Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful; Public Speaking Lessons From the 9th Annual SoNG Meeting.

The Southampton Neurosicences Group held their 9th annual meeting this past Thursday. The theme was early career researchers and so included some of our best graduate students as speakers on the same day as two very prestigious speakers: Lord Robert Winston of BBC fame and Prof. Trevor Robbins. One unexpected lesson from the day was a display of the best and worse in public speaking expertise.

The Good:
Our graduate students were magnificent. Everyone one of them gave textbook and well practiced talks timed to perfection. They were prepared, had very good visuals, covered the material in an understandable way and all gave top notch talks. There was a prize for the best talk and the decision was so difficult that two were given. There was a third who also deserved to be top tier. At least on of these exhibited the poise and professionalism of someone with many more years of experience.

The Bad:
If preparation is the key, then Lord Winston broke his off in the lock. Lord Winston is a well know and accomplished front man for science with his outstanding BBC shows, books, and work in government. On this day however, he looked exhausted and failed to prepare a talk. The result was predictable. He wandered around talking about the politics of science in very general terms while casting hopeful sideways glances at the clock the whole time. Every once in a while he started to riff on potentially interesting topics (genetic manipulation in humans, GM plants, science funding policy) but then flitted away before saying anything interesting or provoking any controversy. Here is a tip if you ever find yourself adrift like this. Don’t look at the clock for a lifeline, look to the audience to save you. All he had to do was to engage the audience in a debate on any of the controversial subjects he skipped across, and then let the audience take it from there. This kills time and lets the audience supply content that you might be missing. It can get messy and wander off topic, but the audience will usually end up blaming each other rather than the speaker if things go too far astray.
In the end what I found most annoying about the talk was that he said nothing new. This idea of novelty is the most important aspect of any oral presentation whether it be a public talk or a simple presentation for work. All speakers need a hook to keep an audience’s attention. That hook must either tell the audience something they do not know or to get them to think about something in a new way. This is the fundamental core around which any speaker should build their presentation. Ask yourself what is new for the audience in what you are trying to communicate, then think about the best and most exciting way to present that. If you don’t have anything new to say then you really don’t have anything to say at all.
I can forgive a speaker for having an off day, especially one like Lord Winston who works so hard on promoting science and the arts. After the talk, many of audience were not so critical of him as I was.
For me, the two take home lessons from Lord Winston’s talk were 1) to have something to say, and 2) if  you are exhausted and unprepared you are probably better off cancelling.

The Beautiful:
After Lord Winston’s talk and a tea break, those who stuck around got to hear the best talk of the day by Trevor Robbins. This guy is really sharp. He has an H index of 123! This means he has published at least 123 papers that have each been cited 123 times or more. This very senior speaker told us about the neurobiology of impulse control underlying conditions from drug addiction to ADHD. His main point was that there are populations of people and higher animals who have problems putting the brakes on their impulses. This “type” maps to a specific region of the brain that functions to stop behaviour which is where Ritalin and abused drugs work. He termed this phenomenon an endophenotype and argued that we need to understand and define these behaviour/neurophysiology types more clearly.  It was amazing how he integrated so much neurobiology from real clinical behavioural problems to neuro-anatomy to pharmacology for such a broad audience. Note that SoNG members span many disciplines from social workers, to neurosurgeons, to people like me working on the very basics in model organisms. He was facing an audience where no one had all of the required background information, but everyone was an expert in part of what he was talking about. Only after thinking about his talk did I notice where the graduate students fell short. Where as the grad students gave picture perfect talks that one would expect at scientific meetings in their specific fields, Robbins gave a broader talk aimed exactly at the level of this particular audience. Gauging the level of an audience like SoNG is something that requires much experience.
Another thing Robbins did well was how he used images and figures to explain his points. Using graphics properly is not easy. You need to use them to reduce the amount of talking required to make your point clear. Images are not to be fillers, they are tools to shorten the presentation by making key points in the most efficient way possible. The Strunk and White principle of removing everything not necessary applies to Powerpoint slides as well.  Even though Robbins had to skip over some for time, it was only because he talked slowly while carefully explaining things as he moved from point to point. He knew what his goal was and got there without rushing or skipping key points. Robbins understood and put into practice that adage that you should never over estimate your audience’s knowledge nor under estimate their intelligence. It was one of the best and most interesting talks I have seen in a long time.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Accommodating the Evolution/Creationist Spectrum.

I recently discovered that I am an accommodationist. This is the dirty word atheist use to describe someone who thinks evolution is true, but who is not a member of the atheist religion. The one thing both hard core evolutionists and creationists have in common is their denial of any position in the middle. This is disingenuous as the middle position, termed either accomodationist or theological evolution, is probably where most classify themselves when it comes to attitudes towards evolution.

The spectrum of “belief” in evolution is not as black and white as the extremists would have one believe. At one end are the literal creationists. These people believe as a matter of faith that their creation myth is true. These include the two different stories in Genesis, native American mythology and many others. Intelligent design also begins with the fundemenatalist Christian stance that the Bible is the last word on the matter. Theological evolutionists are those who might only accept parts of the theory of evolution and or have some personal interpretation that does not preclude their God. This can range from those deceived by intelligent design arguments, to those who accept only micro-evolution, to complete acceptance of all the theory of evolution but with a God passively in existence. The other extreme are the athiests who deny the existence of God or any other supernatural beings and take a purely mechanistic view of the world.

It is important to understand two facts about the spectrum of the points of view. First, creationism is not scientific. Creationism requires a leap of faith and is not supported by any logical or scientific arguments or evidence. All of their pseudo–scientific arguments, including intelligent design are easily refuted and wise biologists don’t waste much time on them. Second, you do not have to be an atheist to think evolution is true. The assumption behind science is that there are no supernatural effects. This does not mean there is no God. Science asks, what happens when God or spirits or any other supernatural entities are not having an effect on what you are studying. Newton showed how the motion of the stars can be explained without God actively moving them. Darwin showed how all life including humans could come about without God lifting a finger. The assumption of no God is an unnecessary extra choice that scientists are free to choose or not choose. The caveat is that if there is a God, one must accept that he, she or it is not interfering in anyway with what is being studied in a detectable way. Thus, it takes just as much of a leap of faith to be an atheist does to be a creationist. Agnosticism with understanding of the assumption is the only real objective stance. And don’t be fooled by the argument that science must be right because it explains so much. Science explains everything under its guiding assumption that there are no supernatural effects. Creationists also believe that their system explains everything under their starting assumptions. There is absolutely no difference. Under the scientific world view, any real miracles would either be wrongly explained or will be set aside to be explained later. Science is willingly blind to any acts of God. The strength of science is that it explores all of the power that God might have left to humans.

Understanding where teachers and students fall on this spectrum is especially important. Teachers must always assume they are facing a classroom consisting of the full spectrum. The important question is how a teacher should maintain their own integrity while teaching the facts and theory of evolution. The goal is to help each student understand as much of the theory as the student’s belief system will allow. Ideally, a good teacher might get a student to question their beliefs, but deliberately trying to change a student’s religious belief to that of the teacher is not an ethical learning objective. If we must respect our students’ religious beliefs then those at the atheist and creationists ends of the spectrum who are trying to convert students are misbehaving. The only ethical and non-faith based stance for teacher is then that of an agnostic accomodationist. Thus neither Dawkins nor Behe should ever be allowed in a classroom to teach evolution.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A scientist without a country

When I was about 6 years old one of my aunts, aunt Hilma, died of breast cancer. Before she passed away she gave me what I suspect is a first edition of A Man Without a Country. She was one of those relatives that you really wished you had the chance to know as an adult. Much later in 1999, my career took me away from the US to Switzerland and then to the UK. When you leave a place that changes as fast as the US, it changes and you change so much that going back to the country you remember is never possible.  I can't help comparing myself to the exiled main character of that book. Although my exile was economic and self imposed neither of us could ever really go home. During Noland's exile he kept a map on his cabin wall recording the growth of the nation he turned his back on as it spread across the continent. He watched the birth and growth of a great nation from outside, knowing that he was missing something amazing. I find myself in the opposite position, watching my homeland recede in greatness. When I left the there was budget surplus, no wars and the biggest problem was a president who could not keep his trousers up. Since then I have watched from Europe and Great Britain as my homeland declined step by step from a beacon of freedom and hope to being just another fearful nation sinking into poverty while flirting with tyranny.  I still think that the US is the worlds greatest hope and will rise again, but only because it is ideologically better positioned to thrive in the fast changing world that is rapidly overtaking us. Change and hope are the two things that the US does best so I know better than to despair too much at some of the directions the country has taken. I will probably have more to say on this later.

Living as a an immigrant has taught me exactly how real rights and political ideas are. I have been taxed without representation for over a decade, had to register regularly with the local police for years while living in Switzerland and faced the usual subtle discrimination all foreigners get. The positive side is that I now see my culture and other cultures from a perspective that I never imagined possible. This is the perspective I hope to share with this blog.

That is the source and meaning of the title. However, much of this will  be science as well. I am very interested in biology and higher education and have much to say on those subjects. I decided to start this little project in order to get more practice writing. My wife tells me that I am a terrible writer and need the practice. I will also confess that reading the excellent blog of a friend of mine, Rich Edwards, inspired me to give this a try. At some point there is ikely to be some gardening updates, workout reports and 3D photography. It is now getting late so this will have to conclude my first post. Let's hope that I can improve with practice.