Large Marge sent me

Jul 18 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

I'd like to extend my sincere thanks to Scientopia for the opportunity to guest blog here for a couple of weeks. I figured that by way of introduction I'd tell you who I am, what I do, etc...

Who is this fella?
As far as the biographical details go, before starting my PhD in Neuroscience at Cornell Weill Medical, I earned my BA in psychology at NYU, where I worked in a cognitive neuroscience lab and studied fear conditioning and memory reconsolidation processes in humans. I then moved to Harvard for a couple of years to perform research at and manage a social cognitive neuroscience lab. At present, I’m studying the developmental trajectory and neurobiology of emotion regulation and cognitive control. Prior to entering the sciences, I spent many years as a professional musician. Them's my credentials, in a nutshell.

Why do I write a blog?  
I’m quite frightened by the level of scientific illiteracy in the US and feel that the field as a whole needs to do a better job communicating important findings not only to the general public, but also the politicians, policy makers and paper pushers upon whom we depend to continue funding the research. I blog in a humble attempt to enter the fray.

It seems that bloggers play an important role in the science communication ecosystem. This mostly unpaid army of intelligent, passionate writer/scientists fills some of  the rather wide gap between the professional science journal, too thick with technical jargon to be understood by the average joe, and much (but, of course, not all) of what passes for popular science journalism; that is, science reduced to its most salacious and headline worthy form, often incorrectly presented and overly generalized.

Perhaps because I spent so many years of my adult life in a non-science field, I’m sensitive to how science research is thought of and understood by the general public. I’m particularly inclined to think of scientific ideas in terms of their evolutionary adaptability; that is, the means by which one given idea of the untold number that are borne daily, is somehow able to survive, permeate and spread throughout the culture in such a way that it becomes an accepted piece of wisdom, while another dies on the vine. The writer, in his/her guise as “idea merchant” plays an important role in this process and is capable of exerting either a positive or negative influence on the cultural “meme” pool. One who puts number-of-eyeballs-captured over truth value could be said to be working on the dark side (a tabloid style journalist, for example) as would one who surreptitiously attempts to further a personal agenda while claiming objectivity. A more insiduous form of bad science journalism, but equally or perhaps even more dangerous, is that in which false dichotomies are created in order to allow “both sides” of a story to be presented (e.g. validating Jenny McCarthy and her ultra dangerous anti-vaccine movement by presenting their views as one side of a two-sided coin).

It’s important not to let up in the effort to combat “bad memes.” If we don’t, the research that scientists produce, no matter how stellar, won’t have the impact it deserves.  (Applause, many "You go get ems!  and "Show'em how it's dones!" from the crowd. Our young,  idealistic and doe-eyed blogger bounds off the stage, laptop under arm, ready to go set the world on fire -  just as soon as he can find himself some free wifi....).

So, how's all this coming along?
I would say, all in all, not so well! Not to be too harsh on my own efforts, but at least on one occasion, just a couple of months out of the gate,  I kicked off a  mildy bad meme through my blog, an experience which was certainly disheartening (albeit rather illuminating). I plan to write about this episode in my next post a couple of days from now. For now, I'll tell you that it involved a columnist for a national newspaper quoting my summary of a paper in his column, but out of context and in a way that quite misconstrued the original finding. It brought in lots of traffic to my site and hopefully some of those people actually read the post. But judging by the feedback and comments on twitter and elsewhere, I probably did more harm than good. And I'm not clear on how this might be avoided in the future (aside from not writing a blog at all, which would also give me more time for napping).

What do I normally write about?
I mostly write summaries of interesting studies from the fields of cognitive and social psychology/neuroscience. No particular theme reigns supreme.

Anyhow, come back Wednesday if you're interested to hear about how my humble little blog was chewed up and spat out by the mass media machine. Meanwhile, head on over to neuropoly to get a taste of the kind of thing you'll be finding here for the next couple of weeks.

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