The message and the messenger

I recently watched a wonderful film called “Don’t Look Up” starring Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio. I’m not giving away too much of the plot when I say that the central theme is the discovery by two astronomers (Lawrence and DiCaprio) of a giant comet on a collision course with Earth and the struggles of the above two to have the issue taken seriously by US government and media. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The portrayal of the US president by Meryl Streep is helplessly funny.

It got me thinking about the many ways in which journalism conspires against science. And I think this is a unique position. It’s not that the science is intrinsically complex (although it often is) per se, it’s more that this is not seen to be personally relevant. After all, how many of us really understand say derivatives and suchlike in the stock market yet we happily hand over our money for investment in these arenas. At worst, this is the equivalent of making someone who can spell hepatosplenomegaly head of NASA. They may have won the spelling bee, but understand nothing of the science.

It is too easy to confuse the message with its messenger. In a cloud of social media interactions, we are more interested in “likes” and comments than core substance. What does a “like” actually mean? So many may well click the like button on this piece without actually liking it at all. It is really a gesture of acknowledgement, nothing more. Why bother? If I don’t provoke an opinion or evoke a reaction, I’m wasting my time.

Some years ago the Royal Society operated a scheme of media fellowships and I very nearly applied for one but it coincided with a particularly productive period of research in my laboratory. I thought it was better to push the science further rather than learn how to communicate it to people who don’t have a background in science. But there was also a fundamental difference in ethos. The media fellowships were intended to train scientists in how to communicate their science rather than the other way round. The idea was that scientists would work in newsrooms and learn how to communicate the science against competing news stories and time deadlines.

Essentially this was one way traffic. Although placing scientists in newsrooms had value, there was no apparent interest in say putting journalists into laboratories. It was always a case that we, the scientists, had to play in the journalists’ backyard not the other way round. I would have loved entertaining a journalist in my lab and getting them to understand what motivates scientists, what their drives and urges are, and why it is so important. To me that seems an opportunity lost.

There is a danger in dumbing down science. In the end, readers and viewers have the headline but not the column inches that support it. A good friend of mine is one of the best people I know for generating headlines and taglines. Call me a snob if you will but I feel that’s something of a wasted intellect. A brilliant pun does not make somebody read an article. And if it does it is in some way an indictment of journalism over science.

Science isn’t always simple. Often it isn’t. Often complex concepts cannot be condensed to the time period of the average crap.

Take my field – neuroscience in general and Parkinson’s in particular. At one level, Parkinson’s is due to a loss of dopamine in the brain. Simple. Let’s dig a little deeper – it’s one particular part of the brain, the basal ganglia, which receives nerve input from the substantia nigra. Did you see what I did there? Already we have talked of regional differences and we have introduced two new terms. Less simple. What causes these cells – we call them neurons – to die? If we are going to talk about causes and prevention, we need to say something about this. It’s about here that we come up against the point where knowledge and hypothesis collide. We know a little bit about how they die but less about why. This is the point at which the media loses interest. There is no simple way of giving appropriate weight to this lack of certainty. Media stories require a beginning, middle and end. Science is open-ended. One answer generates two questions. The media does not work like that.

This trivialisation and misinterpretation leads to all sorts of nonsense. I’m tired of the current conspiracy theory – that pharmaceutical companies do not want a cure for Parkinson’s. The reasoning behind this is that, by doing so, they would eliminate their own source of income. This is paranoia. I don’t believe for one second that drug companies are philanthropic but I do believe that, if they are engaged in Parkinson’s at all, they are looking avidly to be the first company that finds a cure.

This brings me full circle. If people entertain this sort of nonsense, it is due to the failings of people like myself as scientists (and I just about still qualify) to communicate our message in a sea of sometimes ill informed but persuasively written journalism. Therein lies the dilemma. Dumbing down of science is a slippery slope. Eventually you reach the point where the science or the story has to take priority. I’m not sure I would make the same choice as a newsroom editor.

The Armada comes to Southend?

A good friend of mine, that I shall not embarrass by using his name, said to me recently that he admired my get-up-and-go. If I made up my mind to do something, I would not prevaricate. Once decided, off I went. I make a decision and then act upon it. No further discussion.

Let me give you an example. An item on the BBC website last week talked about a Spanish galleon visiting our shores. Last week it was moored in Weymouth but, more usefully, it was due to arrive in Southend at midday on Wednesday and moor at the end of Southend Pier.

Not the kind of thing you come across every day, I thought. Besides, hadn’t we sunk the last bunch of galleons to come our way? Francis Drake? Playing bowls? Fire ships et cetera. It all comes flooding back.

Well, this is of course a replica galleon, not the real thing. None of those left. Nonetheless, worthy perhaps of a little excursion with the camera.
Geographically it looks simple. Thirty five miles as the crow flies. Easy peasy.

The thing is that the crow doesn’t fly from Tonbridge to Southend. The crow’s hypothetical 35 miles transmogrifies into 56 miles by road and sill more by rail. Big deal I hear you say. And for any other motorist, the 56 miles present no obstacle. But for old parky boy here it might just as well be 500 miles. My motoring these days is confined, by mutual consent with my children, to little more than trips to the supermarket or to the local pub for a glass of alcohol free stout (and yes such a thing does exist). You have to know your limitations and these are mine.

But a few weeks ago I was issued with my disabled persons railcard, providing a 33% reduction in rail fares. So I decide to let the train take the strain. No crows, no cars. Onto Trainline to calculate the various permutations of the journey available to me. 09:44 Tonbridge to London Bridge, due to arrive at 10:19. A quick overland schlep to Fenchurch Street in order to catch the 11:12 to Southend Central due to arrive at said destination at 11:58. Simples.

For a normal able-bodied person with a car, the itinerary goes something like this:

11:00 a.m. Get in car and drive to destination.
12.00 p.m. Get out of car at destination.

For myself a person with Parkinson’s it’s more like this:

6:11 AM all Start to draw up list of required items (medications, sunglasses, hat, disabled Railcard, blue badge, walking stick, tens pads, camera, phone and three speed orbital sander. Yes, you’re right about the orbital sander – just checking to see who is still awake.
6:55 AM Pack said items (minus the orbital sander) into appropriate bag.
7:05 AM Go through selection of bags to determine which is most appropriate. Finally pack the items into the bag again.
7:33 AM Go through possible weather scenarios in order to travel with due deference to the weather but not obsessive.
7:38 AM Take 30 minutes to redefine obsessive and weather. Repack bag once more.
8:08 AM Leave house.
8:11 AM Return to house and check all doors are locked.
8:13 AM Leave house.
8:20 AM Reassess weather and decide Arctic grey Russian hat is surplus to requirement. Return to house to adjust packing.
8:23 AM Leave house.
8:37 AM Arrive at Tonbridge car park.
8:38 AM Take 11 circuits of car park to decide upon the best disabled parking spot. Switch off engine.
8:43 AM Switch on engine after seeing a car vacate a better spot.
8:49 AM Pursue said car to exit then take said space. Switch off engine.
8:58 AM Stand behind painfully slow woman to buy a ticket. Woman is from Latvia, has two children and a husband in the Russian army. She does not understand the ticket machine and is trying to scan her passport. The queue is getting longer. Rail employees explain that she does not need her passport. This takes a while. None speak Russian. Trains come and go including mine.
9:11 AM Mood of the queue is turning ugly. Nobody able to help (unless tut-tutting counts). Decide to pay on train.
9:17 AM Take the next train. Conductor cheerfully informs passengers there is no working toilet on the train. Not good news.
9:58 AM Jump off the train at London Bridge with the kind of speed associated with Olympic sprinters on way to toilet.
10:01 AM Snatch victory from the jaws of defeat so to speak. That was a close one.
10:11 AM Set off to Fenchurch Street on foot.
10:22 AM Lurching walk persuades me taxi is the better deal.
10:26 AM Flag down taxi.
10:27 AM Swiftly realise taxi driver is unrehabilitated West Ham supporter.
10:28 AM Forced to listen to entire lifetime’s worth of racist drivel.
10:41 AM Decide not to tip him.
10:42 AM 30 minutes to spare before connecting train. Time to compare the culinary options for lunch. M & S for a sandwich of crayfish tails, a side salad and a pomegranate spritzer. Or Burger King’s “Meat Is Murder” slab of dead things in a bun.
10:51 AM Decide to slaughter crayfish instead. Not sure why things that live in water have a lower moral price. Not sure I would agree if I was a crayfish.
11:01 AM Train is announced. Platform three.
11:12 AM On time departure.
11:58 AM Arrive in Southend punctually after around 20 stops. Mostly modern boxy dwellings. Lots of BMWs with tinted windows. High preponderance generally of drug dealers it seems. Essex. Not a fan.
12:05 PM Walk down to Southend Pier. Masts visible in the distance. Decide to use the little railway. Decidedly rickety. Like me. The souvenir shop sells postcards showing occasions when it appears the railway collapsed into the sea. Not reassuring.

A word about Southend Pier. Apparently, and entirely unbeknown to me, Southend boasts the longest pleasure pier in the world at the length of 1.34 miles (over 7000 feet) and more than 2 km. By any standards, a large narrow projection out into the estuary although wide enough to have its own railway along its length. In the words of one time resident, the poet laureate John Betjeman “the pier is Southend. Southend is the pier”.

The length of the pier is largely determined by the geography. Southend mud flats extend so far beyond the coast that high tide is as little as 18 feet, making navigation closer to the shore impossible for keeled boats and yachts. The pier was first opened in 1889 and the railway a year later. Used as housing for prisoners of war during World War I, and by the Royal Navy in the Second World War, the pier has experienced several fires.

12:15 PM Join the queue waiting to be allowed to board the galleon at 2 PM.
12:35 PM Much queue jumping by people who don’t speak English. Apparently Spanish do not queue.
13:05 p.m. Take out my camera only to realise I have left the SD card behind. Young mother asks me not to swear in front of her child. I apologise and explain. Another takes my email address and offers to take pictures on her camera for me. Sue from Shoeburyness. Touched by her kindness but not optimistic I will see the photos.
13:30 PM Interviewed by local news station for their evening bulletin. “Is this my first time aboard a Spanish galleon?” Er…yes.
14:05 PM Nominal opening time of 2 PM comes and goes.
14:25 PM Gate finally opens and we are ushered/bundled aboard.
14:55 PM Shown off ship. Buy sticks of Southend Rock and head back to shore on rickety railway. Can’t remember when I last had candy floss. Must be decades. Decide against the “Kiss me quick” baseball cap. If
15Which:15 PM Same goes for the pirate hat.
15:22 PM Train back to Fenchurch Street.
16:11 PM Taxi to London Bridge (Millwall supporter this time, just as politically incorrect). He doesn’t get a tip either aIffter listening to the sewage which passes for informed comment in his book.
16:32 PM Train to Tonbridge. Uneventful.
17:29 PM Home.
17:54 PM Phone pings. Message from Sue. Photos of galleon attached. What a sweet lady.

Jon’s Joyriders

As some of you know I used to be a keen if less than gifted cricketer playing nightwatchman in my village’s 4th XI. At no point in my painfully drawnout cricketing ‘career’, if it can be called such, did I set the scoreboard alight with my strokeplay. I played each ball on merit – sadly my version of merit rather than that of the delivery. My forward defensive was indistinguishable from say a hook in the general direction of square leg.

In 2012 I retired from cricket. Then again in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021. And all points in between. I made more comebacks, if they amount to that, than a person who has made a very large number of comebacks. Each one was largely unnoticed. Even by myself.

My most recent retirement, on medical grounds was clearest. Having had electrodes implanted deep into my brain (yes, really – they don’t call it deep brain stimulation for nothing) and a battery pack in my chest, I was advised by my neurologist that playing cricket was tantamount to suicide. I thought he was commenting on my batting but he actually meant what he said. A direct hit by a cricket ball on my battery pack – and with my limited ability to read the delivery leaving the bowler’s hand, that’s a very real possibility – might rupture the cell and fill my chest with lithium. Not good. “And if that doesn’t kill you, I will” he said. “You are not to play cricket”.

“So, reading between the lines” I said, “you don’t think I should play cricket?” Even so, I don’t think he should have called security to have me removed from the building. I can take a hint.

So last season, following retirement number 10, I set out to find new ways of enjoying cricket from the sidelines, occasionally venturing onto the playing surface to bring out gloves or squash during the drinks interval, sometimes even discreetly helping myself to a slice of unsupervised fruitcake or a sandwich or two. Sometimes I took my camera to games and, occasionally got some good shots. My way of being involved as much as I could from the sidelines.

But this season I have discovered club fantasy cricket. Okay not the same as playing cricket but it does involve playing cricket. Specifically others playing cricket. Basically you enter a hypothetical team (derived from real players at the club itself) on a given budget. It’s all a bit IPL-ish. Each week points are awarded to the players on the basis of the runs they score, the wickets they take along with stumpings and catches. I shan’t name names but here are my 11 players.

TT – batsman. Started out as a spin bowler, much like his elder brother but has become a talented batsman.

AB – batsman. Son of one of the BYJ’s legends. Volatile and aggressive bat.

R LD – batsman principally. Fairly consistent scorer. Good anchor.

AW – batsman. Perhaps a gamble but could be a fair bet.

VP – all-rounder. Guaranteed to take wickets and guaranteed to score heavily and quickly. Probably in everybody’s fancy team.

JH – all-rounder and captain. Lovely batsman to watch, beautiful timing and can be relied upon to bowl some overs if needed. A wise head on relatively young shoulders. The obvious choice for captain.

MHC – wicket-keeper. Replacing previous keeper who has broken his toe. Loves his cricket. Good egg and team player.

GS – bowler. Club legend. Say no more.

DO – bowler. I would have put him in the all-rounder category to be honest. Always likely to get wickets when called upon.

CM – bowler. Can also bat a bit if needed. Elegant bowling action reminiscent of Jeff Thompson to me at least.

TM – bowler. Another one who can bat a bit. Probably the most complicated bowling action I’ve ever seen but seems to get wickets.

After one week, my team’s lies 12th out of 33 teams. And I have high hopes for the season. In the spirit of the IPL I have named my team “Jon’s Joyriders”.