Wrap Up

It is 5:45 p.m. I am with a group of PhD students. We are jumping up and down and forcing laughter through distorted faces by way of warm up and part of me is enjoying it. Part of me is looking for the fork I need to stab myself in the eye.

June 4 finally saw the Bright Sparks PhD Pitch Night come around. 18 PhD students given 150 seconds to pitch their projects to a room of mostly business types for fame, fortune and fun. There’s more on the set up for this back here. Anyway, as a quick refresher, as part of the Amplify Festival (put on by AMP), they’ve put on a spectacular competition for those undertaking a PhD. Engagement with fresh ideas, in a licensed venue (The Basement for this edition) as a way of bringing researchers into contact with the business world and media experts. Complete with media training and performance coaching (from James Valentine and the excellent Daniel Keogh (aka @ProfessorFunk)) and a brief to make it work without Powerpoint, it’s an impressive commitment from AMP, driven by Annalie Killian (@maverickwoman on Twitter) and delivered by the team at Wildwon (check out the work of Sally Hill and Yvonne Lee already have an impressive CV only 8 months into their existence).

As a researcher, any chance to work on science communication skills is now vital. As I said in that previous post, it’s fairly evident for researchers now that being able to communicate the idea you love will be vital to the future health of your research. Communication is not an optional extra any more, it’s part of the standard equipment list.

So it is that the last few weeks have seen me playing with lighting techniques, working on words, making jelly in brain moulds and searching for brain balloons in an attempt to present a 2 and a half minute synopsis of the part-time PhD that will take me about 6 years. And then it’s the night and I’m trying to figure out whether hitting the nachos prior to hopping on stage is a strong strategic move or poor risk management.

The mood amongst the candidates is pretty relaxed. Well, there’s a degree of nervous excitement, but most people are enjoying the ride, the free food and drink (no one has enough showbiz experience to have experienced a rider or anything like it before) and admiring the collection of koalas, robots, posters, costumes and more flesh and blood props strewn around the green room. I’m first up, and actually pacing a little. This is partly nervous energy and partly that I already have the pins I need to pop my prop stuck in my pocket and I’m a little wary of the risks of sitting down.

It’s not too long though before the room is full and the actual professional talent is working the crowd with Jared Jekyll (beatbox and sound vault extraordinaire) providing the soundtrack and Dan Ilic taking on the MC role with aplomb (seriously, if you’d like to question the value of an Arts degree, I give you Dan Ilic in rebuttal). Given how important that opening is, it’s just as well these guys know how to get it going (although, as I note  the good Mr Ilic has also recently done the Sydney Comedy Festival Nerd All-Star Comedy Gala, I can only gather he’s trying to corner the nerd market – the Billy Crystal of the geek performance landscape, if you will).

There’s only a few moments of staring at backstage posters, wall divots and anatomical reproductions before I’m out there delivering my bit, waiting for lighting cues to eventuate, pulling off illusions with the aid of my father-in-law and desecrating the brain balloon my wife worked so hard on. Then it’s done. In some ways being first up is a bit of a bugger, but I have the distinct advantage of getting to see the other guys strut their stuff. Given the breadth of projects and how much all these guys inspire me, it’s a pretty sweet gig.

Not only are they all great, but there’s some spectacularly good dramatic tricks deployed. Personal highlights for me were Kate McDonnell’s support dancers, the effort with the koala, the questionably edible sunflower who can help with Alzheimer’s, Alessandro’s magic outfit and Will Randall saving the poor teenagers, but they’re all pretty phenomenal. The intervening entertainment is likewise excellent (actually, Dan’s sharing stories about his Dad was the other peak for me). All in front of a crowd who were engaged, rowdy and supportive through all the rough bits. The reception for Kate when she is announced as the winner blows the roof off (and so it should, really).

So now we can reflect on things out the other end. The experience has been phenomenal. I remain convinced that there is not a research institution that shouldn’t be arranging media training for all those working with them. There’s not going to be any progress on ideas kept in the dark with the mushrooms. How fitting that the first thing I read after Mr 3 got me up at an hour that would make a kookaburra weep was this one, by the much more qualified Jai Ranganathan (and turning up on my Twitter feed via Scientific American), providing further context to the future needs for scientists to communicate.

I come out of it with a much better grasp of where I need to get to in terms of selling the project and distilling it to a few simple concepts. It’s been a most worthwhile experience on that front. If there’s any downer for me, it’s that I didn’t quite get there in terms of pulling that off this time. Not in terms of the prize on the night, but on the more important opportunity to generate interest and engagement for the project as a whole. At this stage there’s not much evidence I achieved that, which feels like a bit of a fail. Having said that, you’re not in research if you haven’t learnt to sort of embrace failures as a necessary but annoying evil to get you further down the track.

To make progress, it’s pretty clear I need to be able generate some buzz. The funny nature of this PhD, conducted at a charity but registered through a Uni, means that to date the project hasn’t been in a position to generate support directly from the University and there’s not the bigger institution to rely on (either for resources or track record) to put national competitive grants on the table. At the moment CareFlight is doing all the supporting so it’s a very distinct goal to start helping raise the funds we need. And with a project that offers the possibility of providing better care in brain injury so people aren’t left disabled, and an interim stage where we think we’ll get to redesign how we interact with patient monitors, it shouldn’t be a hard sell. Just have to do it better (and at least now I’m a massive step closer to having the skills to get that done). So lots of winning.

This was a fantastic night with a big ovation required (again) for AMP and Annalie Killian (plus sponsors Blackberry) for putting it out there (and a bit of excitement that Annalie has indicated she’s keen on setting up some crowdfunding to help support some of the other projects – that would be a spectacular outcome). If only more big companies were engaging on this level. It’s exciting just to know that there are people out there looking to support research and fresh ideas. There can’t have been a person there who wasn’t entertained and inspired by the range of projects.

I guess now all we need to do is generate a project involving the efficient harnessing of coal and solar power to energise the super programmed robot that will help construct the carbon nanotube space elevator to get us to the ergonomically designed space station on which future genetics and stem cell research can proceed to help cure diseases in humans and koalas, and we’ll be a dead certainty to engage the wider community.

Brain balloon

The Brain Balloon

Fights in the Schoolyard

When I was at school every now and then a group of kids would suddenly gather around in a circle while the chant of “Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!” echoed off the brick walls of the quad. That chant was enough to get kids running from all over, drawn by the sudden outbreak of drama amidst the listless torpor of the lunch break. Sometimes there was actually a fight, but just as often there’d be a piece of paper, strewn on the ground by a crew keen to inject a brief moment of interest into the day.


I’m reminded of those manufactured fights often when I see media coverage of issues in science where some kind of fight is manufactured where there is nothing of the sort going on. Nowhere does this seem more apparent than in the coverage regarding the consensus on climate change. It’s an interesting case study. 


It came up again today thanks to this coverage of a pretty comprehensive review of the available literature on climate change suggested 97% of published work supports the role of human activity in climate change. The other 3% includes about 0.7% actually denying the link and 2.2% where it’s unclear what the authors thought. This is not the first example of such a review. A particular favourite of mine was the effort that produced this chart


Yet, as highlighted in the Guardian article, the public seems to think there is a great deal of dispute in the scientific world. So why would this be? Well, the media probably does play a part. It’s more interesting for the media consumer to be shown a story with some sense of tension than total agreement. Utopian concord is excellent for the commune, but anathema to editors. So in the media, airplay is often given to those with a contrary opinion either in the guise of “balance” (which is questionable as you have effectively just given the discredited view the semblance of much more support by placing it on an even footing) or just because conflict creates interest, just like in the schoolyard. 


That practice isn’t going to change. If you actually set up a representative panel on this, the transcript would run something along the lines of:

Interviewer: So, Professor Zephaniah Greenhouse, you have indicated that your latest research shows that the latest climate measurements support the previously proposed models more strongly than had been anticipated. This is obviously controversial stuff. 

Prof ZG: Well, actually, it pretty much matches what everyone in the area has been saying for a long time now. 

Interviewer: Well, here to call that into question is Professor Jacinta Hydrocarbon. Professor, is it fair to say that these sorts of findings will cause a fresh debate on climate science? 

Prof JH: Not really. It’s just more confirmation on a similar theme. I’m with Zeph.


Boring. That interviewer now has minutes to fill. You can’t just broadcast a screensaver with “The Girl from Ipanema” to fill the space. So why should we be surprised  that any rent-a-comment pundit who is happy to ignore or twist the stuff that’s actually out there and who is happy to pick a fight will be the one sitting in front of the static cityscape railing against environmentalist conspiracies? It’s guaranteed conflict and it fills all that blank space  between plugging vacuum cleaners and hair removal technology.


The other side of this is again the need of scientists to work ever harder in getting the message out. There’s not much point decrying the quality of the media coverage without trying to raise the level. Or you could enlist others to spread the word. It might just be that the biggest hope for climate scientists looking to convince denialists once and for all lies in the corporate world. If all the businesses who believe the science start declaring this more stridently, there’s little doubt that the media will have to move on to the next fight. 


In the meantime, the same theme recurs. The message doesn’t spread itself. 

Join the flock and get tweeting

In the anaesthetics department in which I work, there’d be less than 5 of us regularly using Twitter. In fact, when I raised the prospect of actively using Twitter for a conference we’re organising later in the year, the opening of the response was “I don’t Twit, and I have no intention of twittering anytime ever” (*). Likewise, I haven’t checked, but the division of the Uni in which my PhD is based doesn’t seem to have much active Twitter activity going on either.

Well, that has to change. If you’re a researcher and you’re not using Twitter at all, you might like a look at this excellent infographic that crossed my path today (courtesy of Joshua Drew @drewlab and to me via @karenmca and then @Phil_Baty):

Twitter Infographic copy

Now, this is a visualisation of survey results from 116 marine scientists who are actively using Twitter. It highlights really nicely all the reasons you should get involved.

Personally, I’ve only been actively using Twitter for about 5 months. In that time, it has become the source of more interesting stuff and news coverage than any other electronic media (or just, any media) I use. I wasn’t a guaranteed zealot either – I rarely use facebook because when there’s friends and family I need to chat to, I tend to actually talk to them; on the flipside, random facebook people who choose to poke me kind of creep me out. I am yet to figure out any use for LinkedIn whatsoever (is that just me, or is it literally just a place you go to link with a bunch of people you’ll never contact again?) and I came to Twitter expecting to play the part of “old cranky guy on a rocking chair shaking head at young whippersnappers”. I was wrong. Not quite a sonnet, here’s why I use it.

1. The First Edition

For me, first and foremost, Twitter gives me news. More to the point it gives me highly relevant news, that I can filter. The thing with Twitter is, you can choose where to draw your sources from, and by following people who are engaged in media, or engaged in the particular type of news that you’re interested in, they do the work of finding the interesting stuff for you.

So not only do you now get delivered news from a variety of sources, I find I get news on stuff that interests me, that I would never otherwise have seen. By following clever people who do research and are abreast of the latest “big item” developments share it. I heard about the threats to Australian Research Council grants way quicker, and in much greater depth via Twitter than any other source. Twitter doesn’t actually give you the First Edition, it gives you the rolling edition.

2. I am a disciple and a leader

Well actually, I can’t accurately describe myself as either of those, but one of the amazing things about Twitter is I get to hear from people who are seriously at the top of the research game. At work, I get to rub shoulders with a bunch of really clever paediatric anaesthetists. I might also get to hobnob with some of the other medical researchers who are based around the kids hospital. On Twitter, I get updates from those sorts of people, as well as cancer researchers, microbiologists, malaria researchers, astrophysicists and veterinary scientists.

As a researcher, part of the advantage of Twitter is the immediately expanded network of clever researchy people I can learn from. There are plenty of great ideas that advance through inspiration and collaboration outside of the immediate sphere of where an individual works. The maths is compelling. You might be lucky enough to work with exactly the group of geniuses who will come up with the perfect idea to mesh with yours. If you looks at the info graphic though, if the median number of followers is 730 times larger than a median University department size, and 55% of those followers are science related, don’t you think there’s a chance you are more likely to make a vital connection if you’re bumping into that many people day after day?

3. Riding the Butterfly Effect

I choose to make a lazy link to the common understanding that all of chaos theory can be boiled down to the meteorological mayhem induced by erratic flying things to comment on the ability of Twitter to reach far beyond the tearoom. (Yes, I appreciate it’s pretty tenuous but I’m still reeling from learning last night that someone thought it was necessary to make The Butterfly Effect 3 – how bereft of an original thought was that producer?)

Pointing to the infographic again – almost 1 in 5 times someone shares a peer-reviewed PDF in this forum, that PDF is passed on. If you walked around work and handed that PDF out (forget the environment and those crazy butterflies and climate change for a second), how many of those people do you think would actually pass it on?

I got a glimpse of how quickly something can spread via Twitter at the end of last year. At the time, I was gearing up to be part of an aid trip to India. The team decided to try crowdfunding to see if we could raise additional money for the group in India we were working with. So we set about blogging and trying to raise the profile of this little endeavour, sharing it initially amongst people we knew. Then one afternoon, I mentioned it to my brother-in-law, who has the Twitter handle @wiredjazz. As someone ensconced in creative endeavours (there’s lots of them over here and they are well worth a look), he has a whole lot more followers (about 1800 or so at the time).

Anyway, an endorsement goes out from @wiredjazz, and lo and behold 1800 people have had a chance to see what we’re up to, and most of those probably people who would never otherwise heard about it. Then he asked for an additional bit of publicity from Neil Gaiman (who writes and stuff also). So @neilhimself shares the link. To his 1.8 million followers.

1.8 million people.

Now, I’m not suggesting every one of those people checked it out, but we did get some immediate interaction from those who had, along with a bit of extra funding. In 6 minutes, the trip went from being something a few hundred people had heard of, to something that had wafted by 1.8 million people.

So if you have no interest in your idea or what you do potentially getting to that many people, please go back to your crochet on this fine evening. Otherwise, get on Twitter.

4. The Other Stuff

It’s not all work. I frequently come across other really stimulating stuff. It’s the sort of stuff I really enjoy spending a few moments with, but all too often don’t take time for because of work or drudgery items getting in the way. When it’s right there though, I find the 2 mins it takes to be astonished, amazed, infuriated, puzzled or amused. And it feels great.

One of the impressive feats pulled off with bored monotony by Twitter is the ability to juxtapose moments of high intellect and stimulation, with hilarity or banality.

Engagement is vital for any researcher. As I’ve mentioned before, if the research you’re doing is something you kind of believe in, part of your job is to spread the word. Twitter offers that in a very real fashion. Yet it also brings you into contact with amazing researchers who may inspire you, educate you or share an excellent recipe or the frustration of the football season.

Of course, there are risks. There are also trolls. Having said that, if you exercise the slightest bit of common sense about how you behave online (or just treat it like you are a sane person having a conversation in a sane and respectful fashion) there’s a lot of upside. You’ll definitely get access to awesome Lego remakes way quicker for starters.

So you’re welcome to be one of those “doesn’t Twit”. Although I would suggest that if you’re a researcher, particularly in your early career, and you’re not into it, you already qualify on the twit front.

(*) By the way, despite indicating personal disinterest, this good individual has entirely supported the conference plan.