Tag Archives: scientific research

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How science is presented and consumed on Facebook

This post is a breakdown of the Pew study titled The Science People See on Social Media, published March 21, 2018. Without further ado…

In an effort to better understand the science information that social media users encounter on these platforms, Pew Research Center systematically analyzed six months’ worth of posts from 30 of the most followed science-related pages on Facebook. These science-related pages included 15 popular Facebook accounts from established “multiplatform” organizations … along with 15 popular “Facebook-primary” accounts from individuals or organizations that have a large social media presence on the platform but are not connected to any offline, legacy outlet.

Is popularity the best way to judge if a Facebook page counts as a page about science? Popularity is an easy measure but it often almost exclusively represents a section of the ‘market’ skewed towards popular science. Some such pages from the Pew dataset include facebook.com/healthdigest, /mindbodygreen, /DailyHealthTips, /DavidAvocadoWolfe and /droz – all “wellness” brands that may not represent the publication of scientific content as much as, more broadly, content that panders to a sense of societal insecurity that is not restricted to science. This doesn’t limit the Pew study insofar as the study aims to elucidate what passes off as ‘science’ on Facebook but it does limit Pew’s audience-specific insights.

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… just 29% of the [6,528] Facebook posts from these pages [published in the first half of 2017] had a focus or “frame” around information about new scientific discoveries.

Not sure why the authors, Paul Hitlin and Kenneth Olmstead, think this is “just” 29% – that’s quite high! Science is not just about new research and research results, and if these pages are consciously acknowledging that on average limiting their posts about such news to three of every 10 posts, that’s fantastic. (Of course, if the reason for not sharing research results is that they’re not very marketable, that’s too bad.)

I’m also curious about what counts as research on the “wellness” pages. If their posts share research to a) dismiss it because it doesn’t fit the page authors’ worldview or b) popularise studies that are, say, pursuing a causative link between coffee consumption and cancer, then such data is useless.

From 'The science people see on social media'. Credit: Pew Research Center

From ‘The science people see on social media’. Credit: Pew Research Center

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The volume of posts from these science-related pages has increased over the past few years, especially among multiplatform pages. On average, the 15 popular multiplatform Facebook pages have increased their production of posts by 115% since 2014, compared with a 66% increase among Facebook-primary pages over the same time period. (emphasis in the original)

The first line in italics is a self-fulfilling prophecy, not a discovery. This is because the “multiplatform organisations” chosen by Pew for analysis all need to make money, and all organisations that need to continue making money need to grow. Growth is not an option, it’s a necessity, and it often implies growth on all platforms of publication in quantity and (hopefully) quality. In fact, the “Facebook-primary” pages, by which Hitlin and Olmstead mean “accounts from individuals or organizations that have a large social media presence on the platform but are not connected to any offline, legacy outlet”, are also driven to grow for the same reason: commerce, both on Facebook and off. As the authors write,

Across the set of 30 pages, 16% of posts were promotional in nature. Several accounts aimed a majority of their posts at promoting other media and public appearances. The four prominent scientists among the Facebook-primary pages posted fewer than 200 times over the course of 2017, but when they did, a majority of their posts were promotions (79% of posts from Dr. Michio Kaku, 78% of posts from Neil deGrasse Tyson, 64% of posts from Bill Nye and 58% of posts from Stephen Hawking). Most of these were self-promotional posts related to television appearances, book signings or speeches.

A page with a few million followers is likelier than not to be a revenue-generating exercise. While this is by no means an indictment of the material shared by these pages, at least not automatically, IFL Science is my favourite example: its owner Elise Andrews was offered $30 million for the page in 2015. I suspect that might’ve been a really strong draw to continue growing, and unfortunately, many of the “Facebook-primary” pages like IFLS find this quite easy to do by sharing well-dressed click-bait.

Second, if Facebook is the primary content distribution channel, then the number of video posts will also have shown an increase in the Pew data – as it did – because publishers both small and large that’ve made this deal with the devil have to give the devil whatever it wants. If Facebook says videos are the future and that it’s going to tweak its newsfeed algorithms accordingly, publishers are going to follow suit.

Source: Pew Research Center

Source: Pew Research Center

So when Hitlin and Olmstead say, “Video was a common feature of these highly engaging posts whether they were aimed at explaining a scientific concept, highlighting new discoveries, or showcasing ways people can put science information to use in their lives”, they’re glossing over an important confounding factor: the platform itself. There’s a chance Facebook is soon going to say VR is the next big thing, and then there’s going to be a burst of posts with VR-mediated content. But that doesn’t mean the publishing houses themselves believe VR is good or bad for sharing science news.

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The average number of user interactions per post – a common indicator of audience engagement based on the total number of shares, comments, and likes or other reactions – tends to be higher for posts from Facebook-primary accounts than posts from multiplatform accounts. From January 2014 to June 2017, Facebook-primary pages averaged 14,730 interactions per post, compared with 4,265 for posts on multiplatform pages. This relationship held up even when controlling for the frame of the post. (emphasis in the original)

Again, Hitlin and Olmstead refuse to distinguish between ‘legitimate’ posts and trash. This would involve a lot more work on their part, sure, but it would also make their insights into science consumption on the social media that much more useful. But until then, for all I know, “the average number of user interactions per post … tends to be higher for posts from Facebook-primary accounts than posts from multiplatform accounts” simply because it’s Gwyneth Paltrow wondering about what stones to shove up which orifices.

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… posts on Facebook-primary pages related to federal funding for agencies with a significant scientific research mission were particularly engaging, averaging more than 122,000 interactions per post in the first half of 2017.

Now that’s interesting and useful. Possible explanation: Trump must’ve been going nuts about something science-related. [Later in the report] Here it is: “Many of these highly engaging posts linked to stories suggesting Trump was considering a decrease in science-agency funding. For example, a Jan. 25, 2017, IFLScience post called Trump’s Freeze On EPA Grants Leaves Scientists Wondering What It Means was shared more than 22,000 times on Facebook and had 62,000 likes and other reactions.”

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Highly engaging posts among these pages did not always feature science-related information. Four of the top 15 most-engaging posts from Facebook-primary pages featured inspirational sayings or advice such as “look after your friends” or “believe in yourself.”

Does mental-health-related messaging on the back of new findings or realisations about the need for, say, speaking out on depression and anxiety count as science communication? It does to me; by all means, it’s “news I can use”.

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Three of the Facebook-primary pages belong to prominent astrophysicists. Not surprisingly, about half or more of the posts on these pages were related to astronomy or physics: Dr. Michio Kaku (58%), Stephen Hawking (58%) and Neil deGrasse Tyson (48%).

Ha! It would be interesting to find out why science’s most prominent public authority figures in the last few decades have all been physicists of some kind. I already have some ideas but that’ll be a different post.

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Useful takeaways for me as science editor, The Wire:

  1. Pages that stick to a narrower range of topics do better than those that cover all areas of science
  2. Controversial topics such as GMOs “didn’t appear often” on the 30 pages surveyed – this is surprising because you’d think divisive issues would attract more audience engagement. However, I also imagine the pages’ owners might not want to post on those issues to avoid flame wars (😐), stay away from inconclusive evidence (😄), not have to take a stand that might hurt them (🤔) or because issue-specific nuances make an issue a hard-sell (🙄).
  3. Most posts that shared discoveries were focused on “energy and environment, geology, and archeology”; half of all posts about physics and astronomy were about discoveries

Featured image credit: geralt/pixabay.

By the way: the Chekhov's gun and the science article

“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” (source)

This is the principle of the Chekhov’s gun: that all items within a narrative must contribute to the overarching narrative itself, and those that don’t should be removed. This is very, very true of the first two Harry Potter books, where J.K. Rowling includes seemingly random bits of information in the first half of each book that, voila, suddenly reappear during the climax in important ways. (Examples: Quirrell’s turban and the Whomping Willow). Thankfully, Rowling’s writing improves significantly from the third book, where the Chekhov’s guns are more subtly introduced, and don’t always stay out of sight before being revived for the grand finale.

However, does the Chekhov’s gun have a place in a science article?

Most writers, editors and readers (I suspect) would reply in the affirmative. The more a bit of science communication stays away from redundancy, the better. Why introduce a term if it’s not going to be reused, or if it won’t contribute to the reader understanding what a writer has set out to explain? This is common-sensical. But my concern is about introducing information deftly embedded in the overarching narrative but which does not play any role in further elucidating the writer’s overall point.

Consider this example: I’m explaining a new research paper that talks about how a bunch of astronomers used a bunch of cool techniques to identify the properties of a distant star. While what is entirely novel about the paper is the set of techniques, I also include two lines about how the telescopes the astronomers used to make their observations operate using a principle called long baseline interferometry. And a third line about why each telescope is equipped with an atomic clock.

Now, I have absolutely no need to mention the phrases ‘long baseline interferometry’ and ‘atomic clocks’ in the piece. I can make my point just as well without them. However, to me it seems like a good opportunity to communicate to – and not just inform – the reader about interesting technologies, an opportunity I may not get again. But a professional editor (again, I suspect) would argue that if I’m trying to make a point and I know what that point is, I should just make that. That, like a laser pointer, I should keep my arguments focused and coherent.

I’m not sure I would agree. A little bit of divergence is okay, maybe even desirable at times.

Yes, I’m aware that editors working on stories that are going to be printed, and/or are paying per word, would like to keep things as concisely pointy as possible. And yes, I’m aware that including something that needn’t be included risks throwing the reader off, that we ought to minimise risk at all times. Finally, yes, I’m aware that digressing off into rivulets of information also forces the writer to later segue back into the narrative river, and that may not be elegant.

Of these three arguments (that I’ve been able to think of; if you have others, please feel free to let me know), the first one alone has the potential to be non-negotiable. The other two are up to the writer and the editor: if she or they can tuck away little gems of trivia without disrupting the story’s flow, why not? I for one would love to discover them, to find out about connections – scientific, technological or otherwise – in the real world that frequently find expression only with the prefix of a “by the way, did you know…”.

Featured image credit: DariuszSankowski/pixabay.

Cybersecurity in space

Featured image: The International Space Station, 2011. Credit: gsfc/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

On May 19, 1998, the Galaxy IV satellite shut down unexpectedly in its geostationary orbit. Immediately, most of the pagers in the US stopped working even as the Reuters, CBS and NPR news channels struggled to stay online. The satellite was declared dead a day later but it was many days before the disrupted services could be restored. The problem was found to be an electrical short-circuit onboard.

The effects of a single satellite going offline are such. What if they could be shutdown en masse? The much-discussed consequences would be terrible, which is why satellite manufacturers and operators are constantly devising new safeguards against potential threats.

However, the pace of technological advancements, together with the proliferation of the autonomous channels through which satellites operate, has ensured that operators are constantly but only playing catch-up. There’s no broader vision guiding how affected parties could respond to rapidly evolving threats, especially in a way that constantly protects the interests of stakeholders across borders.

With the advent of low-cost launch options, including from agencies like ISRO, since the 1990s, the use of satellites to prop up critical national infrastructure – including becoming part of the infrastructure themselves – stopped being the exclusive demesne of developed nations. But at the same time, the drop in costs signalled that the future of satellite operations might rest with commercial operators, leaving them to deal with technological capabilities that until then were being handled solely by the defence industry and its attendant legislative controls.

Today, satellites are used for four broad purposes: Earth-observation, meteorology and weather-forecasting; navigation and synchronisation; scientific research and education; and telecommunication. They’ve all contributed to a burgeoning of opportunities on the ground. But in terms of their own security, they’ve become a bloated balloon waiting for the slightest prick to deflate.

How did this happen?

Earlier in September, three Chinese engineers were able to hack into two Tesla electric-cars from 19 km away. They were able to move the seats and mirrors and, worse, control the brakes. Fortunately, it was a controlled hack conducted with Tesla’s cooperation and after which the engineers reported the vulnerabilities they’d found to Tesla.

The white-hat attack demonstrated a paradigm: that physical access to an internet-enabled object was no longer necessary to mess with it. Its corollary was that physical separation between an attacker and the target no longer guaranteed safety. In this sense, satellites occupy the pinnacle of our thinking about the inadequacy of physical separation; we tend to leave them out of discussions on safety because satellites are so far away.

It’s in recognition of this paradigm that we need to formulate a multilateral response that ensures minimal service disruption and the protection of stakeholder interests at all times in the event of an attack, according to a new report published by Chatham House. It suggests:

Development of a flexible, multilateral space and cybersecurity regime is urgently required. International cooperation will be crucial, but highly regulated action led by government or similar institutions is likely to be too slow to enable an effective response to space-based cyberthreats. Instead, a lightly regulated approach developing industry-led standards, particularly on collaboration, risk assessment, knowledge exchange and innovation, will better promote agility and effective threat responses.

Then again, how much cybersecurity do satellites need really?

Because when we speak about cyber anything, our thoughts hardly venture out to include our space-borne assets. When we speak about cyber-warfare, we imagine some hackers at their laptops targeting servers on some other part of the world – but a part of the world, surely, and not a place floating above it. However, given how satellites are becoming space-borne proxies for state authority, they do need to be treated as significant space-borne liabilities as well. There’s even precedence: In November 2014, an NOAA satellite was hacked by Chinese actors with minor consequences. But in the process, the attack revealed major vulnerabilities that the NOAA rushed to patch.

So the better question would be: What kinds of protection do satellites need against cyber-threats? To begin with, hackers have been able to jam communications and replace legitimate signals with false ones (called spoofing). They’ve also been able to invade satellites’ SCADA systems, introduce viruses to trip up software and,  pull DOS attacks. The introduction of micro- and nanosatellites has also provided hackers with an easier conduit into larger networks.

Another kind of protection that could be useful is from the unavoidable tardiness with which governments and international coalitions react to cyber-warfare, often due to over-regulation. The report states, “Too centralised an approach would give the illicit actors, who are generally unencumbered by process or legislative frameworks, an unassailable advantage simply because their response and decision-making time is more flexible and faster than that of their legitimate opponents.”

Do read the full report for an interesting discussion of the role cybersecurity plays in the satellite services sector. It’s worth your time.

Vanilla entertainment

One of the first, and most important in hindsight, bits of advice I got from the journalist Siddharth Varadarajan was about how to choose what to write: “Write what you’d like to read” (Dan Fagin would later add the important “why now” dimension). As someone avidly interested in scientific theories – especially in physics and astronomy – I’ve noticed that the best stories around today about theoretical research have narratives centred around some kind of human dilemma. One of the more recent examples of such stories is of Shinichi Mochizuki’s work trying to solve the abc conjecture. The principal ‘plot element’ was that Mochizuki’s proposed solution to the problem required some superhuman efforts of concentration and re-learning – the latter being something humans are not naturally good at.

However, I found my reading was only half-sated by stories like Mochizuki’s. The other half was best found in books that described the development of complex scientific theories through the lives of more than a few researchers. The last such book I read was Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe, which posits string theory as likely being the ultimate and singular framework in physics and mathematics capable of describing this universe we inhabit. Despite my issues with the book, I really liked it because of its introduction to great scientists starting with how they got interested in some topics and how their work jumped thereon from one idea to another. Such stories sometimes don’t involve conflicts, and so science journalists are not motivated to write about them, which is understandable.

Yet, I think such stories need to make an appearance in the pages of the mainstream media because the glimpses they provide into the lives and thought-processes of scientists who’ve succeeded in making one contribution or another are seldom available anywhere else but books. So when I received a 5,400-word interview of the theoretical physicist Abhay Ashtekar to publish on The Wire, I published the whole thing. Though Ashtekar describes some friction within the field, the interview as such makes for pleasant, informative reading. I hope you enjoy reading it (for whatever reason).

From unboiling eggs to the effects of intense kissing, IgNobel Prizes reward good ol' curiosity

The year’s IgNobel Awards were held on September 17, and rewarded research that defines a kind of excellence that still impacts society without managing the sobriety of character that often bags the more vaunted Nobel Prizes. The 25th edition, held as usual at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre, and as usual presided over by the magazine Improbable Research‘s editor Marc Abrahams, recognised work done in describing pain, diagnosing appendicitis, the effects of intense kissing and more.

Instituted and first awarded in 1991, the prizes were originally designed to identify work that shouldn’t be reproduced, although that snark has diminished in time. On the flipside, they’re known for juxtaposing meticulously conducted research with the banality of their subjects. For example, the citation for the management prize this year read, “… for discovering that many business leaders developed in childhood a fondness for risk-taking, when they experienced natural disasters that – for them – had no dire personal consequences.” The awarders’ take has been that “The Ig Nobel Prizes honour achievements that make people laugh, and then think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honour the imaginative – and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.”

The 2015 literature prize went to Dutch linguists for discovering that a translation of “huh?” existed in almost every language and for unknown reasons. The biology prize got picked up by a Chilean diad that found “that when you attach a weighted stick to the rear end of a chicken, the chicken then walks in a manner similar to that in which dinosaurs are thought to have walked.”. The physics prize was claimed by scientists who found using the principles of fluid dynamics early last year that many mammals – across species – often took a uniform 21 seconds to take a leak (give or take 13 seconds). The diagnostic medicine prize awardees could actually have hit upon something more useful than you think: diagnosing appendicitis by having patients drive at a fixed speed over a speed-bump. If they experience a sharp pain in certain areas, it’s surgery time. The physiology and entomology prize was co-bagged by Justin Schmidt for developing a relative pain index and Michael Smith for letting himself be stung in 25 parts of his body to find the places most (nostril, upper lip, penis shaft) and least sensitive (skull, middle toe tip, upper arm) to stinging pain. Brave souls all.

The citations also demonstrated how being persistently curious could someday enable you to do things you wouldn’t have thought scientifically (or mathematically) possible. For example, the chemistry prize went to a team from the USA and Australia that figured out how to partially unboil an egg (kudos to Abrahams & co. for being able to go past the paper’s title: “Shear-stress-mediated refolding of proteins from aggregates and inclusion bodies”). The medicine prize may have actually put too fine a point on what everyone probably already knew: kissing does people a world of good, and intense kissing does good intensely. And there’s no point trying to paraphrase the mathematics-prize-winning work: “for trying to use mathematical techniques to determine whether and how Moulay Ismael the Bloodthirsty, the Sharifian Emperor of Morocco, managed, during the years from 1697 through 1727, to father 888 children.”

However, it’s the work winning the 2015 economics prize that doesn’t deserve to be reproduced at all – and it’s probably telling that it didn’t involve scientists but policemen. Specifically, the prize went to Bangkok Metropolitan Police, which offered to bribe its policemen if they didn’t take bribes from others. The BMP needs to be able to take pride in its work’s illustrious company, which includes the 2008 recession, the invention of virtual animal husbandry as well as the find that people would postpone their deaths, indeed, “if that would qualify them for a lower rate on the inheritance tax”.

A "Dear ISRO" moment

I published a quick analysis in The Hindu, republished with permission from Scienceline, about the ISRO Mars Orbiter. Gist (excerpted):

Even if [ISRO] has launched a spacecraft to Mars, the payload limit and the lack of an inclusive scientific agenda still stand in the way of taking full advantage of scientific interest and infrastructure on the ground.

These are some of the replies I received on Twitter in response to the piece.

You probably didn’t read my piece, and you probably don’t know what “one-hit wonder” means either.

Who are “Thomeses”?

I don’t understand why you think I’ve not been courteous. My arguments weren’t barbaric. And I think it’d be wonderful if people considered constructive criticism the utmost courtesy. I know I do.

A friend of mine recently told me he couldn’t criticize my piece for me because he said that’s not what friends do. But that’s what I think friends do do because appreciation that is completely honest is something very hard to come by.

This is a common blight plaguing the perception of scientific research in India. It’s easy to just say “nanosatellites” and then think about it inside your head. However, what’re they for? Who comes up with such ideas? Who builds them? And at the end of the day where would ISRO go with it? Answer them reasonably and then I’ll concede nanosatellites make sense.

Another aspect of this comment is that you’re thinking in terms of gee-whiz stuff, you’re thinking of demonstrating more technology, but ISRO is too important to indulge in things like that over and over again. It’s a national space agency so let’s be respectful of that.

Someone’s made an allegation and you’re batting it away. Do you know something that nobody else does?

Thanks.

Scienceline

I also received the following comments on the same piece as published on Scienceline (you should check the site out, it’s my NYU program’s science portal and has some other amazing pieces as well).

Thanks you for writing such a wonderful article to put the facts straight.Hope we don’t get overconfident as we have put only small payload of 15 kg whereas others have put 64 kg of payload. Hope a new mission to use GSLV-D5 to put more payload gets approved quickly and gets successful.Anyway achieving success on first maiden flight is no small feat and kudos to Indian Space scientists!!! – Ravikanth V

I’m glad you understand my sentiment.

Mr.Vasudevan, I don’t think you are a father. Only if you have become a father you can appreciate the baby’s steps in the beginning and that which ends even as an Olympic champion. But one has to go thru what is called growth. Hope you understood what I meant. – Bindo

Yeah, I get you, but I don’t want ISRO – nor the nation – to think of its interplanetary exploration program as it would of a child.

Dear writer, You crave attention so bad that, on the day of a historical achievement, you have published such a negative aticle. Shame on you. Have you designed any electronics before? And do you know how challenging is it to achieve that with limited budget? Please do not write such articles for ISRO. People of India take pride in this organization. You should have waited for atleast a day. – Kc

Because all my opinions are suddenly okay after 24 hours? And I think it is my duty as someone who does take pride in ISRO that I feel such things need to be said before we ramp up our expectations to heights the agency may never even have plans for.

Now it’s time for us to show our gratitude to the nation. Indians who are draining their brain to foreign countries, come back to our country as soon as possible. Finish ur commitments soon, ur nation has just made a history and waiting for you. – Dilip

I resent that you’re implying that all those who left the country in search of greener fields are/were opportunists. I also resent that you think the proverbial system is working well enough to be able to reject the oodles of talent still present in the country.

Very well articulated article, thank you. The mission is symbolic and demonstrates our ISRO’s scientific capability. I’m hopeful our new govt. will only be supportive of country’s scientific community, encourage with all means available and pragmatic enough to have or build a plan so, in a decade least, we indeed achieve what we want to be – equally a ‘space superpower’. Albeit this is still a proud moment for we the people of India. Congratulations to the ISRO’s scientific community who made this possible. – Guru Dwarakanath

Again, I’m glad you understand what I’m trying to say.

Did Facebook cheat us?

'I don't want to live on this planet anymore' meme. Image: superbwallpapers.com

You might want to rethink that.

No.

There were some good arguments on this topic, swinging between aesthetic rebuttals to logical deconstructions. Here are four I liked:

1. Tal Yarkoni, Director of the Psychoinformatics Lab at University of Texas, Austin, writes on his blog,

“… it’s worth keeping in mind that there’s nothing intrinsically evil about the idea that large corporations might be trying to manipulate your experience and behavior. Everybody you interact with–including every one of your friends, family, and colleagues–is constantly trying to manipulate your behavior in various ways. Your mother wants you to eat more broccoli; your friends want you to come get smashed with them at a bar; your boss wants you to stay at work longer and take fewer breaks. We are always trying to get other people to feel, think, and do certain things that they would not otherwise have felt, thought, or done. So the meaningful question is not whether people are trying to manipulate your experience and behavior, but whether they’re trying to manipulate you in a way that aligns with or contradicts your own best interests. The mere fact that Facebook, Google, and Amazon run experiments intended to alter your emotional experience in a revenue-increasing way is not necessarily a bad thing if in the process of making more money off you, those companies also improve your quality of life. I’m not taking a stand one way or the other, mind you, but simply pointing out that without controlled experimentation, the user experience on Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc. would probably be very, very different–and most likely less pleasant.”

2. Yarkoni’s argument brings us to these tweets.

https://twitter.com/pmarca/status/483024580554932224

Didn’t get it? Chris Dixon explains.

I didn’t spot these tweets. TechCrunch did, and it brings up the relevant comparison with A/B testing. A/B testing is a technique whereby web-designers optimize user experience engineers by showing different layouts to different user groups, then decide on the best layout depending how which users responded to which layouts. Like Dixon asks, is it okay if it’s done all the time on sites that want to make money by giving you a good time?

You’d argue that we’ve signed up to be manipulated like that, not like this – see #4. Or you’d argue this was different because Facebook was just being Facebook – but the social scientists weren’t being ethical. This is true. To quote from the TechCrunch piece,

A source tells Forbes’ Kashmir Hill it was not submitted for pre-approval by the Institutional Review Board, an independent ethics committee that requires scientific experiments to meet stern safety and consent standards to ensure the welfare of their subjects. I was IRB certified for an experiment I developed in college, and can attest that the study would likely fail to meet many of the pre-requisites.

3. The study that appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which it appears not many have read. It reports a statistically significant result that emotions are contagious over Facebook. But as Yarkoni demonstrates, its practical significance is minuscule:

… the manipulation had a negligible real-world impact on users’ behavior. To put it in intuitive terms, the effect of condition in the Facebook study is roughly comparable to a hypothetical treatment that increased the average height of the male population in the United States by about one twentieth of an inch (given a standard deviation of ~2.8 inches).

4. Facebook’s Terms of Service – to quote:

We use the information we receive about you in connection with the services and features we provide to you and other users like your friends, our partners, the advertisers that purchase ads on the site, and the developers that build the games, applications, and websites you use. For example, in addition to helping people see and find things that you do and share, we may use the information we receive about you:

… for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.

IMO, the problems appear to be:

  1. The social scientists didn’t get informed consent from the subjects of their experiments.
  2. What a scientific experiment is is not clearly defined in Facebook’s ToS – and defining such a thing will prove very difficult and is likely never to be implemented.

To-do: Find out more about the IRB and its opinions on this experiment.

R&D in China and India

“A great deal of the debate over globalization of knowledge economies has focused on China and India. One reason has been their rapid, sustained economic growth. The Chinese economy has averaged a growth rate of 9-10 percent for nearly two decades, and now ranks among the world’s largest economies. India, too, has grown steadily. After years of plodding along at an average annual increase in its gross domestic product (GDP) of 3.5 percent, India has expanded by 6 percent per annum since 1980, and more than 7 percent since 1994 (Wilson and Purushothaman, 2003). Both countries are expected to maintain their dynamism, at least for the near future.”

– Gereffi et al, ‘Getting the Numbers Right: International Engineering Education in the United States, China and India’, Journal of Engineering Education, January 2008

A June 16 paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, titled ‘China’s Rise as a Major Contributor to Science and Technology’, analyses the academic and research environment in China over the last decade or so, and discusses the factors involved in the country’s increasing fecundity in recent years. It concludes that four factors have played an important role in this process:

  1. Large human capital base
  2. A labor market favoring academic meritocracy
  3. A large diaspora of Chinese-origin scientists
  4. A centralized government willing to invest in science

A simple metric they cite to make their point is the publication trends by country. Between 2000 and 2010, for example, the number of science and engineering papers published by China has increased by 470%. The next highest climb was for India, by 234%.

Click on the image for an interactive chart.

Click on the image for an interactive chart.

“The cheaters don’t have to worry they will someday be caught and punished.”

This is a quantitative result. A common criticism of the rising volume of Chinese scientific literature in the last three decades is the quality of research coming out of it. Dramatic increases in research output are often accompanied by a publish-or-perish mindset that fosters a desperation among scientists to get published, leading to padded CVs, falsified data and plagiarism. Moreover, it’s plausible that since R&D funding in China is still controlled by a highly centralized government, flow of money is restricted and access to it is highly competitive. And when it is government officials that are evaluating science, quantitative results are favored over qualitative ones, reliance on misleading performance metrics increases, and funds are often awarded for areas of research that favor political agendas.

The PNAS paper cites the work of Shi-min Fang, a science writer who won the inaugural John Maddox prize in 2012 for exposing scientific fraud in Chinese research circles, for this. In an interview to NewScientist in November of that year, he explains the source of widespread misconduct:

It is the result of interactions between totalitarianism, the lack of freedom of speech, press and academic research, extreme capitalism that tries to commercialise everything including science and education, traditional culture, the lack of scientific spirit, the culture of saving face and so on. It’s also because there is not a credible official channel to report, investigate and punish academic misconduct. The cheaters don’t have to worry they will someday be caught and punished.

At this point, it’s tempting to draw parallels with India. While China has seen increased funding for R&D…

Click on the chart for an interactive view.

Click on the chart for an interactive view.

… India has been less fortunate.

Click on the chart for an interactive view.

Click on the chart for an interactive view.

The issue of funding is slightly different in India, in fact. While Chinese science is obstinately centralized and publicly funded, India is centralized in some parts and decentralized in others, public funding is not high enough because presumably we lack the meritocratic academic environment, and private funding is not as high as it needs to be.

Click on the image for an interactive chart.

Click on the image for an interactive chart.

Even though the PNAS paper’s authors say their breakdown of what has driven scientific output from China could inspire changes in other countries, India is faced with different issues as the charts above have shown. Indeed, the very first chart shows how, despite the number of published papers having double in the last decade, we have only jumped from one small number to another small number.

“Scientific research in India has become the handmaiden of defense technology.”

There is also a definite lack of visibility: when little scientific output of any kind is accessible to 1) the common man, and 2) the world outside. Apart from minimal media coverage, there is a paucity of scientific journals, or they exist but are not well known, accessible or both. This Jamia Milia collection lists a paltry 226 journals – including those in regional languages – but it’s likelier that there are hundreds more, both credible and dubious. A journal serves as an aggregation of reliable scientific knowledge not just for scientists but also for journalists and other reliant decision-makers. It is one place to find the latest developments.

In this context, Current Science appears to be the most favored in the country, not to mention the loneliest. Then again, a couple fingers can be pointed at years of reliance on quantitative performance metrics, which drives many Indian researchers to publish in journals with very high impact factors such as Nature or Science, which are often based outside the country.

In the absence of lists of Indian and Chinese journals, let’s turn to a table used in the PNAS paper showing average number of citations per article compared with the USA, in percent. It shows both India and China close to 40% in 2010-2011.

The poor showing may not be a direct consequence of low quality. For example, a paper may have detailed research conducted to resolve a niche issue in Indian defense technology. In such a case, the quality of the article may be high but the citability of the research itself will be low. Don’t be surprised if this is common in India given our devotion to the space and nuclear sciences. And perhaps this is what a friend of mine referred to when he said “Scientific research in India has become the handmaiden of defense technology”.

To sum up, although India and China both lag the USA and the EU for productivity and value of research (albeit through quantitative metrics), China is facing problems associated with the maturity of a voluminous scientific workforce, whereas India is quite far from that maturity. The PNAS paper is available here. If you’re interested in an analysis of engineering education in the two countries, see this paper (from which the opening lines of this post were borrowed).

Ambivalent promises for S&T in the BJP manifesto

The Copernican
April 7, 2014

Even though they haven’t been in power for the last decade, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) concedes no concrete assurances for science & technology in the country in its manifesto ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. However, these subjects are geared to be utilised for the benefit of other sectors in which specific promises feature aplenty. Indeed, the party’s S&T section of the manifesto reads like a bulleted list of the most popular problems for scientific research in India and the world, although that the party has taken cognizance of this-and-that is heartening.

The BJP makes no mention of increasing India’s spending on S&T while the Indian National Congress promises to do that to 2% of GDP, a long-standing demand. On the upside, however, both parties mention that they would like to promote private sector involvement in certain areas like agriculture, education, transportation and public infrastructure, but only the BJP mentions it in the context of scientific research.

As things stand, private sector involvement in scientific research in India is very low. A DST report from May 2013 claims that it would like to achieve 50-50 investment from public and private participants by 2017, while the global norm stands at 66-34 in favour of private. It is well-documented that higher private sector involvement, together with more interdisciplinary research, reduces the time for commercialization of technologies – which the BJP aspires to in its manifesto. However, the party doesn’t mention the sort of fiscal and policy benefits it will be willing to use to stimulate the private sector.

Apart from this, there are other vague aspirations, too. Sample the following.

  • Promotion of innovation by creating a comprehensive national system of innovation
  • Set [up] an institute of Big data and Analytics for studying the impact of big data across sectors for predictive science
  • Establish an Intellectual Property Rights Regime

Climate change

There is also mention of tackling climate change, with a bias toward the Himalayan region. Under the S&T section, there’s a point about establishing a “Central University dedicated to Himalayan technology”. With respect to conservation efforts, BJP proposes to “launch ‘National Mission on Himalayas’ as a unique programme of inter-governmental partnership, in coordinated policy making and capacity building across states and sectors”, not to mention promote tourism as well.

The BJP also says it would like to make the point of tackling climate change a part of its foreign policy. However, its proposed power generation strategy does also include coal, natural gas and oil, apart from wanting to maximise the potential of renewable energy sources. Moreover, it also promotes the use of carbon credits, which is an iffy idea as this is a very malleable system susceptible to abuse, especially by richer agents operating across borders.

“Take steps to increase the domestic coal exploration and production, to bridge the demand and supply gap. Oil and gas explorations would also be expedited in the country. This will also help to reduce the import bill.”

Until here, not much is different from what the Congress is already promising, albeit with different names.

The BJP appears to be very pro-nuclear. Under its ‘Cultural Heritage’ section, the manifesto mentions Ram Setu in the context of its vast thorium deposits. How this is part of our cultural heritage, I’m not sure. The party also proposes to build “world class, regional centres of excellence of scientific research” for nanotechnology, material sciences, “thorium technology” and brain research. Sure, India has thorium reserves, but the design for a thorium-based nuclear power plant came out only in February 2014, and an operational system is only likely to be ready by the end of this decade.

Troubling stuff

If spending doesn’t increase, these promises are meaningless. Moreover, there are also some pending Bills in the Lok Sabha concerning the setting up of new universities, as well as a materials science initiative named ISMER pending from 2011. With no concrete promises, will those initiatives set forth by the INC but not really followed through see the light of day?

In fact, two things trouble me.

  1. A no-mention of scientific research that is not aimed at improving the quality of life in a direct way, i.e. our space program, supercomputing capabilities, fundamental research, etc.
  2. How the private sector is likely to be motivated to invest in government-propelled R&D, to what extent, and if it will be allowed to enter sensitive areas like power generation.

Clearly, the manifesto is a crowd-pleaser, and to that end it has endeavoured to bend science to its will. In fact, there is nothing more troubling in the entire document than the BJP’s intention to “set up institutions and launch a vigorous program to standardize and validate the Ayurvedic medicine”. I get that they’re trying to preserve our historical traditions, etc., but this sounds like an agenda of the Minitrue to me.

And before this line comes the punchline: “We will start integrated courses for Indian System of Medicine (ISM) and modern science and Ayurgenomics.”

Predatory publishing, vulnerable prey

On December 29, the International Conference on Recent Innovations in Engineering, Science and Technology (ICRIEST) is kicked off in Pune. It’s not a very well-known conference, but might as well have been for all the wrong reasons.

On December 16 and 20, Navin Kabra, from Pune, submitted two papers to ICRIEST. Both were accepted and, following a notification from the conference’s organizers, Mr. Kabra was told he could present the papers on December 29 if he registered himself at a cost of Rs. 5,000.

Herein lies the rub. The papers that Mr. Kabra submitted are meaningless. They claim to be about computer science, but were created entirely by the SCIGen fake-paper generator available here. The first one, titled “Impact of Symmetries on Cryptoanalysis”, is rife with tautological statements, and could not possibly have cleared peer-review. However, in the acceptance letter that Mr. Kabra received by email, paper is claimed to have been accepted after being subjected to some process of scrutiny, scoring 60, 70, 80 and 90.75 among some reviewers.

Why is the conference refusing to reject such a paper, then? Is it subsisting on the incompetence of secretarial staff? Or is it so desperate for papers that rejection rates are absurdly low?

Mr. Kabra’s second paper, “Use of cloud-computing and social media to determine box office performance”, might say otherwise. This one is even more brazen, containing these lines in its introduction:

As is clear from the title of this paper, this paper deals with the entertainment industry. So, we do provide entertainment in this paper. So, if you are reading this paper for entertainment, we suggest a heuristic that will allow you to read this paper efficiently. You should read any paragraph that starts with the first 4 words in bold and italics – those have been written by the author in painstaking detail. However, if a paragraph does not start with bold and italics, feel free to skip it because it is gibberish auto-generated by the good folks at SCIGen.

If this paragraph went through, then the administrators of ICRIEST are likely to possess no semblance of interest in academic research. In fact, they could be running the conference as a front to make some quick bucks.

Mr. Kabra professes an immediate reason for his perpetrating this scheme. “Lots of students are falling prey to such scams, and I want to raise awareness amongst students,” he wrote in an email.

He tells me that for the last three years, students pursuing a Bachelor of Engineering in a college affiliated with the University of Pune have been required to submit their final project to a conference, “a ridiculous requirement” thinks Mr. Kabra. As usual, not all colleges are enforcing this rule; those that are, on the other hand, are pushing students. Beyond falsifying data and plagiarizing reports to get them past evaluators, the next best thing to secure a good grade is to sneak it into some conference.

Research standards in the university are likely not helping, either. Such successful submissions as hoped for by teachers at Indian institutions will never happen for as long as the quality of research in the institution itself is low. Enough scientometric data exists from the last decade to support this, although I don’t know how if it breaks down to graduate and undergraduate research.

(While it may be argued that scientific output is not the only way to measure the quality of scientific research at an institution, you should know something’s afoot when the quantity of output is either very high or very low relative to, say, the corresponding number of citations and the country’s R&D expenditure.)

Another reason to think neither the university nor the students’ ‘mentors’ are helping is someone who spoke on behalf of the University to Mr. Kabra had no idea about ICRIEST. To quote from the Mid-Day article that’s covered this incident,

“I don’t know of any research organisation named IRAJ. I am sorry, I am just not aware about any such conference happening in the city,” said Dr Gajanan Kharate, dean of engineering in the University of Pune.

Does the U-of-Pune care if students have submitted paper to bogus journals? Do they check contents of the research themselves or do they rely on whether students’ ‘papers’ are accepted or not? No matter; what will change hence? I’m not sure. I won’t be surprised if nothing changes at all. However, there is a place to start.

Prof. Jeffrey Beall is the Scholarly Initiatives Librarian at the University of Colorado, Denver, and he maintains an exhaustive list of questionable journals and publishers. This list is well-referenced, constantly updated, and commonly referred to to check for dubious characters that might have approached research scholars.

On the list is the Institute for Research and Journals (IRAJ), which is organizing ICRIEST. In an article in The Hindu on September 26, 2012, Prof. Beall says, “They want others to work for free, and they want to make money off the good reputations of honest researchers.”

Mr. Kabra told me he had registered himself for the presentation—and not before he was able to bargain with them, “like … with a vegetable vendor”, and avail a 50 per cent discount on the fees. As silly as it sounds, this is not the mark of a reputable institution but a telltale sign of a publisher incapable of understanding the indignity of such bargains.

Another publisher on Prof. Beall’s list, Asian Journal of Mathematical Sciences, is sly enough to offer a 50 per cent fee-waiver because they “do not want fees to prevent the publication of worthy work”. Yet another journal, Academy Publish, is just honest: “We currently offer a 75 per cent discount to all invitees.”

Other signs, of course, are the use of words with incorrect spellings, as in “Dear Sir/Mam”.

At the end of the day, Mr. Kabra was unable to go ahead with the presentation because he said he was depressed by the sight of Masters students at ICRIEST—some who’d come there, on the west coast, from the eastern-coast state of Odisha. That’s the journey they’re willing to make when pushed by the lure for grades from one side and the existence of conferences like ICRIEST on the other.