Communicating Science

I just read this lovely discussion of how a more open scientific culture (think open-access science) could improve the collective memory of science. This was on the Back Page of APS News (subscribers only) and here is the author Michael Nielsen’s blog post about the topic too, with some additional information. His basic premise is that we don’t exchange scientific information freely, in a sort of public scientific marketplace, because there’s a lack of trust like there is in the consumer marketplace. He writes:

In science, we’re so used to this situation that we take it for granted. But let’s compare to the apparently very different problem of buying shoes. Alice walks into a shoestore, with some money. Alice wants shoes more than she wants to keep her money, but Bob the shoestore owner wants the money more than he wants the shoes. As a result, Bob hands over the shoes, Alice hands over the money, and everyone walks away happier after just ten minutes. This rapid transaction takes place because there is a trust infrastructure of laws and enforcement in place that ensures that if either party cheats, they are likely to be caught and punished.

If shoestores operated like scientists trading ideas, first Alice and Bob would need to get to know one another, maybe go for a few beers in a nearby bar. Only then would Alice finally say “you know, I’m looking for some shoes”. After a pause, and a few more beers, Bob would say “You know what, I just happen to have some shoes I’m looking to sell”. Every working scientist recognizes this dance; I know scientists who worry less about selling their house than they do about exchanging scientific information.

I just loved this analogy. It’s absurd, yet understandable, how hard it is for scientists to collaborate. But there’s a ton of stuff being written now about open access and what it can do for science, on my blog and others.


I wrote a post a week or so ago about a study that showed what Monet’s and Degas’ artwork would have looked like through their respectively failing eyesights, which may account for particular deteriorations of their art in later years.

I just managed to get a copy of the original paper, and have just updated that post with the actual images of how their art would have looked through their eyes. So, go check out the updated post!

Money - Woman with a Parasol - 1875

Money - Woman with a Parasol - 1875

[CASW New Horizons: Michael Marmor, Professor of Opthamology, Stanford]

This was a very interesting little talk by an opthamologist and art collector about what happened to two particular artists as they lost their vision — Degas and Monet.  Here is a link to the original article, with pictures.

Degas suffered from maculopathy, where his vision gradually deteriorated over a period of years. The fine detail of his work disappeared, the shading lines grew coarse and far apart instead of fine and close together, and features (like faces) because poorly delineated. Early work shows a lot of fine detail, but the later work is expressive only in its general posture.  Click here to see pictures of the evolution of Degas’ work over time.

Degas - The Tub - 1886

Degas - The Tub - 1886

Degas - After the Bath - 1896

Degas - After the Bath - 1896

He showed us examples from early, middle, and late work, and you can clearly see the degeneration in his work. Below are examples, but his later work (which I couldn’t find examples of) is almost grotesque. Faces look frightening and postures are awkward. His friends and colleagues also told him that his work was not quite, shall we say, up to snuff. Dr. Marmor simulated for us what the paintings probably looked like to Degas, considering the state of his vision, and you can see that the course shading lines and awkward expressions disappear. He probably couldn’t appreciate how others saw his work in those years, because his poor vision erased the flaws in his own work in his eyes. Dr. Marmor looked at a variety of data (his handwriting, comments of friends, the spacing of shading lines) and reconstructed a relatively linear pattern of the decline of Degas’ vision over time. He eventually stopped producting work shortly before he died.

Monet suffered from cataracts, in which the lens hardens and yellows. The lens in our eye naturally gets more dense and yellow as we get old, but cataracts are an extreme example of this natural aging process. In about 1912 Monet complained of vision loss, and by 1922 he was legally blind.

Money - Woman with a Parasol - 1875

Money - Woman with a Parasol - 1875

As an impressionist, Monet dealt with light and shadow, not detail, and so he was able to continue to produce work for quite some time despite his declining sight. However, cataracts affect your color vision, and this affected the quality of his work. He usually produced work with delicate colors and light, but examples of his later work showed almost garish use of orange and green, which was most likely his attempt to actually see the color on the canvas. In the years before he finally submitted to cataract surgery, he was painting almost entirely from memory, because he could no longer distinguish blues and greens, or reds and purples. Again, Dr. Marmor showed us simulations of what Monet’s work probably looked like to him, and the strong colors faded into muddiness. Click here to see images showing how Monet’s later water lily paintings would have appeared through a moderate cataract. The forms also became indistinguishable. Dr. Marmor showed us a late Monet painting and asked us to identify it. To me, it was a mass of blobs of color with a few blurry lines. It turned out that it was the bridge in Monet’s japanese garden. It was completely unrecognizeable to me.  Take a look at that picture here, as well as how it would have appeared to Monet through his now-severe cataracts.

Monet - Water Lily Pond and Weeping Willow - 1916-1918

Monet - Water Lily Pond and Weeping Willow - 1916-1918

He argued that the change in style wasn’t due to artistic changes, because Monet’s work returned to its former style after he underwent surgery.

One interesting tidbit that I liked, since I think perception is just so cool, was that in Soleil Levant, below, the reason that the rising sun against the blue sky is so striking is because the blue and the orange are of the same intensity. This makes it hard for our brain to place the sun clearly in space because we don’t have the contrast we usually rely upon to make boundaries between objects.

Monet - Soleil Levant - 1872[Monet – Soleil Levant]

It turns out that there is a Society of Blind Artists nowadays. Many of them, not surprisingly, are photographers, since the film will faithfully capture what they are unable to see clearly.

[CASW New Horizons; Baba Shiv, Professor of Marketing, The Frinky science of the human mind]

Note that all papers on today’s talks are at

Baba Shiv is the guy who did the famous study on perception of the quality of wine being intimately connected to how expensive people thought the wine was.  This talk was a fascinating tour of the mind and how it relates to product marketing.

First, why is the economy crapping out?

Well, imagine the following situation.  You’re given $20 and you can choose to invest $1 in each round, or not.  If you invest, you have an equal chance of wining $2.50, or of losing $1.  What should you do?  Rationally, the answer is obvious – invest blindly.  You’ve got an equal chance of winning more money than you would lose.  But human beings aren’t purely rational creatures.  Emotion has an important role to play.  Winning is exciting, it feels good.  Losing… not so much.  It turns out that we tend to remember the emotions associated with the most recent investment round, and negative emotions tend to win over positive ones.  So when you do the stud, you find that subjects start out investing about 100% of the time, and drop to about 50% investment rate by the 5th round.  They’re remembering the negative emotions related o the times that they lost, it turns out.  And this is what happens with the stock market as well.  When things are going well, people get greedy and keep investing.  And when things tank out, like they are now, people pull out their investments, even though rationally we know that we should invest.  So what about people who have damage to the emotional circuitry of the brain?  He gave the same sort of task to people who have brain damage and found that they did better at this investment task, investing more rationally. So, quipped Jay Leno, if you’re banging your head against the wall about the state of the economy — keep banging your head against the wall. Here’s a great article on Shiv’s work, including this study.

How does price affect our perception of a product?   

When we buy a product there are two things that go into our perception of its value – its inherent quality, and its price.  It turns out that they’re inversely proportional.  That makes sense – if someone emphasizes how cheap their product is, we think that it’s not very good quality.  Marketers always assumed that the consumer’s experience with the reality of the product would trump this perception – once they tried it and realized that it was a good product, then they’d recognize its quality.  But he wasn’t so sure that people’s prediction of the quality of a product wouldn’t affect their actual experience of the product.  If you buy Advil on sale, for example, will you think that it doesn’t work as well?  The answer turns out to be yes!  He gave subjects a Red Bull drink, and some were asked to pay full price (almost $2!) and some were told the real price, but given it at a discount.  They found that those who paid full price solved more word puzzles than those who thought they’d gotten the cheaper version.  How would that work?  Turns out that it’s related to the activity of the striatum, which plays a role in anticipation of rewards. If I tell you that I’ll give you some chocolate, the striatum will light up.  The striatum is also related to motivation, such as persistence in a task like the word puzzles.  When people think that they’re getting the discounted drink, they give up more easily.  One writer asked – but what about the rush that we get from getting a good deal?  He said that it’s true, we do get such a rush from getting a bargain, but it turns out that we use the item we get on sale less than one that we paid full price for.  Weird.

And what about that famous wine study? 

You can find out more about it online, it got a lot of press. The basic idea was that when they gave subjects a wine that was priced $90, the pleasure centers of their brain (the ventromedial prefrontal cortex) lit up more in an fMRI than when they thought the wine was $10.  So, our expectation of the quality of a product actually does affect our physical experience of that product!  One interesting aspect of this is that it suggests that blind taste tests are missing the point – our actual experience of a product requires the full context of price and branding.  Note that randomized placebo drug trials are, in essence, blind taste tests.  So, one could argue, this research should make us question how we go about determining the efficacy of drugs.  He did a study like this, too.  He gave subjects a sugar pill and told them it was pain medication, then caused them pain on their hand.  When he told them that the pill was $2.50, 85% of subjects said that they got pain relief, as compared to 61% of subjects when they thought it was 10 cents per pill.  Note that it was a sugar pill, and yet the majority of people reported pain relief, what a strong placebo effect!

The last study he told us about was what he called the IKEA study.

It was on the role of packaging and product returns.  This was dubbed the “fruit of labor study” because they found that when the consumer put a lot of effort into consuming the product, they like it more.  Obviously this relates to IKEA because there is a LOT of effort required to assemble their furniture once you take it home.  He found that those subjects who assemble the furniture themselves, instead of having it home delivered, were less willing to sell the furniture later.  What a boon to companies!  They offset their costs by making the consumer assemble the product, and the consumer likes it more.

[CASW New Horizons: Sean Mackey, Pain Management]

I was telling another writing as I walked into this session, “I must be in the wrong business.” All the psychology talks are much more interesting than the other ones on stem cells and bioterrorism. This morning is Sean Mackey talking about pain perception. This is fascinating stuff. His website is at

Also, if you want to follow other science writers’ Twitters, you can see all Twitters on the conference.

Sean believes that we can’t understand pain by breaking it down into the individual pieces of the experience. It doesn’t lend itself to biological reduction. It’s a complex adaptive system. None of the brain systems that are related to pain are dedicated to pain only – they’re related to emotion, expectation, etc. Plus, pain is subjective. Different people experience pain in different amounts, for the same amount of bodily injury. He particularly uses fMRI to study brain activity in response to pain, which lets us look at brain activity without actually cutting into somebody’s head.

One thing that affects pain perception is attention. When people are distracted by reading a book or listening to music they experience less pain, though this works only to a certain point. High levels of pain don’t respond well to distraction. If we’re anxious, depressed, or afraid, that also affects our perception of pain. There is a really nice episode of WNYC Radio Lab (Placebo) on this – they talk about soldiers in the battlefield experience less pain with hugely traumatic injuries than do middle class business men with the same injuries. After all, think about it, you’re on your way to work and you get hit by a car and get a compound fracture. You’re thinking, “this sucks” If you’re a soldier in the battlefield and you get thrown by a mortar blast and get a compound fracture, you’ve seen your buddies go through much worse. You’re thiking, “I’m alive!”

One of the most interesting things he talked about was our empathy with others’ pain. He told us about a time his son tripped and fell and whacked is head against the wall. He and all the other parents in the room cringed and gasped, but the kid bounced up, just fine. He wondered, did that hurt me more than it hurt my son? It turns out that indeed, our empathy of pain is real. He forgot to warn the squeamish to turn away as he played some video of some terrible sports injuries – feet turned the wrong way, and a leg broken mid-calf. The whole audience cringed and gasped. He asked us, “How many of you FELT that pain?” It turns out that those who don’t just cringe, but actually feel a certain amount of pain in response, tend to be those who have had an injury to that part of the body before. We asked a lot of questions about desensitization to these sorts of images, and he believes that this is an important factor. For instance, surgeons and EMTs, or even children playing violent video games, are in a way trained not to react negatively to these images. In fact, in his own studies, he found one particular volunteer whose brain didn’t light up in the expected way when shown these videos of people in pain. They questioned him further, and found that he was an ex-convict. Interesting!

He also told us about some of his research on the effect of love on the experience of pain. This work is being published, so he couldn’t tell us much at all, but the teaser is that both the experience of pain and the experience of early, intense love, are both connected to our systems of reward (the dopamine systems). They’ve found some interesting connections between these two brain systems. But you’ll just have to wait until he’s published it!

In the Q&A we talked about the role of the anterior cingulate in pain perception. It turns out that people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder may be treated by cutting the connections to the anterior singulate. People with chronic pain can also be treated this way. When queried, they’ll tell you that they still feel the pain, but they don’t care about it so much. So, the emotional connection to the pain has been cut. This just highlights the fact that pain perception is related to many different brain processes, its a systemic response, and so is very difficult to target. Some of his research has focused on the results of controlling patients’ anterior cingulate response and what that does to pain perception. But again, that’s still in the process of being published. Another interesting tidbit is that people with fibromyalgia (a chronic pain condition) don’t get runner’s high, which is created by our dopamine reward system in the anterior cingulate. Those people have some damage to that reward system. Acupuncture also seems to have some effect on the areas of the brain related to pain perception, which is only partially related to the expectation of reduced pain.

[CASW New Horizons: How talking machines can manipulate our brains, Clifford Nass]

I usually hate hearing about robots, I find pure technogeek stuff incredibly boring. But talk to me about research on the human brain and behavior and I’m rapt. This was an incredible talk with a constellation of research studies on how speech and interactivity with robots or other electronic “assistants” affect people and how we react to them.

First, people are incredibly strongly wired to react to language. By the age of one day, infants can distinguish the sound of speech, and by 3 days old they can distinguish their native tongue from other languages. At hte age of 18 months, they learn a new word, on average, every 2-3 hours. Wow! We use voices to identify how someone’s feeling, their gender (within 1 second!), age, and personality. We’re so good at analyzing voices that if the high frequencies characteristic of female voices are removed electronically from a voice recording, we can still determine the gender of the voice.

Talking cars

He did a bunch of research on what kind of voice is best to have giving directions and instructions to drivers. He played us the recordings of the two voices used for the study, both recorded by the same young woman. One was chirpy and professional. The other one was so Eeyore-like that we all burst out laughing. BUT, he found that when people were unhappy, they preferred listening to that morose voice, and had fewer accidents, liked the voice better, and were less distracted. After all, when you’re bummed out, do you want to hear some chirpy person reminding you that you’re down and they’re not?

Gender stereotyping

I’ve written about stereotyping and stereotype threat before. There is also a lot of gender stereotyping that occurs on the basis of voice. In fact, male and female voices are processed in different portions of our brain! He told an incredible story about a car with a talking GPS in Germany, with a female voice, that had to be recalled because male drivers wouldn’t take directions from a woman! In his study, he randomly assigned a male or female “avatar” to subjects as they tok an electronic math quiz. The picture of their cartoon-like male or female avatar showed up on the screen, and they were told they were working with two others on the quiz — both of whom were the opposite gender from the test subject’s avatar. He found that even with this randomly assigned gender, that all the normal effects of gender showed up — regardless of the subject’s actual gender! In particular, those with a male avatar did better on the math test (that’s actual performance on the test!), thought they did better, and were more competitive. Wow.

Remaking Microsoft’s Help Assistant

In an effect he called the movie critic effect, people see disagreeable people as more intelligent than those who are agreeable all the time. After all, a movie critic that hates all the movies is seen as smarter than one that likes all of them. They also believe people when they’re self-critical. So, if you’re modest, people will like you, but not necessarily see you as being very smart. He found, appropriately, that when a voice recognition system blamed the user for not speaking clearly, it was seen as more intelligent than if it blamed itself for not correctly processing the user’s voice.

On a similar note, if someone seems to not mirror your emotions, this can be annoying. If someone is cheery in the face of your frustration, you just want to punch them in the nose. He applied this same principle to the oft-reviled Microsoft Help Assistant. When the Help Assistant asks “Was my answer helpful?” users have the choice to answer “yes” or “no.” When they answered “no” the Help Assistant replied “That makes me really angry! Let’s tell Microsoft how poor their software is” and opened a Mail Window for you to send an email to the company. As you typed, the paperclip urged, “Don’t hold back! Let them really have it.” They found that users loved the new paperclip, though they then hated Microsoft. Finding the right scapegoat is important. Note that CNN reported on the killing of the overly cute Help Assistant about 10 years ago. Thank god.


Another fascinating area of study, he found that there are fundamental differences in the brains of people who are high multitaskers. This is particularly relevant as I sit here blogging on this conference, and other science writers are twittering. All classical psychology indicates that we shouldn’t be able to learn well while multitasking because we can’t attend to more than one thing at a time, our attention is selective. He wasn’t able to give many details on this research because it’s currently in press for Science magazine, but he found that high multitaskers show basic and fundamental cognitive differences in their distractability, information filtering, pattern recognition, and memory capacity. He used standard psychological tools like the Stroop test which tap into underlying cognitive abilities. These aren’t just changes in how people think about learning and thinking, but in how they process information on a deep and unconscious level. What does this mean for our teaching strategies? Something must change. People are unwilling to give up any of their access to media (look at me, blogging and twittering and reading my email while attending to this fascinating lecture), and this will have ramifications for teachers and society. We don’t know how education should look if it’s true that high multitaskers learn in fundamentally different ways than traditional learners!

[What’s science got to do with it? Thinking outside the Lab. KC Cole, Jennifer Ouellette, Paul Preuss, Adam Frank, Diandra Leslie-Pelecky]

Jennifer Ouellette posted a nice post about this session over at Cocktail Party Physics, so I won’t go into a lot of detail about it here, but just add a few thoughts.

Part of the reason that I got out of science writing as a full-time science career was that it seemed synonymous with science journalism and writing about science news.  I must admit, I’m deadly bored by a lot of the stuff in science news — dark matter, the LHC, stem cells.  I’m much more interested in the curious childlike questions.  Back in college when I was deciding whether to study more physics or not, I remember looking at the grass and thinking — If I could just understand everything there is to know about that blade of grass — the botany and how that grass interacts with the ecology, the cultural anthropology leading to its cultivation, the chemical processes that let it convert sunlight to energy, the physics and mathematics leading to its particular shape and curve — then that could be my life’s work.

I doubt I’ll ever be able to understand that blade of grass completely.

This session was perfect for me, as someone who’s not so interested in science news, but rather the more fundamental questions about how the world works.  The basic thrust of this session was to find new, fresh angles on science topics that tap into the readers’ interests. For example, Diandra Leslie-Pelecky wrote a book about the physics of NASCAR, and found that NASCAR fans would struggle through computational fluid dynamics in order to understand something they really wanted to know about — namely, why their guy didn’t win. At a similar talk a few years ago, one writer (was it Margaret Wertheim) suggested writing for women’s magazines with the same goal. For example, the chemistry of permanent waves or hair dyes talk about the science of something that someone is interested in already. People aren’t necessarily interested in the stuff that we think is fascinating, like string theory or the LHC. Why push our own agenda on them? Instead, bring our science to their lives.

I’m a big proponent on this, in particular on the science of everyday life. I’m fascinated by things like why coffee leaves rings, or why helium makes our voice sound high. If I had the time, this is all I would write on my blog. Jennifer related a story when she was walking along the street and saw concrete pouring, and thought “Ooh, self-organized criticality!” Similarly, I look at candles, and grass, and the cooling of coffee, and am curious. But I often find I don’t know the right questions to ask to make an interesting story about these things. I love hearing explanations, but perhaps my question-machine isn’t well honed.
“Be a child,” the panel suggested. “Take a walk. Ask the stupid obvious questions.”

Sounds like a laudable goal for me! If I only had more time….

For anyone who is also drawn by these questions of how the world works, and wants to be drawn into science stories by these wonderfully naive investigations, listen to WNYC’s Radio Lab.  In fact, one of their recent podcasts Making the Hippo Dance talks about some of the production elements they use to create Radio Lab in order to emphasize this sense of wonder and casual questioning.

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