This week: satire sells science, rats are not human, and bacterial bio bricks. Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Disruption Research Group) meet once a week to put their own spin on news that is impacting the future of business in The Future, This Week.
The stories this week:
Other stories we bring up:
Future bites / short stories:
Our theme music was composed and played by Linsey Pollak.
Send us your news ideas to email@example.com.
Disclaimer: We'd like advise that the following program contains real news, occasional philosophy and ideas that may offend some listeners.
Intro: This is The Future, This Week. On Sydney Business Insights. I'm Sandra Peter. And I'm Kai Riemer. Every week we get together and look at the news of the week. We discuss technology, the future of business, the weird and the wonderful. And things that change the world. Okay let's start. Let's start!
Kai: Today on The Future, This Week: satire sells science, rats are not human and bacterial bio-bricks.
Sandra: I'm Sandra Peter, Director of Sydney Business Insights.
Kai: I'm Kai Riemer, professor at the Business School and leader of the Digital Disruption Research Group.
Sandra: So Kai, what happened in the future this week?
Kai: Our first story comes from Undark - Truth Beauty Science. We haven't covered this magazine yet, but it's an interesting article titled "Using satire to communicate science". There's some interesting research coming out which takes on the wicked problem of how we report science news. How we report scientific facts effectively to the general public. And it comes of course off the back of the climate science problem, and the fact that there are still many, many people out there who do not believe in human induced climate change. And so the article reports on a paper written by a bunch of authors titled "Should Planet Earth stick with it". No, "Should Planet Earth stick with it." Hmm. This is not easy.
Sandra: "Should Planet Earth stick with its hardline ideological stance, we will seek a second planet.".
Kai: Show off. Okay.
Sandra: '"We do not care about Planet Earth", the forefront scientist declared earlier this year. "If humans are exhausting the planet's resources, it's Earth that needs to adapt, not us."'
Kai: So this paper published in February in the journal 'Trends in Ecology and Evolution' is obviously a satire. The authors are joking because they do care about planet Earth. In fact lead author Guillaume Chapron and his colleagues did sign a paper in bioscience last year called "World's Scientists' warning to humanity: A Second Notice". They are active climate scientists who are experimenting with different ways to get the message across.
Sandra: But what he realised was that the paper would be published and that nothing would actually change. Even though thousands of scientists agreed that indeed these were dire straits. Nothing would change. So what they did is resort to a different way of communicating. That is, satire.
Kai: Increasingly satire is acknowledged as an effective genre to communicate science. And there there's now research in the field of communications that has done experiments on the effectiveness of various forms of humour and satire in communicating scientific messages. Paul Brewer, who is a communications researcher at the University of Delaware, has done research into TV shows such as Jon Stewart's The Daily Show back in 1999, and more recently Colbert, John Oliver and you know, other favourites off Sandra and myself. Who all have taken on in various forms the communication of scientific topics. Most notably John Oliver and his show where, for those who don't know the format, John Oliver and his team do some serious investigative journalism into complex topics such as climate change for example. And then present this in a decidedly humorous way.
Sandra: So on one episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, he pitted ninety-seven climate scientists against three climate change deniers to create a statistically representative climate change debate. And Brewer and his colleagues actually did research on this by showing a control video about climate change to a number of participants. And they noted that watching the debate increased the subject's confidence in climate change, as well as the perception that scientists agreed on the issue. And this effect was quite strong among people who weren't really interested in the topic beforehand. So satire can be an effective way to bring to the table people who don't really engage with some of these issues.
Kai: before we go, on let's hear from John Oliver and his debate.
John Oliver (file audio): Joining me tonight, a climate change denier and naturally Bill Nye Science Guy. So Bill, Bill,
Bill Nye (file audio): John.
John Oliver (file audio): Yep.
Bill Nye (file audio): Humans are causing climate change, no question.
John Oliver (file audio): Wait, wait, wait, wait. Before we begin on, in the interest of mathematical balance I'm going to bring out two people who agree with you Climate Sceptic. And Bill Nye, I'm also going to bring out 96 other scientists. It's a little unwieldy but it's the only way we can actually have a representative discussion. Ah yeah, so please, please. File in. Again, again this is going to make the debate difficult. We shouldn't really be having it in the first place. But ah, so representationally, Climate Sceptic, please make a case against climate change.
Climate Sceptic (audio file): Well, I just don't think all the science in yet, is settled.
John Oliver (file audio): Okay. And what is the overwhelming view of the entire scientific community.
Voices (audio file): (loud speaking noises).
John Oliver (file audio): Ok, ok, any response to that? I can't hear you over the weight of scientific evidence. I think this whole debate should not have happened. I apologise to everyone at home. My thanks to Bill Nye and the overwhelming scientific consensus.
Sandra: So what Brewer and his colleagues found was that watching the entire clip actually increased people's confidence in climate change, as well as their perception that scientists agreed on the issues at hand. And this effect was really strongest for the people who didn't really show an initial interest in the subject and weren't really engaged with the issue to begin with.
Kai: So what makes satire so effective for communicating scientific fact is first of all that it engages many more people than traditional science reporting would. Or as the article puts it, humour gets eyeballs. But it also engages people differently. It engages people in a different mode, in a different frame of mind, and in a different mood, when they are more open to actually receive a new message. Traditionally on Facebook, we're presented with some political article that tries to vehemently convince us. We naturally might go into opposition mode. We're critical, we're hanging on to our opinions. But humour and satire actually works differently. It engages people differently, especially those who have not completely made up their mind.
Sandra: Not only that, but it actually teaches people about very complex subjects. A previous study back in 2014- this time coming out of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center - tested audiences of another show on Comedy Central, Stephen Colbert's Show. And it pitted that content against what was being reported on traditional cable news channels such as CNN or Fox. Or indeed in traditional newspapers. And actually it found that the Colbert Report really served as an extensive civics lesson. They were looking actually at an episode that was discussing political funding, and the audiences increased their knowledge of political funding much faster than audiences of traditional programs like CNN or readers of traditional newspapers.
Kai: On top of this humouristic content, satire is more memorable. When we like something, we can recall it better. And it's also more shareable. We want to tell our friends about it. That makes it much more effective when shared on social media for example.
Sandra: And this comes to complement number a of calls in traditional academic research, including in management research, to try to make our studies come more alive and try to have more inclusive dialogues where we bring a lot of what we do to a larger audience. For instance just earlier this year in the Journal of Management Inquiry, there was a call to try to step away from very text heavy representations and to use more creative mediums. Things like film or even poetry to showcase the products of research. Either standalone or as supplements to traditional research. Really to trigger interest and get people to engage with the content. In this case the authors were referencing things like TED talks, very famously Hans Rosling's TED talk, “The best stat's you've ever seen”. Got over 12 million people engaged with UN statistics on world population, life expectancy, family size and so on. And I strongly encourage you to watch the clip, we'll include the link in the show notes. And you can see how very dry statistics looking at the shrinking gap in prosperity and health between the developing countries and the Western countries is told through animation, through data, and through a very animated Hans Rosling.
Kai: But he's not only presenting important facts in a lighthearted way. This medium also allows him to engage an audience over much longer time period. So his TED Talk still elicits comments and engagement on TED and Twitter and various other social media years after its publication.
Sandra: So as we heed these calls to try to bring satires, or indeed creative ways of displaying very complicated research to reach these larger audience, this does also carry some risks.
Kai: As with many things, this comes with a caveat because whatever can be used for good can be used for evil.
Sandra: So first, one assumption that's embedded in these calls to use satire to communicate science, or indeed other types of research, really assumes that those doing the satire share the same values as the people who have done the research.
Kai: And while this is often the case, certainly this shows that we have mentioned - Colbert, John Oliver, or The Onion News Network - all share pro science, liberal education focus set of values, satire and this way of presenting news can also be used to present fake news.
Sandra: The article warns that humour and satire can be used to manipulate audiences. Messages have the same stickiness regardless of whether or not the content in them accurately represents the science that's behind the headlines. This kind of science reporting is equal to infotainment. And this is where this kind of satirical reporting of science actually has a strange effect on traditional news media. Which we are less likely to engage with because it's not as funny, because we don't start laughing when we see it, because we don't feel like sharing it with our friends. So Becker and his colleagues, whilst looking at John Oliver's Last Week Tonight and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and so on, have begun to trace these transformative effects on traditional journalism. And while audiences for these kind of shows are ever increasing, the audience for traditional news is dwindling. So there is constantly this need to be entertaining in order to be able to keep and draw in viewers. And this blurring of the line between what is news and what is entertainment as much as it gets us to engage with difficult topics, it also creates the opportunity for us to be deceived or duped into an inaccurate representation of some scientific studies.
Kai: And so while satire seems to be an effective way to get across important yet complex scientific facts, there is a dark side. But there are also sceptics. Not everyone is on board with the idea that science should be reported in such a lighthearted way. And the article points out that the authors have had colleagues approached them who really weren't fans of what they were doing, because they thought such papers shouldn't be published in the first place because there was no place for such a thing in the sciences. Science as a serious business should not descend to engage with satire because it might damage the credibility of academia.
Sandra: So maybe that raises an important question about who should be doing this. Is it the scientists who should be engaging in satire and finding ways to communicate science? Or is this a place where journalists or others have to step in and take over from the scientists and find engaging ways to communicate research findings to the public?
Kai: And there's certainly a dire need to take a closer look at how science is reported in the media. Which brings us straight to our second story. We're continuing this thread. The article that we're looking at was published in New Atlas, titled "Massive study into a link between cell phones and cancer is almost immediately irrelevant". The article reports on a 10-year scientific study by the U.S. government's National Toxicology Program, NTP, which released its final report into the effects of radio frequency radiation emitted by cell phones on rats and mice. So this was a large-scale study that exposed rodents to the kind of radiation emitted by cell phones. Obviously to research the way in which radiation influences cell behaviour. Now the problem with this kind of study, and the new Atlas article points this out, is that while there is a serious scientific study that finds some effects, in this case on male rats - not mice, not female rats, just male rats - in terms of the growth of heart tumours in these rats, that this article can be represented in the media in a sensationalist way. And indeed there's been a number of articles in the same week, last week, that take this up. And this article in New Atlas was actually written to warn of exactly that type of reporting. Here are some examples.
Sandra: So our neighbours just over in New Zealand, the New Zealand Herald reports, "Landmark study finds cell phones are linked to cancer".
Kai: The Indian Express has, "High exposure to cell phone radiation cancerous, says study".
Sandra: The Sun in the UK says, "Clear evidence mobile phones are linked to cancer landmark study finds".
Kai: And Metro has, "Clear link between mobile phone radiation and cancer in new study". Now, there is a problem obviously, or several problems.
Sandra: First of all this has been ten years in the making. So the technology that they were testing is the technology that was used in cell phones ten years ago. And let's remember the iPhone is only ten years old.
Kai: Pre iPhone. This is 2G partly 3G technology. We're using 4G. Soon we're going to move 5G technology. Which operate on completely different frequency bands and cannot be compared with what was done in this study. Secondly.
Sandra: As the new Atlas article reports, these rats and mice were exposed to extremely high levels of radiation for ten minutes every ten minutes. Which is not something that even the really high users of mobile phones these days would subject themselves to on a daily basis for as long as they live.
Kai: Furthermore those rats were subjected to a full body exposure hence the growth of heart tumours. While humans obviously hold their phones to their ears and they might be some radiation exposure to local tissue in the ears sometimes, and the fear is in the brain. In this instance the rats were fully exposed to this radiation. And let's not forget...
Sandra: They are rats.
Kai: They're not human. So what we're talking about here is pretty much call centre rats using old fashioned mobile technology for years, constantly. And for those poor rats, the male ones developed some tumours. And that link, make no mistake is statistically conclusive. But, and this is a big, big but -.
Sandra: And I quote here from the article: "What does this all mean to the average person walking down the street with an iPhone to their ear? Virtually nothing.
Kai: Yet what would have shown up in many people's Facebook feeds is headlines that clearly make the link between cell phone use and tumours in humans. And if it's not explicitly done, then it is certainly implied.
Sandra: So we're really hoping for John Oliver to create a segment with these poor call centre rats, making sales calls on their giant phones.
Kai: Just to point out what was really done in this research. Now while this is a prominent and recent example, this is by no means the only instance of what is a much bigger problem. And incidentally, John Oliver has also taking on this problem and we're going to put the link in the show notes because in 2016 he did a whole segment on the problem with science reporting in the media. He shows a lot of examples in, you know, breakfast television and the popular media that constantly on the lookout for sensationalist reporting of the kind of simplistic links between, 'hey eating more chocolate makes you healthy'.
Sandra: Similarly a sensationalist headlines surrounded the SatNav studies last year, "wrong directions - SatNavs are making us dumber by switching off the path of the brain responsible for memory". There was nothing in the research that said they were making us dumber. And there was no way you could get from a study that says that SatNav does not engage certain parts of the brain responsible for navigation planning with making people any dumber. Or indeed with switching the brain off. And actually that could kill you.
Kai: Similarly in another study reported in an ARS Technica article which incidentally also reports on the John Oliver episode, and we'll put the link in the show notes. This article reports on a study which supposedly found, "never make a decision when you are hungry". Again, this research was not based on humans, on rats, and on a population of just nine or ten rats depending on the experiment. Vastly over generalising and extrapolating those results to humans. And it makes a great headline and it sounds intuitive, never make a decision when you are hungry. But this research certainly cannot make that claim. Especially not for humans.
Sandra: And of course there are many such examples of really big headlines that link chocolate, nuts, spicy food, technology...
Kai: Red wine, beer, various spirits...
Sandra: Coffee, anything and everything to really big claims. And of course all of these articles are basing their sensationalist headlines on one single study that probably has a very small finding that indeed relates to the effects of coffee or wine or technology. But where the claims might be quite significant, but they are usually fairly small.
Kai: And the Ars Technica article points out that this type of reporting really distorts to the general public the way in which science actually works. Science is not a single study endeavour. Science is cumulative. Scientific insights about how nature works, like the human body for example, usually relies on many studies building on each other and results or a bigger picture emerging from the comparison of these various experiments, these various results, often then done in meta studies that analyse results reported across a number of studies. Of course that doesn't make for good click bait, for good single line headlines. But the problem here is that the picture of science that is being painted through reporting results in this way suggests to the general public that we can go out, study something and then come back with conclusive results based on single experiments. And such a view of science is dangerous. And it is also at the heart of the misunderstanding about climate science. And the fact that the general public has problems wrapping their heads around the idea that many, many thousands of scientists around the world work collectively over a number of decades to improve the scientific evidence on these effects, and that the picture emerges gradually. And that as the picture emerges those results become more and more rigorous and less and less contestable.
Sandra: This then gives us some insight into our first story as well on who actually should be the people who use satire or comedy or indeed creative or innovative ways of representing research. And maybe this is not the researchers who should be forced to do this. Because most researchers are actually quite uncomfortable talking about the incremental findings of their research and making outlandish claims that play well in the media.
Kai: Which points to a finer and important problem mentioned in the Ars Technica article. Which is the role of university press officers or media directors. Universities, in the name of engagement and impact, have an interest in featuring their academics, their research in the media. And often times it is people who have as their metrics clicks, eyeballs, who have to compete in the attention economy who overstepped the mark and create press releases with outlandish claims that make the actual researchers behind the studies cringe. But that are then picked up by the media and reported as if they were facts. After all, these press releases come straight from the universities and therefore carry a certain authority. And while these are certainly single cases, they point to a problem where engagement and also the expectations of the wider public that universities should engage in useful things and the need for universities to prove that, then leads to the ways in which often times the results of single studies are highlighted beyond what any scientists would credibly claim those results could actually show by themselves.
Sandra: So to me that also points to an opportunity, to rethink the way in which universities and institutions and us academics engage with public discourse, right? Because it doesn't necessarily have to be about a specific research finding, but it can be about events. It can be about trends, it can be about what's at stake, the values that we see out there where we do not bring to bear only one research study that we are engaged but an entire body of knowledge and the community that we are part of and that we might represent.
Kai: Or it could be a discussion of the news of the week. Say, about the future of business.
Sandra: And potentially you could do that every week.
Kai: In a podcast say. Now, wouldn't that be cool?
Sandra: Yeah. You call it The Future, This Week.
Kai: That would be a good name for it. Which brings us to our future bites. Two short stories.
Sandra: Maybe we don't call them bites this week.
Kai: I hear you have a tasty story though.
Sandra: That's disgusting. My story comes from Dezeen and it's called "Bio-bricks made from human urine could be the environmentally friendly future architecture".
Kai: That sounds interesting.
Sandra: So this comes from the University of Cape Town and researcher Suzanne Lambert has created zero waste building material. Made with, you've guessed it, human urine. Which hardens at room temperature, and that's an environmentally friendly alternative to normal bricks.
Kai: If you build a house from this, I would expect it wouldn't smell but what happens when it rains? And what happens when the big bad wolf comes? Does he blow down the house, or flush it?
Sandra: Kai, I feel we're trying out the satire route right now. But this thing actually works, and seemingly continues to grow. So I'm guessing if you put water on it, it actually makes the brick stronger because the brick is urine bacteria and sand. So apparently you can keep growing them and making them stronger for a while. And we've spoken about bio-bricks before, and for the last few years people have tried to replace normal bricks with all sorts of other materials including cornstalks and mushrooms and sand. And while traditional bricks are actually quite resource intensive to make, the bio-brick creates nitrogen and potassium, a good fertilizer as by-products of making these bricks. So is the ultimate zero waste product with everything being converted into something, else something quite useful. And again, I like this sort of stories because they look at the everyday items that really need reinventing. Whilst we most of the time with technology focus on the latest gadgets or on artificial intelligence, there are so many of these everyday products that need reimagining and that do not make for good headlines. And bricks are one of them. The other one that was up this week was the reinvented toilet. Where Bill Gates, through his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has spanned more than 200 million dollars on...
Sandra: Yes, on reinventing the toilet. And he launched it literally with a jar of human faeces on stage.
Kai: Yeah. And making fun of the way in which he was concerning himself way too much with shit. Including conversations at the family dinner table. And indeed an important project. And so this is my short story for the week and I've picked one from CNN. "Bill Gates uses poop as prop to pitch toilet of the future". An important topic, especially for developing countries where human faeces are connected to the outbreak of major epidemics and diseases like cholera which kill hundreds of thousands of people every year. And Mr. Gates points out that while first world countries have elaborate sewer systems where the dirty water goes straight to a treatment plant, that infrastructure does not exist in many other places in the world. Where there's an estimated two to three billion people who live without access to basic sanitation facilities. And so this toilet as a standalone facility will be able to clean the human waste from those dangerous bacteria. And supposedly when rolled out at scale make life for millions of people that much safer.
Sandra: And whilst this should be all we have time for this week we wanted to leave you with a few quotes from our friend Inspirobot.
Kai: I have three nice ones, which could all feature as advice to my students. The first one "Spend all your money on your mind".
Sandra: Number two, "Keep calm, never ask any questions".
Kai: And, "One day existence will be great, so procrastinate". Maybe don't take that too seriously.
Sandra: And that must be all we have time for today.
Kai: Thanks for listening.
Sandra: Thanks for listening.
Outro: This was The Future, This Week made possible by the Sydney Business Insights Team and members of the Digital Disruption Research Group. And every week right here with us our sound editor Megan Wedge who makes us sound good and keeps us honest. Our theme music is composed and played live from a set of garden hoses by Linsey Pollak.
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Sandra: A Jövő, Ezen a Héten.
Kai: This was Hungarian. Die Zukunft, Diese Woche.
Sandra: That was German.
Sandra and Kai: The Future, This Week.