How to Identify a Labor Shortage (Hint: It’s Probably Bullshit)

A little while ago, I saw a news story about the major pilot shortage now facing the airline industry. No, it wasn’t a tasteless (and premature) MH370 joke. It was a serious argument advanced by straight-faced industry representatives at a Congressional hearing. According to these experts, a wave of pilots recruited decades ago is now retiring, and airline routes are simultaneously expanding, making it impossible to fill all the cockpits. The punchline, which you probably see coming, is that they want Congress to relax some “burdensome” regulations to make it easier for the industry to hire more pilots.

It’s total bullshit. In fact, there are tens of thousands of fully qualified pilots who aren’t currently working for the airlines. The labor pool is huge. Considering that “airline pilot” is about the most glamorous job this side of “movie star,” why aren’t these folks jumping at the chance to strut through the terminal in leather jackets? You probably see this coming, too: the pay and working conditions at airlines these days suck. There’s no shortage of pilots. There’s a shortage of pilots willing to work for cheap. This is Economics 101: raise the pay and improve the working conditions and the “shortage” will evaporate.

I was reminded of that story when I saw Michael Teitelbaum’s thorough and well-written exploration of the “shortage” of scientists and engineers. You’ve definitely heard the official line, espoused by everyone from the President down, that America is facing a crisis in scientific leadership. With a generation of Sputnik-era researchers retiring, we must start training replacements and developing new government initiatives to keep our airline transportation system scientific research enterprise running. See where this is headed?

As Teitelbaum points out, it’s hard to square this account with the reality of scientific employment trends. He’s not the first to notice the discrepancy, either. Beryl Benderly penned a nice summary and history of the same argument two years ago for the Columbia Journalism Review, and within the research community the sorry state of the job market has been a running joke for over a decade.

The scientist and pilot “shortages” share the same dissonance between employers’ claims and employees’ reality, but they have different causes . We have plenty of scientists willing to work under labor conditions that would make a Foxconn executive drool. They’re called postdocs. You can’t swing a dead cat in a research lab without knocking over a dozen of them, all of whom are qualified to run their own labs. The problem is that there’s nowhere near enough money flowing into science to employ that many researchers. We lack science, not scientists

It’s as if the airlines decided to have only a single flight each day from New York to Chicago, and then claimed that they needed more pilots to improve the service. There would indeed be a shortage of flights on that route, but throwing more pilots at the problem wouldn’t fix it. We’d need more planes.

Unfortunately, the “labor shortage” story never seems to outlive its welcome. Over the years we’ve heard about a lack of nurses, doctors, teachers, and even lawyers. All of these scarcities have been completely fictional. As a public service, I now offer this simple guide for reporters who are about to write another “shortage of x” story:

1. Ask who’s promoting the story. If an industry, sector, or employer is the main source, then you should presume that the labor shortage is false until clearly proven otherwise. It’s overwhelmingly more likely that the industry or employer just isn’t willing to pay market wages for the workforce they want. According to Economics 101, any job can be filled if you set the price high enough. This question would have immediately spiked the pilot, nurse, engineer, and doctor shortage stories, for example.

2. If you’ve established with certainty that there really are highly desirable jobs in the labor-starved industry, ask how many of those positions have gone unfilled in the past year solely because of a lack of qualified applicants. This spikes the scientist story and probably the lawyer one.

3. If the source answers (2) by saying “well, the positions are filling now, but we’re about to have a huge wave of retirements that will lead to a massive crisis,” tell them to call you back when that happens. Don’t expect to hear from them again.

4. In the event your story survives steps 1-3, and you’ve confirmed that awesome jobs with great pay and benefits are begging for workers, apply immediately. It’ll beat the hell out of what you’re doing now.

Public Outreach: Results and Discussion

Three videos and a month after I threw down a gauntlet, in front of my fellow science bloggers, let’s look at how it went.

The first video is the most watched. It’s approaching 300 views, which is about 299 more than I expected it to get but still pretty close to obscurity. Based on the data YouTube provides in my account dashboard, most of the viewers seem to have reached it through this blog, my Twitter feed, or TWiV. The other two videos have over 100 views each, mostly coming from the same referrers. Lots of people have told me they like these videos. All of those people either live here inside the science ghetto or visit it regularly.

Studio setup.

Production shot from Turbid Plaque Studios.

I’ve failed to reach the audience I was aiming for, at least so far. That doesn’t surprise or upset me. Internet media success is a lottery system, where a few entries win big and most lose. Internet success or failure is not a measure of value, utility, or technical quality. If you’ve paid any attention to the sorts of things that “go viral” online, you understand that.

As I said in the original post, my other goal was to spur others to try to explain science to a broader audience as well. That challenge still stands. You don’t have to copy what I did. The only rules are that you should try to explain how science works, and do it at a level that’s understandable by people who don’t read science blogs or follow science news. A comic strip, a catchy song, or even a poem might work.

Consider this: if you ask an American of my generation to describe our legislative process, there’s a good chance we’ll sing you a song. Ask a typical American how science works, though, and odds are you’ll get a fumbling ramble that tapers off into an excuse. But the fundamental process of science is more important and actually easier to understand than the workings of Congress.

Sure, specific scientific findings can get ridiculously complex, but that’s not what people really need to appreciate. I couldn’t care less whether the average person can explain how Sanger DNA sequencing works, but being able to articulate what’s special about science and how to evaluate factual claims is a basic life skill. Our educational institutions have apparently failed to teach it adequately, so let’s pick up the slack.

Even if the online media system is a lottery, tickets are cheap and someone will eventually win. As my videos illustrate, you don’t need fancy equipment, a big payroll, or even any special talent to play this game. If you have any of those things you should certainly deploy them, but they’re not required. All you really need is a bit of persistence and the ability to suppress your fear of failure. Any science blogger is automatically qualified.

If you pick video as your medium, put a little effort into learning how to shoot it. I’m no expert, but given the feedback I’ve gotten I gather my videos aren’t completely awful, so here’s my advice for other aspiring science filmmakers.

Start by reading this book. It teaches exactly what the title says, quickly and effectively.

Next, write a script. If it’s longer than 1,000 words, trim it or plan to break it into parts. You’ll want to speak at 100-150 words per minute, perhaps with brief gusts to 200, and any video over 10 minutes (1,000 words at 100 wpm) is pretty much doomed online. Edit the script. Edit the script again. Obsess over the script. Don’t worry too much about how you’re going to illustrate the concepts at this point, just try to explain them as succinctly as possible. Imagine someone will be listening to the audio by itself, and focus on making the narration the best it can be.

Now plan the shots. The simplest shooting plan is to memorize the script or use a teleprompter, and speak directly into the camera in a single take. That’s been the standard format for the evening news for half a century, and you probably have all of the necessary equipment already. The most important thing about a monologue video is to establish a connection with the audience. Look at the lens, not your notes, and dress like someone you’d want to talk to at a party. And please, please pay attention to the lighting. A cheap hardware store clip-on reflector lamp with a high-wattage “warm white” CFL bulb, mounted about 45 degrees above and to one side of your face, will improve your image quality enormously. If the direct light seems too harsh, try aiming the lamp at a white ceiling or wall to bounce it in a more diffuse pattern. If you use a visual aid or a whiteboard, be sure it’s easy to see and properly focused.

My strategy was obviously a bit different, but it still wasn’t very complicated. My total expenditure for the three videos was less than $100. I already had the tripod, webcam and laptop, so I just picked up iStopMotion, a reasonably priced and very capable animation program. The “infinity” background is a roll of sketch paper taped to the wall, the lighting is a pair of clip-ons I found kicking around the back of the basement, and most of the cast and props arrived in a Lego minifigure package. Additional players appeared courtesy of my daughter.

Whatever approach you use, learn from my error and have someone you trust take a look at your work before you put it online. That’s especially important if you’re working in a medium other than your usual one; I’m now keenly aware that what works fine in writing may set the wrong tone in a video.

So there go all of your excuses. Use what you have and give it your best shot. When you’re done – whatever medium you’ve used – please drop me a line through this site or on Twitter, and I’ll do what I can to help promote your work. The hashtag for this little challenge is #thinklikeascientist.

Sorry About That

Yes, I deleted the video that appeared in the previous post. Sorry about that. After re-watching the final version and getting some objective feedback, I realized that it missed the mark. I tried to cram too much into too little time, and didn’t quite hit the right tone for the target audience.

If you enjoyed it anyway, thanks, but as I explained initially I’m not really aiming these videos at regular readers of this blog. This is my attempt to reach the rest of the crowd – the folks who don’t understand why science is different from other ways of knowing things, or how it really works. I want to reach people whose last contact with “science” was a pile of seemingly unconnected facts they had to memorize for a standardized test in high school. I’m not optimistic about my chances, but I do intend to give it my best shot.

So stay tuned. We’ll be right back.

Public Outreach, For Real

The next post or three will be a bit different, and I feel I need to warn those who’ve started following this blog based on its earlier content.

I won’t be writing about a scary disease or weird stuff in food products. The next post will not discuss career planning for scientists or attempt to explain public health catastrophes. Nor will I be diving into the science wonk community’s controversy du jour, whatever it might be, or providing a backstage tour of science in the making. Those sorts of stories are all fascinating for serious science fans, and modern science journalism wouldn’t exist without them, but at least for a short while I’m going to take this blog someplace else entirely: public outreach.

Yes, yes, every science blogger claims to be doing “outreach,” but deep down we know that’s bullshit. We blog because we want to find others who care about the same things we care about, and because we want attention. There’s nothing wrong with those motives. Fitting into a community and getting attention are fundamental human drives, and the basis of much of the global economy. But while pursuing those goals, most science journalists and bloggers – and I certainly include myself here – have withdrawn into the science ghetto.

It’s a lovely neighborhood, really. There are smart, inquisitive people roaming the streets at all hours, and they’re fascinated by the nuances of the latest discoveries. We chat intelligently on Twitter and agree on many important issues. There are paid full-time jobs like mine that operate entirely inside the ghetto. Meanwhile, we congratulate ourselves on our “outreach” efforts, which we feel are helping the benighted masses understand the importance of rational thinking. Unfortunately, that’s all speculation, and there’s a lot of evidence that we’re nowhere near as effective as we want to believe.

Think about it. There are hundreds of good science bloggers and journalists filing stories in multiple languages, across multiple media, constantly. Most of the world’s population is within a finger-tap of this trove of expository content, much of it excellent. Yet a talk show host feels comfortable giving anti-vaccination zealots a multi-million viewer stage, the public’s perception of one of the greatest threats facing society literally fluctuates with the weather, and a TV network supposedly dedicated to science programming has no qualms claming that mermaids exist.

If this is what the collective outreach effort of the entire science journalism and blogging community can accomplish, then we suck at it.

It’s comforting to hear that a podcast or article of mine reached tens of thousands, until I realize that hundreds of millions still believe in ghosts. My work – and probably yours, if you’re in this business – is only reaching out as far as the next cluster of science wonks. It doesn’t matter how diverse or seemingly influential those wonks are, they’re a tiny minority of the general population. We’re doing an excellent job reaching the people who already think like scientists. The problem is that most people don’t.

I’m pretty sure I can’t fix this, but I have to try. It would be great if you gave it a shot, too. What I have in mind is a simple explanation of how to think like a scientist, and why that’s the best way to approach all questions of fact. It’s not about specific data, experimental techniques, or the latest results, just a straightforward explanation of how science works. That’s it.

Of course everyone got exactly such an explanation in the third grade, but you can see how well that stuck, right? There’s clearly room for repeating these concepts in as many ways and forms as possible. We don’t have to take the same approach; in fact it’s probably best if we don’t. Don’t talk out of a textbook or get bogged down in the details. Create your own explanation based on your own understanding. The key is to condense the essence of scientific thinking into a short, simple presentation for the general public. I mean the real general public, out there beyond the ghetto walls.

My first attempt at this will be in the next post. I hope that when you see it, you’ll decide you can do better.

Where Does Bad Science Writing Come From?

A discussion on Twitter yesterday dredged up the common theme of “journalists screw up science stories,” and when I weighed in it became clear that a lot of folks – including some science journalists – seem to have some strange ideas about how the news business operates these days. It started with a post by science blogger Drug Monkey. Don’t let his pseudonym fool you, he’s a sharp scientist who often has excellent insights.

In this case, he was complaining about the coverage of a psychology study on “male gaze,” which outlets such as USA Today and Jezebel reported as showing that men stare at women’s bodies more than their faces. It was a fine piece of link bait, except that the actual paper shows exactly the opposite. Read Drug Monkey’s post for the details, but be sure you catch his updates at the bottom, in which he finally realizes that the authors of the study probably deserve more than a little bit of blame for this miscommunication; USA Today simply parroted their press release, and Jezebel parroted USA Today.

This telephone-game reporting led to the following:

Standard media-bashing stuff that we hear all the time. When I pointed out that he was tarring with a pretty broad brush, though, he expanded on the argument:

There’s the rub. Scientists universally proclaim that the job of science journalists is to evaluate the data and explain the results to the public. To do that, the journalists must read the papers they’re covering, think about the data, and talk to the scientists who did the work. Numerous science journalists chimed in on the Twitter thread to endorse that view. However, this presumes that journalism, like science, is aiming for Truth. That’s a lovely idea, but it misses reality by a wide margin.

First, let’s look at the big picture. Science journalism is an itty bitty, teeny tiny piece of the profession of journalism. It’s not even in the main stream of the business, as Dan Vergano (former senior science writer at USA Today) eloquently explains in this interview. Dan describes science writing as a “ghetto” within journalism, and he has a pretty good point. If you’re at a big paper or national TV news network, specializing in science is a good way to avoid ever getting promoted to a top editorial or production post. No, regular front page stories and major promotions are for the investigative journalists, the foreign correspondents, and the veteran political reporters. Science rides in the back.

There’s some logic to that. Ideally, journalism should inform the public about the things they really need to know to be responsible citizens. Most of those things are not science. How’s the Obamacare rollout really going? Are my taxes being spent responsibly? What’s the deal with Syria? Those are the sorts of topics behind most of the hot, important stories. They are the mainstay of news, and the whole business’s workflow is built around covering them in the best way possible. So, Dr. Scientist, how do we present the Truth about subjects like healthcare reform, taxes, and the Middle East, sticking solely to the facts and avoiding that false balance you hate so much?

Sorry, trick question. There is seldom any single, definitive Truth about those types of subjects, and trying to present it as such will make you look like a shill, sound like an idiot, get a fatwa placed on your head, or possibly all three. The best – or perhaps just the least bad – solution is to try to present as many sides of the issue as you can figure out before your deadline, and let the reader or viewer decide.

Of course that approach often fails when it comes to science, because science is different. Science can actually find Truth.* Back when major newsrooms had dedicated science journalists on staff, those folks became accustomed to the specialty’s distinct requirements. They would try to read the research paper, call the scientist who did the work, discuss the data, and then call some other scientists for independent perspectives. Because the science stories were considered “fluff” by the hard-boiled reporters who ran the place, the deadlines were usually loose enough that there was time to do it right. There was also more than enough cash in the coffers to keep paying a living wage to all those full-time science writers, even though their department was a chronic money-loser.

Those days are gone.

At least at mainstream outlets, the “science reporter” is often whatever poor schmuck happened to be walking past an editor’s desk when a press release arrived.  Having just finished a piece about the government shutdown, the Red Sox, or some bit of celebrity misconduct, this soon-to-be-laid-off person is now looking at a blank word processor page and a deadline of “why aren’t you done yet?”

I’m not making excuses for what often happens next. Anyone who’s read my previous posts knows I’m no defender of bad science reporting. However, I do have some sympathy for the people who produce it, and try to leave my entitlement and hubris at the door. And when the scientists themselves are deliberately misleading the reporters, as happened in this case, I think it’s asking a lot to expect mainstream news outlets that you’re reading for free to get the story right.

That doesn’t mean good science reporting is gone. In fact it’s easier to find than ever. Science bloggers at general news sites and special interest publications post torrents of great work, and some forward-thinking scientific organizations now produce high quality multimedia stories for their members as well. The only problem with this arrangement is that the audience for these sites is a self-selecting minority. That’s probably okay when we’re talking about duck penises and dinosaur feathers, but there are some scientific topics that the general public desperately needs to understand. If journalism is to fulfill its primary mission of informing a responsible citizenry, we need a better way.

* Or at least some trans-subjective truths.

Scientists Find Link Bait As Addictive as Oreos

Which would you rather eat right now: a rice cake or an Oreo cookie? Be honest.

You picked the Oreo, didn’t you? Me too. On the one hand, there’s a chocolaty, sweet, fatty treat that lights up all those taste buds. On the other hand, there’s a substance with all the culinary appeal of Styrofoam. That’s why Oreos are a multi-billion-dollar global brand, while rice cakes are gathering dust in the back of the supermarket next to the other “diet” foods.

Oreos

Oreos. Image courtesy Rob Boudon/Flickr.

Rats agree. At least that’s the basis of a small, poorly designed study by undergraduates at Connecticut College. When they served the two food products in different parts of a simple maze, the rats later preferred to return to the part of the maze where they’d gotten Oreos, not where they’d gotten rice cakes. For comparison, the scientists repeated the experiment with rats who received morphine or cocaine injections in one part of a maze, or a saline control solution (I assume) in another part. The rats’ bias for Oreo-land was reportedly as strong as their preference for the drug alley. For reasons I don’t fully understand, the researchers then measured levels of the oncogene c-Fos in the rats’ brains (presumably after killing them), and reportedly saw that c-Fos expression was higher in pleasure centers after Oreo feeding than after cocaine. From that, they conclude that Oreos are as addictive as hard drugs. Or something like that.

The reason I have to guess what controls these investigators used and exactly how they did the experiments is that I can’t read their Materials and Methods. Or their Results. Or any other part of their peer-reviewed paper. There isn’t one. In fact, the only primary source we have for this research is the press release I linked to above. Are you sensing a problem yet?

It gets worse. News outlets worldwide have picked up this story and run with it (no links, just Google “Oreo cocaine” if you didn’t already see this item, and you’ll be inundated). Now everyone everywhere has seen an authoritative headline saying that Oreos are as addictive as cocaine, even though there is, at most, only a flimsy shred of evidence that even suggests such a thing, and it’s presented exclusively in a press release.

Yes, this sort of nonsense is depressingly common in science news today. I even satirized it awhile back, in a post that a lot of people liked but nobody in the news industry really took to heart. The sad truth is that a story that simplifies a complex issue into a sound bite while confirming a widespread but largely unsupported belief is always a huge hit. Criticize it as much as you like, it will still keep selling.

After all, which would you rather read right now: a simple story that affirms the addictive qualities of delicious junk foods, or, for example, a mutational analysis of different types of cancer? The Oreos or the rice cakes?

Sure, this diet of informational junk food is a cheap, easy, shallow experience that leaves us with an empty and slightly guilty feeling afterward, but the short-term hit is great. You just knew junk food was addictive, didn’t you? Aren’t you smart? And you know what? It means you don’t have to feel so guilty about that overprocessed crap you love to eat – you’re powerless against your addiction, after all. Or, if you shop exclusively at Whole Foods and only eat organic, you can quietly feel superior to all those poor junkies who frequent lesser markets. They just can’t help themselves. Whatever your bias – and you do have one on this subject – this story validates it. It’s pure link-bait gold.

The fault, dear reader, is not in our media, but in ourselves, that we’re so gullible.

The only way out of this cycle of silliness is, unfortunately, really hard: think. The next time you see a headline that confirms something you’ve long suspected, look away. Pause for a moment and ask yourself whether you currently have any good, solid, empirical evidence for your belief. Recall that “empirical evidence” is not “my cousin’s wife’s best friend once said…” We’re talking about real data collected systematically and analyzed in an unbiased manner. Do you have it?

Regardless of the answer to that question, try arguing the other side. You think junk food is as addictive as opiates? No, it’s not. Try to come up with reasons why it can’t be: lots of people stop eating it, you’ve never heard of someone hospitalized for Doritos withdrawal, actors never check into rehab to kick a Twinkies habit. In the unlikely event you actually do have data on the subject, think of reasons those data could be skewed: small sample size, effect only seen in animals, study never reproduced, that sort of thing. Finally, go back to the headline and see if you can find the original paper behind it. If there isn’t one, or you can’t access it, or you just don’t have the time, simply drop the subject and move on – but leave the argument in your head unresolved. You should be left with the feeling that this issue is currently beyond your understanding, and if you want to change that you’ll have to set aside some time to look into it. Even if you find the time to do that investigation, the science may simply be inadequate; the unknown will always dwarf the known.

Perhaps that sounds unsatisfying, but in fact we deal with it every day. I don’t know whether plastic or metal water bottles are safer, whether it’s good or bad to have a beer in the evening, or whether my home-cooked meals are killing my family, just to pick a few examples off the top of my head. Now I can also toss a bag of Oreos into the “to be determined” basket. They’ll help tide me over while I’m reading about those other subjects.