Lies, damned lies, and lying to ourselves with statistics

John Ewing, who served as the executive director of the American Mathematical Society for fifteen years, told me that he is perplexed by educators’ “infatuation with data,” their faith that it is more authoritative than using their own judgment. He explains the problem in terms of Campbell’s law, a principle that describes the risks of using a single indicator to measure complex social phenomena: the greater the value placed on a quantitative measure, like test scores, the more likely it is that the people using it and the process it measures will be corrupted. “The end goal of education isn’t to get students to answer the right number of questions,” he said. “The goal is to have curious and creative students who can function in life.”

I don’t know much about the US education system, but this lengthy feature in the New Yorker paints a hair-raising (and at times depressing) picture of a rigidly data-driven monster corrupting everyone it touches.

There’s a general principle here, that any time you build a system you have to think through what exploits of that system would look like, and how you’re going to guard against them. But what emerges here is less a picture of people conspiring for personal gain, rather people fighting the system to provide the evidence it requires that they’re doing the right thing anyway:

To [the mother of a teacher who corrected students’ exam papers], his decision to cheat was an act of civil disobedience. She told him that as soon as she heard about cheating in Atlanta she thought, “I bet my son was part of that.”

The villain of the story isn’t so much corrupt public officials as the insidious temptation of performance metrics. How close is the correlation between things you can measure, and the outcomes you want to achieve?

As the Wikipedia page on Campbell’s Law points out, there’s a parallel in the way the lofty goal of ‘evidence-based policy’ degrades into ‘policy-based evidence.’

Royal Society Vision for Education

Royal Society Vision for science & maths education

A quick post as I head out of the door this morning: the Royal Society have published their document on what they think STEM education should look like by 2030, and how they think we should get there.

They’re doing #ASEChat on Twitter next Monday (8-9pm BST), and in the autumn they’re planning a bunch of discussions about responses to the plan, and how it might be implemented.

I’ve only had chance to skip through the PDFs, but my first impression is: blimey, that looks expensive. I guess I’m not sure whether to cheer the sense of ambition or grouchily snark “Good luck with that.”

I’ll be interested to hear opinions as the discussion develops.

internet_with_a_human_face

Memory, advertising, and business models

This is probably a sign that I need to dust off one of my personal blogs, but to be fair I do spend a chunk of time trying to work out how science communication (and particularly online engagement) can be sustainable. Which in practice means: trying to work out what the business model is for STEM engagement.

Which in turn means: advertising.

OK, that’s a bit cynical, and there are plenty of circumstances where, it turns out, people will actually pay for public engagement (I know, radical thought, right?). However, for at least some web-based projects one could do, advertising would end up being key. And that’s awkward, because:

  1. Online advertising is more-or-less loathed by everyone, and
  2. It doesn’t work anyway, partly because of (1).

Ask me about children’s science TV if you want to know my opinions on advertising-backed business models. Been there, done that, still in therapy over it.

Meanwhile, this wonderful recent conference presentation/essay by Maciej Ceglowski spans memory, privacy, and the broken startup ecosystem. Likening venture capital pitches to selling advertising futures is, I think, a brilliant and insightful criticism.

Quora’s declared competitor is Wikipedia, a free site that not only doesn’t make revenue, but loses so much money they have to ask for donations just to be broke.

Recently, Quora raised $80 million in new funding at a $900 million valuation. Their stated reason for taking the money was to postpone having to think about revenue.

There are times when I find it frustrating that our only real models for scicomms are enlightened self-interest (ie. forget the business model and do it anyway) and grant funding (ie. enlightened self-interest by someone with more money than you). Then I remember that the whole point is: people pay for things they value. We only assume those things are goods and services – they can also be something less tangible, like ‘the public good.’

I often think we should be less apologetic about that.

Ceglowski’s presentation is long, but worth your time.

Scripts, detail, and obsessively-detailed scripts

This film has been doing the rounds of late, and while there’s plenty of discussion out there about whether it paints too narrow a depiction of ‘comedy’, I, for one, think it’s a good point well made. Of course there are counter-arguments – comedy wouldn’t be interesting if it could be done in 8 minutes.

The lesson for scicomms is, I think, that detail matters. We obsess about our explanations, but we’re rarely as careful with our transitions (which to my mind are both more difficult and more dangerous), let alone the visual aspects of our performances. Since I cut my teeth in children’s TV this has always baffled me, and Wright’s visual flourishes feel like an extended version of what we too-often failed to do in CITV.

Whatever your medium, the performance your audience perceives is the total of what you say, how you say it, and what happens. Comedy is merely one form of emotional prompt you can deliver: to me, none of this is really about humour or film-making, it’s about the rôle of visual cues in conveying information.

Final two hours for Mirobot!

Yes, yes, I know I’m a stuck record about this, but: you only have a couple of hours left to back Mirobot. The Kickstarter hit its last stretch goal last night, so the full package now includes the line-drawing robot, obstacle detection, line following and a speaker.

I’m delighted for Mirobot’s creator Ben Pirt, and looking forward to the production run later in the year.

How to Clone a Cauliflower

Cloning is one of those things your students might associate with science fiction or futuristic technologies, not something they do in a biology practical, because, well, it doesn’t usually work…until now.

Unlike previous methods used for school practicals, the technique shown in the above video provides a reliable way to carry out the practical that virtually guarantees to produce clones of a cauliflower. It was developed at The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew to allow scientists to clone plants without needing to be in a sterile lab and it’s already been used to save endangered species.

The key to the success of this technique is the sterile agar growth medium and we’ve made a separate video for technicians showing how to prepare this:

You can get further support materials for carrying out this practical at the Science and Plants for Schools website

Helping teachers do what they do best

While this blog continues to explore the boundaries and overlaps between teaching, learning, communication and performance, some of you have more specific needs. While we wring our hands about structuring demonstrations, you want proper training.

Firstly – do get in touch. The people you’re reading here do lots of training and directing of performers, bits of writing and consultancy, and workshops with teachers. People ask us back and everything.

For more formal CPD do find out what’s on offer from the Science Learning Centres. It’s what they’re there for, as this blog post from Yvonne Baker describes. In that post, she outlines some of the CPD available from the National Science Learning Centre. It may be cheaper than you expect, too.

Coming full-circle and in reference to the wider issues Yvonne mentions, if you’re following the A-level practical exam thing you may be interested in Alom’s take on the matter here.

Identity and the structure of argument

Maria Konnikova has a terrific article in the New Yorker which should be required reading for anyone involved in science communication. It’s a quick overview of recent research into what sorts of messages ‘land’ with an audience and actually impact their thinking.

“The goal was to test whether facts, science, emotions, or stories could make people change their minds.

The result was dramatic: a whole lot of nothing. None of the interventions worked.”

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Theatre, props and explanations, oh my!