Adonis Diaries

Archive for April 12th, 2012

When “Pen is Mightier than the Pipette”

Raníadh Ní Bhesearaigh, recent Ph.D. graduate in neuroscience, posted this article on April 9, 2012:
“Why Writing can Make, Break, or Fake your Science? We scientists are just a tiny bit disdainful of what we call ‘the humanities’. We are, just a tiny bi, admit it! We know writing is important, but in the end it’s the science itself that’s going to change the world, right?
I only really started to think about the importance of writing recently, when I was given an editing test as part of a job application a couple of months ago. The test was a scientific paper that had sentences like this:  “The method is also laborious in pursuing the subject except in case when several fixed stations were set in closed waters.”
This paper had already been through a first edit: all the grammatical and spelling mistakes had been fixed, and now my job was to try to make sense of it. Don’t worry, it didn’t make sense to me either, and I assume it didn’t make much sense to the editors when they first received the paper for publication, or else they wouldn’t have made it into an editing test, the sole purpose of which, I assume, is the slow torture of job applicants. (Note: the experimental ‘subject’ is a fish which the authors were having trouble to catch to do the experiment on, for anyone who’s dying to know.)
The point is, no matter how good your science or science idea is, if you can’t write about it properly, you’re going to run into trouble. This puts scientists whose first language is not English at a serious disadvantage, and there are companies that have started making truckloads of money by capitalizing on this.
The most obvious point at which writing matters, is the publication. If you can’t write about it in a way that makes sense, it’s going to be difficult to get your science published, which is all that really matters. But good writing skills are crucial even before you pick up that pipette, when you’re trying to persuade those funding bodies to give you money to BUY that pipette. If you’ve got Mad Writing Skillz, you’re more likely to get a grant in the first place.
So writing lets you do the science and lets you get it published. But it becomes even more crucial, if possible, when you’re trying to explain to people outside of your geeky science circle what it is you’ve done with your pipette. Because it is here that it influences how people and companies use your science, how science policy is made, and arguably most importantly, how people think the world works.
One of the most famous cases to illustrate this is the big scare around 2001 about the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine being linked to autism. As is explained here quite nicely, the main problem was not the actual first paper published in 1998 (which later did turn out to be a bit dodgy), but the exaggerated coverage by the media.
There are countless of other examples where press releases reach the public before the science is properly peer-reviewed. And don’t even get me started on the careless way in which many scientific findings are misrepresented or exaggerated in the media today. Many good blogs already talk about this, like this one and this one.
Can you think of any other ways in which the pen is mightier than the pipette? According to this article on science blogging, I haven’t really been engaging my readers in debate so far. Mostly because I know my readers agree wholeheartedly with everything I write.
Note: Raníadh Ní Bhesearaigh  is fascinated by science, especially neuroscience, and love to write and talk about it. You wouldn’t know it going by this blog though. Raníadh is from Lebanon and did graduate studies in Dublin (Ireland)

Who is Ali Shabaan, photo journalist of the channel Al Jadid? Robert Fisk in The Independent

Robert Fisk wrote (with slight editing):

“The people in the town of Maifadoun (Lebanon) buried Ali Shabaan as a “martyr-reporter” yesterday. This time around, a Lebanese journalist is to die in action by the Syrian army. Ali Shabaan, unknown in the West, is loved in his little south Lebanon village, not least by the girl to whom he was to have become officially engaged this Saturday.

Fatima Atwi clung to the railings of the balcony over the road from the beautiful village cemetery – all ficus trees and firs – crying tears that splashed on her yellow-and-black blouse. She wore a black veil and was inconsolable. All Shabaan’s three sisters could do was embrace her.

Shabaan – I met him once, briefly, in 2006, during the Israeli-Hezbollah war – had worked this past weekend on the Lebanese-Syrian border so that he could have next weekend off for his engagement ceremony.

Shot in the heart. By the Syrians. Forty bullets hit the cameraman’s car and that of his fellow crew at Wadi Khaled. (The latest news is that the car was the target of over 70 bullets). A quick death, I suppose. A quick funeral according to Muslim tradition. The mourners said the fatiha (opening) prayer to the soul of Shabaan and placed his body in the dark earth of the little cemetery.

Every journalist who dies in violence in Lebanon is called a martyr. (The latest count is that 8 journalists died in action since 1992. Not a bad description of all of those who die trying to report the truth, that subtle narrative that must name the guilty party. However, Al-Manar, the television station of the Hezbollah, did not speak of Shabaan as a “martyr” but as a “victim” of a battle between Syrian troops and “terrorists”.

(Hezbollah, “Party of God” of the Shia sect in Lebanon, is demanding a political resolution of the uprising in Syria and will oppose any foreign military intervention in the Near East)

As one of Shabaan’s employers said yesterday, he was wiped off the news agenda of Hezbollah as a victim of “crossfire”, the old explanation of Palestinian deaths at the hands of the Israelis.  The employer said: “But for God’s sake, this wasn’t an Israeli television station – this was a Hezbollah station!”

In the Husseinia mosque, a portrait of Imam Moussa Sadr, the Lebanese imam murdered by Muammar Gadaffi’s killers in Libya, more than three decades ago, was larger than that of Iranian Messers Khomeini and Khamanei. There was a guard of honour from the Lebanese internal security police and a strong clutch of local Shia imams and two representatives of the Hezbollah and a larger clutch of Lebanese journalists who believed that this was the result of  “a planned murder, Don Corleone-style”. According to them, and to New TV (NTV) officials, Shabaan’s killing was “a message”.

But what was this message? Tahsin Khayat, owner of AlJjadid, and his son Karim are overwhelmed. Shabaan’s dad is Tahsin Khayat’s driver. His sisters were cared for by Karim Khayat’s sister and his brother-in-law. In Lebanon, companies really are families. The Khayat family’s television station has always carried a Syrian “point of view” – they were even allowed into the Syrian city of Deraa at the beginning of the Syrian revolution and their senior cameraman in Deraa was Shabaan.

The Khayat family, all Shia, are demanding a “full investigation” – whatever that means – and they have received the support of the Lebanese President Michel Sleiman.

But why did Shabaan die? He and his crew had passed the Lebanese customs at Wadi Khaled in northern Lebanon on Monday to film the border and shouted across to the Syrian immigration officers that they were filing for New TV on the Lebanese side of the frontier.

The story from his colleagues yesterday was straightforward: after they had identified themselves, the crew began filming and were then told to stop by uniformed Syrian troops. These soldiers reportedly shouted: “Go back.” The crew was reversing its car when a fusillade of bullets crashed into it and Shabaan was hit by the first round.

NTV’s staff is adamant that at no point did they enter Syrian territory. Thanks to the old post-war 1914-18 French mandate, the border was not delineated as carefully as it might have been – but that’s no reason to kill journalists.

There was a range of feeling in Maifadoun yesterday. “We are with the Hezbollah when they fight Israel,” one villager said, “but we are not with the Syrians when they kill their people.”

Ahmed Shabaan watched the body of his only son placed in the earth. Muslims out here have no coffins. And oh yes, Syria sent its official condolences.




April 2012

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