Saturday, June 23, 2012

"Science: It's a Girl Thing" Is Not a Good Thing

If you caught my last post, you saw the appalling 53 second video put out by the European Commission (on June 21), "Science: It's a Girl Thing", which was designed to attract girls to the field of science.  As some have described it, the video looks like a cross between a cosmetics commercial and Sex in the City.

Just as I was wondering why the EC would continue to allow the video to be seen on YouTube in the face of all the withering criticism zinging around the internet, the video was yanked the following day (June 22).  If you try to access the original link, you are informed that the video has been made "private".  I realized this when I forwarded my post to someone who later said they could not view the video.  When I checked, sure enough, it was no longer accessible.

Fortunately, some alert bloggers copied the video and reposted it.  I updated the link in the previous post so that it is still viewable in all its glory. We should all view it periodically to remind us that gender stereotypes are still alive and well and (especially) how we can avoid making similar blunders. 

Here is an interview with a female scientist about her reaction to the video:

Here are some more reactions from other bloggers and commenters:

Why Pinkifying Science Does More Harm Than Good, at Skepchick

“Science: It’s a Girl Thing”: Lab Barbie, Extra Lipstick" from Superbug

Scientific American's Joanne Manaster's thoughts

What actual female Anthropology students look like doing field work, at Wellesley University

This women in science video is so god awful, it hurts from io9

Perhaps the creators of the video should take a look at this site: This Is What A Scientist Looks Like

Friday, June 22, 2012

Hell Hath No Fury...

Another blogger spotted this video put out by the European Commission, called "Science: It's a Girl Thing!":

I noticed that it's been viewed 2,645 times and that 2,572 people disliked it (only 66 liked it) (as of today at 1:30 pm); . The comments by both male and female viewers, scientists and non-scientists are worth reading: they find the video appalling and find very creative ways of expressing their disgust. A couple wanted to flag it as "inappropriate".

The reaction to it by real women in science (me, at least) is captured in an "Unofficial Response to the Official Teaser "Science: It's A Girl Thing!"":

Sunday, June 17, 2012

What Jurassic Park Can Teach Us about Giving Presentations

You remember this scene from the movie Jurassic Park.  Paleontologist, Dr. Allan Grant, tells young Lex Murphy not to move because T. rex cannot see you if you remain motionless.  No, this is not a continuation of how to protect yourself from con artists (see previous posts).  This scene occurred to me as I was pondering a Powerpoint presentation that I was preparing for an upcoming talk.

Let me explain.  I was attending a conference a couple of weeks ago, and someone remarked to me how they were impressed with how I used animation in my presentations to introduce elements in a complex slide one at a time instead of showing a complicated diagram or graph all at once.  I nodded, satisfied that someone had noticed how I strive to help the audience understand what I'm talking about and avoid bombarding them with too much information too fast.  Then, this person said, "I would do this in my presentations, but I just don't have time to learn how to do that animation stuff in Powerpoint."

I did not say this, but thought, "So you expect your audience to do all the work and also pay attention to what you are showing them?"

Humans evolved on the African savannah and survived by responding quickly to threats or opportunities for food....anything that moved captured their attention.  Early humans (and other predators) were sensitive to motion and mostly ignored objects that did not move such as trees or rocks.  Something flitting through the grass or hopping behind a tree caught their immediate attention.  You see where I'm going with this....

Modern humans have changed very little in their visual attentiveness to motion.  An audience at a scientific conference is not unlike a band of early humans scanning the horizon for that bit of movement that tells them something of interest is going on.  Granted, the changing of slides (or introduction of text line by line) does satisfy that motion-directed focus to some extent.  However, when we show a complicated graph or diagram in its entirety, the audience basically reacts as if they were faced with a complex landscape in which nothing is moving.  Their instinct is to feel that there's nothing of interest on the screen.

You need to show them that there is something of interest and where to look for it.  Introduce the slightest motion or contrast: an arrow zooming in on a datapoint, a number suddenly highlighted in a contrasting color, or a key value increasing in size to fill the screen, and you instantly have the audience's attention.  Their eyes focus like lasers on that point.  If those objects move (appear/disappear, wipe in/out, move across the screen), then it's almost impossible for your audience to avoid paying attention to it.  Not only that, but you have guided their attention to the bit of information that you wish them to understand and remember.  If it moved, they will remember it.

If you really want to get people's attention and have them remember your point, illustrate it with a photograph that is introduced by animation.  Think about how the audience perks up when you show a photo of your fieldsite or your laboratory setup after having sat through innumerable text and data slides.  I think some very basic instinct is triggered when we are shown a scene, especially a landscape or some other natural setting.  Suddenly, we are back on the African savannah.  Our eyes scan the image looking for something of interest:  a predator or a prey, an enemy or a potential mate (subconsciously, of course).  Your audience will remember those photos longer than your data slides.  When I give my summary or list of conclusions at the end of my talk, I don't just provide a bulleted list of items.  With each item, I attach a photo or diagram from earlier in the talk to drive home a visual image that links back to a key piece of information I discussed.  Sometimes, I only show the image without text.  I always animate these lists so that the items are introduced one by one.

Yes, you can carry the animation thing too far.  Powerpoint provides a tempting array of entrance and exit motions that you can apply to your objects.  Don't be tempted.  Stick with the simplest: appear/disappear, dissolve in/out, wipe.  Once in a while, you might use a zoom or spiral motion, especially if it makes sense to the object you are introducing.  Don't animate just to be animating something.  There must be a reason to add motion to your slides.

Going back to my conversation with my colleague....I find that the most effective use of animation is to explain complex concepts or illustrate conceptual models.  Typically, I am trying to show the complex interrelationships among the components of an ecosystem.  I start with a photo of the ecosystem and overlay a diagram in which components and arrows are grouped; then each component can be introduced in sequence so that the audience is guided along a logical path to eventually see the whole system.  Most presenters simply show the diagram in its full complexity and then proceed to explain it (usually badly).  The audience is turned off long before the presenter gets to the point.

So, if you are faced with a T. rex at some point, then it makes sense to avoid making any movements and hope s/he ignores you.  On the other hand, if you are speaking to an audience and want them to pay attention to and remember your talk, you might want to imagine them as a band of early humans wandering the vast, ancient plains of Africa and looking for some signs of movement in the distance...

Photo Credit: Still image from Jurassic Park, Universal Picture and Amblin Entertainment

Saturday, June 16, 2012

How to Spot a Con Artist: Part 3

In the previous two posts, I described strategies or behaviors used by con artists and social manipulators to gain someone's confidence or to control other people. These are techniques described in greater detail by Gavin De Becker in his book, The Gift of Fear.  This is a book I frequently recommend to young women...not to make them overly fearful or suspicious, but to encourage them to trust their instincts when dealing with other people.

In this post, I finish up with the descriptions of these techniques (see previous two posts for the others).


In this strategy, the con artist labels a woman or other victim in a slightly critical way: snob, stuck-up, not a team player, lone wolf, etc.  The idea is that the victim will then be compelled to disprove this charge.  On the street, a stranger might use this method to get a woman to talk to him by accusing her of being a "snob" or something similarly negative.  (as I write this, I wonder how many men have ever had this particular experience?).  The defense in that situation is to simply walk away.  If someone at work does this, the solution may be a bit more complicated (see previous posts).

Loan Sharking

The Loan Shark does you a favor, not because he's a nice guy, but because he wants you in his debt.  Then, when he asks you for something later, you will find it more difficult to refuse. There are some kindly strangers out there who will offer their help; the problem is those people who are not so kindly.  Again, you can distinguish between the two by how they respond to refusal.  The social manipulator will react badly to your refusal to accept his "favor".

Promises, Promises

In this strategy, the con artist offers an unsolicited promise.  "If you listen to my ideas, I promise I'll leave you alone."  "If you'll let me into your office, I promise I'll be brief."  De Becker warns that you should be suspicious of any unsolicited promise, regardless of the context.  He says that a promise is not a guarantee of anything....but is instead a way to convince you of something.  A promise seems to be offering something, but in reality it is not.  The defense is to say to yourself that the promise is a warning sign and to carefully consider what you are being asked to do.  Perhaps it will cost you only time; but perhaps it will cost you more to ignore the warning signs in other situations.

Not Taking "No" for an Answer

Have you ever had this experience?  You tell someone that no, you do not need their help or advice or whatever, but they proceed to give it anyway?  Of all the signs one should pay attention to, this is the one that De Becker emphasizes.  He says that "no" is a "a word that must never be negotiated, because the person who chooses not to hear it is trying to control you".  Criminals apparently go through a "victim selection" process involving an "interview" in which they test the victim to see if they can be controlled.  One of those tests is to ignore the victim's protests to see how they react.  Again, I can think of coworkers who routinely ignore me (or try to) when I've said no to something they've suggested.  They may not be up to something criminal, but they are certainly trying to control me.

Well, those are a few ways to spot a con artist or social manipulator.  I hope you never run into someone like this, but some of you will at some point in your career. It may be a stranger on the street or someone at work.  It could be a coworker, a superior, or a subordinate who uses one or more of these techniques to control you.  By being aware, we can avoid being taken in by such strategies.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

How to Spot a Con Artist: Part 2

In the last post, I began describing some of the strategies that con artists and social manipulators use to control victims.  These behaviors are described in detail in Gavin De Becker's book, The Gift of Fear.  I read this book many years ago and have recommended it to women ever since.  In this post, I describe two more techniques used by social manipulators.

Charming Stranger

De Becker has little good to say about charm.  He believes that charm is "almost always a directed instrument, which, like rapport building, has motive.  To charm is to compel, to control by allure or attraction."  Charming people do not all necessarily have sinister motives, but because it is a strategy used by con artists and social manipulators, it is prudent to be aware of it.  De Becker particularly warns women to rebuff unwanted approaches. He specifically makes the point that women are expected to respond to any and all communications from men (and those who are not willing and compliant are viewed as being cold and uncooperative).  He's mostly talking about strangers, but it's worth considering in a work situation when someone is being overly insistent. 

Details, Details

Another trick that people use to try to deceive others is a simple technique, which De Becker describes as "too many details".  You've probably encountered this with students or others who were trying to convince you of something.  When someone is speaking the truth, they don't feel the need to elaborate, because they know what they've said is verifiable.  The liar, on the other hand, may sound credible to you, but not to himself.  Consequently, he keeps on talking, adding more and more details to his story.  I've experienced this a number of times with certain people.  If I just stare at them, without comment, their detailing gets more and more elaborate.  The situations De Becker describes involve women being accosted by male strangers who throw so many details and information at them, they become confused and overwhelmed.  Which is the intended outcome, of course.  The defense is to simply be aware of the situation and to ask yourself why this person is offering so much information.

In the next post, I will finish up with the list of strategies used by social manipulators.

Image: Ted Bundy,

Monday, June 11, 2012

How to Spot a Con Artist: Part 1

In the last post, I described a situation in which a postdoctoral scientist fabricated data, lied about his degree (didn't have one), jeopardized a major research project, and disappeared leaving the PI in a pickle.  Although this event actually happened in a lab where I once worked, it is not common. Nonetheless, it's worth examining because it reveals something about how vulnerable we are to people who are unscrupulous.

I suggested that this postdoc was a con artist.  He fooled everyone into thinking that he was trustworthy, hardworking, and qualified for the job he was hired to do.  How do you spot someone who is skilled at social manipulation?  It's not easy, as victims will probably attest.  According to Gavin De Becker, a security consultant and author of the book The Gift of Fear, con artists and social manipulators use similar tactics and therefore exhibit similar behavior in their interactions with others.

Forced Teaming

De Becker uses the David Mamet film House of Games (see previous post) to discuss how con artists work and, in particular, use a behavior known as "forced teaming".  Forced teaming is a strategy designed to establish a premature trust between strangers: being stuck in an elevator or waiting for a bus. The con artist uses this manipulation to create a sense of "togetherness", which is actually false because it is intentionally created by the manipulator.  In House of Games, one of the cons depicted involves forced teaming: two men waiting at a Western Union office for a money order.  The two commiserate over their respective predicaments involving money, and the con artist says to the other man, "Hey, if my money comes in first, I'll split it with you so you can buy your bus ticket in time; you can send the money to me later when you get your money.  I'm sure you'd do the same for me." Of course, the con artist has no money order coming in, so the other man's money is the only one to arrive; he insists on giving a portion to the con artist.  Note that the con artist, played by Joe Mantegna, is actually setting up his female companion, a psychologist played by Lindsay Crouse, for a bigger con by showing her some of his techniques.  Here's the scene from that film:

In a work situation, a social manipulator might use phrases such as "We're some team!" or "How are we going to handle this situation?" or "I see you are in the same boat as I am; we need to work together."  I can think of at least three people I have known in my career who used this manipulation to try to impose a relationship (with me) that I did not want.  Now, some instances in which someone voices such statements might be totally innocent.  Your gut will tell you whether they are being helpful or manipulative: if you feel uncomfortable and want to have nothing to do with them (but don't want to appear to be rude), be alert.  A key test is how that person reacts to a clear refusal to follow along with a fictitious shared experience or problem.  If you politely decline to play along and simply say that you are not in need of help or advice but the other person persists, even trying to make you feel guilty, then you are dealing with a manipulator.

Outside of work, I've encountered strangers (male) who tried "force-teaming" on me and then turned nasty when I politely declined their insistence that we are having a "shared experience".  Women are particularly vulnerable to this strategy because we hate to be accused of being rude.

In the next post, I will continue with the warning signs of social manipulators and con artists.