Archive for the ‘March 2014’ Category

Multiple ways of knowing

In March 2014 on March 29, 2014 at 7:01 pm


Kirsti: In processing information and making decisions, I typically use evidence conveyed to me via my senses: sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing. Like Sarah, I enjoy a bit of repeatability (yes, this is a word, and it’s different from repetitiveness!). Logic and rationale are friends of mine, and lead me to what I’d like to think are relatively robust conclusions about the world around me.

But there are multiple ways of acquiring, organising and using knowledge. And because of that, there are multiple truths.

Last year I participated in some fascinating research looking into academics’ beliefs about knowledge and knowing. At the time, University of Sydney PhD candidate Kathryn Bartimote-Aufflick was conducting research to better understand formative influences on academics’ beliefs about knowledge and knowing, examining possible linkages to gender, cultural generation, discipline, institution, ethnicity, religion, and parents’ education and religion.

Completing her survey was one of the most mind bending experiences of my academic career!

The questions challenged my belief about how I obtained knowledge – did I construct it, create it, piece together ‘truths’ of my own? Or did I believe that I came across knowledge; that the ‘truth’ was always there and I just had to discover it? It was the first time I’d thought deeply about these beliefs of mine and I learnt a lot about epistemology – the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature and scope of knowledge.

I got uncomfortable too – for a minute! I was one of the few surveyed academics who believed that there were multiple ways of knowing, and that ‘my way’ was not necessarily the ‘right’ way. She said I held quite a dichotomous view on such things, and I’ll tell you why.

I am similar to my Dad: we’re mostly evidence-based people. We seek out and acquire knowledge, and then organise it and use it to make sense of the world.  I’m comfortable with this approach, which is probably why I chose science. But in contrast, my Mum and sister create knowledge, based primarily on their perspectives, beliefs, passions and current directions. This is intuition.

What I couldn’t reconcile during the survey was that the intuitive way of constructing truths was any less valid than mine. The lives of my Mum and sister are fulfilling, successful and happy, and they are motivated, educated and knowledgeable people. It’s just that their truths are slightly different to mine, and the processes whereby we create them are different. Hence my dichotomous view on ways of knowing has come to be.

On occasion, the existence of facts in our family can almost divide us. However, in acknowledging that there is no one ‘right’, but many truths, we smile and nod, and love each other just a little bit more.

[image thanks to Ringling Brothers Circus on flickr]


Getting uncomfortable

In March 2014 on March 25, 2014 at 10:35 am


Sarah: Science has a reputation to uphold. Rules. Predictability. Closed systems. Controls. Repeats. No frills. No embellishment. No subjectivity.

Consistent with these descriptors, I like order and I like systematics (like the bloke who guest-posted yesterday), and I am a scientist. As a young uni student seeking my professional calling, I like to think I slotted in to the science world pretty easily – a perfect match!

But did science choose me, or did I choose science? A twitter conversation inspired by the recent Adelaide ScienceOnline Watch Party prompted Kristin Alford to comment that the apparently distinct disciplines of science and philosophy have,

“a different way of making meaning,”

and working across both disciplines requires,

“holding multiple truths and systems, [and] can be tricky.”

Each discipline – whether it be science, philosophy, psychology or history, to name just a few – has its own system of truths. It suddenly struck me that the reason I had switched my university studies to science was because I was comfortable with its system of truths. I could rule out many of the variations and difficulties of human behaviour, I could largely restrict the role of emotion in daily processes, I could knuckle down and focus on results and numbers and graphs. I chose this way of thinking, and gladly adhered to the rules.

But science does not have all the answers to the problems that confront us. The existence of facts does not translate into human action. We need more than science. Yes, holding multiple truths and systems is tricky. But accepting that other disciplines have value does not demand a rejection of science. It’s OK to be uncomfortable.

[photo ‘this is not my living room’ thanks to Kristin Schmidt on flickr]


From rocks to vegetables

In March 2014 on March 24, 2014 at 11:56 am


Sarah: Today I’m delighted to present a guest post from scientist and gastronome Dr Geoff Hudson.

From rocks to vegetables

I like a bit of order in my life.

Perhaps this is why I find comfort in the natural processes that I have observed through a career as a geologist in mineral exploration, an education and information manager in the mineral and petroleum industry, and more recently as an importer and cultivator of Italian vegetable seeds.

I love the predictable morphology and chemistry of crystals that have formed in a 1000-degree magma, or in solid state in metamorphic rocks as a result of low temperatures and pressure. Each mineral is unique in its crystal form and chemical composition, with some – such as diamond and graphite – having identical chemical composition but very different formation temperatures and pressures.

I also take comfort in the observation and interpretation of ancient rock formations, confident in the in the knowledge that – with few exceptions – they were formed by the same processes we see operating around us today. The cross bedding in a sandstone that immediately indicates that wind or water borne sedimentary processes were in play. The hexagonal cooling and contraction cracks of columnar basalt, indicating its past surface, or near surface, extrusion and rapid cooling.

When I transitioned from a career in geology to one based around vegetables, food culture and the Italian language I found surprising elements in common.

For example, the Romanesco Cauliflower (as shown above) is a highly attractive pale green vegetable with its inflorescence approximating natural fractals, and the number of spirals reflecting the Fibonacci ratio.

I also just love the systematics of the way Italians name their families of vegetables. Two good examples are:

    • Zucca (pumpkin, picked at full maturity), Zucchetta (squash, picked when not yet mature), and Zucchino (picked when juvenile);
    • Sedano (celery), Sedano di monti (mountain celery or Lovage in English) and Sedano rapa (celery root or celeriac in English).

Predictability and rules apply equally well to both geology and botany, and reflect the ways that humans understand, describe and interact with elements of their natural world.

[image of a romanesco cauliflower thanks to dailyfood on flickr]

Information is beautiful

In March 2014 on March 17, 2014 at 2:14 pm

kirsti Data visualisation

Kirsti: The other night I was obsessing over data from an ex-student of mine. I love making graphs, tables and figures for scientific papers. It’s true. But when it’s number, after number, after number…that just turns into a line or a dot on a traditional graph; well, let’s just say I started dreaming of something new.

Luckily, my friend Heidi diverted me into a wonderful procrastination vortex of data visualisation.

Information is beautiful. It really is, especially when it aligns with your own unique way of relating to it, and whether it be pictures, icons, colours, black and white photography, graphs or infographics.

David McCandless has produced some wonderful data visualisations which I have spent many a lost moment gazing at (he also gives a nice, calm, thoughtful TED talk).

This wonderful visualisation of the thickness of ice age frozen sheets from xkcd emerged in Sarah’s Facebook feed today, reinforcing the fact that often numbers mean nothing unless they can be compared to something familiar.

Inspired, now I’m looking for new ways to think about information. I’m inclined to start here, a list of data visualisation tools for web designers.

Perhaps we should we be using these tools to teach our students to communicate their data more effectively?

[image thanks to eliazar on flickr]

Knock knock

In March 2014 on March 14, 2014 at 1:50 pm


Sarah: In his concluding comments after a harrowing episode of Four Corners on Monday night (which told the story of a young boy trained by his two male de-facto parents to participate in sexual activities with adults), Kerry O’Brien said the following:

“As a footnote to tonight’s story, it’s worth observing that it (i.e. the case presented) does not reflect on gay parenting, but on the actions of two individuals. It’s also worth remembering that most child sex offences relate to crimes against young girls, not young boys, and the predator is usually known to the family.”

I’m so glad he added that comment. Clearly he though that facts provided after a highly emotive story would be heard by viewers, processed in their minds and have an impact on their opinions. I hope he’s right. But I fear that people who deep down have a fear of gay parenting will use this story to back up their beliefs.

Facts notwithstanding, people believe what they want to believe. It’s complicated.

It’s a concept also seen in science, and which Rod Lamberts tackles beautifully in an article in today’s The Conversation. Dr Rod says,

“At best, presenting people with facts to counter their beliefs makes them ignore you; at worst, it drives them further away. How much more evidence do you need than the singular failure of scientific facts to convince deniers that humans are buggering up the climate?”

Recently I’ve been thinking about how people set up boundaries to protect a way of life.

I imagine the human brain to be a bit like a house. In the house, choice of colours, furnishings and artwork – budget allowing – reflect what you are comfortable and familiar with. You separate the outside world from your inner, created world by installing a solid door with a lock, bolted windows, a high fence and perhaps even a security system. Almost a bit of John Howard-esque,

“I will decide who comes to my house, and the circumstances in which they come!”

If someone unsavoury knocks on my door, I can chose not to let him or her in.

If a fact presents itself which contradicts the steady state that I have developed in my brain, I can also chose not to let it in.

Developing techniques which will convince people to drop their barriers just a little, to let little snippets of unfamiliar information into their minds is the task ahead.

This means scientists need to start working with experts who understand people and behaviour. Marketers. Psychologists. Political scientists. Sociologists. Media experts.

[photo thanks to Horia Varlan on flickr]

Part time everything

In March 2014 on March 6, 2014 at 9:04 am

kirsti ants in vial text

Kirsti: All that talk of time hasn’t left me. In fact, that Sarah blogged about time and then revisited her blogging every day for AN ENTIRE YEAR (a feat that I think is super-human by the way) reminded me of so many discussions I’ve had with friends and colleagues (mostly female, but not all) about choosing to work PART TIME. Whether it was after we’d had kids, or just because there are other things in our lives we want to pursue (unpaid – I know, crazy), choosing to work part time comes with both joys and curses.

I’m a passionate women in science advocate.

But I’m actually not talking about just scientists or related to science jobs here either. I’m talking generally. Because going part time has similar drawbacks and benefits in nearly every job, it’s just that in science the drawbacks seemed to be magnified by what feels like 2000 times, and often have serious consequences for future employment.

I decided to work part time after having my daughter, nearly 7 years ago. Before motherhood, I was a fairly ambitious researcher and assumed I would return to part time, then probably full time research within a year of giving birth, and naturally go on to have a spectacularly productive research career and adventure all around the world doing ant ecology on magnificent tropical islands……


When missy moo arrived, apart from all the normal REALLY HARD parts of having a baby and trying to juggle that with RIDICULOUS commitments to an academic world I would return to, my priorities changed so monumentally, so utterly profoundly that going back to full time work made me feel like I would be neglecting the most important thing that had just been given to me. My new family.

I was unprepared for my change of feeling about family. Like, totally unprepared.  And it took me quite a few years to completely honour it; to feel satisfied with ‘leaving’ research and academia per se, to live by my newfound life-balancing philosophy.

In that time however, I have fought hard alongside women for flexibility, acknowledgement and creative spaces where women can be full time, part time, any time, and for that to be recognised as VALUABLE, REAL and SUSTAINABLE in academic institutions and other careers. I have learnt to be persistent and consistent in my message over time. I have cried over time for the injustices that happen to brilliant women in the face of linear and traditional expectations.

And I have smiled, admired and celebrated the amazing successes where they exist.

Right now though, I am proud to be a part time everything. I want my life to be full with things that fulfil me, that connect my family and heal others and the world. I’ve discovered that doesn’t happen so well when you work full time on one thing. So here I am, part time researcher, pat time teachers, part time communicator, part time gymnast, part time photographer…….(here’s not where you bring up that I’m a part time mum)…

But you know what? I REEAALLLYY want to go look at those ants under the microscope, but I won’t’ be back at work until next week. CURSES.

If you’re interested in the part time thing in science/academia, I’d recommend you read this great article by Kate O’Brien and Karen Hapgood. They used ecosystem modelling to show how women are driven out of research. Brilliant!

A case study

In March 2014 on March 5, 2014 at 4:36 pm


Sarah: Recently I used this blog as a case study for a presentation at the 2014 conference of the Australian Science Communicators.

Here is the summary:

Although science blogs are popular amongst scientists and non-scientists, their value for professional career development remains a source of conjecture. Here I present a case study of a year-long science blogging project entitled ScienceforLife.365. Each day for 365 days between Australia’s National Science Week in 2012 and 2013, I published a post and accompanying image to a wordpress site ( and a Facebook community ( and shared through my personal twitter and Facebook accounts. Across the year, the blog had approximately 20,000 views across both platforms, with interest varying considerably between platforms and according to the subject of each post.

Positive outcomes from the ScienceforLife.365 blogging project include:

    • Developing a daily habit and discipline to write;
    • Refining writing style and ‘finding a voice’;
    • Seeing and working with nuances in audience preferences;
    • Using social media to attract readership and market professional capabilities;
    • Connecting with online writing and science communities;
    • Demonstrating passion for subject matter and providing a portfolio for attracting paid work.

In summary, this case study shows that blogging can offer many benefits to the developing science writer.

You can check out my slides  too: