Category Archives: History

The line between science and journalism is getting blurry….again

 

Human #1: “Hello, nice weather today, isn’t it?”

Human #2: “Ummm…actually not. It’s a gray, cold, windy, rainy kind of day!”

Many a joke depends on confusion about the meaning of language, as in the example above. But understanding the sources of such confusion is important in realms other than stand-up comedy, including in the attempts to convey facts about the world to one’s target audience.

In the example above, Human #1 is using Phatic language, sometimes referred to as ‘small talk‘ and usually exemplified, at least in the British Isles, with the talk about the highly unpredictable weather. (image: by striatic on Flickr)

Phatic language

Phatic discourse is just one of several functions of language. Its role is not to impart any factual information, but to establish a relationship between the people. It conveys things like emotional state, relative social status, alliance, intentions and limits to further conversation (i.e., where the speaker “draws the line”).

If a stranger rides into a small town, a carefully chosen yet meaningless phrase establishes a state of mind that goes something like this: “I come in peace, mean no harm, I hope you accept me in the same way”. The response of the local conveys how the town looks at strangers riding in, for example: “You are welcome…for a little while – we’ll feed you and put you up for the night, but then we hope you leave”. (image: Clint Eastwood in ‘Fistful of Dollars’ from Squidoo)

An important component of phatic discourse is non-verbal communication, as the tone, volume and pitch of the voice, facial expression and body posture modify the language itself and confirm the emotional and intentional state of the speaker.

It does not seem that linguistics has an official term for the opposite – the language that conveys only pure facts – but the term usually seen in such discussions (including the domain of politics and campaigning) is “Conceptual language” so this is what I will use here. Conceptual language is what Human #2 in the joke above was assuming and using – just the facts, ma’am.

Rise of the earliest science and journalism

For the sake of this article, I will use two simplified definitions of science and journalism.

Journalism is communication of ‘what’s new’. A journalist is anyone who can say “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.”

Science is communication of ‘how the world works’. A scientist is anyone who can say “I understand something about the world, you don’t, let me explain it to you”.

Neither definition necessitates that what they say is True, just what they know to the best of their ability and understanding.

Note that I wrote “science is communication”. Yes, science is the process of discovery of facts about the way the world works, but the communication of that discovery is the essential last step of the scientific process, and the discoverer is likely to be the person who understands the discovery the best and is thus likely to be the person with the greatest expertise and authority (and hopefully ability) to do the explaining.

For the greatest part of human history, none of those distinctions made any sense. Most of communication contained information about what is new, some information about the way the world works, and a phatic component. Knowing how the world works, knowing what is happening in that world right now, and knowing if you should trust the messenger, were all important for survival.

For the most part, the information was local, and the messengers were local. A sentry runs back into the village alerting that a neighboring tribe, painted with war-paints, is approaching. Is that person a member of your tribe, or a stranger, or the well-known Boy Who Cried Wolf? What do you know about the meaning of war-paint? What do you know about the neighboring tribe? Does all this information fit with your understanding of the world? Is information coming from this person to be taken seriously? How are village elders responding to the news? Is this piece of news something that can aid in your personal survival?

For the longest time, information was exchanged between people who knew each other to some degree – family, neighbors, friends, business-partners. Like in a fishing village, the news about the state of fishing stocks coming from the ships at sea is important information exchanged at the local tavern. But is that fish-catch information ‘journalism’ (what’s new) or ‘science’ (how the world works)? It’s a little bit of both. And you learn which sailors to trust by observing who is trusted by the locals you have already learned to trust. Trust is transitive.

Someone in the “in-group” is trusted more than a stranger – kids learned from parents, the community elders had the authority: the trust was earned through a combination of who you are, how old you are, and how trustworthy you tended to be in the past. New messengers are harder to pin down on all those criteria, so their information is taken with a degree of skepticism. The art of critical thinking (again, not necessarily meaning that you will always pick the Truth) is an ancient one, as it was essential for day-to-day survival. You trust your parents (or priests or teachers) almost uncritically, but you put up your BS filters when hearing a stranger.

Emergence of science and of journalism

The invention of the printing press precipitated the development of both journalism and science. But that took a very long time – almost two centuries (image: 1851, printing press that produced early issues of Scientific American). After Gutenberg printed the Bible, most of what people printed were political pamphlets, church fliers and what for that time and sensibilities went for porn.

London Gazette of 1666 is thought to be the first newspaper in the modern sense of the word. (image: from DavidCo) Until then, newspapers were mostly irregular printings by individuals, combining news, opinion, fiction and entertainment. After this, newspapers gradually became regular (daily, weekly, monthly) collections of writings by numerous people writing in the same issue.

The first English scientific journal was published a year before – the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London in 1665 (image: Royal Society of London).

Until then, science was communicated by letters – those letters were often read at the meetings of scientists. Those meetings got formalized into scientific societies and the letters read at such meetings started getting printed. The first scientific journals were collections of such letters, which explains why so many journals have the words “Letters”, “Annals” or “Proceedings” in their titles.

Also, before as well as for a quite a long time after the inception of first journals, much of science was communicated via books – a naturalist would spend many years collecting data and ideas before putting it all in long-form, leather-bound form. Those books were then discussed at meetings of other naturalists who would often respond by writing books of their own. Scientists at the time did not think that Darwin’s twenty-year wait to publish The Origin was notable (William Kimler, personal communication) – that was the normal timeline for research and publishing at the time, unusual only to us from a modern perspective of 5-year NIH grants and the ‘publish or perish’ culture.

As previously oral communication gradually moved to print over the centuries, both journalistic and scientific communication occured in formats – printed with ink on paper – very similar to blogging (that link leads to the post that served as a seed from which this article grew). If born today, many of the old writers, like Montaigne, would be Natural Born Bloggers (‘NBBs’ – term coined by protoblogger Dave Winer). A lot of ship captains’ logs were essentially tweets with geolocation tags.

People who wanted to inform other people printed fliers and pamphlets and books. Personal letters and diaries were meant to be public: they were as widely shared as was possible, they were publicly read, saved, then eventually collected and published in book-form (at least posthumously). Just like blogs, tweets and Facebook updates today….

The 18th century ‘Republic of Letters’ (see the amazing visualization of their correspondence) was a social network of intellectual leaders of Europe who exchanged and publicly read their deep philosophical thoughts, scientific ideas, poetry and prose.

Many people during those centuries wrote their letters in duplicate: one copy to send, one to keep for publishing Collected Letters later in life. Charles Darwin did that, for example (well, if I remember correctly, his wife made copies from his illegible originals into something that recipients could actually read), which is why we have such a complete understanding of his work and thought – it is all well preserved and the availability of such voluminouos correspondence gave rise to a small industry of Darwinian historical scholarship.

What is important to note is that, both in journalism and in science, communication could be done by anyone – there was no official seal of approval, or licence, to practice either of the two arts. At the same time, communication in print was limited to those who were literate and who could afford to have a book printed – people who, for the most part, were just the wealthy elites. Entry into that intellectual elite from a lower social class was possible but very difficult and required a lot of hard work and time (see, for example, a biography of Alfred Russell Wallace). Membership in the worlds of arts, science and letters was automatic for those belonging to the small group of literate aristocracy. They had no need to establish formalized gatekeeping as bloodlines, personal sponsorship and money did the gatekeeping job quite well on their own.

As communication has moved from local to global, due to print, trust had to be gained over time – by one’s age, stature in society, track record, and by recommendation – who the people you trust say you should trust. Trust is transitive.

Another thing to note is that each written dispatch contained both ‘what’s new’ and ‘how the world works’ as well as a degree of phatic discourse: “This is what happened. This is what I think it means. And this is who I am so you know why you should trust me.” It is often hard to tell, from today’s perspective, what was scientific communication and what was journalism.

Personal – and thus potentially phatic – communication was a norm in the early scientific publishing. For example, see “A Letter from Mr J. Breintal to Peter Collinfoxl, F. RXS. contairnng an Account of what he felt after being bit by a Rattle-fnake” in Philosophical Transactions, 1747. – a great account of it can be found at Neurotic Physiology. It is a story of a personal interaction with a rattlesnake and the discovery leading from it. It contained “I was there, you were not, let me tell you what happened” and “I understand something, you don’t, let me explain that to you” and “Let me tell you who I am so you can know you can trust me”.

Apparently, quite a lot of scientific literature of old involved exciting narratives of people getting bitten by snakes – see this one from 1852 as well.

The anomalous 20th century – effects of technology

The gradual changes in society – invention of printing, rise of science, rise of capitalism, industrial revolution, mass migration from rural to urban areas, improvements in transportation and communication technologies, to name just a few – led to a very different world in the 20th century.

Technology often leads societal changes. If you were ever on a horse, you understand why armies that used stirrups defeated the armies that rode horses without this nifty invention.

Earlier, the speed of spreading news was much slower (see image: Maps of rates of travel in the 19th century – click on the link to see bigger and more). By 1860 Telegraph reached to St. Louis. During its short run the Pony Express could go the rest of the way to San Francisco in 10 days. After that, telegraph followed the rails. First transcontinental line was in 1869. Except for semaphores (1794) information before the telegraph (1843) could only travel as fast as a rider or boat (Thanks to John McKay for this brief primer on the history of speed of communication in Northern America. I am assuming that Europe was slightly ahead and the rest of the world somewhat behind).

The 20th century saw invention or improvement of numerous technologies in transportation – cars, fast trains, airplanes, helicopters, space shuttles – and in communication – telephone, radio, and television. Information could now travel almost instantly.

But those new technologies came with a price – literally. While everyone could write letters and send them by stagecoach, very few people could afford to buy, run and serve printing presses, radio stations and television studios. These things needed capital, and increasingly became owned by rich people and corporations.

Each inch of print or minute of broadcast costs serious money. Thus, people were employed to become official filters of information, the gatekeepers – the editors who decided who will get access to that expensive real estate. As the editors liked some people’s work better than others, those people got employed to work in the nascent newsrooms. Journalism became professionalized. Later, universities started journalism programs and codified instruction for new journalists, professionalizing it even more.

Instead of people informing each other, now the few professionals informed everyone else. And the technology did not allow for everyone else to talk back in the same medium.

The broadcast media, a few large corporations employing professional writers informing millions – with no ability for the receivers of information to fact-check, talk back, ask questions, be a part of the conversation – is an exception in history, something that lasted for just a few decades of the 20th century.

The anomalous 20th century – industrialization

Industrial Revolution brought about massive migration of people into big cities. The new type of work required a new type of workforce, one that was literate and more educated. This led to the invention of public schools and foundation of public universities.

In the area of science, many more people became educated enough (and science still not complex and expensive yet) to start their own surveys, experiments and tinkering. The explosion of research led to an explosion of new journals. Those too became expensive to produce and started requiring professional filters – editors. Thus scientific publishing also became professionalized. Not every personal anecdote could make it past the editors any more. Not everyone could call oneself a scientist either – a formal path emerged, ending with a PhD at a university, that ensured that science was done and published by qualified persons only.

By the 1960s, we got a mass adoption of peer-review by scientific journals that was experimentally done by some journals a little earlier. Yes, it is that recent! See for example this letter to Physical Review in 1936:

 

Dear Sir,

We (Mr. Rosen and I) had sent you our manuscript for publication and had not authorized you to show it to specialists before it is printed. I see no reason to address the — in any case erroneous — comments of your anonymous expert. On the basis of this incident I prefer to publish the paper elsewhere.

Respectfully,

Albert Einstein

Or this one:

 

John Maddox, former editor of Nature: The Watson and Crick paper was not peer-reviewed by Nature… the paper could not have been refereed: its correctness is self-evident. No referee working in the field … could have kept his mouth shut once he saw the structure…

Migration from small towns into big cities also meant that most people one would meet during the day were strangers. Meeting a stranger was not something extraordinary any more, so emergence and enforcement of proper proscribed conduct in cities replaced the need for one-to-one encounters and sizing up strangers using phatic language. Which is why even today phatic language is much more important and prevalent in rural areas where it aids personal survival than in urban centers where more general rules of behavior among strangers emerged (which may partially explain why phatic language is generally associated with conservative ideology and conceptual language with politicial liberalism, aka, the “reality-based community“).

People moving from small hometowns into big cities also led to breaking up of families and communities of trust. One needed to come up with new methods for figuring out who to trust. One obvious place to go was local media. They were stand-ins for village elders, parents, teachers and priests.

If there were many newspapers in town, one would try them all for a while and settle on one that best fit one’s prior worldview. Or one would just continue reading the paper one’s parents read.

But other people read other newspapers and brought their own worldviews into the conversation. This continuous presence of a plurality of views kept everyone’s BS filters in high gear – it was necessary to constantly question and filter all the incoming information in order to choose what to believe and what to dismiss.

The unease with the exposure to so many strangers with strange ideas also changed our notions of privacy. Suddenly we craved it. Our letters are now meant for one recepient only, with the understanding it will not be shared. Personal diaries now have lockets. After a century of such craving for privacy, we are again returning to a more historically traditional notions, by much more freely sharing our lives with strangers online.

The anomalous 20th century – cleansing of conceptual language in science and journalism

Until the 20th century we did not see the consolidation of media into large conglomerates, and of course, there were no mass radio or TV until mid-20th century. Not until later in the century did we see the monopolization of local media markets by a single newspaper (competitors going belly-up) which, then, had to serve everyone, so it had to invent the fake “objective” HeSaidSheSaid timid style of reporting in order not to lose customers of various ideological stripes and thus lose advertising revenue.

Professionalising of journalism, coupled with the growth of media giants serving very broad audiences, led to institutionalization of a type of writing that was very much limited to “what’s new”.

The “let me explain” component of journalism fell out of favor as there was always a faction of the audience that had a problem with the empirical facts – a faction that the company’s finances could not afford to lose. The personal – including phatic – was carefully eliminated as it was perceived as unobjective and inviting the criticism of bias. The way for a reporter to inject one’s opinion into the article was to find a person who thinks the same in order to get the target quote. A defensive (perhaps cowardly) move that became the norm. And, once the audience caught on, led to the loss of trust in traditional media.

Reduction of local media to a single newspaper, a couple of local radio stations and a handful of broadcast TV channels (that said esentially the same thing), left little choice for the audience. With only one source in town, there was no opportunity to filter among a variety of news sources. Thus, many people started unquestioningly accepting what 20th-century style broadcast media served them.

Just because articles were under the banners of big companies did not make them any more trustworthy by definition, but with no alternative it is still better to be poorly informed than not informed at all. Thus, in the 20th century we gradually lost the ability to read everything critically, awed by the big names like NYT and BBC and CBS and CNN. Those became the new parents, teachers, tribal elders and priests, the authority figures whose words are taken unquestioningly.

In science, explosion in funding not matched by explosion of job positions, led to overproduction of PhDs and a rise of hyper-competitive culture in academia. Writing books became unproductive. The only way to succeed is to keep getting grants and the only way to do that is to publish very frequently. Everything else had to fall by the wayside.

False measures of journal quality – like the infamous Impact Factor – were used to determine who gets a job and tenure and who falls out of the pipeline. The progress of science led inevitably to specialization and to the development of specialized jargon. Proliferation of expensive journals ensured that nobody but people in highest-level research institutions had access to the literature, so scientists started writing only for each other.

Scientific papers became dense, but also narrowed themselves to only “this is how the world works”. The “this is new” became left out as the audience already knew this, and it became obvious that a paper would not be published if it did not produce something new, almost by definition.

And the personal was so carefully excised for the purpose of seeming unbiased by human beings that it sometimes seems like the laboratory equipment did all the experiments of its own volition.

So, at the close of the 20th century, we had a situation in which journalism and science, for the first time in history, completely separated from each other. Journalism covered what’s new without providing the explanation and context for new readers just joining the topic. Science covered only explanation and only to one’s peers.

In order to bridge that gap, a whole new profession needed to arise. As scientists understood the last step of the scientific method – communication – to mean only ‘communication to colleagues’, and as regular press was too scared to put truth-values on any statements of fact, the solution was the invention of the science journalist – someone who can read what scientists write and explain that to the lay audience. With mixed success. Science is hard. It takes years to learn enough to be able to report it well. Only a few science journalists gathered that much expertise over the years of writing (and making mistakes on the way).

So, many science journalists fell back on reporting science as news, leaving the explanation out. Their editors helped in that by severely restricting the space – and good science coverage requires ample space.

A good science story should explain what is known by now (science), what the new study brings that is new (news) and why does that matter to you (phatic discourse). The lack of space usually led to omission of context (science), shortening of what is new (news) and thus leaving only the emotional story intact. Thus, the audience did not learn much, Certainly not enough to be able to evaluate next day’s and next week’s news.

This format also led to the choice of stories. It is easy to report in this way if the news is relevant to the audience anyway, e.g., concerning health (the “relevant” stories). It is also easy to report on misconduct of scientists (the “fishy” stories) – which is not strictly science reporting. But it was hard to report on science that is interesting for its own sake (the “cool” stories).

What did the audience get out of this? Scientists are always up to some mischief. And every week they change the story as to what is good or bad for my health. And it is not very fun, entertaining and exciting. No surprise that science as endeavour slowly started losing trust with the (American) population, and that it was easy for groups with financial, political or religious interests to push anti-science rhetoric on topics from hazards of smoking to stem-cell research to evolution to climate change.

At the end of the 20th century, thus, we had a situation in which journalism and science were completely separate endeavors, and the bridge between them – science journalism – was unfortunately operating under the rules of journalism and not science, messing up the popular trust in both.

Back to the Future

It is 2010. The Internet has been around for 30 years, the World Wide Web for 20. It took some time for the tools to develop and spread, but we are obviously undergoing a revolution in communication. I use the word “revolution” because it is so almost by definition – when the means of production change hands, this is a revolution.

The means of production, in this case the technology for easy, cheap and fast dissemination of information, are now potentially in the hands of everyone. When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, we call that ‘citizen journalism.’ And some of those citizens possess much greater expertise on the topics they cover than the journalists that cover that same beat. This applies to science as well.

In other words, after the deviation that was the 20th century, we are going back to the way we have evolved as a species to communicate – one-to-one and few-to-few instead of one-to-many. Apart from technology (software instead of talking/handwriting/printing), speed (microseconds instead of days and weeks by stagecoach, railroad or Pony Express, see image above) and the number of people reached (potentially – but rarely – millions simultaneously instead of one person or small group at a time), blogging, social networking and other forms of online writing are nothing new – this is how people have always communicated. Like Montaigne. And the Republic of Letters in the 18th century. And Charles Darwin in the 19th century.

All we are doing now is returning to a more natural, straightforward and honest way of sharing information, just using much more efficient ways of doing it. (Images from Cody Brown)

And not even that – where technology is scarce, the analog blogging is live and well (image: Analog blogger, from AfriGadget).

What about trustworthiness of all that online stuff? Some is and some isn’t to be trusted. It’s up to you to figure out your own filters and criteria, and to look for additional sources, just like our grandparents did when they had a choice of dozens of newspapers published in each of their little towns.

With the gradual return of a more natural system of communication, we got to see additional opinions, the regular fact-checks on the media by experts on the topic, and realized that the mainstream media is not to be trusted.

With the return of a more natural system of communication, we will all have to re-learn how to read critically, find second opinions, evaluate sources. Nothing new is there either – that is what people have been doing for millennia – the 20th century is the exception. We will figure out who to trust by trusting the judgment of people we already trust. Trust is transitive.

Return of the phatic language

What does this all mean for the future of journalism, including science journalism?

The growing number of Web-savvy citizens have developed new methods of establishing trustworthiness of the sources. It is actually the old one, pre-20th century method – relying on individuals, not institutions. Instead of treating WaPo, Fox, MSNBC and NPR as the proxies for the father, teacher, preacher and the medicine man, we now once again evaulate individuals.

As nobody enters a news site via the front page and looks around, but we all get to individual articles via links and searches, we are relying on bylines under the titles, not on the logos up on top. Just like we were not born trusting NYTimes but learned to trust it because our parents and neighbors did (and then perhaps we read it for some time), we are also not born knowing which individuals to trust. We use the same method – we start with recommendations from people we already trust, then make our own decisions over time.

If you don’t link to your sources, including to scientific papers, you lose trust. If you quote out of context without providing that context, you lose trust. If you hide who you are and where you are coming from – that is cagey and breeds mistrust. Transparency is the new objectivity.

And transparency is necessarily personal, thus often phatic. It shows who you are as a person, your background, your intentions, your mood, your alliances, your social status.

There are many reasons sciencebloggers are more trusted than journalists covering science.

First, they have the scientific expertise that journalists lack – they really know what they are talking about on the topic of their expertise and the audience understands this.

Second, they link out to more, more diverse and more reliable sources.

Third, being digital natives, they are not familiar with the concept of word-limits. They start writing, they explain it as it needs to be explained and when they are done explaining they end the post. Whatever length it takes to give the subject what it’s due.

Finally, not being trained by j-schools, they never learned not to let their personality shine through their writing. So they gain trust by connecting to their readers – the phatic component of communication.

Much of our communication, both offline and online, is phatic. But that is necessary for building trust. Once the trust is there, the conceptual communication can work. If I follow people I trust on Twitter, I will trust that they trust the sources they link to so I am likely to click on them. Which is why more and more scientists use Twitter to exchage information (PDF). Trust is transitive.

Scientists, becoming journalists

Good science journalists are rare. Cuts in newsrooms, allocation of too little space for science stories, assigning science stories to non-science journalists – all of these factors have resulted in a loss of quantity and quality of science reporting in the mainstream media.

But being a good science journalist is not impossible. People who take the task seriously can become experts on the topic they cover (and get to a position where they can refuse to cover astronomy if their expertise is evolution) over time. They can become temporary experts if they are given sufficient time to study instead of a task of writing ten stories per day.

With the overproduction of PhDs, many scientists are choosing alternative careers, including many of them becoming science writers and journalists, or Press Information Officers. They thus come into the profession with the expertise already there.

There is not much difference between a research scientist who blogs and thus is an expert on the topic s/he blogs about, and a research scientist who leaves the lab in order to write as a full-time job. They both have scientific expertise and they both love to write or they wouldn’t be doing it.

Blog is software. A medium. One of many. No medium has a higher coefficient of trustworthiness than any other. Despite never going to j-school and writing everything on blogs, I consider myself to be a science writer.

Many science journalists, usually younger though some of the old ones caught on quickly and became good at it (generation is mindset, not age), grok the new media ecosystem in which online collaboration between scientists and journalists is becoming a norm.

At the same time, many active scientists are now using the new tools (the means of production) to do their own communication. As is usually the case with novelty, different people get to it at different rates. The conflicts between 20th and 21st style thinking inevitably occur. The traditional scientists wish to communicate the old way – in journals, letters to the editor, at conferences. This is the way of gatekeeping they are used to.

But there have been a number of prominent cases of such clashes between old and new models of communication, including the infamous Roosevelts on toilets (the study had nothing to do with either US Presidents or toilets, but it is an instructive case – image by Dr.Isis), and several other smaller cases.

The latest one is the Arsenic Bacteria Saga in which the old-timers do not seem to undestand what a ‘blog’ means, and are seemingly completely unaware of the important distinction between ‘blogs’ and ‘scienceblogs’, the former being online spaces by just about anyone, the latter being blogs written by people who actually know their science and are vetted or peer-reviewed in some way e.g., at ResearchBlogging.org or Scienceblogging.org or by virtue of being hand-picked and invited to join one of the science blogging networks (which are often run by traditional media outlets or scientific publishers or societies) or simply by gaining resepect of peers over time.

Case by case, old-time scientists are learning. Note how both in the case of Roosevelts on toilets and the Arsenic bacteria the initially stunned scientists quickly learned and appreciated the new way of communication.

In other words, scientists are slowly starting to get out of the cocoon. Instead of just communicating to their peers behind the closed doors, now they are trying to reach out to the lay audience as well.

As more and more papers are Open Access and can be read by all, they are becoming more readable (as I predicted some years ago). The traditional format of the paper is changing. So they are covering “let me explain” portion better, both in papers and on their own blogs.

They may still be a little clumsy about the “what’s new” part, over-relying on the traditional media to do it for them via press releases and press conferences (see Darwinius and arsenic bacteria for good examples) instead of doing it themselves or taking control of the message (though they do need to rely on MSM to some extent due to the distinction between push and pull strategies as the media brands are still serving for many people as proxies for trustworthy sources).

But most importantly, they are now again adding the phatic aspect to their communication, revealing a lot of their personality on social networks, on blogs, and even some of them venturing into doing it in scientific papers.

By combining all three aspects of good communication, scientists will once again regain the trust of their audience. And what they are starting to do looks more and more like (pre-20th century) journalism.

Journalists, becoming scientists

On the other side of the divide, there is a renewed interest in journalism expanding from just “this is new” to “let me explain how the world works”. There are now efforts to build a future of context, and to design explainers.

If you are not well informed on an issue (perhaps because you are too young to remember when it first began, or the issue just started being relevant to you), following a stream of ‘what is new’ articles will not enlighten you. There is not sufficient information there. There is a lot of tacit knowledge that the writer assumes the readers possess – but many don’t.

There has to be a way for news items to link to some kind of collection of background information – an ‘explainer’. Such an explainer would be a collection of verifiable facts about the topic. A collection of verifiable facts about the way the world works is….scientific information!

With more and more journalists realizing they need to be transparent about where they are coming from, injecting personality into their work in order to build trust, some of that phatic language is starting to seep in, completing the trio of elements of effective communication.

Data Journalism – isn’t this science?

Some of the best journalism of the past – yes, the abominable 20th century – was done when a reporter was given several months to work on a single story requiring sifting through boxes and boxes of documents. The reporter becomes the expert on the topic, starts noticing patterns and writes a story that brings truly new knowledge to the world. That is practically science! Perhaps it is not the hardest of the hard sciences like physics, but as good as well-done social science like cultural anthropology, sociology or ethnography. There is a system and a method very much like the scientific method.

Unfortunately, most reporters are not given such luxury. They have to take shortcuts – interviewing a few sources to quote for the story. The sources are, of course, a very small and very unrepresentative sample of the relevant population – from a rolodex. Call a couple of climate scientists, and a couple of denialists, grab a quote from each and stick them into a formulaic article. That is Bad Science as well as Bad Journalism. And now that the people formerly known as audience, including people with expertise on the topic, have the tools to communicate to the world, they often swiftly point out how poorly such articles represent reality.

But today, most of the information, data and documents are digital, not in boxes. They are likely to be online and can be accessed without travel and without getting special permissions (though one may have to steal them – as Wikileaks operates: a perfect example of the new data journalism). Those reams of data can be analyzed by computers to find patterns, as well as by small armies of journalists (and other experts) for patterns and pieces of information that computer programs miss.

This is what bioinformaticists do (and have already built tools to do it – contact them, steal their tools!).

Data journalism. This is what a number of forward-thinking journalists and media organizations are starting to do.

This is science.

On the other hand, a lot of distributed, crowdsourced scientific research, usually called Citizen Science, is in the business of collecting massive amounts of data for analysis. How does that differ from data journalism? Not much?

Look at this scientific paper – Coding Early Naturalists’ Accounts into Long-Term Fish Community Changes in the Adriatic Sea (1800–2000) – is this science or data journalism? It is both.

The two domains of communicating about what is new and how the world works – journalism and science – have fused again. Both are now starting to get done by teams that involve both professionals and amateurs. Both are now led by personalities who are getting well-known in the public due to their phatic communication in a variety of old and new media.

It is important to be aware of the shortness of our lives and thus natural tendency for historical myopia. Just because we were born in the 20th century does not mean that the way things were done then are the way things were ‘always done’, or the best ways to do things – the pinnacle of cultural and social development. The 20th century was just a strange and deviant blip in the course of history.

As we are leaving the 20th century behind with all of its unusual historical quirks, we are going back to an older model of communicating facts – but with the new tools we can do it much better than ever, including a much broader swath of society – a more democratic system than ever.

By the way, while it’s still cold, the rain has stopped. And that is Metaphorical language…

This article was commissioned by Science Progress and will also appear on their site in 24 hours.

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Serbian Dreambook: National Imaginary in the Time of Milošević

Some of you may know that my brother is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alberta. He also works as a visual artist in photography, video, and other media, mostly in collaboration with his wife Gordana who is an artist.

In a few months, his book willl come out – Serbian Dreambook: National Imaginary in the Time of Milošević:

The central role that the regime of Slobodan Milošević played in the bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia is well known, but Marko Živković explores another side of this time period: the stories people in Serbia were telling themselves (and others) about themselves. Živković traces the recurring themes, scripts, and narratives that permeated public discourse in Milošević’s Serbia, as Serbs described themselves as Gypsies or Jews, violent highlanders or peaceful lowlanders, and invoked their own mythologized defeat at the Battle of Kosovo. The author investigates national narratives, the use of tradition for political purposes, and local idioms, paying special attention to the often bizarre and outlandish tropes people employed to make sense of their social reality. He suggests that the enchantments of political life under Milošević may be fruitfully seen as a dreambook of Serbian national imaginary.

I have read most of the stuff in the book, at least in some earlier drafts, over the past few years, and I know this stuff is good! It will help you understand Serbia – in the wartime 1990s as well as before and after. And it may help you understand some other nations or some other groups of people (perhaps even TeaPartiers if you are dilligent in adjusting for different contexts, histories, etc.).

So, pre-order the book now – it will come out next May but it will be worth the wait.

Books: ‘The Poisoner’s Handbook’ by Deborah Blum

Poisoner's Handbook cover.jpgIf you picked up The Poisoner’s Handbook (amazon.com) looking for a fool-proof recipe, I hope you have read the book through and realized at the end that such a thing does not exist: you’ll get busted. If they could figure it all out back in 1930s, can you imagine how much easier they can figure out a case of poisoning today, with modern sensitive techniques? And if you have read the book through, I hope you found it as fascinating as I did. Perhaps you should use your fascination with poisons to do good instead, perhaps become a forensic toxicologist?
My SciBling Deborah Blum (blog, Twitter) has done it again – written a fast-paced page-turner, full of action and intrigue, and with TONS of science in it. It reads like a detective novel. Oh, wait, it is a detective novel. Who said that an author has to invent a fictional detective, an Arsene Lupin or Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes or the Three Investigators? There existed in history real people just like them, including Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, the heroes of The Poisoner’s Handbook.
Charles Norris was the first Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York, or at least the first one who was actually qualified for that position which, before him, was a political appointment not requiring any expertise. Norris served in this role from 1918. to 1935. and revolutionized both the position and the science of forensic medicine. Alexander Gettler was one of his first appointees, who served as New York City’s chief toxicologist until 1959.
The two of them used their prominent position to set the new high standards for the profession of a public medical examiner, and also set the new high standards for the scientific research in forensic pathology, including forensic toxicology – the study of the way poisons kill and how to detect it. They affected rules and legislation with their work, they sent clever murderers to the electric chair, and exonerated the innocents who were headed that way due to mistakes of the non-science-based courtroom battles. And in order to do that, they needed to do a lot of their own research during many years of long days and nights in the lab performing meticulous and often gruesome studies of the effects of various substances on animals, people, living and dead tissues and coming up with ever more sensitive and clever methods for detecting as small quantities of the poison as was technically possible at the time.
In the author’s note at the end of the book, Deborah Blum notes that there were many other forensic scientists before, during and after the Norris-Gettner era, and many of them got mentioned in the book or are cited in the EndNotes (which I discovered only once I finished the book – I hate the way publishers do this these days!). But it is also true that Norris and Gettner were the leaders – they used their prominent position and political clout, and their meticulous research defined the high standards for the nascent discipline. In a way, the central importance and prominence of these two men worked well for the book – here we have two interesting characters to like and follow instead of a whole plethora of unfleshed names. And as each chapter focuses on one poisonous substance and one or two notorious cases of its use, it is just like following Holmes and Watson through a series of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories – the two characters are the connecting thread, and they evolve throughout their lives and throughout the book, case by case.
Apart from being a history of forensic toxicology, the book has several other themes that keep recurring in each chapter, as they chronologically unfold. The book is also a history of 1920/30s New York City, and a history of technology and engineering. Carbon monoxide poisoning? That was the beginning of the car craze. Gas? Everyone cooked and heated with it at the time. Some other poisons were easily found in many over-the-counter products in stores and pharmacies.
Having just read On The Grid, I was also attuned to the discussions of infrastructure of NYC in the early 20th century. How did people transport themselves? Air pollution? Gas? Clean water? Wastewater? All sources of potentially toxic chemicals. How efficient was garbage collection? Not much….thus there were many rats. And rats needed to be controlled. And for that, there was plenty of rat poison to be bought. And rat poison can kill a human as well – inadvertently, as a method for suicide, or as a murder weapon. It is kinda fun to see some of the same infrastructure issues, like garbage disposal and pest extermination in N.Y.City, addressed from different angles in different books – this one, On The Grid, as well as Rats, another fascinating science book that covers New York City engineering, infrastructure and politics of the time. All the threads tie in together….
Another topic addressed in each chapter was Prohibition. One can certainly die of a huge overdose of ethyl alcohol normally found in drinks, but at the time when producing and selling drinks was illegal, people still drank, perhaps even more. And what did they drink? Whatever they could find on the black market – home-made concoctions brewed by unsavory types more interested in profit than the safety of their product. Instead of ethyl, those drinks were mostly made of methyl (wood) alcohol which is much more dangerous in much smaller doses. Prohibition saw a large increase in drinking-related deaths, a fact often loudly pronounced by Norris, leading to the eventual end of Prohibition. Can we apply that thinking to the War On Drugs now?
And the story of Prohibition has another element to it – the importance of regulation. An unregulated substance is potentially dangerous. By solving a number of poisoning cases, and by doing their research on the toxicity of then easily available substances, Norris and Gettner have managed to initiate regulation of a number of toxins, or even their removal from the market altogether. Some substances that were found in everything, even touted as health potions (even radioactive substances!!!) were discovered by forensic toxicologists to be deadly, and were subsequently banned or rigorously controlled. Today we have entire federal agencies dealing with regulation of dangerous chemicals, but in the early 20th century, it was the time of laissez-faire murder, suicide, suffering and death.
Finally, after I finished this fascinating book, I realized it gave me something more: an anchor, or a scaffolding, or a context, for every story about poisons I see now. Now every blog post on Deborah’s blog makes more sense – I can fit it into a body of knowledge and understanding I would not have if I have not read the book. This really goes hand in hand with the recent discussions of #futureofcontext in journalism – see The Future Of Context for starters. The idea is that news stories do not provide enough context for readers who tune into a new topic for the first time. A story that is an update on an ongoing story is not comprehensible without some context, which the news story cannot provide. So now various media organizations are experimenting with ways to provide context for people who are just tuning in. The perfect source of context for a topic is a book, especially now that every book appears to have its own website with links and news and a blog and a Twitter feed and a Facebook page. The book provides context, and all these other things provide updates.
For example, reading Bonobo Handshake may not provide much more context for me about animal behavior and cognition since I already have that context, but it certainly now makes it easier for me to understand the news stories regarding conservation of great apes. And without that book I would never have sufficient background in the recent history of Congo to understand and appreciate this comment thread. ‘On The Grid’ gives me context for all news regarding infrastructure. Explaining Research is a great recent example of a book that is a great start on the topic, but which constantly reminds the reader that this field is in flux and that the book’s website contains frequent updates and additional resources. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks provides fantastic context for the discussions of medical ethics and its evolution in the USA in the past several decades, which I riffed off a little bit in my latest interview.
What reading The Poisoner’s Handbook did for me is to give me enough knowledge and understanding on the topic that I can really appreciate it. I now get excited about news stories regarding poisons because I feel I understand them better. While reading Deborah Blum’s blog was interesting before, now it is more than interesting – it is exciting and I can’t wait for a new post to show up. I did not know how much I did not know. Now that I do, I want to know more. I am hungry for more knowledge, and more news, and more stories about toxins and poisons and how various strange and not so strange substances affect our bodies – where they come from, how they get in, how they hijack or disrupt our normal biochemical processes, how they kill us, and how do we figure that all out in the laboratory or in the basement of the mortuary. I hope you will feel the same once you finish reading this book. You will do that now, OK?

Do you know how people of Pompeii died when Vesuvius erupted?

You may have heard some hypotheses. But you may be wrong. Go here to read the most current explanation.

Books: ‘Bonobo Handshake’ by Vanessa Woods

To get disclaimers out of the way, first, Vanessa Woods (on Twitter) is a friend. I first met her online, reading her blog Bonobo Handshake where she documented her day-to-day life and work with bonobos in the Congo. We met in person shortly after her arrival to North Carolina, at a blogger meetup in Durham, after which she came to three editions of ScienceOnline conference.
I interviewed Vanessa after the 2008 event and blogged (scroll down to the second half of the post) about her 2009 session ‘Blogging adventure: how to post from strange locations’. At the 2010 conference, she was one of the five storytellers at the ScienceOnline Monti on Thursday night (and did another stint at The Monti in Carrboro a couple of months later). I have since then also met her husband Brian Hare and we instantly hit it off marvelously.
bonobo 002.JPGI have read Vanessa’s previous book, ‘It’s every monkey for themselves‘, but never reviewed it on the blog because I felt uneasy – that book is so personal! But it is an excellent and wonderfully written page-turner of a book so I knew I was in for a treat when I got a review copy of her new book, Bonobo Handshake (amazon.com). I could not wait for it to officially come out so I could go to the first public reading (where I took the picture) at the Regulator in Durham on May 27th, on the day of publication.
Vanessa recently moved her blog to a new location on Psychology Today network and had a few interviews in local papers, more sure to come soon.
Vanessa will also soon read/sign the book at Quail Ridge Books on June 9th at 7:30pm, and at Chapel Hill Borders on June 12th at 2pm (also June 22 at Barnes & Noble on Maynard in Cary, June 30 at The Country Bookshop in Southern Pines, and Aug. 10 at Broad Street Café in Durham, in-between readings in other cities on the East and West coasts) and I hope you can make it to one of these events as they are fun, especially the way she tries to talk about a species renowned for its sexual behavior by using language that is appropriate for the kids in the audience 😉
The book weaves four parallel threads. The first is Vanessa’s own life. Bonobo Handshake starts where ‘Each monkey’ leaves off. And while the ‘Monkey’ covered the period of her life that was pretty distressing, this book begins as her life begins to normalize, describing how she met Brian, fell in love, and got married – a happy trajectory.
The second thread is the science – the experiments they did on behavior and cognition in bonobos and chimps, and how the results fit into the prior knowledge and literature on primate (including human) nature.
The third thread reports on the conservation status of great apes, especially bonobos, and all the social, cultural, financial and political factors that work for or against the efforts to prevent them from going extinct.
The fourth thread is the country of Congo, where all the bonobos in the wild live, especially its recent history of war and its effects on the local people.
The four threads are seamlessly intervowen with each other, but it takes some time into the book to realize that there is, besides the fact that Vanessa was there and did the stuff and wrote about it, another unifying thread – the question of cooperation vs. competition. Vanessa and Brian sometimes love, sometimes fight: what determined one behavior at one time and the opposite at another time?
bonobo handshake.jpgFor the most part, chimps compete and bonobos cooperate: why is that? And what accounts for occasional exceptions to that rule? When threatened, or perceiving to be threatened, animals become insecure. Chimps deal with that insecurity by lashing out – becoming violent and aggressive, or at least putting out a great show of machismo. When bonobos feel insecure (including when they are very young), they solve the problem (and release the tension) by having sex with each other. If chimps won the national elections in the USA, they would probably rule by fear and force, investing mightily into the military, the police and the prison system, going around the world bombing other countries, declaring various internal “Wars on X”, and generally trying to keep the population fearful, subdued and obedient. Bonobos in such a position would always first try to find out a diplomatic solution: how to turn a stranger, or even an enemy into a friend and ally? Share something! Whatever you have: food, shelter, sex…. Everyone is safer that way in the end.
Of course, there are reasons why chimps are one way and bonobos the other. Food is scarce where chimps live, thus there is competition for it, thus the strongest individual wins, and the winner takes all. The position in the hierarchy is the key to survival. Individualism rules. On the other hand, there is plenty of food where bonobos live, enough to share with everyone, eat enough to get bloated, and still plenty left over to just let rot. Why fight over it? Thus, communitarian spirit rules, and if a big strong male starts to feel his oats a little too much, the females will get together and gang up on him as a sisterhood and beat the crap out of him – a rare exception to their usual non-violence, but an act that restores harmony to the group as a whole.
What can we learn from it? That, being equally related to both species, as well as being smarter, we are quite capable of switching between the two modes of reaction to perceived threats: competitive or cooperative. Some people (probably due to the social environment in which they were raised) tend to respond more like chimps, others more like bonobos, but all are capable of behaving both ways. Thus, all are capable of making choices how to react. And the society as a whole can teach people about the exictence of this choice and, in some general ways regarding different kinds of issues, suggest which of the two reactions is condoned by the society and which one will lend you in jail. Studying both chimps and bonobos, comparing them to each other and to humans, can help us understand this choice better, and what it takes to make one or the other reaction to a perceived threat. And even how to study, as researchers, competitions versus cooperation, something that was historically colored by the social upbringing of individual scientists.
[An aside: this is not really relevant to the book as whole, but if I remember correctly it occurs once in the book, and Vanessa sometimes mentions it in her public speaking and on her blog. She mentions the old trope that we are about 98% identical to both chimps and bonobos. That number denotes the identity of sequences of DNA that is expressed in adult, sexually mature individuals at a particular time of year and particular time of day. It ignores all the unexpressed DNA, individual differences, seasonal/daily changes in expression, and effect of the environment. It also ignores the fact that the sequence is not what really matters – it is how the developing organism (from zygote, through embryonic and post-embryonic development, through metamorphosis, growth, maturation, puberty, adulthood and senescence) uses those sequences to effect the development of traits and the day-to-day response of the organism to the environment. It is not the sequence that matters, but which gene is expressed in which cell at what time and in conjunction with which other genes that matters. The number “98% equal” reeks of genetic determinism, which originates with Adaptation and Natural Selection, the 1966 book by George Williams which corrupted generations of biologists, and ‘The Selfish Gene‘, the 1976 book by Richard Dawkins which ruined generations of lay readers and science journalists. It peaked in late 1990s (I wrote this in 1999) with the hype over Human Genome Project (“Holy Grail”, “Blueprint of Life”!) and currently survives only in the realm of that abomination of science we all know as Evolutionary Psychology. There is a lot of literature explaining the poverty of the genocentric and deterministic view of biology, most notably the entire opuses of Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, their numerous students and proteges and fans, and an entire generation of evo-devo researchers (the field was spawned/inspired by Gould’s 1977 book ‘Ontogeny and Phylogeny’) and Philosophers of Science (e.g.., Bob Brandon, Bill Wimsatt) who spent some years proving it wrong and, successfully done that, have since moved on to more fertile topics. Actually, one of the easiest-to-read books on the topic for lay audience is titled – What it Means to be 95% Chimpanzee: Apes, People, and their Genes. Saying that humans and bonobos are 98 (or 95, or 99, different numbers are thrown out) percent identical to us is like saying that an airplane and a house are identical because both are built with identical sizes, shapes and colors of Lego blocks – except that one propeller-piece that the airplane has and the house does not. Bonobos and humans are similar because our development is similar, leading to similar phenotypes – not much to do with the sequences of c-DNA libraries. Aside over.]
Conservation of Great Apes depends on humans cooperating to make it happen, but also has to take into account the instrinsic proclivities of different species (chimps, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans and gibbons are all different) towards violence vs. collaboration which dictate the sizes and shapes and organizational schemes of their sanctuaries and eventual wild refuges.
Finally, civil war in Congo is an enormous example of violent competition, but what were its causes? Who chose to compete in this way and why? What was the competition about? Did the end of the Cold War sufficiently weaken the Non-Aligned Movement in a way that reduced the national pride of the people of its member-nations (allowing tribal instincts to take over), reduced the economic cooperation between the member countries (thus sending some of their economies into a downward spiral leading to hopelessness which often leads to lashing out at perceived enemies), or reduced the military cooperation between the members that would scare any potential leader of a tribal movement, or reduced the authority and thus ability of the Movement’s leadership to intervene and prevent wars between the members?
Why did some people come out of war utterly changed – the “living dead” – while others emerged hopeful, energetic and optimistic, full of life and love? How did collaboration of some people help save some of them from murder, and save their psyches from lifelong scars?
Vanessa weaves these four threads expertly and, at the end of the book, you cannot help but care about all four! It is a fast and easy read, you never feel bored or inundated by information, yet you end the book with vastly more knowledge than when you began. And once you know about something enough, you start caring.
I remember as a kid, before the Internet, trying to find something to read after I have finished all 20 library books I took out and still having a couple of weeks of boring vacation ahead of me. Stuck somewhere outside of civilization, with nothing else to do, there was nothing else but to explore the enormous leather-bound classics, each thousands of pages long, each unabridged – stuff that every home has. So I read, slowly and carefully as there was no need to rush, such books as David Copperfield, Pickwick Papers, Teutonic Knights, Moby Dick, Les Miserables, The Road to Life and Martin Eden and others. Being a kid, I did not know anything about any of those topics, and these ancient authors LOVED to write lengthy treateses on various topics over many pages, yet, by getting informed about them, I got to care about Victorian England, Medieval Religious Wars in Poland, classification of whales (and how Melville got it horribly wrong), Paris sewers, educational reforms, and the hard life of becoming a writer. Once, when I contracted something (rubella? scarlet fever?) that made me sick for a couple of days but contagious for another three weeks, with nothing to do at home, I read the unabridged five volumes of War and Peace – at the beginning I did not, but at the end I did care about Russian aristocracy and military strategy (or “how to lose a land war in a Russian winter, part I”).
I don’t know about you, but before I picked up ‘Bonobo Hanshake’ I cared about Vanessa, being a friend, and was thus interested to see what happened after the ‘Monkeys’ book was published. I was interested in bonobo behavior (as we discussed it a lot back in grad school – I did my concentration in Animal Behavior and was a part of the Keck Center for Behavioral Biology) especially as I did not follow the scientific literature on it over the past 6-7 years. I had no idea how endangered bonobos were, nor did I know anything about the civil war in the Congo (and how it is related to the civil war in Rwanda). And while Vanessa did not emulate the 19th century writers, and instead of long chapters on each topic she intertwined brief updates on each of the four threads within each short chapter, I still learned a lot – enough to start caring about the apes, about the people of Congo, about the primatologists working in dangerous places, about individual bonobos and individual Congolese people whose lives intersected Vanessa’s over the past few years. More you know, more you care. So, even if the four themes of this book do not automatically excite you, I suggest you pick up the book – a couple of hours later, you will deeply care about it, know more, want to know even more, and will feel good about it.
Update: In strange synchronocity, my SciBlings Jason Goldman and Brian Switek also reviewed the book today.
Update: The book has now also been reviewed by DeLene Beeland, Sheril Kirshenbaum and Christie Wilcox.

‘Rent’ at Duke

Rent_4C-1.jpg
The other night I went to the opening night of RENT at Duke, the latest production of the Hoof ‘n’ Horn ensemble, the ‘South’s oldest student-run musical theater organization’ (find them on Facebook and Twitter). Here’s the promo video, released before the opening night:

I always have difficulty judging plays by amateur ensembles – at exactly which standard should I hold them? I have seen amazing high-school plays and horrible professional ones (I mentioned both in this post), as well as, of course, amazing professional ones. The Duke group is a mix of people with some stage experience and even Broadway aspirations and their colleagues in other majors for whom acting is fun and they take it seriously, but not in terms of a life career.
But it was reassuring, in the car back home, that my wife and I had some very similar reactions and thoughts – this meant I was not crazy!
There are two ways to take this performance. One is curmudgeonly: “these kids are too young to grok it”. The other is much more charitable: “they subtly and successfully adapted the early 1990s play for their 2010 audience of peers”. Of course, not having interviewed the Director or anyone in the cast, I do not know what their conscious intention was with the play. But I will go with the charitable interpretation here.
What does it mean to ‘adapt’ a play? On one hand, one can take the main story and completely change the time and place, the names of characters, the details. This is what Akira Kurosawa liked to do to Shakespeare when he adapted Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear to the large screen. The work stands on its own and the knowledge of the original is not necessary for one to understand and enjoy the movie.
Then, one can take an old play and keep it in its original setting – time and place – but adapt it to a modern audience. I suspect that this is what was done to the original Spring Awakening. I have not read the original script, but I assume that it did not contain nudity, or even stylized acts of sex and masturbation. On the other hand, the original probably contained references to geographical places, persons and events that have been lost to memory except for a handful of German historians. After all, the play happens in 19th century Germany. The adaptation also happens in 19th century Germany, but unnecessary details have probably been excised to make the play relevant to today’s audiences. What is important is that the cast has to study the place/period while preparing for their roles, and the audience needs to try to transport itself into the said time and place.
RENT is in itself an adaptation of Puccini’s opera La Boheme. While the original opera is set in 1830s Paris, RENT is set in 1980s New York City. There are many parallels, even some names of main characters remain the same, and the main storyline is certainly the same. When one watches La Boheme on stage, one knows to mentally transport oneself to the 1830s Paris and the cast does its best to convey the atmosphere of that time and place. Yet even La Boheme has had adaptations done over the years – some set in Paris in 1957, some in London, etc.
With RENT, if one has seen it before (I saw it at DPAC a couple of years ago and it was excellent) and knows what it’s about (I have heard the soundtrack at home about a gazillion times), one tries to transport oneself to the NYC of the 1980s (or early 1990s). Many of us remember that time – it is so recent (I was not in the States at the time yet – arrived at JFK in 1991 – but the situation was similar around the world, and we were certainly carefully watching from the sides, with some bewilderment and fear, the soap-opera that was Reagan’s America). We know the atmosphere of those times: Reagan years, marginalization of The Other, alienation, refusal to take AIDS seriously as “gay disease”, etc.
At the time, AIDS was very new. We did not know much about it – what kind of disease it was, how it was transmitted, who could or could not get it, how long could one harbor the virus before getting sick, if there was a way to prolong one’s life or even cure the disease. AIDS at that time was absolutely terrifying! Fear of unknown, coupled with the fear of a debilitating and deadly disease, coupled with horrendous stigma attached to it by the rest of the society.
AIDS is still a horrible and deadly disease. But it is not as horrifying as it once was. We know much more about it today and there are much more effective treatments that can allow the patients to live decent lives carrying the virus for quite a long time before succumbing. Much of the stigma associated with it is gone as well, as most of new cases are now found among the heterosexual men and women of all ages. Thus we can now deal with AIDS in a much less emotional (and political) and much more rational way. It has become a part of the social milieu, and we have built methods to deal with this problem as a society (how good those methods are is debatable, but they exist, thus we can at least feel complacent about AIDS now).
The Duke play, for better or for worse, reflects that shift in attitude. AIDS in their version is not as horrifying as in other versions (e.g., at DPAC). While the script (and the stage set) is the same, the acting – posture, movement, facial expression, tone of voice – minimize the terror of AIDS. They are all so…..damned cheerful all the time! Nobody even really, truly dies in their play. Even the officially dead ones immediately hop up and dance and sing with a smile right after the dying scenes!
But perhaps that is on purpose. Perhaps the new generation is trying – consciously or accidentally – to tell us something.
East Village on Manhattan is just not as dark and dreary as it once was. The artistic avant-garde has, for the most part I hear, moved to Brooklyn. Bohemia, art, drugs, AIDS, freedom, alienation, rebellion, loneliness, desperate search for community – all mixed up (often within the same person) – it’s not in Manhattan (or America, for the most part) any more. So it is not in RENT any more either.
The Duke crew shows us how they can resist being rent apart – in this age of greater tolerance, greater connectivity and community (helped tremendously by the massive spread of cell phones and Internet since the play was written), it is harder to feel lost. One feels it is much easier to find people who can help, find communities to join. Everything is easier when one has friends – and friends are easier to find today than ever in history – just a phone-call (no need to put a coin in the public phone) or a tweet away. Perhaps the experience of 9/11 has changed the attitude of New Yorkers in a similar way.
These kids, just toddlers when the play was first put on stage in 1994, live in a different era – perhaps the grand ambitions are toned down compared to my generation, but the general optimism about the ability to lead a decent, happy life is much greater. Not to be snide about it, but this is Duke students experiencing life in their own social circles, where everything comes easier…
So, one is left wondering – are these kids incapable of grasping how dark and desperate and lonely was life for AIDS-riven artists in 1980s NYC? Or are they trying to tell us to stop preaching to them about the bad old times and to get on with the program?
It’s really hard to tell – I’ve been thinking about it for two days now and am still not sure. How much is it on purpose, and how much is it just naturally flowing from who they are, their age, their socioeconomic stratum, their generational outlook on life?
Is it on purpose that Mimi is blond and Maureen brunette? It is the other way round in pretty much every other version of RENT. Mimi (remember, her full name is Mimi Márquez) is supposed to be Hispanic in a very obvious, stereotypical way. In every play (or movie or novel or comic strip for that matter), most characters need to be stereotypical, to help the audience orient itself. A transformation of the character into something audience does not expect is often the story. Even the voices and the singing styles are reversed. Throughout the play I kept thinking to myself that Ryan Murphy would be a perfect Mimi and Allie DiMona a perfect Maureen. Yet they did it the other way round – why? Is it because of some personal deals behind the scenes, is it some kind of an inter-Duke hierarchy, or is this on purpose, to provide a different vision that should make people like me uneasy, but will make perfect sense to the 99% of their intended audience – the other Duke students? Mimi is supposed to be a dancer at a strip club and Ally does a great job acting like and moving like a dancer at a strip club – something that most Mimis don’t emphasize. Is that also a generational change in sensibilities, a greater ease with sexuality?
The role of Angel, probably still pretty shocking back in 1994, is pretty bland here. One of the key characters in traditional versions, Angel is in the background in this version, not having the energy and the seriousness that I think Angel should have. Is that also on purpose? To show that cross-dressing (and dying of AIDS) is not such a big deal any more?
The ensemble has huge energy whenever they sing together as a chorus. The chemistry they have as a group is palpable. Yet, this chemistry vanishes when they sing duets. Is it because they did not have much time – a few weeks in-between classes (and Blue Devils games) – to rehearse, or was that also on purpose: showcasing the community spirit at the expense of inter-personal relationships, perhaps as a poignant reminder that there are pros and cons to every generation’s mindset: this one, perhaps, being more at ease in groups than one-on-one? Or was it accidental, because they are who they are, acting out their own selves? Or is that the case with every generation at that age: feeling more secure in a group than when dealing with others one-on-one, something that one gradually gains with age and maturity?
RENT Production Photo.jpg
I got free tickets from the producers of this show, and I am aware that this is an amateur college production. I have no inclination to be as critical about each individual’s skills or performance as I would do if I paid hundreds of dollars to watch big theatrical names in a top-flight theater. Some of them are excellent singers (Amber Sembly, Brittany Duck, Aidan Stallworth), others excellent actors (Matt Campbell, Robert Francis), a few are both (notably Ryan Murphy, also Brooke Parker), and a few are really not that great, but so what? They are all having great fun doing this, and it shows, and it was fun to watch. Most of them have no ambition to make theater their profession, so why not have fun while in college.
Alessandra DiMona (Mimi) is interesting – a great presence on stage, and an amazing voice. Yet, listening to her sing, I was thinking of my father (who was a professional singer) and his insistence that Number One trait of a good singer is diction – every syllable and every word has to be clear and understandable to the last elderly foreigner in the back row of the third balcony. It felt to me like she is in the middle of a transition of her singing training, still enjoying the amazing potential and scope of her voice, but still learning how to discipline it. She can certainly belt out a note or two, but the next note should not be barely audible (and if that is due to movement, e.g., dancing, well, that can be trained as well – general fitness training plus voice training), just to pick up again on the next syllable. I feel like she should hire some old Russian lady teacher of the Old School to drill her several hours a day until she cries….for several months, until that amazing voice is under control. She has a great potential so I hope she gets the necessary training to fulfill that potential. If she does that, she can have a career on Broadway – her voice is that powerful and pleasant.
But back to the question of ‘adaptation’. When one adapts a 19th century play for 21st century, the audience is aware of that. But how can one subtly adapt a 1980s play for 2010? The intended audience – the Duke students – may have never seen RENT before, may not be aware that it was set in 1980s, may have no idea how life in the 1980s America used to be. But a couple of old geezers in the audience, like me, are going to be confused as we remember the 1980s, the AIDS scare, the isolation and alienation of the Reagan years, and we know where and when RENT is supposed to occur – is this a case of the new generation missing the point of RENT, or is this a case of adaptation to the worldview of the 2010 set? Even if the shift was unintentional, it certainly made me think – something that should be obvious from this review you are reading right now.
I am also aware that this was the opening night. Even professionals are nervous on the premiere night. It was visible how the ensemble started out tense and relaxed as the night wore off (and they noticed that no huge disasters happened on stage). They are probably getting better and better each night. You should go and see them if you can – they still have a few nights to go.

Visualization of maritime empires’ decline

Explained here. Critiques in the comments are (mostly) valid, but for a first effort at using this kind of visualization technique, I’d say it’s pretty impressive.