Category Archives: Graphic design

A simple name change for antibiotics could save lives

In depressing medical news this week, the World Health Organization reported that 64% of adults believe that antibiotics can be used to treat flu and colds. That’s terrible because those 64% are likely to pressure their doctors for antibiotics when they don’t need them, which in turn will speed the evolution of bacteria resistant to the drugs … and then people die from bacterial infections that used to be treatable.

Cartoon image of Batman slapping robin for thinking antibiotics can treat common coldThere are several beliefs that contribute to this statistic, and I think it’s important to tease them apart so we can better craft outreach strategies. The one that gets the most attention, of course, is when people (e.g., Robin in the popular Batman meme I based on original by Dr Nick Bennett and his wife) think that colds are caused by bacteria. A second reason is that some people think viruses are a kind of bacteria and thus treatable with antibiotics.

But there’s a third, even more important explanation that gets almost no attention: people thinking antibiotics are effective against a wide range of microorganisms (i.e., not just bacteria). Why on Earth would people think this? I think kids are almost certainly to blame. When young kids are sick, they don’t really care about the whole virus-versus-bacteria thing … they just know something is infecting them and that the parents keep chanting “antibiotic” over and over again. So I think it’s unavoidable that kids construct a definition for antibiotics before they even start kindergarten (pollsters: can you ask?). Kids are also genius at figuring out word meanings when they don’t get full information from teachers or parents, so it is probable that many assume that the anti (against) and biotic (living) parts of “antibiotic” mean that the drug kills all life. (This is, indeed, what the word “antibiotic” used to mean before microbiologists commandeered it to mean something else.) Although kids might be told later in life (in high school, college) that antibiotics target only bacteria, the correction might not stick in the average person’s brain. In addition to the above, ignorance about antibiotic efficacy is probably increasingly pulled from the Internet. If you doubt me, just type “antibiotic definition” into Google and read the top five or so definitions: they all say that antibiotics can kill microorganisms.

If “antibiotic” (the word) is the source of so much confusion, replacing it with a better word might cause people to stop asking for it, which could save lives via preserving antibiotics. Luckily, the word “antibacterial” is just waiting there, perfect for the job. The anti and bacterial parts of the word convey its meaning unambiguously, plus it’s an old word (older than antibiotic!), and is already used by the general public. You can even Google the definition if you don’t believe me: all the definitions indicate it is a drug that kills bacteria (and only bacteria). It would join other words such as “antifungal” and “antiviral”, all of which tend to be used and understood by both doctors and patients.

Cartoon image of Batman slapping robin for thinking antibacterials can treat common coldThere would, of course, be a certain amount of work associated with the switch. For example, websites promoting antibiotic awareness would need to run a Search and Replace macro to insert “antibacterial” everywhere instead of “antibiotic”. That might take 10 minutes for a large site. And brochures and cartoonish wall art for waiting rooms would have to reprinted, but the result would be that waiting patients and parents would be measurably less confused on what antibacterials do. And once everything was converted to “antibacterial”, outreach organizations like WHO and CDC could focus on the more important issues such as making people understand what colds are (please see Batman comic #2) and making sure that the full course of antibacterials is taken.

Note that I’m not suggesting everyone stop using “antibiotic” altogether. But in terms of public outreach, discussion with patients, and the names on drug containers, we should give it a try.

What would also be great is if pollsters could replace “antibiotic” with “antibacterial” for half of the survey participants. Currently, most physicians and “antibiotic awareness week” coordinators LOVE the word “antibiotic” and can see no fault in it; they blame ignorance levels on the educated, ignorant masses. But if poll data could show them that ignorance goes down by (say) 50% after adoption of “antibacterial,” they might rethink their opposition to change.

BONUS FACT: Alexander Fleming used the word “antibacterial” 19 times in his paper describing the isolation of penicillin. He used “antibiotic” 0 times. He got a Nobel prize for the work.

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It is not the strongest of the species that survives

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most adaptable to change.”

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most adaptable to change Charles DarwinThis quote (and hundreds of mutant kin) is found everywhere: coffee table books, t-shirts, natural history museum signage, and even in the gift shop of the Charles Darwin Foundation. And 99% of the time it’s attributed to Charles Darwin, but he said no such thing — it’s from Leon Megginson.

To encourage proper attribution, I thought I’d seed the internet with three images that give Dr Megginson his credit. The hope is that these images might eventually get included in Google search results when people are searching for pre-made slides that have the quote. If you found this page with such a search, welcome: please use these images if you are able. Download any of the JPGs by clicking on the thumbnails, then saving.

It is not the strongest species that surviveThe first version features a Galapagos marine iguana with its mouth open, as if it was saying something. It’s actually yawning, so use cautiously if you are a boring speaker. The second slide is a photograph of Leon C. Megginson himself. He was a professor of business management in Louisiana. The final image is a photograph of Charles Darwin, the man who clearly inspired Megginson.

As proof of why we need to get the word out, please see Twitter feed below, updated to show recent Tweets that contain the quote. The phrase is used a lot by nutritionists, management consultants, and motivational It is not the strongest of the species that survivesspeakers.

If you need an actual quote from Darwin, please browse Darwin Online. It has all his books (~42 of them!), articles (~246), letters, and notebooks. There’s also the Darwin Correspondence Project.

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I was asked on Twitter if I could clarify my views on text justification for conference posters, but decided I couldn’t come up with a good 140 character response. So here you go:

fabric-postersI recommend left-justified research posters for several reasons. First, I read in some typography/readability article (can’t find reference but will keep looking) that your brain subconsciously uses the ragged right edge to better gauge vertical reading position, allowing reader to more quickly travel through a paragraph. This matters less if you have good space between lines of text, but matters a lot if you’ve squished lines together to fit more on your poster (unfortunately, a very common scenario). Second, left-justified text has more predictable spaces within and between words, and that consistency makes sentences easier (faster) to read. Fully justified text can be especially awful when column widths are too small, and for smaller text boxes like figure and table legends. As an example of how awful those space problems can be, here’s an artificial dem on stration. These spacing issues are much bigger problems for people with dyslexia (20% of people, perhaps) and other reading disorders. That said, typesetting software such as InDesign have really good controls for minimizing the spacing problems of fully justified text. And some fonts (often the ones you have to actually purchase) are good at spacing themselves. Third, left-justified paragraphs suffer much less from the rivers and pigeonholes of white space that are sometimes created by full justification. These distracting visual elements are probably more of a problem for people or disciplines that are fond of big words, which coincidentally are those that love to have poster sessions. You can minimize rivers and pigeonholes by turning on automatic hyphenation, of course. In related news, Powerpoint doesn’t do auto-hyphenation, which makes it terrible for posters because you typically want to cram as much on a page as possible. Finally, errors in spaces between sentences (you just need one) are much easier to catch if you are using left justification.

But there are at least two reasons why you might reasonably ignore what I’ve written above. First, full justification looks so cool! If you want people to think you’re cool and professional, and you probably do, you might just go ahead and hit that button … because most viewers (and mentors, and poster judges) will also be similarly impressed. Unless they’re dyslexic, in which case they might hate you. A compounding problem is that justification looks cooler and cooler as you reduce font size … contributing to the word problem that plagues almost all conference posters. Second, there seems to be some research (again, I’m looking for citations I know I have somewhere) suggesting that full justification might increase a reader’s comprehension of the text. My guess is comprehension increases because one reads it more slowly. Changing the font every sentence might also increase comprehension in the same way, though I don’t recommend doing that. (Hyphenated paragraphs take longer to read, too.)

By the way, don’t center-justify text in figure legends and table captions. Many prestigious journals use centered text in this way, but I think they’d change to left justification if they could do so without admitting to prior foolishness.

As an aside, I recently purchased a Kobo eReader because I can specify left-justification. I couldn’t do that with my Kindle. I can also now read while floating in a pool (my Kobo is waterproof).

If for some reason the above didn’t bore you, please see more of the same at Designing conference posters. Drop me a note if you have actual data for any of the above speculation.

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Minor victory in my war against yam labeling fraud

In my futile quest to convince people that sweet potatoes shouldn’t be called yams (which are unrelated plants), I discovered that one can actually report vendors who label sweet potatoes as yams. So, for giggles, I reported Giant Foods to the USDA’s Misbranding and Misrepresentation Office. Below is a photograph I took in November of their organic sweet potatoes:

giant-sweet-potato-05 (1)

And now in all of their stores (that I’ve checked), they sell sweet potatoes labeled as sweet potatoes:

Nature's Promise sweet potato at Giant

It might be a small victory, but Giant Foods is giant, so I’m pleased. If you want to know more about my futile war, please see my page on Yams versus Sweet Potatoes. If you want to make your own report, just visit the above USDA site and send the contact person a photograph of the label along with store contact information. They’ll do the rest, and apparently in a persuasive way.

Posted in Biology, Education, Food, Gardening, Graphic design, Health, Photography, Science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments