Elise Andrew: "There is a lot of pseudo-science and nonsense out there on the internet"

The founder of the hugely popular "I Fucking Love Science" Facebook group talks to Nicky Woolf.

Elise Andrew, 23, from Suffolk, graduated with a degree in biology from the University of Sheffield this year. Nine months ago she founded the Facebook page “I Fucking Love Science”, which last week passed two million “likes” on the social networking site and is still climbing. Her other three pages, “Earth Story”, “Evolution” and “The Universe” boast almost a further million "likes" between them.

Her posts are usually either amazing new photographs, news of new discoveries or theories or light-hearted re-posts of science-related cartoons or humour, or, occasionally, posts debunking what she describes as “pseudo-science”. Because of her incredible global audience, she is one of science's most potent advocates.

Here's my interview with Elise:

You've just passed two million “likes” - that's a greater reach than most big media organisations. How does it feel?
It's overwhelming. It's very overwhelming. I don't know how much you know about how it started, but I was just bored and interested; I never anticipated getting even a hundred, a thousand – two million is very scary!

Does it feel pressured?
It is, obviously. I haven't got any media or journalism training, [and] it is a lot of responsibility; if I show something inaccurate or wrong, it goes out to two million people. There is a lot of pressure involved. I live in fear of making a typo.

Has anything ever gone wrong?
I've never shown things that were inaccurate. Somebody tried to troll Reddit and faked a Neil Degrasse Tyson quote, and I shared it not realising it was a fake. With quotes it's much more difficult to track; it's something that happened to go online, and it's difficult to keep track of who said what and when. I'm using quotes less now.

Where do most of your posts come from? Do you use Reddit?
I don't actually use Reddit myself – but a lot of my fans do, and they post on the wall. A lot of it is news, and that comes from various different news sites. We get a lot of stuff posted on the wall, and I create a lot myself.

You recently said that your "this week in science" feature was your most shared.
Yeah. It got a mention on [popular American comedy podcast] the Joe Rogan Experience; and Richard Dawkins' website reposted it.

How did that feel?
Good! Really good, actually. The person who mentioned it on the Joe Rogan experience, [neuroscientest and science journalist Cara Santa Maria] is a hero of mine, so that was very exciting.

How did the idea come up?
I used to post all this stuff to my personal page, one day a friend of mine said “you're clogging up my news feed, you should make a page” – and I got a thousand "likes" in the first day.

Why do you think it has been so successful? Does the name have something to do with it?
I think the name is a big part of it. The nice thing about the name is that you can't ignore it, you have to go and look. A lot of people view science as dull or boring, and I think the stance we take, using humour, not taking ourselves too seriously... I think people enjoy that. I think it's quite refreshing.

How much time does it take to run the page?
It is a lot of time. It is kind of an obsession, to be honest, and I'm lucky that I work in social media and I got my job through [running the page], so they don't mind me doing it at work. It's hard to put a number of hours on it, because it's kind of constant in the background. But: a lot.

Where next?
We're looking at making a website at the moment; somewhere I can post longer articles. It's not that you don't have space on Facebook, but I think I'd lose people's attention. Hmm. People have been asking about merchandise for months and months, but I'm wary about it. Then there's the Science Channel thing. There's lots of things people want for the page, but at the moment it's something I do for fun. I don't want it to change direction too much, I don't want it to become something different. I think it's fun, and I think people learn along the way, because they enjoy it.

Has the site led to other things?
We're in the middle of talking to the Science Channel about a deal, that's very exciting. Not anything huge; a nine-month thing. Short educational videos, only online, testing the waters. Then maybe it will develop into more in the future. I got my job... I work for LabX Media doing their social media, and a whole bunch of pages for them, I got that job because of this page.

Do you feel you are a representative for good science, against bad?
It is difficult, because we get a lot of nonsense posted on our wall. All this stuff about about when the world's going to end, or that we are going into some "photonic belt"... I do feel the need to respond to that. I try to let it go, but after the fiftieth message it becomes very frustrating. I'm trying not to, because it's good not to give these people a platform... but there are times when it becomes very frustrating.

Like the picture you ridiculed the other day of the supposed planetary alignment over the pyramids?
Yes. People were posting it to my wall fifty million times a day. It is frustrating. There is a lot of pseudo-science and nonsense out there on the internet, and everyone feels the need to send it to me. And I'm sitting there thinking: it isn't real! Stop it!

Are you in a good position to debunk this sort of thing?
Yes. [Newspapers like] the Guardian are too, but the thing about social media is the virality; that kind of reach is incredible. But a lot of pseudo-science spreads online too. All the stuff about the Mayans: that spread online. Often, some people dress something up to make it sound scientific, use scientific words, call themselves doctor something-or-other, and then you look them up, and they're trying to make it sound like something it's not. There's this entire field that's adding the word “quantum” to everything. It doesn't even make sense in that context. The latest thing is people talking about the "photonic belt" that the earth is apparently going to pass through – it doesn't mean anything, but it sounds like science – "photons" – so people take it seriously.

Do you want to be debunking pseudo-science more?
I want to, but I think that's not as much fun. And it gives them a platform that they don't deserve. For example, I would love to spend all day talking about how idiotic creationism is; the idea that the world was created six thousand years ago, but people don't want to hear about it every day.

Do you get abuse?
We get a lot of commenting, there are flame-wars under the threads; we've had individuals commenting, but no group attacks. I think they expect to be called idiotic. If you're going to believe crazy things, people are going to laugh at you.

 

Elise Andrew's most recent "this week in science" feature. Photo: the “I Fucking Love Science” Facebook group

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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An Amazonian tribe is challenging scientific assumptions about our musical preferences

The Tsimane’ – a population of people in a rural village in Bolivia – are overturning scientists' understanding of why humans prefer consonant sounds over dissonant ones.

It was 29 May 1913. Hoards of Parisians packed out the newly-opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Messrs Proust, Picasso and Debussy were in attendance. Billed for the evening was the premiere of Le Sacre du PrintempsThe Rite of Spring, a ballet and orchestral work debuted by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.

The attention and conjecture focused on the theatre that day meant expectations were high. However, within moments of the piece beginning, all preconceived notions held by the audience were shattered, as what was unfolding in front of them was a musical tragedy unlike anything they had ever witnessed.

A bassoon hummed into the ether before ballet dancers stomped on stage; the music, unpredictable with its experimental edge, drove forth the onstage narrative of a young girl whose selection during a pagan ritual saw her sacrificially dance towards death. Stravinsky’s composition and the ensemble of the night caused the room to descend from laughter and disruption to chaos and uproar.

The employment of dissonance – sharp, unstable chords – largely contributed to the audience’s disturbed reaction. Dissonant chords create a tension, one which seeks to be resolved by transitioning to a consonant chord – for example an octave or perfect fifth. These musical intervals sound far calmer than the chords which riveted the audience of The Rite of Spring.

Dissonant and consonant intervals find themselves as binary opposites; the frequencies at which notes played together vibrate determine whether an interval is consonant or dissonant. Consonant intervals have simple mathematical relationships between them, but greater digression from that simplicity makes an interval increasingly dissonant.

It’s long been believed  both experimentally and anecdotally – that the preference among Westerners for consonant chords highlights a universal, perhaps biologically-rooted, leaning among all humans towards consonant sounds. If you were present at the introduction of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on that night of furore in Paris, you’d find it hard to disagree.

There is, however, a growing movement against this consensus. Ethnomusicologists and composers alike argue that favouring consonance may just be a phenomenon that has evolved from Western musical culture. And following the visit of a group of researchers to a remote Amazonian society, these claims could well be grounded in scientific evidence.

Led by Josh McDermott, an MIT researcher who studies how people hear, the group travelled to a village in the Amazon rainforest called Santa Maria. It’s populated by the Tsimane’ – a group of native Amazonians whose rural abode is inaccessible by road and foot, and can be reached only by canoe. There are no televisions in Santa Maria and its inhabitants have little access to radio, meaning exposure to Western cultural influences is minimal.

The researchers were curious to see how the Tsimane’ would respond to music, in order to determine whether they too had a preference for consonant sounds over dissonant ones. To everyone’s surprise, the Tsimane’ showed no preference for consonance; the two different sounds, to the Tsimane’ at least, were equally pleasant.

Detailing their research in a paper published by Nature, the group explains how the Tsimane’ people’s indifference to dissonance is a product of their distance from Western culture and music, removing any purported notion that humans are hard-wired to praise perfect fifths and fourths.

McDermott tells me that the Western preference for consonance may just be based on familiarity. “The music we hear typically has more consonant chords than dissonant chords, and we may like what we are most exposed to,” he says. “Another possibility is that we are conditioned by all the instances in which we hear consonant and dissonant chords when something good or bad is happening, for example in films and on TV. Music is so ubiquitous in modern entertainment that I think this could be a huge effect. But it could also be mere exposure.”

To fully gauge the Tsimane’ responses to the music, 64 participants, listening via headphones, were asked to rate the pleasantness of chords composed of synthetic tones, and chords composed of recorded notes sung by a vocalist. At a later date, another 50 took part in the experiment. They had their responses compared to Bolivian residents in a town called San Borja, the capital city La Paz, and residents in the United States – locations selected based on their varying exposures to Western music.

What made the Tsimane’ particularly interesting to McDermott and his group was the absence of harmony, polyphony and group performances in their music. It was something the researchers initially thought may prevent an aesthetic response from forming, but the worry was quickly diminished given the Tsimane’ participants’ measure of pleasantness on the four-point scale they were provided.

Unsurprisingly, the US residents showed a strong preference for consonance – an expected preference given the overrunning of Western music with consonant chords. Meanwhile, the San Borja and La Paz residents demonstrated inclinations towards consonant sounds similar to the US residents. The implication of these results – that consonance preferences are absent in cultures “sufficiently isolated” from Western music – are huge. We most probably aren’t as polarised by consonance and dissonance as we assume; cultural prevalence is far more likely to have shaped the consonant-dominant sounds of Western music.

McDermott raised the question about why Western music may feature certain intervals over others to begin with:

“One possibility is that biology and physics conspire to make conventionally consonant and dissonant chords easy to distinguish, and so that distinction becomes a natural one on which to set up an aesthetic contrast even if the preference is not obligatory. We have a little evidence for this in that the Tsimane' could discriminate harmonic from inharmonic frequencies, which we believe form the basis of the Western consonance/dissonance distinction, even though they did not prefer harmonic to inharmonic frequencies.”

There has been some criticism of this. Speaking to The Atlantic, Daniel Bowling from the University of Vienna said:

“The claim that the human perception of tonal beauty is free from biological constraint on the basis of a lack of full-blown Western consonance preferences in one Amazonian tribe is misleading.”

Though the results from the Amazonian tribe demonstrate a complete refutation of previous assumptions, people's musical preferences from other cultures and places will need to be analysed to cement the idea.

With research beginning to expand beyond WEIRD people – those from a Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic background – the tastes in music of people the world over may continue to surprise, just as the Tsimane’ did.

The Rite of Spring, which was met with ridiculing reviews has now been canonised and is considered to be one of the most important pieces of music of the twentieth century. A Tsimane’ crowd on that tender night a century ago in Paris may have responded with instant praise and elation. With further research, the imagined Bolivian adoration of a Russian composer’s piece in the French city of love may prove music to be the universal language after all.