Thursday 27 January 2011

Slow News Day

The BBC recently ran a story in how the Lonely Planet has been a little nasty to the delightful Devonian city of Plymouth, naturally as someone who has reasonable ties to the city I had a quick read of the article and then set upon reading the actually Lonely Planet entry – I have a strange thing about reading guide book entries for places I know rather well.

It turns out that the BBC has been a little misleading on two counts,

Firstly news tends to be ‘new’ it’s kind of in the name, well this edition of the book is available on GoogleBooks ( and does have an informative section on Plymouth which matches the text in the article; interestingly though this book has been out for three  years  (published in Feb 2008) and is duplicated in the Great Britain book (published 2009) , yet its cutting comments on Plymouth’s significant but at times God-awful architecture have been sitting about for three years... yet only make news on the 25th of January 2011.

Secondary it subscribes to the Daily Mail manner of producing stories; that is ‘focus on the bit you want to bring across and only slightly mention any other aspect, oh and get something basic wrong’, it performs the later by successfully getting the wrong page number (it says 162, while in reality its page 196) while the former it delves into by essentially it indicating that Lonely Planet states that Plymouth is a bit of a dive but Exeter and Torquay are alright.

Well actually the only the negative text in the Lonely planet passage has been successfully mined out by the BBC, the rest of the article tends to be fairly nice, describing Plymouth’s history, wide range of attractions, bars and restaurants with the usual good flair – with a much larger slot that the more traditionally touristy Torquay and Exeter, besides , other than shopping and a day wandering round the compact barbican looking all historical– there aren’t many reasons for tourists to voyage to Plymouth.

So, this blog is roughly about geoscience; and its communication... what does the Lonely Plant describing Plymouth 3 years ago as grimy have to do with anything? Simple, the article was published not nationally, but in the local section, it’s audience was people from Plymouth or South Devon who may have strong feelings about the tourism knock-on effects of a poor write up, and travel guides are similar to scientific papers, they are an evidence based opinion, fieldwork has been conducted (the authors heading out and researching), it has been subject to peer review (has to be good quality or the ‘Rough Guide’ will sell more) and its audience is seeking knowledge and willing to gamble holiday time and money on it – the fact that the BBC felt it newsworthy to publish a three year old story on not a great deal of controversy points to how science can be reported; when a slow news day comes about, an old story, designed to generate aggravated feelings can be pumped out to generate emotions or concerns– something we’ve seen once or twice before

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Sorry, This Text is Restricted

As a student I enjoy fairly complete access to a huge variety and mass of globally important academic publications, publications which host important topics to science, be it Climate Change, Stem Cells, GM crops or any other of the diverse and fascinating areas modern science encompasses.

If someone outside of the Academic or Government sectors wishes to access these papers, (which are publishing studies partly performed via publically funded money) they need to either pay for access of an article, which for a small amount of text is frankly a complete rip off, for example in Nature, where articles rarely top four pages the cost of an article in this weeks (25th of Jan) Natures comes to $32 (£20) while Science charges a less painful $15 (9.50), although the journal is only available for 24hrs. Science Direct, which publishes the Goliath of Elseliver Publishing, charges $37.50 (£23) an article (although does make heavily cited articles free, which seems very responsible of them), other papers within geological societies aren’t much better, individual access to a paper in Geology costs $25 (£18), while in Proceedings of Geolsoc of London is $30 (£19).

Interested parties could purchase their own subscriptions, although these too are expensive:

Nature charges a personal subscription of: £135 + tax

Science charges a subscription of $234 (£148)

These are two of the most prestigious, important and accepted journals on earth, gathering what is widely accepted and often publically funded research and charging the public £20 for research papers.  So where can the public get up to the minute (well month) scientific data? Answer: Encyclopaedias, websites and with more politically, socially and economically stories can be presented in the media.

Now imagine you’re an editor for a newspaper, you want to report a story published in Nature, firstly assuming your paper doesn’t have a subscription you need to pay £20 to read it, then you may want to see what else if out there, shelling out from £9.50 a time to increase your knowledge – for a balanced article (academically) the journalist may need to spend a substantial amount of money, which for a cash strapped paper running a small story simply is not viable. Nor is it viable for a member of the public, educated or not, to pay frankly obscene amounts of money to access papers to learn more about information they may not fully comprehend when relying on fully partially digested and processed information; potentially that has been subject to journalistic or editorial ‘reinterpretation’ or spun to form ‘sensationist’ news.  Once a story starts rolling and papers being sold the consideration of how valid a source might be can get lost (See Daily Mail)

A variety of sites do offer free ‘news’ from these papers, such as and public media. Although these sites are subjected to the whim of editors and journalists they do allow glimpses through for the public to digest.
So can we blame journalists for not covering science as we’d like it? I’ll think about it

Monday 24 January 2011

Communicating to councillor

'The Economic Downtown has, and is about to; hit Plymouth hard, as the South West’s Premier service city, the largest in Devon and a ‘focus point’ for employment and service our great maritime city is poised to receive £256,040 from central government in order to build ‘green technology’.

This grant, during the current time of coalition cuts and is a welcome addition to this proud cities ‘green’ portfolio, we already have adopted a ‘green agenda’ that has seen Plymouth gain one of the lowest carbon footprints of the UK at 1,410,000CO2; with a reduction of the cities per-capita carbon footprint reduced from 6.0t CO2 in 2005 to 5.5t CO2 in 2008 – a drop of 8.4% against a target of 6.9%. 

As part of the Low Carbon Framework (LCF) The council is currently looking into further carbon (and cost) saving measures; including, but not limited to: the completion of a substantial desk study, the use of carbon scenario planning (i.e. potential for flooding and an alteration in the climate), a focus on the skills this city can offer and generate to create a low carbon economy – utilising both the public, business and community sectors we represent. These sectors will be involved in a variety of events that highlight Plymouth’s important involvement in maritime climate change; including the Scott 100 celebrations, ice sculptures (subject to fiscal evaluation), polar ‘fun days’ and a variety of interactive workshops and seminars. 

Plymouth’s requirement to provide 30,000 new jobs by 2020 and the involvement of the LCF are intimately linked, building on the achievements this great city has already performed and introducing fresh, new and sustainable businesses into Plymouth and South Hams.  The council has already released a press statement documenting its stance on climate change and the risks which Plymouth will face in a warming world.
I look forward to taking your questions.'

Friday 14 January 2011

Ignorance is Bliss

‘Ignorance is bliss’

As geoscientist we have the idea that exploring the earth for its resources, secrets and good lunch spots is an important endeavour, many feel that the knowledge we have accrued can be passed on, but does it need to be? And is it required?
A dancer, whom I must agree is unlikely to share a similar wavelength to myself might just consider that knowing how new oceans are made, or how we get platinum out of the ground into a nice shiny ring is not important, but a knowledge of early 80’s progressive dance is... it is a matter of opinion. Everyone has opinions based on circumstance, upbringing, personal beliefs – it’s a good thing, a world of uniform drones is not an inviting prospect.

Equally, as a geoscientist I have (or feel I at least ought to have) a detailed knowledge of specific geological processes, but stick me with two physicist friends from back home and I’m lost, it’s not that I have no working knowledge of physics (despite was my A-Levels say) it’s simply that they have wandered down the path of nuclear physics and momentum a damn sight further than I have. If I was to strike up a conversation of metasomatic metamorphism I would have two confused, probably uninterested faces.

So how can the public be lured into an interest of the geosciences? Do they need to be? Should the general public be involved in decisions which require a substancial interest and knowledge of the geosciences?

In my opinion, which I believe is the reason for a blog, there is no need to lure people into knowledge, more than any other time in human history knowledge is widely accessible; I know, that as I write this I could if I desired find out how an air conditioning unit works, the (public) library has a stash of books, the internet is overflowing with pieces. If someone doesn’t understand how an earthquake works why do they need to? How will it benefit them in their daily life? People choose to watch a program on the geosciences; they choose to read an article on the earth. What else do they choose to expand their knowledge on?

Wikipedia, although much lampooned is arguably a major source of peoples information they receive, it is the fifth most popular website on the planet (BBC News) articles are simple to find, easy to read and cover virtually anything. The site helpfully charts its most popular articles;  Global Warming, is without a doubt, a major, if not the most challenging problem facing mankind, a potentially misunderstood and misguided challenge that many people don’t understand. So logically these people would want to use Wikipedia to expand their knowledge.

Not so, in 2010 ‘Global Warming’ was the 74th most read article, with 18,190 (or 0.01% of readership), above it was ‘List of sex positions’ (22,200), Eminem (26,870) and Michael Oher (an American football player, 20,490). Even the big environmental story of the year, the disastrous Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill came in 34th (with 27,850) with 1/3 of the readership of ‘Lady Gaga’ (65,500). In fact science as a whole is wildly under-read, considering some of the great articles available. No ‘pure’ science subjects make it into the top 1000 articles, this is on the the 5th most popular site on earth, a major source. To put it bluntly people want to know more about organs and orifices than they do about any aspect of orogeny.

It’s not just science that is overlooked, important historical events and even countries are wholly overlooked; World War 1 is below ‘Sexual Intercourse’, the Soviet Union sits below Arney. Most shockingly perhaps AIDS, the worlds 4th biggest killer ( is relegated to 339th (8,920) position; below ‘Ejaculation’ & the brilliant, but somewhat less important band ‘Avenged Sevenfold’. 

Now of course, Wikipedia is subject to people spamming and perhaps is not a perfect profile of the world population, but still this is a concerning thought!

The majority of the public own some form of computer, but very few actually know how the thing works, more still own a mobile phone, but the limit of knowledge on the technical abilities of what happens when you press ‘send’ is fairly low. Why should geoscientists request a public audience, when aspects of people’s lives which demand a greater proportion of their time, money and effort are still mystical whizzing boxes? The answer could be that the geosciences offer solutions and problems which affect everyone; a faulty phone model is only going to affect the people who buy, sell and made it, an earthquake does not discriminate against those with understanding of the processes.

Here in the UK though, we don’t have earthquakes in any magnitude, so knowledge of their processes is more a curiosity, an interest if you like of the few; rather than in the case of a pop-star or film a more mainstream interest. Global Warming, though will affect us all. People need to know –but do they want to know? Looking at Wikipedia, they don’t, looking on the pavement, they don’t: A random sample of 10 people walking past my house at 7pm on a Friday night (party animal that I am) people are concerned about Global Warming (80%) but none wanted to talk to me about it. Either because I am a crazy person or they didn’t care enough to stop (or they thought I was going to give a lecture, which to be fair I was). Think about it, virtually everyone is against animal cruelty, but only 5% of people in the UK do not eat animals, (Food Standard Agency) millions of people have dogs, of equal intelligence to pigs, but would never think of munching on Fido.

People care about the climate or the earth, but maybe do not want to know the intricate details, or only want to know when it suits them, when their town has been flooded. Maybe, like many, they are scared and would rather be ignorant to the problem, happy to assist, turn off the light when they leave the room and try not to think about it.