ScienceOnline2010 – interview with Eric Roston

Continuing with the tradition from last two years, I will occasionally post interviews with some of the participants of the ScienceOnline2010 conference that was held in the Research Triangle Park, NC back in January. See all the interviews in this series here. You can check out previous years’ interviews as well: 2008 and 2009.
Today, I asked Eric Roston, author of The Carbon Age and blogger on Climate Post and Carbon Nation (also on Twitter) to answer a few questions.
Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? What is your (scientific) background?
Eric Roston pic.JPGMany people have high school teachers who inspired them, and who they remember forever. I have one memory of my high school chemistry teacher: Occasionally some friends and I would go to the Jai Alai fronton on a Saturday night (This being Connecticut in the ’80s), and we’d bump into our chemistry teacher and she’d give us betting tips.
“Chemistry” didn’t enter my consciousness again for many years.
Flash forward. After covering a wide range of things at TIME, I began to think, What book could I have read before I started here that could possibly have unified everything I’ve encountered since? This is circa 2003. It became clear that I and a lot of people around me, not just in the energy and climate arena, were talking about carbon all the time and had no idea what it is, in climate, industry, health, pro cycling, etc.
Here’s what it is: The fastest way to learn the most about everything larger than an atom and smaller than a star (no disrespect to the other elements). That was the start of my first book, The Carbon Age. If I had paid attention in high school chemistry, I never would have fallen for it as hard as I did many years later. What Richard Smalley called “the romance of the carbon atom” for me started with an attempt to efficiently answer several big questions at once.
Sometime last month my weekly blog, ClimatePost.net (“Thursdays at three!”), had its first birthday. I started Climate Post as a way for busy non-specialists to keep up with the climate archipelago–science, politics, policy, business, technology–in 1,000 words a week. I like hearing from readers so that I can maximize its usefulness–and your time.
Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?
The Past: I’m basically a journalist. Early on I had formative stints at New York Times and elsewhere. I became so thoroughly disillusioned with the media that I retreated to waiting tables and learning Russian, ending up with an M.A. in Russian history, literature, and linguistics. Eventually, I relapsed and joined Time’s business section, and later, its Washington bureau. (My wife and I met when she worked for Newsweek and I was at Time.)
Present: Against all expectation and reason, earlier this year I started thinking through a novel, a thriller called The Delta Prophecy. I can’t say what it’s about in a word or two without giving away the plot (not guessable).
What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?
The fiction project, or as I’m more comfortable thinking about it, nonnonfiction, emerged in part for practical reasons. These days I can’t cloister myself in the Library of Congress for a couple of years or jet off on short notice to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, Rice, or MIT. Personally, I’ve got a family now and they’re my time and passion. There are tradeoffs in life, and I’ve had to step back from reporting and writing things I’m interested in lately because, eh, they’ll be there later but kids are only two once.
How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?
This is almost like asking before, say, 1990, “How does copper wire figure into receiving a telephone signal in your home?
For many members of the rapidly growing Fourth Estate (and similarly, I often suspect, for the clinically insane), blogging, social networks, Google (etc.), Twitter, Friendfeed, and Facebook are now the main distributors of news media. They have disrupted economies, professions, and 500-year-old vernacular written cultures. The web is reshaping institutions and redistributing skills and demand around the economy.
Nothing is growing anew and nothing is falling to pieces: Everything is growing to pieces.
How do you see journalism changing?
Journalism is not changing. Reporting is not changing. Reporters’ tools are expanding and barriers to publishing have been eliminated–as long as you’re mindful of the Andy Warhol parody line, “In the future we will all be famous for 15 people.”
About a year ago, maybe longer, it seemed various factions in the media and journalism debate were not on the same page. Lost in the shuffle, was discussion of skills and habits of mind useful in reporting, capital R, immutable and eternal. They should be discussed the way we discuss scientific skills and habits of mind.
I sat down to write an essay about the neglect of reporting, but just as soon thought it absurd to write an essay about reporting that didn’t have any reporting. So I reported it out, calling “traditional” journalist friends, former colleagues, strangers. Some talked for a while, some were succinct. Every last person I talked to concluded explicitly or inexplicitly that his or her professional skills lay somewhere in the vicinity of “investigation and storytelling.” (My emphasis.)
One way of describing the change occurring now in journalism is this: Investigation and storytelling have become decoupled. Legacy media institutions were founded and grew up under the principle that investigation and storytelling can’t or shouldn’t be decoupled. Places that understand this are trying to adapt. New associations are emerging to test new models, where “investigation” and “storytelling” are coupled by “or,” not “and.” Now hundreds of people who don’t know each other can collaborate on an investigation. News narrators now needn’t have a network camera in front of them or even get out of their pajamas.
I hope there will always be demand for “investigation and storytelling.” It seems like a reasonable bet. Personally, I like knowing that a person’s or an institution’s reputation, or their paychecks, is on the line for conducting a thorough investigation, presenting findings in an engaging, comprehensive manner, and verifying everything before I see it. It’s a way to both establish trustworthiness and tell a ripping yarn. It might be incomplete, but at least someone’s visibly responsible for it.
There’s a lot of attention, thankfully, to fact-checking lately, because of the success of PolitiFact, a unit of the St. Petersburg Times, and FactCheck.org, of the University of Pennsylvania. It’s worth looking back at one brand of fact-checking, which was invented at Time magazine in the 1920s. Here’s the Introduction to Time’s fact-checking manual, from 1984, by then-chief of research Leah Shanks Gordon: “When an editor asked for examples of how Time research [fact-checking] system had changed in the past ten years, I was hard-pressed to answer. Time research has changed very little since its inception 60 years ago. Its mandate then and now is to make sure the facts are right. What has changed is the technology, and this is a manifestation of the Computer Age. Philosophically, the research system is as sound as the day it was born; technologically, it is a constantly changing function, keeping pace with the latest developments.” Cute that they thought they were living in the computer age.
Then what advice do you have for young “investigators and/or storytellers”?
There are three things I’d recommend people tape to the wall: Carl Sagan’s “Baloney Detection Kit“; a list of the major logical fallacies; and evolving conclusions from the neuroeconomists and behaviorists about group identity, fact-finding, and opinion-formation.
1) BALONEY: The “Baloney Detection Kit” lays bare the similarities between scientists and journalists. This comes from Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World. If you edit them a little bit, you have a list of suggestions that should not only be pinned to the heads of reporters, but anybody who comes to Washington:
· Verify facts with multiple sources. The more the merrier.
· Absorb all knowledgeable points of view. (Corollary: If a prominent point of view is not knowledgeable, then emphasize that.)
· Don’t assume authorities are correct just because they’re authorities (Corollary: “All administrations lie,” I.F. Stone, et al).
· Develop more than one explanation of what’s going on and test them.
· Don’t overvalue your own insights and pet theories just because you thought of or encountered them.
· Counting counts. Quantify whatever you can.
· Make sure every link works in a chain of logic.
· Remember Occam’s Razor.
· When you’re done reporting and writing, assume everything you’ve done is incorrect until you can document otherwise (ie, check facts).
2) FALLACIES: If you start looking at Twitter, etc. through the lens of the logical fallacies, it’s clear that, if we had to avoid them in tweets, no one would ever have anything to say to each other. I won’t dwell on these except to draw readers’ attention to a decade-old absurdist piece on McSweeneys.net by a John Warner, called, “Possible Winning Solutions to the Board Game ‘Clue’ if the Characters Were Replaced With Right-Leaning Political Pundits, the Weapons Replaced With Logical Fallacies, and the Rooms Replaced With Either Jung’s ‘Psychic Containers’ or Varieties of Soft Cheese.” Wikipedia has a handy long list, although somebody needs to go into it and clean it up.
3) NEUROECONOMICS: Behavioral research has come up with many thought-provoking observations about how people accept or dismiss facts. Cognitive tendencies often skew “fact-finding” activities in one way or another.
Jay Rosen of New York University has suggested that journalists should come with disclaimers of “where I’m coming from.” Personally, I’d prefer a demonstration that they understand these three things and can apply them to themselves and others. Maybe that’s my disclosure.
What is your new media pet peeve?
Occasionally the “me”-driven nature of social media is fundamentally at odds with the outward-looking vector of curiosity and general inquiry that fuels journalism. There are practices and habits of mind central to reporting (and shared with many other professions, notably science) that are at odds with the me-casting zeitgeist of facebook, Twitter, and the blogs. Kurt Cobain was kidding when he said, “Here we are now, entertain us”; not everyone is. There was an article in the New York Times during the 2008 election about college students’ media consumption. Students took part anonymously in a study, and one told the researcher: “If the news is that important, it will find me.” This would go on to become something of a slogan in some parts. We’re making the ’70s “Me decade” look like the ’40s “Greatest Generaion.”
Forget about media and journalism, the “news will find me” ethic struck me as a potentially horrific and arrogant worldview that damns its speaker to manipulation and ignorance. It’s revolutionary that we all receive updates from friends and “friends” through various appliances–I’m certainly among the addicted–but as the outrage over Apple’s control of iPad media indicates, there are incredibly powerful forces who want nothing more than to make sure that news never finds you.
News does not find anyone. You have to go out and gently beat the hell out of the world to give it to you. Along the way, you collect stories that you didn’t set out for. Golden eggs turn out to be rotten, and stones roll over to reveal doubloons. Reporting is frequently what happens when you’re busy making other plans.
There’s always been diversity in reporting. Reporting is hard to define, because everyone brings a different mix of strengths and weaknesses to the interview, in temperament, emotional intelligence, book smarts, comfort around other people, knowledge of when to be tactful, and when not to be. But all reporting basically comes down to the ethos, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any cool science blogs by the participants at the Conference?
I can’t remember a time when the sun didn’t rise or a time I didn’t read ScienceBlogs. I stay close to climate science and evolution, but also sip from the firehose.
What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2010 for you?
Face time with friends, “friends,” and tweeps. It’s also fun to rip it up on topics people feel passionately about, in a friendly, collaborative setting.
Any suggestions for next year? Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?
I’m interested in journalism ethics, and, these days, science-in-fiction…
It was so nice to see you again and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again next January.

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2 responses to “ScienceOnline2010 – interview with Eric Roston

  1. Great job Bora, lets hope we get the same calibre of participants over in London for #SOLO10

  2. Pingback: ScienceOnline interviews « A Blog Around The Clock