Science journalism

Behold the crap-fighting science warriors

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked by a reputable science institution to participate in one of their newsletters with a piece on the state of science journalism in the developing world. The piece I wrote is below. It was politely rejected because the science institution was worried it might be seen to be destroying bridges with countries it works with. We can have a separate discussion on bridges worth maintaining and those that are not. As a journalist, however, it is my duty to say things the way they are. Science journalism in the developing world is in danger for so many reasons. Below I explain a couple of them.

In February 2014, the Egyptian armed forces announced in a press conference that their engineering department achieved a “scientific breakthrough” by inventing a device that diagnoses and cures HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C virus, and a variety of other illnesses. The device, they announced, had a 100% success rate. Looking curiously similar to a metal detector, it purportedly worked by using electromagnetic waves.

This happened at a crucial time in Egypt’s post-revolutionary history. Only a few short months earlier, the democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood government was overthrown. Shortly afterwards, Egyptian police massacred hundreds of protesters at a sit-in supporting the return of the Muslim Brotherhood to government. Egyptians had been living in instability and insecurity since the 2011 Revolution and the Egyptian army was positioning itself to appear as the country’s knight in shining armor. Media outlets in the country rallied to hail the army’s new breakthrough and a large number of Egyptians celebrated the success through social media.

This crap really happens from well-educated, well-travelled, well-connected people living in the 21st century—the Age of Information.

Voices of reason, fortunately, still do exist, although sometimes seeming as weak, in comparison, as the squeak of a mouse. (more…)

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On the Prowl for the Perfect Job

I’m at a crossroads in my career. At the end of June, I’ll have completed the organization of the World Conference of Science Journalists 2011. I have been working on this conference for two years.

It’s time for me to look for a job.

Thing is, I don’t want just any job. I want the PERFECT job.

(more…)

Should science transcend political conflicts and wars?

This morning I posted a note about a claim that a US journal refused the publication of an Iranian research study because it was conducted in Iran Are US science journals not allowed to publish Iranian research?

I asked the questions: When do political sanctions go too far? Is it smart to sanction science and scientific research?

To this post, I got responses like the following on Twitter:

Thats sad!.. Science should be separated from politics!.. he can really publish it in EU or some other better place than US.

that is sad, I am sure that we can do something in the international forum of physics in this case.I will write a letter immediatly.

that’s probably bcse of the sanctions, Europe may too. Unfortunate falling thru the cracks of politics.

I also received this very valid question from another Twitterer:

do you think it’s OK to to have scientific relations/research with israel for example ?

When I visited Jerusalem and the West Bank in 2006, I covered the issue of Palestinian-Israeli scientific collaboration and wrote this article: Israeli-Palestinian research: walking on eggshells.

You will see that scientific collaboration between “enemies” is complex and does not have easy answers.

What do you think? Does science transcend political tensions, occupation, and war? Should it? Or is science part of the systems within we work and live and thus it is – and perhaps should – be affected by them?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this through comments to this post or by responding to the following poll:

Are US science journals not allowed to publish Iranian research?

I received an email from what seems to be a credible source saying that an Iranian working in the field of orthodontics submitted a paper to an American journal. The paper was refused solely on the grounds of the paper’s country of origin, Iran.

This is the email the Iranian orthodontist is claimed to have received (names have been removed by the source of information):

Dear Dr. XXXX

We have received your manuscript in our automated system. Unfortunately, our Federal Government does not allow us to process and edit manuscripts submitted from Iran.

I regret that the world situation results in our inability to communicate science as we would wish. I suggest that you submit your manuscript to a European journal or a journal located in some other country than ours.

Thank you for your interest in The XXXXX.

Sincerely,

XXXXX, DDS, MSD, PhD
Editor-in-Chief, The XXXX
Professor Emeritus
University of XXXXX
XXXXXX University

This is definitely worth looking into. Has the US government really issued warnings to scientific journals against publishing research by Iranian scientists? If so, why? When do political sanctions go too far? Is it smart to sanction science and scientific research?

I am not the 1st anyone to summit Kilimanjaro!

Only two days after I first announced to my friends that I had successfully summited Africa’s highest peak, Kilimanjaro, I read the first article that claimed I was the first

My summit picture - holding the Egyptian flag against the cold winds

 something to summit the mountain. In this case it was the first Muslim woman and it was published on IslamOnline.net.

I immediately called my friends there and asked them where they got their information. “What’s your source,” I asked. Journalists aren’t supposed to write information based on instinct. They have sources of information. There was no source, I learned. They just thought this was the case. I went into ugly Nadia mode. “There’s no way on Earth to know who the first person was of any religion to summit Kilimanjaro,” I explained to them (actually, I pretty much yelled it). “People don’t register themselves when they come back from the mountain based on their religion,” I continued. The article on IslamOnline.net was thankfully edited into telling the story of a woman who summited Kilimanjaro.

One of the first things I did when I reached the base of the mountain was that I called the Park authorities to find out if any Egyptian women had summited the mountain before me. It took two days for the authorities to get back to me. In the past two years alone, I was told, at least four young Egyptian women had summited the mountain.

Since then, I’ve made a point of telling journalists who interview me that I am not the first Egyptian to summit Kilimanjaro. I know this as fact. Journalists assure me that they understand this. Nonetheless, twice now (in Egypt’s Shabab and Kul Annas magazines) there have been articles about me with titles claiming that I’m the first Egyptian woman to summit the mountain. When I ask the journalists who interview me how this happened even though I was very clear with them about this point, they tell me that they don’t write the titles. They write the article, hand it in to the desk, and someone at the desk writes the title. Some idiot, that is. That idiot either imagines things and writes up a title based on his/her imagination, or decides to spice things up by writing a lie.

Now when a journalist calls me up for an interview I make sure they know while we’re still on the phone that I am not the first anyone to summit the mountain. And if you accept that fact and still want to interview me, you are welcome to my home. They usually do accept and ask for the interview.

But this whole thing has really upset me about how the media function in our country. I’ve also learned first-hand why scientists, for example, have reservations about talking to journalists about their research. It seems that in some cases, no matter how clear you are with the journalist,  she or others above her will manage to get things wrong – if only to sensationalize a bit.

It’s disturbing. 

So for the record, world, I am not the first Muslim woman to summit Kilimanjaro. I am not the first Egyptian to summit Kilimanjaro. I am not the first Arab or Egyptian woman to summit Kilimanjaro.

And none of that matters.

Nadia El-Awady, a then 40-year-old Egyptian mother-of-four, summited Kilimanjaro. And to me, that’s a pretty amazing achievement without being anyone’s first.

Class distinctions at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina?

If there’s one thing I do a lot of these days, it’s attending conferences. So if there’s one thing I know well these days, it is conferences.

Some of what I see at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina-organized conferences disturbs me.

The whole point to organizing a conference is getting people who are interested in the same topic under one roof to meet, discuss and network.

The best conversations and networking are done during the coffee breaks, lunches, dinners, and social events.

In so many conferences I’ve been able to walk up to people I wouldn’t normally ever have access to under other circumstances. I’ve sat next to ministers during dinner, chatted casually with Nobel Prize winners at coffee breaks, and asked scientific experts not only about their science but also about their personal lives at lunches.

This isn’t what I see happening at the Bibliotheca. At every conference I’ve been to, participants have been categorized and thus separated into different eating areas.

In my first two conferences at the Bibliotheca, the media, for example, were placed in the common man’s category (my label). This meant that we were given lunch boxes and were left to find any corner to eat our food in. During this last conference that I attended, I was to discover where those who were not commoners went. Turns out there are two more categories.

Again, the first category is for the commoners. In this last conference the commoners were university students who came from Cairo and Alexandria to learn about evolutionism from some of the most esteemed scientists in the field. They got lunch boxes and no dinner.

The second category was for the academics attending the conference. Media were luckily included in this category this time. These participants got their food at an open buffet and had tables to sit at.

And then there’s a third category. The VIPs. These are mainly the Bibliotheca people organizing the event plus some of their special guests. These guys have a closed dining room and some of them get served.

Now I completely understand the need sometimes for a separate eating hall for some of the more important guests who might not ever get to eat if they do so in the midst of many starry-eyed admirers. Sometimes, I say. For some people. As I said, I’ve been to conferences where ministers and Nobel Laureates were eating at the same tables as everyone else.

But I do not understand the need for the two other categories.

Because of the way the Bibliotheca organized coffee breaks and meals, the young university students who came to learn about evolution never got a chance to properly rub shoulders in a normal setting with international scientists. Of course, they could always run up to the stage after each session to catch a few words with the panelists, but that was it.

I’m befuddled.

Please note that I write this with no jealousy at all on my part. I was personally treated very well at this last conference by all Bibliotheca staff and I even got to eat one of my meals in the VIP dining hall.

But I still think this separation of conference participants during meals completely defeats one of the most important purposes of organizing a conference to begin with: allowing people to learn from each other as they mingle and eat, as we say in Egypt, “bread and salt” together. And in Egypt, once you’ve had bread and salt with someone, you’re practically family.  

Bibliotheca Alexandrina: please reconsider this approach.

Darwin and Me

This year Darwin was everywhere. New books came out, workshops were held, conferences organized; all in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and the 200th anniversary of his birth.

This will be the year, I thought. This year I’m going to finally understand what evolution is all about and why so many people are against it. This year I’ll make up my own mind whether evolutionism in some of its aspects runs contrary to some aspects of my own faith as a Muslim. This will be the year.

It wasn’t.

At least I don’t think it was.

Or was it?

Allow me to introduce myself. I’m your average sort of person who has a semi-decent education and reads a book or two here and there. I received most of my pre-university education in the U.S.; all the way up to the 10th grade. I have a bachelor’s degree in medicine and surgery from Cairo University and a master’s in mass communication from the American University in Cairo.

If you ask me when I was taught evolution I can give you no clear answer. I know that somewhere in the course of my education I have been taught about natural selection and adaptation. I’ve also learned about genes, mutations, and Mendelian inheritance. But I truly cannot tell you if anywhere in my education I’ve been taught about Darwin and his work, speciation, and human evolution.

I’ve watched television programs where these have been mentioned. I’ve read a few articles and books as well. Nothing too complicated or too detailed. I can also now add that I’ve attended one seminar on evolutionism and one international conference on Darwin.

And after all that, I can honestly say that I still haven’t been able to wrap my head around it all. Or maybe I have but I just don’t see what the problem is. Or…and just maybe…I do see what the problem is very clearly and I’m not liking what I see.

What do I see?

I see scientific method used for hundreds of years giving clear evidence that species adapt, change, and evolve.

I see scientists telling us that all living organisms have much of their DNA in common; humans and worms have 60% of their DNA in common. I see scientists telling us that humans and chimpanzees have most of their DNA in common. Those scientists say that humans and apes have a common ancestor but they emphasize that they are not saying humans descend from apes. I’ve never truly understood the difference and I’ve never truly understood why scientists make a point of saying in the same sentence: “Darwin never said humans descended from apes; he said we have a common ancestor” but then not going on to tell us what this means exactly.

From Islamic scriptures I see that we are told that there were creatures and living things on the Earth when Adam was created. I see that God says that He created Adam from clay and Eve from Adam’s rib.

I see A LOT of people voicing their concerns about how the implications of the theory of evolution might have encouraged racism, eugenics, and ethnic cleansing.

But this is what I don’t see.

I don’t see how science can be to blame for sick philosophies, ideologies, and practices.

I don’t see how the science can be falsified as a result.

I don’t see anything in the Islamic scriptures that tell me what kind of “Homo” Adam was. Does he have to be the Homo sapiens of today? Could there not have been other “Homos” before him?

I don’t see why we need to read all the stories in the Qur’an literally. What does God mean when He says Adam was created from clay? Anyone who claims he knows what that really means is lying. We can only conjecture and interpret. Basically we are only making a semi-educated guess.

I don’t see scientists making an honest effort to communicate this science in a way that semi-educated people like me can properly grasp.

But I do see a use of language and of metaphors in explaining evolution that seems culturally insensitive and that in some cases could be damaging to the science itself.

I do see some scientists insisting on inserting religion into their dialogue about the science; exactly the same thing most scientists ask religious scholars not to do. I see some scientists saying that evolution means that it is not God who creates, forms and evolves; rather it is the natural processes of evolution that do all this with absolutely no supernatural intervention.

I also see a lot of people talking; most of it gibberish to my ears; most of it not making a lot of sense. I see a lot of people who try to sound like they understand what they are talking about when they support or oppose evolutionism but are not being very successful in the act.

And the conclusion I come to every time is that most people really don’t understand evolution. They are not taught it properly, whether during their education or through other channels such as the media and the public literature. At the same time, most people are receiving confusing messages from multiple, loud sources telling them that this science they do not understand is contrary to their faith. Go anywhere near someone’s faith and you have their attention. I see a lot of people telling themselves: I don’t understand the science, I have no idea what these other guys’ religious arguments are against evolution, but they seem to know what they are talking about and they are talking about it very passionately. There must be some substance to their claims. Maybe I should just back away from this science that might be telling me not to believe in my God.

I see some scientists and many philosophers using science and manipulating it to impose their own ideological convictions.

And, more important than all, I see people, everywhere, unwilling to question their faiths or even their own interpretations of their faiths. And that is what scares me the most.

So, after a year living on and off with Darwin, I’ve decided to keep an open mind. I am going to continue to try to understand the different aspects of evolution. I am going to try to understand what my own religion says or doesn’t say about creation and evolution. I am going to keep an open mind about the meanings of scripts and allow space for different interpretations. I am even going to allow this and other knowledge to get me to question my own faith and understandings. For it is only through this process that I can come to any understanding of truth; whether within what I already know or from somewhere else. And ultimately, isn’t it truth we are searching for, wherever it may be?

And I realize that by doing this, Darwin has rubbed off on me after living with him throughout 2009. Darwin’s genius, after all, was his ability to question conventional wisdom, keep an open-mind and to think out of the box.

Happy Birthday, Darwin.

Science and the Importance of Space: Not Outer Space, Mind you, Just Space

The fact that I’ve lived now for over 20 years in a city as crowded as Cairo, Egypt makes me very conscious of the concept and importance of space. To get from one part of Cairo to another one moves literally sometimes at a crawling pace as streets have become over-burdened with more cars than the city can handle. Egyptians have a very small space bubble. We hug and kiss almost everyone we greet, we hold hands as we talk to each other, we throw ourselves into crowded markets and bazaars with the same excited feeling we have when we jump into a swimming pool. Our apartment buildings are packed one right beside the other and our apartments one atop of the other. Open any window and you can easily hold a conversation with the person living on the same floor across the street.

It is this constant awareness of space that gave me pause for reflection while visiting the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada.

The Perimeter Institute (PI) specializes in cross-disciplinary research in cosmology, particle physics, quantum foundations, quantum gravity, quantum information theory and string theory. One day I’ll figure out what all that means. But for now, as I went on a guided tour through the Institute I was fascinated by the way space was designed to maximize researchers’ opportunities to think, be creative, and to interact with one another.

Draw a line under the word “cross-disciplinary”. After years of scientists22102009296 living in the micro-cosmos of their ultra-specialized fields, they are now realizing more and more how important it is for science to reach across disciplines. Our realm of knowledge cannot grow and develop and mature unless scientists from different disciplines work with each other, share what they know and build on that shared knowledge.

PI is bringing theoretical physicists to Canada from all over the world to share the knowledge of their different disciplines in order to solve some of the most complicated questions about our micro- and macro-universes. Their ambitious plan is to eventually house the largest concentration of theoretical physicists anywhere in the world.

And PI clearly realizes the importance of providing the necessary space for22102009297 creativity and collaborations to happen. The magnificence of architectural design starts in the office. One of each researcher’s four office walls is a window that peers out onto the world beyond. Perimeter itself is surrounded by relatively open space so that researchers see earth and grass and trees and water and the buildings of the town beyond. A second of the office’s four walls is a blackboard or a whiteboard. There was not one office that did not have one of these, full of what my eye sees as endless scribbles but what I’m sure are most probably complex equations.

Walk out of the office and on every floor of this three-storey building you22102009293 find cozy lounge areas with leather couches, a refreshment booth, and yes, a huge blackboard full of scientists’ doodles. On the third floor scientists can walk out onto a veranda that seemingly projects itself from this black-mirrored building and seamlessly hangs over the green below. The veranda is lined by wooden benches and smack in the middle is a blackboard that scientists can use on both sides. Part of the building also surrounds a ground-floor garden that one can see from any of the multitude of glass walls in the building’s hallways. And what does one find right beside the bushes, their leaves a brownish green as autumn draws to a close? A huge blackboard, probably 2 x 3 meters large.

These areas are designed to encourage scientists to leave their offices and lounge with colleagues from their own and other disciplines. In one lounge area, scientists can drink coffee, play pool, and either chat about their 10-year-old’s crush on the girl at school or idly discuss their latest thoughts on loop quantum gravity, cosmic acceleration, and black rings and then suddenly jump to the blackboard as their conversation progresses to some stroke of genius thinking.

I see this and heart-wrenchingly remember a recent visit I made to Cairo University’s Faculty of Science. There’s not much to see really other than dark, moldy labs full of dusty, cracked equipment to a large degree from the 1960s. Even when the equipment is more recent, it’s still placed in the dark, moldy labs. Think grave and you sort of get the idea of the environment Egyptian scientists have to work in.

Scientists need knowledge, equipment, labs, and grants in order to be productive. But today I’ve learned something else. Scientists also need light and space to think creatively and they need each other to take the science to new frontiers.

Science Journalism Crisis: It Was Bound to Happen

Posted on World Federation of Science Journalists’ website

http://www.wfsj.org/blogs/wfsj/post.php?id=73

Feb 27, 2009

 

At the AAAS annual meeting in Chicago this February 2009, journalists held a special press briefing titled “Science Journalism in Crisis?” to discuss whether recent cuts of science news staff in some of the larger American media organizations are representative of a possible worldwide trend.

The impression given was that although there do seem to be problems in the US and the UK, this might not necessarily be the case in other parts of the world – especially the developing world.

An informal survey I conducted among Arab and African colleagues seems to support this.

Twenty one fulltime journalists and 14 freelance journalists working in 11 Arab and African countries responded to the survey. The fulltime journalists worked for 20 different media organizations while the freelance journalists worked for several more. Detailed results of the survey can be seen in the powerpoint presentation or by watching the video of my presentation at the session below. But here are some of the more interesting findings:

  • More than half (57%) of the fulltime journalists who responded to the survey said their media organizations have specialized science sections. The remainder said their media produced science news dispersed among other news coverage.
  • Media organizations in Egypt in particular have had science sections for many years – as early as the 1950s and 60s in two cases. New science sections appeared in media in Benin and Cameroon while two of their staff were being trained by the World Federation of Science Journalists. Whether there is a direct correlation is not clear.
  • Media organizations in Africa and the Arab world – if this survey is an indication – are dependent mainly on their staff for science news as opposed to depending on freelance journalists. Some Egyptian media organizations (Al-Manarah Satellite Channel for Scientific Research, Al-Ahram Daily and IslamOnline.net) have relatively large numbers of fulltime science staff (40, 20, and 8 respectively) while the majority of Arab and African media organizations depend on smaller numbers (1 – 3).
  • Freelance journalists in both regions feel that their freelancing opportunities have increased in the past five years. This was supported by the fact that respondents said that although the numbers of fulltime staff and freelance journalists used by their organizations in the past five years have roughly stayed the same, the amount of space dedicated to science by those organizations has increased.
  • Many reasons were given to explain this increase. These include: an increased interest in science by the countries themselves; more training and networking opportunities provided by the World Federation of Science Journalists and local science journalists associations such as the Arab Science Journalists Association; and more international attention to science issues such as global warming.

Now let’s get down to the nitty gritty.

Why do things seem to be going so well for science journalists in the Arab world and Africa (during the session Valeria Roman from Argentina noted similar trends in Latin America) while they seem to be deteriorating for science journalists in the US and the UK?

The logical assumption is that the developing world is still catching up with the developed world in terms of science journalism. We’re witnessing a phase of our science journalism history that the rest of the world witnessed more than four decades ago. Our countries have finally realized the importance of science in their national development and stuff to report on is actually happening! And as this happens there are more training and networking opportunities for Arab and African science journalists and this is resulting in more importance given to the profession.

But if this is the case, how do we prevent a future crisis from affecting our part of the world as well?

Well for one, let’s hope that we don’t have another economic crisis anytime soon and that we manage to get through this one unscathed.

But what concerns me is that the real problem lies in an increasing trend towards topic specialization in journalism and that this could actually be the death of us.

There is no doubt in my mind that audiences are interested in reading about science. I worked as a science editor for several years at IslamOnline.net and our website statistics attest to this fact (our science pages were better read than our political pages, believe it or not).

But as we journalists become better trained – sometimes with advanced degrees in science journalism – and thus better equipped to cover complex science issues and communicate them to the public, are we also stabbing ourselves in the back because we are at the same time becoming more expensive for our media organizations, which for the most part are pretty poor to begin with?

Scientists themselves are recognizing how hyperspecialization in science can sometimes result in a loss of the big picture and there are now trends towards interdisciplinary collaborations to make up for this defect. Are we also becoming too hyperspecialized as science journalists? I’m still amazed when some science journalists tell me that they are specialized in covering physics or geology, for example. How is this hyperspecialization then perceived by the media organizations that pay them? And along with this hyperspecialization, is it perhaps now the time to admit that our story choices for the general public are gradually going astray? Heck, the titles of some health stories I see in the media scare even me away they are so specialized and I have a degree in medicine! Are hyperspecialized science journalists writing more about the science stories that interest them rather than the science stories that interest the general public? And as we become hyperspecialized, are we losing our ability to recognize what information really needs to be simplified for a non-specialized reader?

Consider me the devil’s advocate. Rather than completely placing the blame on media organizations that are making drastic staff cuts in their science news staff or blaming the current economic crisis, let’s own up to our own roles in the problem. What do we need to do to keep science in the news? And what do we need to do to continue making a decent living? That’s what it all boils down to, right?