Can you blog and write papers at the same time?

Writing for blogs and academia

Recently I have entered solidly into the marathon of writing up my thesis. Now I know that you are supposed to be doing this all the way through your PhD and yes, I have been writing the whole time. But for me, if I don’t take a big run at it and do it in one logical progression, I just can’t make it make sense. So I have loads of one two and three page word documents scattered across my ‘Thesis’ folder (a title that has inspired a small frisson of terror in me, ever since I named it), none of which connect to each other in any meaningful way!

However, since I sat myself down and said:

‘Now you are going to do this Hazel, no more procrastinating, no more waiting for data, this is the time to write and make your argument!’

I have been writing in a much more logical way, and my arguments are coming together nicely (or so I in my little writing cave of a mind think). The good thing about that is that all the ideas that I have had for papers over the last year are making a great deal more sense to me now, I can draw the threads of my arguments more confidently from my thesis writing and I feel good about writing these papers. The bad thing is that I have never written a purely acadmeic paper – I’ve been blogging.

When it comes to writing short, logical, pieces that make a case for one particular thing, the area in which I have most experience over the last year is – here. The blogs that I have written and planned over the last two years have been my most reliable source of written output during the entire last phase of my PhD, and they are written extremely differently to a paper. I write colloquially, with slang terms and I often leap from idea to idea in the way that my brain does (yes, I’m a bit of a scatterbrain – ok a LOT of a scatterbrain).

This format of writing really doesn’t mesh well with writing papers. It doesn’t seem to impact my thesis too much as I know that I am going to be writing and re-writing that until next year, but for papers I seem to get stymied in my informal writing style!

This problem reflects the issue of writing in an academic language. Academic language is what you are taught (with varying degrees of success) to write with at University as an undergraduate. In the physical sciences its most obvious expression is writing in the third person (which reflects the notion that the scientist is supposed to be completely objective about their work), but it is used in all areas of academic life – in subtle and complicated ways. In fact, the success of your use of academic language and methods of thought is one of the things which mark you out as an expert in your field, as explored in a recent paper by Dressen-Hammouda (2008) on disciplinary identity and genre mastery. So if you are attempting to write a paper to expand the boundaries of your science (whatever it might be), you need to use the right textual cues and knowledge frames. This basically means you have to know the academic language (with all the implied meaning not obvious to an outsider) you need to use to make yourself credible to your peers and you need to know how to link concepts together in the same way that another person versed in your science would do so.

The language of scince should not be used to exclude.

The language of science should not be used to exclude. (The mural is one I saw on the doors of a geology firm in Cornwall: Geoscience Ltd – the photo is my own).

But this is completly the opposite of the style used for writing for a blog (or any form of science communication to a non-expert audience for that matter). In a blog you try to make yourself relatable, understandable and sympathetic. You want people to see you as a person and not a machine of science, and you want people who are not a part of your little community to feel comfortable coming in and talking about your subject with you. 

How do you balance these two competing needs? As a science communication researcher I value the method of easy communication that blogging needs, but I also need to contribute to my field. As a possible solution I am trying something new. At the end of a day of writing towards one of my chapters I am writing a page of one of my papers. I hope that this will allow the transfer of language across from the papers I have read to the papers I am writing.

 

To all you bloggers out there, do you have any tips for switching between your academic and internet ‘voice’?

 

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Advertisements

Can a geologist ever operate without anchoring bias?

Recently I was reading a paper about how anchoring bias has a strong role in how different geologists interpret data, because they base their interpretation on data they associate with a location. For example – Dover is known to have chalk cliffs, therefore if you see a cliff in Dover, it must be chalk. Which lead me to think ‘can geologists ever operate without using anchoring bias?

Just let go of the anchor!!

Just let go of the anchor!!

Before I launch into my reasoning for this, I should probably define what anchoring bias is. Anchoring bias or focalism, is a type of cognitive bias that usually happens in decision making, whereby the first piece of information (the anchor) becomes the basis for all subsequent decisions – even if this is illogical. Most often the phenomena has been tested using numbers, to quote an example given by Grau and Bohner – when participants are asked: Is the Eiffel Tower higher or lower than X meters? Followed by the question: How high is the Eiffel Tower? The answer to the second question will invariably be influenced by the value of X given in the first question. It has often been mentioned that anchoring bias is easier to demonstrate than explain (Strack and Mussweiler, 1997) which certainly seems the case, with explainations varying between selective accessibility (the anchor provides a point from which to test hypothesis and the data for it is more easily accessible – Mussweiler and Strack, 1999) to emotional state (those who are ‘sad’ and who generally demonstrate less bias – aka a more realistic view of the world – than those who are happy, seem to be more susceptible to anchoring bias – Bodenhausen, Gabriel and Lineberger, 2000) to expertise and experience (whereby experts base forecast and other data extrapolations on previous values, which may in some cases lead to very inaccurate results, Campbell and Sharpe, 2009), which bring me back to the geologists.

The reason I thought of geologists in particular being susceptible to anchoring bias is because, having worked as an Identification Officer at the Natural History Museum in London, I know that hands down the first question I ever asked someone who brought me something geological to be identified was ‘where did you find it?’ In fact I would even go so far as to say that if someone didn’t know where an object was from initally, it would be practically impossible to give a detailed ID. Yes I would be able to tell them roughly what their object was, but for detail I needed a location. This is true of all geology, where you are defines the types of rocks, mineral and fossils that you expect to find. Most intersetingly in this case however, it is just as likely to define what you WON’T find. Anchoring bias in geology precludes us from choosing certain rock types, fossils or environments of deposition in an area simply because that’s not what the maps say. And we love our maps.

And we really do love our maps!

And we really do love our maps!

But is there a problem with this? I mean, as researchers show, it’s likely that all experts experience some form of anchoring bias (in fact we all do) – so what’s the big deal? Well I guess as someone looking at communicating geoscience and trying to understand how people perceive geology, the influence of bias is a big deal in building trust, and we don’t even take anchoring bias into account. If we unknowingly encourage anchoring bias in interpreting our data, then are we skewing our results and presenting them with more confidence than we should? I wonder how many geologists would change their interpretation of soemthing just because the loaction changed? And yes, context is important, but do we let it control our interpretation too much? It may be that for geoscientists, anchoring bias is just a fact of life, but I think we should all be aware of it and try to take our own natural biases into account when communicating our data.

BGS people – Rachel Bell, a tenacious hydrogelogist

For two weeks at the beginning of July I got the opportunity to meet a whole bunch of interesting people at the British Geological Survey and speak with them about what they do, why they enjoy it and why it’s interesting. It’s been a great opportunity for me to geek out at all the amazing things the BGS is doing and the brilliant people who work there.

Rachel Bell is a hydrogeologist, which means she is interested in water. Specifically she is interested in the quanity and quality of water held in rocks underground and as such has spent a lot of her career in an out of various rivers, lakes and other water bodies collecting data. She is also a great example of someone who really chased her dream, overcoming setbacks in her career that many others would have seen as the end of the road.  You can read the post here.

Rachel Bell collecting data

Rachel Bell collecting data

Radioactive Waste Disposal in the UK – the start of a new screening process.

Today I attended a meeting that marked the start of a long and complicated process – the initial geological screening for a location to dispose of the UK’s radioactive waste. Some of you may remember that this is a process that has already started once, back in 2006, but which ground to a halt last year, when the only remaining council considering volunteering, West Cumbria, pulled out of the process. Because of this, the government has decided to start the recruiting process all over again – in an attempt to improve how the site is selected. As a result a new White Paper outlining the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency’s (NDA) plans was published in July.

It states:
UK Government has published a renewed process for siting a Geological Disposal Facility. Implementing Geological Disposal outlines an approach based on working with interested communities, beginning with two years of actions overseen by Government and intended to address issues that the public and stakeholders have told us are important to them. The UK Government remains committed to geological disposal as the right policy for the long-term, safe and secure management of higher activity radioactive waste.

2014-09-30 12.06.29

Today’s meeting was held at the Geological Society in London and was proposed as the first step in establishing a dialogue with different stakeholders that would assist in creating guidelines for areas considering volunteering to be assessed about their suitability to house a deep geological storage facility (so basically it was asking people ‘who should be involved in the discussion to set up the plan to invite the public to volunteer to take part’ – it’s a REALLY early stage). It was organised by the Radioactive Waste Management (RWM) section of the NDA and featured speakers from across industry, academia and government.

During the meeting it became increasingly clear that far from being a straightforward process, this was a very complex set of stages which could be (and were) interpreted differently. Part of this is due to the complicated nature of the material we are dealing with – radioactive waste. So before I dive into the meeting, here is a quick look at radioactive waste.

Now when it comes to radioactivity, I have a bit more familiarity than many people, and interestingly it’s not because I am a geologist. Firstly, I grew up in and now live again in Devon, an area known far and wide for it’s granite. Now granite (like many igneous rocks – ok a little bit of geologist escaped there, but you don’t need to be a geo to know this) is a radioactive rock and one of the forms of radioactivity released is a gas called radon. In Devon, most people have at least heard of radon, and some people have radon detecters. The closer you live to the moors the more likely you are to have had your house tested for radon. In fact, there was a toilet in Chagford (central Devon) that became famous as the most radioactive loo in the world due to the amount of radon being so high, that if you were in there for an hour you would get more than the recommended annual national level of radon!!

The second reason that I am familiar with radiation is because I live in Plymouth and Plymouth houses the Trident submarines. The Tridents are the UK’s nuclear deterrent subs, each loaded with a nuclear weapon. Every week the dockyard tests it’s contamination alarms – sirens that echo the days of the blitz ring out across Plymouth (waking up the lazy students) – it’s a very audible reminder that a few miles away from the city centre is a fairly large concentration of high level nuclear material.

As you can see the Naval Base (on the river) isn't far from the city.

As you can see the Naval Base (on the river) isn’t far from the city (image from Wikipedia).

But what if you don’t live in a granite rich (radioactive) area or near one of the dockyards that services the nuclear submarines? Have you ever come into contact with radioactive material? Well leaving background radiation from the planet and the sun aside the answer is probably yes. In fact you have probably had a hand in creating some of your own radioactive waste. How you may ask? Well when I was told this I couldn’t believe I hadn’t realised it. A large proportion of our radioactive waste comes from……. medical facilities. Yep. Ever had an x-ray? Even a dental x-ray counts. And that is only one of the myriad ways that we use radioactive materials. And that’s not even thinking about some of the more intensive therapies – radio-therapy for example? So radioactivity isn’t unfamiliar, well, kind of, but radioactive waste and what we do with it – certainly the concept of burying it – is. Most of us (myself included) have never seen radioactive waste beyond the glowing green gunk housed in lurid yellow containers (probably leaking) as depicted in popular media from the Simpsons to Spiderman. And with that in mind, having radioactive waste anywhere nearby (with the possible addendum that you might get superpowers from it) is pretty terrifying!!

Radioactive materials in 'The Simpsons' usually glow green.

Radioactive materials in ‘The Simpsons’ usually glow green (image is from TheBrainCage with a great article about the colours of radioactive materials).

But as we may have thought that nuclear materials are restricted to dirty bombs and power stations, nuclear waste has been similarly misrepresented in the media. Although some radioactive rocks are bright yellow, a glowing rock doesn’t mean it’s radioactive. And though radioactive waste can be stored in cannisters, I can’t find any examples of it being a thick sludgy material. In fact the really radioactive waste we produce as a society often looks like this:

IMG_0077.JPG

Image from the Guardian website

The really radioactive stuff may be the most dangerous, but it also takes up the smallest proportion of radioactive waste in the UK. But what do the different types of radioactive waste mean? Well, here is a quick summary. There are three main types of radioactive waste, and they are divided by their intensity. These three types are high-level, mid-level and low-level and they are categorised in the following way (description provided by Richard Shaw from the BGS, also available here).

Low-level waste (LLW) comes from hospitals and industry, as well as from nuclear fuel. It includes paper, rags, tools and clothing, which contain small amounts of mostly short-lived radioactivity. It does not require shielding during handling and transport, and is suitable for shallow land burial. To reduce its volume, it is often compacted before disposal. 82.67 % of the volume of waste produced in the UK is low-level but it accounts for 0.0003% of the radioactivity of all radioactive waste.

Intermediate-level waste (ILW) contains higher amounts of radioactivity and some requires shielding like protective clothing between stored waste and humans. It typically includes chemical mixes and metal fuel cladding, as well as contaminated materials from reactor decommissioning. Smaller items and non-solids may be solidified into vitreous waste (like glass). In the UK it makes up 17.26% of the volume and has 5.8% of the radioactivity of all radioactive waste.

High-level waste (HLW) is generated from the ‘burning’ of uranium fuel in a nuclear reactor, is the most radioactive waste produced and can be long or short lived. HLW contains products generated in the reactor core. It is highly radioactive and hot, so requires cooling and shielding. HLW accounts for over 94.2% of the total radioactivity produced industrially, but only approximately 0.07% of the volume of radioactive waste produced in the UK.

So we have this waste, that doesn’t look like we thought is would and comes from places we hadn’t expected, so why are we only hearing about it now? Because at the moment we are storing our waste on the surface, in secure buildings. One of the things raised in today’s meeting was the idea of keeping the radwaste ‘safe’ but this plays into my questions about why are we thinking about radwaste now – ‘safe’ from what? Are we worried about keeping ourselves safe from the radiation, or the radwaste safe from us? It seems to be a mix of the two. Firstly, despite our proximity to a myriad of sources of low level background radiation, from the sun, to the rocks to your friendly neighbourhood x-ray technician, radiation in high doses, for prolonged periods of time is dangerous. It impacts not only us and our health, but the environment too. As such we protect ourselves from it. But lets be honest, all those movie stories with runaway trains that just happen to be strapped with a dirty bomb don’t come from pure fantasy. There are utter lunatics in the world who think it’s a good idea to create a weapon from something so devastating that it could wipe out all life in a 100mile radius. We are a violent species. And as much as I hate to think it, the chances of another war happening in the future are not remote. If that happens, is it a good idea to have a supply of radioactive material just lying around?! So the radwaste also needs protecting from us.

Thinking about burying the radwaste keeps it ‘safe’, from both perspectives and in that respect I think most people (in the abstract at least) would agree that burying radioactive waste is a good idea. But as we come back to this concept of burying the waste, we start to encounter one of the problems that I saw in the meeting today. It is at this point that nuclear scientists and geologists start to move into an extremely technical discussion of ‘data’, ‘risk’ and ‘factors’, and non-scientists seem to be regarded as receptacles for this data. As such they are subject to the opinion, that once they read the statistics, they will accept or reject the data logically. The problem with this, as we all know, is that most people factor in other things beyond percentages and technical data when making a decision, and most of the scientists in the meeting today know that – they just seem to forget it when planning a big, technically complicated venture like this. The discussions today frequently descended into debates over small technical questions, with no consideration as to whether these levels of detail would even matter to the people who will read the call for volunteers or submit their area as a possible location to store radwaste. It wasn’t until someone actually asked the question “but how much of this is actually relevant to this stage of the process?” that most people sat back and went, ‘well, it’s not’.

How much technical data is necessary at this point in the process?

How much technical data is necessary at this point in the process?

To me this reflects one of the biggest problems with communicating any science, but geoscience in particular. It is all too easy as a technical expert, to get swept up in the intricacies and interest of the data and the challenges it provides and you loose sight of the perspective of anyone who isn’t an expert. More and more often in technical conferences now, geoscientists are told ‘you need to have a communications person embedded in any endeavour from the start to aid in effective communication’, but I think this person also needs to provide another purpose. They need to be a fuse for the experts in the room and halt the discussions any time they get too carried away. Planning in geology is essential and considering the next step is vital for successful projects, but not if it comes at the expense of the first stage, where gaining the engagement of your resident population is at stake.

This is ESPECIALLY important in an area where the topic at hand is controversial or perceived to be threatening. In cases like this ensuring the public enter the discussion with you at all depends on a delicate balance of trust and transparency, and by thinking five steps ahead and providing irrelevant (at the time) data, you can undermine yourself in terms of how a non-expert feels about your project. Anyone who has ever been buried by a mountain of information related to a decision that they are not an expert in can tell that this can make you feel uncertain and unconfident in your decision, and lead you to either seek an opinion from another (who may not be any more technically knowledgeable than you) or just adopt the more familiar choice. In that case heuristics wins over data, even if that isn’t actually the best thing.

So in respect to the plan to request potential participants to submit their area for further examinations as to whether they are even suitable for radioactive dispoasal, I’ll be watching carefully to see just how complex the communications get, and how relevant they stay.

BGS people – Dr Rob Ward, a groundwater guru

For two weeks at the beginning of July I got the opportunity to meet a whole bunch of interesting people at the British Geological Survey and speak with them about what they do, why they enjoy it and why it’s interesting. It’s been a great opportunity for me to geek out at all the amazing things the BGS is doing and the brilliant people who work there.

Dr Rob Ward has one of the toughest jobs in the BGS. He is the Director of Groundwater Science, which means he oversees a large and diverse team of scientists and engineers, all trying to unravel the mysteries of groundwater (also see Stephanie Zihms). He has also in the past been called to be a part of SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) particularly during the terrible flooding in Somerset earlier this year. You can read the post here.

Dr Rob Ward with the amazing sand tank model he and his team use in outreach events!

Dr Rob Ward with the amazing sand tank model he and his team use in outreach events!