Category Archives: SO’10

ScienceOnline2010 – interview with Stephanie Willen Brown

Continuing with the tradition from last two years, I will occasionally post interviews with some of the participants of the ScienceOnline2010 conference that was held in the Research Triangle Park, NC back in January. See all the interviews in this series here. You can check out previous years’ interviews as well: 2008 and 2009.

Today, I asked Stephanie Willen Brown to answer a few questions.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your (scientific) background?

I’m Stephanie Willen Brown, aka CogSciLibrarian living in the Triangle area in North Carolina. I’ve been a librarian since 1996, and I started calling myself the CogSciLibrarian in 2004, when I was the librarian for the School of Cognitive Science at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. I started the blog as a way of sharing cool cognitive science stories and books that I thought my colleagues would enjoy.

My scientific background is limited to that of a librarian, supporting faculty and students working in cognitive science, communications, and psychology over the years. I’d grown up intimidated by math and science, but cognitive / brain / neuroscience is so interesting AND there is so much good, accessible writing about it that I have become a fan.

My current reading interests include the effect of mindfulness on the brain, the development and use of language, and concussions in NFL and other athletes.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

I’m thrilled to be working at my dream job, as director of the Park Library at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. It incorporates many of my interests, such as library science, journalism, marketing, and advertising. I am a consumer of mass media, and I love to be around academics who are studying various aspects mass communication.

My first love is helping students and colleagues find resources that will enhance their research, and the work is double-plus good when it involves subject matter I find interesting as well as amazing library colleagues at the UNC Libraries.

I do miss supporting cognitive and communication science, as I don’t have much interaction with my all-time favorite database PsycINFO. It’s got great content and robust metadata (did you know you could limit your search to age group of subjects studied? Or that you can limit results to just empirical studies or literature reviews?), though it’s not the go-to database of choice for mass communication.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

Science needs good public relations right now, and I agree with @ErinBiba’s essay in the May issue of Wired “Why Science Needs to Step Up Its PR Game.” I’d like to play a small part in the merger of science and PR by training public relations professionals to do good research and generally supporting their academic endeavors. Libraries and news* (newspapers, news outlets, etc.) need good public relations too, but that’s for another post.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

One of the great things about my job is that I feel empowered – even obligated! – to read about social networking and participate in various social networks professionally and personally. I promote the Park Library via Twitter (@JoMCParkLib and Facebook and have dabbled in FriendFeed.

I believe we in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication should be teaching our students to use social networks in their professional work, so I think of myself as modeling good professional use of social networks.

I tweet as @CogSciLibrarian as well, which is where I keep up with my science buddies and science news.

When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any cool science blogs by the participants at the Conference?

I discovered science blogs years ago as I began my own blog, though I read science librarian blogs such as John Dupuis’ Confessions of a Science Librarian more than practicing scientist blogs. I met science documentarian Kerstin Hoppenhaus at ScienceOnline2010 and really enjoy her More Than Honey blog.

I’ve since migrated to Twitter for most of my online / science interactions, and I follow some great science folks there, including @SteveSilberman , @tdelene (DeLene Beeland), @VaughanBell (contributor to Mind Hacks), and my favorite psychology radio show @allinthemind (Australia’s Natasha Mitchell).

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2010 for you? Any suggestions for next year? Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?

Gosh, I loved #scio10! It was great to be exposed to so much science in a casual, friendly environment, and I enjoyed spending time with like-minded librarians like Christina Pikas, John Dupuis, and Bonnie Swoger . I was also happy to meet Irtiqa’s Salman Hameed and Tom Linden’s Master’s students in UNC’s Program in Medical & Science Journalism. There were many more as well, but the most amazing aspect of ScienceOnline is the interaction with interesting and interested science, journalism, and library professionals. I have just put #scio11 on my calendar and look forward to meeting more interesting folks!

Thank you so much for the interview. I hope to see you soon, and of course at the next conference in January.

ScienceOnline2010 – interview with William Saleu

Continuing with the tradition from last two years, I will occasionally post interviews with some of the participants of the ScienceOnline2010 conference that was held in the Research Triangle Park, NC back in January. See all the interviews in this series here. You can check out previous years’ interviews as well: 2008 and 2009.

Today, I asked William Saleu to answer a few questions.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your (scientific) background?

My name is William Saleu and I blog at BomaiCruz. I am from Papua New Guinea (PNG), an independent island nation making up the eastern part of the island of New Guinea which lies immediately north of Australia. I am a research fellow at the Duke University Marine Lab (DUML) in Beaufort, North Carolina.

I am part of a team that studies population structure and species connectivity among invertebrates from hydrothermal vent systems from the western Pacific. Most of our samples were collected from PNG so as you can imagine I have naturally taken up a personal interest in this subject. My ultimate goal is to be able to use the results of this research and other similar work to help identify and design conservation strategies for these unique ecosystems in PNG.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

So one might wonder how I ended up doing this. To answer that question I will have to take you back to my final days as an undergraduate at the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG). I was a biophysics major and was almost at the end of my program when I realized that my options for employment after college were very slim and I decided to look at opportunities for post grad research at UPNG. I spoke to my physics advisor but he was not so enthusiastic about having me on his projects but told me to come up with my own project.

I was sitting in a microbiology class when I heard the professor say something about chemosynthetic bacteria and how they were the basis of life at hydrothermal vents but she went on to say that because of the extreme conditions they lived in, not much was known about them as it was very hard to culture them. I also found out then that we had hydrothermal vent systems in PNG that geologists were so interested in studying. This was it, this was the project I was looking for. I decided I was going to build an incubator that would house pressure sensors and thermometers and could go all the way down to the sea floor, collect these bacteria and bring them to the surface at similar conditions to that of their sea floor habitats, little did I know that people in the developed world have already invented deep sea submersibles and remotely operated vehicles that did the same thing. Anyway, my proposal never went through as no one in PNG ever took it seriously.

I ended up in the streets like so many other Papua New Guineas before me who had gone through college but could not find anything to do. Then, one day while reading a newspaper, I came across an advertisement for people with advanced degrees in science to submit applications for a semester long traineeship at Duke University Marine Lab (DUML). I did not have an advanced degree but one of the requirements was that applicants should have sound knowledge in molecular biology and lab work skills and I knew I could use this to my advantage as I had been an intern at the PNG Institute of Medical Research’s molecular and virology labs and this was the only lab in PNG doing molecular work.
Well, I submitted an application and got the opportunity and came over for the traineeship and went home but thanks to the network I have set up before, I am back now as a research fellow studying the same things that I wanted to work with when I was an undergrad.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

As far as my blogging family tree goes, I guess I will look up to Southern Fried Science as my blog parent and Deep Sea News as the granny. These guys have been awesome at helping me in everything from day one of BomaiCruz. The name ‘Bomai’ hails from the Simbu language of PNG and would translate for someone from the deep jungles, while ‘Cruz’ is from tok pisin, one of the three main languages of Papua New Guinea. ‘Cruz’ actually means to wonder around, hence, BomaiCruz, “someone from the deep jungles wondering around.”

I did not know about blogging, Twitter or Facebook before coming to the USA but am now on Twitter as BomaiBlat and on Facebook too. All this is very exciting for me but keeping up to speed with every one of them can be quite a hassle. I have found that networking can be quite addictive but is also so much fun and is a great way of sharing information and learning about what is going on in the world or just to take part in arguments and discussions. Personally, I have learnt so much more from networking and socializing with other members however, my only word of advice here is that networking and socializing can be so much fun as long as you know how to control its use.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2010 for you? Any suggestions for next year? Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?

I know this is not going to go down well with other bloggers but I was lucky enough to attend the ScienceOnline conference just a few weeks after I posted the first blog post on my wall. Unfortunately I cannot make comparisons with past science online conferences but from what I saw in this year’s conference, I should say that it was one of the best conferences I have been to in terms of organization and set up. There are two sessions I will remember for a very long time, first was Rebecca Skloot where she was talking about her book and the second and I should say, the one I really liked was the Open Access talk. I think the importance of Open Access as outlined by the speakers is one thing I will take away with me and make sure to pass on to others that I might end up working with.

It was so nice to meet you in person and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again next January.

ScienceOnline2010 – interview with Anne Frances Johnson

Continuing with the tradition from last two years, I will occasionally post interviews with some of the participants of the ScienceOnline2010 conference that was held in the Research Triangle Park, NC back in January. See all the interviews in this series here. You can check out previous years’ interviews as well: 2008 and 2009.

Today, I asked Anne Frances Johnson to answer a few questions. Anne is a freelancer and grad student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your (scientific) background?

Anne Johnson pic2.jpgWhen I was a kid, I, like all 8-year-old girls, wanted to be a marine biologist and ride around on dolphins. A couple decades later, I’m still into science and nature, but I don’t actually ride wild animals. I’m a freelance science writer and master’s student in the Medical & Science Journalism program at UNC. I like to think it’s as fun as riding dolphins, but probably better for the environment.

I’m originally from Raleigh, NC, and I’ve recently come full circle back to the Triangle after more than ten years away with stops in New Mexico, New England, New Zealand and Washington, DC (I lived there even though it doesn’t have “new” in its name). I have a B.A. in biology from Smith College, where I spent lots of time cutting open fish stomachs for my thesis on lobster predation (What Eats Lobsters besides People?).

I always liked learning about science, but in college I found actually doing it to be rather gooey and tedious, and decided I probably didn’t have the endurance for it as a career. I found myself gravitating instead toward the edges of science, where it interacts with society. I worked at a marine reserve in New Zealand, patrolled Costa Rican beaches for would-be sea-turtle-egg poachers, and tended persimmons, goats and alpacas on various farms here and abroad. But it wasn’t until my first “real” job–at the National Academy of Sciences–that I discovered science writing. Instantly smitten, I’ve been a ravenous science reader and writer ever since.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

Anne Johnson pic1.jpgMy first science communications piece was an educational booklet on stem cells. Most of the stem cell information available at the time followed either the science community’s party line (embryonic stem cells are more useful than adult stem cells so we should use them) or the conservative/political party line (scientists want to kill babies and we should stop them). Since I was working for a scientific organization, it would have been simple to take the usual tack, but we decided it was really time to go beyond that. I spent a lot of time talking to people ethically opposed to human embryonic stem cell research and tried to craft the booklet so it could reach those folks on their terms, while still being true to the science. Dealing with both the scientific and ethical issues head-on ultimately made it a more useful product for people, and tens of thousands of the booklets found their way into schools and doctors’ offices. It was very rewarding.

After that, I had the pleasure of developing a whole slew of other booklets (and posters and gadgets and websites) on topics including how to plant a pollinator-friendly garden, why microbes are cool and what the new science of “metagenomics” can tell us, and how climate change might affect ecosystems across the U.S. It’s been a constant learning experience.

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

Last year I decided to go back to school to pick up some additional communications skills I wasn’t sure I could learn on the job. So now I’m a science journalism grad student. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the curriculum is the multimedia work I’m doing. I know “multimedia” is a silly buzzword, but it really is useful to be able to apply whatever combination of media–text, sound, video, graphics, animations–is right for the topic at hand. I’m enjoying learning to wield all those tools and figuring out how to leverage the strengths of each to communicate in an engaging way.

Although teamwork is incredibly powerful, it’s also useful to be able to function as a “one-woman-band,” with a complete suite of skills to produce everything from documentaries to press releases myself. Wherever I end up after I graduate in 2011, I hope I’ll be able to apply all my fun new skills and continue to learn and adapt to the changing communications landscape.

What’s up with going to journalism school? No offense, but isn’t that a dying industry?

I get that a lot. Journalism school is actually alive and well, even in the current climate. The journalism business model is in a period of adjustment that’s leaving a lot of traditional journalists out of work, and that’s too bad. But I think people are hungrier than ever for information, and for the most part they know the difference between bad information and good information. I think there will always be a role for good journalistic work–especially when it comes to science topics.

Career-wise, I’m more interested in communications than traditional journalism, but I think going through this experience of learning to write more like a journalist makes me a stronger communications person. I also just love being in journalism school because I’m surrounded by really creative thinkers from all different backgrounds, which challenges me to go beyond the obvious and try different approaches.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

I love that there’s this vast array of genuinely interesting science content online that teachers can use as part of science education. Science education has had a terrible reputation for a long time. The Web gives teachers and parents opportunities to engage children in ways that have never existed before. Kids can interact with the scientific world on their terms and keep following the leads that interest them most. It sure beats those awful textbooks and cheesy videos I remember from childhood.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

I have a healthy skepticism about using blogs and social networking in science communications. Organizations pour so much into getting their content out in all these different ways. They’re available and “free,” so why not? And sometimes they’re really effective at amplifying your reach and visibility. But they’re not magical. Sometimes, you’re better off simply producing more or better actual content, and your resources would be better spent focusing on the dissemination avenues that are most effective for your specific target audiences. There’s always a trade-off between quantity and quality, between producing new content and promoting your existing content. You have to hit the right balance, and I think blogs and social networking can be distracting if you don’t keep them in perspective. I try to use ’em when they’re right for the task, and leave ’em when they’re not.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2010 for you? Any suggestions for next year? Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?

One of my favorite experiences was getting to hold these really old dead birds they keep in the bowels of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. There were just racks and racks of them. We got to pass them around, and they were so astoundingly light and beautiful. It was fun to connect with nature in the way that taxonomists have for years and years, where you can take note of the tiniest differences among species. I loved that behind-the-scenes tour, and would be thrilled to be able do more of the tours next year.

On blogging, the conference perhaps counterintuitively convinced me that it’s okay not to blog about science. Seeing all those people blogging and tweeting so passionately, I thought, you know, there’s room for all types here. And if daily blogging isn’t my thing, it’s okay. People are blogging about science, and people are writing involved, long-form articles and books about science, and folks will continue to be engaged with science on whatever basis is useful for them–whether it’s monthly, daily or by the second. There are so many possibilities, so many ways for people to talk about science. With all those opportunities, you can really shop around and focus on what you can do best.

Thank you so much for the interview. I hope you will come to the meeting again next January.

UC Berkeley Genetic Testing Affair: Science vs Science Education – guest post by Dr.Marie-Claire Shanahan

Marie-Claire Shanahan is an Assistant Professor of Science Education at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. As a former science teacher, she was always surprised by the ways that students talked themselves out of liking science – and she decided to do something about it. She now researches the social and cultural aspects of science and science education, especially those related to language and identity.

Marie-Claire and I first met online, then also in Real World when she attended ScienceOnline 2010, after which I interviewed her for my blog. You can check out her website and follow her on Twitter. Very interested in her scholarly work, I asked her if she would write a guest-post on one of her topics, and she very graciously agreed. Here is the post about the Berkeley genetic testing affair.

Outside of issues related to teaching evolution in schools, the words controversy and science education don’t often come into close contact with one another. It would be even rarer to be reporting on legislative intervention aimed at halting science education activities. So what’s going on with the UC Berkeley genetic testing affair?

News started to surface in May that Berkeley was going to be asking incoming first year and transfer students to send in a DNA swab. The idea was to stimulate discussion between students as part of the yearly On the Same Page program. A heated debate ensued that has ultimately lead to proposed state legislation that would bar California’s post secondary institutions from making unsolicited requests for DNA samples from students. Both the controversy and the legislation are excellently reported by Ferris Jabr at Scientific American here and here.

It would be reasonable to assume that this seems controversial because it involves genetic testing and therefore personal information. But is there more to it than that?

I chatted informally with some friends about the issue. One expressed her divided feelings about it saying (roughly quoted) “It seems like they [university admin] have addressed the ethical concerns well by being clear about the use of the swabs and the confidentiality but something still just doesn’t feel right. There’s still a part of me that shivers just a little bit.”

What is the shiver factor? Genetic testing and the idea that institutions might have access to our DNA do conjure some imaginative science fiction possibilities. So that could be causing the shivers. But from my perspective as a science education researcher, I think there’s also an underlying issue that makes this particular situation feel controversial: despite having science education goals, this looks and feels a lot more like science. That look and feel leads to confusion about how this initiative should be judged both from an ethical perspective and an educational one.

Science and science education are not the same thing (nor should they be). One way to think of them is through activity analysis, paying attention to who is involved, what are their objectives and what are the artefacts (e.g., tools, language, symbols), actions, and rules that those involved generally agree are used to accomplish the goals of the activity. Studies in activity theory emphasize the importance of shared understanding for accomplishing and progressing in any activity. I would argue that science and science education are different (though obviously related) activities. They have, in particular, different objectives and different artefacts, rules and actions that guide and shape them. As participants in one or the other (or both), teachers, parents, students, researchers, administrators have both tacit and explicit understandings of what each activity entails – what are the rules, the acceptable tools and practices and the appropriate language.

This is where the Berkeley project places itself in a fuzzy area. The objectives of the project are clearly stated to be educational. From the On the Same Page website: “we decided that involving students directly and personally in an assessment of genetic characteristics of personal relevance would capture their imaginations and lead to a deeper learning experience.” Okay, that sounds like the same reasons teachers and professors choose to do many activities. Sounds like science education.

But what about the tools? Testing students’ blood type or blood pressure uses tools commonly available in high school labs (or even at the drug store). The tools used here though are not commonly available – these samples are being sent to a laboratory for analysis. Participants don’t therefore have a shared perspective that these are the tools of education. They seem like the tools of science.

What about the language? One of the main publically accessible sources of information is the On the Same Page website, in particular an FAQ section for students. It starts with the questions: What new things are going on in the scientific community that make this a good time for an educational effort focused on personalized medicine? and Why did Berkeley decide to tackle the topic of Personalized Medicine? These are answered with appeals to educational discourse – to academic strengths, student opportunities, and the stature of Berkeley as an educational center. The agent or actor in the answers to these questions is the university as an educational institutional: “This type of broad, scholarly discussion of an important societal issue is what makes Berkeley special. From a learning perspective, our goal is to deliver a program that will enrich our students’ education and help contribute to an informed California citizenry.”

Beside these educational questions, however, are questions that are part of the usual language and processes of science: Will students be asked to provide “informed consent” for this test of their DNA? What about students who are minors? How can you assure the confidentiality and privacy of a student’s genetic information? What will happen to the data from this experiment? Has this project been approved by Berkeley’s Human Subjects Institutional Review Board? These questions are the questions that appear in human subjects information letters. They make this sound like this is science. The answers to these questions take a different perspective to the ones above. The technical terms are not educational ones but scientific ones. The actor in these responses is neither the educational institution nor the student as an educational participant but the student as a research object: “All students whether they are minors or not will be asked to provide informed consent. They will read and sign a detailed form describing exactly what will be done with their DNA sample, how the information will be used and secured for confidentiality, how this information might benefit them, and what the alternatives are to submitting a sample.”

Anyone who has done human subjects research will recognize this language is almost word for word from typical guidelines for informed consent documents. My consent forms usually don’t deal with DNA samples (usually something much less exotic, such as student writing or oral contributions during class) but the intent is the same. This language sets out the individuals under consideration as the objects of scientific research.

The overall effect is one of a mixed metaphor – is this research or is it teaching? Are the students actually acting in the role of students or are they the objects of research? What standards should we be using to judge if this is an appropriate action. The materials posted by UC Berkeley suggest that they believe this should be judged as an educational project. But the reaction of bioethicists and advocacy groups (such as the Council for Responsible Genetics) suggests that it be judged by research standards.

Why does it matter? Because the ethical considerations are different. As I said above, I don’t usually deal with any materials that would be considered very controversial. I research the way people (including students) write, read, speak and listen in situations related to science. When dealing with students, many of the activities that I use for research could also be used for educational purposes. For example, in a project this year I distributed different versions of scientific reading materials. I asked students to read these in pairs. I tape recorded their conversations and collected their written responses to the text. As a classroom teacher, these are strategies that I have used for educational purposes. Tape recording students allows me to listen to the struggles they might have had while reading a text. Collecting their written responses allows me to assess their understanding. Parents would not object to their child’s teacher using these tools for these purposes. When I visit a classroom as a researcher though, I am judged differently. Parents often do not consent to me collecting their children’s writing. They object, especially frequently, to my requests to videotape or photograph their children. This is because they rightfully understand educational research as a different activity from education. They use different judgments and expect different standards.

From the sequence of events, it sounds as if Berkeley admin started this project with their own perspective that this was clearly educational without adequate consideration that, from an outside position, it would be judged from a research perspective. I don’t want to suggest that this whole thing is a simple miscommunication because there are serious ethical implications related to asking for DNA samples. As people try to figure out how an educational idea ended up in the state legislature, though, I just wanted to add my perspective that some of the controversy might come from that shiver factor – something just doesn’t feel right. One aspect of that feel might be that this challenges the boundaries of our understanding of the activities of science and science education. The language and the tools and the objectives are mixed, leading to confusion about exactly what standards this should be judged against. As tools that have traditionally been associated with laboratory science become more accessible (as genetic testing is becoming) this boundary is likely to be challenged more and more. Those making the decisions to use these tools for educational, rather than research, purposes need to understand that challenging peoples conceptions of the boundaries between science and science education can and will lead to conflict and that conflict should be addressed head on and from the beginning.

Suggest sessions for ScienceOnline2011

We’ll probably set up the new website and organizing wiki for ScienceOnline2011 at some point over the next couple of weeks. But in the meantime, I am having trouble keeping up with all the ideas people are sending me by e-mail or via Twitter. So I have started a new page on the last year’s wiki (thus old login will work for people who registered to edit the wiki over the past couple of years). Please log in and edit the page to add your ideas – sessions you’d volunteer to moderate: ScienceOnline2011 Program Suggestions.

ScienceOnline2010 – interview with Eric Roston

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

ScienceOnline2010 – interview with Beatrice Lugger

Continuing with the tradition from last two years, I will occasionally post interviews with some of the participants of the ScienceOnline2010 conference that was held in the Research Triangle Park, NC back in January. See all the interviews in this series here. You can check out previous years’ interviews as well: 2008 and 2009.
Today, I asked Beatrice Lugger, the founding editor of ScienceBlogs Germany, to answer a few questions.
Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your (scientific) background?
Beatrice Lugger pic2.JPGHi Bora. Thank you for asking me. I am a German woman from Bavaria. I live and work in Munich, the Oktoberfest city, famous for its beer, lederhosen and dirndl, King Ludwig’s castles, the Alps and the beautiful lakes in the surroundings. I must say I am a real Bavarian although I don’t have a dirndl. But I appreciate living in this megacity that resembles more of a village. I love bicycling, hiking, skiing, swimming or glider flying and can do it all in or very close to Munich. This is no tourist information. This is the truth.
Born in Landshut, Lower Bavaria, I came to Munich to study chemistry at the Ludwig Maximilian University. There at the University, in the late 1980s, in the time of forest dieback and the Chernobyl disaster, most teachers had still no idea of sustainability. As two fellow students and me managed to focus on ecological chemistry, which we additional studied at the Technical University, one of our teachers at LMU started his lecture with incensed shouting: “We are infiltrated here. For me the green in my soup is enough.” I tried my best to undermine the system but realized I won’t succeed that much in the research system itself. Simultaneously I couldn’t imagine working three years or longer on just one topic for PhD. I am too curious and I love communication, so after my Diploma I started writing. I worked for a small journal called “Politische Ökologie” for some years and then became a freelancer, writing for German newsmagazines and newspapers. To be honest, I did not write that much about ecological topics, but wrote continuously. I appreciate taking looks into different labs, talking and discussing with scientists and not at least trying to transport the information to a broader public.
Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?
With several years of writing my personal ambition changed. I still want to give people the best information. I still like to look into the labs and talk to scientists. But my interest is today focused more and more into the question how to provide first hand information from scientist themselves, how to start a dialogue between both sides – the public and the researchers – and how to overcome prejudices and, really, existing language barriers. One first step into this direction was with the first internet-hype around the year 2000 netdoktor.de, a medical portal, where we did not only offer lots of medical background information, but invited people to chat, email and get in direct contact with experts online. Later I certainly noticed and added one blog after another on my list to follow. Some years later I was asked to start scienceblogs.de in Germany by Hubert Burda Media. This was like Bingo for me. Within some months, the perfect team around me, the bloggers and me were ready to launch the website, which is still very successful. On the Scienceblogs.de platform we also started the first official blog of the Lindau Nobel Laureates Meeting, with which I am actually very engaged.
What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?
These days my children and the Lindau Nobel Laureates Meeting are taking up most of my passion (and time). First joining the conference in 2008 I have never been at such an impressive and ongoing meeting before as in Lindau. It is not only because there are Nobel laureates you may talk to. It is mainly that you can feel the energy and will from the young researchers to care for the future, to seek solutions, to overcome old rules and more. I hope we can transmit some of this through our current blogs and social media activities. And I very much appreciate the idea of a new dialogue between generations, which is supported by the Lindau Meetings. The young should not stop to listen and ask for the expertise of older generations and the experienced should share their knowledge and give a helping hand. This dialogue is building our future – and has ever before, but we stopped talking to each other.
What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?
If one considers the web as the business card of mankind then I hoped there would be more science and reflections in it. This implicates Open Access to all papers, sharing lectures, videos (also here from generations of scientists), platforms for a profound exchange – for scientists and for the public -… and a critical open dialogue about the upcoming science topics. Blogs do a lot for this. But I think there is a need for worldwide platforms to discuss further steps in a sense of humanity. We could start ethical dialogues from the very beginning. Today for example in ‘synthetic biology’ an ethical debate would be very helpful. Not that we are very close to a human made creature. But we need to discuss about all the opportunities. Is there a need for certain bacteria? Would we allow them to live outside of labs? Is it really in some way like playing God or is this nonsense? …
How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?
To be honest, I do not have my own blog. I blogged for Scienceblogs.de as long as I have been the editor in charge there. And today I blog for lindau.nature.com. I would love to blog more, but I don’t have the time for it – working and two children. So I became a fan of twitter. As I am working alone in my home office this is one of the possible ways for daily science and online media chats to come to me. It is perfect, if you select the perfect ones to follow.
Have you discovered any cool science blogs by the participants of your favourite science bloggers at the Conference?
Sure! You! And many others. Durham was the place to be to meet with many and it is hard to pick up just some of them – for example John Timmer from Ars Technica or Carl Zimmer, PZ Myers and many more. It was a real fun to finally meet Simon Frantz, the colleague from nobelprize.org or talk to Scott Huler, who also published his books in Germany.
What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2010 for you?
I especially enjoyed all sessions about Citizen Science such as Science for Citizens, Trixie Tracker or the Open Dinosaur Project. I have not been that aware of that topic before, maybe because in Europe there are not so many activities in this direction. But this fits exactly to my idea of overcoming old rules that separated scientists and science from the public. The more people engage themselves in sciences the easier I think a profound dialogue is possible. And the web is the best tool for citizen sciences – and the dialogue.
Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?
We had a small session about our social media activities which cover the Lindau Nobel Laureates Meetings, looking forward to find further and better ways of interaction between science generations with the help of the Web. All fellows in this session came up with great ideas and we have now realized some of them on our new central social media site. This was very helpful – and not all ideas are realized yet. So thank you very much for this opportunity and thanks to our attendees for their input!
It was so nice to see you again and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again next January.
Beatrice Lugger pic1.JPG