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Today I was on leave and, the weather being bad, thought I'd do a bit of catching up on the news. And so it was that I found, on the Stuff FB page, an item about the (lack of) funding for cutting edge cancer drugs. So far, so innocuous (although also somewhat sad) - until I read the comments. 

For there, I came across someone (who later turned out to be not alone in her views) who feels that 

maternity spending is too high, time to pull the purse strings in and start putting some of that money into [funding for cancer drugs]. Ladies do not bleat on that you need it, 1950, 1960, 1970 gee less money, babies still lived. 

I thought this was a bit heartless, and pointed out that neonatal mortality rates were 4 times higher in 1964 than in 2010; it's a safe guess that increased funding for maternity & post-natal care contributed to that.

At this point you might be thinking, why did she bother? You've probably guessed that this is not going to end well. This is true, and for people like this individual (let's call her Black) it's highly unlikely that reason and evidence is going to change minds. But there are always the fence-sitters, the undecideds, and that's who you hope to reach in discussions like this. Plus, issues such as funding for maternity care vs funding for eg cancer treatment are not as binary as Black would have them; it should not be either/or, and it should not be decided on the basis of people thinking, well, I never needed that stuff so why should it be funded for others. (And I sincerely hope we don't ever go down the route that some politicians in the US have followed in their arguments around who pays for health care, and how much...)

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This is a cross-post from my other blog over at Talking Teaching

I type much more quickly than I write (some would argue, also more legibly). But when I'm taking notes in meetings, I do it with a (very old-fashioned) fountain pen & notebook. The reason is that this makes me filter what I'm writing, so that only the relevant points make it onto paper.  And this is why I'm actually somewhat chary of requiring, or expecting, students to take lecture notes on laptops, despite the push in many quarters for 'bring your own device' (BYOD) to classes in the expectation that students will do just that.

Yes, there are some good things about using laptops in class (see here, for example - it's a commercial site but I ignored the little pop-ups wanting to sell me things). They allow for faster note-taking, & if students are using google docs for that, then they can access their notes anywhere - they can also collaborate on the notes, which offers some exciting possibilities for peer-assisted learning. Laptops & other devices can also increase engagement eg via using them to complete in-class quizzes & polls.

However, they also allow for people to feel that they are multi-tasking - tweeting (as many academics do at conferences these days), chatting on messenger, posting on Facebook. Unfortunately that means that their attention's divided and their focus on learning is diminished. It could be - and has been - argued that that's the educator's fault; that we should offer such engaging classes that no-one's interested in goofing off, and indeed I think there is some truth in that. After all, if what the lecturer says is pretty much identical to what's in the slides they posted on line, many students may not see much incentive to pay attention, because "I can always read the notes or watch the recordings later". (Only, many never do :( )

What's more, the off-task use can be distracting to other students as well as the individual users:

We found that participants who multitasked on a laptop during a lecture scored lower on a test compared to those who did not multitask, and participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not. The results demonstrate that multitasking on a laptop poses a significant distraction to both users and fellow students and can be detrimental to comprehension of lecture content (Sana, Weston & Cepeda, 2012)


Most importantly, the level of laptop use was negatively related to several measures of student learning, including self-reported understanding of course material and overall course performance (Fried, 2006)


Results show a significant negative correlation between in-class phone use and final grades... These findings are consistent with research (Ophir, Nass, and Wagner 2009) suggesting students cannot multitask nearly as effectively as they think they can (Duncan, Hoekstra & Wilcox, 2012).

Laptops & tablets also allow for very rapid note-taking - and yes, I'm saying that like it's a bad thing. But if you're typing so quickly that you can take down what's being said verbatim, then you're probably not processing the information, and that has a negative effect on learning and mastery of the material further down the track. This was investigated by Mueller & Oppenheimer (2014), who found that even when students were completely on task i.e. using their devices only for note-taking, their engagement and understanding was poorer than those taking notes longhand. (That's in addition to other negative impacts they identify: students off-task, poorer academic performance, and even being "actually less satisfied with their education than their peers who do not use laptops in class.")

Mueller & Oppenheimer cite earlier work that identified two possible, positive, impacts of longhand note-taking: the material is processed as the notes are made, which improves both learning (makes it more likely that deep, rather than shallow, learning will occur) and retention of concepts; and the information can be reviewed later (of course, that's also possible with digital notes).  Processing usually involves paraphrases &/or summaries - which is what my meeting notes generally look like - but can also involve tools such as concept mapping, and there's a lot of research showing that students involved in this sort of activity do better on tests of conceptual understanding and the ability to integrate information.

So, since it's those higher-order skills that we hope to develop in our students, perhaps we need to tread carefully around the BYOD idea. Or at the very least, discuss all these issues with students at the start of the semester!


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Back in 2012 the Herald ran a series on alternative 'therapies' that included a somewhat uncritical piece on the use of leeches - the practitioner concerned claimed, for example, that they could be used to 'treat' diabetes. I blogged on this back then, as did fellow Sciblogger Siouxsie Wiles, &  the criticisms we made then still stand.

However - colour me gobsmacked - it seems that this practice continues, with the same practitioner now adding the claim that this is a valid therapy for Parkinson's disease and for cancer. According to the Stuff article I've linked to above, he appears to be also advising those seeking his help that they eschew "medical interventions such as chemotherapy or medication", because otherwise his 'treatments' won't work.

On that basis alone I really really hope that Medsafe takes things further. Alarmingly, at least one commenter on the article suggested that there should be a clinical trial to compare leech 'therapy' to the outcomes of chemo and other medications. As another person said, in response (my emphasis):

I wouldn't want to tell a patient that they're not getting their effective treatment because some crackpot said that leeches work and we need to test the theory. Ethically it would be a disaster.

What's more - leeches used in mainstream medical procedures are bred under carefully controlled, clean conditions. The company producing them refused to sell them to our practitioner. But the Stuff article makes it clear (including a photo) that, to continue offering leech 'therapy', 

he collected his own leech supply that is kept in a pond to use on his clients...

A pond. Outside. No control of water quality or diet. What could possibly go wrong?



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Chickenpox "parties". They had their day - and that day was before the chickenpox vaccine came on the scene. Because chickenpox can be much worse in teens and adults, back in the day it did make sense to contract the disease in early childhood. In fact, it was almost unavoidable, given the epidemic nature of this virus. But a vaccine is now available, so we've moved on, right? 

Unfortunately, wrong - here's a NewshubZB story on a recent invitation to just such an event. And here's the actual invitation, from the FB page Bring Vaxxed to Australia/New Zealand:

The responses were enthusiastic - and quite frightening. First up, people giving this sort of advice:

They could not be more wrong. Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. It can lie dormant in the peripheral nervous system for years before erupting into a blistering rash that is often excruciatingly & unremittingly painful. The odds of developing shingles, if someone's had chickenpox, are around 1 in 3 for those (like me) in the 'older' demographic, which is why I've had the 'shingles' vaccine (like all vaccines, not 100% effective, but better than nothing). Yes, prior to the varicella vaccine both chickenpox and shingles were effectively unavoidable - but why put a child at such high risk of future pain and discomfort now we have the means to avoid that?

And while we're talking discomfort - the chickenpox blisters can appear internally as well as externally, causing extreme discomfort. But hey, that's transient! And claims to the contrary are clearly fake news.

Chickenpox isn't exactly benign, either. Infants, teens, adults, and those with compromised immune systems (eg due to chemotherapy or immunosupressant drugs) may be more seriously ill and be at high risk of complications. These complications can include bacterial infections, pneumonia, encephalitis, septicaemia, all of which may result in hospitalisation. Despite claims on the "Bring Vaxxed..." page, infection of chickenpox blisters is not exactly rare: between November 2011 & October 2013 144 children were hospitalised with complications of chickenpox. Infections were found in 75% of cases. The median hospital stay was 4 days; 9% of those 144 ended up in intensive care, & up to 20% of cases had ongoing health issues after leaving hospital. Maori & Pacific Island children were overrepresented in these statistics.

This information isn't hard to find. And yet there are people, like those in the images above, who'd prefer to let their children run the risk of outcomes like these instead of use a vaccine with a high chance of conferring immunity (& so preventing shingles in later life). Not only that, they'll happily ask about measles parties (Andrew Wakefield has a lot to answer for, in contributing to the myths around measles vaccination), and even discuss sending swabs from their child to others in Australia. I kid you not.


Green nails it.

Are people really so wary of evidence-based medicine that they would rather ask someone they know only through the internet to send a swab of unknown provenance in the mail, in the hope of infecting their own child with goodness knows what?

It appears that some are :(




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In the Spinoff today, there's an OP on the ... 'alternative' ... views of a member of our local City Council. It's worth a read. I knew that the councillor was against the use of community water fluoridation (CWF) as a public health measure, but going by various postings she's made in social media, we can add anti-vaccine to the list. 

For instance: she feels that Council shouldn't pay for its staff to receive the flu vaccine - personally I'd hope that our elected representatives would think about things such as cost-benefit analysis. What are the costs to the organisation of having staff away on sick leave? (The University provides free vaccination against flu because it works out better for the institution that way.) However, her position appears to be based on an argument from incredulity: for some reason she "doesn't trust Ministry of Health recommendations". Personally I'm concerned that someone should choose to oppose public health recommendations via a social media page that identifies them as an elected representative; it can appear to give that opinion more weight.

According to the Spinoff writer, other claims made by the councillor include: that babies given vitamin K may develop childhood leukaemia (wrong); that CWF is linked to ADHD (wrong); that adults with polio can cure themselves by taking vitamin C (wrong) that measles is a hoax (wrong). And - horrifyingly - that whooping cough doesn't kill children (she could not be more wrong, and warning: this is a distressing video to watch). I guess that's what you get when people view Natural News as a reliable source of information.

In that light, I wonder how our councillor views the current measles epidemic in Romania

I'm beginning to think that the very success of vaccination has allowed the rise and spread of antivaccination views. Most people in first-world countries have not had first-hand experience of children dying of measles, diphtheria, and whooping cough; have forgotten the images of wards full of children (& adults) in iron lungs because their muscles are paralysed by polio; are unaware of the >30% mortality rate of smallpox, & the dreadful scarring seen in many survivors. If the promotion of antivaccine views results in communities losing herd immunity, then those diseases - which in many cases are literally only a plane flight away - could come surging back. 

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It's a bit concerning to hear of outbreaks of mumps in Auckland & the Waikato, as this suggests that in some areas the number of vaccinated individuals in the population has fallen below what's needed to maintain herd immunity: see Siouxsie Wiles' excellent post on this. One of the admins on my local suburb's Facebook page posted information about the Waikato outbreak, with a reminder to people to check their own & their children's immunisation status. This is because mumps isn't a particularly benign disease, especially in older children, teens, and adults

I suppose we could have predicted that those promoting an 'alternative' take on vaccinations would appear.


The 'discussion' was mildly entertaining, in that apparently this particular individual's 'brilliant' science education via the University of Google totally trumps all of immunology - especially so when they presented this particular book as evidence that All Vaccines Are Evil. In fact, that totally cracked me up.

Why? Because this book, by Alfred Russel Wallace (yes, that Alfred Russel Wallace) was published in 1889, and was based on data on mortality drawn from the UK's birth and death registers. Unfortunately the admin of our local FB page disabled comments before I could ask just which vaccines were being used way back then, if - as claimed - the book showed that all vaccines were baaaad.

As it happens, just three vaccines were available in the period that Wallace reviewed: smallpox (1797), cholera (1879), and rabies (1885). Given that rabies vaccine was given after exposure to the virus, the only two likely to have been in play in Wallace's England were the vaccines for smallpox & cholera. Wallace seems to have focused on the smallpox vaccine in his book. As you'd expect, conditions for manufacturing, transporting, and using the vaccine were not exactly up to modern standards. According to this article (you'll find the original references cited there),

Until the end of the 19th Century vaccination was done either directly with vaccine produced on the skin of calves or, particularly in England, with vaccine obtained from the calf but then maintained by arm-to-arm transfer; initially in both cases vaccine could be dried on ivory points for short term storage or transport but increasing use was made of glass capillary tubes for this purpose towards the end of the century. During this period there were no adequate methods for assessing the safety of the vaccine and there were instances of contaminated vaccine transmitting infections such as erysipelas, tetanus, septicaemia and tuberculosis. In the case of arm-to-arm transfer there was also the risk of transmitting syphilis.

Nonetheless, childhood vaccination against smallpox was made compulsory in England in 1853 - a measure of the fear with which this disease was regarded. 

During the period surveyed by Wallace, he recorded a 'slight decrease' in smallpox mortality, and there was indeed an epidemic in the final decade of his study. However, he himself notes that the unvaccinated population would have included:

infants dying under vaccination age, ... children too weakly or diseased to be vaccinated, ... [and] a large but unknown number of the criminal and nomad population who escape the vaccination officers. These are often badly fed and live under the most unsanitary conditions; they are, therefore, especially liable to suffer in epidemics of Small-pox...

And given the lack of any other vaccines against measles, diphtheria, typhoid, tetanus and others, it should hardly have been a surprise to his readers (now or then) that deaths from those diseases continued unabated. 

However, I should thank the person who posted that link (although I can't, because she blocked me) - without it, I'd probably never have known about Wallace's stance on vaccinations.

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A while back, my Twitter feed brought up a post with the intriguing title "Prof, no-one is reading you". The article kicks off with the following provocative statement: 

Many of the world's most talented thinkers may be university professors, but sadly most of them are not shaping today's public debates or influencing policies.

Now, them's fighting words, but the authors of the article do have some figures at their fingertips:

Up to 1.5 million peer-reviewed articles are published annually. However, many are ignored even within scientific communities - 82 per cent of articles published in humanities are not even cited once. No one ever refers to 32 per cent of the peer-reviewed articles in the social and 27 per cent in the natural sciences.

And it gets worse:

If a paper is cited, this does not imply it has actually been read. According to one estimate, only 20 per cent of papers cited have actually been read. We estimate that an average paper in a peer-reviewed journal is read completely by no more than 10 people. Hence, impacts of most peer-reviewed publications even within the scientific community are minuscule.

Now, I'd be wanting to know how that estimate is derived; it does sound somewhat arbitrary. But even if the figure were 10 times greater, it's still a bit sad, because there's some fascinating research out there & yet, if the authors of the article are correct, so much of it goes unread. One could argue that researchers should cultivate better relationships with mainstream media, & get their work out in 'popular' form via newspaper stories and radio interviews. 

But the article also suggests that researchers make better use of the social media, among them twitter & Facebook, to communicate with a much wider audience. It's something New Zealand's Science Media Centre staff advocate during their popular mediaSAVVY workshops for scientists. One reason for becoming active in spaces like the twittersphere, say the authors, is that lay people looking for scientific evidence to support (or argue!) a position would be able to find a researcher's quick summary more readily than they could access the full article, especially if it's locked away behind a paywall. 

And given the amount of nonsense & pseudoscience that circulates via the net, it's all the more important that someone looking for a science-based viewpoint is able to find what they're after. I'd really rather not live in a world where snake-oil salesmen hold sway.

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Well, this sucks, & that's putting it mildly. From Kevin Folta's blog, Illumination:

Dr Folta has been under constant attack in recent months since it emerged that Monsanto had donated  $US25,000 to fund a science outreach program he was running. Not his research, but an outreach program. He was accused of a conflict of interest by those opposed to genetic modification (one of the topics covered in the program) & ended up returning the money. However that didn't stop the attacks or the calls for his university to fire him. And so now there's this: the possibility I touched on when I first wrote about this issue has become reality.


And yet it's somehow OK, & not at all hypocritical (/snark) for anti-GMO speakers to demand tens of thousands of dollars in speaking fees to promote their message, or to pay similarly large amounts for research into eg organic farming. 

On Code for Life, Grant Jacobs has a very thoughtful piece on GMO legislation. And that's what we need from both sides of this question: careful rational thought, not anger.


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OK, so I'm back (from a lovely long overseas trip). And I had thought to write something 'light' to ease myself back into blogging, but then I see that scientist and science communicator, Kevin Folta, is currently experiencing some dreadful personal attacks via social media for his stance on genetic modification of crops. You'll find Kevin's take on this here, and examples of what he's facing on sites such as this Facebook page owned by GMO Free USA.

This isn't about the man's science. This is simply a series of extremely nasty ad hominem attacks, which tends to suggest that his opponents can't find any valid critiques of the actual scientific research that Dr Folta carries out. And which in turn leads me to paraphrase the words of the late Margaret Thatcher

I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single [scientific] argument left.

Unfortunately the end result may well be to silence the voices of scientists working in any field that attracts controversy1 - although to some degree scientists are pushing back, as evidenced by the following excerpt from a 2010 letter to the journal Science:

We also call for an end to McCarthy- like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them.

Hang in there, Dr Folta!


1 For those with a spare half-hour, there's an interesting video on the subject here.

And while I'm at it - could the media PLEASE stop using those photos of syringes stuck into pieces of fruit, to illustrate stories on GM and GMOs? They are just wrong in so many ways!

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As you'll have gathered, I'm finding Facebook - and now Twitter - great sources of information, whether it's for teaching, sharing with my students (& others!), or blogging about. And today, this paper popped up on my Twitter feed: Ten Simple Rules for Effective On-line Outreach. Because it's published on a PLoS journal (in this case, Computational Biology), it's open-access, and so you can read the full paper here. For that reason I'll just list their 10 rules here, with the occasional aside from me.

Having noted that it can be quite a challenge to develop and keep an audience for what you have to say, here's how the authors introduce what their paper's about: 

Here, we describe ten rules for conducting effective online outreach, so that other scientists can also enjoy the advantages of disseminating their knowledge and expertise through social media.

  1. Stop treating outreach and research as separate entities. This point dovetails with the comments in an article that I have in my 'must blog about real soon' list: that much published work doesn't get read & is never cited. Blogging or tweeting about research is a way of making it accessible to a wider audience, one that may never read a scientific journal but still wants to hear about what scientists do.  There's also this: 

    It should also be acknowledged that the requirement of translating research to a public audience increases both awareness and intimacy with the published literature—one that can feed directly back into your research program.
    Not to mention that both blogging and tweeting can increase your range of contacts and, from my so-far limited observation, lead to new collaborations.
  2. Be strategic. Be deliberate. In other words, plan before you act. I know that when I began blogging (seven years ago, now!), I gave a lot of thought to why I was doing it & to the nature of my target audience. 
  3. Find your niche & story. I've always seen this blog as outreach. Originally it was set up to reach year 13 biology students & their teachers, and although that range has expanded over time, I still have that group in mind. To that extent, I guess this descriptor from the paper applies: "a sustained effort to disseminate science beyond the ivory tower." I like to mix & match topics, depending on what catches my attention in my reading & on-line activity; it would be really really boring to stick to just a single area or focus! 
  4. Branding... branding... branding... Not one I've really thought about, beyond the fact that the blog carries the University's branding, given that it's hosted by the uni :)
  5. Recruit a top-notch team. I wish! Group blogging would certainly share the workload and, as the authors note, allow for more diversity of voice & viewpoint. Certainly this is something afforded by Sciblogs
  6. Focus on the story. I agree with the authors that good communication skills include story-telling and the ability to develop a narrative. These things allow you to show the human side of science & so build links with the audience. 
  7. Leverage multiple tools to disseminate content and build up your network. Yes indeedy. Facebook, Twitter, blogging, and all the other things I have a peripheral knowledge of: they're all ways of getting your ideas and stories out to a much wider network. My friend Kimberley Collins did her MSciComm thesis on this.
  8. Collect & assess data. This is not something I do in a formalised way, and I suppose that I should. (My Head of School would certainly agree!) But I do keep an eye on my blog stats, the number of 'likes' posts get on FB (I've taken to sharing each post there), and whether tweets are 'favourited'. (Social media are doing strange things to grammar...) The blog platform Wordpress also shows you what search terms people used in coming to your site, giving an indication of what things are currently interesting to your potential audience.
  9. Iteratively assess what works and what doesn't. This follows on from #8. The authors also suggest going for shorter, rather than longer, posts; I have to admit that I'm torn on this one. Orac, for example, writes some monumental posts, but his topics are usually fascinating and he carries a large audience along with him. Carl Zimmer & Ed Yong, two other bloggers whom I really admire, go more for brevity. So both can work, but I agree that for many readers shorter is better.
  10. Create prestige for public scholarship. Let's finish with the authors' words:

The most important overarching benefit is visibility—to one’s colleagues, to the media, and to the public. By being accessible, researchers participating in online conversations have the opportunity to have a much more influential voice for their science. In these days of dwindling governmental investment and increased public distrust of science, scientists need to speak out on the value of their profession and training.


Because we have witnessed such direct and beneficial gains as a result of our online outreach activities, we feel strongly that such activities should be given more weight when determining scientific productivity, e.g., during hiring/promotion decisions. The impact of online activities is increasingly recognized, and they should be formally encouraged.

Bik HM, Dove ADM, Goldstein MC, Helm RR, MacPherson R, et al. (2015) Ten Simple Rules for Effective Online Outreach. PLoS Comput Biol 11(4): e1003906. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003906

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