Time to ditch the press release?

Standard
Fixing the newspapers. Photo (cc) Evil Erin.

Fixing the news­pa­pers. Photo (cc) Evil Erin.

At the National Astronomy Meeting in 2004 I listened to Dr David Whitehouse, who I think was then Science Editor at the BBC, give advice about feed­ing sci­ence stor­ies to the media. He made quite a few points, but there are three I remember.

  1. Don’t push a story on the grounds it’s the biggest / old­est / shi­ni­est / crum­bli­est etc. thing found. It’s a cliché and it’s dull.
  2. Don’t waste people’s time with the for­mula for ‘x’ where x is any­thing which really shouldn’t have a formula.
  3. Don’t use press releases.

At the time he really didn’t con­vince me. The biggest, old­est and so on remains a staple news item. Likewise Cliff Arnall has shown you can make money from non­sense for­mu­lae. What really under­mined him though was the news­room run by the RAS at the meet­ing. I could wander in there and see the press releases. The next day I could see the same stor­ies, often with little edit­ing, in the national press. If he were to give the same talk today he might find it even harder. I can go to Eurekalert and pick up a sen­tence from any press release. If I paste it into Google I will find masses of news web­sites repeat­ing the press release near verbatim.

Surely this proves pub­li­city is about get­ting your press release into the right press release mill? I might have a news story by the end of the year and so I’ve thought about what I want to achieve with pub­li­city. I’m job hunt­ing. Press cov­er­age could be really help­ful to intro­duce me and my work to depart­ments. That’s why I’m more inter­ested in qual­ity rather than quant­ity and that’s why I think David Whitehouse could be right.

The reason I was scep­tical is because of an adversarial model of researcher-journalist rela­tions. Basically this is down to two complaints.

  1. Journalists regur­git­ate press releases without any crit­ical thought.
  2. Journalists don’t regur­git­ate my press releases without any crit­ical thought.

Clearly that proves that any prob­lems in sci­ence journ­al­ism are the fault of journ­al­ists rather than my work being unnews­worthy. You can’t argue with logic like that unless you’re very drunk.

If you see journ­al­ists as a bar­rier between you and the pub­lic then bypassing them makes sense. The tar­get becomes get­ting the press release as unmangled as pos­sible into the public’s hands. This kind of think­ing is the basis behind Futurity. The journ­al­ists are a resource val­ued as far as they can repro­duce the release you’ve given them. Presumably there’s a corol­lary to this rela­tion­ship from the journ­al­ists’ side where sci­ent­ists are val­ued as far as fit­ting a mar­ket­ing niche.

David Whitehouse argued that what journ­al­ists really want is an exclus­ive. Sticking a press release out means that it’s low pri­or­ity because every­one will be able to cover the story. It wasn’t the best sales pitch because what I heard at the time was “If you put out a press release then lots of people will cover it, but an exclus­ive means only one per­son cov­ers it.” If you’re in the adversarial model then the choice between press release and talk­ing to just one journ­al­ist, who may decide not to run your story, is a no-brainer.

Now I’ve changed my mind.

My work is inter­dis­cip­lin­ary. Journals, gen­er­ally, aren’t. That means if I pub­lish my work in one journal then it’ll be missed by a lot of the poten­tial audi­ence because research­ers tend to read journ­als in their own dis­cip­line and only a few out­side it. What I need is to pub­li­cise the work so that research­ers out­side the field of whatever journal I pub­lish in will be aware of the paper. So if I pub­lish in The Journal of Obscure Astronomy then I’ll have to find some way to alert clas­si­cists and archae­olo­gists to the paper, else they’ll never read it — even if JOA is open access or the paper’s on arXiv.

Having a press release appear on a thou­sand web­sites is great for the ego, but it’s point­less if they’re a thou­sand web­sites that no-one with an interest in clas­sics or archae­ology reads. If I wanted to announce work to a small num­ber of intel­li­gent people I’d post it here. What I need is qual­ity of cov­er­age rather than quant­ity. In fact as I wrote that last sen­tence it struck me how irrel­ev­ant quant­ity of cov­er­age is.

It sounds good. It’s some­thing people can meas­ure in column inches but real­ist­ic­ally 10 column inches in two papers is not twice as good as 5 inches in one paper. Sharing links is easy. If the story appeared in just one major site, the link would be passed around. Appearing in more papers aids dis­cov­ery, but the stor­ies will all be say­ing sim­ilar things about the work. I was told that the recent pub­lic­a­tions on the Antikythera Mechanism appeared as news stor­ies in all the qual­ity papers in the world. But I bet if I were to sit down and read them all I’d find very little new inform­a­tion after the first three stor­ies. Certainly appear­ing in more qual­ity press is a bet­ter res­ult, but the size of the read­er­ship for the major news sites is such that appear­ing in just one major site will still deliver more reach than a hun­dred minor sites.

It also looks like a prac­tical way to aid good journ­al­ism. I’m will­ing to bet that any sci­ence journ­al­ist with even a bit of tal­ent would like to see the end of press releases being called news. If we rein­force the idea that a recycled press release is news then there’s no call for spe­cial­ist sci­ence journ­al­ists because any­one can recycle a press release.

That’s why I’ve decided the next time I have a story — if the journal doesn’t have its own media policy — I’m going to try pitch­ing it dir­ect to a journ­al­ist rather than via a press release. I’m not com­fort­able with this. Every day you can see press releases work­ing in the papers and if web­sites recycle mater­ial big num­bers are attract­ive. But maybe that’s a safety net? If news sites really are put­ting up press releases as news then even if attempts to pitch the exclus­ive fail you can always fall back on a press release. That’s another reason press releases shouldn’t be the first option.

The Drayson / Goldacre Debate

Standard

On the 16th of September there was a debate between Lord Drayson, Minister for Science amongst other things, and Ben Goldacre, the Guardian’s Bad Science colum­nist. The mat­ter under dis­cus­sion was the qual­ity of sci­ence journ­al­ism. It stems from a debate at the ABSW meet­ing where Lord Drayson said that British sci­ence journ­al­ism was the best in the world. This came as a bit of a sur­prise to many people. There was a lot of response on Twitter and Drayson agreed to debate with Goldacre about sci­ence journ­al­ism. Hence the debate on 16th September.

There’s a vote going around as to who won the Science Media debate. Who the ‘win­ner’ was tends to depend on whether or not you’re a journ­al­ist. Goldacre had the much more emo­tion­ally attract­ive pos­i­tion for sci­ent­ists. All sci­ent­ists think their work is inter­est­ing, but given the space avail­able in the media it’s inev­it­able that many will be cruelly over­looked. It will be genu­inely inter­est­ing, even it’s been pitched badly, but being so close to your research will mean you don’t always have the full per­spect­ive. Also there’s always someone who’s doing more news­worthy research than yours. There’s mine for a start.

The fact that so many sci­ent­ists say it was close has to be due in part to Goldacre not going out with the inten­tion of just beat­ing Drayson. It was more like to grown-ups hav­ing a sens­ible dis­cus­sion about the prob­lem. There’s some very pos­it­ive points which came out of this, which is why I don’t think it’s a cop-out to say both sides won.

Drayson was care­ful to qual­ify his defence of sci­ence journ­al­ism, it was only journ­al­ism by spe­cial­ised sci­ence journ­al­ists he wanted to defend. I think that’s not a help­ful dis­tinc­tion. There are good sci­ence journ­al­ists, but that doesn’t mat­ter in the least if sci­ence stor­ies are being writ­ten ignor­ant gen­eral sci­ence journ­al­ists. Some people might read who got the byline, but for most people the author is just a name. They’re read­ing the story because it’s in the Sun or Mirror, not because Joe Bloggs really knows his genet­ics. Additionally he com­plained that people would take a scep­tical view of a sci­ence story just because it appeared on the front page of the Express. This, he held, was dam­aging trust in sci­ence journ­al­ism. I dis­agree. I think pub­lish­ing Diana con­spir­acy stor­ies on the front page of the Express dam­ages trust. Science journ­al­ism doesn’t exist vacuum and the cred­ib­il­ity of report­ing mat­ters whether it’s polit­ics or science.

On the other hand there were some very good ideas that came out of the dis­cus­sion. Drayson con­firmed that the next round of UK research assess­ment, the REF, will include points for pub­lic engage­ment and that will include blogs as well as main­stream media. That’s good but prob­lem­atic. The plan is to get some respect for aca­dem­ics who talk to the pub­lic as well as research­ers. But, as Alan Cann said to me, this won’t work if these people can­not get into the assess­ment in the first place. Previous research assess­ments have been manip­u­lated by uni­ver­sit­ies so that only the stars get entered. If they hold the opin­ion that pub­lic engage­ment detracts from a researcher then they won’t get into the REF to pick up points. There’s only so much any gov­ern­ment min­is­ter is going to be able to do about that. It requires a shift in atti­tude in aca­demia, but it would be help­ful if the value of pub­lic engage­ment could be spelled out in very clear lan­guage well before the next REF.

Ben Goldacre raised the point that while sci­ent­ists should be encour­aged to talk and write about their work, their out­put is improved with edit­ing. He was also very keen to talk up activ­ity on the inter­net and he and Drayson agreed that a small grants scheme should be in place to sup­port sci­ence blog­gers. Lord Drayson also encour­aged sci­ent­ists mis­rep­res­en­ted by the media to con­tact him, and pledged to tweet his office email address — which he did.

To some extent the Q&A ses­sion was tri­bal. The journ­al­ists felt that uncom­mu­nic­at­ive sci­ent­ists were the prob­lem, while sci­ent­ists thought it would be nice if journ­al­ists listened. It reminded me a bit of the prison report — the one which read that the troubles in the jail were not down to facil­it­ies, staff or sys­tems but that the smooth run­ning of the jail was hampered by the fact many of the pris­on­ers were crim­in­als. Equally com­plain­ing about the wrong sort of journ­al­ists or sci­ent­ists might be right, but it’s not a step towards a solution.

This is where I thought, from the sci­ence side, that Drayson’s focus on spe­cial­ist sci­ence journ­al­ists was help­ful. Journalism isn’t about recyc­ling press releases, so per­haps it’s worth ask­ing how use­ful the press release is to many sci­ent­ists which is where I’ll pick up next time.

If Futurity is the answer, then I don’t understand the question

Standard

I’d like to blog about the Drayson / Goldacre debate before the topic gets too cold, but before I do I thought I’d men­tion Futurity. It’s inter­est­ing because it’s sup­posedly, an attempt to address a decline in sci­ence journ­al­ism. “In an increas­ingly com­plex world, the pub­lic needs access to clear, reli­able research news. Futurity does the work of gath­er­ing that news,” says the about page of the site. That’s fas­cin­at­ing because, if they’re right, I’ve com­pletely mis­un­der­stood what sci­ence journ­al­ism means.

Here’s an example. First up, a press release from the University of Michigan, Researchers find gene that pro­tects high-fat-diet mice from obesity, which starts like this:

U-M research­ers have iden­ti­fied a gene that acts as a mas­ter switch to con­trol obesity in mice. When the switch is turned off, even high-fat-diet mice remain thin.

Deleting the gene, called IKKE, also appears to pro­tect mice against con­di­tions that, in humans, lead to Type 2 dia­betes, which is asso­ci­ated with obesity and is on the rise among Americans, includ­ing chil­dren and adolescents.

Next there’s the press release on the pub­licly access­ible Eurekalert, U-M research­ers find gene that pro­tects high-fat-diet mice from obesity. That reads:

University of Michigan research­ers have iden­ti­fied a gene that acts as a mas­ter switch to con­trol obesity in mice. When the switch is turned off, even high-fat-diet mice remain thin.

Deleting the gene, called IKKE, also appears to pro­tect mice against con­di­tions that, in humans, lead to Type 2 dia­betes, which is asso­ci­ated with obesity and is on the rise among Americans, includ­ing chil­dren and adolescents.

Finally there’s the public-targetted story: Gene—not diet—makes mice obese?:

Researchers have iden­ti­fied a gene that acts as a mas­ter switch to con­trol obesity in mice. When the switch is turned off, even mice on high-fat diets remain thin.

Deleting the gene, called IKKE, also appears to pro­tect mice against con­di­tions that, in humans, lead to Type 2 dia­betes, which is asso­ci­ated with obesity and is on the rise among Americans, includ­ing chil­dren and adolescents.

“Futurity is aimed at gen­eral audi­ence rather than report­ers” said one of the sites founders in the Columbia Journalism Review. I’ve looked at a few stor­ies and com­pared them with their Eurekalert coun­ter­parts. What Futurity offers is a dif­fer­ent head­line and an occa­sion­ally re-ordered dis­play of inform­a­tion. The link to the National Bureau of Economic Research work­ing paper in the Futurity story above comes fur­ther down the page. Is this qual­ity sci­ence journ­al­ism? I wouldn’t have thought so. I’d have called it a press release. I’m not exactly sure how you meas­ure the qual­ity of sci­ence journ­al­ism, but I would have thought there would have been more to report­ing than par­rot­ing the press release. Is this an isol­ated incid­ent? Does Futurity offer some­thing that a press-release doesn’t. Here’s the top four stor­ies today on Futurity com­pared with their coun­ter­parts on Eurekalert.

Futurity Eurekalert
‘Punk-size’ T. rex found in China
CHICAGO—A 9-foot dino­saur from north­east­ern China had evolved all the hall­mark ana­tom­ical fea­tures of Tyrannosaurus rex at least 125 mil­lion years ago, includ­ing a large head com­pared to its torso, tiny arms, and lanky feet well-suited for running.

University of Chicago pale­on­to­lo­gist Paul Sereno and five coau­thors describe the newly dis­covered dino­saur in the Sept. 17 Science Express, advanced online edi­tion of the journal Science.

T. rex body plan deb­uted in Raptorex, but 100th the size
A 9-foot dino­saur from north­east­ern China had evolved all the hall­mark ana­tom­ical fea­tures of Tyrannosaurus rex at least 125 mil­lion years ago. University of Chicago pale­on­to­lo­gist Paul Sereno and five co-authors describe the newly dis­covered dino­saur in the Sept. 17 Science Express, advanced online edi­tion of the journal Science.

Raptorex shows that tyr­an­no­saur design evolved at “punk size,” said Sereno, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, “basic­ally our body­weight. And that’s pretty stag­ger­ing, because there’s no other example that I can think of where an animal has been so finely designed at about 100th the size that it would even­tu­ally become.”

Photo reveals Africa’s cryptic cat
YALE—An anthro­po­lo­gist has cap­tured pho­to­graphic images of a rare, cougar-like cat ran­ging at night in an endangered Ugandan forest.

The images of the African golden cat (Profelis aurata) were taken by a digital infrared cam­era trap set last year by the anthro­po­lo­gist who was study­ing prim­ate beha­vior in the wild.

No equi­val­ent on Eurekalert, but Yale’s press release reads:
New Haven, Conn. — A Yale anthro­po­lo­gist has cap­tured pho­to­graphic images of a rare, cougar-like cat ran­ging at night in an endangered Ugandan forest.

The images of the African golden cat (Profelis aurata) were taken by a digital infrared cam­era trap set last year by the anthro­po­lo­gist who was study­ing prim­ate beha­vior in the wild.

Same name, dif­fer­ent lung can­cer
Lung can­cer in patients who have never smoked is a very dif­fer­ent dis­ease than the lung can­cer smokers get, and should be treated as such, new research finds.

It is becom­ing increas­ingly clear that the genetic, cel­lu­lar, and molecu­lar nature of lung can­cer in many never-smokers is dif­fer­ent from that of smoking-related lung can­cers, and there is good evid­ence now that the best treat­ment and pre­ven­tion strategies for never-smokers may be dif­fer­ent as well,” says Charles Rudin, asso­ci­ate dir­ector for clin­ical research at the Kimmel Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University.

Guide on lung can­cer in ‘never-smokers’: A dif­fer­ent dis­ease and dif­fer­ent treat­ments
A com­mit­tee of sci­ent­ists led by Johns Hopkins invest­ig­at­ors has pub­lished a new guide to the bio­logy, dia­gnosis and treat­ment of lung can­cer in never-smokers, for­ti­fy­ing meas­ures for what phys­i­cians have long known is a very dif­fer­ent dis­ease than in smokers.

It is becom­ing increas­ingly clear that the genetic, cel­lu­lar, and molecu­lar nature of lung can­cer in many never-smokers is dif­fer­ent from that of smoking-related lung can­cers, and there is good evid­ence now that the best treat­ment and pre­ven­tion strategies for never-smokers may be dif­fer­ent as well,” says Charles M. Rudin, M.D., Ph.D., asso­ci­ate dir­ector for Clinical Research at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center. Lung can­cer in never-smokers is the sixth lead­ing cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S.

Nanotubes may yield greener solar cells
CORNELL—Using a car­bon nan­otube instead of tra­di­tional sil­icon, research­ers have cre­ated the basic ele­ments of a solar cell that may lead to much more effi­cient ways of con­vert­ing light to electricity.

The research­ers fab­ric­ated, tested, and meas­ured a simple solar cell called a pho­to­di­ode, formed from an indi­vidual car­bon nan­otube. Reported online Sept. 11 in the journal Science, the research­ers describe how their device con­verts light to elec­tri­city in an extremely effi­cient pro­cess that mul­ti­plies the amount of elec­trical cur­rent that flows. This pro­cess could prove import­ant for next-generation high effi­ciency solar cells, the research­ers say.

Carbon nan­otubes could make effi­cient solar cells

Using a car­bon nan­otube instead of tra­di­tional sil­icon, Cornell research­ers have cre­ated the basic ele­ments of a solar cell that hope­fully will lead to much more effi­cient ways of con­vert­ing light to elec­tri­city than now used in cal­cu­lat­ors and on rooftops.

The research­ers fab­ric­ated, tested and meas­ured a simple solar cell called a pho­to­di­ode, formed from an indi­vidual car­bon nan­otube. Reported online Sept. 11 in the journal Science, the research­ers — led by Paul McEuen, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Physics, and Jiwoong Park, assist­ant pro­fessor of chem­istry and chem­ical bio­logy — describe how their device con­verts light to elec­tri­city in an extremely effi­cient pro­cess that mul­ti­plies the amount of elec­trical cur­rent that flows. This pro­cess could prove import­ant for next-generation high effi­ciency solar cells, the research­ers say.

To me the stor­ies on Futurity look like re-headlined and slightly tweaked press-releases. The table above is not an entirely fair com­par­ison so if you’re scep­tical you can click on the links to see the stor­ies in full. Futurity has a yel­low masthead.

One of the points Ben Goldacre made in the Times Higher debate was that not every pub­lished study is worth a whole news story. The end res­ult would be the Daily Mail Oncological Ontology Project which fol­lows the Daily Mail’s attempt to clas­sify everything in the world as things that cause or cure can­cer. In the case above obesity is a com­plex prob­lem with diet­ary, hered­it­ary and social factors. There’s no magic bul­let to solve the prob­lem. It’s a com­plex story that needs con­text to make sense but you’re not going to get that from a press release. What is prob­ably a very good piece of research has been turned into quite a bad story.

It might be more inter­est­ing to ask “Why are around 35 top uni­ver­sit­ies releas­ing warmed-over press releases on a web­site when the pub­lic already have access to Eurekalert?” You could make it sound quite sin­is­ter. Are the rich uni­ver­sit­ies attempt­ing to hive off pub­lic interest away from Eurekalert so they don’t have to com­pete with Hicksville State University? Alternatively is it an attempt to dis­tance the uni­ver­sit­ies from some of Eurekalert’s more eccent­ric contributors?

There’ll be more from me on sci­ence com­mu­nic­a­tion over the next month as I’ve been think­ing about it for a few months now. One idea I’m not keen on is that the prob­lem is the mass media. Clearly they con­trib­ute, but Futurity shows that when you bypass sci­ence journ­al­ists alto­gether the res­ult looks amaz­ingly sim­ilar to the kind of report­ing people com­plain about.

I’ll con­cede that there could be some­thing really clever about Futurity which couldn’t be done by tweak­ing Eurekalert. I’m no media expert so it’s entri­rely pos­sible that there’s some big prob­lem that Futurity is the per­fect shape fix, but if Futurity is the answer, then I don’t under­stand the question.

Fund your project via the web

Standard

Money Shot. Photo (cc) Jessica Smith

I saw an inter­est­ing fund­ing oppor­tun­ity on ReadWriteWeb and, because it’s only open to Americans, I thought to share it. Kickstarter​.com looks like it could be use­ful for fund­ing small-scale aca­demic projects.

The idea is simple enough, you look through the vari­ous pro­jects on the web­site and if you see an idea you like you pledge some money to it. If a pro­ject raises all the money it needs in pledges before a dead­line then credit cards are charges and the pro­ject gets the money. If the pro­ject doesn’t get enough money the pledges lapse. The pro­ject gets noth­ing, but this also means there’s no oblig­a­tion to ful­fil tar­gets on a cut budget.

You’re prob­ably not going to fund a large or even medium-sized Hadron col­lider with this, but for sub-$5000 pro­jects, it might be a pos­sib­il­ity. It strikes me as a good match for some archae­olo­gical work. The dif­fi­culty is work­ing out what you can give back. Ideally you’d want to pub­lish all your find­ings, so it’s hard to jus­tify keep­ing back use­ful inform­a­tion for back­ers only. You could give pri­or­ity to back­ers like subscriber-only updates live from the field. The dif­fi­culty I fore­see with this is that it then means on top of work, you’ll want to spend a couple of hours each day pro­du­cing the updates. If you’re some­where where updat­ing from the field is dif­fi­cult, like the Sahara, then it’s harder to work this model. Tweets from a private account won’t be much of bonus if the back­ers can’t inter­act with the fieldworker(s).

On the other hand if you have a known budget with a known num­ber of back­ers then you can budget to include pro­du­cing premium con­tent. So say­ing that any­one that pledges over $X get a limited-edition hard­back edi­tion of the report is feas­ible – or at least it would be if Lulu’s cost cal­cu­lator had been work­ing when I wrote this. On the down­side $20 from a $50 pledge would be lost pro­du­cing the con­tent, but that’s still a net gain of $30. Giving some­thing back to the back­ers seems pretty essen­tial as they’ll be the obvi­ous mar­ket for your next project.

At the moment the site is lim­ited to American pro­jects because the sys­tem works through Amazon pay­ments. If it’s suc­cess­ful then it’ll either expand or else a big­ger start-up with open a globally-accessible com­pet­itor. Either way if the bal­ance between premium con­tent and open-access can be found, then it could be an altern­at­ive source of fund­ing, for pro­jects with pop­u­lar appeal.

I’m now giv­ing ser­i­ous thought to fund­ing future pro­jects of my own. Because I tend to stick to basic sur­vey, my own costs tend to be travel and car hire. One idea I’m con­sid­er­ing is com­mer­cial spon­sor­ship. If a non­sense sur­vey can earn someone £500 for simply attach­ing a name, then pro­du­cing a news-worthy story should be worth a few thou­sand to the right spon­sor. That means prov­ing news-worthiness. I’ll be look­ing hard at pub­li­city for my next paper as I got it badly wrong last time. If I learn from that I’ll take a rad­ic­ally dif­fer­ent approach.

–ve on Bonekickers

Standard

Bonekickers has limped to the end of its run and after an epic quest which spanned four thou­sand years and half a dozen major finds, Gillian Magwilde finally acheived her quest in an mad­cap man­ner which sealed Bonekickers in the pan­theon of British tele­vi­sion along­side such clas­sics as Triangle (a drama based on the glam­or­ous and sexy world of North Sea Ferries) and Eldorado. It’s as if the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation had decided to write a drama as the super­fi­cial flaws seem to obscured some people’s views of the fun­da­mental flaws in the series.

Spoilers, and I’m using the word quite wrongly, follow.

The story arc was the quest for Excalibur which cropped up in one form or another each week. To what extent this was a rev­el­a­tion is hard to say. I ima­gine the audi­ence was divided between those who knew exactly what to expect and those who couldn’t believe the plot could be as shal­low as that. Personally I don’t have a prob­lem with that per se. If Indiana Jones can go raid­ing lost arks, then why not have someone go after Excalibur. The prob­lem is that a drama at least needs internal logic. The writers tried to sup­ply that, but they were left with the prob­lem of how to get Excalibur from Bath to Wells Cathedral, a dis­tance of twenty miles. The answer was:

The Knights Templar took it with them to Portugal around the time the Portuguese were explor­ing the West African coast. From here a black man, Oran, got it. He was enslaved and shipped to America where he fought, with his sword, along­side George Washington against the British. He was shipped to Britain after the war was won and he escaped around the Bristol Channel, where the sword washed up and was taken by someone whose name I can’t be bothered to look up to Wells.

The second epis­ode was built around the sheer injustice, which is still often down­played, of the slave trade. Millions died. The idea that Oran had Excalibur makes even less sense than the idea that Africans enjoyed being slaves, because you could hear them singing. Contrary to what Scotty says, when it comes drama you can change the laws of Physics but you can­not change the laws of nar­rat­ive flow. Unfortunately the final epis­ode was up against an avalanche.

The cli­max, for want of a bet­ter word, was when a bad­die took excalibur and attacked the heroine with it. It broke in his hands and to let the audi­ence know this was a Significant Thing, Magwilde explained how it had sur­vived four mil­lenia before it broke in his hands. This utterly failed because when you’re burn­ing the True Cross, blow­ing up the remains of Boudicca or los­ing the bones of Jeanne d’Arc to traitor from the Army, a broken sword really isn’t a big deal. At least you still have the bits. If you’ve spent five weeks show­ing that the loss of major arte­facts doesn’t mat­ter, then why on earth would you expect any­one to care by epis­ode six? It’s as if they simply couldn’t care less, and the tim­ing on the script told them they needed to resolve the story some­how. The need to get the job done would explain how the bad­die died.

The death of the Bad Guy at the end of a drama is usu­ally about a moral judge­ment, and it’s more ham­fis­ted in Bonekickers than usual. After telling Magwilde tells him that he isn’t the man for Excalibur, he jumps into the pond Magwilde had just swum out of and dis­ap­pears. I sup­pose you could argue that dis­solv­ing the bad guy in cathed­ral pond is an ori­ginal end, but see­ing as Magwilde was show­ing no ill-effects there’s that nar­rat­ive con­tinu­ity prob­lem again. The remain­ing eleven masked men get the mes­sage through the col­lect­ive uncon­scious and decided to turn their back on evil and set up a flor­ists’ shop in Glastonbury. Possibly. Actually we never find out what hap­pens to them.

For all of the above you simply can­not blame Mark Horton, which is why I find the com­plaints dir­ec­ted at him about the many, many inac­curacies tedi­ous. It would be a bit like get­ting agit­ated about the police using the wrong form to take a con­fes­sion in Murder She Wrote. I can­not see, des­pite some claims by other archae­olo­gists, that Bonekickers has dimin­ished archae­ology in any way. If you look at com­plaints by the pub­lic it’s not archae­ology both­ers them. The pub­lic love archae­ology and that’s why they’re annoyed Graham and Pharoah have done such an awful job with it. The first epis­ode was sadly the high point.

It’s been fas­cin­at­ing watch­ing it, but then people slow down to gawp at car crashes.

+ve on Bonekickers

Standard

To cla­rify, I am not being at all sar­castic when I say I’m pos­it­ive about Bonekickers. The first epis­ode wasn’t bril­liant, but first epis­odes of any series tend to be poor because not only are they intro­du­cing a story, they’re intro­du­cing char­ac­ters. The entire first sea­son of Star Trek:TNG and DS9 are poor, but with char­ac­ters estab­lished they improved massively. The per­petual prob­lem with new Doctor Who is that each series intro­duces a new assist­ant or new Doctor which causes prob­lems for devel­op­ing stor­ies. So in light of that, the cur­rent shal­low­ness of the char­ac­ters in Bonekickers is understandable.

It would also be easy to go through and pick every point that made me laugh dur­ing the show. I could do the same for 1960s era Batman. Like pick­ing apart Batman I’m not sure there’d be much point to it. There are some prob­lems though. There are cer­tain assump­tions about real­ity which have to hold. It might be pos­sible to have a Bat-microscope which can view inside atoms, but you can bet Batman will have to use his open eye to view it. Similarly there are cer­tain basic archae­olo­gical assump­tions and this clip shows where they get it wrong.

The line about ‘get in the trench or out of it’ is an echo of what had been said to the archae­olo­gist earlier in the show. That’s not been com­men­ted on much because the bit where they yank out the wood has caused howls of deri­sion. I think this is fair because prior to this jar­gon and tech­nobabble was get­ting dropped to show how they were ser­i­ous archae­olo­gists. The pub­lic know that wood rots and this isn’t plaus­ible. My reac­tion would be if it’s the holy cross then surely all bets are off, but people don’t think like that. There have to be some basic found­a­tions which the drama is built on and this scene breaks them.

That aside, if you look at the assump­tions Bonekickers uses then it’s actu­ally very pos­it­ive towards archae­ology. The pro­gramme shows arche­olo­gists in a largely flat­ter­ing light. They appear almost nor­mal. The reason the Head of the Department is odi­ous is that real archae­olo­gists don’t go chas­ing media atten­tion. This comes up a couple of times.

The tech­nobabble emphas­ises that this is a men­tally demand­ing pro­fes­sion. Often engin­eers or bio­lo­gists in TV shows are shown giv­ing things their best guess. In con­trast the archae­olo­gists in this series Know What They Are Talking About. They have a wide range of skill sets, but this is the basis of how they know stuff rather than just mak­ing it up.

Two of the four cent­ral char­ac­ters are from eth­nic minor­it­ies. I don’t know of a single archae­olo­gical depart­ment in the UK that has more than one non-white lec­turer. I would be delighted if that’s down to my ignor­ance rather an accur­ate reflec­tion of real­ity. Nonetheless uni­ver­sit­ies as a whole and archae­ology in par­tic­u­lar are strug­gling to recruit ethnic-minorities onto courses, which isn’t going to help rep­res­ent­a­tion at staff levels.

The assump­tions aren’t all help­ful. Bonekickers lives in its own fin­an­cial uni­verse so the lab, which serves the same func­tion as the Batcave or Torchwood Hub, is amaz­ingly well equipped. This is prob­ably a dra­matic neces­sity. Carbon dates and post-ex ana­lysis needs to be sup­plied fast to keep the story mov­ing, but that means that Wessex University must have a bot­tom­less pit of money for the archae­ology depart­ment. It’s also amus­ing that the lead char­ac­ter lives on Bath’s Royal Crescent. This must mean she’s inde­pend­ently wealthy, but there’s also the assump­tion that the work­ers have a reas­on­able wage, which many field archae­olo­gists will find hard to swal­low.

There are oddit­ies. The insist­ence that they have an archae­olo­gical con­sult­ant seems a bit po-faced. Thanks to Daniel Petts at the PAS, I know Mark Horton has been say­ing what his role was. Star Trek also has sci­entific con­sult­ants who they ask about phys­ics before decid­ing the prob­lem can be solved by run­ning warp power through the deflector. I don’t think they make a big deal of it though. On the plus side next week’s epis­ode might bear some resemb­lance to a pro­ject Mark Horton has been work­ing on con­cern­ing a ship found in the Bristol chan­nel. That sounds like a way of get­ting the polit­ical implic­a­tions of archae­ology out for dis­cus­sion. He also says that it’s funnier.

They say a good wine critic is judged by the wine he rejects. Certainly the safe option would be to pan Bonekickers and thus imply that my work is far super­ior. Perhaps there are med­ics who berat­ing Green Wing for its unreal­ism. I think that would be miss­ing the point and the same goes for Bonekickers. It’s not an out-and-out com­edy but I don’t think it is meant to be entirely ser­i­ous either, else it’d be called some­thing like The Unsilent Grave.

Would it be better to drop ‘Science’ and use the c-word instead?

Standard

Those fol­low­ing the US Presidential flirt­ing may be inter­ested in Science Debate 2008 cam­paign. Janet Stemwedel has com­ments on why it isn’t a mat­ter of know­ing facts. Science mat­ters, but why does it mat­ter? Steve Grand had the answer back in 2004.

When I become king, my first act will be to ban the word “sci­ence” from all pub­lic places. No more will advert­ise­ments be allowed to say “here comes the sci­ence bit”, as a pre­lude to 15 seconds of mean­ing­less twaddle. No longer will inno­cent nerds on nat­ural yoghurt ads find them­selves lured into sop­or­ific con­form­ity by pretty young women with a fet­ish for the word “bac­teria”. Above all, show­ing thinly dis­guised dis­aster movies under the Horizon ban­ner, as if they were actu­ally sci­ence broad­cast­ing, will hence­forth become a crime pun­ish­able by death. No, make that slow mutilation.

[snip]

Perhaps we should replace the word “sci­ence” with “cit­izen­ship”. Anyone who doesn’t show a proper interest in the world around them is hardly tak­ing their role as a cit­izen of the uni­verse ser­i­ously. There’s a lot of stuff out there to mar­vel at, and for an intel­li­gent human being to remain ignor­ant of it is a deep insult to our own spe­cies, let alone the rest of nature. So let’s get on and mar­vel at it for heaven’s sake: we’re not here for long.

It’s worth read­ing the whole thing.