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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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”