Harnessing Gamer Power: The Citizen Science of EVE

Gamers are great. I’m not just saying that because my fiance and I are gamers, I swear (riiiight). Gamers are great because of their dedication, persistence, and loyalty – and now, scientists are taking advantage of those qualities to get gamers to do science from home. EVE Online is a space-based MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role playing game) that, if you like World of Warcraft, No Man’s Sky, or doing your own taxes, you’ll really enjoy. My fiance tells me that it’s basically ‘multiplayer spreadsheets’ with trading, pirates, industry, and more. And part of that more is SCIENCE.

Swiss company Massively Multiplayer Online Science (MMOS) and students of Reykjavik University worked with CCP (the company behind EVE) to create a minigame where players help classify images for the Human Protein Atlas. The Human Protein Atlas is a project aiming to map out protein distribution throughout the human body; this would give scientists everywhere a greater understanding of how our bodies work normally, and what happens when they don’t function as planned.

Screenshot from EVE
Screenshot from EVE

The minigame is pretty simple in concept, though it shows just how close some scientific calls can be. The game gives you the image on the left with red stains for the cytoskeleton, blue for the nucleus, and green for the protein of interest. You can toggle on or off any of these colors to get a better look at different parts of the image. Then, you select the pattern of protein distribution and where you see it, using the hexagons on the right. There’s a nifty tutorial for everyone to get the hang of it, and you get in game rewards for participating – including The Sisters of Eve Combat Armour and Analysis Coat, and other items that you can then sell for in-game cash.

This is citizen science at it’s finest – harnessing the power of our collective free time to help complete truly massive scientific undertakings. The science adds yet another layer of game play for dedicated EVE players and in return uses the free labor, disguised as fun, to chip away at dense scientific projects. What’s more, there’s a decent bit of cellular biology involved in taking on this project – I would bet that players are learning a lot about the structures in a cell from playing this minigame and, to me, it seemed like it would make a fun review activity for high school biology classes.

If you can’t get enough of science and just need to do it from home, or if you think this project is visionary and you want to try it out, you can sign up for a free trial here. My fiance tells me that players who are dedicated to EVE (notably, himself) are able to make enough in-game money to not pay real dollars for their gaming experience, and that’s a win for everyone.

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‘Bee’ Reviewed: Pandemic

Nyx: Does this box make me look too small?

Today we’re reviewing something a  bit different on ‘Bee’ Reviewed – a board game! Pandemic is the brainchild of Matt Leacock. The game is a great example of integrating science and culture, and it’s also a super fun game you can play with kids (teaching them that they, too, can be a scientist or researcher!).

Pandemic is a cooperative game, meaning that all the players are on the same team, working together to beat a very difficult game; this style is pretty non-traditional as the average best-selling tabletop games (Monopoly, Life, Stratego, etc) are all competitive. This mirrors the cooperative structure of science – we build on the works of others and must work together to succeed. In the game, you play as a team of medics, pilots, researchers, and scientists (each with your own special ability) working to stop four diseases from taking over the world by finding cures. If you’ve ever played Plague Inc, this game was the precursor to that app and is multi-player (up to four people, the recommended age being 10+). Together you treat disease, research cures, build research stations, and travel the world to stop… a pandemic.

Beyond being a ton of fun and, because of the element of chance, having a very different game each time you play, Pandemic reinforces the importance of science to our modern society and health. The game also builds communication skills and the ability to think several steps ahead and describe that logic. It pushes people to take risks because you can only be so certain that something will work, but be all in on that risk together. It’s a great game for families to play together and bond but it also mirrors so many of the ways the scientific community actually functions (without boring you with real virology). The only way you could dislike this game is if you’re fundamentally opposed to not being competitive or are a super troll in real life (in which case people will hate you for spoiling their attempts at team work and you should politely go back into your cave and leave them alone to yell at people on the internet).

One of my favorite things about Pandemic is that it shows scientists and researchers, logic and strategy and knowledge, saving the world. I know it’s just a game, but it might be nice if knowledge and logic and science were given a little more world-saving appreciation in the modern era (over punching people or superpowers). Pandemic aims to do just that while simultaneously providing you and your team mates with many, many hours of fun for only $25.

The only thing I can fault this game for is that it has a lot of small pieces – you wouldn’t want to play in areas with very small children, who might try eating the pretty disease-cubes and choke. But other than the mess of cubes, that you’re almost certain to lose one or two of over time, the game itself is well designed, easy to learn, and pretty fast to play (for a cooperative game). The game has several levels, ranging from Novice to Legendary, so you can even ‘customize’ game play based on how tired you’re feeling when you sit down to start.

Not convinced? Watch this episode of Tabletop with Wil Wheaton to see all the fun you’re missing.

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More on Communicating Science to Skeptics

Photo by George Wesley and Bonita Dannells entitled ‘Maple seeds – the samara’ (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic), link through photo
Photo by DanaK~WaterPenny entitled ‘Science, it works.’ (Attribution 2.0 Generic), link through photo

In June I made a post about ‘mis-trusting science’ in response to an article/commencement speech published in The New Yorker by Atul Gawande; Gawande is a pretty big name in science-writing, having both been published in and been an editor for The Best American Science Writing series (and his work was even picked to be in THE BEST of the best, too!). Given that he’s a pretty preeminent science-communicator, you’d think that he’d have the dirt on how to communicate science… but his speech has been torn apart by other communicators for a wide variety of reasons.

In my post I argued that Gawande was thinking too small, discussing how to change the mindset of a single individual when really it was a radical shift in how we all share information that needs to occur (i.e. checking we have the facts, etc, before making that FB post). Until our culture could learn to respect facts over sensationalism, community consensus over our personal ego, we were wasting our time trying to change one person’s outlook on science; your facts could never persuade in the face of a constant barrage of sensationalist coverage and rampant individualism (read: narcissism).

Each time I would try to convince one particular acquaintance to give evolution or vaccines a serious look (“I was never vaccinated, and I’m fine!”), I would get back “I don’t care enough about these issues to look into them more. But maybe someday I’ll sit down and start to sort through the evidence. Until then, though, I don’t need to know more about these things.” This response has always frustrated me because there’s nothing to debate here, other than the merits of laziness, and also implies that this individual is a better decision maker on vaccinations/evolution than people who have obtained their PhDs and published papers on the matter. We both know this individual is not going to spend the time on evolution to become a real, scientific, expert – he’s not going to put in the time of a PhD candidate or a researcher. He’s going to learn enough to justify one opinion or the other and move on, if he looks into it at all, never taking the words of real experts into account but just satisfying his personal ego.

The internet has created an echo-chamber for ignorance, allowing people to justify their lack of knowledge by pointing to the sensationalist ‘controversy’ surrounding an issue instead of realizing that scientists have reached a pretty definite consensus on certain issues. Amazingly, my own experience working in biology – the fact that I have sorted through more of the evidence and read real, peer-reviewed scientific papers – matters not at all to this individual; to Gawande’s point that we all feel like we’re the only expert on every subject in the world, I heartily agree.

Photo by The Kingsway School entitled ‘open evening (17 of 57)’ (Attribution 2.0 Generic), link through photo

Another critic, Richard Grant, has come up against Gawande’s article saying “People don’t like being told what to do… I don’t think people who object to vaccines or GMOs are at heart anti-science. Some are, for sure, and these are the dangerous ones. But most people simply want to know that someone is listening, that someone is taking their worries seriously; that someone cares for them.” He argues that scientists aren’t successful because they bring facts, graphs, and figures to the debate which feels arrogant and cold. Science-communicators must take the time to listen to our anti-science audience, Grant asserts, if we are to change both the minds and hearts of our anti-science compatriots.

Grant says that charlatans have already recognized the need for belonging and listening, creating these self-affirming anti-science communities that can be difficult to penetrate, and writes, “Tellingly, Gawande refers to the ‘scientific community’; and he’s absolutely right, there. Most science communication isn’t about persuading people; it’s self-affirmation for those already on the inside.” This is something I can, on the whole, agree with (in ever more concentric circles of exclusivity as scientists generally write for others in their discipline) – but I also question the value of Grant’s strategy of appealing to the hearts/emotions of the anti-science crowd.

My acquaintance is not afraid of vaccines and he isn’t troubled or upset by them (though I know some are, and I think those fears are listened to by the medical community); he just feels he shouldn’t have to bother spending the time to learn about something he isn’t interested in, something he never needed and thus can’t see the importance of, something that he won’t trust the medical community on because he is the only expert and he hasn’t checked it out for himself yet. Being anti-science isn’t always about emotion; it’s generally about arrogance. It’s the assumption that you must be able to figure out this puzzle better than a whole community of other people working hard at their jobs; the assertion that you would need to ‘sort through the evidence’ on vaccines implies you would make a better decision than those whose job and lives are to research, test, and create them.

I struggle to believe that every pediatrician is scoffing mightily at every anti-vaxxer mother and presenting her with graphs and tables, but rather that anti-vaxxer mothers don’t trust the pediatricians more than their gut even when the pediatrician understands that they are worried about the health of their child. What’s more, we can’t waste our very precious time and money trying to validate the feelings of each anti-science person in the world just so they might be more susceptible to facts. People who are anti-fact just are – consider this exchange between a news anchor and Newt Gingrich about crime in America, where FBI statistics show that crime is (on the whole) decreasing:

“CAMEROTA: But what you’re saying is, but hold on Mr. Speaker because you’re saying liberals use these numbers, they use this sort of magic math. These are the FBI statistics. They’re not a liberal organization. They’re a crime-fighting organization.

GINGRICH: No, but what I said is equally true. People feel more threatened.

CAMEROTA: Feel it, yes. They feel it, but the facts don’t support it.

GINGRICH: As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel and I’ll let you go with the theoriticians.”

Photo by BRICK 101 entitled ‘Minifig comparison’ (Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic ), link through photo

I feel Grant’s article is, in some ways, valid; the scientific community can get very tribal at times and we do write for each other – but that’s because we’re also the only ones even interested in listening (because Grant, the anti-science crowd doesn’t want to listen to us, either). My acquaintance does not seek out science writing, I (and other science-minded people) do. And trying to reach him by listening to his ego, the underlying issue with many (though not all) people in the anti-science community, will not force him to look up some science-communication and become educated. When it is one individual’s life and health on the line, it matters less to me if they’re ignorant, but anti-vaxxers put all our children at risk and climate change deniers put the future of our species at risk as we are continuously rejecting global solutions to stop this ticking time bomb.

Grant’s article doesn’t actually provide a solution; listening to the ‘feelings’ of most anti-scientists will not move the conversation forward unless science-writers, too, want to start appealing to their ego over the facts. And, in my opinion, that’s a slippery slope down the lane to becoming a science-charlatan because the ego will do whatever is convenient/profitable, not what is right or true. After all, just look at our political landscape where, as Gingrich so delightfully put it, we listen to feelings over facts. Has listening to people’s feelings caused people to see the truth that America is less violent today than before? No, it just strokes their ego and forces them deeper down the anti-truth rabbit hole. I’m going with Gawande that the only real way to win against anti-scientists is to stick to the facts.

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Science v. Poetry in History

Photo by Axlwaii entitled ‘Poetry in Python’ (Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic), link through photo

Recently I wrote a post about Ada Lovelace, a new idol of mine because she:

  1. Was the first computer programmer
  2. Was a sassy woman who hung out with Charles Darwin
  3. Coined the term ‘Poetical Science’

Ada Lovelace’s poetical science was a revolutionary way of thinking – and it may still be too revolutionary for most modern intellectuals. Dr. Betty Toole is a Lovelace scholar and, in reading her paper ‘ADA LOVELACE’S POETICAL SCIENCE‘, I came across some fascinating information about the contentious history of poetry and science that I thought I would share with you.

Beginning in Greece:

According to Toole, the first evidence of a conflict surrounding poetry and science begins with Plato’s Republic where poetry is banned from the utopia because it “gives no truth of its own, stirs up the emotions, and thereby blinds mankind to the real truth.” Plato views poetry as the anti-thesis of truth (which is an objective fact found through scientific inquiry) not as a different way of uncovering or viewing the truth.

Aristotle, however, did not agree with his teacher; he saw poetry and particularly metaphor as having significant societal value, saying in his Rhetoric that “ordinary words convey only what we know already; it is from metaphor that we can best get hold of something fresh.” Given that Aristotle wrote Poetics, an entire book dedicated to literary theory and craft, it’s safe to say that he finds poetry to be worthy discipline.

Through the Industrial Revolution:

While philosophy saw the rise of subjectivism in the writings of Descartes (cogito ergo sum, anyone?), objectivity wasn’t officially solidified until the early nineteenth century with the Industrial Revolution.

With objectivity being loosely defined on Wikipedia as “the state or quality of being true even outside of a subject’s individual biases, interpretations, feelings, and imaginings”, it actually harkens back to some of Plato’s original philosophy on the state of truth. By contrast, subjectivism is defined as “the philosophical tenet that “our own mental activity is the only unquestionable fact of our experience””.

According to Toole, “The allies of objectivism were scientific truth, digital skills and reason. These empirical skills were in contrast to subjectivism, which came to be associated with analog skills, emotions, imagination, intuitive insight and “higher truth.” With the development of technology and its dehumanizing influence… the Romantic poets left reason, science and technology to the empiricists.”

Both objectivity and subjectivism appear to be diametrically opposed despite utilizing similar fundamental principles in a quest to find truth – doubt, questioning, and repeatedly testing a theory to see where the truth lies. With the defining and popularization of these theories, the gap between poetry and science only grew.

Photo by Steve Johnson entitled ‘magnetic fridge poetry’ (Attribution 2.0 Generic), link through photo

To Modern Times:

C. P. Snow famously argued in his 1950s ‘Two Cultures‘ essay that there was a cultural divide separating the sciences and the arts, the two greatest areas of human intellectual achievement. According to an excellent article run in 2009 in the Scientific American, “Snow argued that practitioners in both areas should build bridges, to further the progress of human knowledge and to benefit society. Alas, Snow’s vision has gone unrealized. Instead literary agent John Brockman has posited a “third culture,” of scientists who communicate directly with the public about their work in media such as books without the intervening assistance of literary types. At the same time, many of those in the humanities, arts and politics remain content living within the walls of scientific illiteracy.”

This is not entirely true – as groups such as Neuwrite try to pair literary types with scientists to communicate more effectively with the public – but on the whole, Brockman is likely correct and it’s hurting us all. Despite science and art having a contentious history, modern intellectual problems are too complex to solve with one area alone; to find the truth will require the kind of searching Ada Lovelace employed – one that mixes the arts and sciences. Until then, media misrepresentation and public misinformation will run rampant and both art and science, the foundations of human health and progress, will suffer.

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Mis-trusting Science

The New Yorker recently published a commencement address given by Atul Gawande here, which speaks to the larger impact of scientific thinking on our culture. It’s a really excellent speech and I recommend reading it in full.

Science is a collective endeavor – beyond the scientists who are actually doing the research, the rest of us in the lay community have a responsibility to science as well. Seeking out correct information, employing the scientific mindset, seeking to think up educated questions about everything, etc. is critical to healthy academic, economic, social, and political environments. We’ve seen how far a healthy, scientific culture can take us all, as Gawande says, allowing us “…to nearly double our lifespan during the past century, to increase our global abundance, and to deepen our understanding of the nature of the universe”. Gawande speaks to a decreased level of trust in the scientific community and prepares the graduates to go out and defend science and the scientific mindset. But I want to speak to what may be causing this decreased level of trust in the scientific community and I’m not sure it will be a surprise to anyone.

The internet, and the increased general abundance of “information”, has allowed us to build echo chambers for ourselves, the complete antithesis of what would be considered a scientific mindset. To paraphrase Gawande, a scientific mindset is an open mind, gathering information repetitively and testing expectations against that information, with the understanding that no knowledge is ever concrete. But our self-made echo chambers provide us with only one kind of information, leading us to believe that the knowledge we gained is actually completely true – after all, it’s so well supported! No longer are we asked to test our expectations in this new age; instead we are assured we are all experts in the matter at hand. When we can be self-assured experts, what need have we for the scientific community? Why place our trust in studies we didn’t conduct, studies that we, the experts, don’t agree with?

There’s an important distinction I need to make here between safe spaces and echo chambers. I’m not against safe spaces, areas (virtual or physical) that allow an individual to explore at their own pace some kind of trauma, injustice, or aspect of their being through personal expression without fear of harassment, persecution, violence, discrimination, or hate speech. Typically, safe spaces are created for individuals of a minority/oppressed group or those who have suffered unusual trauma such as rape, war, etc. Safe spaces are often used to help individuals come to terms with who they are or experiences they’ve faced; they provide support to people who are marginalized and in need often because the rest of the world is not supportive. This last point is key because it tells us that the people in the safe space are already receiving the alternate view to the safe space in their everyday lives and are thus not isolated from it.

Can a safe space become an echo chamber? Certainly, just as any community can. But they are not designed to be that way – just like a session with a counselor or support group would not automatically be considered an echo chamber (how angry would the public be if a counselor told a patient to ‘go kill themself’ because of a trauma they experienced? Intuitively, we understand people need whole-hearted support at times, with no opportunity for harassment!). All these avenues – safe spaces, counseling sessions, support groups – are simply places for people to work on being their best self without fear of being harmed, harassed, or discriminated against. People talking with others like them about experiences only relevant to them (for example,a group of plant biologists meeting to talk about sugar maple trees) is not the issue here; it’s when those communities decide to begin passing judgments on the world while ignoring factual evidence that we get in trouble.

Unlike what Gawande seems to suggest, this is a larger issue than just combating each individual non-believer in the scientific community. The internet is a new tool that we still haven’t learned how to use effectively, and it’s being used as a weapon of war against the scientific mindset through echo chambers and by perpetuating a culture where we don’t examine our sources carefully. Our culture surrounding internet usage needs to shift from mindless sharing, clicking, and liking to really thorough and informed questioning of what is put in front of us and who is creating and sharing content. Only when we all rededicate ourselves to employing the scientific mindset on the internet will we see the cultural shift necessary to bring back a much-needed communal trust in science.

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John Oliver on Science

Just in time for my blog to start up, one of my favorite comedians, John Oliver, has decided to do a segment about science as presented to us in the media. I think the segment really speaks for itself, but I highlighted some key points below in case you’re interested – and then I offer my take.

1:32 “There are now so many studies being thrown around that they can seem to contradict one another.”

And in science, sometimes studies do contradict one another! Depending on the environmental conditions, experimenter bias, technology that exists at the time, events like speciation that were previously unknown, and other scientific advances,  two studies can get vastly different results. That’s why replicating experiments over and over is so important; it decreases the likelihood that the results achieved are erroneous or biased. This relates to what Oliver says about science being a work in progress – our understanding, our experiments, our techniques are always getting better, collectively, as we continue to make progress!

4:19 “Even the best designed studies can get flukish results and the best safeguard science has against that is the replication study…replication studies are so under-appreciated…so you just have all of these exploratory studies out there that are taken as fact.” and 5:10 “Scientists themselves know not to attach too much significance to particular studies until they’re placed in the much larger context of all the work taking place in that field but too often a small study with nuanced, tentative findings gets blown out of all proportion when it’s presented to us, the lay public.”

If you ever look at the back of a published, credible scientific study, you’ll see a huge list of resources. Scientists know we can’t just accept one study’s word on the matter; there needs to be a considerable amount of work done in an area for us to accept it as ‘a working fact’. I use the term ‘a working fact’ because there are hardly any things in science we accept as 100% definitely true – most things we accept as highly statistically likely.

Even so, science is not glamorous like the news media (and often our books, TV shows, and movies) represent. Science is slow and frustrating; we take baby step after baby step, and all of these steps can take years of small, almost ‘insignificant’ advances before it finally all builds into something bigger. Some of the most glamorous recent advances in biology – for example the CRISPR system –  were discovered the first time completely by accident. It was a baby step that led to a whole new field of really exciting work, still in its infancy almost thirty years later. Can we start presenting this process – the slow, steady, frustrating process of research – to a lay audience so that the time, effort, materials, dedication, philosophy, and background research that goes into each study can be more fully understood?

7:45 “And there’s no doubt some of this is on us, the viewing audience. We like fun, pop-y science that we can share like gossip.”

We need to be demanding accurate science from our media! Who is funding the science? Where is the bias? Sourcing and context or nada! More than that, we need to change how we chose to see and portray science. We need to give funding to replication studies to make sure the exploratory studies are accurate. We need to portray the whole process of science – from the background research to the Eureka! to the replication studies that back up our first ‘Eureka’ claims. We need to try to dig a little deeper into understanding those long, complex titles scientists submit to journals even though it’s not fun or pop-y and often the results seem minuscule.

Not only does science deserve more respect, but we need to respect ourselves, out intelligence, and our society more by putting in this work. We hurt ourselves when we choose not to vaccinate our children (or go around smelling farts all day) because of faulty science; we hurt ourselves when we don’t hold big oil, pharma, fishery, tobacco, etc. companies accountable for their actions because we feel we can’t trust the contradictory nature of science. We hurt ourselves when we are brainwashed into believing we, a lay audience, are not capable of understanding what science brings to the table.

A lot of this boils down to an essential point: look for consensus among several studies and scientists in order to determine the most likely truth in science. We’ll all be better off for it.


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