Silence and the limits of language

I have found that an interest in silence and its meanings transcends the divide between clincal/”medical” interest and wider concerns. The auld philosophy of silence bit will take a bit longer to tease out… if ever.

Séamus Sweeney

“That for which we find words in something already dead in our hearts. There always is a kind of contempt in the act of speaking.”

Nietzsche, The Twilight of the Idols

Some popular sayings about education and mastery reflect a intuition that what is remembered is not always the full truth, or even the essential. There is the saw that “education is what remains when you have forgotten what you learned in school”, one of those quotes ascribed to multiple authors from Einstein to Lord Halifax. There is near-taunt that, on topic X, “I have forgotten more than you will ever know”.

The Nietzsche aphorism above is the epigraph of Harold Bloom’s “Shakespeare the Invention of the Human”. In another translation, the full paragraph is as follows:

We no longer have sufficiently high esteem for ourselves when we communicate. Our true experiences are not at all…

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Why isn’t William C Campbell more famous in Ireland?

There have been only two Irish winners of Nobel Prizes other than Literature and Peace – Dungarvan-born Ernest Walton for physics in 1951 and Ramelton-born William C Campbell for Physiology or Medicine in 2015.

My memory of being in school in the 1990s was that Ernest Walton loomed fairly large in science popularisation at the time. I recall quite vividly coverage of his death in 1995, but also recall his being quoted and profiled fairly extensively. Of course, I could be a victim of a recall bias – I probably am. Yet it does seem that William C Campbell has not had nearly as much coverage, especially when you consider how media-saturated we are now.

Or perhaps that is the whole point. It feels like a silly comparison, but is may be like the Eurovision; once we cared deeply about winning this competition and getting recognition, now there is a flurry of excitement if we get to the final. Having said that, it isn’t like we have had any other science Nobels to get excited about since 1995.

Of course there is a reasonable amount of coverage of Campbell, in the Irish Times in particular some of it quite recent. A fair percentage of online coverage seems to be from the Donegal papers of the hail-the-local-hero variety, which is fair enough.

A search for ‘William Campbell “Irish Independent”‘ starts with two articles from the Independent on Campbell, then has this , then a range of articles about unrelated topics.

I came across this excellent piece on “the fragile culture of Irish journalism” by Declan Fahy – the fragility exemplified by the coverage of Campbell’s prize:

The reporting of Campbell’s Nobel win illuminated several more general features of Irish media coverage of science. The story originated outside Ireland, yet its local dimension was stressed. Its tone was celebratory. It was not covered by specialist science journalists. Only The Irish Times probed deeper into the background of the scientist and his work.

The story was interesting also because of the aspects of Campbell’s story that were not developed. Reporters did not use the announcement as a jumping-off point to explore some of the novel dimensions of Campbell’s story, such as the rights and wrongs of pharmaceutical companies’ ownership of drugs that could help millions of the world’s poorest people, the unseen research work of an industry-based scientist, and the complex case of a scientist of faith with an admitted “complicated sense of religion”.

The superficial reporting of the Campbell story is not an isolated case. It reflects more generally the state of Irish science journalism, where there are few dedicated science journalists, a shortfall of science coverage compared to other countries, a neglect of science policy coverage, a reliance on one outlet for sustained coverage, a dependence on subsidies for the production of some forms of journalistic content, and a dominant style of reporting that lacks a critical edge.

(in passing, Walton was also a scientist of faith, although perhaps with less “complicated sense of religion” than Campbell)

Fahy goes on, in what is a an extract from a book co-edited by Fahy, “Little Country, Big Talk” to enumerate some fo the issues both within the structure of media institutions and within Irish society and culture overall which contribute to this relative neglect. While there is an Irish Science and Technology Journalists Association, there is not a critical mass of science journalists. Writing in 2017, Fahy observes:

Compared to the US and UK, Ireland has a far less developed culture of science journalism. There are currently no full-time science journalists in mainstream Irish newspapers and broadcasters. The Irish Times had a dedicated science editor in Dick Ahlstrom, who has now retired (and, during his tenure, he had other significant editorial duties at the news organisation).

The Irish Times also had a longtime environmental correspondent, Frank McDonald, who retired in recent years. Earlier this year, former editor Kevin O’Sullivan combined these two roles, becoming environment and science editor. The paper also has a health correspondent and a specialist medical writer. The Irish Independent has an environment editor, Paul Melia.

The public service broadcaster, RTÉ, has had specialists in science or technology, but its correspondents have usually had dual briefs, reporting on education or health as well as science, and tending to cover education or health more so than science. That tendency, identified by Brian Trench in 2007’s Mapping Irish Media, has continued. In 2016, the incumbent in the role is responsible for science and technology, and tends to cover technology more than science.

Fahy also discusses the wider place of science in Irish culture and society. There are many many fascinating stories to tell about science in Ireland, such as Erwin Schrodinger’s time here (perhaps illustrative of Fahy’s point is that the very first Google result for “Schrodinger in Ireland” is this) and the many many stories collected by Mary Mulvihill in Ingenious Ireland. As I have just posted on Seamus Sweeney, I only learnt while researching this post that Mary Mulvihill died in 2015.

Of course, some of these stories can be told with a celebratory, or I-can’t-believe-this-happened-in-little-auld-Ireland focus, which again illustrates Fahy’s point. My own perception is that in 1995 the situation was actually a little better than it is now – that Irish science journalism is not in stasis but actually in reverse .

One striking point made by Fahy is that the science beat is often combined with health or technology- and these tend to win out in terms of focus. And the hard , critical questions don’t tend to get asked – often there is a strong bang of barely rewritten press release about articles on science topics.

Another thought – the retirement of Dick Ahlstrom and death of Mary Mulvihill alone robbed the already small pool of Irish science writers of some of the finest practitioners. Irish journalism – like Irish anything- is pretty much a small world and a couple of such losses can have a huge impact.

The myth of the misplaced decimal point: Very interesting presentation by Christian Bokhove: “This is the new m*th!”

I am aware of the irony of posting based on the slides here alone and not on the context of the presentation as a whole! This from Christian Bokhove from the University of Southampton is excellent on the various myths that can arise in science, education and technology … but also their at times equally mythical rebuttals! For instance, the persistent belief that spinach is an excellent source of iron is a myth… but so is the persistent claim that the myth arose because of a misplaced decimal point. There is also a slide on the claim that papers/articles featuring neuroimages are judged more favourably than those without…     a myth (or rather selective selection of it-seems-true evidence?)  I am afraid I may have helped perpetuate :


In 2007, Colorado State University’s McCabe and Castel published research indicating that undergraduates, presented with brief articles summarising fictional neuroscience research (and which made claims unsupported by the fictional evidence presented) rated articles that were illustrated by brain imaging as more scientifically credible than those illustrated by bar graphs, a topographical map of brain activation, or no image at all. Taken with the Bennett paper, this illustrates one of the perils of neuroimaging research, especially when it enters the wider media; the social credibility is high, despite the methodological challenges.

From experience to meaning...

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Michael Gove and the Science of Beauty and Emotion

This is yet another stimulating blog post from Finding Nature. I know where the author is coming from in the structure of the post – pointing out the falseness of the dichotomy between the affective attraction to nature Gove discusses and science.

However, I do wonder if an emphasis on “what science tells us about connection, beauty, emotion, meaning and compassion” does run some risk of unweaving the rainbow a little. One of the findings of Miles Richardson and others is that factual knowledge about nature – identification of species and so on – is not correlated with emotional connection. As knowledge based activity often underpins nature education, this can mean opportunities for connection are missed. But could something similar happen if we only value nature connection Because These Peer Reviewed Papers tell us its ok to do so?

Finding Nature

In ‘The Unfrozen Moment – Delivering A Green Brexit,’ Secretary of State Michael Gove sets out his vision on the future of our natural environment. In this speech, and at the Green Alliance event a week earlier, I was struck by the recurring themes of beauty, emotion, meaning and compassion. Four aspects of our relationship with the natural world that our recent research has linked to improving our connection with nature – see my blog and the open access paper for more detail. It is great to hear the Secretary of State speaking from the heart. However, the speech, see excerpt below, infers a distinction between such themes and science. Having evidence based policy makes sense. This blog points out that there is science of beauty, emotion, meaning and compassion and this should also form part of the evidence base that informs environmental policy.

“I grew up with an emotional attachment…

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When technology doesn’t take: Update on #EdoBlocks and #Flic

From my other blog, some thoughts on technologies that initially seemed cool and impressive and very much fun/useful…but months later haven’t really become part of life. Think of all those unused wearables and the graveyards of cool-seeming but underused technology…. and wonder why is it underused? It the fault in our stars, or in ourselves?

Séamus Sweeney

A while back, I blogged enthusiastically about Edo blocks. These are Lego-ish blocks made of cardboard. At the time, they had proved great fun to make. They seemed to be a wonderful addition to play. And yet, months later, they moulder unused by actual children, taking up space.

Similarly, I blogged about Flic, a “wireless smart button” which again seemed just wonderful initially. And yet, again months later, Flic is largely unused. In this case, Flics was all too attractive to small children who rapidly disassembled them. The user interface of the Flic app was very easy to use, and as my blog post seemed to indicated there were all sorts of exciting potential uses. And yet, and yet …

In the initial assembly of the Edo blocks, it was rather slow going, and my children were more attracted by the cardboard box the Edo blocks came in than…

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Information underload – Mike Caulfied on the limits of #Watson, #AI and #BigData

From Mike Caufield, a piece that reminds me of the adage Garbage In, Garbage Out:

For many years, the underlying thesis of the tech world has been that there is too much information and therefore we need technology to surface the best information. In the mid 2000s, that technology was pitched as Web 2.0. Nowadays, the solution is supposedly AI.

I’m increasingly convinced, however, that our problem is not information overload but information underload. We suffer not because there is just too much good information out there to process, but because most information out there is low quality slapdash takes on low quality research, endlessly pinging around the spin-o-sphere.

Take, for instance, the latest news on Watson. Watson, you might remember, was IBM’s former AI-based Jeopardy winner that was going to go from “Who is David McCullough?” to curing cancer.

So how has this worked out? Four years later, Watson has yet to treat a patient. It’s hit a roadblock with some changes in backend records systems. And most importantly, it can’t figure out how to treat cancer because we don’t currently have enough good information on how to treat cancer:

“IBM spun a story about how Watson could improve cancer treatment that was superficially plausible – there are thousands of research papers published every year and no doctor can read them all,” said David Howard, a faculty member in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Emory University, via email. “However, the problem is not that there is too much information, but rather there is too little. Only a handful of published articles are high-quality, randomized trials. In many cases, oncologists have to choose between drugs that have never been directly compared in a randomized trial.”
This is not just the case with cancer, of course. You’ve heard about the reproducibility crisis, right? Most published research findings are false. And they are false for a number of reasons, but primary reasons include that there are no incentives for researchers to check the research, that data is not shared, and that publications aren’t particularly interested in publishing boring findings. The push to commercialize university research has also corrupted expertise, putting a thumb on the scale for anything universities can license or monetize.

In other words, there’s not enough information out there, and what’s out there is generally worse than it should be.

You can find this pattern in less dramatic areas as well — in fact, almost any place that you’re told big data and analytics will save us. Take Netflix as an example. Endless thinkpieces have been written about the Netflix matching algorithm, but for many years that algorithm could only match you with the equivalent of the films in the Walmart bargain bin, because Netflix had a matching algorithm but nothing worth watching. (Are you starting to see the pattern here?)

In this case at least, the story has a happy ending. Since Netflix is a business and needs to survive, they decided not to pour the majority of their money into newer algorithms to better match people with the version of Big Momma’s House they would hate the least. Instead, they poured their money into making and obtaining things people actually wanted to watch, and as a result Netflix is actually useful now. But if you stick with Netflix or Amazon Prime today it’s more likely because you are hooked on something they created than that you are sold on the strength of their recommendation engine.

Let’s belabor the point: let’s talk about Big Data in education. It’s easy to pick on MOOCs, but remember that the big value proposition of MOOCs was that with millions of students we would finally spot patterns that would allow us to supercharge learning. Recommendation engines would parse these patterns, and… well, what? Do we have a bunch of superb educational content just waiting in the wings that I don’t know about? Do we even have decent educational research that can conclusively direct people to solutions? If the world of cancer research is compromised, the world of educational research is a control group wasteland.