Visualising space probes 30 years on

When I went to see the Science Museum’s excellent Cosmonauts exhibition this week I expected to find objects and stories about Yuri Gagarin, Valentina Tereshkova and (with luck) some space dogs. I got all of those, but also a blast from my own past, when I encountered large-scale models of objects I had studied closely as a child.

Space Probes projectCharged with completing a project for a physics class in the early years of secondary school, I eschewed tales of scientists like Michael Faraday or Marie Curie and instead researched and produced a guide to space probes. The ability to send inanimate objects beyond Earth’s atmosphere – and even to other worlds – clearly fascinated me more than the achievements of heroic individuals. It’s perhaps no surprise that, at a similar age, my favourite Star Wars character wasn’t Hans Solo, Chewbacca or even Princess Leia; it was beeping automaton R2-D2.

Demonstrating an early interest in the character of objects and the stories they can tell (an interest I now satisfy by working with, and interpreting, museum collections), I found images of the probes in books and produced paintings of each of them, to accompany a detailed chronological report, including discussions of escape velocity and launch windows. I wrote in the introduction to my report, that I had included illustrations “for extra clarity”.

Here’s how my interpretations of three Russian space probes compare with the models currently on display in the Science Museum:

Sputnik 1 (top image © Science Museum)

Sputnik 1 (top image © Science Museum)

Venera 7 (image © Science Museum) and Venera 4

Venera 7 (left image © Science Museum) and Venera 4

Lunokhod 1 Rover (© London Visitors)

Lunokhod 1 Rover (© London Visitors)

I may only have received a B+ for my work (with a note that it was “well illustrated”), but the action of studying, sketching and colouring these inanimate things had such a strong impact that 30 years later I was stopped in my tracks by encountering these physical objects in three dimensions.

My favourite anecdote in the Cosmonauts exhibition is the story that ‘Chief Designer’ Sergei Korolev insisted Sputnik, the first man-made object to orbit Earth, should look impressive, since he expected models to one day be displayed in museums around the world. I wonder if he also foresaw children creating smudged paintings, entire school projects and powerful lasting memories thanks to the probe?



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“OK glass”: Google Glass is, well, OK…

Thanks to my techno-geek friend Keith Mansfield, I had the opportunity to try out Google Glass at Google’s King’s Cross headquarters this weekend. In a relaxed, informal space – all white-washed walls and concrete floors – a group of friendly ‘Guides’ demoed a number of different apps backed up by a extremely gentle ‘sell’ of the vision of the Glasses and Google X, the division that invented them. The also entertained us with free canapes (including salted caramel marshmallows) and locally-sourced drinks (Dalston Cola anyone?)

google glass booklet copy

Google Glass, we were told, is all about small, quick interactions, which enable users to retain eye contact, rather than interrupting human interaction to look down and consult a ‘phone. The specs aren’t intended to replace devices like your phone, though, and on the performance of the device under the full-on demands of plenty of testers on Saturday, it doesn’t seem – currently – to be able to cope with continuous use. Aside from run-down batteries, we encountered several pairs that informed us they needed to cool down before they could function effectively.

Here’s Google’s instructions about how to operate Google Glass:


Things I liked about Google Glass:

  • Wearing these modified specs wasn’t as weird an experience as I had imagined. The electronics, attached to one arm and the front of one eye-glass, aren’t too heavy or obtrusive (although from some angles, I did feel that I looked a bit like Robocop – see below) and the actual screen doesn’t detract too much from ordinary life. I was pleasantly surprised, that when talking to someone else, you could easily forget the image or data that sat in your peripheral vision; I also like the fact that the screen timed out fairly quickly.
  • Of the apps we saw, the killer app for me is ‘get directions’, where the benefits of not looking down at a phone when you’re walking through an area you don’t know are pretty obvious. The Word Lens app that enabled you to translate text wasn’t bad, though you could (and can!) do this through an ordinary phone.

glass triptych

Things that didn’t really wow me:

  • The fact that you could use your phone as an interface for the same – and in some cases, better – apps, meant I wasn’t completely blown away by what I saw. For instance, I could see the appeal of the night-sky type app that let you look up at the sky, without needing your phone, and identified what you saw. But the app didn’t have the functionality that Google’s own Sky Map mobile app offers, of being able to enter an object and being told where to find it in the sky.
  • Our Google guides were big on the ‘you don’t need to break eye-contact’ message, but, in fact, you do. Looking at the screen requires you to look up and to the side, an action that could be just as rude or intrusive as looking away to your phone. Of course, it’s quicker, but does that necessarily make it any less distracting?

A device like this is only going to appeal as much as the apps that run on it, and I’m sure these will improve. But, even so, while I applaud the attempt to integrate the interface that allows us to use multiple functions on our phones more seamlessly into our lives, I won’t be forking out £1000 for Google Glass any time soon. In fact, even if I managed to wangle a free pair, I think I’d show them off to my friends and then consign them to a drawer. I should point out the context that I probably wouldn’t describe myself as an early adopter in general, so don’t take my word for it. But for me, Google Glass – at least in its current incarnation – was, as the instruction used to launch its various apps says, “OK”.

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How many women scientists can you name?

For me, the answer is surprisingly few, a fact that makes A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention, at once, both inspirational and melancholic. Published by the organisers of Ada Lovelace Day, the book shares the stories of twenty women who researched, invented and utilised science and technology in remarkable ways. In a world where “it’s incontrovertible that there are fewer women than men in fields like science, tech, engineering and maths”, the publication aims to provide a collection of successful female role models that will inspire others to overcome the traditional gender barriers within science.

Inspiring women scientists

Of course, as the book itself points out, the reasons for the low number of women choosing to study science, technology and engineering – or of limited female graduates gaining jobs in the field and progressing to high levels – are complex. This publication won’t solve them overnight, but it might just help people recognise the contributions women have made to science, or acknowledge the very real possibility of being able to combine family life with a successful science career. My favourite examples of the featured women include the astronomer Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, high-energy physicist Joan Feynman and the “enchanted maths fairy”, Ada Lovelace herself.

Lovelace is, as most people are now aware, credited as the first ever computer programmer. Despite living over a century before the invention of the first modern computer, she was “the first person to write and publish a full set of instructions that a computing device could use to reach an end result that had not been calculated in advance”. Lovelace is the figurehead for an annual day celebrating the achievements of women in technology, a fitting position for someone whose “understanding of [Charles] Babbage’s Analytical Engine was so deep that it surpassed that of Babbage himself” and who the editor of this volume describes as being “100 years ahead of her time”.

At the age of 25, Payne achieved another first. In her PhD (described by Harvard colleague Otto Struve as “undoubtedly the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy”) she derived for the first time the composition of the stars. While she later wrote a popular science book and an introductory textbook on astronomy – in which she urged readers to check out paintings in art galleries to search out impossible depictions of the moon – it was this initial work that acted as an inspiration to Richard Feynman’s sister Joan. Seeing a woman’s name on a scientific publication, Feynman realised that – contrary to her mother’s view that “women can’t do science, because their brains aren’t made for it” – it was possible for a woman to become a scientist.

Luckily for Feynman her brother was more encouraging than her mother, sending her university science textbooks when she was still a teenager, telling her to aim higher than she naturally did and even agreeing to stay out of her chosen field of study so as not to compete with her work. She ended up being cited as one of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s elite senior research scientists and also received NASA’s distinguished Exceptional Achievement Medal for her “pioneering contribution to the study of solar causes of geomagnetic and climate disturbances”.

Chinese physicist Chien-Shiung Wu was quoted in Newsweek in 1963 saying, “… it is shameful that there are so few women in science… In China there are many, many women in physics. There is a misconception in America that women scientists are all dowdy spinsters. This is the fault of men. In Chinese society, a woman is valued for what she is, and men encourage her to accomplishments yet she remains eternally feminine.”

It’s notable that many of the women featured in the book had, like Feynman, been inspired or supported to think differently about their career choices by others. Whether it was Chien-Shiung Wu’s father setting up an entire “school for girls” at a time when Chinese girls were forbidden from receiving formal education, Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s father waking his children up in the dead of night to watch Sputnik sailing across the sky, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin’s intrepid archaeologist mother or Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin’s high achieving aunts, the idea that girls and women could receive an education, be interested and involved in science and do something other than simply raise a family was instilled in each at an early age.

The melancholy of women and science

However, although the book is not in any way written as a polemic, I couldn’t stop myself from being saddened by the repeated examples of individual, institutional or cultural inequality that appear in these stories. What’s more, while some may be explained away by the historical context in which many of these women lived, plenty are still with us today. I even caught myself (a physics graduate who has been involved in astronomical and physical chemistry research) being surprised by the use of the female pronoun in this sentence from Jemima Kiss’s Foreword: “I want an engineer to explain the provenance of her ideas, a designer to describe her vision for the future.” I was also shocked to meet such a great number of high-achieving female scientists in these pages, most of whom I’d never even heard mention of before.

Several of the challenges featured in the book echo my own experience as a nascent scientist, even though I grew up in a time where girls could be educated both at school and in higher education. Where many of these women needed to fight for the right to study a “boys’ subject” like science or maths at school, I had to leave my own London girls’ school (the same one Tony Blair later sent his daughter to) in order to be able to study double mathematics at A Level. Like those women who found themselves in a substantial minority if they studied physics at university, I ended up being the only female physicist in my year at Girton College, Cambridge (a college that had – 120 years before – been Britain’s first residential college for women). While these may seem like minor challenges in retrospect, they both meant I needed a certain level of determination in order to stick with my aim of studying physics at a world class institution – a quality a pupil at the boys’ school associated with mine wouldn’t have required.

I’m pleased to say I have suffered less out and out discrimination than some of the women in these pages – but perhaps that is because I ended up in the female-dominated world of publishing, rather than pursuing a scientific career. What many of these remarkable women found when they finally made it into the workforce was a world of uncertain, temporary – and often unpaid – positions and a community which tended to only take their findings seriously once they had been corroborated by a man. This culture even led to women like Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin keeping quiet about some of her findings (which were later discovered by men), since they contradicted her male bosses’ views. Her comment 50 years after this episode was “a warning to the young. If you are sure of your facts, you should defend your position”.

A group of women staff members at Harvard College Observatory c. 1890, directed by Williamina Fleming (standing). Image: Curator of Astronomical Photographs at Harvard College Observatory

What’s clear from these stories, though, is that it’s not just scientific institutions and scientists themselves that have a role to play in encouraging women to consider – and stick with – careers in the field, it’s wider society. From newspapers only mourning the loss of embryology pioneer Dame Anne McLaren’s husband when the couple were both killed in a car crash, or swapping around Joan Feynman and her husband’s PhDs (on the assumption that she was the anthropologist and he the physicist), to the limited published accounts available on the work of figures such as Victorian geologist Florence Bascom and “one of the most important people in computing” Karen Spärck Jones, the media is also a key factor. Any publishers reading this, I urge you to take up Sue Nelson’s offer to write a book about the life of astronomer Williamina Fleming. I for one would want to read the story of a Scottish single mother who found herself stranded in America in the 1880s, took a job as a maid at the Harvard College Observatory and went on to discover over 300 variable stars, 10 novae and 52 nebulae. The supporting players in her biography include the ‘computers’, a team of low-paid workers (traditionally men, but Fleming ended up recruiting bright untrained women to the job instead) who examined photographic plates looking for stars, and the Director of the Observatory Edward Pickering, who broke with the norms of the time, encouraging his female workforce to attend conferences and present papers.

And of course, as the PinkStinks and Let Toys be Toys campaigns have recently highlighted, wider society also genders science in a way that may influence girls’ interests or choices. After all, if Ada Lovelace hadn’t had the opportunity to amuse herself designing boats and steam-powered flying machines as a child, would she have grown up to be so adept at machine thinking? More fundamentally, as Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin put it, “we were scientists, we were scholars (neither of these words has a gender)”. With that in mind, it is fitting that this collection of pieces about the lives and works of great scientists doesn’t feel the need to announce its gender in the title wording or cover design (something I fear a traditional publisher would almost certainly do). These are fascinating stories of people whose work has made a substantial difference to the world in which we live. They just happen to be women too…

A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention is edited by Suw Charman-Anderson and published by FindingAda. Readers of this blog can obtain a 25% discount on the published price of £5.99 by using discount code ‘strategiccontent’ at the checkout. All proceeds go towards supporting Ada Lovelace Day.


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Who wouldn’t want to build a life-size origami elephant?

It’s not really a surprise that I have a bit of a penchant for elephants. After all, I chose one as my company logo – for reasons explained here. So there’s no way I couldn’t share this rather bizarre – but extremely appealing – campaign to raise money to fold a life-size origami elephant out of a single sheet of paper.

Here’s how professional origami artist Sipho Mabona made a rather smaller prototype come to life:

Mabona intends to replicate the process on a massive scale, in order to “prove that there are no limits to what can be made out of a[n] uncut square piece of paper”.The folding itself (summarised in starkly simple form below) is, he says, “a beautiful process” that has more significance than the final result. His intention is to complete the transformation from paper sheet to life-size elephant within the Art Museum in Beromünster, Switzerland; he’ll also be capturing it with time-lapse photography.

All this is much more impressive than my own time-lapse origami efforts, which are displayed in the fundraising video for the HMS Beagle Project below. Maybe someone should create a life-size origami Beagle somewhere?


You can find out more about Sipho Mabona and his White Elephant campaign – and pledge your support in return for some origami animal goodies – at Indiegogo.

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Keeping up to speed with social media – reviewing Jon Reed’s new edition

Get up to Speed with Online Marketing coverI can’t quite believe that three years have passed since I blogged a review of my former colleague Jon Reed’s first book: Get up to Speed with Online Marketing. Of course, times – especially when you’re dealing with social media – change, so it’s no surprise that publisher Pearson has just launched a new edition. Always keen to be an early adopter, I’ve already got my grubby mitts on a copy – and here’s what I said about it on Amazon:

An accessibly-presented, business-focused, practical (and fun) guide to connecting with customers via social media

The latest edition of Jon Reed’s accessible and practical book Get up to Speed with Online Marketing has all the strengths of the first version and more. When I reviewed the initial publication three years ago, I highlighted the book’s emphasis on the use of third party tools, such as applications, plugins and widgets that help non-technical folk get quick results without the need to brief and pay designers or developers. Writing back then I said, “Of course you could find all these online tools yourself if you had sufficient time. What Get Up to Speed… does really well, though, is help you know what does what and what’s worth spending the time and effort to implement. Some of the best ‘takeaway’ points from the book are simple, but it’s unlikely you would stumble across them unless you’d tried all these things out yourself.” All this useful information, along with constant reminders to focus on your overall goals and measure the impact of your decisions, results in a book that both builds confidence and helps you choose where to concentrate your efforts.

What has changed since the first edition is the place of social media and online marketing within the business world. In the first edition, Reed takes time to persuade us that it’s worth investing in what he calls “the new marketing” in the first place. Now, we’re told, “social media is the mainstream”, a view I certainly share – which makes this book even more of an essential tool for any marketer, and especially for anyone who’s struggling to promote their own small business while also juggling all the other demands on their time.

It may be the norm to use social media now, but the challenge for overstretched and under-budgeted marketers isn’t just about how to create websites, write blogs and set up social media profiles. The key marketing issues Reed focuses on are the need to be findable (in places where your customers already are) and how to build relationships with customers and contacts. There’s no doubt Reed (whose Publishing Talk community has over 280,000 followers on twitter) knows a thing or two about connecting with people. But readers also benefit from the accessible way in which he shares all his knowledge. The real-life case studies he reports on, the checklists and summaries he includes and the links to all those third-party tools make it extremely easy for anyone to see which social media tools they can use to do this, and what steps they should take to achieve their goals. A new ‘best practice’ feature at the end of each chapter provides a handy reference for how to handle each featured approach, a glossary helps you sort your ‘wireframes’, ‘pingbacks’ and ‘hangouts’ from your ‘CMS’, and regular FAQs (again, new to this edition) anticipate some of the key issues people are likely to find difficult.

Reed’s also in touch with the latest trends. For this version of the book he’s dropped the chapters on virtual worlds (a cool development, but not something most people will actually use to promote their business) and social bookmarking in favour of covering Google+ and “one of the biggest social media sensations in recent years” (the visually-based Pinterest). He also features mobile platforms such as Instagram and Twitter’s video service Vine. Never fear, though, if you still want the old stuff you can download the lost chapters from the book’s website.

As with the last edition, it’s the practical tips and “quick wins” that are likely to prove the most useful. Whether it’s setting up a hashtag contest (where you ask users to share images or ideas via a specific platform and keyword) to generate a buzz, using a social media client such as HootSuite to manage your workload or geotagging online images to gently promote your location, even the most social-media savvy reader is likely to learn a thing or two from these. And if all that sounds too much like hard work, Reed is also keen to make it fun. On the final page he exhorts you to “focus on what you enjoy, what you do best, and where you can add the greatest value to your business”. Overall, then Get up to Speed… remains an excellent, practical (and fun) guide to using social media to reach your markets while keeping your overall business objectives in mind.

Find out more at the Get up to Speed with Online marketing: How to use websites, blogs, social networking and more to promote your business website, or follow the book on Twitter or Facebook.

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My first ‘author’ experience – in the hands of students

As an experienced publisher and writer, it goes without saying that I’ve worked on many, MANY books, in a variety of guises. My words appear uncredited in texts where I’ve performed serious editorial surgery, on the back of books as part of published reviews, or occasionally in publications where my name is reproduced in an eye-straining list of freelance writers. In some titles I get the honour of a credit on the copyright page, or a reference in the author’s Preface or acknowledgements; searching Google Books for ‘Anna Faherty’ reveals that authors describe me as ‘unrelenting’ and ‘difficult’, but also ‘insightful’, ‘unwaveringly supportive’, ‘enthusiastic’, ‘encouraging’ and ‘patient’. The same search reminds me that my own scientific data has been used (and credited) in specialist research publications, and that I once acted as ‘consultant’ for a German construction dictionary – whatever that means. I am also clearly identified as the author of a number of award-winning online training courses. But, until this week, my name had never appeared on the front of a book.

Martinis, Masterclasses and Space Missions: New Frontiers in Contemporary Publishing, an edited collection of writings and reflections about some of the hottest topics being discussed in the global publishing world, changes all that. Published by Kingston University Press, the book includes insights from Kingston University lecturers, students and graduates as well as sharing key learnings from a range of industry-based Masterclass speakers. Aside from having my name on the cover, what really sets it apart is that it was designed, typeset and produced (in two different versions) by students on the Kingston University Publishing MA, as part of a formally-assessed module.

Here are some things this first book-author experience taught me:

  • Publishing folk are extremely generous when it comes to providing quotes and content at extremely short notice – as Steve Jobs says, if you ask people for help, they usually say yes.
  • A group of book production novices can produce a professional-looking product in a matter of weeks – even if things go wrong.
  • Practical, in-at-the-deep-end projects can be ‘challenging’,  ‘eye-opening’, ‘stimulating’ and ‘enlightening’ learning experiences (students’ words, not mine).
  • Students don’t like the idea of appointing a project manager (a view that changed completely after completing the project).
  • Students do like the idea of producing books in a square format (though I have no idea why).
  • Typesetting isn’t the same thing as using InDesign – it’s much more difficult, nuanced and skilled than that.
  • Like some of the authors’ descriptions of me above, student publishers consider me a ‘tough cookie’ to deal with.
  • Even a seasoned publisher gets a kick out of seeing their name on the front cover of a book!

Martinis, Masterclasses and Space Missions: New Frontiers in Contemporary Publishing is edited by Anna Faherty and published by Kingston University Press. You can find out more, and download a free sample, from the Kingston Publishing Blog.

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What can publishers learn from the success of Angry Birds?

Four years ago Finnish mobile games developer Rovio was at rock bottom. Long development times and high overheads were pushing the organisation towards bankruptcy; 38 of the company’s 50-strong workforce were let go. Rovio’s next product didn’t just need to sell, it needed to sell enough to save the company. The make-or-break game was ‘Angry Birds’, which became a global phenomenon and catapulted the once struggling company to a $100m revenue business. Here’s how Rovio celebrated smashing half a billion downloads:


What lessons can publishers learn from the development process and business decisions behind the most successful mobile game in history? And how will publishers need to change if they want to secure a similar level of digital success? Find out at my talk at The Galley Club on Wednesday 6th February.

An ethical decision-making framework

Issues related to ethics and morals are never far from the news. In the past few months alone we’ve seen David Cameron describe comedian Jimmy Carr’s tax affairs as ‘morally wrong’, the morals of publishing topless images of the Duchess of Cambridge called into question, the entire moral ethos of the BBC challenged and claims that we’ve living in a time where public behaviour is at its most detached from a moral framework.

It’s in this context that I wrote an article for this month’s edition of International Accountant magazine, discussing Ethical Dilemmas for Accountants.

Ethics are the moral principles by which we live our lives. If we all lived by the same morals, we’d never encounter an ethical dilemma; in reality the deep-rooted values that drive our behaviour differ from person to person, and also often differ from the law. Making decisions about ethics is ultimately difficult because:

  • you may end up damaging a person or group in some way;
  • the outcomes following from your decision are equally unattractive;
  • there is more at stake than simply legal or business issues; and
  • there is a contradiction between what you naturally feel is the ‘right’ choice, and what you actually want to do.

So how should people make decisions about ethical issues? The answer is to use a decision-making framework. Many companies and organisations have their own, but the one featured in the article is based on the five-step framework outlined in the Handbook of the Code of Ethics for Professional Accountants. Try it out next time you’re struggling with an ethical dilemma:

1.   What are the facts?

  • What are the relevant facts about the situation?
  • Are you making any assumptions? Could you replace these with facts instead?
  • Who is affected by the situation and in what way? What are each stakeholder’s values and their desired outcomes?

2.   What are the ethical issues?

  • What professional, organisational or personal ethics are involved?
  • How might they affect your practice, the profession, the public interest or your personal reputation?

3.   What are the fundamental values and principles?

  • What aspects of the code of conduct relate to the issue?
  • Which of your personal, professional or organisational values are under threat?

4.   What are the established decision-making procedures?

  • What factors or perspectives should take priority?
  • Who needs to be involved in the decision?
  • Who will make the final decision?

5.   What are the alternative options?

  • To what extent does each alternative minimise harm to those involved?
  • To what extent does each alternative uphold the values and principles within the code of conduct?
  • How practical is it to implement each option?
  • Are there any underlying motives influencing your decision? Would you make a different choice if you suppressed these?

To boost your knowledge about ethics, and develop your own decision-making skills, you can take my online learning course on Professionalism and ethics for accountants


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Digital Crystal: Swarovski at the Design Museum

I’m currently working with the Design Museum on their Digital Crystal: Swarovski at the Design Museum exhibition.

The exhibition features installations from fourteen designers, reflecting on the concept of memory in the digital age. It’s an interesting project for two key reasons:

  • writing about works that are closer to conceptual art than functional products has some serious challenges. There’s a fine line to tread between trying to answer the questions visitors are most likely to ask about the exhibit and being overly prescriptive about what they should think…
  • the entire show looks like it’s going to have that ‘wow’ factor that will get visitors talking. I can’t wait to see the Design Museum full of crystals, lasers, video installations and even a house designed to hold just a human head.

Digital Crystal: Swarovski at the Design Museum opens on 5 September 2012.

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Why politics and science don’t mix

Like oil and water, politics and science simply don’t mix. Why? Because, as I say in my recent review of Mark Henderson’s The Geek Manifesto book, “politicians and scientists think very differently and value different things”. Here’s an extract from the post:

“Changing your mind is de rigeur for scientists who come across new evidence; it’s a sign of weakness for a politician. Scientists value experiments and what they can learn from failure; politicians won’t admit that most new policies are in fact experiments and therefore fail to learn anything from them. Scientists want to answer questions; politicians want to talk about solutions. Scientists think their work, and “the numbers”, should do the talking; politicians want qualitative narratives about outcomes and impact. Scientists value evidence-based policy; politicians want policy-based evidence. And so on…”
These fundamental differences are the cause of many instances of ‘evidence abuse’, as well as poor policy decisions. The Geek Manifesto is an excellent summary of how science works, why it’s important and how evidence is often abused, miscommunicated or full-on ignored at the general public’s expense; it makes a great companion to Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science.
You can read my full review of a book I describe as “shocking and inspirational in equal measure” on the Beagle Project blog.
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