Category Archives: Science Reporting

What does it mean that a nation is ‘Unscientific’?

If a publisher offered me a contract to write a book under a title that would be something like “Unscientific America”, how would I go about it?
I would definitely be SUCH a scientist! But, being such a scientist does not mean indulging in Sesquipedalian Obscurantism. Being such a scientist means being dilligent, thorough and systematic in one’s reasearch. And then being excited about presenting the findings, while being honest about the degree of confidence one can have in each piece of information.
I was not offered a book contract, and I do not have the resources and nine or twelve months to write such a book. But in the next couple of hours days I will write a blog post (this one, I am just starting) thinking through the methodology I would use for such a project, musing about difficulties, jotting down notes and – this being a blog – asking readers for links to information that can either reinforce or challenge my hypotheses. So please follow me under the fold…..

Continue reading

New issue of Journal of Science Communication

The December 2009 edition of the Journal of Science Communication is now online with some intriguing articles – all Open Access so you can download all the PDFs and read:
Control societies and the crisis of science journalism:

In a brief text written in 1990, Gilles Deleuze took his friend Michel Foucault’s work as a starting point and spoke of new forces at work in society. The great systems masterfully described by Foucault as being related to “discipline” (family, factory, psychiatric hospital, prison, school), were all going through a crisis. On the other hand, the reforms advocated by ministers throughout the world (labour, welfare, education and health reforms) were nothing but ways to protract their anguish. Deleuze named “control society” the emerging configuration.

Science cafés. Cross-cultural adaptation and educational applications:

Tokyo Institute of Technology (TokyoTech) has been developing a number of methodologies to teach graduate students the theory and practice of science communication since 2005. One of the tools used is the science café, where students are taught about the background based primarily on theoretical models developed in the UK. They then apply that knowledge and adapt it the Japanese cultural context and plan, execute and review outcomes as part of their course. In this paper we review 4 years of experience in using science cafés in this educational context; we review the background to the students’ decision-making and consensus-building process towards deciding on the style and subject to be used, and the value this has in illuminating the cultural influences on the science café design and implementation. We also review the value of the science café as an educational tool and conclude that it has contributed to a number of teaching goals related to both knowledge and the personal skills required to function effectively in an international environment.

Science comics as tools for science education and communication: a brief, exploratory study:

Comics are a popular art form especially among children and as such provide a potential medium for science education and communication. In an attempt to present science comics in a museum exhibit I found many science themed comics and graphic books. Here I attempt to provide an overview of already available comics that communicate science, the genre of ‘science comics’. I also provide a quick literature review for evidence that comics can indeed be efficiently used for promoting scientific literacy via education and communication. I address the issue of lack of studies about science comics and their readers and suggest some possible reasons for this as well as some questions that could be addressed in future studies on the effect these comics may have on science communication.

Science on television: how? Like that!:

This study explores the presence of science programs on the Flemish public broadcaster between 1997 and 2002 in terms of length, science domains, target groups, production mode, and type of broadcast. Our data show that for nearly all variables 2000 can be marked as a year in which the downward spiral for science on television was reversed. These results serve as a case study to discuss the influence of public policy and other possible motives for changes in science programming, as to gain a clearer insight into the factors that influence whether and how science programs are broadcast on television. Three factors were found to be crucial in this respect: 1) public service philosophy, 2) a strong governmental science policy providing structural government support, and 3) the reflection of a social discourse that articulates a need for more hard sciences.

Often overlooked: formative evaluation in the development of ScienceComics:

Formative evaluation should play a key role in the development of a science communication project or initiative. Such research is vital to understanding the needs and interests of the audience or participants; meeting these needs and interests helps ensure the project’s success. However, there can be a temptation to plough ahead without undertaking adequate formative evaluation. Using ScienceComics ( as a case study, this article explores both the challenges and benefits of using formative evaluation to guide project development. It focuses on the actors involved in the formative stages and the impacts these actors had on the final outputs. This evidence is used to develop practical guidance on integrating formative evaluation right from the start.

Socialization of scientific and technological research: further comments:

Research systems are increasingly required to be more practically oriented and to address issues which appear more promising in economic and social results, with special reference to trans-disciplinary research fields, such as nanotechnology or ICTs; policy makers show a sharp tendency to establish research priorities and to drive research systems; universities and research institutions are asked to be more transparent and open to dialogue with social actors on contents, impacts, ethical implications and practical applications of scientific and technological research. These transformations affecting both the ways in which science and technology are produced and their relationships with society pose new challenges to European research. All the aspects of research activities are concerned, including the life of the research groups, the approaches to scientific evaluation, the development of European research policies and the interaction between researchers with their social environment. Continuing a reflection started in the last issue of JCOM, Luisa Prista, Evanthia Kalpazidou-Schmidt, Brigida Blasi, Sandra Romagnosi and Miguel Martínez López offered their contribution in identifying some of the key implications and risks which these changes are bringing about, mainly in the perspective of the construction of the European Research Area.

Too much power to the networks:

In his latest book titled “Communication power”, the famous sociologist of information society Manuel Castells focuses on the way in which power takes shape and acts in information societies, and the role of communication in defining, structuring, and changing it. From the rise of “mass self-communication” to the role of environmental movements and neuropolitics, the network is the key structure at play and the main lens used to analyse the transformations we are witnessing. To support his thesis Castells links media studies, power theory and brain science, but his insistence on networks puts in danger his ability to give to his readers a comprehensive and coherent interpretative framework.

The brain seduction: the public perception of neuroscience:

The increasing number of magazine covers dedicated to brain studies and the success of magazines and scientific journals entirely dedicated to brain and mind indicate a strong interest on these themes. This interest is clearly surpassing the boundaries of scientific and medical researches and applications and underlines an engagement of the general public, too. This phenomenon appears to be enhanced by the increasing number of basic researches focusing on non-health-related fMRI studies, investigating aspects of personality as emotions, will, personal values and beliefs, self-identity and behaviour. The broad coverage by the media raises some central questions related to the complexity of researches, the intrinsic limits of these technologies, the results’ interpretative boundaries, factors which are crucial to properly understand the studies’ value. In case of an incomplete communication, if those fundamental interpretative elements are not well understood, we could register a misinterpretation in the public perception of the studies that opens new compelling questions. As already observed in the past debates on science and technologies applications, in this case, too, we assist to a communicative problem that set against scientific community on one side and media, on the other. Focusing our attention, in particular, on the debate on fMRI, taken as a good model, in the present letter we will investigate the most interesting aspects of the current discussion on neuroscience and neuroscience public perception. This analysis was performed as one of the bid – brains in dialogue – activities ( bid is a three year project supported by the European Commission under the 7th Framework Program and coordinated by Sissa, the International School for Advanced Studies of Trieste, aimed at fostering dialogue between science and society on the new challenges coming from neuroscience.

What is ‘Investigative Science Journalism’?

When, a new science news service, was launched last week, there was quite a lot of reaction online.
Some greeted it with approval, others with a “wait and see” attitude.
Some disliked the elitism, as the site is limited only to the self-proclaimed “top” universities (although it is possible that research in such places, where people are likely to be well funded, may be the least creative).
But one person – notably, a journalist – exclaimed on Twitter: “propaganda!”, which led to a discussion that revealed the journalist’s notion that press releases are automatically suspect and scientists are never to be trusted and their institutions even less. That was a very anti-science sentiment from a professional science journalist, some of us thought.
This exchange reminded me of a number of prior debates between the traditional Old Media journalists and the modern New Media journalists about the very definition of ‘journalism’. The traditional journalists are fighting to redefine it in a narrowest possible way that keeps them in a position of gatekeepers (like the new proposed shield law that defines a journalist as someone who gets paid by the Old Media organization, thus NOT protecting citizen journalists, accidental journalists, bloggers, etc.), while the new ones are observing the way the world is changing and trying to come up with new definitions that better reflect the world (and often go too far in the other direction – defining everything broadcast by anyone via any medium to the audience consisting of more than one person as journalism, including the crossword puzzle in a newspaper and the silliest YouTube video).
One of the frequently heard retorts in the “you’ll miss us when we’re gone” genre of defensiveness by the old guard is the slight-of-hand in which they suddenly, in mid-stream of the discussion, redefine journalism to equate only investigative journalism. This usually comes up in the form of “who will report from the school board meetings” question (to which the obvious answer is: “actually, the bloggers are already doing it a lot as the old media has quit decades ago”).
Of course, investigative journalism is just one of many forms under the rubric of ‘journalism’. And, if you actually go and buy a copy of your local newspaper today (it still exists in some places, on tree-derived paper, believe me), you are likely to find exactly zero examples of investigative journalism in it. Tomorrow – the same. Every now and then one appears in the paper, and then it is often well done, but the occasions are rare and getting even more rare as investigative reporters have been cut from many a newsroom over the past few decades, and even more rapidly over the last several months.
So, what is ‘Investigative Science Journalism’?
So, this train of thought brought me to the question, again, of what is ‘investigative journalism’ in science. And I was not perfectly happy with what I wrote about this question before. I had to think some more. But before doing all the thinking myself, I thought I’d try to see what others think. So I tweeted the question in several different ways and got a lot of interesting responses:

Me: What is, exactly, ‘investigative science reporting’?

@davemunger: @BoraZ To me, it means going beyond looking at a single study to really understand a scientific concept. Diff from traditional “inv. journo”

@szvan: @davemunger @BoraZ And looking at methodology, statistical analysis, etc. to determine whether claims made match what was studied.

@LeeBillings: @BoraZ Re: “investigative science reporting,” isn’t it like all other investigative reporting where you dig deep and challenge your sources?

@Melhi: @BoraZ I thnk it means, “we cut/pasted from Wiki, all by ourselves.” Seems to be what it means when “scientific” is removed from the term.

Me: @LeeBillings clarify: What’s the story about? dig deep into what? who are the sources? why are you assuming they need to be challenged?

@soychemist: @BoraZ Any instance in which a reporter tries to uncover scientific information that has been concealed or distorted, using rigorous methods

@john_s_wilkins: @BoraZ Reporting on investigative science, no doubt.

@LeeBillings: @BoraZ ?s you’re asking only make sense in context of a specific story, not in context of defining “sci investigative journalism” as a whole

@LeeBillings: @BoraZ 1/2 but typically, the goal is to find out what’s true, and communicate it. you dig into primary literature & interview tons of ppl

@LeeBillings: @BoraZ 2/2 you don’t assume they need to challenged. you *know* they need to be challenged based on your in-depth research into primary lit

Me: When was released, a journo yelled “propaganda”! Does every press release need to be investigated? Challenged?

Me: Are scientists presumed to be liars unless proven otherwise? All of them?

@NerdyChristie: Usually. Unless you’re studying how herbal tea makes you a supergod. RT @BoraZ: Are scientists presumed to be liars unless proven otherwise?

@szvan: @BoraZ Not liars but not inherently less open to bias than anyone else. Some wrongs are lies. Some are errors.

Me: Are journalists capable of uncovering scientific misconduct at all? All of those were uncovered by other scientists, I recall…

@lippard: @BoraZ Didn’t journalist Brian Deer do the investigative work to expose Andrew Wakefield’s MMR-autism data manipulation?

@JATetro: @BoraZ To be honest, there are some very good journalists out there who can spot misconduct but without backing from a source, it’s liable.

Me: @BoraZ: @JATetro yes, they need scientists to do the actual investigating, then report on what scientists discovered – fraud, plagiarism etc.

@JATetro: @BoraZ So it’s not the journalists fault, really. They do their job as well as possible but without our help, there’s little they can do.

@LabSpaces: @JATetro @BoraZ Actual scientists cost too much.They’re a luxury, and especially in these times, it’s hard for pubs. to justify having 1

@JATetro: @LabSpaces @BoraZ Apparently it’s hard for universities to have them as well…not a prof or anything but damn it’s ridiculous.

@LabSpaces: @JATetro @BoraZ I dunno, our PR dept. does a great job interacting with scientists and getting the right info out, but I guess that’s diff.

@JATetro: @LabSpaces @BoraZ Oh, the media people at the U are great. It’s the administrators that seem to forget who keep the students comin’.

Me: Isn’t investigating nature, via experimentation, and publishing the findings in a journal = scientific investigative reporting?

@LeeBillings: @BoraZ 1/2 I’d say that’s performing peer-reviewed scientific research, not doing investigative science journalism.

@LeeBillings: @BoraZ 2/2 No room to address your ?-torrent. What are you driving at, anyway? You think sci journos can’t/don’t do investigative stuff?

@LouiseJJohnson: RT @BoraZ Isn’t investigating nature, via experimentation, & publishing findings in a journal, scientific investigative reporting?

@mcmoots: @BoraZ “Journalism” usually means you report the results of your investigations to the public; scientists report to a technical community.

Me: @BoraZ: @mcmoots does the size and expertise of audience determine what is journalism, what is not? Is it changing these days?

Me: @BoraZ: Why is investigating words called ‘investigative journalism’, but investigating reality, with much more rigorous methods, is not?

@LeeBillings: @BoraZ 1 more thing: A press release isn’t a story–it should inspire journos to look deeper. Sometimes that deeper look reveals PR to be BS

Me: @BoraZ: @LeeBillings Journal article is reporting findings of investigation. Press release is 2ndary. Journo article is 3tiary. Each diff audience.

@LeeBillings: @BoraZ Glad you raised ? of audience, since relevant to yr ? of “words” & “reality.” Words make reality for audiences, some more than others

Me: @BoraZ: Journos investigate people, parse words. Scientists investigate nature. What is more worthy?

@lippard: @BoraZ I would say that there are instances of investigative journalism that have had more value than some instances of scientific research.

Me: @BoraZ: @lippard possible, but that is investigating the rare instances of misconduct by people, not investigating the natural reality. Science?

@john_s_wilkins: @BoraZ You’re asking this of a profession that thinks it needs to “give the other side” when reporting on science, i.e., quacks

@LeeBillings: @BoraZ Twitter is useful tool, but probably not best way to interview for the story you seem to be after, as responses lack depth and nuance

@LeeBillings: @BoraZ Still looking forward to reading your resulting story, of course

Me: @BoraZ: @LeeBillings you can add longer responses on FriendFeed: that’s what it’s for

@1seahorse1: @BoraZ Do you mean that I have to be nostalgic about my ape tribe and life in caves ? 🙂

@TyeArnett: @BoraZ parsing data can be as dangerous as parsing words sometimes

@ccziv: @BoraZ Do not underestimate or devalue the importance of words, ever.

This shows that different people have very different ideas what ‘investigative reporting’ is and have even more difficulty figuring out how that applies to science! Let’s go nice and slow now, explore this a little bit more.
First, I think that what Dave meant in his first tweet –

@davemunger: @BoraZ To me, it means going beyond looking at a single study to really understand a scientific concept. Diff from traditional “inv. journo”

– is not ‘investigative reporting’ but ‘news analysis’ (again, see my attempt at classification), something akin to ‘explainers’ done occasionally by the mainstream media (think of This American Life on NPR and their ‘Giant Pool of Money‘ explainer for a great recent example). It is an equivalent of a Review Article in a scientific journal, but aimed at a broader audience and not assuming existing background knowledge and expertise.
The different worlds of journalists and scientists
This discussion, as well as many similar discussions we had in the past, uncovers some interesting differences between the way journalists and scientists think about ‘investigative’ in the context of reporting.
Journalists, when investigating, investigate people, almost exclusively. Scientists are much more open to including other things under this rubric, as they are interested in investigating the world.
Journalists focus almost entirely on words, i.e., what people say. In other words, they are interested mainly on the process and what the words reveal as to who is winning and who is losing in some imaginary (or sometimes real) game. Scientists are interested in results of the process, obtained by any means, only one of which is through people’s utterances – they are interested in investigating and uncovering the facts.
Journalists display an inordinate amount of skepticism – even deep cynicism – about anyone’s honesty. Everyone’s a liar unless proven not to be. Scientists, knowing themselves, knowing their colleagues, knowing the culture of science where 100% honesty and trust are the key, knowing that exposure of even the tiniest dishonesty is likely The End of a scientific career, tend to trust scientists a great deal more. On the other hand, scientists are deeply suspicious of people who do not abide by high standards of the scientific community, and The List of those who, due to track record, should be mistrusted the most is topped by – journalists.
This explains why scientists generally see as an interesting method of providing scientific information to the public, assuming a priori, knowing the track record of these institutions and what kind of reputation is at stake, that most or all of it will be reliable, while a journalist exclaims “propaganda”.
The Question of Trust
In this light, it is very instructive to read this post by a young science journalist, and the subsequent FriendFeed discussion of it. It is difficult for people outside of science to understand who is “inside” and thus to be trusted and who is not.
Those on the “inside”, the scientists, are already swimming in these waters and know instantly who is to be trusted and who not. Scientists know that Lynn Margolis was outside (untrusted) at first, inside (trusted) later and outside (untrusted) today again. Scientists know that James Lovelock or Deepak Chopra or Rupert Shaldrake are outside, always were and always will be, and are not to be trusted. Journalists can figure this out by asking, but then they need to figure out whose answer to trust! Who is inside and trusted to say who else is inside and trusted? If your first point of entry is the wrong person, all the “sources” you interview will be wackos.
Unfortunately the mistrust by journalists is often ‘schematic’ – not based on experience or on investigating the actual facts. They have a schema in their minds as to who is likely to lie, who is likely to use weaselly language, who can generally be trusted, etc. They use this rule-of-thumb when interviewing criminals, corrupt cops (“liars”), politicians, lawyers, CEOs (“weaselly words”), other journalists (“trustworthy”) and yes, scientists (“suspicious pointy-heads with hard-to-uncover financial motives”).
The automatic use of such “rule” is why so many D.C. reporters (so-called Village) did not understand (and some still do not understand) that someone who is supposed to be in the “use weaselly language” column – the politicians – should actually have been in the “lying whenever they open their mouths” column for eight years of the Bush rule (or, to be fair, the last 30 years). It did not occur to them to fact-check what Republicans said and hastily move them to the appropriate “chronic liars” category and report appropriately. They could not fathom that someone like The President would actually straight-out lie. Every sentence. Every day. Nobody likes being shown to be naive, but nobody likes being lied to either. Their need for appearance of savviness (the opposite of naive), for many of them, over-rode the need to reveal they’ve been lied to and fell for it (“What are you saying? Can’t be possible. They are such nice guys when they pat my back at a cocktail party over in The Old Boys Club Cafe – they wouldn’t lie to me!”). And many in their audience are in the same mindset – finding it impossible (as that takes courage and humility) to admit to themselves that they were so naive they fell for such lies from such high places (both the ruling party and their loyal stenographers). And we all suffered because of it.
The heavy reliance on such rules or mental schemas by journalists is often due to their self-awareness about the lack of knowledge and expertise on the topic they are covering. They just don’t know who to trust, because they are not capable of uncovering the underlying facts and thus figure out for themselves who is telling the truth and who is lying (not to mention that this would require, gasp, work instead of hanging out at cocktail parties). To cover up the ignorance and make it difficult for it to be revealed by the audience, they strongly resist the calls to provide the links to more information and especially to their source documents.
Thus He Said She Said journalism is a great way for them to a) focus on words, people, process and ‘horse-race’ instead of facts, b) hide their ignorance of the underlying facts, c) show their savvy by “making both side angry” which, in some sick twist, they think means they are doing a good job (no, that means all readers saw through you and are disgusted by your unprofessionalism). Nowhere does that show as clearly as when they cover science.
A more systematic investigation into ‘investigation’
Now that I raised everyone’s ire, let me calm down again and try to use this blog post the way bloggers often do – as a way to clarify thoughts through writing. I am no expert on this topic, but I am interested, I read a lot about it, blog about it a lot, and want to hear the responses in the comments. Let me try to systematize what I think ‘investigative reporting’ is in general and then apply that to three specific cases: 1) a scientist investigating nature and reporting about it in a journal, 2) a journalist investigating scientists and their work and reporting about it in a media outlet, and 3) a science blogger investigating the first two and reporting how good or bad job each one of them did.
A few months ago, I defined ‘investigative journalism’ like this:

Investigative reporting is uncovering data and information that does not want to be uncovered.

Let’s see how that works in practice.
Steps in Investigative Reporting:
1) Someone gets a hunch, wiff, a tip from someone or an intuition (or orders from the boss to take a look) that some information exists that is hidden from the public.
2) That someone then uses a whole suit of methods to discover that secret information, often against the agents that resist the idea of that information becoming available to the public.
3) That someone then puts all of the gathered information in one place and looks for patterns, overarching themes, connections and figures out what it all means.
4) That someone then writes an article, with a specific audience in mind, showing to the public the previously secret information (often including all of it – the entire raw data sets or documents or transcripts) and explaining what it means.
5) That someone then sends the article to the proper venue where it undergoes an editorial process.
6) If accepted for publication, the article gets published.
7) The article gets a life of its own – people read (or listen/view) it, comment, give feedback, or follow up with investigation digging up more information that is still not public (so the cycle repeats).
Case I: Scientist
1) Someone gets a hunch, wiff, a tip from someone or an intuition (or orders from the boss to take a look) that some information exists that is hidden from the public.
The keeper of the secret information is Nature herself. The researcher can get a hunch about the existence of hidden information in several different ways:
– delving deep into the literature, it becomes apparent that there are holes – missing information that nobody reported on yet, suggesting that nobody uncovered it yet.
– doing research and getting unexpected results points one to the fact that there is missing information needed to explain those funky results.
– going out into nature and observing something that, upon digging through the literature, one finds has not been explained yet.
– getting a photocopy of descriptions of three experiments from the last grant proposal from your PI with the message “Do this”. Great method for introducing high school and undergraduate students into research, and perhaps to get a brand new Masters student started (of course, regular discussions of the progress are needed). Unfortunately, some PIs continue doing this to their PhD students and even postdocs, instead of giving them freedom of creativity.
2) That someone then uses a whole suit of methods to discover that secret information, often against the agents that resist the idea of that information becoming available to the public.
The scientific method includes a variety of methods for wresting secret information out of Nature: observations, experiments, brute-force Big Science, natural experiments, statistics, mathematical modeling, etc. It is not easy to get this information from Nature as she resists. One has to be creative and innovative in designing tricks to get reliable data from her.
3) That someone then puts all of the gathered information in one place and looks for patterns, overarching themes, connections and figures out what it all means.
All the collected data from a series of observations/experiments are put together, statistically analyzed, visualized (which sometimes leads to additional statistical analyses as visualization may point out phenomena not readily gleaned from raw numbers) and a common theme emerges (if it doesn’t – more work needs to be done).
4) That someone then writes an article, with a specific audience in mind, showing to the public the previously secret information (often including all of it – the entire raw data sets or documents or transcripts) and explaining what it means.
There are three potential audiences for the findings of the research: experts in one’s field, other scientists, and lay audience (which may include policy-makers or political-action organizations, or journalists, or teachers, or physicians, etc.).
The experts in one’s field are the most important audience for most of research. The proper venue to publish for this audience is a scientific journal of a narrow scope (usually a society journal) that is read by all the experts in the same field. The article can be dense, using the technical lingo, containing all the information needed for replication and further testing of the information and should, in principle, contain all the raw data.
The scientific community as a whole as the target audience is somewhat baffling – on one hand, some of them are also experts in the field, on the other hand, all the rest are essentially lay audience. It is neither-nor. Why target scientific community as an audience then? Because the venue for this are GlamourMagz and publishing in these is good for one’s career and fame. The format in which such papers are written is great for scientists in non-related disciplines – it tells a story, but it is extremely frustrating for same-field researchers as there is not sufficient detail (or data) to replicate, re-test or follow-up on the described research. Publishing this way makes you known to a lot more scientists, but tends to alienate your closests colleagues who are frustrated by the lack of information in your report.
The lay audience is an important audience for some types of research – ones that impact people’s personal decisions about their health or about taking care of the environment, ones that can have impact on policy, ones that are useful to know by health care providers or science educators, or ones that are so cool (e.g., new fossils of dinosaurs or, erm…Ida) that they will excite the public about science.
Many scientists are excellent and exciting communicators and can speak directly to the audience (online on blogs/podcasts/videos or offline in public lectures or science cafes), or will gladly accept to do interviews (TV, radio, newspapers, magazines) about their findings. Those researchers who know they are not exciting communicators, or do not like to be in public, or are too busy, or have been burned by the previous interactions with the media, tend to leave the communication to lay audience to professionals – the press officers at their institutions.
While we have all screamed every now and then at some blatantly bad press releases (especially the titles imposed by the editors), there has been generally a steady, gradual improvement in their quality over the years. One of the possible explanations for this is that scientists that fall out of the pipeline as there are now so many PhDs and so few academic jobs, have started replacing English majors and j-school majors in these positions. More and more institutions now have science-trained press officers who actually understand what they are writing about. Thus, there is less hype yet more and better explanation of the results of scientific investigation. Of course, they tend to be excellent writers as well, a talent that comes with love and practice and does not necessitate a degree in English or Communications.
5) That someone then sends the article to the proper venue where it undergoes an editorial process.
The first draft of the article is usually co-written and co-edited by a number of co-authors who “peer-review” each other during the process. That draft is then (2nd peer-review) usually given to other lab-members, collaborators, friends and colleagues to elicit their opinion. Their feedback is incorporated into the improved draft which is then sent to the appropriate scientific journal where the editor sends the manuscript to anywhere between one and several experts in the field, usually kept anonymous, for the 3rd (and “official”) peer-review. This may then go through two or three cycles before the reviewers are satisfied with the edits and changes and recommend to the editor that the paper be published (or not, in which case the whole process gets repeated at lesser and lesser and lesser journals…until the paper is either finally published or abandoned or self-published on a website).
6) If accepted for publication, the article gets published.
Champaign time!
Then, next morning, back to the lab – trying to uncover more information.
7) The article gets a life of its own – people read (or listen/view) it, comment, give feedback, or follow up with investigation digging up more information that is still not public (so the cycle repeats).
After Nature closely guarded her secrets for billions of years, and after intrepid investigators snatched the secret information from her over weeks, months, years or decades of hard and creative work, the information is finally made public. The publication date is the date of birth for that information, the moment when its life begins. Nobody can predict what kind of life it will have at that point. It takes years to watch it grow and develop and mature and spawn.
People download it and read it, think about it, talk about it, interact with it, blog about it and, most importantly, try to replicate, re-test and follow up on the information in order to uncover even more information.
If that is not ‘investigative reporting’ at its best, I don’t know what is.
Case II: Science Journalist
1) Someone gets a hunch, wiff, a tip from someone or an intuition (or orders from the boss to take a look) that some information exists that is hidden from the public.
The hidden information, in this case, is most likely to be man-made information – documents, human actions, human words. It is especially deemed worthy of investigation if some wrong-doing is suspected.
2) That someone then uses a whole suit of methods to discover that secret information, often against the agents that resist the idea of that information becoming available to the public.
As the journalist cannot “go direct” and investigate nature directly (not having the relevant training, expertise, infrastructure, funding, manpower, equipment, etc.), the only remaining method is to investigate indirectly. The usual indirect method for journalists is to ask people – a very, very, very unreliable way of getting information.
Since investigating the facts about nature is outside the scope of expertise of journalists, they usually investigate the behavior and conduct of scientists. This is “investigative meta-science reporting”. In a sense, there is not much difference between investigating potential misconduct of scientists and misconduct of any other group of people. The main difference is that the business of science is facts about the way the world works, thus knowing who got the facts right and who got the facts wrong is important and who misrepresents lies as facts is even more important.
Unfortunately, due to lack of scientific expertise, journalists find this kind of investigation very difficult – they have to rely on the statements of scientists as to the veracity of other scientists’ facts or claims – something they are not in position to verify directly. If they ask the wrong person – a quack, for example – they will follow all the wrong leads.
Thus, the usual fall-back is HeSaidSheSaid model of journalism, reporting who said what, not committing to any side, not evaluating truth-claims of any side, and hoping that (also science-uneducated) audience will be able to figure it out for itself.
Since they cannot evaluate the truth-claims about Nature that scientists make, journalists have to use proxy mechanisms to uncover misconduct, e.g., discover other unseemly behaviors by the same actors, unrelated to the research itself. Thus discovering instances of lying, or financial ties, is the only way a journalist can start guessing as to who can be trusted, and then hope that the person who lies about his/her finances is also lying about facts about Nature – a correlation that is hard to prove and is actually quite unlikely except in rare instances of industry/lobby scientists-for-hire.
The actual research misconduct – fudging data, plagiarism, etc – can be uncovered only by other scientists. And they do it whenever they suspect it, and they report the findings in various ways. The traditional method of sending a letter to the editor of the journal that published the suspect paper is so ridiculously difficult that many are now pursuing other venues, be it by notifying a journalist, or going direct, on a blog, or, if the journal is enlightened (COI – see my Profile), by posting comments on the paper itself.
3) That someone then puts all of the gathered information in one place and looks for patterns, overarching themes, connections and figures out what it all means.
Once all the information is gathered in one place, any intelligent person can find patterns. Scientific expertise is not usually necessary for this step. Thus, once the journalists manages to gather all the information (the hard part), he/she is perfectly capable of figuring out the story (the easy part).
4) That someone then writes an article, with a specific audience in mind, showing to the public the previously secret information (often including all of it – the entire raw data sets or documents or transcripts) and explaining what it means.
Journalist advantage – they tend to be good with language and writing a gripping story. If the underlying information is correct, and the conclusions are clear, and the journalist is not afraid to state clearly who is telling the truth and who is lying, the article should be good.
5) That someone then sends the article to the proper venue where it undergoes an editorial process.
The editor who comes up with titles usually screws up this step. Otherwise, especially if nobody cuts out important parts due to length limits, the article should be fine. Hopefully, the venue targets the relevant audience – either experts (who can then police their own) or general public (who can elicit pressure on powers-that-be).
6) If accepted for publication, the article gets published.
Deadline for the next story looms. Back to the grind.
7) The article gets a life of its own – people read (or listen/view) it, comment, give feedback, or follow up with investigation digging up more information that is still not public (so the cycle repeats).
Now that the information is public, people can spread it around (e-mailing to each other, linking to it on their blogs, social networks, etc.). They bring in their own knowledge and expertise and provide feedback in various venues and some are motivated to follow up and dig deeper, perhaps uncovering more information (so the cycle repeats).
Most of science journalism is, thus, not investigative journalism. Most of it is simple reporting of the findings, i.e., second-hand reporting of the investigative reporting done by scientists (Case I). Or, as science reporters are made so busy by their editors, forced to write story after story in rapid succession, stories about many different areas of science, most science reporting in the media is actually third-hand reporting: first-hand was by scientists in journals, second-hand was by press officers of the institutions, and the journalist mainly regurgitates the press releases. As in every game of Broken Telephones/Chinese Whispers , the first reporter is more reliable then the second one in line who is more dependable than the third one and so on. Thus a scientist “going direct” is likely to give a much more reliable account of the findings than the journalist reporting on it.
There are exceptions, of course. Each discussion of science journalism always brings out commenters who shout the names of well-known and highly respectes science journalists. The thing is, those people are not science reporters. They are science journalists only in the sense that ‘Science Writers’ is a subset of the set ‘Science Journalists’. This is a subset that is very much in a privileged position – they are given freedom to write what, when, where and how they want. Thus, over many years, they develop their own expertise.
Carl Zimmer has, over the years, read so many papers, talked to so many experts, and written so many books, articles and blogposts, that he probably knows more about evolution, parasites and E.coli than biology PhDs whose focus is on other areas of biology. Eric Roston probably knows more about carbon than many chemistry PhDs. These guys are experts. And they are writers, not reporters. They do not get assignments to write many stories per week on different areas of science. They are not who I am talking about in this post at all.
Do they do investigative reporting? Sometimes they do, but they chose other venues for it. When George Will lied about climate change data in a couple of op-eds, Carl Zimmer used his blog, not the NYTimes Science section, to dig and expose the facts about the industry and political influences, about George Will’s history on the issue, about cowardly response by Washington Post to the uncovering of these unpleasant facts, etc.
Rebecca Skloot did investigative journalism as well, over many years, and decided to publish the findings in a form of a book, not in a newspaper or magazine. That is not the work of a beat reporter.
Case III: Science Blogger
1) Someone gets a hunch, wiff, a tip from someone or an intuition (or orders from the boss to take a look) that some information exists that is hidden from the public.
Bloggers are often looking for blogging materials from two distinctly different sources: the Tables of Content of scientific journals in the fields they have expertise in, and services that serve press releases (e.g., EurekAlert, ScienceDaily, etc.). They are also usually quite attuned to the mass media, i.e., they get their news online from many sources instead of reading just the local paper.
What many bloggers do and are especially good at doing is comparing the work of Case I and Case II investigative reporters. They can access and read and understand the scientific paper and directly compare it to the press releases and the media coverage (including the writings by other bloggers). Having the needed scientific expertise, they can evaluate all the sources and make a judgment on their quality.
Sometimes the research in the paper is shoddy but the media does not realize it and presents it as trustworthy. Sometimes the paper is good, but the media gets it wrong (usually in a sensationalist kind of way). Sometimes both the paper and the media get it right (which is not very exciting to blog about).
2) That someone then uses a whole suit of methods to discover that secret information, often against the agents that resist the idea of that information becoming available to the public.
Replicating experiments and putting that on the blog is rare (but has been done). But digging through the published data and comparing that to media reports is easy when one has the necessary expertise. Consulting with colleagues, on the rare occasions when needed, is usually done privately via e-mail or publicly on places like FriendFeed or Twitter, and there is no need to include quotes in the blog post itself.
Bloggers have done investigative digging in a journalistic sense as well – uncovering unseemly behavior of people. I have gathered a few examples of investigative reporting by science bloggers before:

Whose investigative reporting led to resignation of Deutch, the Bush’s NASA censor? Nick Anthis, a (then) small blogger (who also later reported on the Animal Rights demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in Oxford in great detail as well).
Who blew up the case of plagiarism in dinosaur palaenthology, the so-calles Aetogate? A bunch of bloggers.
Who blew up, skewered and castrated the PRISM, the astroturf organization designed to lobby the Senate against the NIH Open Access bill? A bunch of bloggers. The bill passed.
Remember the Tripoli 6?
Who pounced on George Will and WaPo when he trotted out the long-debunked lie about global warming? And forced them to squirm, and respond, and publish two counter-editorials? A bunch of bloggers.
Who dug up all the information, including the most incriminating key evidence against Creationists that was used at the Dover trial? A bunch of bloggers.
And so on, and so on, this was just scratching the surface with the most famous stories.

3) That someone then puts all of the gathered information in one place and looks for patterns, overarching themes, connections and figures out what it all means.
This is often a collective effort of multiple bloggers.
4) That someone then writes an article, with a specific audience in mind, showing to the public the previously secret information (often including all of it – the entire raw data sets or documents or transcripts) and explaining what it means.
The target audience of most science blogs is lay audience, but many of the readers are themselves scientists as well.
5) That someone then sends the article to the proper venue where it undergoes an editorial process.
Most blogs are self-edited. Sending a particularly ‘hot’ blog post to a couple of other bloggers asking their opinion before it is posted is something that a blogger may occasionally do.
6) If accepted for publication, the article gets published.
Click “Post”. That easy.
7) The article gets a life of its own – people read (or listen/view) it, comment, give feedback, or follow up with investigation digging up more information that is still not public (so the cycle repeats).
Feedback in comments usually comes in really fast! It is direct, straightforward and does not follow the usual formal kabuki dance that ensures the control and hierarchy remains intact in more official venues.
Other bloggers may respond on their own blogs (especially if they disagree) or spread the link on social networks (especially if they agree).
If many bloggers raise hell about some misconduct and persist in it over a prolonged periods of time, this sometimes forces the corporate media to pick up the hot-potato story despite the initial reluctance to do so. But this applies to all investigative reporting on blogs, not just science.
Also, bloggers are not bound by 20th century journalistic rules – thus the exposure by impersonation, what the conservative activists did to ACORN, is perfectly legitimate way of uncovering dirt in informal venues, but not legit in corporate venues.
One more point that needs to be made here. Different areas of science are different!
Biomedical science is a special case. It is huge. It has huge funding compared to other areas, yet not sufficient to feed the armies of researchers involved in it. It attracts the self-aggrandizing type disproportionately. Much is at stake: patents, contracts with pharmaceutical industry, money, fame, Nobel prizes… Thus it is extremely competitive. It also uses laboratory techniques that are universal and fast, thus it is easy to scoop and get scooped, which fosters the culture of secrecy. It suffers from CNS disease (necessity to publish in GlamourMagz like Cell, Nature and Science). It gets inordinate proportion of media (and blog) attention due to relevance to human health. All those pressures make the motivation to fudge data too strong for some of the people involved – very few, for sure, out of 10,000s involved.
On the other end of the spectrum is, for example, palaeontology. Very few people can be palaeontologists – not enough positions and not enough money. There is near-zero risk of getting scooped as everyone knows who dug what out, where, during which digging season (Aetogate, linked above, was a special case of a person using a position of power to mainly scoop powerless students). Your fossil is yours. The resources are extremely limited and so much depends on luck. Discovering a cool fossil is not easy and if you get your hands on one, you have to milk it for all it’s worth. You will publish not one but a series of papers. First paper is a brief announcement of the finding with a superficial description, the second is a detailed description, the third is the phylogenetic analysis, the fourth focuses on one part of the fossil that can say something new about evolution, etc. And you hope that all of this will become well-known to the general public. The palaeo community is so small, they all already know. They will quibble forever with you over the methodology and conclusions (so many assumptions have to go into methods that analyze old, broken bones). It is the lay audience that needs to be reached, by any means necessary. Many paleontologists don’t even work as university professors but are associated with museums, nature magazines, or are freelancing. The pressure to publish in GlamourMagz is there only as a means to get the attention of the media, not to impress colleagues or rise in careers.
Most of science and most scientists, on the other hand, do not belong to one of these two fields and do not work at high-pressure universities. They do science out of their own curiosity, feel no pressure to publish a lot or in GlamourMagz, do not fear scooping, are open and relaxed and have no motivation to fudge data or plagiarize. They know that the reputation with their peers – the only reputation they can hope to get – is dependent entirely on immaculate work and behavior. Why keep them suspect because two media-prominent sub-sub-disciplines sometimes produce less-than-honest behavior? Why not trust that their papers are good, their press releases correct, their blogging honest, and their personal behavior impeccable? I’d say they are presumed innocent unless proven guilty, not the other way around.
I’d like to see an equivalent of for state universities and small colleges. What a delightful source of cool science that would be!
Update: blogging at its best. After a couple of hit-and-run curmudgeounly comments posted early on, this post started receiving some very thoughtful and useful comments (e.g., especially one by David Dobbs) that are edifying and are helping me learn – which is the point of blogging in the first place, isn’t it?

Good news

Today, I accepted the invitation to join the editorial board of the Journal of Science Communication. Now I am reviewing my first manuscript….

Journal of Science Communication 8.3

The new issue of the open access Journal of Science Communication is out. From the Table of Contents:
Filling the gap between theory and practice:

Jcom’s adventure was launched nearly eight years ago, when a group of lecturers and former students of the Master’s degree in Science Communication at SISSA of Trieste, decided to have training joined by the commitment to research on science communication issues.

Mapping gender differences in understanding about HIV/AIDS:

The present article investigates public understanding of HIV/AIDS related issues that touch the thought structure of common citizen, among the Indian public. Analysis is based on a representative sample collected from 10 states of India. The authors have also analysed the relative cultural distance at which men and women, as separate groups, could be placed. The relative cultural distance, for each of the selected issues, has been computed and it was found that men, as a group, are closer to scientific thought structure compared to women.

Getting adolescents to inform themselves about ecogenomics: a Dutch case study:

Public opinions toward emergent technologies may be highly dependent on the manner in which people are introduced to these technologies for the very first time. In this light, understanding how such first introductions are related to adolescents’ information seeking behaviors and their developing opinions may be particularly interesting because this target public can be considered to be not only future users of the technology but also future decision makers of its development. The present paper presents a case study of the introduction of ecogenomics among 246 adolescents who were asked to inform themselves about this technology and to write two essays: one that would reflect their personal opinions, and another that would reflect their advice to the Dutch government about further funding of ecogenomics research. Results showed that the Internet was by far their preferred source of information and that most adolescents held positive attitudes toward ecogenomics as expressed in essays that reflected their personal opinions and advice to others. In their perspective, ecogenomics was a positive development in science because of expected benefits concerning medical and environmental applications, such as the potential discovery of new antibiotics and the possible use in bioremediation.

Images of women in STEM fields:

This study investigated how eighth-grade students perceived images of women in STEM and non-STEM careers. Thirty-six images were posted on-line; we measured five characteristics of each image. Forty students participated in the study. We found that there were significant differences in attractiveness, creativity, and intelligence between STEM and non-STEM images. There were no significant differences for good at her job and organization. In addition, there were no significant differences among STEM and non-STEM images of women of the same race.

The socialisation of scientific and technological research:

In the last decades, production of science and technology as well as science-society relationships started changing rapidly. Research is asked to be more effective, fast, accountable, trans-disciplinary, result-oriented, policy-driven and able to generate benefits for people and firms in the short and middle run. While a strong intensification of science-society relationships is occurring, an increasing number of actors and stakeholders are involved in research production. At the same time, pervasiveness of technology is rendering users an active part in technological development; economic and social interests on science and technology are growing on a global scale; new democratic and ethical issues emerge. Despite the European institutions’ efforts, all those trends and phenomena are occurring in an extremely fragmented way. In this scenario, a fairly balanced and consistent co-evolution between science and society can no longer be taken for granted. This is just the starting point of the following comment section that, through the Luciano d’Andrea, Sally Wyatt, Erik Aarden, Jos Lejten and Peter Sekloča’s writings, aims to analyse the different aspects and questions around the socialisation of science and technology’s matter.

The ‘book’ medium and scientific editorial communication: prospects and ongoing changes:

The volume “Il libro contemporaneo” (The Contemporary Book) by Giuseppe Vitiello offers a global view of the “book” as a model and as an instrument of communication and for learning in the society of knowledge; it specifically deals with scientific editorial communication, through a complete and systematic reconstruction of the bodies involved, of the production and dissemination processes, also in the framework of the technological changes pushed by new media. In particular, the author critically analyzes some relevant aspects such as the role played by the journal as the most relevant mean for scientific knowledge dissemination, the scientific writer figure, the strengthening of large publishing groups and the challenge open access implies.

Learning science in informal environments: people, places and pursuits. A review by the US National Science Council:

In January this year, the US saw the publication of the preview of an impressive review work on the practices and the studies concerning learning science outside schools and universities, i.e. what is referred to as informal education.
The document, promoted by the National Science Council of scientific academies (National Academy of Science, National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine), is the result of the work by a committee comprising 14 specialists who collected, discussed and then organized hundreds of documents on pedagogical premises, places, practices and pursuits concerning scientific informal education.
Nobody doubts that museums, magazines, after-school activities, science festivals and any other science communication offers have a positive impact on the people’s knowledge, attitudes and behaviours. But what do we really know about what actually happens in these experiences? What sense should be given to the word “learning” in these cases? Do the different communication tools or environments have also a different impact? What factors make them more or less effective? These are the main questions the document wants to answer, carefully evaluating the present state of the art.

New Science News Service

There is a new site for you to bookmark today – This is a collaborative effort of, for now, 35 major Universities in the United States (those include, for my local readers, UNC and Duke – why is NCSU lagging behind?!).
The site is the answer to the question:

How will the public learn about important breakthroughs at leading research universities as traditional news outlets continue to shrink?

The site is taking selected science stories from the participating Universities and putting them together in one place, sorted by topics and searchable by tags (by topic or by school). Let’s hope that more schools choose to join in, and also, that their feed gets incorporated on major news sites. The site is a “pull” strategy vehicle (it will be found and read by people who are interested in science and actively seaching for information) and inclusion on front pages of mainstream media sites would add a “push” strategy (making sure everybody sees the science news, even those who are not specifically looking, but may say “Wow – this is cool!”) which is necessary for more widespread popularisation of science.

Hollywood and science

Robert Scoble interviews science blogger and author Jennifer Ouellette about the Science & Entertainment Exchange, a “recent initiative by the National Academy of Sciences, was set up to build a new kind of social network of scientists and movie directors.” Worth a watch:


A run-down of good recent stuff, highly recommended for your weekend reading and bookmarking:
PLoS One: Interview with Peter Binfield:

…In my view PLoS ONE is the most dynamic, innovative and exciting journal in the world, and I am proud to work on it.
In many ways PLoS ONE operates like any other journal however it diverges in several important respects. The founding principle of PLoS ONE was that there are certain aspects of publishing which are best conducted pre-publication and certain aspects which are best conducted post-publication. The advent of online publishing has allowed us to take a step back and re-evaluate these aspects of how we publish research, without the burden of centuries of tradition. In this way, we have been able to experiment with new ways of doing things which may result in dramatic improvements in the entire process of scholarly publication.
The most important thing which has come out of this premise is that unlike almost every other journal in the world, we make no judgment call whatsoever on the ‘impact’ or ‘significance’ or ‘interest level’ of any submission. What this means is that if an article appropriately reports on well-conducted science, and if it passes our peer review process (which determines whether it deserves to join the scientific literature) then we will publish it. In this way, no author should ever receive the message that their article is scientifically sound but ‘not interesting enough’ for our journal, or that their article is ‘only suited to a specialized audience’. As a result, we short circuit the vicious cycle of “submit to a ‘top tier’ journal; get reviewed; get rejected; submit to the next journal down the list; repeat until accepted” and we are therefore able to place good science into the public domain as promptly as possible, with the minimum of burden on the academic community….

The evolution of scientific impact (also a good FriendFeed thread about it):

What is clear to me is this – science and society are much richer and more interconnected now than at any time in history. There are many more people contributing to science in many more ways now than ever before. Science is becoming more broad (we know about more things) and more deep (we know more about these things). At the same time, print publishing is fading, content is exploding, and technology makes it possible to present, share, and analyze information faster and more powerfully.
For these reasons, I believe (as many others do) that the traditional model of peer-reviewed journals should and will necessarily change significantly over the next decade or so.

A threat to scientific communication (read excellent responses by Peter Murray-Rast and Bjoern Brembs and a thread on FriendFeed):

Sulston argues that the use of journal metrics is not only a flimsy guarantee of the best work (his prize-winning discovery was never published in a top journal), but he also believes that the system puts pressure on scientists to act in ways that adversely affect science – from claiming work is more novel than it actually is to over-hyping, over-interpreting and prematurely publishing it, splitting publications to get more credits and, in extreme situations, even committing fraud.
The system also creates what he characterises as an “inefficient treadmill” of resubmissions to the journal hierarchy. The whole process ropes in many more reviewers than necessary, reduces the time available for research, places a heavier burden on peer review and delays the communication of important results.

Why do we still publish scientific papers?:

I agree with the need to filter papers, but I want to be in control of the filter. I don’t want editors to control my filter and I definitely don’t want a monopolist like Thomson to muck up my filter. I don’t care where something is published, if it’s in my direct field I need to read it, no matter how bad it is. If a paper is in my broader field, I’d apply some light filtering, such as rating, comments, downloads, author institute, social bookmarks, or some such. If the paper is in a related field, I’d like to only read reviews of recent advances. If it’s in an unrelated field, but one I’m interested in nonetheless, I’d only want to see the news-and-views article, because I wouldn’t understand anything else anyway. For everything else, titles, headlines or newsreports are good enough for browsing. All of this can be done after publishing and certainly doesn’t require any artificial grouping by pseudo-tags (formerly called journals).

Science Jabberwocky (how to read/understand a scientific paper when you don’t know the technical terms):

I have to confess that in areas outside mine, there seems to be a terrible array of words no more obvious than ‘brillig’ and ‘slithy’. And words that look familiar, like ‘gyre and gimble’, but which don’t look like they are supposed to mean what I’m used to them meaning.

Media tracking:

The theropod behaviour paper that I have been boring you all with this last week or so has been the first time I have had decent control over the media access to my work and by extension the first time I have had a good idea of what happened to the original press release. I know what I sent to whom and when and thus can fairly easily track what happened afterwards to record the spread and exchange of information from that origin. In the past on the Musings I have targeted inaccuracies in news reports of scientific stories but without knowing the exact details of a story (I may have access to the press release but without knowing who it went to). Well, not so this time and as a result the pattern of reporting I can see is both interesting and informative both from understanding how the media works and knowing how to get your own work publicised.

Rapid evolution of rodents: another PLoS ONE study in the media:

Although media attention and coverage is not, and should certainly not be, the only criterion for scientific “quality” (whatever that is!), it is further testimony of the advantage to publish in “Open Acess”-journals in general, and PLoS ONE in particular. This study is also interesting because it shows the value of museum collections as a source for ecological and evolutionary research, a point that Shawn Kuchta has repeatedly emphasized in our lab-meetings (and which I completely agree with, of course).

20 Quick Points from ‘The World Is Open: How Web Technology Is Revolutionizing Education’:

9. Open Access Journals (Opener #5): The publishing world is increasing becoming open access. Open access journals in the healthcare area provide invaluable information to those in the developing world. The Public Library of Science (PLoS) offers free peer-reviewed scientific journals. Scientists who publish in PLoS journals might present their work in SciVee. SciVee allows the user to hear or see the scientist explain his or her research in what is known as pubcasts.

Pedagogy and the Class Blog:

I’ve been using blogs in my teaching for several years now, so I wanted to share a few ideas that have worked for me. I’m no expert and I’m still casting about for solutions to some of the more nagging problems, but after thirteen course blogs spread across seven semesters (I just counted!), I have obtained a small measure of experience. In other words, I keep making mistakes, but at least not the same ones over and over.

Practicing Medicine in the Age of Facebook:

In my second week of medical internship, I received a “friend request” on Facebook, the popular social-networking Web site. The name of the requester was familiar: Erica Baxter. Three years earlier, as a medical student, I had participated in the delivery of Ms. Baxter’s baby. Now, apparently, she wanted to be back in touch…..

Are young people of today Relationally Starved?:

The more I toss it around, I’m not so sure that our students are “relationally starved.” I just think that relationships look much different today than they have in generations past. Their relationships are more fluid and maybe a little more fragile. It is obvious that advances in technology have changed the way relationships are built and maintained (it has for me). This doesn’t mean that children aren’t in need of the same nurturing and love that we might have had, but there are other layers that we need to ask them about. And I think that might be the key, ASK THEM!

The New Yorker vs. the Kindle:

Now, let’s imagine for a moment that we are back in the 15th century, to be precise just shortly after 1439, when Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg invented movable type printing. I can only imagine the complaints that Baker would have uttered in the local paper (which was, of course, copied by hand from the original dictation). What? Only one title on the catalog? (The Bible.) Oh, and the fonts are sooo boring compared to handwriting. And no colors! And the quality of the drawings, simply unacceptable. This movable type printing thing will never ever replace the amanuenses, it will simply die as yet another “modern invention” and things will keep being just the same as they have been throughout what they at the time didn’t yet call the Middle Ages.

The New Yorker & The News Biz:

After many years, I am finally subscribing to the New Yorker again. Not in print, but via their Digital Reader. I’m blogging about it because I like their model: the Digital Reader adds something I wouldn’t get from the library version, and I feel like this new model bears watching as we migrate from print to online.

The psychology of reading for pleasure:

According to a neurological study that Nell performed, processing demands are higher with books than other media (movies, television) but that also means that when you are absorbed in a book, you are more likely to block out distractions. While readers describe being absorbed in a book as “effortless,” their brains are actually intensely active. As one critic said, this is not an escape from thinking, it’s an escape into thinking – intensely, and without distraction.

How Twitter works in theory:

The key to Twitter is that it is phatic – full of social gestures that are like apes grooming each other. Both Google and Twitter have little boxes for you to type into, but on Google you’re looking for information, and expecting a machine response, whereas on Twitter you’re declaring an emotion and expecting a human response. This is what leads to unintentionally ironic newspaper columns bemoaning public banality, because they miss that while you don’t care what random strangers feel about their lunch, you do if its your friend on holiday in Pompeii.
For those with Habermas’s assumption of a single common public sphere this makes no sense – surely everyone should see everything that anyone says as part of the discussion? In fact this has never made sense, and in the past elaborate systems have been set up to ensure that only a few can speak, and only one person can speak at a time, because a speech-like, real-time discourse has been the foundational assumption.
Too often this worldview has been built into the default assumptions of communications online; we see it now with privileged speakers decrying the use of anonymity in the same tones as 19th century politicians defended hustings in rotten boroughs instead of secret ballots. Thus the tactics of shouting down debate in town halls show up as the baiting and trollery that make YouTube comments a byword for idiocy; when all hear the words of one, the conversation often decays.

Blogging Evolution (PDF):

I describe the general characteristics of blogs, contrasting blogs with other of WWW formats for self-publishing. I describe four categories for blogs about evolutionary biology: “professional,” “amateur,” “apostolic,” and “imaginative.” I also discuss blog networks. I identify paradigms of each category. Throughout, I aim to illuminate blogs about evolutionary biology from the point of view of a
user looking for information about the topic. I conclude that blogs are not the best type of source for systematic and authoritative information about evolution, and that they are best used by the information-seeker as a way of identifying what issues are of interest in the community of evolutionists and for generating research leads or fresh insights on one’s own work.

What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?:

Steven Krantz asked me to write an opinion piece about math blogging in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society. I asked if I could talk about this column on my blog, and even have people comment on drafts of it before it comes out in the Notices. He said okay. So, just to get the ball rolling, let me ask: what do you think mathematicians need to know about blogging?

Five Key Reasons Why Newspapers Are Failing and Five Key Reasons Why Newspapers Are Failing, pt. 2:

Journalists are pretty good at working the scene of a disaster. They’ll tell you what happened, who did it, and why.
But when it comes to the disaster engulfing their own profession, their analysis is less rigorous. An uncharacteristic haze characterizes a lot of the reporting and commentary on the current crisis of the industry.
It could have been brought on by delicacy, perhaps romanticism. And since it is not just any crisis, but a definitive one–one that seems to mean an end to the physical papers’ role in American life as we have come to know it–perhaps there’s a little bit of shell-shock in the mix as well.

Online Community Building: Gardening vs Landscaping:

The Gardener creates an ecosystem open to change, available to new groups, and full of fresh opportunities to emerge naturally. The approach is focused on organic collaboration and growth for the entire community. The gardener is simply there to help, cultivate, and clear the weeds if/when they poke up.
The Landscaper creates an ecosystem that matches a preconceived design or pattern. The approach is focused on executing a preconceived environment, regardless of how natural or organic it may be for the larger area. The landscaper is there to ensure that everything stays just as planned.

Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style (book review):

So I end up feeling a bit torn. He’s telling us “Don’t be such a scientist”, and it’s true that there are many occasions when the scientific attitude can generate unnecessary obstacles to accomplishing our goals. At the same time, though, I want to say “Do be such a scientist”, because it’s part of our identity and it makes us stand out as unusual and, like Randy, interesting, even if it sometimes does make us a bit abrasive. But, you know, some of us revel in our abrasiveness; it’s fun.

This has also been in the news a lot last week:
Threats to science-based medicine: Pharma ghostwriting
Wyeth, ‘Ghost-Writing’ and Conflict of Interest
More On Ghostwriting, Wyeth and Hormone Replacement Therapy
Wyeth’s ghostwriting skeletons yanked from the closet
Ghostwriters in the sky
Quickie Must-Read Link … (probably the best commentary of them all).
Several recent posts on the topic dear to my heart – the so-called “civility” in public (including online) discourse:
How Creationism (and Other Idiocies) Are Mainstreamed:

One of the things that has enabled the mainstreaming of various idiocies, from altie woo, to creationism, to global warming denialism is mainstream corporate media’s inability to accurately describe lunacy. For obvious reasons, ‘family-friendly’ newspapers and teevee can’t call creationists, birthers, or deathers batshit lunatic or fucking morons. This is where ‘civility’ (beyond the basic norms of decency when dealing with the mentally ill) and pretensions of ‘balance’ utterly fail.

Weekend Diversion: How to Argue:

You are, of course, free to argue however you like. But if you want to argue on my site, you’re really best off remembering this hierarchy, and staying as high as possible on it. Most of you do pretty well, but this has served me well in general, and I hope it helps you to see things laid out like this. And if not, at least you got a great song out of it!

When an image makes an argument:

Along similar lines to a frequentist interpretation of the strata, maybe this pyramid is conveying something about the ease or difficulty inherent in different types of engagement. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to call someone an asshat, but understanding her argument well enough to raise a good counterexample to it may take some mental labor. If this is the rhetorical work that the pyramidal layout does here, it may also suggest a corresponding hierarchy of people who have the mental skills to engage in each of these ways — making the people at the tippy-top of the pyramid more elite than those using the strategies from lower strata.

How to Argue…:

White men are sufficiently privileged enough to demand that they be treated respectfully while white women, at best, can expect to be presented with contradiction and counterargument. When I saw the category “responding to tone” I thought of the “angry black man” who, although perhaps right, is castigated for his anger and lack of civility for not conforming to the norms of white society. If you’re a non-white woman? Then, the best you can do is hope to not be denied food and shelter if you don’t fuck your husband enough (h/t to Free-Ride for pointing this article out), but you only expect to be part of the discussion if you’re allowed to be.
The call to civility is a frequent tactic to derail the discussion and is as much of an ad hominem attack as calling someone a cocknozzle. It fails to recognize the perspective of the other party or appreciate why they might be angry.

More on the topic:
Dr. Isis Learns to Argue:

I am lucky to have such thoughtful commenters. When I wrote the previous post I had no idea that bleeding from my vagina was clouding my judgement. Then, just when I thought I had cleared enough of the estrogen from my girl brain to understand, I learned that this was all a carefully planned tactic to teach me a lesson. Damn! I hate when that happens!

Weekend Diversion: How to argue…and actually accomplish something:

Here we arrive at the meat of the matter. Once having accomplished more than about 300 ms worth of consideration of a given topic, people are highly resistant to the idea that their rationale, conclusions and evidence base might actually be wrong. And the wronger the consideration might be, the more resistant to acknowledgment is the individual. We might think of this as the intrapersonal Overton window.

A Tale of Two Nations: the Civil War may have been won by the North, but in truth the South never emotionally conceded.:

The Civil War may have been won by the North, but in truth the South never emotionally conceded.
The Town Hall mobs, the birthers, the teabaggers are all part of that long line of “coded” agitators for the notions of white entitlement and “conservative values.”
Of course, this conservative viewpoint values cheap labor and unabated use of natural resources over technological and economic innovation. It also – and this is its hot molten core – fundamentally believes that white people are born with a divine advantage over people of other skin colors, and are chosen by God to lead the heathen hordes.
That a Town Hall mob is itself a heathen horde would never occur to the economically stressed whites who listen to the lies of the likes of Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Lou Dobbs. Lies that confirm an emotionally reinforcing worldview – however heinous – become truths for those in psychological need of feeling superior and chosen.

I remember an America where black men didn’t grow up to be President.:

And all of them are asking for their America back. I wonder which America that would be?
Would that be the America where the Supreme Court picks your president instead of counting all the votes? Would that be the America where rights to privacy are ignored? Would that be the America where the Vice President shoots his best friend in the face? Or would that be the America where an idiot from Alaska and a college drop-out with a radio show could become the torchbearers for the now illiterate Republican party?
I fear that would not be the America they want back. I fear that the America they want back is the one where black men don’t become President.
I remember that America. In that America people screaming at public gatherings were called out for what they were – an angry mob. Of course, they wore sheets to cover up their bad hair. Let’s be clear about something: if you show up to a town hall meeting with a gun strapped to your leg, the point you are trying to make isn’t a good one. Fear never produced anything worthwhile.

In America, Crazy Is a Preexisting Condition:

The tree of crazy is an ever-present aspect of America’s flora. Only now, it’s being watered by misguided he-said-she-said reporting and taking over the forest. Latest word is that the enlightened and mild provision in the draft legislation to help elderly people who want living wills — the one hysterics turned into the “death panel” canard — is losing favor, according to the Wall Street Journal, because of “complaints over the provision.”

Two oldies but goodies:
Atheists and Anger:

One of the most common criticisms lobbed at the newly-vocal atheist community is, “Why do you have to be so angry?” So I want to talk about:
1. Why atheists are angry;
2. Why our anger is valid, valuable, and necessary;
And 3. Why it’s completely fucked-up to try to take our anger away from us.

Atheists and Anger: A Reply to the Hurricane:

Now my replies to the critics. I suppose I shouldn’t bother, I suppose I should just let it go and focus on the love. But I seem to be constitutionally incapable of letting unfair or inaccurate accusations just slide. So here are my replies to some of the critical comments’ common themes.

The Privilege of Politeness:

One item that comes up over and over in discussions of racism is that of tone/attitude. People of Color (POC) are very often called on their tone when they bring up racism, the idea being that if POC were just more polite about the whole thing the offending person would have listened and apologized right away. This not only derails the discussion but also tries to turn the insults/race issues into the fault of POC and their tone. Many POC have come to the realization that the expectation of politeness when saying something insulting is a form of privilege. At the core of this expectation of politeness is the idea that the POC in question should teach the offender what was wrong with their statement. Because in my experience what is meant by “be polite” is “teach me”, teach me why you’re offended by this, teach me how to be racially sensitive and the bottom line is that it is no one’s responsibility to teach anyone else. And even when POC are as polite as possible there is still hostility read into the words because people are so afraid of being called racist that they would rather go on offending than deal with the hard road of confronting their own prejudices.

Science Online London 2009 – now in Second Life

Science Online London is next week. I really wanted to go this year, but hard choices had to be made….eh, well.
For those of you who, like me, cannot be there in person, there are plenty of ways to follow the meeting virtually. Follow @soloconf and the #solo09 hashtag on Twitter. Join the FriendFeed room. Check out the Facebook page. And of course there will be a lot of blogging, including in the Forums at Nature Network.
And for those of you who have computers with enough power and good graphics cards, another option is to follow the conference in Second Life – check that link to see how.

The Cooking Hypothesis of Human Evolution

The Food hypothesis of human evolution was developed by Richard Wrangham, author of “Catching Fire”. It was covered recently by my sciblings, including Erin, Razib and Ethan. It was also the topic on last week’s
But now, you can hear the interview with Wrangham on the World Science podcast, then go over to the forum and ask him questions. He’ll be checking in the forums and responding for the next week or so.
Then let me know what you thought about it – the topic, the podcast, the forum.
[Reminder that I serve as an outside advisor to World Science]
Update: Wow! I did not know that one of my SciBlings, Greg Laden is one of the co-authors of the Food Hypothesis – see the paper here – see also Greg’s posts about it, e.g., here.

Twitter and Science presentation from the 140 Characters Conference

A bunch of interesting Twitterers aggregated in NYC a couple of days ago at the 140 characters conference, discussing various aspects of and uses of Twitter. One of the sessions was about Twitter and Science, led by @thesciencebabe and @jayhawkbabe. I am very jealous I could not be there, but we can all watch the video of their session:

Happy to see the last slide, with @PLoS as one of the recommended Twitter streams to follow for those interested in science.

Caryn Shechtman: A Blogger Success Story (an interview with Yours Truly)

You may have noticed a couple of days ago that Caryn Shechtman posted an interview with me on the New York blog on Nature Network. Then, Caryn and Erin and I thought it might be a good idea to have the entire interview reposted here, for those who missed it. So, proceed under the fold:

Continue reading

The World Science: a virtual Science Cafe

The World is a radio show co-produced by WGBH Boston, Public Radio International and BBC. You can probably hear it on your local NPR station – if not, you can find all the shows recorded on the website.
You may remember that I went to Boston a couple of months ago, as part of a team of people helping the show do something special: use the NSF grant they recently received to expand their science coverage and, in collaboration with Sigma Xi and NOVA, tie their radio science coverage to their online offerings.
The result is The World: Science website, a series of weekly science podcasts with Elsa Youngsteadt and David Kohn (subscribe to the RSS feed) and, starting this week, something new.
First, the radio show will have a brief segment on a science topic that includes an interview with a science-related person. A longer version of that story/interview will be on the website as a podcast, with additional links to outside sources. And, most exciting, the person who was interviewed for the show will come by the online forum for a week after the show and answer readers/listeners’ questions. Like an online version of a Science Cafe.
So, on the last Friday’s radio show, there was a segment about the science of decision-making featuring Jonah Lehrer (also my SciBling on The Frontal Cortex blog). The longer version of the story is online as a podcast and the forum discussion is ongoing until next Friday. Since we did not promote it (except for a brief mention on the radio show itself) on Friday, the discussion has just begun. We hope that, with all of you checking in and spreading the word, the discussion will grow. And get bigger every time – hopefully becoming a weekly event.
You should also follow the news about this endeavor on Twitter, in the FriendFeed room and a Facebook page. Join, friend, follow, subscribe. And come back next week and next and next. And don’t feel shy to give feedback as this is just in the early stages of development and we are open to suggestions.

Trip to Germany and Serbia

Later this month, I’ll be attending the 59th Meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany. The list of Nobel Laureates (about 20 of them) and the list of about 600 young researchers from 66 countries are very impressive. Of course, not being a chemist, I’ll have to do some homework before I go, learning what these people did to get the prizes.
The program certainly looks interesting – there is a lot of “meta” stuff beyond pure chemistry, so I will always find interesting sessions to attend and blog from. Yes, I am going to be there as a blog-reporter. I understand that PZ will also be there in the same capacity.
The meeting is from June 28th to July 3rd, after which I’ll fly to Belgrade for a few days, to visit my Mom and meet some friends (especially those I missed last year). Ana, Vedran and some others are already trying to organize for me to give lectures and interviews while there.
If you’ll be either at the Lindau meeting or in Belgrade at the above dates, let me know. I’ll be flying through London, but will not have much or any time to stop and do any socializing there this time around.

My interviews with Radio Belgrade

Last year in May, when I visited Belgrade, I gave interviews with Radio Belgrade, talking about science publishing, Open Access, science communication and science blogging. The podcasts of these interviews – yes, they are in Serbian! – are now up:
Part 1
Part 2
I know that this blog has some ex-Yugoslavs in its regular audience, people who can understand the language. I hope you enjoy the interviews and spread the word if you like them.

Night, night, Ida…

Some 47 million years ago, Ida suffocated in the volcanic ashes. I feel the same way at the end of this week – I need to get some air. And some sleep.
But watching the media and blog coverage of the fossil around the clock for a few days was actually quite interesting, almost exhilarating – and there are probably not as many people out there who, like me, read pretty much everything anyone said about it this week. Interestingly, my own feel of the coverage was different if I assumed an angle of a scientist, an angle of an interested student of the changes in the media ecosystem, and an angle of a PLoS employee. It is far too early to have any clear thoughts on it at this point.
But if you want to catch up with me, I have put together a sampling of the blog and media coverage over on the everyONE blog.

Cognitive Monthly

I am pretty much on record that I would not pay for anything online (to be precise, to pay for content – I certainly use the Web for shopping). But with some caveats. I have been known to hit a PayPal button of people who provide content and information I find valuable. And I would presumably pay, though not being happy about it, if the information behind the pay wall is a) unique (i.e., not found anywhere else by any other means) and b) indispensable for my work (i.e., I would feel handicapped without it).
But I am not subscribed to, or paying for, anything right now and haven’t been in years. Not even Faculty of 1000 which, one can argue, is important for my work. If I need a reprint of a paper for personal use (or perhaps to consider blogging about) I get it from the author, or if that does not work, from a friend with access.
So, I am intrigued by the announcement of ‘Cognitive Monthly’, a $2 per issue publication by Dave and Greta Munger. I got the reviewer copy of the first issue. I read it. I loved it. Would I pay $2 for something like that every month? I had to think about it long and hard, but my final answer is, actually, Yes. Why?
This is not an easy question to answer. I think a big part of my decision is the fact that I know Dave and Greta very well, in person, so I am positively predisposed to help them in this endeavor.
I am also a long-time regular reader of ‘Cognitive Daily’ – I know from experience that their posts are interesting to me. I am personally very interested in cognitive psychology of sensory perception, human behavior in traffic (driving, biking, etc.), human behavior in respect to social norms, ideology and fashion, etc. Even in busiest weeks, I’ll read at least the Science Friday post (and often participate in their research polls). Thus, I am wondering if I would have said Yes if I was unaware of Cognitive Daily from before.
The first issue, about the way theatrical productions use various illusions (light, sound, etc.) to draw the audience in, so the audience gets transported into a different place and time, is absolutely fascinating. Also, the production level of the issue is much greater than any one of their blog posts – it is longer, has a great introduction to the historical context, lots of interesting information, is written really well – this is a full-blown article that could appear in any reputable (popular science or general interest) magazine. And yet they say that this one is just a trial and that the future issues will be even more thorough. So, it is definitely an extremely high quality product, not just a quick blog post that comes and goes.
So, this is definitely fulfilling my criterion a) – it is unique. But is it b) as well? I can function professionally just fine without it, so why would I buy this every month anyway? I don’t know. I just feel that the personal education and enrichment I got from reading this article was worth $2 to me. It is hard to be rational about this – I just liked reading it and it was worth it to me. And I can’t wait for the next issue. I am actually – gasp – excited about it.
Perhaps they can do a Science Friday poll and post about this – are you more likely to pay for something if you are told in advance to think about this question? I read a lot of stuff online and never think “would I pay for this?”. But I did this time because I was asked to keep that question in the back of my mind while reading it. Did this make me more predisposed to try to give the piece a monetary value and, in comparison to $2 they are asking the deal looked good?
Give it a try yourself – you can get their stuff at (here is the first issue) in color, or on Amazon for Kindle (first issue) in black and white. Take a look and decide for yourself.
I am going to be watching this experiment with interest. If someone as jaded as I am got excited and is willing to pay for more of that “fix”, I am wondering if that will work for others as well. What will be the numbers of buyers on any given month, what percentage of those will be return customers, how will the word-of-mouth affect sales of any given issue (e.g., if one of them gets a lot of play on Twitter etc., and another one not so much), etc.? Definitely an interesting experiment.

Bora’s Links on (Science) Journalism

Just a collection of links to my and other people’s posts/articles I need to have collected all in one place (I will explain later):
1.a.Breaking News
Scientific American Editor, President to Step Down; 5 Percent of Staff Cut
‘Scientific American’ Editor Out in Reorg
1. b.Death of print: how are newspapers and magazines different?
Defining the Journalism vs. Blogging Debate, with a Science Reporting angle
Rosen’s Flying Seminar In The Future of News
Thinking the Unthinkable
2020 vision: What’s next for news
Newspapers on the brink-where to next?
Could beautiful design save newspapers?
2. getting past the journalists vs. bloggers dichotomy, with an eye to identifying what a happy “take the best of each” scenario would include.
‘Journalists vs. Blogs’ is bad framing
If Bloggers Had No Ethics Blogging Would Have Failed, But it Didn’t. So Let’s Get a Clue.
3. where does science journalism fit in this change? Science is arguably a ripe place for doers (scientists) to do much of what science journalists now do. What do/might (good) sci-journos bring that needs to stay in a new model/hybrid.
Why good science journalists are rare?
Scientists are Excellent Communicators (‘Sizzle’ follow-up)
4. some recent good and bad examples of science journalism.
Exhibit 1 (bad reporting – good pushback by blogs):

For the last time: that ‘Twitter is Evil’ paper is not about Twitter!
The Neurology of Twitter
The Neurology of Twitter, Part 2
Social media threats hyped by science reporting, not science
Is Twitter making you immoral? Daily Mail says yes, science says no
ZOMG! Facebook use and student grades
Experts say new scientific evidence helpfully justifies massive pre-existing moral prejudice.
Debasing the coinage of rational inquiry: a case study
Exhibit 2 (moderately bad reporting, atrocious behavior by reporter – strong pushback by blogs):
Graham Lawton Was Wrong (and links at the bottom)
Exhibit 3 (good reporting):
Good News for Night Owls
Night Owls Stay Alert Longer Than Early Birds
Night Owls Stay Alert Longer than Early Birds
Morning birds buckle under sleep pressure
The same story, done badly: How night owls are cleverer and richer than people who rise early
5. role of science blogs in the new science reporting ecosystem
Science Blogging: The Future of Science Communication & Why You Should be a Part of it
Why do we blog and other important questions, answered by 34 science bloggers
The Shock Value of Science Blogs
ScienceOnline’09 – Saturday 4:30pm and beyond: the Question of Power
New Journalistic Workflow
PLoS ONE on Twitter and FriendFeed
6. why do we print “Open Lab” anthologies if paper is dead? How do books differ from shorter forms and how a digital publishing model might change what gets written?
The Open Laboratory: The Best Writing on Science Blogs 2006
The Open Laboratory: The Best Science Writing on Blogs 2007
The Open Laboratory 2008
The Open Laboratory 2009 – the submissions so far
How the E-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write

ScienceOnline’09 – Saturday 4:30pm and beyond: the Question of Power

I know it’s been a couple of months now since the ScienceOnline’09 and I have reviewed only a couple of sessions I myself attended and did not do the others. I don’t know if I will ever make it to reviewing them one by one, but other people’s reviews on them are under the fold here. For my previous reviews of individual sessions, see this, this, this, this and this.
What I’d like to do today is pick up on a vibe I felt throughout the meeting. And that is the question of Power. The word has a number of dictionary meanings, but they are all related. I’ll try to relate them here and hope you correct my errors and add to the discussion in the comments here and on your own blogs.
Computing Power
Way back in history, scientists (or natural philosophers, as they were called then), did little experimentation and a lot of thinking. They kept most of their knowledge, information and ideas inside of their heads (until they wrote them down and published them in book form). They could easily access them, but there was definitely a limit to how much they could keep and how many different pieces they could access simultaneously.
A scientist who went out and got a bunch of notebooks and pencils and started writing down all that stuff in an organized and systematic manner could preserve and access much more information than others, thus be able to perform more experiments and observations than others, thus gaining a competitive advantage over others.
Electricity and gadgets allowed for even more – some degree of automation in data-gathering and storage. For instance, in my field, there is only so much an individual can do without automation. How long can you stay awake and go into your lab and do measurements on a regular basis? I did some experiments in which I did measurements every hour on the hour for 72 hours! That’s tough! All those 45min sleep bouts interrupted by 15min times for measurements, even as a couple of friends helped occasionally, were very exhausting.
But using an Esterline-Angus apparatus automated data-gathering and allowed researchers to sleep, thus enabling them to collect long-term behavioral data (collecting continuous recordings for weeks, months, even years) from a large number of animals. This enabled them to do much more with the same amount of time, space, money and manpower. This gave them a competitive advantage.
But still, Esterline-Angus data were on paper rolls. Those, one had to cut into strips, glue onto cardboard, photograph in order to make an actograph, then use manual tools like rulers and compasses and protractors to quantify and calculate the results (my PI did that early in his career and kept the equipment in the back room, to be shown to us whenever we complained that we were asked to do too much).
Having a computer made this much easier: automated data-collection by a computer, analyzed and graphed on that same computer, inserted into manuscripts written on that same computer. A computer can contain much more information than a human brain and, in comparison to notebooks, it is so much easier and quicker to search for and find the relevant information. That was definitely a competitive advantage as one could do many more experiments with the same amounts of time, space, money and manpower.
Enter the Web: it is not just one’s own data that one can use, but also everyone else’ data, information, ideas, publications, etc. Science moves from a collection of individual contributions to a communal (and global) pursuit – everyone contributes and everyone uses others’ contributions. This has a potential to exponentially speed up the progress of scientific research.
For this vision to work, all the information has to be freely available to all as well as machine-readable – thus necessity of Open Access (several sessions on this topic, of course) and Open Source. This sense of the word Power was used in sessions on the ‘Semantic Web in Science’, the ‘Community intelligence applied to gene annotation’, and several demos. Also, in the session on ‘Social Networking for Scientists’, this explains why, unlike on Facebook, it is the information (data) that is at the core. Data finds data. Subsequently, people will also find people. Trying to put people together first will not work in science where information is at the core, and personalities are secondary.
Power Relationships
In the examples above, you can already see a hierarchy based on power. A researcher who is fully integrated into the scientific community online and uses online databases and resources and gives as much as he/she takes, will have an advantage over an isolated researcher who uses the computer only offline and who, in comparison, has a competitive advantage over a person who uses mechanical devices instead of computers, who in turn does better than a person who only uses a pencil and paper, who beats out the guy who only sits (in a comfy armchair, somewhere in the Alps) and thinks.
Every introduction of new technologies upsets the power structure as formerly Top Dogs in the field may not be the quickest to adopt new technologies so they bite the dust when their formerly lesser colleagues do start using the new-fangled stuff. Again, important to note here, “generation” is a worldview, not age. It is not necessarily the young ones who jump into new technologies and old fogies do not: both the people who are quick to adopt new ways and the curmugeons who don’t can be found in all age groups.
Let’s now try to think of some traditional power relationships and the way the Web can change them. I would really like if people would go back to my older post on The Shock Value of Science Blogs for my thought on this, especially regarding the role of language in disrupting the power hierarchies (something also covered in our Rhetorics In Science session).
People on the top of the hierarchy are often those who control a precious resource. What are the precious resources in science? Funding. Jobs. Information. Publicity.
Funding and Jobs
Most of the funding in most countries comes from the government. But what if some of that funding is distributed equally? That upsets the power structure to some extent. Sure, one has to use the funds well in order to get additional (and bigger) funds, but still, this puts more people on a more even footing, giving them an initial trigger which they can use wisely or not. They will succeed due to the quality of their own work, not external factors as much.
Then, the Web also enables many more lay people to become citizen scientists. They do not even ask for funding, yet a lot of cool research gets done. With no control of the purse by government, industry, military or anyone else except for people who want to do it.
Like in Vernon Vinge’s Rainbows End, there are now ways for funders and researchers to directly find each other through services ranging from Mechanical Turk to Innocentive. The money changes hands on per-need basis, leaving the traditional purse-holders outside the loop.
As more and more journals and databases go Open Access, it is not just the privileged insiders who can access the information. Everyone everywhere can get the information and subsequently do something with it: use it in own research, or in application of research to real-world problems (e.g., practicing medicine), or disseminating it further, e.g., in an educational setting.
In a traditional system, getting publicity was expensive. It took a well-funded operation to be able to buy the presses, paper, ink, delivery trucks etc. Today, everyone with access to electricity, a computer (or even a mobile device like a cell phone) and online access (all three together are relatively cheap) can publish, with a single click. Instead of pre-publication filtering (editors) we now have post-publication filtering (some done by machines, some by humans). The High Priests who decided what could be published in the first place are now reduced to checking the spelling and grammar. It is the community as a whole that decides what is worth reading and promoting, and what is not.
In a world in which sources can go directly to the audience, including scientists talking directly to their audience, the role of middle-man is much weakened. Journal editors, magazine editors, newspaper editors, even book editors (and we had a separate session on each one of these topics), while still having power to prevent you from publishing in elite places, cannot any more prevent you from publishing at all. No book deal? Publish with No magazine deal? Write a blog. No acceptance into a journal? Do Open Notebook Science to begin with, to build a reputatiton, then try again. If your stuff is crap, people will quickly tell you and will tell others your stuff is crap, and will vote with their feet by depriving you of links, traffic, audience and respect.
You can now go directly to your audience. You can, by consistently writing high quality stuff, turn your own website or blog into an “elite place”. And, as people are highly unlikely to pay for any content online any more, everything that is behind a pay wall will quickly drop into irrelevance.
Thus, one can now gain respect, reputation and authority through one’s writing online: in OA journals, on a blog, in comment threads, or by commenting on scientific papers. As I mentioned in The Shock Value of Science Blogs post, this tends to break the Old Boys’ Clubs, allowing women, minorities and people outside of Western elite universities, to become equal players.
Language is important. Every time an Old Boy tries to put you down and tell you to be quiet by asking you to “be polite”, you can blast back with a big juicy F-word. His aggressive response to this will just expose him for who he is and will detract from his reputation – in other words, every time an Old Boy makes a hissy fit about your “lack of politeness” (aka preserving the status quo in which he is the Top Dog), he digs himself deeper and becomes a laughingstock. Just like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert do to politicians with dinosaur ideas and curmudgeon journalists who use the He Said She Said mode of reporting. It is scary to do, but it is a win-win for you long-term. Forcing the old fogies to show their true colors will speed up their decline into irrelevance.
Another aspect of the Power on the Web is that a large enough group of people writing online can have an effect that were impossible in earlier eras. For instance, it is possible to bait a person to ruin his reputation on Google. It is also possible to affect legislation (yes, bloggers and readers, by calling their offices 24/7, persuaded the Senators to vote Yes). This is a power we are not always aware of when we write something online, and we need to be more cognizant of it and use it wisely (something we discussed in the session about Science Blogging Networks: how being on such a platform increases one’s power to do good or bad).
The session on the state of science in developing and transition countries brought out the reality that in some countries the scientific system is so small, so sclerotic, so set in their ways and so dominated by the Old Boys, that it is practically impossible to change it from within. In that case one can attempt to build a separate, parallel scientific community which will, over time and through use of modern tools, displace the old system. If the Old Boys in their example of Serbia are all at the University of Belgrade, then people working in private institutes, smaller universities, or even brand new private universities (hopefully with some consistent long-term help from the outside), can build a new scientific community and leave the old one in the dust.
Teachers used to be founts of knowledge. This was their source of power. But today, the kids have all the information at their fingertips. This will completely change the job description of a teacher. Instead of a source of information, the teacher will be a guide to the use of information: evaluation of the quality of information. Thus, instead of a top-down approach, the teachers and students will become co-travellers through the growing sea of information, learning from one another how to navigate it. This is definitely a big change in power relationship between teachers and their charges. We had three sessions on science education that made this point in one way or another.
And this is a key insight, really. Not just in education, but also in research and publishing, the Web is turning a competitive world into a collaborative world. Our contributions to the community (how much we give) will be more important for our reputation (and thus job and career) than products of our individual, secretive lab research.
Yet, how do we ensure that the change in the power-structure becomes more democratic and now just a replacement of one hierarchy with another?
Coverage of other sessions under the fold:

Continue reading

Defining the Journalism vs. Blogging Debate, with a Science Reporting angle

You know I have been following the “death of newspapers” debate, as well as “bloggers vs. journalists” debate, and “do we need science reporters” debate for a long time now. What I have found – and it is frustrating to watch – is that different people use different definitions for the same set of words and phrases. “News”, “reporting”, “media”, “press”, “journalism”, “Web”, “Internet”, “blog”, “citizen journalist”, “newspapers”, “communication”, etc. are defined differently by different people. Usually they do not explicitly define the terms, but it is possible to grasp their definition from context. Sometimes, people use one definition in their initial article, but once the debate heats up, they switch the definitions. Some define terms too broadly, others too narrowly, depending on their own background, biases or agendas. Some make the error of using several of those terms interchangeably, where a clear distinction exists. Thus, in many of the debates, it is a conversation of the deaf – the opponents do not understand that they actually agree (or allies don’t see that they actually disagree) because they do not use the terms the same way.
This post is my attempt to clear up a lot of that mess, at least for myself, by coming up with my own definitions: the way I think of these terms. Please use the comments thread to point out where I am wrong, or offer better definitions.
This post is also a response to a whole slew of online discussions in the wake of this Clay Shirky post – Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, including some responses by Dave Winer.
And finally, this post is also a response to the big discussion we recently had in the aftermath of the Nature article about science journalism and science blogging.
What I will try to do is define some terms and try to find (and link to if possible – though checking through the links on this post, as well checking what I “Like” on FriendFeed, following Jay Rosen on Twitter, or digging through my Media category) examples of people using the term in the same way as well as in alternative ways. I will also try to explain my thinking; provide a historical context (and again, correct me when I am wrong as I am not a media historian); explain what is happening today and what a possible future may be (feel free to disagree); and finally see how science reporting is similar or different from the rest of reporting. Let’s start….
Breaking News
journalist.gifSomething (Event A) happens at Time X. Nobody could have expected or predicted that A would happen at all, or at least that it would happen at the particular time X. It is a new data point. Not ‘information’ yet, just data. It may be interesting or important enough to notify the world that A happened.
The key to breaking news is speed. It needs to be relayed as close to Real Time as possible.
“A plane just landed on Hudson”
“A plane landed on Hudson, took pic with cellphone, see it here:”
“A plane landed on Hudson, on ferry going to save people”
“A plane landed on Hudson, I am on it, everyone alive”
“I am a pilot. I just landed a plane on Hudson. Bird strike – both engines”
What do the above statements do? They answer just one of the canonical journalistic questions: What? Inevitably, such breaking news reports will contain answers to some other questions, e.g., Where? (Hudson), When? (look at time-stamps of the reports), perhaps Who? (pilot and passengers). It is too early to add answers to the questions How and Why. The premium is on speed, accuracy and fact-checking will have to come later.
Notice something? Each of the statements above is shorter than 140 characters. Perfectly possible to post on Twitter (or a twitter-like platform). From a mobile device. By eye-witnesses, not professional journalists (Note: some of them are paraphrases of actual twitter messages, others are hypotheticals I invented).
About 12 minutes later, the online media sources (AP, Reuters, CNN, etc.) will break the news as well. What info are they going with? What they read on Twitter, or perhaps they got some phone calls. It will take them some time to dispatch professional reporters to the scene.
Once the crews are on the scene, they will have text, audio and video done pretty quickly, so the breaking news can show up on radio and TV. Newspapers? You will read those stale news the next morning. Probably incomplete because it will miss all the new incoming information that happens between the dispatch is filed in the evening and the time you get to read your paper with your morning coffee.
How about accuracy? As the premium is on speed, accuracy check has to come later. How many times have you noticed breaking news on CNN saying there are 6 dead, then 30 minutes later changing that to 9 dead, then another hour later changing that to 15 dead, etc. The mainstream media also have to make corrections if their initial reports were inaccurate. There is nothing new about that.
Is there a potential for abuse, e.g., hoaxes? Yes. The mainstream media has been taken in by hoaxes before, and will be again, and the subsequent accuracy check reveals this and the media retracts and apologizes. Nothing new there, either.
What about the questions of How and Why? That comes later and is not a part of “Breaking News”, it is a part of “News Analysis”. Who will provide those answers? Professional journalists will interview the officials (e.g., from the airline), read the official reports, interview participants (e.g., the pilot, passengers), and the eye-witnesses and will try to put together a more-or-less complete story about the Event A. Some will do this better than others. Some events are easier to report on than others due to, for instance, political sensitivity.
Can Citizen Journalists do the same? Yes and No. The professional reporters will be able to enter a press briefing and interview the officials. This is more difficult for bloggers to do, but that is changing fast – bloggers are getting press passes more and more these days. On the other hand, an eye-witness will be more relaxed and open to a neighbor with a cell phone than with a reporter shoving his/her microphone in your face and shouting questions. When approached by the press, most people recoil, get all their red flags up, get very cautious what they are saying, and generally do not blurt out everything they really know or think. It is much harder for pros to get the information out of regular citizens, even if it is, for now, easier for them to get information out of officials.
Remember when the bridge fell down in Minnesota about a year ago? Who did the best reporting? The guy who lives in the first house next to the bridge. He was there at the moment of the event. He ran down and took pictures. He talked to the passers-by and neighbors. Many knew him and trusted him. He got involved in the rescue and interviewed the people he rescued. And he posted all of that on his blog in as close to Real Time as was humanely possible.
How did the local media do in comparison? Quite poorly. It took them time to get there, it took them time to gather the facts, they could not get honest, personal accounts from eye-witnesses and victims who viewed them with suspicion. It took them even more time to find more information and put together their stories. And then they abandoned the story, while the rescue was still going on.
So, is that blogger a journalist? Yes and No. He was, for a time, an Accidental Journalist. He just happened to be there at the right time and right place and he did his civic duty to find information and report it. He never asked for money for doing it (although, if I remember correctly, readers asked him to put up a PayPal button so they could financially reward him for his service) – he felt it was his obligation as he could do a more thorough job than the pros at this particular story. Did it make him want to become a journalist? I don’t know, but I guess not [oops – I guess he does!]. I think he went back afterwards to his own life, blogging whatever he wanted to blog about, probably satisfied that he did his citizen’s job well and was widely recognized for doing so.
The same goes for many other news events. For instance, a guy tweeted from the Boulder airplane accident (12 minutes before any other news source had anything out) a couple of months ago.
How about news in other countries? How about, for instance, the Mumbai terrorist attack? Lots of eye-witnesses posted on Twitter frantically for a couple of weeks. They were all Accidental Journalists. Do you “trust” each and every individual and each and every tweet? No, but when you look at the entire collection, yes, a pattern emerges, and you can trust them as a group, quite obviously. So, why many journos and readers did not trust them? And waited patiently for US/UK media to send their pros to the scene?
It is a mix of ethnocentrism, racism and anti-democratic sentiments that many still, unfortunately, harbor. There is no reason to trust NYT and WaPo reporters better than the Indian twitterers. But, hey, they are not trained in the NYT newsroom, and they are Indian – ergo, not to be trusted. Excuse: they are biased.
Bias? What bias – all they did was input the data: what, where, when. They did not write 1000-word essays, just information. Also, unlike the Western journalists that later arrived on the scene, the locals were much more familiar with the context: the map of the city, the history, the players, the politics of it all, which made them much more efficient news gatherers as they knew where to go, who to talk to, what to ask and what to do. They were far better informed than the foreign reporters, and thus I trusted them much more than the foreign reporters. In subsequent News Analysis, both the locals and foreign experts could write longer pieces and that is where, perhaps, bias of both sources could show up. But not at the Breaking News stage yet.
So, my definition of Breaking News:
Informing the world about novel, unpredicted data about the world in as close to Real Time as possible.
Professional journalists are almost never going to personally witness the events as they happen (they can’t be everywhere at all times – not enough of them for this to be so). Eye-witnesses are those who will break the news (and pros can work with those data later, for more in-depth coverage). Are we there yet? No, but getting close.
Imagine the Hudson airplane event again, but let’s say it happens five or ten years from now in the future. Let’s say there are 100 people on board. All 100, in that future, will have cell-phones with online access and will be familiar, comfortable and fluent in the use of microblogging services, just like most people today are fluent with using a phone. The plane crashes. 10 are too hurt to do anything. 20 are too scared to think straight. 55 pull out their cellphones and tweet “holy cow – I was just in a plane accident”. Not too informative, but the sheer numbers help spread the news virally faster. The remaining 15 have enough presence of mind and enough understanding of what they are supposed to do, they will tweet much more information. “Crashed on Hudson, nobody dead, 10 hurt”, “Heard explosion, both engines on fire before the crash”, “Saw flock of ducks around the wings just before the accident”, etc. When you take the total output of all of them – that is Breaking News. Sufficient information to put pieces together in real time. Accidental Journalists, who will afterwards go back to their normal lives. Unpaid.
How about science? What would be the equivalent for science journalism?
A famous scientist dies (that is kind-a meta-science, not science itself). An ‘Eureka’ moment from someone’s lab or from the field. Creationists just introduced another stealth legislation to wedge religion into science classes. The last individual of a species dies in a zoo. An observatory detects an asteroid hurling towards Earth. Mars Rover detects water. A revolutionary discovery announced at a hastily-arranged press conference. That’s about it. Again, it is just a data-point, in Real Time, something that every citizen involved or eye-witnessing can competently report: What, Where, When.
Reporting News
journalist2.gifWhat is the difference between Breaking News and Reporting News? I think an important difference is in predictability. If we know that something newsworthy will happen at a particular time and place, we can have whatever infrastructure and equipment is needed in place to capture and broadcast that information in real time. We can send camera crews and reporters to a football game or horse races, or to a meeting of the City Council, or to Congress when it is in session, or to New Orleans as Katrina is approaching, or to an event which started as ‘breaking news’ but is now ‘ongoing news’ (think of the Tsunami in Indonesia a couple of years ago). We can even automate some of that stuff, e.g,. weather, stock market ticker-tape, Racing Form, just off the top of my head. Do we need the Turing test? Who cares, as long as the data are made readily available.
What we’ll get from there is a video or audio of the event. And a quick summary report. Traditional media of all kinds: newspapers, radio, TV have an advantage here, at this point in history, over any kind of non-traditional journalists due to infrastructure – they have the equipment, they have the channels, they have enormous audiences.
Where Internet kills the traditional media is in the lack of limits. Radio or TV will have a 2-minute summary, a newspaper will have a predetermined amount of space for it. This will tell you briefly What, Who, Where, When, How and perhaps even a little bit of Why, but cannot, by definition tell the whole story. If you are not interested, this is enough for you. If you are interested, or if you are suspicious of the source, you are left hanging and unsatisfied. But online, that short summary will provide a link to something that no other medium can afford to have: the entire transcript of the session, the entire video of the whole football game, full uncut interviews instead of brief quotes, further links to additional relevant information.
While traditional media are good and fast at quickly relaying the summaries of the news, the Web can provide a full record of the event far beyond the summary and keep it there, as a record, forever, when all the tapes and paper are already rotten and gone. Smart traditional media are already starting to do exactly that – the radio or TV program or the newspaper are just the vehicles that deliver the audience to the website where the full information can be found.
A good example of this is the Election here in the USA. On November 4th, you can watch the pundits blabber on CNN, but what CNN provided that was really useful was their website where every result of every race in every state, county and precinct was reported as soon as the data became available. There were several such websites on that day, and they were much more useful than any broadcast. Newspapers? Well, a lot of people bought the papers next morning because they wanted to have a cover with a big Obama picture on it as a souvenir. Nobody actually learned the result from the papers.
Again, as bloggers (those who are interested and ambitious about it) are more and more treated as journalists, given press passes and given journalistic privileges, some of them will be able to report news just as well as the traditional media, and since they do not have the space and time limits of radio, TV and papers, they can make both their summaries and their complete reports as short or as long as they want, with as much supporting documentation as they can find, and the audience will pick and choose what to read according to their own levels of interest.
Finally, as many newspapers go belly up, there will be a vaccuum on local reporting. How will that vaccuum get filled, who will report from the City Council meetings? Well, every community will solve that problem differently: some will find a way to pay a blogger or two to do it. Others will require all sessions to be taped and full videos, full transcripts and full texts of documents be placed online immediately after the session is over.
So, my definition of Reporting News:
Informing the world about novel, yet predictable data about the world in as close to Real Time as possible, using either personal or automated reporting systems.
How about science?
These days a predictable event is a publication of a paper. It may come with a press release. It can be covered as news. Science reporters know exactly which journal publishes on which day of the week, subscribe to e-mail announcements, get PDFs in advance, and write short reports that are released at the time embargo is lifted. Fine. Very traditional. It is similar with conferences, where talks can be reported on. Announcing the Nobel Prize winners is another example.
But the new trends in science, as well as new online technologies, allow for something different: data become available for broadcast as soon as they are produced. Folks in the Open Notebook Science movement are posting all of their data online as soon as the data are generated. The information is not just What, but also How (materials and methods), the time-stamps tells us When, the owner of the site is the Who, and the lab where the data originated is the Where. No need to do any Why yet (apart from the initial motivation to do the experiment to begin with – the stated hypothesis).
Moreover, those same folks are now working on ways to automate the process. Instead of typing the new data into the wiki in the evening, they are coaxing their laboratory equipment to automatically post the data on the Web. Likewise, the Mars Rover was tweeting from Mars. That is scientists broadcasting data to the world.
But “citizen scientists” do the same. Christmas bird watch? Species location and identification? Plant phenology data? The Galaxy Zoo project? Live-blogging data from the field research? All the data go online in real time. The NC fishermen will tweet their catch in real time. Just ‘data’. Not ‘information’ yet. Certainly not analysis yet. That’s News Reporting. Straight from the horse’s mouth.
News Analysis
journalist3.jpgNow we are getting to a place where being in the right place at the right time is not enough. Knowledge, expertise, and ability to find and parse through sources, becomes important. News are data. News analysis is information – ‘data made meaningful’. Breaking News and Reporting News just provide the raw data – News Analysis connects the dots, places the new data-set into the context of other related data-sets, and provides historical, philosophical, theoretical, methodological, economic, political, sociological, etc, contexts. It also tries to answer the hardest of the canonical questions of journalism: Why?
This is also a place where access to additional sources of information is important. The sources of information are: a) documents, and b) people.
Documents, which formerly had to be dug up in libraries or various repositories, necessitating travel (which costs) or permission (which journalists could get using their employers’ brand names), are now for the most part freely available online. Full transcripts of interviews, full videos of events, full texts of pieces of legislation – all of this is now easily found on the Web and will be even more so in the near future. Thus, anyone who has the time and passion and expertise to dig out all the information and put it all together, can do so. Who do you trust on economics more: an economist or a journalist? Who has the proper training, knowledge, experience and expertise and is less likely to fall for the sweet-talking, nonsense-speaking PR shills for the special interests?
People are tougher. Pro journalists nurture special relationships with the people in power. They have access to them that you and I don’t (yet). Thus, people in power are more likely to give interviews to pros than to amateurs. There are pros and cons to this, of course. The intimate relationship biases the reporter – just look at The Village in D.C., totally corrupted by the PR that politicos push on them at all those cocktail parties, and thus oblivious to any other views, including the views of most regular people. And as the transparency is the new motto in D.C. and more and more people in power are themselves present online, it is gradually becoming easier for all of us to gain access even to the most reclusive and the most powerful people. Just give it a few more years – the non-responsive will not get re-elected so easily any more (it’s already happening at the local level – if you want to get elected here in Orange County, you better show up at Orange Politics blog, answer questions, and moreover answer the question in a satisfactory way).
On the other hand, as I noted above, an amateur journalist will get a much more honest response from a regular person who is suspicious of the corporate media.
But the greatest advantage of the Web, no matter if the article is written by a professional journalist or an amateur with expertise in the topic as opposed as in journalism, is space. Radio will give you at most an hour for such a big story, if you are very lucky to be picked by editors to say it. Television is even more competitive and hour-long stories are very rare. If you look at New York Times (or any other big daily paper), such an in-depth story of the requiered length happens mainly once a week in the Sunday Magazine – rarely outside of it.
So, the News Analysis stories get cut in length and parade as news reporting. Instead of complete interviews, you get brief quotes. Now, think about it for a minute. You talk to a reporter for an hour. It is because what you have to say requires an hour to explain. You see yourself quoted the next day in the newspapers. Even if the quote is verbatim, it is nonetheless a misquote, or a ‘quote out of context’ because it lacks all of the other stuff you said before and after that sentence – all the context and background and caveats and examples are gone. Even if your quote is verbatim, it may lead the reader to assume that you meant opposite of what you really meant. Or at least, something tangential and certainly not the main point you really wanted to hammer home (for instance, even if those quotes are verbatim and I really said that, this was not what my Main Take Home Message for this article was, not even close).
Online, there are no limits to length. Your story will be as short or as long as it needs to be. When you quote someone, you, right there and then, link to the complete transcript of the interview so the people can go and find the context for themselves and check if you quoted them correctly. You link to all the relevant documents so people can check if you cited them correctly. The ethic of the hyperlink that you use in your online article will always trump the articles by the best and most ethical professional journalists just because of space limitations – their analysis has to be incomplete and they cannot know what pieces of information can be omitted.
Doing News Analysis takes time and effort. Not everyone has the time required and not everyone has the motivation to do this. But if you look around the blogosphere, it becomes obvious that many people find time and have the motivation to do this on a regular basis. If paid, even more of them would do it even more regularly (I know I would). Plus, unlike the journalists, they have the required expertise in the topic, which makes them more reliable and trustworthy than the journalists (or at least most journalists – some got good by covering the topic for decades, an unusual and unofficial way to get an informal ‘social equivalent’ of a PhD on the topic).
As traditional media goes bankrupt and journalists are laid off, some will start doing this online as freelancers. Some bloggers will continue doing this. The line between journalism and blogging will become even more fuzzy. And some traditional media will figure out how to do journalism online and allow their paid journalists to adopt the online form and use the unlimited space, time and hyperlinking that makes online journalism better than the one done on paper.
So, my definition of News Analysis:
Turning a data-set into Information by connecting it to other related data-sets and providing meaningful context and explanation.
How about science?
The ur-example of this is the scientific paper itself: Who, Where and When (authors, affiliations, publication date), Why (Introduction), How (Materials and Methods), What (title, abstract, Results, statistics, graphs, complete data-sets and supplementary data), Context and Analysis (Discussion) and relationship to related data-sets (List of References).
Of course, the data and the context and the analysis are presented by the authors of the data-set themselves, which raises concerns about objectivity. Which is why we insist on having the manuscript pass peer-review and editorial decision to publish in a reputable scientific journal. But as more people move to real-time Open Notebook Science, as talks and posters presented at (formerly assumed to be closed to a small circle) conferences become liveblogged, and as the process of publication become both more dynamic and more collaborative, the peer-review itself will have to become more dynamic and collaborative. Instead of 2-3 people doing it at one point before the publication, now many people will keep doing it throughout the process of publication and afterwards, leaving their commentary/review attached to the paper itself forever. Additional review will happen outside of the paper itself, in an outer circle of the ecosystem: in the media, almost all of it in the online media, aka blogs, and trackbacked to the paper itself for easy discovery.
At this level of communication, speaking good English is nice, but real expertise in that area of science is far more important. Thus, very rarely will this kind of analysis be done by people who are primarily journalists (unless they, over the decades of reporting on that one area of science, have become as expert as working scientists are on that topic – a very rare occasion). This will be done almost entirely by scientists (in the broader sense of the term – not just currently active researchers, but all who are trained in science irrespective of their current job description).
Science bloggers may not cover every new paper, or even every new hot paper, and may not care about timeliness of writing in time for the embargo-lift (I know how hard it is to get them to do it immediately!), but when they write about a study, they will write kick-ass stuff that almost all journalists can only dream of doing. And more importantly, they will rarely focus only on that one paper – they are much more likely to provide a deeper context for it as they already know the relevant literature: they don’t need to dig for it for the first time today. And if they get a fact wrong, the commenters, themselves mainly scientists, will be quick to point that out in the comments.
So, today we have a situation in which authors write papers which get published months or years after the data have been gathered. Their institutions write press releases. Science reporters, those who still have jobs in this economy, are so pressed for time covering so many stories simultaneously, they just regurgitate the press releases. Then bloggers jump on them for sensationalism and for the lack of accuracy, and for missing out the context.
Tomorrow, with jobs in science being so scarce, many people with science degrees, including many with PhDs will want to change their career paths. Instead of doing research, or teaching high-school, they may want to do science journalism. But there are no jobs in traditional media for this – science journalists are getting fired left and right! Well, they can get hired by universities and write press releases, which will thus become better than what we are used to seeing now. Or they can freelance. Or start science blogs.
It’s a new world – it used to be you apply to jobs and once you are hired you start to work. Today, you start working for free and hope that it is good. You accumulate a portfolio that you can show when you apply for jobs. You develop a good reputation that brings you job offers out of the blue. It is nerve-wrecking, but if you are good, something good will happen to you as people will not allow good stuff to remain unrewarded for too long.
With Open Access (and importantly, Historical Open Access), with Open Notebook Science, with scientists writing press releases, with scientists writing blogs, and with all those getting connected by hyperlinks, the audience will get everything: science reporting from authors directly, both in formal (journal papers) and informal (blogs) settings AND via intermediaries who are also trained in science. That kind of information combo can be trusted. A quick hyping report in a newspaper, radio or TV cannot.
Investigative Reporting
DANGERexpectations.jpgThis is what the curmudgeons like to say – bloggers can’t do investigative reporting. Really? But what is it? Going to a press conference and asking Obama a gotcha question is not reporting – it is manufacturing news. You are not trying to find out what Obama is planning or doing or saying, but what he says in response to your question. That’s news? No, without your question, he would not have said anything – you made the news by asking, and reporting his answer is not reporting the news, and certainly not investigative reporting. You inserted yourself into the world and caused news (“what he said”) to happen.
Investigative reporting is uncovering data and information that does not want to be uncovered. Hmm, sounds like a definition, so here it is italicized:
Investigative reporting is uncovering data and information that does not want to be uncovered.
It is hidden, often because someone is purposefully hiding it, i.e., suppresing it and does not want the world to know. That’s tough to do. Go out and ask someone where one can buy a physical newspaper in your town. Then go and buy one. Look at every page. How many pieces of investigative reporting did you find – information that someone tried to suppress but the brave reporter uncovered? If you find one on any given day, your local newspaper is really, really good!
Yes, it happens. Pulitzers are given for a reason to worthy investigative reporters.
But how about blogs? Firedoglake crew did the investigative reporting on the entire Valerie Plame outing and Skooter Libby trial. They dug up documents. They interviewed people. They sat in court every second of the proceedings. They posted bried summaries for people who had just a passing, superficial interest in the story. They posted detailed analyses. They posted lengthy interviews. They posted entire documents. They posted legal analysis (as some of them are lawyers). The entire traditional media on the planet, when put together, did not cover the case as much and as well as that one little blog. And they would have covered even less if they were not pushed and shamed by Firedoglake to do so.
Do I need to remind you of Talking Points Memo? Mudflats digging up the backstory on Sarah Palin? The Durham bloggers and the Lacrosse case? And many, many more. Police beat is tough to do for non-professionals, yet bloggers have been known to uncover and bring to life issues like corruption in their police departments, or cases of anwarranted use of force and abuse by officers.
How about science?
Whose investigative reporting led to resignation of Deutch, the Bush’s NASA censor? Nick Anthis, a (then) small blogger (who also later reported on the Animal Rights demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in Oxford in great detail as well).
Who blew up the case of plagiarism in dinosaur palaenthology, the so-calles Aetogate? A bunch of bloggers.
Who blew up, skewered and castrated the PRISM, the astroturf organization designed to lobby the Senate against the NIH Open Access bill? A bunch of bloggers. The bill passed.
Remember the Tripoli 6?
Who pounced on George Will and WaPo when he trotted out the long-debunked lie about global warming? And forced them to squirm, and respond, and publish two counter-editorials? A bunch of bloggers.
Who dug up all the information, including the most incriminating key evidence against Creationists that was used at the Dover trial? A bunch of bloggers.
And so on, and so on, this was just scratching the surface with the most famous stories.
When a person is slighted, or detects some unfairness of foul play, that person is highly motivated to dig deeper and uncover the truth. In earlier times, this required finding and persuading a reporter to do it for you. Today, you can do it yourself and, by recruiting hundreds of other bloggers to your cause, raise enough of a stink that the corporate media cannot ignore the story any more and is forced to report it. Even if that means they have to report on something outside of their ‘sphere‘ of “what is considered normal”, and thus helping, against their best instincts, to move the Overton Window in the direction of reality.
Opinion, Entertainment, Storytelling, etc.
The four aspects of journalism above – Breaking News, Reporting News, News Analysis and Investigative Reporting – are often considered to be ‘journalism proper’. As we saw above, the Web is the best medium for all four due to speed, hyperlinks and limitless space. All four can be and have been done by non-professionals. For some, such non-professionals are already demonstrating they are better. For others, the traditional media still has the upper hand to some extent, though this is changing.
Nobody says that everybody can do it or wants to do it or will do it, but it shows that professional journalistic training is not a necessary pre-requisite for doing it right. It only says something about the medium, not the people or training. Amateurs, by and large, do not have access to the newspapers, radio and television. But both professionals and amateurs have access to the Web, and both can potentially do all four types of journalism online and do it correctly. Amateurs and professionals are on equal footing here and their work and work alone will determine who will gather a following by building trust with the audience, and who will have to find a different day job.
But the above four are not the only parts of journalism, if one thinks of it a little broader. In many minds, journalism is “everything that shows up in newspapers, on the radio, on TV, and online”. Not just news. Also ads, obituaries, sports, nice pictures, drawings and cartoons and comic strips, stories, poems, opinion-pieces, crossword puzzles, quiz shows, commercials, travelogues, diaries, funny videos and so on, and so on….
With paper, radio and TV, editors decide what goes in. With the Internet, everything gets published and the audience fliters the content, buries the bad and promotes the good, so, at least in theory, the best stuff, after a while, rises to the top and becomes very, very “famous”. The technology-based and people-based filters that do this are still imperfect but are in the process of constant tweaking and improvement. Google search is the best known of the technological filters. There are others. For people-based filters, check out Blog Carnivals. For science, there are Google Scholar, CiteULike and Mendeley. We are all Editor now.
And, as Digby and Glenn Greenwald and Amanda Marcotte and Melissa and Hilzoy write better op-eds – in every sense of the term: better use of English, better thinking, more accurate facts – than David Brooks or Maureen Dowd or George Will, soon there will be no reason to pay Brooks or Dowd or Will to produce stuff that most people don’t read and others read for laughs. It is a big cost for the NYT, with nothing to show for it but embarrassment.
The same goes for other stuff: stories, comic strips, art….
It already killed the music industry, it is now killing the newspaper as well.
Journalism is EVERYTHING that appears in the media.
And in this sense, we are all journalists. Even if we never break news or do investigative reporting, if we write poetry on our blogs, we are journalists. And the world is our editor.
How about science?
Thus, in this sense, science bloggers are all science journalists as well. We disseminate cool educational videos, announcements of interesting lectures and meetings, we write opinion pieces, we write educational pieces (e.g., the Basics), we dispel the myths of anti-social dorky stereotypes of scientists by writing personal stories, we connect science to art, literature, politics and culture, and we do something uniquely useful by discussing the trials and tribulations of career paths in science. And we are fun. So people keep coming back for more. Thank you 😉
Newspaper is a bunch of loose pieces of paper with stuff printed on them. It is one of many ways to deliver various kinds of content, including news. It is not the one and only, or even the best ‘defender of Democracy.
Newspapers does not equal news.
Breaking news, reporting news, news analysis, investigative reporting, opinion, storytelling, entertainment, art, sports results, scientific data, advertising – none of that inherently HAS to be printed on paper. All of that can be done and is done daily on the radio, on TV and online.
Paper, ink, printing presses, trucks….all of that is extremely expensive. And that technology is far too slow for the 21st century. And the limited real-estate on the paper forces a system in which content to be printed has to be chosen in advance – by editors – and chopped down to size – by editors – before it sees the light of day, several hours after it ceased to be news.
The newspaper has a very limited scope to deliver content in comparison to technologies that arrived later. Radio and TV are likewise constrained by time. Internet has no space or time constraints, thus there is no need for any editors to make choices as to what goes and what doesn’t, and there is no need for longer pieces to get cut shorter by editors either (heck, I’d love to have an editor to fix my typos, bad grammar, wrong punctuation, and suggest improvements in style, as long as my content remains unbutchered and I have a final say what goes online in the end).
In traditional media, all the filtering is done by editors before the transmission. In online media, all the filtering is done by a collective editorial choice of the readership, after the transmission. In online media, there are no length limits, thus a journalist is at freedom to include all the relevant information. Additional information is linked to. Feedback is instant, in the comments. The best pieces rise to the top, eventually.
Before I go on, I need to be fair. Just like there are many different kinds of blogs, so there are many different kinds of newpapers. If you are in Manhattan right now, go outside and look at the newspaper stand down the street. What do you see? Just New York Times? No, there will be that other rightwingnutospheric rag, the New York Post, there as well. There will be also many other newspapers, with narrower niches, covering art, or underground music scene, or Real Estate listings. And then there are magazines – weekly or monthly or quarterly.
Remember that NYTimes also once published their first ever copy, at the time when nobody suspected they would become the “newspaper of record”. Many New York City newspapers have come and gone over the decades, and who could have guessed that out of all of them it would be the New York Times to survive this long?! And it’s not even that good!
If you are not in Manhattan, go out and buy USA Today and your local metro. Take a good look at both. Which one do you like better? Which one of the two do you think will survive? Which one of the two you wish will survive? I bet that, almost everywhere in the USA you may be (and I guess there are equivalent examples in other countries), the answer to all those questions is: USA Today. Why?
USA Today will have LOTS of news – something for everyone every day. It has excellent reporters and journalists and op-ed writers. There is, in each day’s issue, quality content that you cannot find anywhere else. And furthermore, if the brevity of an article frustrates you, the paper tells you to go to their website. There, you will not just find the copy+paste of the printed article. You will also find more information, and often links to additional information. They are not perfect, but they are slowly getting there.
In contrast, your local metro will consist mostly of advertising, AP stories, syndicated columnists and comic strips, horoscope, a local mouthbreathing op-ed writer spouting rushlimbaughisms and, if you are lucky, a reprint of a two-days-old Krugman editorial. How many locally produced news? Very little. Reports from the meetings of the City Council or School Board? Nope. Investigative reporting? Zero. I hope you have a birdcage that needs lining or own a fish store that needs cheap wrapping paper.
But what if you live in a place like Carrboro, NC? You will go out and pick, of course, Carrboro Citizen. Two years old. Free to pick up anywhere. Increasing their print volume every week. Their problem? So many people outside Carrboro – in Chapel Hill, greater Orange County and northern Chatham County want not just to read it but also for the Citizen to cover their areas. Why are they so successful?
First: it is web-to-print. Pieces written by locals, or by UNC students, are posted online, get comments, and then are edited for printing.
Second: it is hyperlocal, containing advertising for local businesses and covering stories of local interest, including those pesky City Council and School Board meetings – stuff that cannot be found anywhere else in print or on the Web.
Third: it does not pretend to be “objective” or “fair and balanced” – it cares about truth and reality, not the he-said-she-said Broderian journalism. They write it as they see it, and they see it as they uncover the facts. So, if reality has a liberal bias, so be it. After all, Carrboro was one of the few places in which Kucinich won the primaries in 2004, so nobody here complains about liberal bias. A similar paper in a conservative town would probably have a conservative bias, and that is fine (let them live in delusions, I guess). You can disagree, but you cannot complain about dishonesty, or bias or hidden agendas, because nothing is hidden. And that is so refreshing after years of rage-inspiring so-called journalism of the other local papers, e.g., Raleigh News & Observer.
Such newspapers – hyperlocal, community (or even family, club, team, organization) newspapers – will survive. The big, international, good papers like USA Today will survive by becoming “table of contents” for what they offer on their websites. The chain-owned metros will die. And good riddance because they have quit doing quality journalism a long time ago. Not because the reporters were bad, or even because their editors were biased, but because the owners made every wrong move in the book business-wise: cutting away what was unique and locally relevant, while keeping copy+paste syndicated stuff that everyone can find online in a thousand copies. Why would anyone ever pay for that?
How about science?
Both the scientific journals and the popular science magazines are facing a business crisis. The scientific journals are saving themselves by going fully online (and will probably, more and more, completely abandon the print editions) and by going Open Access (as libraries cannot afford their subscription rates any more). Those who are digging in their heels will go extinct. Just like the most heard-headed newspapers.
Popular science magazines are in a different kind of trouble. More and more, people can go directly to the primary sources for information as they become freely available online. More and more, their audience gets captured by science blogs which are both more fun and elicit greater respect, as they are written by scientists.
Those who turn to sensationalism, like The New Scientist, will lose their last customers quickly and will go under. Those that are trying to improve the quality of their magazine, like the American Scientist, hiring the PhDs in science who want to switch to journalism, producing fascinating, scientifically accurate stories that require much more time and effort than your average science blogger is willing to put into a post, getting top class artists to illustrate their stories, providing uniquely good book reviews or news that cannot be found elsewhere, and release all of their articles online soon after the print edition goes out, will persist for a while longer. Those who do science with a twist, like Seed Magazine connects science to culture, art and politics, will also persist.
Science reporting in newspapers? Dead. Because the newspapers are dead. The few mega-big papers that survive
will have good science coverage by a stable of excellent freelance journalists, each covering a different area of science and bringing in decades of expertise on the topic. The hyperlocals, if they have a scientific community locally (as the Triangle does), will have good locally-relevant science coverage. Otherwise, they will have none. Most science beat reporters will, like their colleagues covering other beats, have to find new jobs. It hurts, but it is a fact of life. There is no going back now.
Blogs, bloggers and blogging
As I have said many times before:
Blog is software.
Bloggers are people who use blogging software. Blogging is using the blogging software. Period.
Bloggers are not alien invaders from outer space. Bloggers are humans, citizens, silent majority that never had a voice until now. Bloggers are former and usually current consumers of the media. And re-producers of the media (yup, those guys that drive the traffic to your sites). And commenters on the media (guys who keep you honest and make you better if you are open-minded enough to listen). As well as producers of the media.
When journalistic curmudgeons want to denigrate bloggers, they point to the blogs containing LOLcats and teenage angst. They conveniently forget Talking Point Memo, Huffington Post, Firedoglake,, or for that matter Slate, Salon and Atlantic 😉
It is not what you use, but how you use it. 90% of everything on blogs is crap. 90% of everything in newspapers is also crap. So goes for the radio and TV. If you complain that we should not point out the worst of the newspapers and focus on the best instead, then please reciprocate: point to the best of blogs, not the worst. Then perhaps we can have a discussion.
Same goes for microblogging services like Twitter and FriendFeed, or social networking sites like Facebook. If all you see is boring stuff, you are following the wrong people. If you do not like Livecasting (“what I had for breakfast”) which is actually an important aspect of human communication, then start following people who do Mindcasting instead and you will get more than you bargained for in terms of intellectual nourishment and uncomfortable thought-provocation.
And how do you find quality blogs? Well, how did you find quality newspapers? Someone told you, perhaps your parents when you were a child (or you just saw which newspaper came to your home every morning). Then you checked it out. Then you read it for a while and made up your own mind. You can do the same with blogs. Why do you need instant gratification – do your work and you will find excellent blogs that trounce traditional media in every way. Don’t just sit around and complain how many blogs there are and how all of them must be bad, but you will not waste your time finding out if you are correct about it or not. That’s lazy and dishonest.
Some of the best blogs out there are now becoming true New Media establishments, paying their bloggers to do “real journalism”, including investigative reporting, getting their bloggers press badges for important events (e.g., party conventions in election years). TPM is hiring. Huffington Post just got a nice sum of money to do exactly that – I hope they will ditch their Chopras and Kennedys and other nutcases and do the same for the quality of their science/health reporting which is atrocious.
As newspapers are dying, they leave a vacuum. Most places either have an existing blog, or immediately start a new one, to replace the vanished newspaper. The medium is different, more conducive to quality journalism than any of the previous communication channels, but also requires much fewer people to get the job done. It will be different than the newspaper it replaces. It will try to fulfill the needs of the community that the newspaper did, but also fulfill the needs of the community that the newspaper never could do.
We’ll all be watching those valiant new efforts. Something will come out of them. A single business model? No, of course not – as many business models as there are communities. Some will work better than others, and some will work better in some places than in other places. No need to have an expectation that a single business model will win and be adopted by all. After all, the newspapers never had a single universal business model themselves, so why expect anything else from the New Media?
When a newspaper folds, many people lose their jobs. And it hurts. And in this economy, it is hard for them to find other jobs. Typesetters, printers, packers, truck drivers will have to find new lines of work. Editors, technical editors, copy editors, accountants, lawyers, artists, and yes, reporters, will have to find new jobs. What took thousands of people to produce – a newspaper – now takes a dozen people, and they can do the job better.
There is a lot of pain going around. But it is not the fault of bloggers, or of Blogspot, WordPress and MoveableType. It is these that will do the journalism in the future, and some of the former newspaper journalists will find jobs in the online media if they are open minded and willing to learn how to adopt to the new medium. Quality journalism will survive, in this medium or another, but will require fewer paid professionals to do so. A core professional stuff, plus crowdsourcing, will produce news and entertainment and everything in-between.
But the old journos will suffer in the meantime. And I feel for them. Most of them are good people, and good at what they do. They get flack from readers when some editor slaps a silly headline on top of their work, or when some editor cuts the key paragraph out of the article, or some editor rewrites the article beyond recognition. Many have learned to suffer in silence about such indignities in order to save their jobs. They have learned to play the game. Many of them will feel relieved – oh such a sense of freedom, finally! – when they move online and adapt to its practices. And they will produce great journalism, many of them for the first time in their lives. It is unfortunate that so few of them can get paid to do it. Just an economic reality.
So, the whole “bloggers will replace journalists” trope is silly and wrong. No, journalists will replace journalists. It’s just that there will be fewer of them paid, and more of us unpaid. Some will be ex-newspapermen, others ex-bloggers, but both will be journalists. Instead of on paper, journalism will happen online. Instead of massaging your article to fit into two inches of the paper column, you will make your article’s focus be on information, accuracy and truth. Instead of cringing at the readers’ comments, you will learn how to moderate them and appreciate them and learn from them.
Many sources will speak directly to the audience, instead of via middle-men. From Obama to scientists. But some sources will not speak unless forced to by a journalist. And some sources are not humans, but animals, or machines, or natural phenomena, or old documents, and cannot talk to the audience without a middle-man.
Many of us will be both consumers and producers of media in our spare time. We may become journalists if news fall into our laps – we become Accidental Journalists for a day or a week, and provide information that others cannot but we, due to circumstances, can. That will not eliminate a journalist’s job, but provide a journalist with a source and a story.
Many of us will occasionally commit acts of journalism, or provide information needed for a story, or provide opinion needed for an op-ed, but very few of us will care to do that for a living, every day. We don’t want to take the journalists’ jobs away, we want them to thrive, but it is a reality that there are too many of them, and that many of the aspects of their job descriptions are now better done by machines, or by crowds of people, than by individuals. Let the best of them remain journalists, adapted to the new, better ways of doing things. Let’s hope the others find decent jobs elsewhere so they can feed their families.
A 100 years ago, many horse trainers, saddle-makers and blacksmiths became car repairmen. A much better career decision than just sitting there and complaining how cars will never replace the horses. My father owned a printing press, and worked in the printing business his entire life. I went with him there several times as a kid. I loved the typesetting machines, and the printing presses, and the smells and sounds. I loved printing stuff at home with my letter stamps. I love the feel and smell of a fresh print. Both my brother and I were in some way involved with school newspapers and such when we were young. But that era is now gone.
I also spent most of my life working with horses. I love the feeling of riding a horse, the smell of fresh hay, the sounds of horses munching their oats. But I do not saddle up my horse to go to the grocery store. I don’t even own a horse any more. It is just not a viable method of transportation any more.
But that does not mean that horses are extinct. There are thousands being bred every year for sport and show and leisure. They are pampered and loved much better than when they were just means of transport, when both people who loved them and who hated them had to use them. Horses (or mules or oxen or llamas or camels) are also still a key method of transportation in those places in the world where there is no infrastructure for the cars: roads, gas stations, garages.
Likewise, newspapers will become extinct as a major means of news-delivery. But they will persist in the hands of hobbyists and local communities who love them. And they will persist in places in the world where there is no infrastructure for the Internet: electricity, computers, wifi. Perhaps those who so strongly agitate for saving the newspapers should go there – their services will be useful in such places for a while longer. There, they can be analog bloggers.
Let us get on with the business of building a new journalism, fit for the new century and Millennium. The rest is nostalgia. Counterproductive.
How about science?
Oh, we had many, many discussions about science blogging, and why do we blog, and how we find time to blog, and why scientists and academics should blog, there have been articles and editorials published on this topic and even peer-reviewed articles, not to mention various conferences.
Then, an article came out in Nature a couple of weeks ago after which we all piled up. Read the article itself, the adjoining editorial and the responses by:
Jessica Palmer, Michael Tobis, PZ Myers and commenters, Larry Moran, Janet Raloff, LouScientist , John Timmer, Anthony, Francis Sedgemore, Curtis Brainard, John Wilkins, Derek Lowe, Ed Silverman, WFSJ, Sean Carroll, Kristi Vogel, Philip Davis, David Crotty, Eric Berger, John Hawks, Jennifer Gardy, Bee, Text Technologies, Chris Mooney, Carl Zimmer, Henry Gee, Mr. Gunn, Mark Liberman, Ben Goldacre, Chris Patiland Vivian Siegel, Chris Mooney again, Joseph Romm, Bex Walton, Abel Pharmboy, Mike the Mad Biologist, Phil Plait, Simon Baron-Cohen, Larry Moran again and again and Jessica Palmer again.
One of the major questions that crops up repeatedly in these discussions is the matter of reach. Science blogs, similarly to popular science magazines, are in the “pull” more – attracting readers who are a priori interested in science. But how do we do “push”, i.e., throw science at unsuspected citizens, in hope they will find it interesting or useful?
Sure, having science taught well in schools is the best ‘push’ strategy because it is mandated by the state. When I graduated from high school I had 8 years of physics, 8 years of chemistry and 8 years of biology behind me, instead of one of each as US students get.
But besides that, ‘push’ is very difficult. Back when there were only a couple of TV channels, if there is an hour-long science documentary, everyone watched it because that was on the program. And people liked it. But today, there is none on major TV channels and one has to seek science, nature or medicine on specialized channels. Likewise for radio – there is Ira Flatow every Friday on NPR and that is about it – easy to flip the station or put in a CD instead.
If at any time in the past, newspapers had a lot of (and good) science coverage, that would have been somewhat of a ‘push’ strategy. At that time, people were not inundated with information and were more likely to read the paper cover-to-cover. They could still skip the science section, but on some days a headline might have piqued their curiosity and made them read. Today, newspapers have little to no science, and there is less and less paper anyway.
But, as soon as the newspaper dies in any given market, the people are forced to go online for information. If the local newspaper is replaced by a news website or blog, this is where people will go (and sooner the papers die, sooner their monopoly on information will go away, so online upstarts can move into the void).
Once people are online, they will be there in as great numbers as newspapers ever had. Now, if that local news-site does not hide its science section a click or two away (“pull”), but showcases the science headlines right there on the front page, this will be better push than newspapers could ever do. No need to turn the leaf, or click – the headlines are staring at you.
If a site like Huffington Post, which just got funds to pay reporters, publicly eliminates their pseudoscience, HIV denialist, New Age woo-mongers and hires some real science/nature/medicine reporters instead, it is in a position to do the ‘push strategy’ on science. I bet some of the science bloggers would like to get that gig. And then link to us who are doing the ‘pull’ strategy here on (or Nature Network or Discover).
Update: I have collected the responses to this post here and written, so far, two follow-up posts: New Journalistic Workflow and ‘Journalists vs. Blogs’ is bad framing

Last Extinction on PBS

Check out the show’s web page:

Fifteen thousand years ago North America was like the Serengeti on steroids, with mega-creatures roaming a continent teeming with incredible wildlife. But then, in a blip of geologic time, somewhere between 15 and 35 magnificent large types of animals went extinct. In a television exclusive, NOVA joins forces with prominent scientists to test a startling theory that may finally explain the Last Extinction, on Tuesday, March 31 at 8pm ET/PT on PBS (check local listings). The program features scientists representing all sides of this debate.

Science Blogging plus/vs Science Journalism

Tomorrow’s Nature has a nice, long article about the plight of science journalism and the potential role of science blogs in filling the void as science journalists are laid off and the news-media are going bankrupt and shutting down.
No commentary for me about it yet today – I hope others will start first.
The introductory editorial is here: Filling the void: As science journalism declines, scientists must rise up and reach out.
The main article is here: Science journalism: Supplanting the old media? (allows comments)
The PDF is really pretty (and has additional images and boxes in the margins with quotes, numbers, etc.).
As a part of doing research for this article, Geoff Brumfiel did a survey of a number of science journalists, and you can download the Excel spreadsheet with the responses here.
People interviewed for the article and quoted within include John Timmer, Larry Moran, Carl Zimmer, PZ Myers, Michael Lemonick, Derek Lowe and myself, among others.
Let me know what you think.
Update: Good (or, some of them, at least interesting, to be nice) responses by (including commenters) Jessica Palmer, Michael Tobis, Pharynguloids, Larry Moran, Janet Raloff, LouScientist and John Timmer.

Science in the Triangle


Thursday, March 19
SCONC night at the Museum of Life and Science. Join your fellow science communicators for refreshments, socializing and a bit of brainstorming about Science in the Triangle – the museum’s evolving experiment in community science journalism and scientific-community organizing.
Our host, Troy Livingston, MLS Vice President of Innovation and Learning is seeking SCONC input about ways the group can become involved in community building activities at the site and at the Museum. So get those neurons moving and bring your ideas!
There’s plenty of free parking. Hope to see you there!

Check out the brand new homepage of Seed Magazine!

Check out the SEEDMAGAZINE.COM. W00t! Looks nifty!
What they say:

Our online magazine team has been hard at work creating a new look for SEEDMAGAZINE.COM, the magazine’s homepage. As you’ll see, it has a ton of new features and pretty new colors.
The content of the site is now divided into four departments with subcategories in each, which makes for a total of 11 areas of coverage. The departments are: World (politics, development and environment), Ideas (findings and theory), Innovation (technology, design and business) and Culture (books, art and events). You can go straight to one department, or view the latest stories from every department on the homepage, color-coded according to which they fall under. There’s also a new tagging system- each article is tagged with relevant keywords, and a tag menu on the left hand side of the page also allows you to search for all articles tagged with a specific keyword (“globalization,” for example, or “proof,” or “democracy”).
If you click on the yellow “Studio” button in the upper right corner of the site, you’ll see all slideshows, videos of Salon dialogues, Revolutionary Minds, an interactive rendition of the Universe of 2009 and more to stimulate the senses. The Zeitgeist, highlighting four of the top stories in science every day, and featured blog posts are still there, too (but of course).

I love it – go check it out.

Back from Boston

Still recovering. Flights were smooth. I finally finished Jennifer Rohn’s book on the airplane. I hated my Chapel Hill neighbors, lounging at the pool in 78F, as I was leaving for the cold, snowy Boston. But now I’m back.
The first night, a bunch of us went to the Science Cafe and discussed the possibility of intelligent life in the Universe and methods to find them if they are out there.
Boston09 001.jpg
Boston09 003.jpg
Boston09 004.jpg
Boston09 006.jpg
And had some dinner as well…
Boston09 002.jpg
On Monday, we gathered at WGBH station, in a nice, modern, green building, and about 20 of us discussed the PRI/BBC/NOVA/SigmaXi/WGBH/World project: how to build an online Science Cafe that is tied to their expanding science coverage on the radio show.
Boston09 007.jpg
The room was full of brilliant people, each coming from a different background and having different experiences, expertise and ideas. There were key people from each of the above-mentioned organizations, including my friends here from Sigma Xi Katie Lord and Elsa Youngsteadt, plus Loren Terveen, Rekha Murthy, Bryan Keefer and myself as ‘external advisors’.
Boston09 008.jpg
We spent about seven hours brainstorming how to make this happen, what to do, what NOT to do, what to expect, how to go about it. Not more I can tell you right now – I’ll keep you in the loop as these things get under way and become public – but I am quite excited about the project myself, I have to admit.
Boston09 009.jpg
We managed to finish the meeting just in time to catch the last few minutes of the live broadcast of The World, which we observed from within the studio (we had to keep very quiet!). The World has been making podcasts for quite a while, but just recently started doing science podcasts – four so far: check them out.
Boston09 010.jpg
Boston09 011.jpg
Then we went to Casablanca for some food and beer with friends: Anna Kushnir, Emily Chenette, Rachel Davis, Mary Mangan, Elsa Youngsteadt, Blake Stacey, David Whitlock, Michael Feldgarden and David Ozonoff . I love meeting friends, old and new, wherever I travel.
Boston09 012.jpg
Boston09 013.jpg
Boston09 014.jpg
Boston09 015.jpg
Boston09 016.jpg
Boston09 017.jpg
Boston09 018.jpg

Gender Trends in Science and Medical Writing

Karen Ventii, a former SciBling and now a science writer, wonders:

As a medical writer, I’ve noticed that most medical writers I meet are female. A quick Google search using the keywords‚ “freelance medical writer‚” produced seven female and three male writers (approx. 2:1 ratio) from the first 10 eligible results.1 While it is difficult to draw statistically relevant conclusions from such a small sample size, it certainly implies a trend.
The American Medical Writers Association is the leading professional organization for medical communicators, with over 5,500 members from around the world. The ratio of female to male members is 4449:1227 (approx. 4:1), mirroring the trend observed with the Google search.
In short, medical writing is a predominately female profession….

Talia Page on the Yale Panel for TalkingScience (video)

Adnaan Wasey on the Science Writers in New York Panel for Social Media


….to PZ Myers for getting a monthly writing gig in The Guardian. This is going to be fun to watch! The other three science writers they hired also sound interesting.

Jay Rosen on the Science Writers in New York Panel for Social Media

A must-watch video clip:

A very brief history of plagiarism

Archy does an amazing detective job on who stole what from whom in the old literature on mammoths, going back all the way to Lyell!
Then, as much of that literature is very old, he provides us with a history and timeline of the ideas of copyright and plagiarism so we could have a better grasp on the sense of the time in which these old copy+paste jobs were done.

Nature Methods: It’s good to blog

Another editorial about science blogging today, this time in Nature Methods: Lines of communication:

The public likes science stories it can easily relate to, and we have to admit that most science, including that published in Nature Methods, is unlikely to get more than a snore from nonscientists. In contrast, science stories that have a human interest or other emotionally charged angle require the concerted efforts of both journalists and scientists to ensure that the public understands the story well enough to make an informed personal decision. A failure in this regard can lead to a crisis that is difficult to resolve.
A powerful aspect of blogs is their capacity to put a human face on science and related health issues by allowing scientists to discuss how these things affect them personally in a format in which regular readers feel as though they know the writer. Analysis of the MMR vaccine incident suggests that emotional arguments like a scientist talking about vaccinating his or her own children might be more powerful than the rational arguments that form the basis of normal scientific discourse. The public’s emotional response to genetically modified food in some countries might also have been very different if people could see numerous online blog entries from scientists discussing why they were not concerned about the scenarios being promulgated in the press. But can enough scientists be convinced of the potential benefits of blogging to make this a reality?
Conferences such as Science Blogging 2008: London, organized by Nature Network, and ScienceOnline’09 are exploring the role of blogging in science and trying to get more scientists involved. Nature Network just concluded their Science Blogging Challenge 2008–won by Russ B. Altman–where the goal was to get a senior scientist to start blogging. Altman’s colleague Steve Quake also just started blogging in a guest stint for the New York Times. One hopes that examples of prominent scientists blogging will convince others of the benefits. When a blog author is not a prominent scientist with a reputation to maintain, the quality of information on the blog can be a concern, but scienceblog tracking sites such as can help alleviate this problem.

w00t for the mention of ScienceOnline09! I wish they also mentioned as a means to track good science blogging (mention of carnivals would be too much to expect from a short article like this, I understand).

In the spirit of leading by example, Nature Methods will convert its online commenting site, Methagora, into a proper blog in preparation for later this year when commenting capabilities will be incorporated into published papers. Methagora will allow us to highlight and comment on papers that we feel are of interest to a larger readership and discuss the impact we see them having on science and hopefully society. We invite you, our readers–scientists and nonscientists alike–to share your thoughts and concerns, including your thoughts on this editorial. See you in the blogosphere!

I am happy to hear this. I guess the PLoS ONE example is emboldening others to start the experiment as well. This is a Good Thing. More journals allow the commenting on the papers, more ‘normal’ this will appear to scientist, more quickly it will become normal for scientists to use this. You remember when Nature tried this experiment a couple of years ago, then quit and proclaimed the experiment to be a failure after only six months? When they did that, I was, like, WTF? Who ever expected such a big shift in the entire scientific culture to happen in six months?! But give it another five years and it will start getting there. And remember that a scientific paper is not a blog post – do not expect a bunch of comments over the first 24 hours: they will slowly accumulate over the years and decades.
Finally, let me just notice that both Nature and Nature Methods published pro-blog editorials on the same day. And they also interviewed me this week for a topical issue on the state of science journalism/communication they are planning for a couple of weeks from now. I don’t think this is a coincidence – Nature group is cooking something and we’ll have to wait and see what that is.

In Boston. Are you?

I’ll be in Boston in about 10 days from now. On March 8th, I’ll go to the Science Cafe – the website is not updated yet so I don’t know what the topic is yet, but it’s going to be fun for sure: science+pizza+beer, who can ask for more? So, if you come to that, try to spot me in the crowd and say Hello.
The next day, on Monday, March 9, 2009 at 6:00pm, we’ll meet at Casablanca Restaurant which is at 40 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA. If you are a scientist, blogger, reader, come and let’s eat and drink together. If you are on Facebook, I have made an Event page so you can get all the information.
Oh, and why am I in Boston in the first place? Good question.
Radio program The World, which has been going on for many years (but was only picked up by my local NPR station WUNC a few weeks ago, since when I have been dutifully listening and I have to say it’s good), is broadcast from WGBH in Boston, and is a coproduction of BBC and Public Radio International. Recently, they got an NSF grant, together with Sigma Xi and NOVA to build an online companion to their radio show, specifically for their science coverage, something like an online Science Cafe of sorts with listener/reader participation.
So they invited me and a number of others to be their Web/science advisors and to meet at the station’s headquarters for a day of planning: how to build and design the site, what to put there, how to connect it well with the radio program, how to run it, how to promote it and build a community of regular participants and commenters on their site, etc. This is bound to be an exciting and fun day of work!

The Ars of Lunch

Just had a very pleasant lunch with John Timmer, the editor of Ars Technica. I learned about the history and concept of Ars Technica, we talked about science journalism, science communication, science blogging, and even about science itself: his and my old research:

A smorgasbord….

Being quite busy lately, I accumulated a lot of links to stuff I wanted to comment on but never found time. Well, it does not appear I will find time any time soon, so here are the links for you to comment on anyway (just because I link to them does not mean I agree with them – in some cases quite the opposite):
In Defense of Secrecy :

Given the pervasive secrecy of the Bush-Cheney administration, and the sorry consequences of that disposition, President Barack Obama’s early emphasis on openness in government seems almost inevitable. One of the first official communications issued by the new administration, on Jan. 21, ordered government agencies to adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure when responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and called for new FOIA guidelines to replace those promulgated under Bush. A later directive instructed the heads of all government agencies to strive for “transparency and open government.” Ornamenting the first order was a quotation from the great progressive reformer Justice Louis Brandeis: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

The Future of the News:

After years in trouble, American newspapers are finally up against the wall.
Advertising, vanished. Profits, gone. Losses, mounting very rapidly. Around the country, newsrooms are being hollowed out, papers are shrinking, some are letting go of daily publication. Some are going away.
So, what if? What if your local newspaper just disappeared? In a world of red ink, bankruptcies, layoffs and cutbacks, it’s possible. So, what then?

Farewell to All That: An Oral History of the Bush White House :

The threat of 9/11 ignored. The threat of Iraq hyped and manipulated. Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Hurricane Katrina. The shredding of civil liberties. The rise of Iran. Global warming. Economic disaster. How did one two-term presidency go so wrong? A sweeping draft of history–distilled from scores of interviews–offers fresh insight into the roles of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and other key players.

At Voice of San Diego, a newsroom flourishes:

With several big-city dailies facing closure and the cover of Time last week pondering the fate of the American newspaper, I listened to young Voice of San Diego journalists talk about their work with words like “exhilarating,” “fulfilling” and “fun.” My tiny, ink-sotted heart soared.
The lessons out of the sunny offices on Point Loma appear to be these: A local news site can flourish on charitable donations. It helps to have one big benefactor to get things started. It makes more sense to cover a few topics well, rather than a lot poorly.

Political Science:

Behind him hangs a copy of Jacques-Louis David’s celebrated portrait of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, the French chemist. Varmus is one of our leading scientific figures, a Nobel Prize-winning cancer researcher who advises President Obama, but I’m not sure this is an auspicious image. Lavoi­sier’s own entanglement in politics led to his beheading during the French Revolution. Thankfully, Varmus seems quite adroit in public matters. He has also written a perceptive book about science and its civic value, arriving as the White House renews its acquaintance with empiricism.

Do we need Science Journalists? :

For one, as far as I am concerned most scientists are not particularly good writers (I include myself in that) and since I appreciate a piece of good writing I sincerely hope professional journalism will prevail. Having acquired the necessary skills and appropriate education certainly helps to this matters. I don’t know what Bora’s standards are, but I find the vast majority of science blogs not particularly well written (YOU obviously belong to the minority of brilliant writers).

More discussion here and here.
Survival of the Viral:

Studying genetic “mistakes,” like endogenous retroviruses, would have led us to a theory of evolution, even if Charles Darwin had not.

Why Facebook Is for Old Fogies:

Facebook is five. Maybe you didn’t get it in your news feed, but it was in February 2004 that Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg, along with some classmates, launched the social network that ate the world. Did he realize back then in his dorm that he was witnessing merely the larval stage of his creation? For what began with college students has found its fullest, richest expression with us, the middle-aged. Here are 10 reasons Facebook is for old fogies:

What’s the Matter With Teen Sexting?:

It’s unclear from this exchange what Gladstone believes kids need to be protected from or what issue Balkam is solving. But neither of them came to the logical conclusion of the Harvard study: that we should back off, moderate our fears, and stop thinking of youthful sexual expression as a criminal matter. Still, Balkam wants to call in the cops.
Maybe all that bullying is a mirror of the way adults treat young people minding their own sexual business. Maybe the “issue” is not sex but adults’ response to it: the harm we do trying to protect teenagers from themselves.

Republican Taliban declare jihad on Obama:

The Democrats and the liberal base have responded to all this with a mixture of cynicism and their own partisanship. They rolled their eyes at Obama’s outreach to Republicans; they hated the inclusion of the other party in the cabinet and had to swallow hard not to complain about the postpartisan rhetoric. Their cynicism is well earned. But my bet is that Obama also understands that this is, in the end, the sweet spot for him. He has successfully branded himself by a series of conciliatory gestures as the man eager to reach out. If this is spurned, he can repeat the gesture until the public finds his opponents seriously off-key.

A Balancing Act on the Web :

LAST week, I wrote that a hastily published article on The Times’s Web site highlighted a fear in newsrooms that the Internet, with its emphasis on minute-to-minute competition, is undermining the values of print journalism, which put a premium on accuracy, tone and context.

The ethics of science journalism:

This unique theme section brings together the views of all parties involved in science journalism and bringing science to the public today: writers (freelance and staff), editors, publishers, and scientists themselves. The theme section will be built online.

An Eternal Optimist — But Not A Sap:

Obama is a long way from matching the achievements of Lincoln and Roosevelt, of course. (If Obama, and the country, is lucky, he won’t have to.) But his common inclination to “steer from point to point” may serve him and the country well, especially since Obama has inherited problems of a magnitude faced by few of his predecessors other than those two titans. Obama recognizes the obvious challenge those problems present, but also sees in them opportunity. “I think that there are certain moments in history when big change is possible… certain inflection points,” he said. “And I think that those changes can be for the good or they can be for the ill. And leadership at those moments can help determine which direction that wave of change goes.”

The Oligarchs:

Everyone is always saying: how can we fix the problem as long as the people we have in charge are the people who created the problem in the first place? Very true in many ways. I’ve said it a lot myself. But this point has brought it home to me in a much more concrete way. The assumptions, the vested interests, the wealth, the political power are just too much to overcome.

The No-Stats All-Star :

The virus that infected professional baseball in the 1990s, the use of statistics to find new and better ways to value players and strategies, has found its way into every major sport. Not just basketball and football, but also soccer and cricket and rugby and, for all I know, snooker and darts — each one now supports a subculture of smart people who view it not just as a game to be played but as a problem to be solved. Outcomes that seem, after the fact, all but inevitable — of course LeBron James hit that buzzer beater, of course the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl — are instead treated as a set of probabilities, even after the fact. The games are games of odds. Like professional card counters, the modern thinkers want to play the odds as efficiently as they can; but of course to play the odds efficiently they must first know the odds. Hence the new statistics, and the quest to acquire new data, and the intense interest in measuring the impact of every little thing a player does on his team’s chances of winning. In its spirit of inquiry, this subculture inside professional basketball is no different from the subculture inside baseball or football or darts. The difference in basketball is that it happens to be the sport that is most like life.

Legal Guide for Bloggers:

Whether you’re a newly minted blogger or a relative old-timer, you’ve been seeing more and more stories pop up every day about bloggers getting in trouble for what they post.
Like all journalists and publishers, bloggers sometimes publish information that other people don’t want published. You might, for example, publish something that someone considers defamatory, republish an AP news story that’s under copyright, or write a lengthy piece detailing the alleged crimes of a candidate for public office.
The difference between you and the reporter at your local newspaper is that in many cases, you may not have the benefit of training or resources to help you determine whether what you’re doing is legal. And on top of that, sometimes knowing the law doesn’t help – in many cases it was written for traditional journalists, and the courts haven’t yet decided how it applies to bloggers.

Nouriel Roubini: Only Way To Save US Banking System Is To Nationalize It:

The U.S. banking system is close to being insolvent, and unless we want to become like Japan in the 1990s — or the United States in the 1930s — the only way to save it is to nationalize it.
As free-market economists teaching at a business school in the heart of the world’s financial capital, we feel downright blasphemous proposing an all-out government takeover of the banking system. But the U.S. financial system has reached such a dangerous tipping point that little choice remains. And while Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s recent plan to save it has many of the right elements, it’s basically too late.

The Internet, New Media, Old Media and Fame:

What is fame? When you use the word the majority of people would start rhyming of names like Angeline Jolie, Rock Hudson, JFK and even now with Barak Obama. Fame is often thought of as being the thing that actors, musicians, politicians and in very rare cases regular people can achieve through their actions. Old Media thrives on famous people because of their ability to get people to fork over their money time and time again. This type of fame though is what I would refer to as global fame. It is a fame that can cross generations and oceans but it isn’t the only kind of fame there is.

WooHoo! Blogging is dead:

Of course this is all because Dan Lyons pontificated in Newsweek – which he also pointed to from his blog – that that there is no money to be made with blogging. Of course his idea of making money is something that probably has to surpass his salary from Newsweek who I am sure gave him the big high five over the post.
I won’t bother re-hashing all the different ways that Lyons probably profited quite well from his short stint as a blogger. After all how many times can you say book deal, better paying job with more name recognition or even all the speaking dates before you get the idea that Mr. Lyons is pretty well full of shit. Sure he used the lousiest ad network out there and really only clued into the fact that there were better ones months before he supposedly shut down the Fake Steve Jobs blogs out of respect of the Real Steve Jobs health.

5 Things We Learned About Teens at TOC:

They hung out with real teenagers in their homes to get a look at their creative processes. When choosing which teens to follow, they looked for those who were creative, but not necessarily planning to go into art or design after high school. They picked those who were involved in interesting self-expression activities and who were creating digital media to share with others outside their immediate circles of friends. Here are five not-so-obvious takeaways (beyond the fairly apparent “Teens want to create identities for themselves online” and “In general, teens are pretty tech-savvy”). (The panel didn’t focus much on book publishing, but it provides useful background to YA publishers who want a better look at what their target audiences are doing online.)

Andrew Wakefield, autism, vaccines and science journals:

A word about peer review. This is the process whereby journal editors send manuscripts to experts in the field for their evaluation of scientific soundness. Based on the comments, editors then make a decision as to whether to publish or not. That decision may or may not be the same as the reviewers’. There are many considerations whether to publish something or not (is it of sufficient interest to the readership or does it make enough of a contribution to the field, for example). In general, however, depend on reviewers for the science. Most journals do closed, anonymous reviews. This means that the authors don’t know who the reviewers are and the reviews are not provided to the readers. Often the names of the authors are also kept from the reviewers so as not to prejudice their judgment. Some journals (like the one I edit) practice open review, meaning that reviewers’ names are known to the authors (and vice versa) and that the reviews themselves are available to readers when the paper is published. In the case of the Wakefield paper we don’t know the names of the reviewers or what they said.

A guide to the 100 best blogs – part I:

The online world of the bloggers and how you can connect, communicate, publish your thoughts or diaries and ‘spy’ on the famous

Who-o-o are you? Who who? Who who?:

There’s been quite a lot of discussions going on lately about author identification: Raf Aerts’ correspondence piece in Nature (doi:10.1038/453979b), discussions on FriendFeed, … The issue is that it can be hard to identify who the actual author of a paper is if their name is very common. If your name is Gudmundur Thorisson (“hi, mummi”) you’re in luck. But if you are a Li Y, Zhang L or even an Aerts J it’s a bit harder. Searching PubMed for “Aerts J” returns 299 papers. I surely don’t remember writing that many. I wish… So if a future employer would search pubmed for my name they will not get a list of my papers, but a list of papers by authors that have my name. Also, some of my papers mention as the contact email. Well: you’re out of luck, I’m afraid. That email address doesn’t exist anymore because I changed jobs.

How I made over $2 million with this blog:

If I had any advice to offer it’s this — get in the habit of communicating directly with the people you want to influence. Don’t charge them to read it and don’t let others interfere with your communication. Talk through your blog as you would talk face to face. You’d never stop mid-sentence and say “But first a word from my sponsor!” — so don’t do that on your blog either. I can’t promise you’ll make any money from your blog, and I think the more you try the less chance you have. Make a good product and listen to your customers to make it better, and use the tools to communicate, and you may well make money from the whole thing. To expect the blog alone to pay your bills is to misunderstand what a blog can do. You’ll only be disappointed like Dan Lyons was.

Separating science and state:

Government should have no role in funding scientific research. I say this as a person who not only greatly admires scientific research and its accomplishments, but as a person who believes strongly in the scientific enterprise in general–by which I mean, someone who believes that reason is the only proper means of knowledge and who has no truck with religion and tradition and authoritarianism. Just to get my bona fides out of the way, I am seriously devoted to and interested in all forms of science, particularly biology, and have written at great length in defense of science and the material and intellectual–indeed, spiritual–progress it has brought us. Of all the kinds of corporate welfare, I am least opposed to science welfare.

Why it’s good for us to fund scientific research.:

Tim Sandefur and I don’t agree about the proper role of government when it comes to funding scientific research. He fairly strongly believes that there are many reasons why it’s wrong for the government to fund scientific research. Tim’s provided a number of reasons to support his belief, and I agreed to use my blog as a platform to make my own case for the involvement of government in science.
In the abstract, many of the reasons that the government should not be involved in funding research sound fairly compelling. Unfortunately, those arguments were made on the internet. At the end of the day, the medium undercut the message.

A rebuttal to Mike Dunford:

Mike Dunford starts out his rebuttal cleverly pointing to the Internet as an example of the way government-subsidized research can help promote the American standard of living. Of course, it’s true that some of the research projects government has funded have ended up producing some pretty cool things. But it doesn’t undercut the message: in fact, this example makes two important points that support my position.

The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution:

This week of all things Darwin seemed like a good time to share some news about a project I’ve been working on for the past few months. It’s a book called The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution.
The inspiration for the book came from a conversation I had last year with the folks at Roberts & Company, a publishing company. They had noticed a growing number of classes about evolution for non-biology-majors, and asked if I’d be interested in writing a textbook for them. I was excited by the prospect of being able to bring together the things I’ve learned and written about over the past few years, as evolutionary biologists have made a string of surprising new advances in understanding the history of life (many of which I’ve written about here at the Loom).

ISI Draws Fire from Citation Researchers, Librarians:

A new document classification is creating confusion and drawing fire from the bibliometrics community. Confusion over the new “proceedings paper” designation in ISI’s Web of Science has many questioning whether the new classification will alter journal impact factors.

The Ideology of the Media:

It’s also that establishment journalists get disoriented by any story that doesn’t fit into their pre-formed cookie cutter narratives. They spend all their adult lives inside the bubble and just can’t relate in a real way to the rest of the country – as you’ve written about… Maybe a few of them can perceive the realness of public anger that is the fuel for social movement politics, and maybe those few can perceive the actual threat to the Establishment.

198 Scientific Twitter Friends:

Follow me on twitterI’ve been on Twitter since June 2007 and have met a lot of interesting, helpful, and generally nice people on there. Many of my almost 1400 friends and followers on twitter are connected with science in some way, they’re scientific tweeps in other words, or to coin a phrase, scientwists.
Originally, I listed 100 science types, but then more friends and followers asked if they could be on this list, so now we have almost 200. If you’re a scientwist and want to join them then tweet me, comment here, follow me, or retweet
this link scientwists be sure to let me know and I’ll add your link and bio.

Paper Chase: A Q&A with Randy Siegel (search blogs, twitter and friendfeed for this article, to see why it is very wrong):

Absolutely. It’s the infrastructure, it’s the professional training, it’s the ability to condense massive amounts of information into accessible prose for the reader and the online visitor. It’s the editing. I mean, this notion that you don’t need editors anymore is laughable. Editors make things accessible for readers and online users, and they help educate all of us about stories and issues that we otherwise might not see. I highly doubt that your favorite blogger, for example, is in a position to fly to Iraq and cover what’s going on there, or to fly to the far East and decipher our relationship with China as an economic superpower, or to go into City Hall and expose instances of municipal graft and corruption, or to get behind the scenes of a major sporting event and help people understand why a game turned out the way it did. I believe that, in journalism, you get what you pay for. And quality journalists will always have a role in our society. And as newspaper companies evolve, great journalism will now be more important than ever. Across multiple platforms.

Battle Plans for Newspapers:

Virtually every newspaper in America has gone through waves of staff layoffs and budget cuts as advertisers and subscribers have marched out the door, driven by the move to the Web and, more recently, the economic crisis.
In some cities, midsized metropolitan papers may not survive to year’s end. The owners of the Rocky Mountain News and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer have warned that those papers could shut down if they can’t find buyers soon. The Star Tribune of Minneapolis recently filed for bankruptcy. The Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News will soon stop home delivery four days of the week to cut operating costs. Gannett, which owns 85 daily newspapers in this country, recently said it would require most of its 31,000 employees to take a week of unpaid leave.
What survival strategies should these dailies adopt? If some papers don’t survive, how will readers get news about the local school board or county executive?

non-anonymous peer review:

I spent this afternoon acting as a voluntarily non-anonymous peer reviewer – its scary. I ended up advocating rejection of the article I was reading and I have to say that Vince Smith(see end of linked post) was absolutely right that the act of signing your review “keeps you in check”. Knowing from the outset that your words are going to be linked to your name can really change what you have to say – it certainly makes you think about it for a while longer. It is scary though – I hope that I managed to convey enough of my reasoning and suggestions for ways to improve the article that the authors don’t despise me and attempt to ruin my life… I also hope that the editors of the journal manage to acquire at least one additional reviewer for this manuscript – safety in numbers! Or perhaps the editors will strip my name from my comments? Time will tell I guess.


mail us a tweet, we’ll post it on Twitter

Why the New York Times and Harvard Should Merge (someone wrote a good rebuttal of this, but now I can’t find who and where? – Oh, found it: PhysioProf):

But both of these are really points on a continuum. Journalists have found that in addition to breaking stories, they need to do analysis. Academicians have discovered that in addition to reviewing the past, they need to pay attention to the the future.

11 Ways Print Journalism Can Reinvent Itself:

Print journalism is in a tailspin. Embracing the Web is the obvious solution, but how is that best done? Lex Alexander, who spearheaded a well-regarded new media effort at the Greensboro, NC, News & Record, offers these tips. Notice that a few start with the word “invest,” which is counter to much recent industry wisdom.

Obama Aides Rip Cable News, D.C. Media And Political Elite:

Here’s an interesting dynamic: The yawning gap between what the pundits say about who’s winning the stimulus war and what the polls say the public thinks has created an opening for the Obama team to reclaim Obama’s campaign outsider mantle, which had slipped away during the transition to governing.

If you don’t have a blog you don’t have a resume (Part 1):

The point here is to make the case that blogging is good for your career. It’s been good for me and it’s been good for a lot of other people and I think it has potential for everyone.
Now, is everyone a blogger-in-waiting? Of course not. Would absolutely everyone actually benefit from blogging? Probably not. And if absolutely everyone did take up blogging, would the massive amount of noise generated actually cancel itself out and end up hardly benefiting anyone at all? Probably.
That being said, let’s take a look at what’s been making me think about blogging lately.

If you don’t have a blog you don’t have a resume (Part 2):

I’d also like to be more explicit about chicken/egg of interplay between our passion and commitment to the profession that blogging brings out and how that directly feeds into concrete reputation-building and the benefits that may result. In general, I believe that if you blog to become famous (in other words, to explicitly build your reputation, with cynicism not passion), that will be your reputation. If you blog to share and grow and explore, it’s that passion that will hopefully influence your reputation-building efforts and that any concrete benefits that you accrue will reflect that.
Blogging isn’t for everyone. Blog because it’s what you want to do, not because you feel you have to.
That being said, I really I really like how bluntly Neville Hobson puts it: Your Blog is Your CV.

Yet more on uneasy symbiosis of mainstream and citizen journalism:

Rosen’s much stronger and emphatic point, meanwhile, is that the blogosphere v MSM argument isn’t getting us anywhere, so, follks, quit beating this question by attacking “the other.” I could not agree more. The point is not which is better or deserves to die or has great or lousy ethics or good or awful writers. It’s that they bring different strengths and weaknesses and possibilites and constraints, we’ll make the best of both realms if we try to cross-fertilize strengths while avoiding or improving upon weaknesses.

Join the North Carolina group on Nature Network

Remember a couple of weeks ago, when I complained that Triangle is too narrow a term for a Hub at Nature Network, as there is really no humongous city where everything is centered but the science is distributed all around the state of North Carolina, with people collaborating with each other and traveling back and forth between various regions of the state.
Well, now, to reflect that situation, the Triangle group on Nature Network was renamed the North Carolina group. If it grows in size, it may one day become a proper Hub. So, if you are in any way interested in science and live anywhere in the state of North Carolina, please register and check North Carolina as your geographical location and group.

Why good science journalists are rare?

Science coverage in New York Times is good because they can afford a whole stable of people, each expert in one field only. If Carl Zimmer was forced to cover, on a daily basis and without time to research, everything from astronomy and physics to archaeology and materials science, he would do a bad job, too. But he is given time to pick his own area – evolution – to study it for years, and to write whatever the heck he wants on any given week. So Carl is an expert on what he is writing.
A small paper with one science beat reporter will have to cover everything and that reporter will thus cover everything poorly. I covered this in the last segment of my radio interview last week – for science reporting, one needs a distributed net of experts, each weak on almost everything and each exceptionally strong on one thing only. And that is: science bloggers, the real experts in their fields. If it’s physics news, you go see what physics bloggers are saying. For evo-devo, you go to PZ, for circadian stuff, you come to me – if I have not blogged it yet, just ask me in the comments what I think of the latest study that is making the round of news.
If a newspaper/magazine and a large net of bloggers could strike a deal, that would benefit everyone. Seed did. Others should do the same.
Another note – every time we bash science journalists, someone comes up in the comments and says: Hey, how about Zimmer, or Olivia Judson, or Chris Mooney, or David Dobbs? They are good, aren’t they? Thus, science journalists are excellent!
My answer is, not just that they are free to write only about their area of expertise, but they also are bloggers (or, like Nicholas Wade, are open-minded and willing to learn from the criticisms by bloggers when he messes up something), and had plenty of time to learn how to behave online and to upgrade their ethics from journalistic so-called ethics to bloggers’ ethics. This is why they are good. As the journalism is moving from print to Web, it is important for journalists to start blogging in order to learn the ethics of the Web and the proper Web etiquette – how to behave online in a way that will bring them respect from the readers.
And the fact that only a handful of such names keep popping up over and over again is a proof that such good science journalists are rare.

Graham Lawton Was Wrong

How’s the taste of your own medicine?
Yup, there was an editorial meeting. Coturnix, coturnix, @coturnix, BoraZ, Bora Zivkovic and @borazivkovic were there. I was there, too, and I could have said something, but I decided to remain silent as the traffic of this blog, which – cha-chink – means more money, is more important than accuracy.
Very few readers will read your article. But everyone will see the cover.
Very few people will read this post to the end, especially the links on the bottom that really contain the meat of the argument. But everyone will see this post title in their feeds.
Graham, you know print is swiftly dying and that journalism is moving to the Web, don’t you? Do you understand that this means that in a year or two you will have to come here and play with the Big Boys? Do you understand that all the silly comments you plastered all over the blogs will be remembered? And if not remembered, easy to find – this blog has bigger Google juice than The New Scientist, you know?
Do you understand that in your future transition to online journalism you will have to abandon all the lies you were taught in J-school? That you will need to upgrade your journalistic ethics in order to match the higher ethics of the blogosphere?
Why are you trying to start your career on a wrong foot?
Graham, and someone needs to tell you now before it’s too late, that you don’t know shit about science. And that you’ll have a steep hill to climb in order to start trying to play on the level field with people who actually know their stuff?
You just curmudgeoned yourself.
Is that a new term for you?
Congratulations! Your name will now be forever associated with the likes of (yes, study all those links carefully!) Skube, Mulshine, Johnson, Cohen, Boxer, Keen, Siegel, Henry and several other laughingstock curmudgeons from the journalistic Jurassic Park?
Now, calm down, I was just joking, just like you were in all those comments everywhere. Heh, some light-hearted blogospheric banter. Ha-ha. Can’t be mad about that, can you?
Now sit back and learn by reading, very carefully, what people with actual expertise have written (including people with expertise in the comments) and learn from your mistake as not to make it again:
Darwin Was Wrong?
Why’s Graham so Glum: Lawton Critiqued
Was Darwin Wrong?
Darwin was wrong…ish
Explaining New Scientist cover
New Scientist take the hype road
Darwin: The Genius of evolution
The Trouble With Science Journalism
Speaking of media mangling…
New Scientist take the hype road
It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever
Of trees of life and straw men
Got it?

The Shock Value of Science Blogs

There was a good reason why the form and format, as well as the rhetoric of the scientific paper were instituted the way they were back in the early days of scientific journals. Science was trying to come on its own and to differentiate itself from philosophy, theology and lay literature about nature. It was essential to develop a style of writing that is impersonal, precise, sharply separating data from speculations, and that lends itself to replication of experiments.
The form and format of a scientific paper has evolved towards a very precise and very universal state that makes scientist-to-scientist communication flawless. And that is how it should be, and at least some elements of style and form (if not format) will remain once the scientific paper breaks down spatially and temporally and becomes a dynamic ongoing communication – clarity and precision will always be important.
But that is strictly technical communication between scientists in the same research field. How about communication between scientists in far-away fields, between scientists and lay audience, or among the educated lay-people? How about communication between scientific colleagues outside of peer-reviewed papers? This is where we are seeing the biggest changes right now and not everyone’s happy. And the debate is reminiscent of the debate in mainstream journalism.
Until pretty recently, the informal communication between scientists was limited to Letters To The Editor of scientific journals, conferences and invited seminars. In all three of those venues, the formal rhetoric of science remained. Fine, but….
Part of training in the academia is training in rhetoric. As you go up the ladder of academic science, you are evaluated not just by the quality of your research (or teaching, in some places), but also in how well you mastered the formalized kabuki dance of the use of Scientese language. The mastery of Scientese makes one part of the Inside club. It makes one identifiable as the Member of this club. The Barbarians at the Gate are recognizable by their lack of such mastery – or by refusal to use it. And it is essential for the Inside Club to make sure that the Barbarians remain at the Gate and are never allowed inside.
Academic science is a very hierarchical structure in which one climbs up the ladder by following some very exact steps. Yes, you can come into it from the outside, class-wise, but you have to start from the bottom and follow those steps “to the T” if you are to succeed. But those formal steps were designed by Victorian gentlemen scientists, thus following those steps turns one into a present-time Victorian gentleman scientist. But not everyone can or wants to do this, yet some people who refuse are just as good as scientists as the folks inside the club. If you refuse to dance the kabuki, you will be forever kept outside the Gate.
The importance of mastery of kabuki in one’s rise through the hierarchy also means that some people get to the top due to their skills at glad-handling the superiors and putting down the competitors with formalized language, not the quality of their research or creativity of their thought. Those who rose to the top due to being good at playing the game know, deep inside, they do not deserve that high position on merit alone. And they will be the loudest defenders of the system as it has historically been – they know if the changes happen, and people get re-evaluated for merit again, they will be the first to fall. This is the case in every area (mainstream journalism, business, politics, etc.), not just academic science.
Insistence on using the formalized kabuki dance in science communication is the way to keep the power relations intact. Saying “don’t be angry” is the code for “use the rhetoric at which I excel so I can destroy you more easily and protect my own spot in the hierarchy”. It is an invitation to the formal turf, where those on the inside have power over those who cannot or will not use the kabuki dance. This has always been the way to keep women, minorities and people from developing countries outside the club, waiting outside the Gate. If, for reasons of your gender, race, nationality or class you are uncomfortable doing the kabuki dance, every time you enter the kabuki contest you will lose and the insider will win. The same applies outside science, e.g., to mainstream journalism and politics.
This is why some people in the academic community rant loudly against science bloggers. If they cannot control the rhetoric, they fear, often rightly, that they will lose. Outside their own turf, they feel vulnerable. And that is a Good Thing.
The debates about “proper” language exist on science blogs themselves. See this and this for recent examples (the very best discussion was on this post which is now mysteriously missing). In response I wrote:

We here at Sb are often accused of being cliquish and insular. But if you look at our 70+ blogs and dig through the archives, you will see that we rarely comment on each other’s blogs – most (99%?) of the comments come from outside readers. Also, most of our links point to outside of Sb. On the other hand, NN [Nature Network] is specifically designed to be a community (not a platform for independent players) and almost all of the comments there are from each other. Thus, it is easy for them to maintain a high level of politeness there (this is not a bad thing – this is how they designed it on purpose). It is much harder to harness the hordes of pharyngulites that spill over to all of our blogs – and I do not mind them at all, I think they make the debate spirited and in a way more honest by bypassing superficial niceness and going straight to the point. This may also have something to do with NN bloggers mainly being in the academia, while a large proportion of SciBlings are ex-academia, journalists, artists, etc. with a different rhetoric. The rhetoric of academia is a very formalized kabuki dance, while the rhetoric of the blogosphere has shed all formalities and is much more reminiscent to the regular everyday oral conversation.

Remember the Roosevelts on Toilets saga? The biggest point of contention was the suggestion by the authors of the paper to the bloggers to move the discussion away from blogs to a more formal arena of letters to the editor. We, the bloggers, fiercely resisted this, for the reasons I spelled above – in the letters to the editor, the Insiders have power over the Outsiders because it is their turf. No, if we want to have a non-kabuki, honest discussion, we will have it out here on the blogs, using our rhetoric, because the honest language of the modern Web places everyone on the even ground – it does not matter who you are, what degrees you have, or how well you’ve learned to dance the kabuki: it is what you say, the substance, that counts. This is why being pseudonymous online works, while academia requires full names and degrees. The Web evaluates you directly, by what you write. The academia uses “tags” – your name and degree – to evaluate you. The academia is in the business of issuing credentials, the stand-ins for quality. The credentials are rough approximations of quality – more often then not they work fine, but they are not 100% foolproof. And if one is insecure about one’s own quality, one would insist on using credentials instead of quality. The use of “proper” rhetoric is, as I said above, a good quick-and-dirty way to recognize credentials.
During the Roosevelt saga, I wrote this post very, very carefully, with a specific purpose in mind. First, I went to great effort to explain the science at length and as simply, clearly and conclusively as possible. This performed several functions for me: first, to establish my own credentials, second, to make my readers understand the science and thus be on “my side” in the comments, and third, to make sure I was as complete about science as possible so as to not have to talk about science at all in the comments. Apart from science, I also included several snarky comments about the authors which served as bait – I wanted them to come and post comments. And they bit. Go read the comment thread there to see what was happening. The author insisted on discussing science. I insisted on refusing to talk about science (to him, I did respond a little bit to some other commenters) and to talk about rhetoric instead.
But first, in a comment I posted even before the authors showed up, in order to set the stage for what I wanted, I wrote this:

In an earlier post, burried deep inside, is this thought of mine:

The division of scientists into two camps as to understanding of the Web is obvious in the commentary on PLoS ONE articles (which is my job to monitor closely). Some scientists, usually themselves bloggers, treat the commentary space as a virtual conference – a place where real-time oral communication is written down for the sake of historical record. Their comments are short, blunt and to the point. Others write long treatises with lists of references. Even if their conclusions are negative, they are very polite about it (and very sensitive when on the receiving end of criticism). The former regard the latter as dishonest and thin-skinned. The latter see the former as rude and untrustworthy (just like in journalism). In the future, the two styles will fuse – the conversation will speed up and the comments will get shorter, but will still retain the sense of mutual respect (i.e., unlike on political blogs, nobody will be called an ‘idiot’ routinely). It is important to educate the users that the commentary space on TOPAZ-based journals is not a place for op-eds, neither it is a blog, but a record of conversations that are likely to be happening in the hallways at conferences, at lab meetings and journal clubs, preserved for posterity for the edification of students, scientists and historians of the future.

What happened on Dr.Isis’ blog is very similar – a clash of two cultures. I think that the picture of the Teddy Bear on the potty was a clever and funny shorthand for your point. If you did it about something I published, I’d laugh my ass off. But I can see how the uptight strain of the scientists would balk at it. It is them, though, who need to get up to speed on the changed rhetoric of science. The straight-laced, uber-formal way of writing in science is on its way out.
The rhetoric, even after it completely modernizes, will still have four concentric circles: the paper itself will always be more formal, especially the Materials/Methods and Results sections due to the need for precision; the letters to the editor will remain pretty formal, but not as formal as they are now; the comments on the paper itself will be still less formal but still polite; the commentary on the trackbacked blogs will be freewheeling, funny and to-the-point, just like yours was, not mealy-mouthing with politeness on the surface and destructive hatred underneath, but honest and straightforward. So, if it is crap, what better way to say it than with a picture of a Teddy Bear on a potty – much more lighthearted and polite than saying it politely, and less devastating for the paper’s authors as it takes their mistake lightly instead of trying to destroy their reputation forever.
The point that both Dr.Isis and I made is that the paper is neat, experimental method sound, data are good, but the interpretation is crap. Now, having a couple of crappy paragraphs in an otherwise good paper is not the end of the world. A paper is not some kind of granite monument with The Truth writ in stone. It is becoming a living document (with comments on the paper and tracbacked blogs), and it has always been a part of a greater living document – the complete literature of a field. That is how science works.
It is hard to know which paper will persist and which one will perish in the future, what sentence will turn out to be a gem of prophetic wisdom, and which one is crap. People publish a lot of stuff, some better than other.
Making a mistake in one paper is not the end of one’s career. But many people perceive criticism as if they are just about to be sent out to join a leper colony. This is, in part, due to the formal rhetoric of science: outwardly polite, but underneath it is an attempt to destroy the person. In comparison, a light-hearted joke with a Teddy Bear acknowledges the failability of humans, allows for everyone to make a mistake and move on (we all shit, don’t we?). It is actually much more normal, and much less dangerous for one’s career to receive such a funny form of criticism than a formal-looking destruction of all our work and our personna.

In the next comment I did the one and only hat-tip to science, then moved onto the territory I wanted – rhetoric (many comments, so go and read them all now). As a result, Dr. Janszky grokked it – and we’ll probably see more of him in the blogosphere in the future. The reason he grokked it is because he is confident in his own qualities – he can change the rhetoric and tone and still not lose the debate because he knows what he’s talking about. Those who know they do not have the quality, would just have ranted harder and harder, complaining about the tone. Dr. Janszky adopted the bloggy tone in the comments right then and there. Which was a victory for everybody.
The informal rhetoric of blogs is a form of subversion – breaking the Gate and letting the Barbarians in (while not allowing quacks and Creationist to hitch a ride inside as well – which is why so many science bloggers focus on those potential free-riders and parasites). What we are doing is leveling the playing field, pointing out the inherent dishonesty of the formalized rhetoric, and calling a space a spade. This is a way to make sure that smart, thoughtful people get heard even if they did not have a traditional career trajectory, or refuse to play the Inside club games. If some of the insiders fall down in the process, that’s a good thing – they probably did not deserve to be up in the first place.
Different bloggers do this in different ways. We can use a brilliant, but snarky use of English (PZ Myers), or texting/LOLCat snark (Abbie), or awe and reverence for the great scientists of old (Mo), or sexual innuendo (SciCurious), or shoes (Dr.Isis), or a light-hearted sense of humor (Ed or Darren), or excessive use of profanity (PhysioProf). What we all do is write in unusual, informal ways. We want to shock. We feel there are many people out there who need a jolt, an injection of reality. We do it by using informal language. And this can be very powerful – just see how the dinosaurs squirm when they read some of our posts! But that’s the point. We are testing them: if, like Dr. Janszky, you “get it”, this means that you have the balls, which means you are confident about your own qualities independent from your credentials. If you keep ranting about “dirty, angry bloggers”….what are you so insecure about? Why are you so afraid of being shown a fraud if you are not? Or, are you?
Another point about blogs, which I alluded above already, is the time-frame. This is a very important point that is often forgotten in the scientists vs. bloggers “let’s be polite” debates. In the formal arenas (Letters, conferences, etc.), where formal language is used, the game some people play is to use an outwardly seemingly polite language to write or say something that is designed to destroy a career. Often in multiple places over a stretch of time. On blogs, when we snarkily attack you, our purpose is to teach a lesson (more to our readers than the scientists in question who may not even know the blog post was written). In other words, it is a one-time thing that is designed to correct a single error, not an attempt at destroying a career.
For good recent examples of the way scientists use the formal venues as well as formal language to destroy each other, see this and this (I have seen more on PLoS ONE, but don’t want to draw your attention to those right now, for professional reasons – keeping my job).
I post 8.2 posts per day on this blog, on a large variety of topics. Do you really think I have the time, energy and interest to study in great detail the life-time achievements of everyone who did something wrong on the Internet? Of course not. I see an article that says something stupid and I shoot a post that shows how stupid it is, so the readers, especially if the deconstruction of stupidity requires some expertise I may have and most people don’t, can see why that particular argument is wrong. Then I move on to the next post on some completely different topic. I have forgotten about your existence in about a nanosecond after publishing that post. I have no interest in destroying your career, but I understand that you are touchy – the life in academia, with its poisonous kabuki game, has trained you to defend yourself against every single little criticism because, underneath the veneer of civility is the career-damaging attack by someone powerful who is hell-bent on destroying you. We don’t do that on blogs. We don’t care enough to do that (unless you are a dangerous peddler of pseudoscience or medical quackery). We want to educate the lay audience and have fun doing it. I have no idea if everything else you have written before and after is brilliant and I don’t care – I think that this one stupid paragraph you wrote is good blogging material, amusing, edifying and useful to use to educate the lay audience. You are NOT the target personally. Your stupid argument is. And I don’t care if that was your one-off singular mistake in life, or an unusually bad moment for you. So, don’t take it personally. This is not academia. We are, actually, honest here on the intertubes, and you need to learn to trust us.
The attempts at character assassinations within academia, by using the formalized kabuki language by the powerful and forcing the powerless to adopt the same and thus be brought to slaughter, do not happen only in print. They also happen in person. Read this and this for a recent example of a senior researcher trying to publicly destroy a younger, female colleague at a meeting. And he was wrong. But he was powerful and intimidating. I wish the young woman responded by going outside of formal kabuki dance, shocking the audience in one way or another, giving all the present colleagues a jolt, making them listen and perhaps notice what is happening. Or, if she was shy, I wish some senior male colleague did the same for her and put the old geezer in his place. I wrote a comment:

“Tone it down” and “Why are you so angry?” are typical sleazy tactics used by a person in power over a person not in power. It was used against people of other races, against women, against gays, against atheists – this is the way to make their greivances silent and perpetuate the status quo, the power structure in which they are on the top of the pecking order. The entire formal, convoluted, Victorian-proper discourse one is supposed to use in science is geared towards protecting the current power structure and the system that perpetuates it. Keeping the dissenters down and out. Bur sometimes, anger, or snark, or direct insult, are the jolt that the system needs and it will have to come from the people outside the power structure, and it would have to occur often and intensely until they start paying attention.

And then, there is the area in between scientists and lay audience. The job of translating Scientese into English (or whatever is the local language) has traditionally been done by professional science journalists. Unfortunately, most science journalists (hats off to the rare and excellent exceptions) are absolutely awful about it. They have learned the journalistic tools, but have no background in science. They think they are educated, but they only really know how to use the language to appear they are educated. Fortunately for everyone, the Web is allowing scientists to speak directly to the public, bypassing, marginalizing and pushing into extinction the entire class of science “journalists” because, after all, most scientists are excellent communicators. And those who are, more and more are starting to use blogs as a platform for such communication.
The problem is, the professional science journalists also love to put down the blogs and use the paternalistic “tone it down” argument. But, unlike the political journalists who are incapable of seeing the obvious (stuck too far inside Cheney’s rectum to see what we all could see?), the science journalists have the added problem of not having the expertise for their job in the first place. In politics, everyone with the brain, not just journalists, could see that excuses for going to Iraq were lame. But in science journalism, there exist out there people with real expertise – the scientists themselves – who now have the tools and means to bypass you and make you obsolete because you cannot add any value any more.
To the list that includes MSM “journalists” aka curmudgeouns like Richard Cohen, Sarah Boxer, Andrew Keen, Lee Siegel, Michael Skube, Neil Henry and many others, we can now add curmudgeounly science journalists George Johnson and John Horgan as well – just listen to this!!!!! Yes go an listen before you come back. If you can stand it. But if I suffered through it, you can, too. I am a pretty calm kind of guy, but listening to that “dialogue” filled me with rage – I felt insulted, my intelligence insulted, and my friends insulted. Frankly, I’ve heard smarter science-related conversations from the drunks in rural Serbian bars.
I’ve been in this business (both science and science communication) for a long time, but I have never heard of George Johnson until today. From what I saw in that clip, I have not missed anything. Where does his smugness come from then? As for John Horgan, I’ve heard of him – he earned his infamy when he published – and was instantly skewered and laughed at by anyone with brains – his book “The End of Science”, arguably one of the worst and most misguided books about science (outside of Creationist screeds) ever. Where is his humbleness after such a disaster? Why is he not hiding in the closet, but instead shows up in public and appears – smug. Some people just have no self-awareness how stupid they appear when they behave as if they have authority yet they don’t and it’s obvious. What is it about professional journalists that makes them have illusions they are educated? “No, I am not a scholar but I play one on TV” turns into “Since I can transcribe and read smart stuff I must be really smart myself”.
Luckily, bloggers have no qualms about defending themselves – please read this gorgeous smack-down by Abbie, this older post by Ed in which he explains exactly what he meant, and perhaps this old post of mine which also, in a circuitous way, predicts the extinction of science journalistic dinosaurs.
But perhaps I shouldn’t be that nasty to Johnson and Horgan? After all, my blogging schtick is niceness. This makes it very easy for me to destroy someone – on those rare occasions when someone like me, renowned for endless patience, flies off the handle, people sit up and pay attention. If I use profanity to describe someone, that one probably richly deserves it. I know I have to use this power with prudence. If I attack someone full-blast, people will tend to believe me, as I rarely do that kind of stuff. And if you subsequently Google that name, my blogpost about him/her is likely to be the #1 hit on the search, or in the top ten.
Perhaps Johnson and Horgan are actually nice and smart guys. They may be nice to their wives and kids. Perhaps they wrote, 30 years ago, something really smart. But I have no interest in digging around for that. I want to finish this post and move on. And after watching this movie, I really have no motivation to search for anything else by these two guys as it appears to be a waste of my time. It does not appear to me like a bad-day, one-off mistake that everyone sometimes makes. It is 30 minutes of amazing ignorance and arrogance at display – probably sufficient material to make me doubt I’d ever find anything smart penned by them in the past, so why should I bother with them at all? I can probably evaluate their qualifications quite accurately from these 30 minutes and safely conclude they equal zero. Their “angry bloggers” shtick was the first give-away they know deep inside they are irrelevant and on their way out. Their subsequent chat about science was amateurish at best, no matter how smug their facial expressions at the time.
Perhaps if we remove those middle-men and have scientists and the public start talking to each other directly, then we will have the two groups start talking to each other openly, honestly and in an informal language that is non-threatening (and understood as such) by all. The two sides can engage and learn from each other. The people who write ignorant, over-hyping articles, the kinds we bloggers love to debunk (by being able to compare to the actual papers because we have the background) are just making the entire business of science communication muddled and wrong. Please step aside.
Update: Brian, Greg, Ed, Dr.Isis, Mike Brotherton, Hank and Larry chime in on this discussion as well. More: Alex, Chris Mooney, Mike, Chad, Eric Wolff, Stephanie and Tom Levenson, Sabine and Tom again.

8th Annual Year in Ideas in NYTimes

New York Times has compiled a whole slew of essays about the interesting ideas that people have come up with during 2008. And three of them are written by Rebecca Skloot, who is the special speaker at the WiSE event (on Friday night) at ScienceOnline09.
Her three essays are:
Avian Dancing:

If you aren’t one of the millions who have already done so, go immediately to YouTube and search for “Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo.” There you will see a large white bird balanced on the back of an office chair, bobbing his head, stomping his feet and doing something that — until now — scientists believed impossible: dancing just like a human. This is good fun. It’s also good science: Snowball’s videos are changing the way researchers understand the neurology of music and dancing….

Dog-poop DNA Bank:

About three years ago, the mayor of Petah Tikva, a city near Tel Aviv, called the veterinarian Tika Bar-On and said, “I can fix almost everything in this city, but I don’t know how to fight dog poop.” He asked Bar-On, the city’s director of veterinary services, if it was possible to use DNA fingerprinting to identify which dogs pooped on his city streets and — most important — which owners didn’t pick up after them. As a result, this year, Bar-On introduced the first-ever forensic dog-poop DNA unit….

Spray-on Condom:

Jan Vinzenz Krause, a 31-year-old German entrepreneur, says that condoms should be more like shoes. “You go into a shop, tell them your size and you get shoes that fit your feet,” he says. “Not so with condoms.” Aside from the occasional extra-large brand, condoms essentially come in one size: about 6.5 inches long. Penises, however, come in many sizes. This leaves many men squeezed into condoms so tight they cut off circulation (and impede erections) or so large they’re floppy and nonfunctional. To fix this, Krause has invented the world’s first condom that can be custom made for each man: the spray-on condom….

Read them in their entirety and check out the other essays as well…

Silly Science

Why is mainstream media obsessively focused, out of all the cool science out there, on silly titillating EvoPsych garbage, presented in a “shocked! shoked!” tone? Here is today’s crop – feel free to savage them on your own blogs:
46% Of Women Prefer Internet To Sex, Says Intel Survey
Fertile women more open to corny chat-up lines
20% of teens say they’ve put nude pics of themselves online
Science Dweebs Often Virgins
Orgasms During Childbirth?
Are daughters-in-law to blame for the menopause?

Where are the acorns?

CNN reports: Scientists baffled by mysterious acorn shortage:

Up and down the East Coast, residents and naturalists alike have been scratching their heads this autumn over a simple question: Where are all the acorns? Oak trees have shed their leaves, but the usual carpet of acorns is not crunching underfoot. In far-flung pockets of northern Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and other states, scientists have found no acorns whatsoever.

But closer reading reveals that it is lay people and amateur naturalists who are baffled, while scientists are not. Scientists are well aware that the oaks produce corn in cycles – bumper years followed by lean years. The cycles are quite regular, and can be used to predict outbreaks of Lyme Disease:

One of the notions put forward in the article was that abundance of acorns in one year leads to abundance of rodents (mostly white-footed mice and chipmunks) the next year, and abundance of ticks – thus Lyme Disease – the third year. Now, Ostfeld and collaborators have added several more years of data and performed a detailed analysis of a large (13 years) dataset that strongly suggests that their initial hunch was correct.

More (and better?) science on TV?

Prime time makes a scientific discovery

“My husband, who’s a physicist at CalTech, says, ‘Physics is the new black,’ ” says Jennifer Ouellette, who regularly blogs about the subject on The author of such science-friendly books as “The Physics of the Buffyverse,” in which she deconstructed the science of ” Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Ouellette is also the new director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a new program developed by the National Academy of Science to help Hollywood understand scientists and visa versa.
“Most people in the entertainment industry don’t know a scientist,” she says. “Or even someone who knows a scientist. I know lots of scientists.”
And she’s happy to share. Last month, Seth MacFarlane hosted the group’s first symposium, inviting writers, producers and other industry types to listen to and chat with experts in fields including astophysics, genetics, robotics, neuroscience and marine biology, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Read the whole article….

SciAm Podcast

Scott Derrickson, director of the new version of The Day the Earth Stood Still, talks about his take on the iconic sci-fi movie. And Nobel laureate, Richard Roberts, discusses the importance of open-access science publishing. Plus, we’ll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news.

Listen here.

Science Reporting – the dead-tree press perspective

Deborah Howell, the WaPo Ombudsman (for a few more days), wrote her thoughts on science reporting in the Washington Post (and in general) – Making Sense of Science Reporting:

The job of science reporters is to take complicated subjects and translate them for readers who are not scientifically sophisticated. Critics say that the news media oversimplify and aren’t skeptical enough of financing by special interests.
That led me to review papers that are to be published soon as part of a project sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on how the media cover science and technology, and to interview a half-dozen experts, from scientists to teachers of science writing. Here’s my take:

Read the rest. Do you agree with her, or are you happy that her days as WaPo ombudsman are numbered? Why?

SciBlings Abbie and Ed on

erv and Ed Yong discuss science, blogging, science communication, HIV, and, er, vampires….

No more science on CNN!

Oh, there was before? Anyway, the story that everyone on science blogs is talking about these days is that CNN has ditched their science and tech team. I was going to comment on it, but Chad puts it the best and there is no way I can best it. So go on over and add your 2c to the interesting ongoing discussion in the comments.
[Possibly related….]

The Big Bang Theory – a new nerdy CBS show

From PopSci: Return of the (Televised) Nerds:

The show not only delivers a healthy dose of nerd-culture references, it also offers up some legitimate scientific content, something that’s pretty rare in mainstream television. How many TV nerds do you see engaging in real scientific banter? It’s more than the big words and convoluted sentence structure; the dialogue actually contains scientifically sound ideas.
UCLA Professor of Physics and Astronomy David Saltzberg is the science man behind the curtain, and many of the punchlines. He also writes equations on the set’s white boards. “Physicists love to nitpick, so for the 100 in the 10 million people who might watch the show, I try to get it as close to 100% accurate as I can,” Saltzberg commented in an interview with USA Today.

ScienceOnline09 on Radio In Vivo

As you know, Anton Zuiker, David Kroll and I were on the radio earlier today, chatting for an hour with Ernie Hood of Radio In Vivo, here in Carrboro.
We discussed science communication, education, publishing, blogging, popularization, journalism, social networking, Second Life, etc. The focus was on ScienceOnline09, but we also mentioned The Open Laboratory anthologies (2006, 2007 and 2008),, the NCCU BRITE, Duke Health, Inside Duke Medicine, PLoS, BlogTogether, SCONC and, of course, our blogs.
Try to find an hour of peace and quiet and listen to the show here (mp3).
And then check out the podcasts of the old Radio In Vivo science shows – there are some excellent previous shows with great scientists.

David took some pictures – you can see them here.

Science Communicators of North Carolina social tonight

Science Communicators of North Carolina:

Connect with SCONC in a cool Co-Working Environment!
Monday, November 24 at 6:30 p.m.
Join your fellow SCONC members for a casual evening in Carrboro on Nov. 24. Headlining this month’s meeting — remotely — will be SCONC’s ambassador to Norway. Tour the area’s first co-working venture (and a great place for freelance folks!) – Carrboro Creative Co-working. Details: