13 February 2016

Good times at the AAAS Conference

I'm in Washington DC for the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual conference. It reminds me a bit of the Indian Annual Science Congress. It's open to everyone, every topic under the sun is covered, and there's a general party spirit facilitated by merry scientists with their fun science-themed accessories, and those of us who are usually the nerds of the newsrooms briefly finding ourselves amongst fellow nerds. I've been honoured to also pick up the AAAS Kavli Journalism Award for best radio programme, with my producer Rami Tzabar (picture above is of me in the top right with some of the other winners, including my hugely talented friend Amanda Gefter). Many, many thanks to the Kavli Foundation and the judges.

Being here amongst so many hardworking science journalists has also reminded me how important it is that science journalism is valued by society. We get easily distracted by the whizz-bang discoveries of big research teams, as evidenced by the gravitational waves announcement this week. But underneath the landmark research, science is a policy-setting, politically powerful and socially important beast, with the capacity to do harm as well as good. Science journalists are the only real line of defence that society has between itself and this beast. Bad science, bias and badly interpreted research are far more common than you might think, and scientists themselves (in my humble opinion) are often slow to own up to their failings. Some of the most arrogant people I have ever met have been academics, and if you went to university, you'll probably feel the same.

Since I'm knee-deep in research for my new book on women, I've been boring friends and colleagues here about it, and it has stunned me how many have shocking stories to tell about sexism and racism they have seen in science. One veteran radio presenter told me last evening that the basic fact is that lots of men hate women, and the scientific establishment includes some of the most hateful. It's this that keeps me writing. That's not to say that science isn't a wonderful thing, and the best way to understand the universe. Only that it is also human. And so long as it is human, the world will need journalists to help keep it in check.

29 January 2016

Why the evidence of your eyes isn't good enough

I'm halfway through finishing my new book about scientific research on women and sex differences, and one issue that comes up again and again when I'm telling people about my work is this: "I know you say that men and women are equally intelligent, but then where are all the female scientists?" Or, "I know you say that girls don't prefer pink, but my daughter loves it, and that's not because of anything I've done." There is nothing more difficult for someone with scientific evidence that challenges people's preconceptions to face down than the Teflon-coated power of the preconceptions themselves. It is perfectly possible for there to be more male than female professors without that also having something to do with biological sex differences in intelligence. It's also perfectly possible your daughter likes pink, without that being an innate preference that all girls are born with. Yet we so often trust the evidence of our own eyes over the statistics or the scientific studies.

Especially when it comes to gender, we far too easily leap to the conclusion that the little we observe around us must be true of everyone, everywhere, and for all time. The technical name for this is confirmation bias, and it's one of the unfortunate human habits that we can't seem to shake. We tend to interpret new information in a way that supports our beliefs or prejudices, and if the new information doesn't, we tend to ignore it. If it doesn't fit into your worldview, you probably won't like it. So while we might find it hard, we need to be just as sceptical of research that confirms what we think as we are of research that doesn't.

Too many bad scientific hypotheses have been built on the statement: "We know men and women are different because we can see it." Everyone loves to find out that women really can't read maps or that men really are rubbish listeners. But just like your dad not being good at listening isn't good evidence in favour, neither is a school hall full of empathic, attentive men proof that men are equally good listeners as women. Science works (or should work) at a far deeper level when it comes to answering these questions. That kind of proof requires hard statistical analysis, psychological studies, behavioural data, cultural and historical context, an understanding of social factors... all things more rigorous than anything you can observe with your own eyes.

The picture of the mouse is courtesy of Aleksey Pogrebnoj-Alexandroff

10 November 2015

Needless to say, I'm thrilled

The winners of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Kavli Science Journalism awards were announced today, and I'm delighted that myself and my producer at BBC Radio 4, Rami Tzabar, have won the gold prize in the radio category for the documentary we made this summer about birdsong and human language. I was very proud of this piece of work, partly because it took me years to get it commissioned, but also because we didn't shy away from including some of the more arcane (but hugely interesting) explanations of linguistics. Also, my young son Aneurin features at the start of the programme (his radio debut, which just goes to show that he's already outdoing me).

Many thanks to the folks at AAAS. Look forward to meeting the the other winners at the award ceremony in Washington next year!

4 November 2015

A new book is on its way

Quick, straighten out the living room and put the kettle on. A new book is coming! Actually, hold on, it won't be here until 2017.

It's been four years since Geek Nation was published (for those of you who've asked me what I've been up to and why I haven't written another one sooner, I've been raising a baby, presenting some radio shows, and whiling away some time at MIT. No excuse, really). But now I have finally started work on my next book. It's been commissioned by the lovely folk at Harper Collins and tentatively titled The Rediscovered Woman. As this suggests, it's all about women. More specifically, it's about how science has got so much wrong when it comes to women and how that imbalance is now being redressed, giving us a fresh portrait of women. I'm around a third of the way through it now, but it won't be finished until the end of next year, so you can expect to see it in early 2017 (just a year ahead of the centenary of women being granted the vote in the UK).

Like Geek Nation, writing The Rediscovered Woman is turning out to be a personal and illuminating journey for me. I bathed happily in the assumption, for many years, that science was objective. Think again. In fact I've been shocked by the bias I've seen, not just in historic scientific texts, but right up to the present day. Equally enlightening has been the newer work shedding light on women's actual biology and evolutionary history. Researching this book has utterly transformed the way I think about myself and other women (and men), and I hope I can do the topic some justice by getting you to the feel the same way.

I'll occasionally be popping some postcards from my research along the way, here on my blog.

12 May 2015

What songbirds can tell us about language

When I was doing my Knight fellowship at MIT, I met a fascinating man called Shigeru Miyagawa. I was sitting in on his class on Japanese culture, but I learned later that his day job is actually as a professor of linguistics. MIT has some of the world's leading linguists (most famously, of course, Noam Chomsky) and at the time we met, Miyagawa happened to be working on a new idea that promised to shake up the field: that human language evolved from two different layers that pre-exist in nature. One layer comprises simple, grunt-type utterances, or words, which have meaning (like we see in our fellow primates) and the other layer is more melodic and expressive but not really meaningful in itself (like birdsong). He calls this radical idea the integration hypothesis.

My BBC Radio 4 documentary, produced by Rami Tzabar, about his work and the more general idea that birds might help explain the origins of human language aired this morning (incidentally, the baby babbling at the start of the documentary is my son, Aneurin. I dare you not to be utterly charmed). You can catch it online on BBC iPlayer if you missed it, or you can hear it on the BBC World Service in a couple of weeks. If radio is not your bag (what?) then I've written a BBC Earth feature to accompany the story.

Since I met Miyagawa, he's published a few papers on the topic and produced a very informative MOOC for students, which covers the basics of human language as well as the integration hypothesis in more detail. They're all hugely interesting, as is he.

Zebra finch photo above by Maurice van Bruggen.

27 January 2015

Flights of fancy

The Indian Science Congress (if you're not familiar with it) is an annual, general-topic, massive meetup that brings together all sorts of researchers and students across India, often with the Prime Minister or President taking top billing. As I wrote in Geek Nation, this kind of gathering naturally attracts a few crackpots and pseudoscientists, but the Congress very rarely gives them any prominence.

However, a strange thing happened at the Indian Science Congress this year... one of the presentations was about "Ancient Indian Aviation Technology." If you're wondering what this means, it's the mythical belief that ancient Indians flew around in airplanes, perhaps even to other planets (I know, I know...). As amusing as the world press found this, it was a topic I was already uncomfortably close to. In one chapter of my book I went to visit the academy where research into this "aviation technology" takes place. Caravan magazine ran an excerpt for this chapter over the weekend in case you'd like to take a look.

What I found at this academy, predictably, was a bit nutty. The motivation behind it, however, is sinister. To me at least, attempts to appropriate science by religious groups (in this case, Hindus) never end well. The latest resurgence of interest in ancient airplanes, along with ancient plastic surgery and goodness knows what other bonkers myths, are driven by a desire to elevate Hinduism by proving that all knowledge belongs to the religion. These people aren't deluded (well, at least some of them aren't), they're manipulative. They're doing nothing less than trying to whip up nationalism using fake history.

Of course unsubstantiated ideas like these have no place at a scientific conference, but I do hope the derision that followed the Indian Science Congress does at least stop people from trying to force them into schools or universities. More urgently, I hope we start to see these seemingly little acts for what they are: subversive attempts to turn Indian away from secularism.