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That's the premise of an article in Nature (Brown & Woolston, 2018), which I discovered via the excellent Debunking Denialism on Facebook (& if that's not a good example of how various social media are interlinked, I don't know what is). Since mine is a science blog, obviously I was interested in the Nature narrative. 

Brown & Woolston believe that 

Blogs continue to be an effective platform for communicating your science to major stakeholders - and the public

- or in my case, communicating about science (& pseudoscience) & science education to the public; what began as something focused on scholarship biology students has acquired a wider view of things as time's gone by.

So, why do they (& a lot of science bloggers, yours truly included) think that blogging remains important?

For some, it's all part of the way that scientists communicate and network - what starts as a blog post may end up as a collaborative research project. It's one of many channels for digital communication - one that allows for deeper engagement with a topic than something like Twitter, with its still-tight limits on how much you can say in a tweet. (And of course, it's good practice to share your blog posts via Twitter & Facebook, & so potentially reach a much wider audience.) 

That communication can be with intending scientists as well as those already established in their field. Brown & Woolston cite one researcher, Allison McDonald, whose 

ultimate goal [in blogging] is to take the mystery out of the equation, to level the playing field for [young scientists] who aren't aware that there is even a game at play.

It does take time, of course. One of the reason my own posts have dropped a lot in frequency over the past year is that the demands of my day job have increased. I've got a lot of drafts stored up, for example, that I've jotted down during conferences about science education; the trick has been to find time to polish & publish them. But for those who blog, the time is well-spent. Blogs like Respectful Insolence, for example, have hits in the hundreds of thousands a month - they have a very large readership, and keep key messages in public view. (And on RI, with a range of scientists & health professionals providing commentary, you can learn a lot from the comments thread as well as the posts.) Others, like Dynamic Ecology (cited in Brown & Woolston) bring in over 40,000 views a month (still a very respectable figure), and New Zealand's own Sciblogs is in the same ballpark. 

And it is a challenge to keep posting in the face of Twitter & FB - given the apparent tendency for people to 'share' things in those social-media sites without actually reading them first, I sometimes wonder if folks have the patience to read a lengthy (or even a short!) blog post. (Not that this deters Orac, whose very long posts are legendary.) But I do agree with Paige Brown Jarreau (also cited by Brown & Woolston), who describes the way that I've tended to do things in the last few years:

social media platforms don't supplant blogging, they feed it - giving writers a place to develop and test ideas that they might later incorporate into a lengthier post

- that, & using my FB & Twitter feeds to identify interesting things to follow up & write about!

Oh, and if you're interested in blogging, the article also includes some useful hints - and some caveats about putting yourself out there for the world to read.

E.Brown & C.Woolston (2018) Why science blogging still matters. Nature 554: 135-137. doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-01414-6


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I've just received a reminder that I need to set up the paper & teaching appraisal for my summer school paper. This is a series of items that students can answer on a 1-5 scale (depending on how much or how little they agree with each statement), plus opportunities to give open-ended responses to a few questions. These last are the ones where I might want to find out how the students think I might improve my teaching, or the aspects of the paper that they did & didn't like.

Among the first set of items is usually a stem along the lines of "this teacher provides useful feedback on my work", where responses would range from 'always' (1) to 'never' (5). It's the one where I get my lowest scores - and this is despite the fact that I provide general feedback to the class, written individual feedback on essays etc (& when I was teaching first-year, the opportunity to get feedback on drafts), and verbal feedback when the opportunity is there. Digging into that a bit, it appeared that most students only saw the written feedback as feedback at all, and since a substantial minority didn't collect their essays afterwards, then they felt they weren't getting feedback. Bit of a catch-22, and one that perhaps marking & giving feedback on line might ameliorate? I hope so.

But you can understand why students might not participate in an appraisal of the paper and the teaching in it: if they feel that the teachers aren't providing them with feedback, why bother? And - just as important - if we don't close the loop & tell students how we use their feedback, then why would they bother?

So, are universities good at providing feedback to students? I don't agree, and I think quite a few students would say no - and according to this excellent article in the Conversation, academic researchers, Australia's 2015 Graduate Course Experience survey, and the Australian government's "Feedback for Learning" project agree with them. For example: 

The 2015 Graduate Course Experience surveyed over 93,000 students within four months of their graduation. It reported that while close to three quarters of graduates felt the feedback they received was helpful, 16.3% could not decide if the feedback was helpful, while a further 9.7% found the feedback unhelpful. Clearly something is wrong when a quarter of our graduates indicate feedback is not working.

The findings from the Feedback for Learning survey of more than 4,000 students are particularly interesting - & saddening. Of all those surveyed, 37% said that the feedback is discouraging. Thirty-seven percent!!! There were few instances where students felt that they'd received the opportunity to benefit from any formative feedback they received. 15% of all respondents found the feedback upsetting - but this rose for international students, students with poor English skills (these first two are not necessarily one & the same) or a learning disability. And a majority of both staff & students felt that the feedback is impersonal. 

You can see why I found the article saddening. But why is there such a problem? Perhaps, suggests the Conversation, it's partly (largely?) because in many cases both academics and students don't really understand what 'feedback' really is. 

For example, many academics and students assume that feedback is a one-way flow of information, which happens after assessment submission and is isolated from any other event. In addition, academics and students often feel that the role of feedback is merely to justify the grade. A further misunderstanding is that feedback is something that is done by academics and given to students. These beliefs are deeply held in academic culture.

Luckily there are things that we can do about it. The article describes four things that educators should bear in mind that would significantly improve both the quality of feedback that we provide, and the nature of students' learning experiences arising from that feedback. I strongly recommend reading those recommendations - and acting on them.

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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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Recent Comments

  • Richard: High dose resveratrol (5g was used in the study) actually read more
  • Alison Campbell: Or you could, you know, summarise your own reasons for read more
  • marc verhaegen: For recent info, google "aquatic ape theory made easy 2017". read more
  • Alison Campbell: I feel that may have connotations of 'night soil', which read more
  • herr doktor bimler: Would it sound better as "liquid soil"? read more
  • Alison Campbell: The results in the study you linked to look promising read more
  • Alison Campbell: Thanks, Ed. Totally agree - it's just a matter of read more
  • Ed Darrell: Plague? Antibiotics, plus we know the vector and how to read more
  • Matthew: At least you came at this with an open mind. read more
  • Alison Campbell: No, I think you're wrong. You do get people there read more