Scientific Journalism

You can find the new video here. Script after the jump

Hello and welcome to a new episode of the Nerdesthemen. Or actually, this is the first ever english-speaking episode of the Nerdesthemen. After I produced the original video in German, several best friends from the Kinda Funny community were anticipating this video, so I decided to postpone the original video and produce a second version of it in English. The pitch for this kind of show is a long deep dive into a certain topic. Like a normal episode of Last Week Tonight, but less funny. But much more nerdy. I haven’t done these kind of videos in a very long time, but I think just in the middle of a global pandemic is a good time as ever to do so again. Question is, however, why am I doing this video right now?

Well, I have seen many strange looking posts on several social media platforms coming from all kinds of the political spectrum. Some of them coming from what has become widely known as the so-called mainstream media or from many more, let’s just say alternative corners like blogs or strange YouTube channels. I have to say, I don’t like the term Mainstream media myself, as this term has some connotations associated with it, similar to the term Fake News. Just remember that this term used to describe comedic shows like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or The Colbert Report. Now, this term itself has being changed completely in its meaning. But I digress.

Many reports and articles try to describe the current situation for the average Joe Sixpack but some of those articles unfortunately fall flat in doing so and only a few of them actually succeed. In Germany, there’s a quite famous YouTube channel called MaiLab that tries to explain scientific topics such that anyone can understand it. One major topic in the last couple of weeks, however, was the presence of scientific journalism or actual scientific contexts in any form of media. In my opinion this is one major grudge that I have even with trustworthy media outlets of any political colour at this moment in time. However, since today’s world is turning faster and faster, information and news items have to be written faster as well, and have to be read and understood by the reader as fast as possible as well.

Let’s look at one big scientific news item from the last 10 years. In the summer of 2012, the European Organization for Nuclear Research or also known with its abbreviation CERN in Geneva was inviting guests, journalists and scientists from all over the world for a particular revelation. After a couple of years after CERN’s activation of the Large Hadron Collider, experiments proved the existance of the so-called Higgs-Boson with a very high likelihood. The Average Joe Sixpack probably would have several What The Fuck moments with this news item alone. What is the European Organization for Nuclear Research? What is a Large Hadron Collider? And what is a Higgs-Boson?

Answering those questions can be quite complex and complicated, however our current news cycle only allows to answer those things with short bullet points, so you can understand the topic in general and maybe give you just enough information so you can have a small talk about it. And this is, in my opinion, the key issue here. When you’re taking a news item and start to shorten it down, several important key points or critical parts for understanding a news item might be lost during the editing process. Especially if someone talks about a news item which is not within their usual range. Like imagine Wolf Blitzer being a basketball sports commentator while Charles Barkley is commenting on newest election polls during this year’s US elections. Sure, both of them could sit or stand in front of a camera and present their opinions and their knowledge, however their expertise is not helping them especially in those situations.

Sure, I am not an expert on medicine or physics. However, I do believe that I have had some insight during within my career with regards to scientific research, scientific writing and the underlying methodologies. And this includes research. LOTS of research. Especially if you’re trying to tell new things to a scientific audience, you’ll need a certain amount of knowledge of current state-of-the-art publications for a specific topic. If you’ll do research on a given topic, you’ll need to find out first if there has been similar stuff being published. This is the part of a scientific paper that has the headline „Previous work“. You’ll need to find connections to previous research results and try to find a new hook for your new publication where you can place your new invention, theory or statistical result that you’ve found. Furthermore you also would like to acknowledge the work of others as a basis for your own research, because in the future you would also like to get cited by other scientists as well.

You’re looking at the work of other scientists from all over the world and you have to ask yourself, what have they written in their publication, what cases did they consider or not consider or where did their methods have difficulties. Those are the points in their research where you can place your hook for your own paper. You could extend their research with additional elements, make an overall comparison paper for a variety of methods that have been presented in recent years or develop a theoretical explanation for a practical paper that had previously been published and had been missing in previous publications before. Then you’re doing your research, do some experiments, find differences to the findings of others and then present conclusions. Then you’ll also populate your paper with citations to the works of other scientists within your field of expertise. And when you want to publish your work you’ll give your paper to those very scientists to look at your paper and review it. This process is called Peer Review and is the basis for all scientific publications within the scientific community (under the assumption that this publication is not a scam thing. Trust me, there are scam conferences and scam journals, so you’ll also need to be careful where you want to publish your material). But let’s assume we are dealing with a normal scientific journal or conference. Scientists worldwide have a look at your script and try to find holes in your arguments, ambiguities in your experiments or things that you might have missed during your experiments. Once they have reviewed your paper (and it crosses a certain quality line) you are able to publish your script on a scientific conference or in a scientific journal.

However, there is a small problem here, because the results of your own, personal research are shared within a relatively small community. My former professor at the university had a unique talent to explain complex things relatively simple even to the Average Joe Sixpack. One example was his explanation for compression algorithms for images based on partial differential equations. I guess, I may have lost some of you while saying this last sentence. I think the most of you know compression programs like zip or compressed image standards like JPEG. Those compression routines are based on algorithms that reduce the size such that data transfer can be done faster and more files can be stored on servers. There are lots of compression algorithms for images or videos. There are many industrial standards for these kinds of things, however our algorithms could be explained with an interesting analogy. Imagine a room with several heaters being spread across the room. If you place them across the room at certain positions and with pre-defined temperatures, you can pretty much control the heat at certain positions throughout the entire room. Now replace the heaters with pixels and the temperature with grey values, then you might get the idea what this algorithm can do. You’ll define points within an image that have a certain grey value and then a diffusion process fills in the image structure between those given values. The result is a pretty well approximation of the image that you wanted to compress.

But this is just one of a few positive examples. Some people speak about the so-called ivory tower that some scientists live in. And this is a large problem. Science might be difficult to understand for under-graduates, but it is even more difficult to describe the problems you’d like to solve as a scientist for an Average Joe Sixpack. If you like to understand these kinds of things, you’ll need to start with the basics first.

One of the biggest parts of scientific research is the proper use of citations and the proper description of scientific source material. As I mentioned earlier, before you start writing up your research, you’ll have to find out first if there hadn’t been some other person doing the same thing decades or even centuries ago. Sometimes it takes some time until you find another paper that’ll make you go and say „fuck“ in agony, because the new formula that you developed has been published in a japanese paper 20 years earlier, but hasn’t been published in western scientific papers due to lack of translations. But that does not need to be an entire set back for your publication, because you could pick up failing experiments or missing theories from the original paper and start your new paper from those. Sometimes it happens that you have sit in a room and read through dozens and dozens of papers to find the best hook for your new paper.

Thanks to the peer-to-peer review process most scientific publications have a certain trustability in their results and their conclusions. When I was doing research myself, I was doing research within the area of image processing. This community was somewhat compact and when you are doing reviews yourself, you might deduce where a blindly submitted paper is coming from (even if  a paper is stripped of any reference to the original authors). However, most of those papers were written such that algorithms are relatively easy to reimplement by yourself and test the results and compare this to the results of the submitted paper. Reproducability is essential for a scientific publication or study. Because most of the time, the biggest issue is, if others could reproduce your results and understand your findings.

If you’re doing an empirical study over a large test group, reproduceability is becoming more and more difficult. One study was using 100 probands, the next study used 500 students that voluteered for the study, while the next one only had 20 male participants over the age of 50. Based on those datapoints, the conclusions might be differing vastly. However, if for example a publication has found conclusions about deseases like cancer, scientific topics may spread into mainstream news coverage as well. For example, let a study try to find a correlation of getting cancer while having a heavy consumption of any arbitrary substance over a longer period of time. Then it might happen that parts of that research will be described within other publications for a larger audience. However, the journalist of this publication might not have the same background in science as the authors or the scientific audience, hence any attempt in describing those research items might result in questionable articles. Those articles might lose any additional references to other research, its context and larger complex discussions. However, sometimes you also have to ask the question about the independence of research articles especially if they have been sponsored by third parties or organisations and how reliable are the journals or conferences that are being used or are those just scam artists trying to collect registration fees. But I digress.

Let us talk about one of the bigger problems that I’m seeing currently within social media platforms. I’m talking about the dangerous reduction of scientific argumentations, missing citations, necessary research and missing mathematical understanding.

The first issue that I want to talk about is the truncation of scientific arguments. I want to show this issue with a rather personal example. If I’d tell you that I bought a car four years ago in order to get a package out of a package station, I think many of you would think that I’m crazy and insane. But I actually did this. Problem is, that this just describes the start and end point of a much longer story. This might take a couple of minutes but stick with me. There was a package waiting for me within the larger Stuttgart area, while I was in my home area named Saarland, which is like 250 kilometers away. It was in the beginning of fall season and I was longing for my two-week vacation that I’ve been longing for quite some time. My car was about to disintegrate and my federal inspection was about to run out and the engine was too loud. So I decided to use those two weeks to look for a new car. 

At that time I have ordered the limited special edition of Rise of the Tomb Raider with a rather awesome Lara Croft figure. It should have been delivered several days before, however it still hadn’t been shipped by amazon. So, I’ve been waiting until Monday afternoon until the last possible moment. Me and my friends have this usual thing where we meet in a local pub for a pub quiz at 8pm. And I was quite late for this already. So around 4pm I wanted to change the order to deliver it to my Saarland home. But for some reason I was no longer able to change that anymore. Something was happening with that order. Two minutes later I got an additional mail that the package has indeed shipped and should arrive tomorrow. Awesome. As I wasn’t able to change anything anymore. One day later, the package was indeed put into the package station, however by that time I was 250 kilometers away already. By terms and regulations of the package station, my limited edition of Rise of the Tomb Raider would be stored in this station for the next 9 days. And then it will be sent back to amazon. Since this limited edition was already sold out at amazon, I had to get this package out of this package station before it was sent back.

At first glance, you’d think about the possibilities of sending this package from one station to another. Well, this would be an awesome idea, but this is not possible if a package has already been delivered. This was the official answer by customer service. The other proposal by my friends was if I was able to ask someone in Esslingen to get the package out of the station. Awesome idea. But this person would have needed to use my ID card for this package station. And I had this card already with me in Saarland. Therefore, the only possible solution for me would be for me to drive back to Esslingen and get this thing out myself and then drive back again.

Well, that day, I went to look for new cars with my father and a friend. I wasn’t lucky at the first vendor, but there was this nice little car at our next stop. We scheduled a test drive for the next day and by Thursday I was confident to buy this car the next week.

Then, a new question came up. Where should I register this car? At home in Saarland or at the place where I am currently living, namely Esslingen, a city near Stuttgart. After some considerations, I decided to register it in Esslingen. The car vendor had the service of registering the car themselves within Saarland but not outside of it or I would have to do it myself. And I would have needed to return to Esslingen to register it within the next few days before I could start driving with it. And this was my necessary reason that I needed to get back to Esslingen within the next days and rescue my package from the incoming deadline. In the next few days I got several reminder mails that there was some package waiting for me. I got more and more nervous day by day until the weekend arrived. I travelled back to Esslingen by train, drove with the S-Bahn to the package station and finally I had that precious limited edition rescued after 6 of 9 possible days. The next day I registered my car and was driving back to home for the rest of my vacation and was back at home by lunch. Two days later I got my new car. A great car by the way. But if anyone would ask, I would just say that I bought this car just to get this package out of this package station in Esslingen.

Sure, it sounds insane. But I think after this long explanation anyone would understand this shortened story. Unfortunately, it shows one major issue in today’s society. No one likes to listen to a five minute long boring story about the stupidity of the German parcel system. No one takes the time to listen to other person’s stories. Everything has to be reduced to the small little bullet points. Sometimes you also have to consider people only listening to your arguments in passing, misunderstand or even mishear a sentence and you’d have to correct the wrong story that is starting to stay in the minds of your listeners. Only recently I had an issue where I was in a Skype meeting and some of my colleagues misheard a sentence and misunderstood that the person we were talking to was using the past tense when he was talking about previous issues that they had some time ago, while I had to convince my colleagues that those problems happened in the past and did not happen just now.

I had a job interview 5 years ago where they demanded me to tell them parts of my background as bullet points or short headlines. Well. Let’s just say that this is somewhat difficult to me. I like explaining things in epic proportions. Just with my small parcel story that I just told you. Granted, this job interview didn’t end well for me that day, but I think that the reduction of scientific content is barely possible and might end up being difficult and dangerous, especially if things rely on strong background knowledge. In the worst case, this could even be deadly.

One example in recent years is what we have been hearing from the White House in the US. People within the intelligence agencies try to compile their daily status report in short bite-sized chunks such that the commander in chief does not get bored once he started reading the second sentence. This is one of the biggest issues in today’s society: We don’t listen to other people anymore. We are just reading the 280 character message on Twitter or the breaking news from the news agency of your choice appearing as a short message on your smart-watch. But those headlines do not convey the Why-Why-Why questions that a news item raises.

More and more, I read from people on social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook concerns and criticisms about recent face mask regulations. For example, some doctors believe that mask wearing would be a medical foolishness. Sure, if I would be the only one wearing a mask within a room with 100 other people, I think chances are relatively high for me to get infected, even if I am indeed wearing a mask. On the other hand, my changes reduce drastically if all the people wear a mask in this scenario. Because if would like to be 100% sure that I can’t get infected, I would have to wear a Hazmat suit whenever I would like to leave my appartment. I think this is quite unpractible. And I believe this is one major disassociation between politics and communication within any form of media. The only measure that would give you 100% safety would be if nobody had direct contact with others anymore. But this total lockdown is not practible as well. One way to do this, is to get the message clear the first time, which means, telling that face masks are valid tools to reduce the probability to infect myself and reduce the risk of a possible of infection.

Another problem is the missing mathematical unterstanding of well understood concepts that play a certain rule during a Pandemic. We’ll have two examples here: The exponential function and conditional probabilities. When I went to school 20 years ago, those topics were only on the curriculum during the last two years of school. Or the German Gymnasium system actually. If there are some German-based teachers watching this video, feel free to correct me in the comments. But let us get back to our examples. 

The topic of conditional probabilities has to be tackled quite carefully. The main question is if an event would have occured if another event has taken place before or is still taking place. A classic example is the use of an HIV test to determine if someone has been infected with this desease or not. At this point during school, I started to draw tree-like mind maps to visualize it on paper. In general, you are interested in two facts: Does a test provide a valid result and how long do I have to wait until I get a response?

At first you’ll consider the result of the test if it is either positive or negative. From that on, you can draw additional branches. On the positive branch, you’ll consider the positive result if the person is indeed infected or is not infected. This is then also called „False positive“. On the negative side, you are also considering, if the negative result is correct for a person that has indeed not been infected or if this was a so-called „False negative“. At this point, the filter bubble throughout the internet gets quite aggravated: 

You cannot trust the test. The tests cannot be used to determine if someone has been infected or not. And similar stuff like that. With HIV there is probably still more time to make additional tests and verify the results. With SARS-CoV2 any minute counts, because you might be infectious. Also the testing capabilities are somewhat limited, so that testing someone multiple times within a short period of time is becoming unfeasible. Technically speaking you can’t consider this test to be a valid test if you are actually infected, however it’s more like it’s better to understand this test be a more confirmation that you are not infected. This has been an issue for HIV tests for the last more than 30 years, but this also holds true for the SARS-CoV2 test. Mathematically speaking you are interested in the probability that you are really infected under the assumption that the test was positive and not the other way around. That’s why you need to be careful when you are talking about conditional probabilities.

Another mathematical model that is currently quite underrated, is the exponential function and exponential growth. There’s an old legend from around 1500 years ago that told the story of a person named Sissa ibn Dahir that had an audience with an Indian king and wanted to get a couple of wheat corns. He took out a chessboard and placed one corn at the first field, two at the second, four at the third, eight at the fourth and so on. He’s always doubling the amount of corns that’s lying on one field and puts them on the next field. He did this for a few fields and demanded from the king to get the amount of wheat corns if you’d fill up the entire chessboard according to his method. The king then was amused and gave him a sack filled with wheat corn. Sissa however demanded a recount. The thing is, that if you’d sum up all values of 2 to the power of x up until 63, you’ll end up with 18 quintillion wheat corns. That’s an 18 with 18 zeros behind it. As a comparison: This would be the current world production of wheat corns. Times 2000. Let’s just say it’s quite unlikely the king had that much of wheat corns, but this example shows the rapid growth of an exponential function.

But this is the fatal thing now, as the growth of a pandemic follows the exponential growth if it is not stopped early. If one infected person would infect exactly two others, this will be around 32000 people after just 14 days. This is without additional modelling of time a person to be infectious, the transmissivity of the infection and lots of other factors. The more people someone is able to infect (and if this value is larger than 1), the more rapid the infection spreads.

Here in Europe and also here in Germany, we were in a situation to put this average infection rate to a value around 1, which is now somewhat a little larger than 1 unfortunately. However, one thing you might argue, is the fact that some policies look more like as if they had been selected after a throw with a twenty-sided dice or people with prejudices have had some influence. Sure, you might understand the idea to ban people coming into a region if they are coming in from a high-risk area. Some politicians fear to lose the numbers game in here and thus you have seen lots of the travel ban regulations that have been introduced within the last couple of months for a short period of time. Surely, the problem should stay somewhere else. It’s like some politicians have seen similar problems appear within the last five years before and tried to cope with this kind of situation. With the same not-functioning measures. But I digress.

Let’s consider the third item on my list which I am currently seeing within all over the entire media landscape and especially within social media platforms: You are no longer able to distinguish between facts and opinions. Let’s stay with mathematics. According to established mathematical rules, the result of an addition of 2 and 2 is 4. If I would be a young pupil in school and would answer 5, I might be rewarded with an F but my answer is obviously false. If I would persist on my answer that 2 + 2 equals 5, this is no longer fact, it’s an opinion. And it would a telltale sign for my teacher that I haven’t understood math at all.

During school I not only had math as a major class, I also had History as a major class. Depending where you are in Germany and what kind of school you’re visiting, you might get the choice by the end of your school career to choose between several classes you can major in. I, myself, had the choice between three different possibilities and I decided to major in Math, English and History. History was an entirely different kinda beast than Math. I always loved History and I was kinda fascinated with some of the major topics, like the story of the USA and the story of Germany as a country within the 20th Century. Truth be told, I was a fact learner. There were lots of occassions when I was reading book after book about historical dates and what has happened then. I liked to go to a class test prepared. Unfortunately, my History teacher was big fan of source material and their analysis. At the time when I wrote those tests, I was quite pissed about those kinds of exams, however, now, 20 years later, I think I have found new respect for this kind of classroom tests. If you are reading through a historic source material, you have to ask yourself, when was this text written, who wrote it, for what reason. What did the author want to achieve? What kind of background knowledge did the author have at time of writing. And so on. Especially during times when persons in higher power declare news items or even factoids as fake news if they don’t like them, you should question any news item about who wants to say what and why with any given item. This might begin with small things like a Tweet at Twitter or a Facebook page, but this also has to be considered to any speech by a politician, scientist or any other kind of influencer. Is someone trying to explain a given circumstance or is the text more or less a large critique of actions that have been done in the past. Or both actually. Taking a step back, this video, by definition is actually kinda both as well. However, I have seen many publications throughout the last couple of weeks that news items explaining facts are considered to be opinions while commentarys and opinion pieces are treated as factoids even if they don’t share additional ressource material like references as you should find in a scientific publication to verify the statements. Or, something even worse happens, quotes are being used after they have been stripped down and used out-of-context.

I have seen this kind of bad scientific journalism on all kinds of publications from left to right. I mean most journalists did not major in STEM (I mean Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics). I have to admit, it’s a harsh statement, but unfortunately it’s true. Scientific Journalism has become a dying species in media. Scientific influencers like Neil deGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye try to bring people towards embracing scientific thinking and methodologies, however most media publications have faded out their coverage on scientific topics drastically. Then, you’ll end up with a situation that when the understanding of a given topic demands the use of mathematical concepts like an exponential function or conditional probabilities, you’ll need to educate the reader or viewer first what those concepts are and what they mean until you can apply this to your newsitem that you want to explain. I always like put a small little explanation box in any news magazine that explains some stuff if I was an editor there. But most of the time, this is then used for opinion pieces. Those opinion pieces then talk about 2 plus 2 being 6 or 3 or 2 and so on. But if you’re trying to do your research on your own, you’ll have to be careful too. Especially in times where conspiracy theories about flat earths, Anti-vaccers or QAnon are spreading throughout society. You should always be careful if you’re looking for source material and I always like to treat those things as I did during those history tests back in school. As mentioned earlier, scientific publications follow a given review and release process. In this process lots of other of your peers have a look at your paper. They look at your methodology, your citations, your experiments, your data and your conclusions and review every single word that you wrote before your paper gets published in a publication or on a conference.

Today some publications are being literally fast-pathed to a large non-scientific audience. Several websites have provided services as a so-called pre-print server where scientists can publish their work even before the reviewing process has concluded. This can be quite fatal for some kinds of publications. Imagine a paper that has been published on one of these pre-print servers contains wrong results or misleading conclusions. Now imagine a journalist from any form of media finding this paper without having the necessary scientific background to understand it and writes an article about it. I think you might see where I am getting at. Writing a news item based on faulty science might put a negative light on the reputation of a news organisation, it also puts shade on scientific research and measures derived from scientific research. People lose their trust in news organisations, research and science. It’s like a game of chinese whispers or telephone and a sign of today’s times where articles have to be pumped out by the numbers as fast as possible. Sometimes even without an internal reviewing process. If we are talking about a news organisation, there might be also some kind of reviewing process that involves a chief editor or additional colleages and experts, but not everyone has majored in the very topic that is subject of the article. 

So far, I have only talked about journalistic-based entities like CNN, The New York Times and other news organisations, magazines or journals. If we also include blogs, social media accounts or influencers of any kind, this looks totally different here. Topics are being shortened until nothing makes sense any more, articles with pages of pages of data, conclusions and whatnot are based on one misunderstood calculation at the very beginning and the entire argumentation would fall together like a card-board-house. There’s Whataboutism. Some compare apples with oranges. Some even would leave away clear facts if this would help underline the argument. Some would even suggest that the reader should perform their own research. Without giving any point of reference or source material that could give some form of credibility. And this is the major issue that I have with today’s conspiracy theorys that would welcome anyone to their cause with open arms, just like QAnon right now. At one point during the last 4 years where QAnon came up as a large conspiracy group, members of this ideology were responsible to get James Gunn fired as a director from Guardians of the Galaxy 3 by Disney. Yes. This did happen. But this is still a topic for another video.

But I think as a conclusion to this large video, I wanted to tell you to consider news items that you see and also news organisations and question where those things are coming from and what their overall agenda is. Is this a forum for political or social commentaries, are these official news items, scientific publications and always ask yourself what does the author gain from this publication. Or is this text contains only facts like in an encyclopedia.

I hope you have enjoyed this video and start to think about what you are reading, but I would like it if you’d write a comment into the comment section down below and talk about your own thoughts. However, I urge you to stay civil, as some of my former videos on conspiracy theorys have somewhat dirty comment sections. Let’s leave it like that. But I would still like to hear your personal opinions. That being said, I hope we will see each other in another video, stay safe, stay healthy

Kai says Bye.

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