02 December 2021

The strange case of a “Martian insects” poster

Last week, I wrote about why posters should be reviewed a little more stringently than they usually are. I put out a call on Twitter for posters that people thought should have been nipped in the bud by conference organizers. 

William Romoser
And so it was that I learned of the curious case of a 2019 Ecological Society of America poster, presented by one William S. Romoser.

William Romoser died earlier this year. He was an emeritus professor of Ohio University, where he had a 45 year research career until he retired in 2010. Besides a healthy number of technical articles (many on mosquitoes), he published a major textbook on entomology that went through four editions.

Cover of "Science of Entomology" book

I say all this because I want to stress that Romoser was the real deal. He was no crank. He has earned respect.

Yet he presented the poster below, apparently in all seriousness.

The abstract reads, in part:

To my knowledge... this is the first professional report of direct evidence of identifiable life forms beyond the confines of Earth.

You read that right. Romoser claimed to have found alien life. He claimed there were many insects and reptiles on Mars.

If this were the case, you expect you might have heard about it by now. You haven’t, so... let’s just say that Romoser did not make a compelling case. 

Indeed, the idea that the discover of alien life would be announced on a poster at an ecology meeting rather than with an international press conference and coverage in Nature and Science feels absurd on the face of it.

Here is the poster.

Now, since this is a poster blog that normally focuses on design rather than content, It is frustrating that someone who had been in the game for as long as Romoser was making easily fixed mistakes.

The text is inexcusably tiny throughout. And there is a lot of it.

But back to the content. This poster appears to be a case of a common psychological phenomenon, pareidolia. It’s just ramped up to an extreme.

pareidolia (par·​ei·​do·​lia), noun: the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern.

Romoser is far from the first person to fall prey to pareidolia and similar over interpretations. Percival Lowell thought he saw canals on Mars, and believed they were evidence of a vast Martian civilization.

Japanese physician Chonosuke Okamura claimed to have discovered microfossils of miniature humans and other species. He was posthumously awarded an IgNobel prize for this work. 

And many amateurs have claimed to see a face on Mars in blurry NASA photographs. 

I completely missed this story at the time. perhaps because Romoser put a “No tweeting” icon on the poster, there seems to be not chatter about it under the #esa2019 hashtag. Romoser’s request to keep the poster off social media was ineffective, given that Ohio University initially put out a press release about Romoser’s poster. It was soon removed. According to the university, Romoser did not wish to interact with media.

Several people in the Twitter thread suggested that at the time this poster was presented, Remoser was experiencing some mental health issues. That is not for me to say. Regardless of why he believed that these blurry photographs were evidence of insects and snakes, it’s unfortunate that he spent so much effort on a dead end line of inquiry.

I have to agree that this is a poster that the conference organizers should have rejected. I don’t think its presentation at the meeting did anyone any favours, including Romoser.

External links

Does Insect/Arthropod Biodiversity Extend Beyond Earth?

Much ado on Mars, maybe

William Romoser obituary

Science of entolomogy

Mars and Earth - Partners in time? (Facebook page)

University Deletes Press Release Claiming Evidence of Bugs on Mars

It's Still Not Aliens: 'Mars Bug' Claim Could Damage the Search for Life

 

30 November 2021

Interview on the PolicyViz podcast

I recently spoke to Jon Schwabish (author of Better Data Visualizations, reviewed here) on the PolicyViz podcast, and I’m happy that the episode is now available wherever you listen to podcasts! 

Jon is a great person to talk to, and his questions got me thinking about some new topics that I hadn’t considered before.

This season, Jon has been experimenting with a video version of the podcast. I already knew of my bad speaking habits as an interviewer on audio (I go on tangents way to easily, I start sentences without knowing where they’ll land), but now I get to see entirely new bad habits (looking away from the camera, shifting my weight).

The show notes also contain a complete transcript in case you read faster than I can talk.

Related posts

Review: Better Data Visulizations

External links

PolicyViz podcast Episode #206: Zen Faulkes show notes 

25 November 2021

Why conference posters should be peer reviewed

Lander Foquet has a worrying Twitter thread about how a poster abstract – no even a whole poster, just an abstract – is making the rounds in the medical disinformation circles. 

Foquet says “a poster is never peer-reviewed.” This might be true for the meeting in question (The American Heart Association Scientific Sessions 2021), but there are some conferences that do peer review submissions. It is rare, though.

Regardless, there are occasionally stories that crop up from some academic conference or another where someone gives a poster or talk that is at odds with the views of the field. Once, well known racist Phillipe Rushton gave a poster at the Neuroscience meeting (sometime in the 1990s, can’t recall the year). I’ve seen other cases where people brought some sort of presentation that most society members said, “That shouldn’t have been presented at this meeting.”

You can read the thread for a detailed debunking of the particulars of the abstract, but the issue of vetting conference posters has been on my mind for a while. In an interview, I was asked about poster competitions. Part of the question about competitions was that posters aren’t peer reviewed, so is there not a risk that we might be rewarding dodgy work?

Because anything online (like conference abstracts) can be quickly weaponized, maybe it is time for conference organizers to implement some light peer review. A sanity check, if you will.

  • A physics conference should not accept a poster about a claimed perpetual motion machine. 
  • A chemistry conference should not accept a poster about the elements are earth, air, fire, and water. 
  • A biology conference should not accept a poster about how natural selection isn’t real. 
  • A geology conference should not accept a poster about how the Earth is flat.
  • An anthropology conference should not accept a paper about how Africans are inferior human beings.

And so on. In fact, now that I think of it, none of those topics should be permissible at any professional academic conference. These should not be controversial calls.

I know what the immediate objections from conference organizers will be.

It takes a lot of time and effort. This is undoubtedly true. Each one would have to be read by a human being with some level of professional expertise. (No, I don’t think machine learning is ready to tackle this yet.)

But how much is too much? Let’s look at the meeting that started Foquet on his thread.

Judging from the American Heart Association program planner, it looks like there are between three hundred and four hundred posters spread out over four days. Let’s say a team of four professionals reviewed abstracts. Maybe one person takes five minutes maximum to read an abstract. That’s twelve an hour. One person could read 96 abstracts in an eight hour day; let’s round to 100 abstracts per person per day. 

A team of four could have reviewed all the abstracts for the meeting in one day.

Obviously, this might not scale to the biggest conferences with tens of thousands of posters. But many conferences have hundreds of presentations, which seems potentially manageable.

The “time and effort” argument could be made for journals. Peer review takes time and effort for editors, and yet journals do it. Peer review is considered a mark of a high quality product, so why could not the same be true for journals and conferences?

The second objection is that peer review stifles free discussion. Maybe, and there was a time when I think that argument would have weighed much more heavily for me. But not now. 

The last few years have show that “more free speech is always the answer” doesn’t take into account the power asymmetries that exist in the modern communication ecosystem. A well organized misinformation campaigns can spread bad content much faster than reasoned professionals can correct it. Professional organizations have often anywhere from reluctant to perilously slow in combating misinformation.

Science still has credibility. Appearing in a scientific conference, even if not peer reviewed, give a patina of authority and respectability. People with bad motives and worse science will attempt to squeeze into these venue if they have the chance.

Deplatfomring works.

Update: Other potential examples of cases where peer review might have prevented some problems.

At the 2017 meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA), someone gave a presentaion on human abortion

Another year (unknown), at ESA again, someone gave a poster about insects in space. “He was having some obvious mental health issues.”

External links

Lander Foquet on Twitter

08 November 2021

A report from Neuroscience 2021, one the biggest poster sessions in the world

Monday, 8 November 2021: From the online meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, 2021 meeting:

“Something went wrong” error message.

Elizabeth West tweeted, “You misspelled ‘everything.’”

Neuroscience this year was originally announced as a hybrid of in person and virtual, moved to virtual (which prompted anger). Things seemed fine earlier today. But now it seems that almost everything on thie poster session today (Monday, 8 November 2021) is unreachable.

How interesting. 

This is a meeting I have gone to before, but was not attending this year. But now I will be watching the hashtag for the next few days with interest to see if things improve.

Photo by Rolf Skyberg

• • • • •

Tuesday, 9 November 2021: Um. Day 2 of poster sessions do not seem to be going better yet, based on Ian Stewart’s report.

So presenters at #SfN2021 can’t share their screens in the new back-up plan zoom rooms - we’re having a poster session without posters

Maxime Beau wrote

Great #SfN2021 has transitioned to Zoom for a less chaotic day of poster presentations - apart from sessions where no host is there to start the meeting 🤷‍♂️

Cana Quave wrote:

Have you ever had the negative experience of presenting a poster in a busy session where nearby presentations interfere with each other? Well, @SfNtweets has perfected this negative experience at #sfn2021 by placing all poster presenters in a session into a single Zoom meeting

Maria Reva noted that there had been no announcement for rescheduling the lost Monday poster sessions. This came very late in the day, with an announcement that Monday posters would be rescheduled for the same time Thursday,

Scott Knudstrup delivered one of the best one-liners:

Curious decision by SfN to hire the guys that rolled out the Obamacare website

• • • • • 

Wednesday, 10 November 2021: The woes of the SfN meeting are covered in Spectrum News

• • • • •

This tweet pinpoints Cadmium as provider for the SfN online conference. 

Apparently the Society for Neuroscience is offering a discounted membership for next year to conference participants. 50% off is nothing to sneeze at, but it would cost the Society nothing to say, “We’re sorry.”

Although it’s fair to point out that this is a minority view, at least one person said it was a “good” conference.

28 October 2021

Link roundup for October 2021

I’ve cautioned against outdoor poster sessions before. They always seem to me to be Just Asking For Trouble™. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, outdoors is safer than indoors, so...

Outdoor poster session

This looks lovely. But do other places have Lisbon’s weather? And were there back-ups in case the weather turned bad?

From Megan Carey, via Patricia Churchland.

• • • • •

Ajanji and colleagues have what I think is a preprint that tests the effectiveness of decluttering and annotation (which they call “focusing”) on graphs.


 

Author Steve Franconeri says, “We found that decluttered graphs make you look more professional, but no evidence of cognitive benefits. Focusing led to far better memory for key data patterns.”

• • • • •

MyFonts has a PDF primer on justified versus ragged right text. It contains a simple rule of thumb I had not heard before:

Don’t justify text if the average line of text contains less than nine words.

• • • • •

Duarte Communication surveyed a lot of people about online presentations. Seeing how most conferences are now online and look to keep some kind of online presence, there are lots of things that apply to poster sessions going forward.

 

Most virtual presentations are just "Meh"

Key suggestions:

  • People want presenters to vary their voice, tone, and pitch.
  • You need to earn the audience’s attention by telling compelling stories.
  • Focus on one idea per slide.
  • Be prepared for what might go wrong during a virtual presentation.
  • Familiarize yourself with the most preferred virtual platforms (which is Zoom, by a long way).
  • Both audiences and presenters prefer cameras on.
  • People will hang around longer for an interactive talk than a one way one.

You can get a copy of their report if you let them know your name and email address. This is clearly an attempt to drum up business for the company... but there is real information there that is worth perusing.

• • • • •

Speaking on online presentations, this description of an online conference shows how meaningless the word “poster” is becoming in an online context. Emphasis added.

For Journées Ouvertes en Biologie, Informatique et Mathématiques (JOBIM) 2020, we held a poster session with a homemade solution based on the Jitsi Meet platform(.) The idea was to dynamically create a room for each poster. After a search on the conference website using poster filtering facilities, the attendees were able to join the poster room and meet the authors or other attendees interested in the topic. To encourage more dynamic and interactive discussions, we also proposed to the authors to present their work through a few slides instead of the classic poster format(.) The idea was also to avoid zooming in to view figures or texts. We also invited the authors to prepare a short video of their work, and we selected a few of them to present during the breaks. One can also imagine allowing attendees to schedule meetings for the poster session.

First, I am not sure why conferences keep using these homebrew solutions instead of just using Zoom. 

 

Second, there is nothing wrong with “zooming in” to see text and figures: the problem is that most tools, like PowerPoint or PDF documents, suck at it.

Prezi seems ideally suited to an online poster format for exactly this reason. It was built on the “whiteboard” model rather than a “slide deck” model and zooming was its original differentiation from PowerPoint.

• • • • •

And that’s the round-up for this month!

25 October 2021

Ten simple rules for conference posters

I am being a lazy blogger and turning a Twitter thread into a blog post. John Butler asked for, “Something like 10 steps for a good conference poster.”

So I made something up off the top of my head.

  1. Read the instructions. Sounds easy, but printers say “wrong size” is the #1 problem they see.
  2. Your title is most of your communication effort. It’s all most people will ever read. Spend a lot of time on your title! Don’t just use the first one that comes to mind. Simple declarative statements of the main finding work well.
  3. You should be able say what your poster is about in one sentence. Too many people want to show everything they have done. Focus.
  4. Make you one sentence in an ABT (and, but, therefore) format. What are a couple of facts? (“We know X and Y...”) What is the problem? (“But X doesn't hold in this case...”) What is the consequence of that? (“Therefore...”)
  5. Make a grid. A three column grid is really hard to screw up. It’s not the only way. More or fewer columns can work. Rows can work. But three columns is a robust layout.
  6. Leave space. Lots of people, because they did not focus enough (#3), make skinny little margins to try to fit more stuff on. It’s hard to read. Be generous with margins between columns, and with white space between text and graphics.
  7. Be consistent. Consistent fonts. Consistent colours. Consistent column width. A common is that people make graphs before the poster, and don’t go back to make the graph fit with the rest of the poster.
  8. Bigger is better. A common question is, “What’s the minimum font size for a poster?” (This is often coming from people trying to shove too much stuff on the page.) Accessibility guidelines usually recommend type be several times bigger than what many people use.
  9. Practice what you are going to say. Do this before you print your poster. Sometimes you’ll find the order you laid stuff out in (because “It just fit there”) is not the natural order when you talk it through. The visuals and your explanation should follow the same order.
  10. Do the “arm’s length” test. When you’re done layout, print your poster scaled down to a single letter sized piece of paper. Hold it at arm’s length. If your vision is reasonable, you should be able to read your shrunk down poster at arm's length. If you can’t, it’s too small.

The Twitter thread has marginally related GIFs.

External links

Ten simple rules for a good poster presentation

(PLOS Computational Biology)

14 October 2021

“Ooh, it’s the one with...”

Doctor Who classic series episode guide - It's the one with
Years ago, the BBC website for Doctor Who had a “memory jogger” to help viewers recall the title of some episode. (Still online, in fact!) After all, the original classic show had run over 25 years and had hundreds of stories. Easy to let a title slip.

I loved the prompt it gave people.

“It’s the one with...”

Because titles are good and all, but they aren’t always the things our memories glom on to.

Imagine that someone who saw your poster tells a friend they should see your poster, and tries to help their friend find it.

“Ooh, it’s the one with…”

How would they complete that sentence? What obvious feature could someone use to point out your poster?

“It’s the one with the shark.” 

“It’s the one with the kabuki mask.”

“It’s the one with the big red triangle.” 

Those could all work. Those are all specific, concrete nouns that are easy to recognize.

But “It’s the one with the bar graph” is unlikely to be helpful. “It’s the one with the analysis of history of Japanese theatre” is unlikely to be helpful.