On science blogs this week: Challenging

CIVILITY IS NOT EXACTLY ROCKET SCIENCE. Aeron Haworth's was the definition of an abject apology. Haworth, a media relations person at the University of Manchester, told uber-blogger Ed Yong that he was very, very, very sorry. Given the affray Haworth caused, I do not doubt it.

This week, a PIO pops his cork

Haworth also acknowledged that he'd had a few glasses of wine while writing his string of emails and blog comments of ever-escalating offensiveness. That helps explain these incautious communiques, Haworth's attempt to excuse his refusal to supply Yong with author contact information and a paper Yong wanted to write about on his top-drawer blog Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Yong described the initial encounter decorously at his Posterous blog. Much of the juiciest stuff is contained in follow-ups from other bloggers, for example Maryn McKenna at her blog, Superbug and Ivan Oransky at Embargo Watch especially in the comments following, the most startling of which are from Haworth himself. (Foreseeing the carnage ahead for Haworth, Chris Clarke wailed, "for god’s sake, man, stop digging.") A couple of the most egregious of Haworth's comments, plus his apology, are excerpted by Bob O'Hara at his Nature Network blog Deep Thoughts and Silliness.

Needless to say, there were many other blog posts too. Deb Blum of Speakeasy Science mounted a defense of science blogs. David Harris at The Enlightened PIO lists many things that Haworth bungled and follows his post by printing a Twitter feed on the Haworth Misadventure that includes many of Yong's tweets. Cheryl Rofer at Phronesisaical bemoans the fact that some folks, notably Haworth, still don't get what blogging is about. Indian PR professional Karthik S. at Beast of Traal, recaps the facts and excerpts many comments.

CALLING FOR AN EMBARGO ON EMBARGOES. In his first Embargo Watch post on the Haworth Misadventure, Oransky describes other unsettling episodes surrounding embargoes and observes:

What do these episodes have in common? They all give the strong impression that what press officers — and in one case, an editor — at various journals and institutions are looking for are boosterish stenographers, not journalists who apply skeptical scrutiny to findings and announcements. This, of course, from PIOs supposedly representing science, whose participants and advocates love to remind us all of how transparent the process is.

Embargoes, he declares,

have given institutions the complete upper hand. I’m going to blame reporters here too: Journalists who don’t mind being infantilized have accepted these embargo policies without putting up a fight ... it’s time for this to stop. These policies simply aren’t consistent with the free flow of information, nor with transparency. And if they’re a government agency, or promoting publicly funded research, I think there are First Amendment questions.

DEPARTMENT OF INFLATED SELF-ASSESSMENTS. Marc Abrahams of Improbable Research provides a brief recap too, but also links to a relevant cautionary tale, a paper that that got the Ig Nobel Prize for Psychology in the year 2000. David Dunning of Cornell University and Justin Kruger of the University of Illinois are the authors of the prize-winner with the superior title: "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 77, no. 6, December 1999, pp. 1121-34.

A couple of factors put the Haworth vs. Yong tale into the nearly-too-good-to-be-true category.

First, Haworth could not have picked a worse target to pick on. Yong is, quite simply, one of the best--many would say the best--science blogger there is. If you don't believe me, believe one of the world's more august and conservative institutions, the US National Academy of Sciences, which gave him its 2010 online Communication Award "for engaging and jargon-free multimedia storytelling about science in the digital age." That's the top prize in science writing and by far the richest: $20,000.

Second, the prize couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. Yong is practically legendary for his bone-deep politeness, good humor, and generosity to other bloggers--kindness that didn't fail him even when dealing with Haworth at his worst.

But third, the best part, recounted on the O'Hara blog cited above. O'Hara opened a flyer announcing a media workshop for scientists to discover this luscious fact: On March 11, the University of Manchester's Aeron Haworth is to offer researchers practical guidance and "top tips" for when they come face-to-face with journalists.

I'm betting he will probably cancel.

ANOTHER YEAR, ANOTHER AAAS MEETING. The great big annual science miscellany from the American Association for the Advancement of Science has just begun. It's always scheduled for President's Day weekend, held this year, appropriately, in Washington DC. If, like me, you will not be present, you can get a glimmer of what's going on there here. Consult the boxes at the top of the page, left column. There will be daily interviews with scientists on such topics as alien worlds and bat behavior. Also promised are breaking news stories.

NOT SO ELEMENTARY, MY DEAR WATSON. So, as forecast, the artificial intelligence on display this week on the TV game show Jeopardy! whipped the brainy competition belonging to Homo sap. This despite a breathtaking electronic gaffe, when the machine intelligence called Watson (after IBM founder Thomas Watson, not Sherlock Holmes's sidekick Dr. John Watson) declared that Toronto was in the US.

One of the more interesting questions for science and medical writers is whether Watson's ilk will become Dr. Watson after all. Will this brainiac have a major impact on developing (and urgently needed) medical information technology?

Larry Greenemeier at SciAm's Observations reports that IBM is joining with Nuance Communications (source of the speech recognition technology that some of us have used for years, Dragon Naturally Speaking)

to integrate that company's speech recognition and Clinical Language Understanding (CLU) technology with Watson's "Deep Question Answering" natural language processing and machine learning capabilities. The result, which could be ready in as soon as 18 months, is expected to improve patient diagnosis and treatment.

One reason Watson might be good at medicine, says Hank Campbell at Science 2.0, is that it doesn't guess. People--docs included--act on hunches. But not Watson. If it's not sure of the answer, it shuts up.

That unwillingness to guess seems to be a product of the algorithms Watson uses, brute-force fashion, to produce an answer. Edmund Blair Bolles explores this briefly at his language blog, Babel's Dawn. He says

The programmers seem to have hit upon an approach like the one behind winning chess with Deep Blue, which used computing power to overwhelm the problem. “More than 100 algorithms to analyze the question,” is hardly the way people do it, but it seems like a brilliant strategy for overwhelming the problem in a blind, mechanical way.

That's definitely not the way people do it, which is not always to our advantage. One thing Watson does that you (and I) can't, Bolles points out, is remember all the names (and presumably other factlets) that we've heard over the years but promptly forgot.

At the Health Care Blog, Michael Millenson says the real showdown is between centralization and decentralization, between Game Show Watson and the thousands of computers in mobile devices descended from the invention of Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant, also named Thomas Watson. The latter have given birth to a new field called mobile health that is already transforming health care, Millenson notes, doing things like tracking polio in Botswana or managing diabetes in Boston

... partnering with patients as they turn into Telephone Watsons — not just being more smart about telling patients what to do — will remain central to improving health as well as health care


THE CONTESTANTS SAY WATSON IS ALL THUMBS. There's some intriguing (and even reassuring) comment about the approaching fate of Homo sap from two former Jeopardy! contestants. Both insist that Watson's superiority at the game has little to do with cognitive capacity or, for that matter, memory. Says Watson-vanquished contestant Ken Jennings at Slate:

Jeopardy! devotees know that buzzer skill is crucial — games between humans are more often won by the fastest thumb than the fastest brain. This advantage is only magnified when one of the "thumbs" is an electromagnetic solenoid trigged by a microsecond-precise jolt of current.

At Discover's Discoblog, a former Jeopardy! champion-turned-science-writer, LeeAundra Keany, agrees.

Everything you’ve heard about the “buzzer effect” is real. The ability to time your buzzer correctly on a consistent basis is a key to victory. On the various websites for Jeopardy! contestant preparation, the advice was legion: use your index finger rather than your thumb, its reflex action is quicker. Hold the buzzer baton firmly in place — any downward movement caused by the pressure of the “push” will delay the signal. And the killer: don’t buzz in too fast or you’ll be locked out for a quarter of a second, more than enough to lose out. James Quintong, the champion I dethroned, later wrote in a blog entry for Sports Illustrated that he lost his rhythm on the buzzer and that’s why he lost. On my second show I knew about 40% more answers than I was able to win simply because one of my competitors, Beth Klein, was better at the buzzer. Watson had a “hand” specifically designed for high buzzer performance; how could he not win?

If it's only our hallmark opposable thumbs that have been bested by a machine, not our hallmark thinking capacity, perhaps we will not be required to welcome our computer overlords quite yet.

Feb. 17, 2011

Victor K. McElheny Award