Preferring inductive over deductive reasoning makes science communication more effective

Outside their speciality, scientists need inductive communication from their colleagues

Scientists are, all too often, notoriously bad communicators. Why is this? These are intelligent and thoughtful people, who consider carefully and think deeply about what they do. I fear the problem lies with the rest of us, non-scientists, who quite simply don’t do that. Either because we don’t have the time. Or we don’t have the capability. Or because our thinking processes are aligned with very different, much more urgent matters. Stopping and listening to people who stop and think is not so easy. We think in other ways.

There is a name for these things: deductive versus inductive reasoning. And understanding how they work is essential for communicating scientific ideas to the wider public, and even to scientists in other disciplines.

Deductive reasoning was codified by the great French philosopher, Descartes. The important thing to know about that is that to do it he locked himself in a small room, for a long time. He did away with all that others had told him, and deduced the nature of the world from the facts that he could observe, building his view of the world one fact at a time into a concrete, objective vision. This was an enormously powerful philosophical tool. It shunted alchemy and its bizarre search for essences and replaced it with science.

Science and deductive reasoning took off like a rocket. And within a few years, another French scientist, Lavoisier, was demonstrating that diamonds could be burnt, with enough heat, and that criminals could be painlessly executed. Deductive reasoning is a slow, painstaking, careful process.

Scientists are concerned with exactness and precision because the world works in an exact and relentlessly precise way. Their communications are no different, but the rest of us don’t have the time to lock ourselves in small rooms to appreciate this all fully.

The rest of us, non-scientists, use shortcuts. We don’t have the time or the energy to dedicate to building each problem from the ground up or to observe all the relevant facts. So, we use a mess of inherited, inconsistent and simplified methods – learnt as children, from bitter experience or just made up – to muddle through. This is called inductive reasoning.

Inductive reasoning gives you an answer, but not the answer. An answer is weak or strong, not wrong or right. The point is that an answer is useful.

I’ve only seen white swans, so all swans are white is a useful conclusion. It isn’t correct, some swans are black, but it will do you 90% of the time. It’s a bit sloppy, after all, did you ask yourself whether you’ve seen enough swans to reach such a conclusion? You didn’t, but you still have a useful answer.

This is different for scientists. When a scientist writes or speaks about their subject, they must give exactly the right answer, painstakingly deduced. Their self-esteem, professional standing, and even their consciences demand it. They use specific terminology not to obscure what they are saying but rather to be more precise.

However, in general communication with the lay public or even between scientists in different fields, that terminology doesn’t help matters… The layperson doesn’t need to know that a scientist’s answer is good in only 96% of cases and not in the other 4% where
complications set in. For the layperson, in most cases, 96% will do.

A scientist once said to me, ‘[X] statement, while generally true, is wrong in nearly every particular’. For the layperson, generally true is good enough – the core of the idea, the simple takeaway is enough. This is also true of scientists operating outside their speciality.

It’s not often appreciated that Newton, author of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, the deductive treatise which explained the orbits of the planets, was also a prolific alchemist, steeped in its inductive reasoning.

Outside their speciality, other scientists need inductive communication from their colleagues.

After all, how much time do you have to look at swans?

Jonathan Mills, CFO, SciencePOD


Photo credit: Unsplash user Kasturi Laxmi Mohit

Podcast, Ivan Oransky, RetractionWatch: Retractions are like red flags highlighting infractions in science

Photo credit: SciencePOD.


Keeping a record of the retraction of research publications made it easier for journalistic coverage dissecting the infractions occurring within science publishing. “What I see that’s important, is not just coverage of individual cases, people are actually trying to put this all together. They’re filing public record requests because that’s something we’re not thinking of.” That’s according to RetractionWatch, co-founder, Ivan Oransky,  who started this initiative as a blog in 2010 with a single purpose in mind: making the peer-review process more transparent.

Listen to the edited version of the recording by of a recent presentation Oransky made at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. This event, held on 20th June 2018, was co-organised by the Irish Science & Technology Journalists’ Association and the Science Gallery Dublin.

Oransky recalls the motivation that originally animated him and co-founder Adam Marcus in highlighting the mishaps of the peer-review process within academic communities. “Those of you who may be familiar with PubMed, Medline or Web of Science, you go to any of those you’ll find under 6,000 (retractions)… we [at Retraction Watch] have 3 times as many,” notes Oransky. Today, the site holds 17,500 retractions –and it is still growing. While retractions are rare, Oransky believes there is a screening effect attached to them.

For a sense of scale, the two countries in the world with the most retractions are China and the US. To provide an in-depth look at this, Oransky and his team compiled a leaderboard. Each of these instances are linked with a comprehensive story following the original publication.

Many varieties of malpractice

Oranksy highlights a few of the problems surrounding retractions found in the peer-review community. At the time of this recording, RetractionWatch had cataloged, 630 retractions specifically due to e-mail fraud by submitting a fake peer-reviewer’s e-mail. How does this work? An academic submits a paper to a journal for submission. When the journal comes back to ask for an e-mail to reference for peer-review, rather than submitting a genuine e-mail, the academic offers a fake e-mail, which then closes the loop between him or herself and the journal. Thus, eliminating the need for a peer-review. Back in 2000, only about 5% of papers were retracted, due to e-mail fraud.

Another area of malpractice occurs through duplication of results in different journals, not to be confused with plagiarism. Duplication is giving undue weight to a scientific conversation within the literature. This means when you try to conduct a scientific analysis on a topic, you’re looking at publications publishing the same thing multiple times without adding value to the topic.

All knowledge is provisional

To assume a paper should be retracted because the results aren’t reproducible is odd; but, it does occur. This shows that there is no perfect system for scholarly publishing. And that keeping a tap on retractions can help to uncover unsavoury behaviour among scientists.

Ultimately, this red flag activity leads to stronger science, as researchers are aware of the potential downsides of naming and shaming authors of retracted papers.

Enjoy the podcast!


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Champagne Owes Its Taste To The Finely Tuned Quality Of Its Bubbles

Based on this summary, this story was picked up by the New York Times as A Universe of Bubbles in Every Champagne Bottle.

What provides the wonderful aromas is a long neuro-physico-chemical process that results in bubbles fizzing at the surface of champagne

Ever wondered how the fate of champagne bubbles from their birth to their death with a pop enhances our perception of aromas? These concerns, which are relevant to champagne producers, are the focus of a special issue of EPJ Special Topics, due to be published in early January 2017—celebrating the 10th anniversary of the publication. Thanks to scientists, champagne producers are now aware of the many neuro-physico-chemical mechanisms responsible for aroma release and flavour perception. The taste results from the complex interplay between the level of CO2 and the agents responsible for the aroma–known as volatile organic compounds–dispersed in champagne bubbles, as well as temperature, glass shape, and bubbling rate.

In the first part of the Special Topic issue, Gérard Liger-Belair from CNRS in Reims, France, has created a model to describe, in minute detail, the journey of the gas contained in each bubble. It starts from the yeast-based fermentation process in grapes, which creates CO2, and goes all the way to the nucleation and rise of gaseous CO2 bubbles in the champagne flute. It also includes how the CO2 within the sealed bottle is kept in a form of finely tuned equilibrium and then goes into the fascinating cork-popping process.

The second part of this Special Issue is a tutorial review demystifying the process behind the collapse of bubbles. It is mainly based on recent investigations conducted by a team of fluid physicists from Pierre and Marie Curie University, in Paris, France, led by Thomas Séon. When a champagne bubble reaches an air-liquid interface, it bursts, projecting a multitude of tiny droplets into the air, creating an aerosol containing a concentration of wine aromas.


G. Liger-Belair and T. Séon (2017), Bubble Dynamics in Champagne and Sparkling Wines: Recent Advances and Future ProspectsEuropean Physical Journal ST, 226/1, DOI 10.1140/epjst/e2017-02677-8

G. Liger-Belair (2017), Effervescence in champagne and sparkling wines: From grape harvest to bubble rise, European Physical Journal ST

T. Séon and G. Liger-Belair (2017), Effervescence in champagne and sparkling wines: From bubble bursting to droplet evaporation, European Physical Journal ST


Caption: Flower-shaped structure, frozen through high-speed photography, found during the collapse of bubbles at the surface of a champagne flute.

Photo credit: Gérard Liger-Belair



Originally published in EPJ via SciencePOD

Based on this summary, this story was picked up by the New York Times as A Universe of Bubbles in Every Champagne Bottle.

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One of the most recent examples of an infographic created by SciencePOD for The content focuses on the reduction of viral load in the presence of whole blood by a new antimicrobial disinfectant.

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Digital media changes how we talk

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A new linguistic study analyzes how technology transforms our communication. The current change is unique in its speed—and may have far-reaching cultural and educational consequences in the long run.


The medium we use affects the message we want to convey. That is why you probably would not end a romantic relationship with a text message, and it would be a bit strange to send a handwritten letter to your boss to tell her you are taking a day off sick.

Yet it doesn’t end there. The influence that the medium has over the messages we send has spread well beyond the confines of a few lines of text, and it is having a profound impact on the way we communicate as a society.

The third millennium started in a period of curiosity and excitement about the many new technologies entering our everyday lives. Mobile phones were becoming increasingly widespread, and SMS messages offered an entirely new form of communication.

“Digital media has become so crucial to our communication that it has created a new type of language.”

One person following this evolution closely is Ágnes Veszelszki, Associate Professor in communication and Hungarian linguistics at the Corvinus University in Budapest, Hungary. Digital media has become so crucial to our communication that it has created a new type of language. Veszelszki calls this “digilect”, and she defines and analyzes it in a new book that goes by the same title and looks at just how much our language has been changed by digital media.

“Digilect is the language variety (type) of digital media, which is typically used during communication taking place on computers or other digital devices,” Veszelszki explains. “It has many special characteristics in terms of form, spelling, grammar, and style.” For her book, Veszelszki indexed these characteristics based on findings from two surveys and several analyses of digital, handwritten, and printed texts, offering a wealth of linguistics innovations in English, German, and Hungarian.


The use of emoticons—spelling variants and writing in a style similar to spoken language—is central to digilect. “But the most striking innovations relate to vocabulary,” Veszelszki says. “For example, many new abbreviations and Internet-specific acronyms are used for simplification and time-saving purposes.” Now that written communication is taking over from oral communication—who has not been guilty of shooting an email to a colleague sitting on the other side of the room to avoid having to walk over—we cannot afford to lose too much of our time on crafting messages.

“Who has not been guilty of shooting an email to a colleague sitting on the other side of the room to avoid having to walk over?”

As a result, many neologisms, or “netologisms”, have sprung from the Web, some of which have become commonplace in all layers of society and all manner of communications. Words like “hashtag”, “troll”, “meme”, and “like” had completely different meanings in the previous century. Abbreviations like “omg” (oh my god) and gesture-describing expressions such as “facepalm” were just gibberish. The English language has inspired many netologism in Hungarian, and presumably in other languages too. The word “hack”, for example, is “hekkel” and “like” is “lájkol”. This may be because English dominates the online world, though another possible explanation is that it adds a layer of prestige.


Digilect is most notable in online communication, specifically in instant messaging conversations and on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Especially the latter platform has an important influence on our public and private conversations. “Just think about it: Facebook is still showing a growing trend with nearly half a million new users registering each day,” Veszelszki says. “Every six seconds, six new Facebook profiles are created.”

However, Veszelszki also found that these linguistic innovations have begun to influence the way teenagers formulate messages when they write by hand. Interestingly, when she asked them to fill in a paper questionnaire about their language use, “it was an unexpected outcome that the answers to open-ended questions included many digilectic forms, like abbreviations and smileys. Interestingly, they wrote smileys as if typed on a keyboard and not rotated by 90 degrees to better represent the human face.” To illustrate, they wrote ‘:-)’ or ‘XD’ instead of ‘☺’.

“I was interested to learn whether the new abbreviations invented in digital communication also have an impact on note-taking. The answer is a clear yes.”

Ágnes Veszelszki

Veszelszki delved deeper into this and collected a corpus of student handbooks to investigate the handwritten notes in the margins that students write to converse during class. “I was interested to learn whether the new abbreviations invented in digital communication also have an impact on note-taking. The answer is a clear yes,” says Veszelszki.

Additionally, Veszelszki also found examples of digilect in spoken language, such as those in made-up quotes like this one: “Oh em gee, I lol’d so hard!” (fans of the Kardashian family may be familiar with these). Respondents to her survey said they had used abbreviations like “asap” and “brb” in conversations, as well as the netologisms “lájkol” (“like”) and “lávol”, which means “love” and was inspired by the pronunciation of that English word.


As mentioned earlier, digilect is heavily influenced by oral communication. For example, digital communication resembles dialogue, is less structured than written text, and has looser spelling and grammar rules. This may have notable consequences, given the ubiquity of digital communication, as Western society is heavily based on text.

Veszelszki thinks the evolution of digilect can help offset the constraints that literacy imposes on society. “Some say that the emergence of literacy became a barrier between people, as literate societies lack the spontaneity of orality, and therefore people living in literacy-based cultures have separated from each other both psychologically and emotionally. Today, however, orality seems to have gained ground against literacy, so these ‘values’ are making their way back to society.”

In the post-literacy world of today, literacy has lost its absolute power in favor of spontaneous discourse, which is characterized by immediacy, emotional directness, and vitality. “Planned communication is no longer considered ideal, not even in literature,” notes Veszelszki. An example of this is the cell phone novel, a literary format particularly popular in Japan and China, which is made up of short chapters sent to subscribers via e-mail or SMS message.


Most speakers of digilect are from younger generations, so it is easy to assume that it is therefore a form of slang that youths will stop using as they grow older and adopt a more formal communication style. However, that is not how Veszelszki sees it. “Digilect is not only used by young people, but by everyone using computer-mediated communication. My research suggests that people from older generations who regularly use the Internet for work or play can also be fluent in the language variety of digital communication.” The fact that so many youths seem to be using this language variety might then simply be because younger generations are better versed in using computers and navigating the online world.

“Digilect is not only used by young people, but by everyone using computer-mediated communication.”

Ágnes Veszelszki

That does not take away the fact that today, many adults will not understand so-called digital natives talking online, or among themselves. This has important educational implications. “For adults dealing with children, it can be useful to be open to their communication style,” Veszelszki says. “This does not mean that they should talk and write like children, but they should at least know about the online content in which children are interested. Education should be better prepared—in terms of methods, tools, and content—for students who use digital technology day and night and sometimes know better than their teachers. It should teach them about the different forms of communication and the registers linked to them.”

It is difficult to predict how these language variations will continue to evolve, as technologies change so quickly that you can never know which new platform will arrive next. In fact, some innovations have already started dying out.

When everyone was still sending SMS messages, the character limitation inspired creative abbreviations, many of which quickly became widespread. Now that such boundaries no longer exist on instant messaging apps, that evolution has been at least partly turned around. What is more, word prediction functionalities can even cause us to write words in full and force us to use correct spellings and sentence capitalization.

Veszelszki prefers, then, to catalog these changes in our language, so that they might be remembered by future generations.

“Perhaps, in a way, this book was the last opportunity to ask, ‘How has the Internet changed language?’” she says. “Some people can no longer imagine life without the Internet; many seem unable to recall how they used to think before the Internet era. For those born in the golden age of the Internet and digital technology, this question is hardly understandable as they have no basis for comparison with the pre-Internet era.”

Maybe one day, they can find out in a Museum of Analog Communication.

This article was originally published at, here.


Do science girls have an image problem?

Hot young girls in high heels. Powdered make-up exploding across bubbling and steamy apparatus. Equations written in lipstick. Sounds like a normal day in the lab for most women scientists. Except it isn’t. The scenes are, of course, snippets from the roundly and soundly derided ‘Science: It’s a girl thing’ video released to shock and awe–the bad kind–in 2012.

Born of a well-meaning but inherently flawed campaign from the European Commission, it has been criticised and parodied to the point that further condemnation for reinforcing stereotypes would be like pulling a girl’s hair and stealing her chocolate. Marie Curie’s appearance may arguably not be as attractive as a catwalk models, but if you could find visual props to picture a beautiful mind, she would be a shining star.

To be fair to the EC, it’s not hard to see why they thought they had to do something: a She Figures 2012 report points out that the share of women graduating at PhD level now stands at 46%, but women account for only 33% of researchers in the EU. And while 59% of EU graduate students in 2010 were female, only 20% of EU senior academicians were women.

Is the image of women scientists to blame for the lack of popularity of science studies? It is clear the problems begin before university and academia. The UK’s Institute of Physics has found that for the last two decades in the UK only 20% of physics students past age 16 have been girls, despite about equal success for boys and girls in physics and science exams leading to that point.

How much could changing the image of female scientists do to solve the two problems that persist? Namely, boosting girls’ involvement in science from an early age. And removing the barriers to top positions for female scientists when they get there.

A classic remedy to anyone with an image problem would be to try and alter that image through advertising campaigns. But do these get-girls-to-do-science campaigns really work? “I don’t know,” says Claudine Hermann, Vice President of the European Platform for Women Scientists who in 1992 was the first woman to be appointed as a professor at military engineering school École Polytechnique, in Paris, France.

The trouble is that such campaign often fails to convince. Hermann has spent the past 20 years immersed in the challenge and says there have been plenty of campaigns to convince girls—and boys—to go into science “But they have not been very efficient,” she says, “You cannot know what had happened if campaign had not existed.” Sounds like the perfect area to test a policy change through a randomised trial. Others concur that advertising has obvious limitations. “I don’t think one video will make any difference,” says sociologist Lousie Archer from King’s College London, who, like most, is not a great fan of the ‘Science: It’s a girl thing’ video. But she says she could see what they were trying to do.

Rather, the image problem may just be the tip of the iceberg, where deeply engrained cultural and social perceptions are slow to evolve. “Our research shows the masculine image of science is an issue and ‘girly’ girls are much less likely to aspire to science careers than ‘non-girly’ girls, even though they both like science at school,” she explains. This suggests that young girls displaying an interest for science may fear that they will be regarded as uncool by boys.  “Analysis shows single sex schools are most effective way of getting girls to study physics A level,” notes Archer. “Our surveys of over 9000 primary and 5600 secondary pupils show that the ‘brainy’ image of science is also a key part of the problem and can be particularly off putting for girls,” says Archer. “And social class is as much an issue as gender.”

Confirmation of the overwhelming impact of culture and social influences can be found in Eastern Europe, after the Second World War. The communist ideology dictated equal ability and opportunity between the sexes as society forged on as one powered by engineering and science. Indeed, the EU expert group Enwise (Enlarge Women in Science to East) published a reportconcluding that the availability of childcare facilities and state support for working mothers led to the a significant proportion of well qualified women in high profile roles, particularly in science.

Unfortunately, as the Communist Bloc unravelled so did funding, infrastructure and many of the benefits, although still leaving a higher proportion of women researchers in science than in the West today. This was particularly true in countries with smaller populations, who face challenges such as being frozen out of more competitive, high-cost research programmes. As Hermann notes, “it’s complex.” A Czech report from 2008, provides an update of the recent status of women in science in the Czech republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

The issue is not just about stereotypes, however, and could also be linked to a widespread lack of knowledge of the high transferability of science qualifications. “Most young people don’t realise science qualifications are useful for a wide range of jobs both in and out of science,” says Archer.

Perhaps, the lack of role model is also to blame. Hermann also says that under-representation of women scientists in the media is also a problem. From TV appearances to museum exhibits, they often fail to recognise the role women play in science.

On the positive side, women already in science today stand a better chance to climb the career ladder than before. Hermann cites programmes in Switzerland and Ireland that led to more women professors. “If there is a state policy and real funds things can change,” she says. “But if you just speak there will be very slow evolution. You need political will.”

And for political action you need increased awareness that there is a problem, which has gained much more prominence according to physicist Athene Donald from the University of Cambridge, UK. She cites the Athena Swan Charter for women in science, applied for and awarded to universities, as an action that “has certainly raised everyone’s awareness and also the stakes.” A 2009 winner of The L’Oréal-UNESCO Awards for Women in Science and a noted blogger on the topic, Donald says actions are needed too.  “This isn’t about generational change. This action will be more important at later career stages, university and beyond.” Actions that might work right now include not writing ‘Science: It’s a girl thing’ in lipstick on the EC revamped website.

Original article published on

Offering a hacking solution for scholarly publishing

Changing incentives to researchers and scientific-centric technology solutions could be the new normal.

Hacking solutions to science problems are springing up everywhere. They attempt to remove bureaucracy and streamline research. But how many of these initiatives are coming from the science publishing industry? There is currently no TripAdvisor to the best journal for submission, no Deliveroo for laboratory reagent delivery. How about a decentralised peer-review based on the blockchain certification principle? Today, the social media networks for scientists—the likes of ResearchGate, and Mendeley—have only started a timid foray into what the future of scholarly publishing could look like.

This topic was debated in front of a room packed with science publishing executives at the STM conference, on 18th October 2016, on the eve of the Frankfurt Book Fair. Earlier that day, Brian Nosek, executive director at the Centre for Open Science, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA, gave a caveat about any future changes. He primarily saw the need to change the way incentives for scientist work so that, ultimately, research itself changes rather than technology platforms imposing change.

Yet, the key to adapting is “down to the pace of experiment,” said Phill Jones, head of publisher outreach, at Digital Science, London, UK, which provides technology solutions to the industry. Jones advocates doing lots and lots of experiments to find solutions to better serve the scientific community.

Indeed, “rapid evolution based on observed improvement is better than disruption for the sake of disruption,” agreed John Connolly, chief product officer at Springer Nature, London, UK.

Adopting an attitude that embrace these experiments, “is the biggest change that we [the scholarly publishing industry] need to embrace,” Jones concluded.

To do so, “we need publishers to be a lot less cautious,” noted Richard Padley, Chairman Semantico, London, UK, providing technology solutions to science publishers. “It is a cultural thing, publishers need to empower their organisation to use technology from the top down.”

So are the lives of scientists about to be changed? Arguably, yes. Resistance from proponents of the status quo may still arise. It may depend on the pace at which science publisher turn into technology service industry. The truth is “users want to see tools that are much more user-centred and less centred around publishers,” argued Connolly. However, “if you ask a scientists what they wanted [in the past], they would have said high impact factors articles,” said Phil Jones. “They thought this is what they wanted because there was no alternative,” Jones added, whereas: “they wanted to have higher impact of their research and have greater reach.”

Clearly, “if you are optimistic about publishers, there is a job for publishers, to synthesise knowledge, to see the relevant content,” said Connolly.

This means taking quite a lot of adjustment to those who pay for content. A download is not a marker of whether you have passed on that synthesised knowledge!

Original article published on