Monday, 17 August 2009

Women in science

In the same week that Athena SWAN commended university departments which it considers are making positive steps in encourgaing women working in science, engineering and technology, I stumbled across a new governement website called 'Science: [so what?]'. I shan't let the overly 'cool and edgy' use of punctuation detract from the fact that I am delighted to see a site aimed at engaging non-scientist members of the general public with the science that underpins both the natural world and human innovation around them. But why, you might be asking, am I mentioning these two things in the same paragraph?

Well maybe it's because, of the scientists featured, the biomed people were female while the engineers were almost exclusively male. Maybe it's that they made a point of mentioning that Rachel Riley, co-presenter of Countdown, was "the only girl to read mathematics" at her Oxford College (shame on you, Oriel!) And that she beat beat 1000 other women to the job. Were men debarred from applying? Is she the maths brain, or eye candy? Oh, and let's chuck in "she was bullied at school for being clever."

The site may well provide some answers to how things work (although the content seems a bit thin on the ground at the moment). But if it harbours any desire to inspire people to go into science careers (and this page would suggest it does), then it's awful. In summary, I have learnt:
1. Biomedicine is for women, engineering for men
2. Girls studying maths at uni are a unusual
3. If you're smart and sciencey, you risk getting picked on.
4. Their suggested link for careers advice does not recognise the scientific field I work in when you search their site for it.

Helpful. Thanks for that.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Overcoming certainty

Given that even the credit crunch has failed to prevent the ordinary folk from having to pay taxes, it's nice to know that not everything is set in stone. According to the BBC, taking a more positive view of life can actually help you to cheat death! The key to eternal happiness has been found!

This discovery was announced the other morning on the BBC News pages as follows:

Quite a claim! While pessimists are busy shuffling off the mortal coil, the probability of the cheerier souls following suit is considerably less. Presumably some of them cheat it entirely, judging by that headline.

Perhaps, unsurprisingly, the text subsequently changed to the somewhat more prosaic "Why optimism may be key to a long, healthy life - at least for women". Shame the editor didn't follow through and change the article itself. It still starts as follows:

What they actually mean is that over the years in which the study was conducted, the death rate among optimists was lower than that among the pessimists. This is not the same as having a lower risk of death. Let's be clear about this - the risk of death for every person on the planet is 100%. 10 out of 10. As certain as taxes. Is the Pope a Catholic? Yes. Are you going to die? Yes.

That's not to dismiss the research itself - one's state of mind can have a profound influence on one's health and longevity. Whether life is 'nasty, brutish and short' or otherwise, one might as well find a way of enjoying it, and a sunny disposition may well aid you in receiving a telegram from the Queen. But is it too much to ask that people charged with writing science stories actually proof-read what they've written, and check for logic? No, I suppose not, or else we might have been spared this effort today:
Isn't 'downing a drink' a tad colloquial for a 'quality' news site? Are we dumbing down English as well as science? Mind you, it looks like the proof reader had had a couple.


[In case you are worried I'm plotting to usurp Dr Goldacre from his post as Chief Health Story Inaccuracy Pointer-Outer, I won't. He does it with far more skill than I, and I haven't got the time. But I reserve the right to carry on shouting at the telly when they say stupid things about health. And I may well subject you to a rant about swine flu coverage at some point. Sorry.]

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Bad Science

I was delighted to hear Ben Goldacre on The Now Show the other day, not least because I'm currently in the middle of Bad Science, a book that I imagine I will badger everyone I know into reading before the year is out. He says an awful lot of things about the relationship between the media and health research that I would like to communicate, but in my case I end up shouting at the telly and getting too aerated to construct coherent blog posts, whereas Dr Goldacre manages to focus his frustrations into far more concise and persuasive arguments.

If you'd like a taste of his perspective, here's his slot on The Now Show:

Well, quite. My only gripe is that The Daily Mail Oncological Ontology Project (surely the best named blog ever) ran for a mere 4 days before ceasing to progress. Perhaps the author spontaneously combusted under the strain of reading all the crap spouted by the Daily Maul. Given the general ignorance about the difference between correlation and causation, I feel confident in stating (on the basis of this scant 'evidence' which I have extrapolated from an observation) that reading the Daily Mail is bad for your health.

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