“This week…we threw the scientists under the bus”

Note: As always, this post is my own opinion and does not necessarily represent the opinion of my employer

As I was watching Meet the Press this Sunday, I caught a great quote from NBC’s Nancy Snyderman.  Starting at around 06:12 of this clip,  she sum’s up what I’ve been feeling this week:

nbc-meet-the-press-panel-examines-cancer-screening-confusion#s-p1-so-i0

“This task force did not look at the economics.  Their job was to look at the pure science. And I think in some ways we hear from the scientists, don’t like the message, and this week I believe we threw the scientists under the bus.  We in this country have three hot button scientific issues.  We have stem cells, vaccines, cancer screening.  We need to step back as a society and let the scientists present their data and then, as an informed populace, look at it, talk about it.  And what happened on Monday was that the headlines then ran with the weak…

“…instead of intelligent people saying, ‘OK, what does this mean and how do we mean it’ And the task force basically said to women in their 40s, individualize yourselves, talk to your doctor.  This is all about, and I think Nancy and I agree on this, better technology.”

The science says what the science says, and in this case, it wasn’t popular.  I don’t know that I agree with the new guidelines in terms of the public health message they put out, but I do believe that the time has come for greater discussion about the merits of mammography, and the need for improved technology in this area.  That discussion seems to be getting lost in the discussion, and I am glad that Dr. Snyderman brought it up.

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Utilizing Social Media

A while ago I did a presentation for the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance on utilization of traditional and social media as it relates to media relations professionals.  Since then, I’ve received a few requests for the slides, so I decided to post them here:

If you have questions, feel free to submit them via the comments.

Science Writers: Day 2

The second day of the Science Writers 2009 conference began the New Horizons briefings, hosted by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW), a 501(c)3 non-profit organization devoted to improving the quality of science writing. My favorite sessions on day 2 were a session on Information Technology that focused on catching plagiarism, and a Statistics session that highlighted some Florida election troubles (not the election you’re thinking of).

Informatics and Plagiarism Scandal

Starting out the day, Harold “Skip” Garner, PhD of the Univ of Texas and his team created a web-based software program, called eTBLAST, to scan databases, like Medline (online database of biomedical research papers), to look for instances of duplication that may indicate plagiarism.  As someone who works a research agency that is also the single-largest source of funding for medical research, I found his research interesting, and just a little bit frightening.

The modern research environment is extremely competitive.  The cost of doing medical research is increasing, while the dollars available for that research has been in steady decline.  Academic researchers are judged, in large part, by the number of publications bearing their name, and the number of research dollars they bring into the institution.  A common mantra among scientists, in both public and private settings, is “publish, or perish.”  Perhaps it is this pressure to publish the next big paper, so that you can bring in the big research dollars so that you can publish the next paper, that drives some toward unethical behavior.

Previous studies cited by Dr. Garner have attempted to quantify instances of unethical behavior and found that 0.3% of researchers admitted to faking data, 1.4% admitted to some form of plagiarism, 4.7% published the same data more than once, and as many as 10% included authors that shouldn’t have been included.

Using their text analysis software, the researchers created a searchable database, called Deja Vu, which lists “highly-similar” publications found in Medline.  They currently list over 79,000 papers that are strikingly similar to other papers in the database.  The papers must be verified by hand, and currently only 6372 have been verified.  Mixed in that 6372 in that number are papers that were reprinted with permission, papers that are corrections of previous publications, papers from authors that republish after expanding upon their original work, etc.

The team follow-up on 206 papers, which had, on average, 86% of the same text and 73% of the same references as an earlier paper.  They sent surveys to the authors of the duplicate papers, and to the authors of the original papers.  Ninety-three percent of the authors of the original papers had no idea that their work had been copied.  As for the authors of the latter papers, 25% denied any wrongdoing, while 35% admitted and apologized.  So far, over 90 investigations have been initiated, and there have been over 50 retractions. I’m thinking that, in the “publish or perish” world, imitation is NOT considered flattering!

Nobody Does an Election like Florida

The second speaker was Arlene Ash, Ph.D., a statistician with Boston University whose recent work has focused on what she calls vote theft.  Dr. Ash shared data from the 2006 Congressional election in Florida’s district 13, where Republican Vern Buchanan earned a very narrow, 369 vote victory over Democrat Christine Jennings.

The problem, according to Ash, lies in the missing votes.  In Sarasota county, one of the four counties that make up the district, there were 18,000 people (15 percent) who voted for other elections, but didn’t vote for the Congressional race.  Other counties only had three-percent missing votes, indicating a clear anomaly.  Adjusting for the norm, there were 15,000 excess missing votes in Sarasota county.

If the 15,000 people voted in a similar pattern to the rest of the voters, then the missing votes would not matter.  However,  according to Ash, these votes were not lost at random, and therefore one cannot assume that the votes would be distributed as the non-lost votes.  Polls that showed the Democratic candidate having a strong lead prior to the election seem to confirm this suspicion.

It is speculated that many of the votes were lost due to the design of the ballot in that Florida county (wait, this feels familiar).  On the Sarasota ballot, the congressional race did not get its own page, as many of the other votes did.  It was squished at the top of a page, occupying about a quarter to a fifth of the page, while the rest of the page was occupied by one other election.  Also, for some reason, the headers of the  sections with for the other elections were highlighted with bright colors, while this one was just white.

Ash believes that this constitutes vote theft, which, according to her, occurs when the choices of eligible voters who make reasonable efforts to vote are not counted.  In other words, disenfranchisement.

Vote THEFT seems kind of harsh, but it does seem awfully fishy.  Considering the high potential for error when different places have different ballots, why don’t we just have standardized ballots in this country.  If we have standard passports, and are moving toward standardized ID’s, why not standard ballots?

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Science Writers 2009: Day 3

The third day of the Science Writers 2009 conference was hosted by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW), a 501(c)3 non-profit organization devoted to improving the quality of science writing. Each year, as part of the annual Science Writers conference, CASW’s New Horizons sessions, which are hosted by a different university each year, showcase emerging research in multiple areas of science.   My favorite session on day 3 was a session on personality by a professor of psychiatry.

Personality: What you stuff says about you

George Carlin once quipped, “That’s the whole meaning of life…trying to find a place for your stuff.” In his presentation, UT-Austin’s Dr. Sam Gosling discussed his research about personal belongings and what they reveal about personality. 

If you’ve ever seen a set of door rooms, or a row of office cubicles, you know that different people will do very different things with identical spaces.  The frat boy’s dorm room will look no more similar to the room of goth chick, than my many post-it laden desk looks next to that of an OCD-suffering, super neat colleague.  The way we organize our spaces, the items we keep in it, and the type of mood we try to portray in that space say a lot about our personality, even if we don’t intend it to do so.

  • On of the first processes that links us to our spaces is the “identity claim” — those things we do that declare ownership.  From the type of plaque we put on our desk, to the stickers that someone puts on their dorm room door, these are things that we put in our space that are purposely meant to let others know that this is our space.
  • The second process, which is not necessarily a conscious form of communication, involves changes we make to our space that affect how we feel — wall colors, music choices, photos, etc.  Although these things are more private, they tell people entering our space a lot about us.
  • The third is what Gosling called “behavioral residue.”  When we occupy a space, we leave marks behind, such as making marks in the books we read a lot, or leaving things in a certain place.  These are the unintended consequences of our actions.

To conduct his experiments, Gosling sent a team of researchers into a space and asked them to take notes about the space, and their impressions of the person’s personality on five dimensions.  Not wanting to bias the results by allowing the note-takers to see what the person looked like, he considered removing any visible photos of the person prior to the experiment.  However, the photos that someone chooses to display are an important part of the second level of interaction listed above.  To overcome this issue, he placed post-it notes over the faces of the owners of the space in any visible photos, so that the note takers could make unbiased observations about the person’s personality.

There were five personality dimensions included in their observations:

  1. Openness to Experience (intellect, imagination, curiosity, creativity)
  2. Conscientiousness (order, duty, deliberation, self-discipline)
  3. Extraversion (sociability, assertiveness, activity, positive emotions)
  4. Agreeableness (trust, nurturance, kindness, cooperation)
  5. Neuroticism (anxiety, depression, moodiness, vulnerability to stress)

He had a separate team go in and physically record (through notes, videos and still photos) the space being examined, and asked people who personally knew the owner of the space to fill out a questionnaire about the owner of the space.

Gosling’s team also examined other types of spaces, such as personal websites and Facebook pages, and compared their results to data collected during short meetings, info collected on the questionnaires completed by social acquaintances, and information on the person’s ten favorite songs.

Of the personality dimensions being examined, Facebook pages and Social behavior (via questionnaire) were the best indicators of extraversion, while personal websites, dorm rooms, offices and favorite music were best suited to indicate openness.  Conscientiousness was best demonstrated through personal websites, followed by dorm rooms, and neuroticism was evenly distributed between personal websites, dorm rooms and social behavior.

Gosling cautioned that there is a danger in putting too much emphasis on any one object within a person’s space.  He provided an example of a straight-A student, well known for her conscientiousness, who had an emasculate door room.  As the note-takers went through the room, they found drug paraphernalia packed away neatly in a box in the corner of her room.  The researchers were convinced that this was a sign of a deep routed secret in this person’s life, and that the outward portrayal of conscientiousness was an attempt to cover drug use.  As it turned out, the student’s roommate was going away for a semester, and ask her to look after her things.  So, being the conscientious person she is, the student collected all the belongs, filed them in a box, and put them in the corner so they wouldn’t be disturbed.  Gosling’s stressed is that it is important to look for themes among the belongs, and not analyze the belongings individually.  One object can have multiple meanings, and by watching for patterns you can get the best indication of personality.

A person’s space, and the stuff they put in it, reveal a lot about a person’s personality.  This had me thinking that I really need to clean my office.  Of course, Gosling also said that, unlike things we do to try to shape how people think about us, spaces don’t lie (which is why they make such good indicators).  If that’s true, and spaces can’t lie, then maybe cleaning my office would be futile.  After all, maybe I’m just a post-it over-using, messy office kinda gal.

Note: the slides from Dr. Gosling’s presentation are available on the CASW New Horizons website (with free registration).

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The emergence of social media

This morning I gave a presentation to members of the Ovarian Cancer of National Alliance about utilization of traditional and social media to advance the mission of their organizations.  It doing my research for the presentation I came across the results of a survey of journalists by TopRank Online Marketing that had some surprising results.

Age Distribution of Facebook UsersFor one, 64 percent of journalists used Google or Yahoo! to search for news.  Not Lexis/Nexis, but Google. And, while standard Google/Yahoo! searches were the most common, 27 percent of journalists had conducted what they were calling social searches.  Of the social tools used, 64 percent used social networks, 55 percent used blogs, 50 percent used wikis and 35 percent used micro-blogging sites like twitter and facebook.  So you know what this means folks — Facebook isn’t just for teenage girls anymore!

In fact, the average age of a Facebook user is 26, according to another report by iStrategyLabs.  Of the 200 million active users, the 35-54 age group is the fastest growing.  Of course only about 30 percent of the users are considered “active,” but that’s still a huge number, and growing everyday.

twitteruserchartAnd what about the microblogging?  Well twitter’s audience is even older — 31 is the average according to Social Media Today.  The users are 53 percent female, and 35 percent live in urban areas.  Twitter use is also growing rapidly, with 12.9 million new users per month.

With only 140 characters to work with, you wouldn’t think you’d be able to accomplish much on twitter, but I’ve actually met quite a few science writers and public relations people on twitter.  It’s become a great tool for professional networking, which is really surprising for a site who’s sole purpose is to allow you to answer the question “What are you doing?”