Story telling: The dark side.

When I was a child there was a TV program that we watched each week called the Back and White Minstrel Show. Produced in the United Kingdom, the show featured white men in black-face acting out black stereotypes. The program ended when the BBC began receiving complaints about the show’s racist core stories.

It is fair to say that stories have a dark side: stories can propagate prejudice, they can lie, they can distort truth and they can silence alternative voices. Stories told often reflect the views of power. Just look at the last weeks news. Methamphetamine in houses in New Zealand. The last government had a dominant narrative around poor citizens, “They were drug addicted, lazy and not worthy of respect or justice”. Is there any surprise then that the National leadership could not hear scientists telling them that very low levels of P in houses were not dangerous? That story, evidence based as it was, did not sit with the narrative of those in power and was silenced.

Stories are dangerous. The question becomes: what is an ethical (science) story; how can we tell an ethical story, who chooses, who speaks and what will the powerful let us say?

This question of ethical science stories is one I have been pondering for months now. This is what I think. A story is ethical if supported by the evidence; for example, my daughters HPV vaccine left her healthy and resistant to the virus. That is my story, supported by clear lines of evidence. That story is ethical. In contrast, the stories of vaccine harm, without any lines of evidence beyond the post hoc ergo proctor hoc fallacy are not ethical; especially, when told second or third hand.

Of course, science is a social as well as a technical enterprise, but truth and evidence are real. I don’t accept post-truth arguments that seek to privilege myths over science. That kind of story takes us backwards. Repeating lies; harms, as we saw with the Black and White Minstrels. As a science communicator I will use evidence supported stories. That is it.

The quotes and links below are to sources that have helped me develop my ideas on this topic. My Liz Neely blog is first because the topic of ethical story telling was a question asked toward the end of the video. That started this question for me.

Ethical Considerations of Using Narrative to Communicate Science
Michael F. Dahlstrom, Shirley S. Ho

Black and White Minstrels (Image Getty, Maybe subject to copyright)

Posted in education, healthy, Science, story telling, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

sagan*sense – nonbinarypastels: How to spot fake news in…

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Prof. Michael Hartshorn RIP

I recently learned that my mentor through postgraduate study has passed away. Here is the text of a speech I recently gave telling how important he was to me.

In February 1985 I flew from Hamilton where I worked as a soil technician to Christchurch to meet with Professor Michael Hartshorn. He was a fortyish year old tall proper English man dressed a dark suit with a white shirt and conservative tie. I was there to discuss a Masters program. At the end of my meeting with him. I asked if I could talk to a current student. “Of course”. He took me into the lab and introduced me to soon to be Dr Jenny Redman.

I asked her, “What’s he like?”. She replied, “He’s a bastard?”, “Uh? What do you mean?” “Well, he expects you in the lab between 9 and 4.30. And if you aren’t, you’re in trouble; he’s a bastard. Funny thing is, his students finish on time…”
That is how I met Professor Micheal Hartshorn.

I always dreamed of being a scientist but my honours degree was not good enough. I remember the day I received my results. I opened the letter in my tiny grey lab in the tower block Rurakura Research Centre Hamilton. Third class honours; four C grades. I was devastated. My dreams of a PhD and working as a scientist gone.

I kept working as a technician for five years. In the end, I was so frustrated and unhappy that every morning I wanting to smash windows and scream. Prof. gave me a path out. Following my interview, I returned to Hamilton, left my job, packed my little yellow Mitsubishi mirage hatchback and moved to Christchurch. One year, work like hell and put my Honours Degree behind me.

My project was treating the tri-alkyl substituted phenols with chlorine gas and analysing the resultant mixture. That meant running the reaction, separating the products and characterizing them. That characterization included x-ray crystallography of the products.
I found the work incredibly rewarding. I still miss the pleasure of handling the fragile glassware.

Fragility was a thing. X-Ray crystallography means taking a tiny crystal and using Araldite to fix it to a tiny glass fibre. That fibre is then place in the centre of a delicate set of cooling grass-ware. Like a thermos, silvered, evacuated glassware used so the crystal was kept cool with a stream of cold nitrogen. That cooling setup was needed to stop the crystal melting when the x- rays were shining. The crystallography gear was run 24 hours a day, pretty much all of the time.

I remember one night when I went in at 9 PM to set up a crystal; at 3 AM I found the crystal – twined. That meant the tiny crystal had a tiny crack and was unusable. I had to start again. I tried, but at that hour I was too clumsy to handle delicate work. That’s when I learned sometimes it is best to put your hands in your pockets and walk away; rest.

The data processing for x-ray was computer controlled. Don’t ask me the maths, I just followed the protocol. But access to computers was the bottle neck.

This is about Prof. At one stage, the crystallography computer was broken. My friend, who looked after another instrument, set up the software so I could work with that. The problem was, I had to work a night. So for a week, I worked five to midnight.
But I had not been in the lab 8 to 5. I remember coming into work at 8.30 the next day to a blue fountain pen note on my desk. “See me when you get in!” I quietly laughed when I handed him my printouts; at that stage about a pound of paper.

At last I move onto writing my thesis. I was the last generation of students to write using pen and paper.
I wrote in blue brio onto lined paper and everything that went to Prof. had to be perfect. That meant, if I made a mistake I had to write the whole page again. I had three months, 24 hours a day and a deadline. I’d write, hand my work to Prof and pick up the last draft with comments. He would cover my perfect writing with red pen comments. That was awful. I still refuse to mark in red pen, I was that traumatized. I would trudge home, lie flat on my bed, and feel discouraged. After half an hour of this I’d think, “F… this. Let’s see what the bastard has done”. And get on with fixing my work. This went on for months.

It was during this time that Prof. approached me. His ex-students at the DSIR had organized a scholarship. “Would you like to continue onto a PhD. You will need a good grade.” Yes, I would like that.”

So I continued writing and submitted on time, then returned to my parents to rest and wait. Two weeks later Prof. called. With his guidance I’d earned Distinction and the opportunity to earn my PhD.

Professor Micheal Hartshorn changed my life.

Prof. Hartshorn (I don’t know who took the photograph)

Posted in community, cooperative, education, leadership, Science | Tagged | Leave a comment

How Making Art Helps Teens Better Understand Their Mental Health

I strongly encourage us all as artists.

The article below explores and makes the case for encouraging teenager’s art making. Just remember making is fun too, and not just for teenagers.

Posted in Art, community, cooperative, creativity, education, healthy, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Tell Stories: HPV Vaccine, What I want you to do.

This week I discovered that Japan’s HPV vaccine rate has dropped to almost zero today from 70% in 2013. It’s a horror story for those of us supporting vaccination. Are there lessons for us in New Zealand and around the world?

One tactic used in Japan was to bombard vaccine positive blogs with miss-information as a way of hijacking the message. Over the last six months we have seen this happen in New Zealand especially with the Diplomatic Immunity blog on Science blogs. On that site we have seen one troll after another.

Another tactic used in Japan, was the, “My friend had the vaccine and… bad things happened”. That one was spread through an uncritical media to the Japanese public. I think the media in New Zealand are a little better but even so pretty dodgy stories are published. In Japan, social media spread the rubbish too. We know, that is a problem here. Please keep pressure on local media to recognize evidence based medicine over rubbish.

Another problem in Japan was lawyers sensing opportunity. As I understand it, the ACC legislation reduces this as a problem here. (And in Japan a researcher may well have made and spread fraudulent scary reports which made scary rumours scarier).

So what do I want you to do.

I think there is an important task for us. As well as having our shots and making sure our children get theirs too. We must talk about vaccination. Tell the story, “My daughter received her vaccine last week, she’s healthy and happy. Isn’t it wonderful that she will stay healthy to old age”. (Substitute grand-daughter, friend’s daughter as appropriate). We can all spread that message. If we did that, we would be inoculating our communities against the misinformation and those who spread it.

Here is the HPV Immunisation Programme for New Zealand: Available to everyone (Young men and women) here under 18 and residents up to 26.

Sorry for the lecture but I’m annoyed about this.

The Japanese story

Posted in education, healthy, leadership | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Love in the Scientific Literature | The Scientist Magazine®

From the text

I found this earlier; I think its a Valentine day article.

The point is that, of course, we scientists love just like everyone else, and that expression finds itself in the literature.

Read the article; it’s fascinating, fun and human. I have to admit whenever I read a thesis I check out the acknowledgements. Husbands, wives, boy- and girl- friends, children and parents; as well as close friends and mentors (and the odd deity); they are all there.

Scientists are human after-all.

There are countless ways for scientists to say, “I love you.” Naming a slime-mold beetle after your wife (and another after your ex-wife) is, apparently, one of them. 

Source: Love in the Scientific Literature | The Scientist Magazine®

Posted in Beautiful, community, cooperative, creativity, healthy, Mental Health, Science, story telling | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

7 myths from biology class that most people still believe | Big Think

You’ll be surprised how many commonly known science “facts” are actually total misconceptions.

There are two I find particularly surprising: first that cats and dogs are not colour blind and, second, that Dr. Robert Lustig’s claim that “sugar is as addictive as cocaine”is not (yet?) supported by evidence.

The remainder, I knew.

Source: 7 myths from biology class that most people still believe | Big Think

Posted in Curiosity, education, Science | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Writers unblocked? Happy music boosts imaginative thinking, say researchers | Science | The Guardian

When I was a lab worker, there was always a question, “Do we have a lab radio?” Do we work more effectively with a background of music or not? Personally, my answer changed over time: I don’t like lab radios, they are distracting. When writing my Masters and PhD theses and working alone in my room, I preferred a radio as background and company. But now, with the noise of a family around me, I prefer quiet; no music. That is how I write these blogs, sitting up in bed, no music, writing.

Of course, others have different opinions and this question can be addressed as a scientific question. An example of this kind of research is the 2017 study by Simone Ritter and Sam Ferguson (Links below). These researchers worked with 155 university aged participants measuring divergent thinking with and without music. The study concluded that music helps promote divergent thinking. Certainly worth reading for the literature review as well as the experimental results.

Although these types of studies are important and useful, my view is that every creative person will have to find a process that works for them. Music is just one variable in what is a personal and complex and markedly individual process.

Uplifting music can help people think more flexibly and avoid getting stuck in a creative rut, say psychologists

Source: Writers unblocked? Happy music boosts imaginative thinking, say researchers | Science | The Guardian

The Bear that Wasn’t Live Concert. Photo by Kmeron on FLICKR

Posted in creativity, healthy, Mental Health, music, Science | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Story Telling: Bevan Series 2018: Liz Neeley

This is what I did this weekend.

If you are interested in science storytelling and the scientific justification to using story to communicate science this presentation is the one for you. Liz is the executive director of Story Collider, the science engagement outreach. She teaches story telling for science. Please enjoy.

Posted in Science, story telling | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

‘It’s time to recognise the contribution arts can make to health and wellbeing’ | Healthcare Professionals Network | The Guardian

And second:

I feel frustrated when I hear of teachers telling their students not to study arts; there are no jobs we are told. Now I’m inclined to challenge that idea, but really like science, art is a fundamental expression of our humanity. Art is one of the reasons we do jobs: to create, express ourselves and to live. This article from The Guardian makes this clear. Expressive art builds resilience and long term mental health. (At least for older isolated citizens in Cambridgeshire and further afield in England.)

“The arts help meet challenges in health and social care associated with ageing, loneliness, long-term conditions and mental health”

Source: ‘It’s time to recognise the contribution arts can make to health and wellbeing’ | Healthcare Professionals Network | The Guardian

All the worlds a stage: from Garry Knight on FLICKR

Posted in Art, cooperative, creativity, healthy, Mental Health, Science | Tagged , , | Leave a comment