The pernicious effects of disrespecting the constraints of science

By Mike Klymkowsky

Recent political events and the proliferation of “fake news” and the apparent futility of fact checking in the public domain have led me to obsess about the role played by the public presentation of science. “Truth” can often trump reality, or perhaps better put, passionately held beliefs can overwhelm a circumspect worldview based on a critical and dispassionate analysis of empirically established facts and theories. Those driven by various apocalyptic visions of the world, whether religious or political, can easily overlook or trivialize evidence that contradicts their assumptions and conclusions. While historically there have been periods during which non-empirical presumptions are called into question, more often than not such periods have been short-lived. Some may claim that the search for absolute truth, truths significant enough to sacrifice the lives of others for, is restricted to the religious, they are sadly mistaken – political (often explicitly anti- religious) movements are also susceptible, often with horrific consequences, think Nazism and communist-inspired apocalyptic purges. The history of eugenics and forced sterilization based on flawed genetic premises have similar roots.

Copyright Sidney Harris
Copyright Sidney Harris; http://sciencecartoonspplus.com/ Please note: this is not a CCBY image; must contact copyright holder above.

Given the seductive nature of belief-based Truth, many turned to science as a bulwark against wishful and arational thinking. The evolving social and empirical (data-based) nature of the scientific enterprise, beginning with guesses as to how the world (or rather some small part of the world) works, then following the guess’s logical implications together with the process of testing those implications through experiment or observation, leading to the revision (or abandonment) of the original guess, moving it toward hypothesis and then, as it becomes more explanatory and accurately predictive, and as those predictions are confirmed, into a theory.  So science is a dance between speculation and observation. In contrast to a free form dance, the dance of science is controlled by a number of rigid, and oppressive to some, constraints [see Feynman].

Perhaps surprisingly, this scientific enterprise has converged onto a small set of over- arching theories and universal laws that appear to explain much of what is observable, these include the theory of general relativity, quantum and atomic theory, the laws of thermodynamics, and the theory of evolution. With the noticeable exception of relativity and quantum mechanics, these conceptual frameworks appear to be compatible with one another. As an example, organisms, and behaviors such as consciousness, obey and are constrained by, well established and (apparently) universal physical and chemical rules.

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Last_universal_common_ancestor
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Last_universal_common_ancestor

A central constraint on scientific thinking is that what cannot in theory be known is not a suitable topic for scientific discussion. This leaves outside of the scope of science a number of interesting topics, ranging from what came before the “Big Bang” to the exact steps in the origin of life. In the latter case, the apparently inescapable conclusion that all terrestrial organisms share a complex “Last Universal Common Ancestor” (LUCA) makes theoretically unconfirmable speculations about pre-LUCA living systems outside of science.  While we can generate evidence that the various building blocks of life can be produced abiogenically (a process begun with Wohler’s synthesis of urea) we can only speculate as to the systems that preceded LUCA.

 

Various pressures have led many who claim to speak scientifically (or to speak for science) to ignore the rules of the scientific enterprise – they often act as if their are no constraints, no boundaries to scientific speculation. Consider the implications of establishing “astrobiology” programs based on speculation (rather than observations) presented with various levels of certainty as to the ubiquity of life outside of Earth [the speculations of Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel on “directed panspermia”: and the Drake equation come to mind, see Michael Crichton’s famous essay on Aliens and global warming]. Yet such public science pronouncements appear to ignore (or dismiss) the fact that we know (and can study) only one type of life, the descendants of LUCA. They appear untroubled when breaking the rules and abandoning the discipline that has made science a powerful, but strictly constrained human activity.

 

Whether life is unique to Earth or not requires future explorations and discoveries that may (or given the technological hurdles involved, may not) occur. Similarly postulating theoretically unobservable alternative universes or the presence of some form of consciousness in inanimate objects [such unscientific speculation as illustrated here] crosses a dividing line between belief for belief’s sake, and the scientific – it distorts and obscures the rules of the game, the rules that make the game worth playing [again, the Crichton article cited above makes this point]. A recent rather dramatic proposal from some in the physical-philosophical complex has been the claim that the rules of prediction and empirical confirmation (or rejection) are no longer valid – that we can abandon requiring scientific ideas to make observable predictions [see Ellis & Silk]. It is as if objective reality is no longer the benchmark against which scientific claims are made; that perhaps mathematical elegance or spiritual comfort are more important – and well they might be (more important) but they are also outside of the limited domain of science. At the 2015 “Why Trust a Theory” meeting, the physicist Carlo Rovelli concluded “by pointing out that claiming that a theory is valid even though no experiment has confirmed it destroys the confidence that society has in science, and it also misleads young scientists into embracing sterile research programs.” [quote from Massimo’s Pigliucci’s Footnotes to Plato blog].

 

While the examples above are relatively egregious, it is worth noting that various pressures for glory, fame, and funding can tend to impact science more frequently – leading to claims that are less obviously non-scientific, but that bend (and often break) the scientific charter. Take, for example, claims about animal models of human diseases. Often the expediencies associated with research make the use of such animal models necessary and productive, but they remain a scientific compromise. While mice, rats, chimpanzees, and humans are related evolutionarily, they also carry distinct traits associated with each lineage’s evolutionary history, and the associated adaptive and non-adaptive processes and events associated with that history. A story from a few years back illustrates how the differences between the immune systems of mice and humans help explain why the search, in mice, for drugs to treat sepsis in humans was so relatively unsuccessful [Mice Fall Short as Test Subjects for Some of Humans’ Deadly Ills]. A similar type of situation occurs when studies in the mouse fail to explicitly acknowledge how genetic background influences experimental phenotypes [Effect of the genetic background on the phenotype of mouse mutations], as well as how details of experimental scenarios influence human relevance [Can Animal Models of Disease Reliably Inform Human Studies?].

 

Speculations that go beyond science (while hiding under the mantel of science – see any of a number of articles on quantum consciousness) – may seem just plain silly, but by abandoning the rules of science they erode the status of the scientific process.  How, exactly, would one distinguish a conscious from an unconscious electron?

In science (again as pointed out by Crichton) we do not agree through consensus but through data (and respect for critical analyzed empirical observations). The Laws of Thermodynamics, General Relativity, the standard model of particle physics, and Evolution theory are conceptual frameworks that we are forced (if we are scientifically honest) to accept. Moreover the implications of these scientific frameworks can be annoying to some; there is no free lunch (perpetual motion machine), no efficient, intelligently-designed evolutionary process (just blind variation and differential reproduction), and no zipping around the galaxy. The apparent limitation of motion to the speed of light means that a “Star Wars” universe is impossible – happily, I would argue, given the number of genocidal events that appear to be associated with that fictional vision.

 

Whether our models for the behavior of Earth’s climate or the human brain can be completely accurate (deterministic), given the roles of chaotic and stochastic events in these systems, remains to be demonstrated; until they are, there is plenty of room for conflicting interpretations and prescriptions. That atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases are increasing due to human activities is unarguable, what it implies for future climate is less clear, and what to do about it (a social, political, and economic discussion informed but not determined by scientific observations) is another.

Courtesy NASA.As we discuss science, we must teach (and remind ourselves, even if we are working scientific practitioners) about the limits of the scientific enterprise. As science educators, one of our goals is to help students develop an appreciation of the importance of an honest and critical attitude to observations and conclusions, a recognition of the limits of scientific pronouncements. We need to explicitly identify, acknowledge, and respect the constraints under which effective science works and be honest in labeling when we have left scientific statements, lest we begin to walk down the path of little lies that morph into larger ones.  In contrast to politicians and other forms of religious and secular mystics, we should know better than to be seduced into abandoning scientific discipline, and all that that entails.

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M.W. Klymkowsky  web site:  http://klymkowskylab.colorado.edu  email: klym@colorado.edu

 

 

 

 

Book Review: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

Commander Chris Hadfield captured the world’s imagination last year, when, from 13 March to 13 May 2013, he was the first Canadian Commander of the International Space Station. While aboard the ISS, Commander Hadfield did a series of “experiments,” both for scientists, but, perhaps most importantly, for youth. This included genuinely interesting questions like “How do you cry in space? (video above)” and “How do you cut your nails?” and the always important “How do you go to the bathroom?” His amicable nature and genuinely infectious enthusiasm brought science to the masses, and helped inspire thousands of youth.

Recently, Chris Hadfield released his book – “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.” My sister waited in line for 3 hours at our local Costco to get me a signed copy for my birthday, and I finally got around to reading it for this review. The book follows the life of Chris Hadfield as he becomes the commander of Expedition 35, detailing his attitude and the path he took to become the first Canadian Commander of the ISS. The book is split into three broad sections leading up to Expedition 35 titled “Pre-Launch,” “Liftoff” and “Coming Down to Earth,” with several chapters within each section.

The book was fascinating to me – Hadfield is a hybrid pilot-engineer-scientist-lab rat. His expertise is in engineering and as a test pilot, but throughout the book he references how his work is interdisciplinary, and he has to have a broad understanding of several domains in order to be effective. In addition to his role as an astronaut and Commander, he is also a fully fledged lab rat, and people on the ground will ask him questions about how he’s feeling, take samples while he’s in space and after he returns, as well as measure how quickly he recovers to life back on Earth in order to further our understanding about how life in space impacts the human body. Since, at some point, we hope to explore the stars, any data we can get on how astronauts respond to life in space is valuable.

One of my favourite parts of the book was how it didn’t just focus on the mundane, it relished them. He spends pages describing the drills he went through, and how important have a strong grasp of the fundamentals was for his success. I found this refreshing – too often in science we glorify the achievements but ignore all the hard work that got them there. A breakthrough in the lab might take months or even years of work before things go right, and having some acknowledge that, not only do things not work (often), them not working is not the end of the world. This was a refreshing take on the scientific method, and really highlighted the value in “the grind” of slowly perfecting your skills.

Click the book cover for purchasing options!
Click the book cover for purchasing options!

He also has a certain brand of “folksy wisdom” that is inspiring in it’s own way. It’s not inspirational in the nauseating sense that these things are often written in, but more practical. He states the importance of reading the team dynamic before getting involved for example, or how important it is to really understand the nuts and bolts of what you’re doing, but at no point does that feel patronizing or “hey, look at me, I’m an astronaut!” For many budding scientists, the idea of trudging through another page of equations, or washing beakers, or just doing the mundane, less exciting parts of science makes you apathetic and bored. Hadfield takes this moments and stresses just how important it is to learn from them, as well as ensure that you know exactly why they are important. I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in STEM careers, and especially those early in their careers.

To purchase, check out Chris Hadfield’s official website.


Featured image: Commander Hadfield performed at the 2013 Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa, ON | Picture courtesy David Johnson, click for more info

Childhood obesity drops 40% in the last decade. Or not really, but who’s checking?

“A lie that is half-truth is the darkest of all lies.”
― Alfred Tennyson

Last week, a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association received a lot of media attention. The study, performed by Cynthia Ogden and colleagues at the CDC, aimed to describe the prevalence of obesity in the US and look at changes between 2003 and 2012. The study itself had several interesting findings, not least among them that the prevalence of obesity seems to have stabilized in many segments of the US population. However, they made one observation that caught the media’s attention:

“There was a significant decrease in obesity among 2- to 5-year-old children (from 13.9% to 8.4%; P = .03)”

This is where things get interesting, as the focus was not on the 5.5 percentage points difference. Instead of reporting the absolute difference, i.e. how much something changed, news outlets focused on the relative difference, i.e. how much they changed compared to each other. In that case, it would be (5.5/13.9 =) 40%. Which is much more impressive than the 5.5% change reported in the study. So you can guess what the headlines loudly proclaimed:

Headlines from Bloomberg, the LA Times and the WSJ
Headlines from Bloomberg, the LA Times and the WSJ | Click to enlarge, click links to read the articles

The media latched onto this “40%” statistic and ran with it, despite the researchers clearly stating that this was not their intention. In fact, from the paper itself, they said (in their conclusions):

Overall, there have been no significant changes in obesity prevalence in youth or adults between 2003-2004 and 2011-2012. Obesity prevalence remains high and thus it is important to continue surveillance. (emphasis mine)

This makes me wonder how many journalists read the article, how many got to the end, and how many just saw what other people had reported and ran with the same headline and narrative.

Here’s the thing – they’re technically correct (the best kind of correct). Yes, childhood obesity dropped 40% based on that report, and if that is true, that is a dramatic decrease. However, that is one group, and even the researchers themselves conclude this may be meaningless. It begs the question why, and if this is an actual association or just an artifact of something else like the type and number of statistical tests used. But since the narrative had already been written, everyone followed suit, and next thing you know we’re all slapping hi fives and proclaiming that there has been a drop off in childhood obesity that may not actually be something worth celebrating.

Now, had the results been portrayed fairly, two things would have happened. For one, the findings would not have been as positive as they are now. In fact, the headlines would have read “Business as usual: Obesity the same for the last decade” or “Obesity up 20% among elderly women!” (The latter refers to the finding that the prevalence of obesity went up among women aged 60 years and older from 31.5% to 38.1%). Secondly, a much more detailed discussion of the study findings would have happened – why has the prevalence stabilized? Have we finally reached saturation? Are all the people who could be obese now obese? Or is something else going on? But these weren’t the findings that were focused on.

The worst outcome of this media exposure won’t be felt right now. It will be felt in the next study. You see, this study in JAMA was reported all over the media, and millions would have heard about how we’ve finally “turned a corner in the childhood obesity epidemic” (to quote the New York Times). Unfortunately, this may not be the case, and if a new study comes out saying the opposite, this further undermines the public’s confidence in science, even though the researchers in question never made any such claim.

And that, dear readers, is the darkest of all lies.

References
Ogden, C. L., Carroll, M. D., Kit, B. K., & Flegal, K. M. (2014). Prevalence of Childhood and Adult Obesity in the United States, 2011-2012. JAMA, 311(8), 806-814.

Creation vs Evolution: Why science communication is doomed

Last Tuesday night, Bill Nye the Science Guy had a debate with Ken Ham over creationism vs evolution. I watched part of the debate, and have conflicted feelings on it. I’m going to start by saying I think it was a brilliant marketing move. For one, it suddenly brought the Creation Museum into the forefront of society for next to nothing. While before only a handful had heard of it, now it has risen to national prominence, and I’m sure the number of visits they have will reflect that in the near future.

As for the substance itself, I don’t think this is a very good topic for a debate. Any time you bring religion into a discussion, it turns into an “us vs them” argument where neither party is willing to change their view. Even the advertising and marketing billed it as a debate of “creationism vs evolution” – effectively presupposing the view that one can believe in both (which I’ll come back to). At best, it’s snarky and offhanded, and at worst, antagonistic and ad hominem. I should point out though that this is on both sides – neither side is willing to reconcile.

And why should they? Both view their side as being right, and weigh the information they have differently. So all that this accomplishes is that both sides become further polarized and further entrenched, and any chance of meaningful dialogue between both sides becomes less and less likely with every angry jab back and forth. It turns into a 21st century war of angry op-eds, vindictive tweets and increasingly hostile and belligerent Facebook posts shared back and forth. This isn’t just limited to religion though – many discussions end this way with people being forced to take sides in an issue that is more complicated than simply being black/white. Rather than discuss the details and come to an understanding of what we agree and disagree on, we’re immediately placed into teams that are at loggerheads with each other.

What is most interesting is what happens to extreme viewpoints when they are criticized. Rather than taking in new information and evaluating it based on its merits, criticism actually results in the consolidation of those perspectives. In lay language, if you have an extreme viewpoint, you dig in your heels, build a trench and get ready to defend yourself against all attackers. This isn’t entirely surprising – when someone attacks you, and in particular attacks you *personally*, why wouldn’t you get defensive. Studies of this have look at this from a political perspective, comparing extreme conservatives to extreme liberals. To quote Psychology Today:

Extreme conservatives believed that their views about three topics were more superior: (1) the need to require voters to show identification when voting; (2) taxes, and (3) and affirmative action. Extreme liberals, on the other hand, believed that their views were superior on (1) government aid for the needy; (2) the use of torture on terrorists, and (3) not basing laws on religion.

But wait! Aren’t these just fringe opinions being heard in the media? The good news is yes. The bad news is that the extremes are what people hear. If you imagine everyone existing on a normal distribution – with extreme opinions on the edges – then the vast majority of the people exist in the gulf between those people. However, those extremes are what people hear. In fact, this is what led to Popular Science shutting down their comments, based on findings by Brossard and Scheufele. What they did was ask people to read a study, and while the article remained the same, one group was exposed to civil comments, and the other to uncivil comments. What they found was striking:

In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.

So seeing negative comments not only made people more skeptical of the article, it made them more skeptical of the science itself! That’s a huge concern for us, and how science is written about and discussed. Seeing negative comments, no matter how poorly written or ill-informed they are, makes people fundamentally view the science as being of lower quality. And that resulted in Popular Science closing their commenting section.

So to bring it all full circle, the “debate” was a microcosm of science and the public. Scientists sit back, do their work, and then turn around and say “Hey! You should do this” and then wonder why no one listens to them and why people fight them. We saw this with the New York soda ban, we’re seeing this in other spheres as well, and unless we change how we approach these hot button issues, we’ll lose the support of the fringe opinions (which we have already lost), but also the support of the moderates (which we can still get). I was having this discussion with my friend Steve Mann, who is one of the smartest men I know, and he sums it up best:

“It’s easier to poke fun at people with whom you disagree, particularly if you can imply that they are childish, old-fashioned, religious, or uneducated, than to honestly examine whether there is any merit to what they’re saying, and I think that’s a shame.”

I’m not taking sides – that wasn’t the aim of this piece. The aim of this piece is to tell you to listen with a open mind, discuss issues with others, and at all costs avoid ad hominem and personal attacks. If we want to bring people together, we have to avoid using language that drives us apart. If we want to promote science, we have to discourage hate. And if we want to educate others, we first have to start by understanding others.

Reference:
K. Toner, M. R. Leary, M. W. Asher, K. P. Jongman-Sereno. Feeling Superior Is a Bipartisan Issue: Extremity (Not Direction) of Political Views Predicts Perceived Belief Superiority. Psychological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0956797613494848

Strategies for Hearing Impaired Students, Educators, and Colleagues and The Bigger Picture

Today, Sci-Ed is happy to welcome Rachel Wayne to the blog to discuss hearing impairment in higher education, and this is her third post on the topic (for the first post, click here, and her second post is available here). For more about Rachel, see the end of this post.

One of the biggest frustrations facing students with disability (or those with disability in general), I think, concerns our lack of familiarity within society as a whole with respect to the needs of individuals with disability. This isn’t taught in schools and some of us just simply are never exposed to the experiences that require us to educate ourselves about disabilities. Even worse, the general sentiment often seems that we may be afraid to even approach such individuals for fear of not knowing how to conduct ourselves or for fear of offending someone. The recommendations and suggestions below for communicating with hearing impaired individuals are by no means comprehensive, but they are a good place to start. Although they are written specifically with the educational system in mind, they are by no means circumscribed to a single context (I also encourage you to read Parts I and II before moving on).

Advice to Other Students and Colleagues
Remember that hearing impaired individuals need to see your lips. Always face them when you are speaking and ensure your lips are visible. Do not shout. Do not over enunciate. Be prepared to have to repeat yourself here and there. Remember that saying “Oh, don’t worry, it’s not important” can be considered rude or offensive; if it was important enough to say the first time, then it’s important enough to repeat. Not doing so may unintentionally make the individual feel left out or excluded. When possible, get the individual’s attention first; it’s the polite thing to do. In public, choose a place with adequate lighting and minimal background noise. In large groups, ask the individual where they would prefer to sit; I usually like to sit in the middle of a large table where possible so that I can see everyone. Please don’t ask us to turn up our hearing aids or suggest that we turn up the volume (reading Part I will help you understand why this may appear offensive). When going to the movies, be flexible to theatres and movies for which personalized closed captioning (e.g., CaptiView) is available (Atif Note: This information is often listed on their website). Most importantly, be curious and don’t hesitate to seek feedback on how you’re doing!

captiview
This is an example of CaptiView, which plugs into your cup holder, and provides subtitles (click link to learn more)

Advice to Hearing-Impaired Students
Accommodations are useful, but individual needs will vary. Some of these accommodations will be self-driven, such as sitting in the front of the classroom, or familiarization with the material beforehand where possible in order to facilitate comprehension. However, other accommodations require registration with campus disability services, and I do strongly recommend that individuals register as soon as possible to ensure that services can be supplied as soon as they are needed). Such accommodations might include note-takers, assistive listening devices (such as an FM system- the professor wears a microphone that transmits the sound directly to the student’s hearing aid, or transcriptions. I also recommend that students introduce themselves to the professors during the first week of class so that they know who you are, and be specific in telling them exactly what you need from them. It might help to write this down in a list or by email to ensure you’ve covered all of your bases. If you are shy, this medium can be helpful too, but remember that it is the responsibility of Disability Services to ensure that your needs are met.

The lady on the right is wearing an FM system and the one on the left is wearing “boots” on her hearing aid
The lady on the right is wearing an FM system and the one on the left is wearing “boots” on her hearing aid | Click link to go to Phonak website

One strategy I have used in the clinic is to mention my hearing impairment to clients as soon as I meet them. I let them know that I need to see their lips when they speak and that I may ask them to repeat themselves, and that this doesn’t mean I wasn’t paying attention. I will then give them the opportunity to have questions, if needed. This is a good educational opportunity for others, and it also gets any confusion out of the way. Excerpts from this also lend themselves easily to other professional (and even colloquial) introductions.

Advice to Professors or Teaching Assistants of Hearing Impaired Students
Ensure that you are facing the student wherever possible. If you write on the board, minimize the amount of information that you speak while your back is to the class. Avoid walking around the room where the student cannot see you. Repeat questions spoken by other individuals in the class, especially in large classrooms. Ensure that you provide subtitles or transcriptions for all videos shown in the classroom (even if they are non-essential!). The student may ask you to wear an FM system, so you may need to wear a microphone or a small device around your neck. Online lectures or Skype calls will require additional support, likely through real-time transcription.

If you are a conference organizer, please consider providing an audiovisual projection of the speaker onto a large screen if you are using a big room. This is helpful to everyone, especially when you have various accents in the room!

Advice to Educators and Clinical supervisors
You will need to discuss with the student what kind of accommodations they need. However, you need to be aware that the student may not necessarily know what they need, or in my case, how much help they actually do need. Use a recorder to verify a client’s responses on an assessment. Importantly, remember that this may be a touchy issue for your student. He or she will appreciate sensitivity and compassion in your approach (as I certainly did).

The Burden of Advocacy, and the Bigger Picture
Everyone has different ways of dealing with their disability. But the good news is that people are generally receptive to feedback and input. In one example, my Master’s defense involved all four faculty members on my committee being as spread out in the large boardroom as could be, and I knew that this wasn’t going to work for me when I was faced with a similar situation for my oral comprehensive examination. This time, I asked all the faculty members and evaluators to sit closer so that I could read their lips, which was a seemingly terrifying thing to do since they were all there to evaluate me. Not only did this relieve a lot of the added intellectual challenges (and eye strain from trying to lip-read at a distance), in their feedback the evaluators actually expressed that they were impressed about my self-awareness. I still struggle with self-advocacy, however, such as when I ask the clinical department to keep the lights on during a PowerPoint presentation so I can see the speaker’s lips, but I’m getting better at it.

Nevertheless, advocacy is a social and moral issue. The unfortunate reality is that post-secondary education is generally not kind to individuals with disabilities. Such individuals often have to work harder than their peers to compensate for their added difficulties and achieve the same level of performance. As I have discussed, the process of obtaining accommodations may not be seamless, and challenges can act as both physical and psychological barriers to education. I hope that my experiences resonate and I hope that they will contribute to making post-secondary education more accessible to all.

But let’s be clear here: the problem is bigger than this; the challenges don’t stop once students leave the post-secondary institution and enter the workforce. I’ve been transparent in discussing the ways that my personal beliefs about my disability may have perpetuated my social and educational exclusion. However, I’ve begun to think more critically about the ways in which society shapes and reinforces implicit beliefs and stereotypes about individuals with disabilities. In turn, these promote an unspoken culture of shame and personal narratives of exclusion. Thus, the issue isn’t necessarily what is said about disabilities, but rather, what remains unsaid.

Generally speaking, individuals with disabilities have to speak up on their own behalf for accommodations and resources for integration. Consequently, this places the onus squarely on the shoulders of those who are most vulnerable. Social pressures and the desire for conformity often take precedence over individual needs, especially when individuals may have difficulty articulating them in the first place owing to shyness or fear of discrimination.

As educators and students, and as members of society in general, we will feel a diffused sense of responsibility. However, each of us needs to contribute our share to help fill in these gaps of silence. We must open ourselves to these difficult conversations about disability. We must negotiate an equitable place for disabled individuals within our society, and by extension, within the educational system.

Often, the amount of concern we have for an issue is directly proportional to the degree to which it affects us personally. However, I implore you to consider impact of the growing prevalence of age-related hearing loss in a society in which we are living longer than ever. Take a look at your parents or your grandparents, and you will see that this is an issue from which no one is immune.

I don’t know what the solution is, but every instance that we don’t speak up perpetuates the silence. Until disability awareness is taught in schools, until it becomes part of a wider discussion, then we must step up, one student, one individual at a time. For if we don’t, then who will?

About Rachel

mail.google
Rachel Wayne is a PhD student in the Clinical Psychology program at Queen’s University. Her research focuses on understanding ways in which we use environmental cues, context, and lip-reading to support conversational speech, particularly in noisy environments. The goal of this research is to provide a foundational basis for empirically supported rehabilitative programs for hearing-impaired individuals. Rachel can be contacted at 8rw16[at]queensu.ca

The Biggest Sci-Ed Stories of 2013

As 2013 comes to an end, it’s a time for reflection and thought about the last year, and look towards to the future. 2013 was quite the year in science, with impressive discoveries and wide reaching events. I’ve selected my five favourite science stories below, but I welcome your thoughts and would love to hear your thoughts on the top science stories of 2013.

GoldieBlox and Diversity in Science
This isn’t a new issue by any stretch, but it is one of the most important issues facing science (and higher education in general). Diversity in science is essential for a number of reasons, but perhaps most importantly, it gives us different perspectives on problems, and thus, new and novel solutions. Within the scientific establishment, there have been many stories about discrimination and inappropriate conduct (see SciCurious’ excellent series of posts on the matter, including posts by friends of the blog @RimRK and @AmasianV), and, unfortunately there are no easy solutions.

Perhaps the biggest diversity-related story this year was GoldieBlox. While initially this started as a media darling (who didn’t love the video?), further examination revealed deep-set problems in how they chose to approach the issue of gender representation in STEM disciplines.

There is a lot of change required to reach equality in science careers and to ensure that people are judged and given opportunities based on their work, not their privilege. Lets hope that in 2014 we can start the ball rolling on that change.

Fracking and Energy
Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” is a way by which natural gas is extracted from shale or coal beds deep in the ground. This is done by pumping millions of gallons of pressurized, chemically-treated water into the ground, which breaks up the rocks and allows the gas to escape and be collected at the surface. There are large deposits of gas stored in this manner throughout the Northeastern United States and Easten/Atlantic Canada, and, as you can imagine, the economic incentives to extract this gas are huge. In fact, the Hon. Craig Leonard, Minister of Energy and Mines in New Brunswick said:

Based on U.S. Department of Energy statistics, 15 trillion cubic feet of gas is enough to heat every home in New Brunswick for the next 630 years.

Or if used to generate electricity, it could supply all of New Brunswick’s residential, commercial and industrial needs for over 100 years.

In other words, it has the potential to provide a significant competitive advantage to our province.

These economic benefits, however, have to be considered along with potential risks that come along with pumping gallons of water into the ground. The most apparent is how fracking requires an excessive amount of water, which could negatively impact other industries. In addition, this treated water could potentially open cracks into underground water supplies, contaminating our drinking water supply. Finally, what do we do with this water once it’s been used – how do we dispose of it safely and efficiently? These are all concerns that need to be addressed, along with other environmental issues that may arise. There’s no doubt that we need to plan for energy independence, and a way to revitalize your economy is a benefit no politician (or citizen) would like to pass up. However, we have to think long term and plan for the future.

Typhoon Haiyan and Global Warming
Typhoon Haiyan was one of the most powerful tropical storms on record, killing an estimated 6,111 people in the Philippines alone and doing over USD$1.5 billion in damage. Currently, over 4.4 million are homeless – which is almost the population of the Phoenix metro area (4.3 million from their 2010 Census), or the entire population of New Zealand (4.2 million from their 2013 Census). While the immediate threat has passed, there are now other problems arising. Many of the victims remain unburied, and sanitation remains an important concern to prevent outbreaks of cholera, dysentery and other communicable diseases.

Typhoon Haiyan highlights what we can expect with global warming. While the general understanding is that global warming will simply lead to warmer temperatures, that is not entirely true. A “side effect” suggests that we are more likely to see extreme weather events, which include typhoons and tropical storms.

Politics impacting Science and the US Sequester
The US sequester had long reaching implications for federal scientists. For those who rely on seasonal fieldwork, this could have eliminated a full year of research, while those who were reliant on grants being submitted for this season had to reschedule research priorities. However, the effects aren’t limited to this calendar year. From this article in The Atlantic:

It’s not yet clear how much funding the National Labs will lose, but it will total tens of millions of dollars. Interrupting — or worse, halting — basic research in the physical, biological, and computational sciences would be devastating, both for science and for the many U.S. industries that rely on our national laboratory system to power their research and development efforts.

Instead, this drop in funding will force us to cancel all new programs and research initiatives, probably for at least two years. This sudden halt on new starts will freeze American science in place while the rest of the world races forward, and it will knock a generation of young scientists off their stride, ultimately costing billions in missed future opportunities.

It remains to be seen how the effects of the sequester play out. How long the effects last, and whether the US research industry simply stumbles or falls down, are still up in the air.

Commander Chris Hadfield and Science Communication
It’s no secret that I think Chris Hadfield is an amazing science communicator. His videos in space, the way he engaged with youth, and his approach to science in a “this is awesome” sense captured the imagination of the world while he was up in the International Space Station. His personality and enthusiasm for science continued once he landed back on Earth, and he recently released his first book. When it comes to issues around communicating science, one that I feel quite strongly about is that we need more science communicators. We have a few – Bill Nye, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and such. But we need others, and Chris Hadfield helps show the breadth of scientific discovery, and his personality and enthusiasm for science make him a great ambassador for science to young and old alike.

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Finally, us at PLOS Sci-Ed are now celebrating our first birthday. Since we launched last year, we’ve had over 180,000 visits and hope to continue growing in the future. A sincere thank you to the PLOS blogs community manager Victoria Costello for her constant support, and finally, a heart felt thank you to all our readers. We hope you continue to comment and share our work with your networks.

So these are my choices for the biggest science stories of 2013. What are yours?

Finally, if you enjoyed this post, consider reading The Biggest Public Health Stories of 2013, over on PLOS Public Health Perspectives!

Insights into Coping with Hearing Impairment within Post-Secondary Education

Today, Sci-Ed is happy to welcome Rachel Wayne back to the blog to discuss hearing impairment in higher education for her second post (for the first post, click here). For more about Rachel, see the end of this post.

Previously, I discussed five principles for communicating with hearing-impaired individuals. Now that you are acquainted with some of the communication challenges that hearing impaired individuals face, I want to discuss my experiences as a hearing impaired individual within the context of post-secondary education. I should stress that my experiences might not be reflective of others with hearing loss, as the level of support required will vary considerably between individuals.

My experience in the Classroom and at Conferences
As an undergraduate student, I managed to duck many of the issues that hearing-impaired students face in the classroom. I was lucky in that my level of speech understanding allowed me to get by without formal accommodation so long as I arrived at class early enough to get a seat front and center. However, this is problematic if you have a professor who likes to wander around, or when students ask a question from somewhere in the back row in a large classroom. Occasionally, I would have to ask a friend or a neighbour to fill me in on something. However, because there was a lot of redundancy between the material taught in class and the contents of the textbook, I managed to get by for the most part without any major problems (although there was one exception, which I will get to shortly).

Given my relative ease in coping with hearing loss in the undergraduate classroom, I managed to convince myself that I could make up for all the added challenges of having a hearing impairment without much substantial outside help. Then I started graduate school. Although the classes in graduate school were smaller, I found myself struggling even more because the material was more difficult. As I mentioned previously, the process of compensating for hearing impairment often involves using context and experience (or even the PowerPoint slides) to fill in the missing gaps, but when the material is also challenging, it is difficult to concentrate on both at the same time. Quite simply, I had reached my limit of compensation. To add to this, most of my classes and meetings involved group discussion, so it became essential for me to pay attention to what my peers were saying, which is difficult when everyone is spread out in a large boardroom.

In graduate school, I wasn’t always able to show up early to get the best seat. While most people in undergrad shy away from sitting in the front, it seems that most graduate students prefer to sit at the center of the conference room table (or at least that seems like the natural thing to do when you are one of the first people to arrive in the room). I was extremely shy about asking my peers if I could switch seats with them in the boardroom so I could be in a better position to see everyone. I often did not even bother asking, which compromised my ability to participate in discussion. I eventually recognized that these obstacles were easily surmised once I worked up the courage to ask my peers to trade seats with me, which they were more than willing to do.

Another issue I faced is that listening to someone with an accent is challenging for most people. However, whereas the average person can adapt pretty quickly, this is more difficult for someone with hearing loss, especially if there is noise in the background. In two cases during my undergraduate career, this required me to seek note-taking services for these particular classes. But in the academic or working world, this isn’t always an option. For example, conferences bring researchers together from around the globe, and it can be frustrating for individuals to carry out a conversation with someone you cannot understand. Not only is it also frustrating for them, but they often become self-conscious about their English ability and their accent, which adds awkwardness to a conversation. Secondly, when listening to a speaker with an accent, it is more difficult to follow along, especially when they are talking about a very dense and difficult subject. This is also a problem I’ve encountered in working with ESL clients.

Conference Calls or Online Lectures, or Videos
This domain has really been a test of my advocacy because most of the challenges I encountered here involved the process of obtaining supports for these mediums. I can recall two situations with two different professors over the course of my graduate career. The first one involved my assignment partner and I having to critique a lengthy video we had recorded of us practicing therapeutic techniques in a simulated environment. This required us to record our session using a stationary camera, which made it difficult to see anyone’s lips, and the audio quality wasn’t particularly great either. I asked the professor for video transcription, but this never materialized, which meant that it took my partner and I at least twice as long to critique our video as it should have, since she had to translate everything for me. In hindsight, I felt that I didn’t advocate for myself as much as I should have; if faced with the same situation again, I like to think I’d have acted differently. I didn’t talk about having the transcription as being necessity rather than convenience. Although the professor undoubtedly had good intentions, I walked away feeling that an extension on the assignment wasn’t a fair solution for my partner and myself.

In a second situation, we had an online conference call during one of our classes for a guest lecturer. I had assumed that since we’d be able to see the speaker’s face, it wouldn’t be an issue (and again, I was shy about advocating for myself at the time), but unfortunately, there was too much of a time delay between the audio and the video for it to be effective. Between shifting my attention back and forth between the speaker and the dense slides, I essentially got very little out of it. Thus, the professor and I agreed that we would need to recruit help for the second online guest lecture. In the end, this worked out really well. We moved the class to a classroom that was better equipped to support video, and I received an online transcription in real-time, which was very helpful to me (although not perfect, as they rarely are). However, I must confess that obtaining these supports felt like both a hassle and a struggle for all involved. I was also left with the impression that (at least at first), my professor didn’t appreciate the true extent of my disability and my needs, but in the end I certainly appreciated the efforts that the professor and disability services extended in order to make the lecture accessible to me.

My experiences in the clinic
Clinical or psychoeducational assessments rely on an accurate assessment of a client’s cognitive abilities or achievement. This frequently requires administration of a test where clients have to read out pseudowords (these are not real words but sound like they could be). Differences between syllables and mistakes in pronunciation are very difficult for me to hear (since even a mild hearing loss affects the frequencies in which speech sounds like “s” or “th” are produced). My strategy was to record my client and have someone else check it over at a later time, which usually worked well, and concerns were rarely raised. But this wasn’t always the case.

There is a memory test that requires the individual to repeat back words that he or she was asked to remember. Clients being assessed for dementia or cognitive impairment may make articulation errors that are indicative of a neurological condition, or they may falsely recall a word, instead naming a similar but incorrect word than the one they were asked to remember (for example, in a list containing several animals, they might remember “leopard” instead of “lion”). This case is problematic for someone with a hearing impairment like myself because I often rely on contextual cues for speech understanding. In this case, if I wasn’t sure what I heard, but I knew it was something that started with an ‘l’, based on contextual information, I would deduce that it would be more likely that the client would have said “lion” than another animal that begins with the same letter. But this isn’t always the case. Moreover, certain populations of patients with neurodegenerative disease will mispronounce words in ways that are subtle to even a hearing person, and such mispronunciations are important diagnostic clues. No one questioned the accuracy of my clinical notes and administration until my sixth and final practicum supervisor carefully reviewed the audio tapes that I had always been keeping and noticed that I had made an error in my scoring, even though I was so absolutely sure that I had heard the words correctly.

The apparently infallibility of my hearing ability was upsetting to me. Not only did it force me to think back on how many other errors I might have made in previous assessments, it really challenged my notion of feeling that I could be self-sufficient and minimize any indications that I might be “different”. Although this is a revelation that had been insidiously creeping up on me since I started graduate school (if not much earlier), its full impact didn’t fully manifest until I was forced to confront it directly. The notions of disability and shame that I had quietly developed quickly became disentangled for me.

As difficult as it was for me to hear, the conversation I had with my clinical supervisor dislocated me from my conditioned state of denial. The less I resisted, the more I began to appreciate the extent to which I minimized the physical barriers to my education. I started to see how some of the barriers were self-imposed and the impact of them on my actions; for example, my fear how my peers would react to switching seats with me actually perpetuated feelings of exclusion within a classroom environment because I was too afraid to ask for what I needed. At the time I thought this was okay. A 20-year history of coping without additional supports enabled a false sense of self-sufficiency, one that not only made me even more reluctant to not only seek help, but also to accept it.

Now, I only wonder how many others there who feel similarly. Or worse, I wonder how many people feel ashamed of their disability and don’t even know it.

About Rachel

mail.google
Rachel Wayne is a PhD candidate in the Clinical Psychology program at Queen’s University. Her research focuses on understanding ways in which we use environmental cues, context, and lip-reading to support conversational speech, particularly in noisy environments. The goal of this research is to provide a foundational basis for empirically supported rehabilitative programs for hearing-impaired individuals. Rachel can be contacted at 8rw16[at]queensu.ca

Teaching entomology in a world afraid of bugs

Perched on a cantaloupe slice, the palm-sized animal – with its glossy chitinous surface and half dozen legs – sat motionless. The black-green bug looked more like a statuesque chess piece and less like a creepy insect. It was probably the reason why Dan Babbit chose the Atlas Beetle as his companion and ice breaker. Babbit is the manager of Smithsonian’s Insect zoo, and that day he was addressing a new group of museum volunteers and he started with the blunt question: “Is anyone afraid of bugs?”

Never before had I’d seen a science discussion start with a disclaimer.

Dan was being careful before bringing the live specimen for the volunteer’s closer inspection. Who can blame him – in the US alone there are 19 million entomophobes. How can we teach entomology to such a crowd? Can we break the bug phobia stereotype?

Here at Sci-Ed we started investigating reasons that may explain the fear of bugs. We mentioned repulsion, disease-carrying potential, cultural aversion, and even deeper philosophical issues. Now, we list suggestions to encourage the general public to value insects:

  1. Changing our perception of the bug. Phillip Weinstein recommends we “put insects in a more positive light, and to remove such fears as may be passed on from parents, zoos and museums can play an integral educational role.” At the Smithsonian’s Insect Zoo, Dan Babbit creates a safe and fun environment for visitors to learn more about insects and arachnids. Which brings me to the next topic…

    Students and volunteers prep butterflies at Florida Museum of Natural History. The lab is open to visitors during special events. Photo by the author.
    Students and volunteers prep butterflies at Florida Museum of Natural History. The lab is open to visitors during special events. Photo by the author.
  2. Creating mesmerizing museum exhibits.  At the Smithsonian’s insect zoo, visitors can face their fears by watching the daily tarantula feedings. Children sit on the floor in expectation, and adults toughen up to touch a cockroach atop a researcher’s hand. At the Florida Museum of Natural History, visitors can watch students and volunteers pin butterflies for the museum’s lepidoptera collection. (An epic collection, housed in a three story building, library-style: each book-sized spot contains one box of butterflies or moths). If you catch curator Andy Warren, you may even get a behind the scenes tour of oddities in the moth and butterfly world.

    Lepidoptera curator Andy Warren gives visitors a backstage look at the butterfly collection. Florida Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.
    Lepidoptera curator Andy Warren gives visitors a backstage look at the butterfly collection. Florida Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.
  3. Fostering cool class projects, like spidernauts. Babbitt, who keeps a space spider in his freezer, has talked to Sci-Ed earlier about engaging the public and raising their interest in arthropods. Stories like the space spiders brought a lot of attention to those invertebrates. Jumping spiders were sent to the space station and broadcast to thousands of classrooms on Earth. Kids accompanied the arachnid’s journey by observing their own hand-caught spiders. After the experiment was over, one of the spiders, Nefertiti, was flown back to Earth and housed in the Insect Zoo. Visitors who may walk right past a spider exhibit felt compelled to stop and ask about the space spider.

  4. Exploring resources. Websites have resources for kids, such as a bug identification chart (pdf) and “mini-beast” mansion tutorial.   Bloggers such as Alex Wilde and Bug Girl are popularizing the insect topic.

  5. Taking advantage of outreach programs. According to entomologist turned psychologist Jeffrey Lockwood, “About 20 percent of children fearful of spider and insects report learning their aversion from parents”. Kids are not innately afraid. During a visit to the University of Florida Entomology Department, I asked resident expert Stephanie Stocks if she observes the parent effect during school visits. Much like Dan Babbit, Stocks brings zoo bugs in tow. She reported that, up to second grade, children are unanimously curious. Some older kids, however, learned from their parents that they should step back. Arachnologist Chris Buddle visits kids in their classrooms and describes the experience in his blog – along with a powerful call to arms. Buddle states that spending time teaching kids about entomology is always worth it.

    Entomologist Stephanie Stocks shows visitors a live vinegaroon in a University of Florida classroom.
    Entomologist Stephanie Stocks shows visitors a live vinegaroon in a University of Florida classroom.
  6. Participating in pop culture.  Like we said before in Sci-Ed, using storytelling and heroes to teach science won’t hurt. One study (pdf) found, unsurprisingly, that children did much better at identifying Pokémon types as opposed to animal or bug species. Films such as A Bug’s Life and Antz took the anthropomorphic route. In the words of Lockwood, “If turning humans into insects countenances hate, then turning insects into humans has the opposite effect. Artists humanize insect heroes by transforming their alien features into eyes, mouths, heads, and appendages more like our own.”

    A Bug's Life. Photo credit:  Walt Disney Pictures.
    Anthropomorphized insects in A Bug’s Life. Photo credit: Walt Disney Pictures.
  7. Keeping a pet bug.  Curator Andy Warren told me he was once afraid of spiders, which sounds like a peculiar setback for an entomologist. Warren conquered his fear after caring for a pet tarantula. One study tracks thousands of children to look into the effects of  keeping an invertebrate pet. The authors observed several benefits from keeping a pet insect that go way beyond loosing fear of bugs and contribute to an expanded view of ecology and science.

I might get a pet beetle myself. And hope that one day we won’t need to start classes by asking if anyone’s afraid of bugs.

Owl butterfly at Florida Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.
Owl butterfly at Florida Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.

References and further reading

  • Balmford et al. Why conservationists should heed Pokemon. Science 295 (5564): 2367b, 2002.

  • Prokop et al. Effects of keeping animals as pets on children’s concepts of vertebrates and invertebrates. International Journal of Science Education, Vol 30, No 4, 431-449, 2008.

  • Snaddon et al. Children’s Perceptions of Rainforest Biodiversity: Which Animals Have the Lion’s Share of Environmental Awareness? PLOS One DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0002579 , 2008.

Using Math to make Guinness

William Sealy Gosset, statistician and rebel | Picture from Wikimedia Commons

Let me tell you a story about William Sealy Gosset. William was a Chemistry and Math grad from Oxford University in the class of 1899 (they were partying like it was 1899 back then). After graduating, he took a job with the brewery of Arthur Guinness and Son, where he worked as a mathematician, trying to find the best yields of barley.

But this is where he ran into problems.

One of the most important assumptions in (most) statistical tests is that you have a large enough sample size to create inferences about your data. You can’t make many comments if you only have 1 data point. 3? Maybe. 5? Possibly. Ideally, we want at least 20-30 observations, if not more. It’s why when a goalie in hockey, or a batter in baseball, has a great game, you chalk it up to being a fluke, rather than indicative of their skill. Small sample sizes are much more likely to be affected by chance and thus may not be accurate of the underlying phenomena you’re trying to measure. Gosset, on the other hand, couldn’t create 30+ batches of Guinness in order to do the statistics on them. He had a much smaller sample size, and thus “normal” statistical methods wouldn’t work.

Gosset wouldn’t take this for an answer. He started writing up his thoughts, and examining the error associated with his estimates. However, he ran into problems. His mentor, Karl Pearson, of Pearson Product Moment Correlation Coefficient fame, while supportive, didn’t really appreciate how important the findings were. In addition, Guiness had very strict policies on what their employees could publish, as they were worried about their competitors discovering their trade secrets. So Gosset did what any normal mathematician would.

He published under a pseudonym. In a startlingly rebellious gesture, Gosset published his work in Biometrika titled “The Probable Error of a Mean.” (See, statisticians can be badasses too). The name he used? Student. His paper for the Guinness company became one of the most important statistical discoveries of the day, and the Student’s T-distribution is now an essential part of any introductory statistics course.

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So why am I telling you this? Well, I’ve talked before about the importance of storytelling as a way to frame scientific discovery, and I’ve also talked about the importance of mathematical literacy in a modern society. This piece forms the next part of that spiritual trilogy. Math is typically taught in a very dry, very didactic format – I recite Latin to you, you remember it, I eventually give you a series of questions to answer, and that dictates your grade in the class. Often, you’re only actually in the class because it’s a mandatory credit you need for high school or your degree program. There’s very little “discovery” occurring in the math classroom.

Capturing interest thus becomes of paramount importance to instructors, especially in math which faces a societal stigma of being “dull,” “boring” and “just for nerds.” A quick search for “I hate math” on Twitter yields a new tweet almost every minute from someone expressing those sentiments, sometimes using more “colourful” language (at least they’re expanding their vocabulary?).

There are lots of examples of these sorts of interesting anecdotes about math. The “Scottish book” was a book named after the Scottish Café in Lviv, Ukraine, where mathematicians would leave a potentially unsolvable problem for their colleagues to tackle. Successfully completing these problems would result in you receiving a prize ranging from a bottle of brandy to, I kid you not, a live goose (thanks Mariana for that story!) The Chudnovsky Brothers built a machine in their apartment that calculated Pi to two billion decimal places. I asked for stories on Twitter and @physicsjackson responded with:

Amalie (Emmy) Noether is probably the most famous mathematician you’ve never heard of | Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

There’s also the story of Amalie Noether, the architect behind Noether’s theorem, which basically underpins all modern physics. Dr Noether came to prominence at a time when women were largely excluded from academic positions, yet rose through the ranks to become one of the most influential figures of that time, often considered at the same level of brilliance as Marie Curie. Her mathematical/physics contemporaries included David Hilbert, Felix Klein and Albert Einstein, who took up her cause to help her get a permanent position, and often sought out her opinion and thoughts. Indeed, after Einstein stated his theory of general relativity, it was Noether who then took this to the next level and linked time and energy. But don’t take my word for it – Einstein himself said:

In the judgment of the most competent living mathematicians, Fräulein Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.

While stories highlight the importance of these discoveries, they also highlight the diversity that exists within the scientific community. Knowing that the pantheon of science and math heroes includes people who aren’t all “math geniuses” can make math much more engaging and interesting. Finally, telling stories of the people behind math can demystify the science, and engage youth who may not consider math as a career path.

Pardon Me? How to Enable Successful Communication with the Hearing Impaired

Today, Sci-Ed is happy to welcome Rachel Wayne to the blog for the first of three posts to discuss hearing impairment in higher education. For more about Rachel, see the end of this post.

Here are a few things you should know about me: I am a PhD student in clinical psychology. I enjoy writing, hiking, single malt whisky. I love to travel and listen to live music.

I’m also hard of hearing, and have been since birth. I was born to two deaf parents and my sister is hard of hearing as well (Note: Both the terms “deaf” and “hard of hearing” refer to individuals with hearing impairment; those who rely on sign language for communication generally identify as being deaf, whereas hard of hearing refers to those relying primarily on oral speech).

Estimates of the prevalence of hearing impairment in the general population vary dramatically depending on the criteria used. According to the World Health Organization, the prevalence of permanent, congenital hearing loss in the US is roughly 1% . However, approximately 25% of individuals aged 65-75 years and 70-80% of individuals over the age of 75 suffer from age-related hearing loss.

These are hearing aids that I wear
These are hearing aids that I wear | Click the image to go to the manufacturer’s website

I have a severe-to-profound hearing loss and I wear two hearing aids. In case you’re wondering, no, I can’t hear anything without them. Through a lot of effort and support from my family and speech therapists, most people are largely unaware of my hearing impairment, that is, until we find ourselves in a noisy hallway or café and I ask them to repeat themselves (often numerous times). I’ve encountered some unique challenges during my undergraduate studies, but now that I’m in graduate school, the environment has changed. And the stakes are higher.

In retrospect, I’m very lucky to be where I am, and I’m committed to improving the lives of hearing impaired individuals and students.

In order to understand the perspective of what it’s like for someone with hearing loss both inside and outside of the classroom, it’s important to dispel some common misperceptions about coping with hearing impairment. Below are five key strategies requisite to successful communication with hearing impaired individuals (Please note that most of these points assume that the individual uses oral speech rather than sign language).

1) It’s not just about amplification, it’s about clarity.
I once emailed a well-known psychologist who produces demonstrative therapy videos for students and clinicians. Her DVDs were not subtitled, and as such I could not benefit from having access to them, so I asked if it was possible to obtain a set with subtitles. The response I received from her staff member (who had PhD and thus was academically endowed) was that they did not provide subtitles, but that I might consider listening through a headset so as to increase the volume level. Similarly, in high school, I asked my French teacher to repeat something, and she responded with “turn up your hearing aid”.

Good hearing ability requires both good sensitivity (i.e., level of volume), as well as good acuity. While hearing aids and other assistive listening devices provide a boost in sensitivity (that is, they make sounds louder), they unfortunately don’t compensate for deficits in acuity (meaning that they don’t make sounds clearer or more resolvable). My research supervisor likens this to taking someone who has myopic vision and increasing the brightness of the room without giving them glasses. Thus, as you can see, amplification is only a partial solution to the problem.

2) We need to see your lips.
Because of an inability to rely on auditory input, many hard of hearing and deaf individuals rely heavily on visual speech input (or lip-reading) for speech understanding. We actually all do this, but people who are hard of hearing, like myself, rely on visual speech more than the average person. In fact, you may be surprised to know that many of these individuals can understand you through lip-reading alone! However, it’s important to remember that visual speech is affected by lighting conditions, distance from the speaker, and visual obstructions (like covering your hand with your mouth, which people often do, to be polite while eating). For this reason, it is also considered polite to get the attention of the individual before you start speaking to them. Incidentally, it’s also not a good idea to over-enunciate; we have less experience with exaggerated speech movements, and thus they are often actually more difficult to understand! However, the catch is that everyone’s visual speech looks a bit different, so individuals with accents or less typical speech production movements can be harder to lip-read.

3) Hearing is especially harder when there is background noise
Individuals with hearing loss are significantly more adversely affected by interference from background noise or disruptions. Given the deficits in hearing acuity, it is very difficult for someone who is hard of hearing to separate the target message from the background. Therefore, they have to rely more on context, experience, or informed guesses to understand what’s being said. Which leads to the next point…

4) Speech understanding requires effort
Since those with hearing impairments have to rely on visual information and other sources of information to boost speech understanding, this means that hearing is more effortful in this population. As an analogy, think about trying to hear a conversation in a noisy restaurant or a crowded pub; it’s not as easy as when you’re listening in a quiet room. However, the reality is that most of our conversations (especially outside of the classroom) take place in these environments. In addition, understanding becomes more effortful not just as you increase the background noise, but also as the content of the message becomes more challenging (e.g., think about trying to follow an intense academic discussion in a pub vs. talking about what you ate for dinner last night). Both of these factors draw on your cognitive capacity.

5) Subtitles for Audiovisual Media are Absolutely Necessary
Audiovisual media are largely unsuitable for even someone with mild hearing loss. In the case of voice-over narration or when the camera is facing elsewhere or too far away from the speaker, lip-reading becomes impossible. Even if the camera is focused on the speaker for the entire duration of the clip, the resolution and visual clarity often does not match those of real-life conditions, making lip-reading difficult. This is also complicated by the fact that films or media often have music playing in the background. An analogy I often give is watching a foreign movie in a language for which you aren’t entirely fluent without subtitles. Not very easy or enjoyable is it? Subtitles (or closed captioning) aren’t a luxury for those with hearing impairments; they are a necessity.

In conjunction with the above principles, successful communication with hearing-impaired individuals ultimately relies on sensitivity and patience. You may sometimes forget to employ some of these strategies from time to time, and that’s quite normal. In fact, my friends and colleagues occasionally forget to look at me while speaking, apologetically remarking that they often forget I have a disability. I take this as a great compliment. The suggestion that my disability has faded into the background, I think, is the hallmark of true integration.

References:
1: http://www.who.int/healthinfo/statistics/bod_hearingloss.pdf
2: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001045.htm

About Rachel

mail.google
Rachel Wayne is a PhD candidate in the Clinical Psychology program at Queen’s University. Her research focuses on understanding ways in which we use environmental cues, context, and lip-reading to support conversational speech, particularly in noisy environments. The goal of this research is to provide a foundational basis for empirically supported rehabilitative programs for hearing-impaired individuals. Rachel can be contacted at 8rw16[at]queensu.ca