Smilodon bringing down MegatheriumSabre-toothed cats had weak bites – a new comparison of Smilodon‘s skull with a modern lion’s shows that the cat probably didn’t run up and bite its prey with those teeth. Probably it brought prey down with a full-body tackle (it had extra strong claws) and then used the famous teeth to make the kill once it had the animal pinned. At least, that’s the latest theory.

Velociraptor’s ‘killing’ claws were for climbing – I’m just ruining all the prehistoric artists’ conceptions today, aren’t I? Analyses of velociraptor claws shows they weren’t sharp enough to disembowel prey, but were strong enough to hold the dinosaur’s weight as it climbed trees.

Kids, even babies, judge others based on skin color – and we exacerbate the problem by keeping the subject taboo. The author writes of his own son: “Katz’s work helped me to realize that Luke was never actually colorblind. He didn’t talk about race in his first five years because our silence had unwittingly communicated that race was something he could not ask about. … we started to overhear one of his white friends talking about the color of their skin. They still didn’t know what to call their skin, so they used the phrase ‘skin like ours.’ And this notion of ours versus theirs started to take on a meaning of its own.”

Swine flu vaccine: Too little, too late (SciAm article, first half available online) – When you’re trying to make enough flu vaccine, boosting production with new methods and adjuvants is at odds with safety and testing (and the potential for lawsuits). The author seems to think litigation is the problem; but if people are suing because they’ve been harmed by the vaccine, wouldn’t it be more correct to say safety is the problem? Deciding how much risk is appropriate is a tough question.

Jell-O shots in adolescence lead to gambling later in life – When you want to study alcohol and risky behavior in rats, do it right! Yes, they really fed the rats jell-o shots, and taught them to gamble.

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navigating - photo by Somewhat Frank on FlickrA new book asks the question, Why do we get lost? I think the more interesting question is, how do we know where we are?

When I was growing up in Munhall I remember being so confused about the layout of the neighborhood that I gave up trying to make sense of it. If I turned left out of my driveway, I could take a certain route through a certain part of town and end up at school. But if I went down my street the complete opposite direction, and passed through a different part of town, I’d end up at the same place.

(Years later, I found out why: my street was shaped like a squiggly horseshoe. When I walked my dog around the block, the block was not square or triangular but rather shaped like an “S”. No wonder I was confused.)

my neighborhood

But even without a mental map, I got around just fine by recognizing landmarks and street names. Now, several groups of scientists are suggesting that humans navigate by landmarks, while other animals use geometry.

Hamsters, toads, and spiders can all navigate like homing pigeons: take the critter away from home by any route you please, and she’ll fly, or crawl, straight back. According to Jack Loomis at UC Santa Barbara, people do badly on a simplified version of this test; and William Warren at Brown found that people could navigate by landmarks through a maze that, geometrically, couldn’t possibly exist. (The maze was a virtual world with invisible “wormholes”).

But are we really so bad at geometric navigation? A recent study looked at the question of whether people who are lost end up walking in circles. The answer: only if they are blindfolded or have no other cues. Test subjects walking around the Sahara, with only shadows from the sun for guidance, did a decent job of walking in a straight line – even though the sun moved during their long hike.

direction - photo by Kulbowski on FlickrMeanwhile, blindfolded people, asked to walk through a field, wandered wildly but didn’t always prefer circular directions. (You wouldn’t know it, though, from all the headlines of “We really do walk in circles.” Only sometimes! Not even most of us!) The authors figured that “sensory noise” – basically, errors in where we think our body is – accounts for the wiggly path.

But some people are bad at navigating even by landmarks. Giuseppe Iaria and Jason Barton, are studying what happens in the brains of people who have a broken sense of direction. You can take their tests at the catchily named GettingLost.ca (which, um, I had trouble finding again after my first visit).

The series of tests takes about an hour, but it’s interesting to see what they think a sense of direction is made of. (They especially encourage people who have trouble navigating to take the tests.) The tasks include recognizing objects from different angles, recognizing faces (people with face blindness, called prosopagnosia, often have trouble navigating), recognizing landmarks after you’ve seen them in situ, and a variety of sleep-inducing walks through an almost featureless landscape, reminiscent of an empty Doom set, or a prison yard, where you’re asked whether you were led along two identical or different routes. In the most tedious test, the prison yard gets a couple of storefronts, and you’re asked to repeatedly locate them on a map. Despite my childhood difficulties, I did pretty well on the tests. It seems that landmark-based navigation works pretty well after all.

little red riding hood and the wolfRelated to my earlier post about science jargon, this week I came across a discussion of just what a science writer’s job is when faced with such jargon. Explain it, or replace it with plainer but less precise language?

(The discussion was on an NASW mailing list, and let me tell you, these lists can be hilarious. Once a flamewar broke out, inspiring after several weeks the suggestion that perhaps people should be somewhat polite to each other on the list. That message started a barrage of emails from various participants about how we like flamewars, and if we can’t insult each other while making ridiculous arguments, what is the point of a mailing list? And then there’s the guy who regularly writes about how metric is the inferior measuring system because “base 12 arithmetic” is more in tune with the laws of nature, but I digress.)

One writer claimed that:

When “proper jargon” and “plain English” don’t mean the same, then “proper jargon” ought to be used.

…and that the writer should explain exactly what the jargon means, bringing the reader up to speed, so that the rest of the piece can be written with the specialized terms.

(One reply led to another, with each side accusing the other of protecting scientists’ egos at the expense of journalists’ and vice-versa. Each side also blamed the other for the scientific illiteracy of the populace at large. These lists give me endless amounts of entertainment.)

I find it lots of fun to explain concepts, but I’m a writer trying to tell a specific story, not a tutor helping a student cram for a test.

What if somebody is telling you the story of Little Red Riding Hood and you don’t know what a wolf is? Should the storyteller really have to tell you all about wolves? How much information do you need?

While an aside about Canis lupus could be fun[*], a simple explanation would suffice to get on with the story – “The wolf is somebody who wants to eat Little Red Riding Hood.” That wouldn’t tell you much about wolves, but would give you 100% of the what you need to understand the story.

Remember what I said last time about jargon being, to a specialist, shorthand for “all the things I’ve ever learned about this word”? A paragraph or two defining QTLs will not make the term as significant to the reader as it is to a researcher who has spent years learning about and working with them.

And so if I’m writing a story that involves QTLs, I might leave off the term entirely and say that “such-and-such disease is caused by many genes. This research team has identified one of them and is hot on the trail of another.” That tells you what you need to know about the disease, its basis, and the progress the research team is making – and now I don’t have to try to make the reader understand the subtle difference between a QTL and a gene.

Of course, I’m relying on previous writers to have explained the concept of a “gene” well enough that the reader already knows what one is.

In many cases, the jargon is an artifact of the current technology that’s in use and our tentative understanding of the subject. Genes are forever. Particular techniques for genetic mapping, not so much.

When deciding whether to explain a term or gloss over it, I consider both factors: Is it important to this story? And will it be important to the reader? (When you put it that way, it sounds so obvious!)

[*] I really liked the random educational chapters in Moby Dick, but it seems I’m in the minority.

photo of scribbled edits on science writing Scientists aren’t actually bad at writing. No, I’m not trying to put myself out of a job – they still need me! 🙂 But the more impenetrable scientist-ese I read, the better I understand that what looks like gibberish to outsiders is not a symptom of bad communication – specialized, maybe, but not ineffective.

I remember the first few times as a student I was able to read a scientific paper and explain to someone else, with analogies and simple language, just what it was actually saying; this, I thought, must be a useful skill. Because the article I was translating sure wasn’t readable on its own.

In a sense, that’s what my job is now; but it’s actually easier than that. I don’t have to sit around with a jargon-filled paper in one hand and a medical dictionary in the other, because the first step in an assignment is to call up the person who did the research, and have a quasi-normal, human-to-human conversation about their work. While it’s important to be able to read their papers so you have smart questions to ask, that’s only one part of the job. (“Duh, what was that paper about?” would work about as well in an interview as in my mandatory journal club class in grad school: not at all)

Some scientists are better than others at this sort of plain conversation. Generally, anybody who has run their own lab for decades has explained their work to countless funders, conference attendees, and prospective students. Those who are earlier in their career, or do less cross-discipline work, seem to be the hardest to talk to. They’ve learned how to communicate with colleagues in their field, but haven’t figured out yet how to get others interested in their work.

I’ve often heard people – some of them scientists, some of them readers who are baffled by scientific papers – claim that scientists are bad at writing or bad at communicating. That’s rarely true. The issue is that communicating with scientists in your field, and communicating with people who aren’t, are two very different skills.

Scientists are taught to speak with precision. Like when I took my first serious biology class in college – for the first time, our lab reports were expected to read like scientific papers. We were to speak precisely: say, not about the enzyme “doing” something, but about what the effects of such-and-such were in terms of Michaelis-Menten kinetics. Work in the multisyllabic buzzwords from class, we learned, because those are the words that actually mean something.

Those big words aren’t “sloppy thinking” or “bad writing”; in fact, each one calls to mind – for the right audience – whole areas of scientific discipline. Hepatobiliary disease? Oh yeah, the reader might say, I remember that whole course I took in hepatobiliary disease. It triggers memories that a simpler synonym (liver disease) may not. Are you developing efficacious treatments for a disease? That brings to mind the medical concept of efficacy, which is a little different than saying that a treatment is “effective” (or “works good”).

Like any good buzzword, the point of most scientific jargon is to give a name to a large or complicated phenomenon. So it makes sense that scientist-ese doesn’t consist of patient explanations in small words; rather, it’s a string of multisyllabic buzzwords meant to shovel information past the reading scientist’s eyeballs. When those buzzwords have meaning to you, this makes for a very skimmable text.

The best examples of shoveling are in the introduction of scientific papers. The intro sets the stage for the research by quickly blowing by the initial problem, the state of research to date, and the reasons why anybody should care. If you’re in roughly the right field, all the buzzwords will be familiar to you and you can get on to reading the research. The situation is similar to a recipe, a knitting pattern full of abbreviations, computer program code, whatever – if you know what the abbreviated concepts are (“form this type of loop on your needle by moving the yarn like so…”) you can breeze right by the “K 30” line and get what you need out of the more interesting parts.

In fact, the really interesting parts of scientific papers, like the interesting parts of recipes or code or knitting patterns, tend to be written in plainer english – because that’s the part where you have to explain what’s going on.