How the Oatmeal is acing science communication

| 22 Comments

Reposted.

A lot of my friends have been passing around this recent comic from the Oatmeal. First, take a few minutes to go read it, laugh, and be in awe of the amazing mantis shrimp:

READ THIS — > http://theoatmeal.com/comics/mantis_shrimp

The cartoon, the information, the presentation, are all excellent! After the awesomeness of the mantis shrimp wore off, I started thinking about how the Oatmeal, especially with this piece, is an excellent example of how to communicate science to the public.

1. Choose an intriguing title
The title, “Why the Mantis Shrimp is my new favorite animal”, is both personal, curious. First of all, I don’t know what a Mantis Shrimp is, so I’m curious about that. Secondly, most people have a favorite animals that is something common (e.g., dog, horse, butterfly), so it makes me want to know why this person likes a shrimp (other than they’re probably delicious).

——- PART 1: Mantis shrimp thermonuclear vision ——-


2. Give a clear introduction to basic science
The Oatmeal starts out with a clear introduction into basic science that most of us have probably heard sometime, but have a hard time keeping strait: Our eyes see using rods (for motion) and cones (for color).

3. Put it in perspective with something familiar
We all know dogs, and have heard either that they’re color blind (they aren’t), or the truth, presented here, that they have the ability to observe fewer colors than we do. Alright, I’m with you, dogs have poor color vision.

4. Relate it to humans
Oh yeah! Humans can see more colors than dogs. Woot!

5. Take small steps
Fist ask us to think a little outside the box. Whoa… butterflies have more color receptors than us… that’s crazy. We can kind of wrap our brains around it. That color vision in butterflies is to us, what our color vision would be to dogs. Okay, sounds good.

6. Give the amazing punch line
Okay, with a little background about the Mantis Shrimp to familiarize us with this animal, and then the build-up. Not two, not three, not five, but sixteen color receptors!! What?!?! That is amazing. Then, following this up with some pictures of the actual animal.


——- PART 2: Mantis shrimp death machine ——-

7. Play to the audience’s imagination

Give us a picture of something beautiful, wonderful, but completely unrealistic in nature. Then tear that picture apart.


8. Share facts, with perspective

The appendages can snap forward as fast as a gunshot??
If humans had the same force we could throw a baseball into space??
These are things I can grasp, and I can share with friends.

9. Be entertaining
Tell a story with the science. It’s okay to be a little silly (Kapow!). When communicating with the public, I think it is as important to engage your audience as it is to be accurate, or else you’ll just be talking to an empty room.

22 Comments

Well, it’s pretty good, but it seems misleading in an odd way, suggesting that somehow having a lot of different color receptors might mean that it was, uh, wise and pacific? Why, because the butterfly is fairly benign? I doubt it’s the only insect clade with five receptors, however. And, of course I don’t know, but it seems that it may very well have evolved such an array as a hunter–at least as good a guess as any.

And then there’s processing of vision, which is good in humans, likely not so great in mantis shrimp, at least not from our viewpoint (any suggestion that we should not see it from our viewpoint seems absent, however). Fine for the shrimp, naturally. but there’s no particularly good reason to suppose that it sees beauty at all.

So I don’t know, I like its enthusiasm, but wonder if it’s anthropomorphizing excessively, and saddled with some odd premises. I know, I know, easy to judge from the peanut gallery, yet the faulty implications matter, even if they’re played off in order to impart knowledge. I’m not so much opposed as noting that it could be viewed as being overly anthropocentric.

Glen Davidson

I do wonder what good it does a mantis shrimp to have so many color receptors. I assume it’s sampling the spectrum somewhat outside the human range (and does anyone have a reference to the peak frequencies of all 16 receptors?), but most of the receptors must be providing better sampling within the “visible” range. Does this greatly aid prey detection? Do shrimp have some fancy and subtle visual courtship displays?

I am very curious why all the color receptors, also.

A part of me is curious whether they are all functional, or whether it might be accidental. Not everything in evolution is functional (of even vestigal). While it makes a pretty cool story, and creates a lot of hypotheses, I think one that should always be in contention is that perhaps there is nothing remarkable about these 16 receptors.

I also agree that the cartoon is not critical, but it is a place to get us started talking.

I debated talking about anthropomorphism in all kinds of relating science to the public. I’m torn about whether it is good for interest, or misleading to the point of harming understanding about science. I have a post about anthropomorphized octopods that I’ll be reposting here soon.

couple of things: 1) the oatmeal is awesome - solid educational materials in a snarky sometimes politically incorrect manner - sometimes suitable for children , sometimes not - see the posts on Tesla, grammar, cats as murderers

2) mantis shrip are pests in marine aquariums - simetimes they hide in “live rock” and come out at night to decimate the fish/crustacean/ population - and difficult tto get out without taking apart your whole set up (plus if they ‘punch’ you - it HURTS

the point - creativity and humor can be effective ways to get people interested in science/scientific concepts - it doesn’t have to be perfect- but I dion’t notice any errors/mis-information in the post

see also - Mythbusters, XKCD, offthemark

-Jasonmitchell

A couple of notes.

1) I’m not sure about the 16 color receptors, but mantis shrimps (not really shrimps) can see polarized light as well.

2) There are two basic kinds, spears and bashers. The ‘shoulder’ joint has (basically) a spring that is cocked and locked. When released, the appendage, with either a sharp point (spears) or a club (bashers) does what comic describes. I know a guy who lost his thumb after having it impaled by a mantis shrimp.

The final thing that I know is that I scream like a 5-year-old girl when a green mantis attacks me. I had some rock for my reef aquarium shipped from Florida. There was a mantis shrimp in the rock, and it did indeed kill every freaking thing in the tank, then went after my hand every time I tried anything in the tank.

Awesome animal… my favorite… not by a long shot.

M. Wilson Sayres said:

I am very curious why all the color receptors, also.

Curious that they could evolve or curious that the are useful?

The finer the frequency discrimination of your detector, the more difficult it is for prey to create effective camouflage. The down side is that to get the same image resolution you need sixteen times as many detectors, and sixteen times as much light, but this may not be too much of a disadvantage for creatures living in shallow tropical seas. Your ears can discriminate a huge number of frequencies, but they work by measuring all the frequencies present in the incoming energy by mechanical resonance. The energy at each audio frequency can be determined without significantly affecting sensitivity to other frequencies, so not much penalty for having a lot more than sixteen!

Maybe also its colour discrimination is based on a different method to ours. Our eyes (I think) operate by having individual photodetectors that are triggered only by light in their specific colour bands. Electronic image sensors have different coloured filters in front of otherwise identical detectors to reduce the sensitivity to the unwanted frequencies. As the mantis shrimp has the ability to generate a huge range of pigments to colour its body, has evolution co-opted this as a way of increasing frequency discrimination in its eyes, using those same pigments as light filters in some of its wide band detector cells rather than evolving separate frequency specific detectors?

Curious that they are useful (because I simply do not know). Thanks for the added information. The analogy with hearing is very useful for me to understand better the relationship with color receptors. :)

In the same vein, here is an animated cartoon produced by the National Center for Atmospheric Research explaining climate change:

Steroids, baseball, and climate change

The video has gotten 62,578 views in 1 year and 3 months since the upload. That’s not a lot of views for YouTube, but it is a lot compared with most peer-reviewed scientific papers.

I approve of using cartoons and comics to communicate science at some level to some audience. Nobody disputes that the science has to be simplified, but I still remember the movies “Hemo the Magnificent” and “Our Mr. Sun” from ~40 years ago.

This link is, as the kids say, full of win.

Our eyes (I think) operate by having individual photodetectors that are triggered only by light in their specific colour bands.

They’re especially sensitive to those frequencies, but are triggered by other “colors” as well. This likely is important to seeing the full spectrum even as light is shifted heavily toward the red at sunset and sunrise, as what is normally “green light” might be seen as “blue” then, and “yellow light” seen as “green.”

Glen Davidson

And that’s why RGB TV monitors work to represent colors that aren’t those particular shades of red, green, and blue. A mantis shrimp, looking at one of our monitors, would not see anything like yellow, only a color that was a combination of red and green, in the way that purple (to us) is a color that represents stimulation of our red and blue receptors but not the green ones. We’re all trying to estimate a frequency distribution by sampling at a set of points. For us, three points. For them, 16. We experience our estimates as color, which is a rather poor representation. Bet the shrimp could do better.

I frequently see them when I am SCUBA diving. They are also commonly known as thumb splitters

I did like the cartoon and it shows basic ideas can be quickly communicated. I don’t get the death thing at the end. I like the bubble cavitation thing as it comes up in geomorphology. very neat. The butterfly and the mantis perhaps have more colour receptors because both are themselves more colourful. They might need to see and distinguish their own kind for mating or territory etc issues. Usually many coloured creatures equals being poisonous. However in these cases it seems mere recognition.

Things really can be taught in simple ways. Its the discoveries of things that is the greater intellectual achievement. Evolutionism can’t be taught simply because it can’t persuade on itrs bare bones evidence. So it must be complicated up in the use of words.

There is the possibility that some humans may have a marginal ability to distinguish a fourth color. See Wikipedia possibility of human tetrachromats

Robert Byers said: Evolutionism can’t be taught simply because it can’t persuade on itrs bare bones evidence. So it must be complicated up in the use of words.

Says the man whose prose is always ungrammatical, misspelled, and nearly incomprehensible.

Robert Byers said: Its the discoveries of things that is the greater intellectual achievement.

Robert, what have Young Earth creationists discovered in the last 100 years? Name three of their “discoveries.” Not bare assertions– discoveries.

diogeneslamp0 said:

Robert Byers said: Evolutionism can’t be taught simply because it can’t persuade on itrs bare bones evidence. So it must be complicated up in the use of words.

Says the man whose prose is always ungrammatical, misspelled, and nearly incomprehensible.

Robert Byers said: Its the discoveries of things that is the greater intellectual achievement.

Robert, what have Young Earth creationists discovered in the last 100 years? Name three of their “discoveries.” Not bare assertions– discoveries.

I know this one:

The earth is flat.

The sun goes around the earth.

The earth is six thousand years old.

These are the things “discovered” by creationists.

Evolutionism can’t be taught simply because it can’t persuade on itrs bare bones evidence. So it must be complicated up in the use of words.

If you’d just admit that you don’t understand things like evidence and words, you might begin to rectify your gross ignorance.

True, the simple-minded idiocies of creationism are easier to learn than the truth. The world is complex, and although still understandable, not through the demands that the authoritarian ignoramus consider to be the only truths.

Glen Davidson

diogeneslamp0 said:

Robert Byers said: Evolutionism can’t be taught simply because it can’t persuade on itrs bare bones evidence. So it must be complicated up in the use of words.

Says the man whose prose is always ungrammatical, misspelled, and nearly incomprehensible.

Robert Byers said: Its the discoveries of things that is the greater intellectual achievement.

Robert, what have Young Earth creationists discovered in the last 100 years? Name three of their “discoveries.” Not bare assertions– discoveries.

Discoveries means everyone agrees its been discovered. YEC is about correcting wrong ideas. Then indeed figuring out things. So a long list.

Just an example. Since YEC would teach man is a spiritual being who lives on in the afterlife with full and better intellectual facilities then its impossible for the natural world to affect mans intellect. Therefore this was a start to my ideas that all mental interference with man comes merely from imperfection in the memory. All retardation, autisms, depressions, phobias, and so on problems are merely from triggering problems with the memory. So possibly, probably, healing could be done much better or perfect based on this presumption. I’m pretty sure I’m right. Yet its biblical boundaries that set the ball rolling on investigation.

Well it sure is impossible for the natural world to affect your intellect. Good one Robert.

Byers speaks from personal experience:

It’s impossible for the natural world to affect mans intellect.

It’s not often that you see an unequivocal renunciation of reality in so many words. Byers is to be congratulated on his insight into his own condition. Only, for him, it’s a feature, not a bug.

Wondrous.

On a previous occasion, Byers blurted that religion is a “minor prompt” and that organized creationism is all about scientific investigation of nature (here / here).

Now we hear from the other side of Byers’s mouth that “it’s Biblical boundaries that set the ball rolling”

It’s just like what we saw during the Kitzmiller v. Dover School Board trial. One only needs to allow anti-evolutionists to chatter all they want; they will say what ever is convenient, even to the point of contradicting themselves.

TomS said:

There is the possibility that some humans may have a marginal ability to distinguish a fourth color. See Wikipedia possibility of human tetrachromats

I don’t know about a “blue-white” color for near UV. I often see a distinct band of a yellowish green color below violet on a rainbow, almost like a night vision scope, though it may be some sort of harmonic. I also usually see a brown band above red.

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This page contains a single entry by M. Wilson Sayres published on April 23, 2013 7:55 AM.

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