Tag Archives: media

Why the NYTimes “Green Blog” Is Now Essential

A few days ago we woke up to the news that the New York Times is eliminating their environment desk.

Predictably, the immediate reaction of many was “oh, noooo!”.

After all, whenever we hear such news, about a science or health or environmental desk being eliminated at a media organization, this means the reporters and editors of that beat have been fired.

But New York Times did not fire anyone. Instead, they will disperse the environmental reporters around the building. Instead of all of them sitting together, chatting with each other, they will sit next to other people, chatting with political, economic, science, health, education and other reporters.

The concern also arose as this piece of news came as a part of broader news of cost-cutting at the New York Times and actual impending layoffs of high-level editors.

And concern is certainly warranted. But there is potential for this to be a good thing. It all depends on the implementation.

My first reaction, quoted here, was that this may be a way to modernize environmental reporting at the Times. After all, reporters were not fired, the senior editors may be. All the environmental expertise is still at the Times, but now outside of its own ghetto, able to cross-fertilize with other beats, and to collaborate with reporters with other domains of expertise.

My cautiously positive reaction to this news probably comes from my recent thinking (and blogging) about three aspects of modern media. One is about the distinction between beats and obsessions. The other one is about the importance of expertise in today’s journalism. And the other one is the distinction between push and pull models of science (and other) communication.

Let me parse these a little bit more….

Beats vs. Obsessions

I wrote at length about this before, but let me restate it briefly, the part that is the most relevant to this situation.

….But another way the difference is explained is that an obsession is actually broader, not narrower, by being multidisciplinary. Instead of looking at many stories from one angle, it focuses on a single story from many angles. This may be a way to solve some Wicked Problems….

By dispersing environmental reporters from a dedicated desk to other desks, New York Times eliminated the environmental beat. Now environmental reporters are free to follow their own obsessions – whatever aspect of the environment they most care about at any given time. In essence, The New York Times is starting to quartzify itself (did I just invent a new word? I bet Quartz folks will be pleased). Instead of the environmental vertical, The New York Times will now have an environmental horizontal – environmental angle permeating a lot of other stories, as environmental reporters talk to and influence their new office neighbors.

Importance of Expertise

I have argued many times before, and most recently and forcefully here, that having or building expertise on the topic one covers is an essential aspect of modern journalism. Being a generalist will become harder and harder to do successfully. Specialization rules. And there are many kinds of expertise and ways of being a specialist.

It is much easier to turn an expert into a journalist than a journalist into an expert (though that is certainly not impossible), and there have been many calls lately (here is just the latest one) for journalism schools to insist on science, and even more importantly on math and statistics classes as requirements for their students.

I will now make an assumption that all NYTimes environmental reporters actually have sufficient expertise to report on the environment. They are now bringing that expertise to other desks. And they are now forced to discuss this with people whose expertise lies elsewhere. They will get into debates and discussions. They will teach each other. They will change each others minds on various things. They will be prompted by those discussions to dig in deep and do some research. That will inspire them to write the next piece and next piece, possibly in collaboration with each other. By forcing cross-fertilization between people with different specialties, NYTimes will force them all to learn from each other, become more sophisticated, to tackle more complex and nuanced stories, and to produce better articles. That’s the theory… We’ll see if that happens in practice. It all depends on implementation.

Push vs. Pull

You may have seen this excellent post that Danielle re-posted the other day.

I know I talk a lot about push vs. pull methods for science communication, but the earliest appearance of the concept on my blog is this brief but cool video clip. Soon after, I described and explained the concept in much more detail here and here. I have since applied it to a bunch of other topics, from the role of new/upcoming journalists to the different reporting strategies for different areas of science to strategies for gaining trust in the broader population to differences between science reporting on blogs vs traditional media to narrative storytelling in science.

I have argued many times that, despite the proliferation of many new outlets that may do reporting better, traditional big venues, like The New York Times (and just a few other ‘biggies’, like BBC, Guardian, Washington Post, The Economist, PBS, NPR and not many more), will continue to play an important role in the media ecosystem for quite some time. These are trusted brands for far too many people who grew up in that world. And they generally do a good job, even if nobody can be perfect, and expert bloggers are quick to point out errors as they appear.

But, nobody but a few crazy news junkies, all of whom are probably in the business anyway so not the target audience, reads any newspaper, including The New York Times, every day, every page, every article. I’ll tell you a secret – print edition of The New York Times lands on my front porch every night. My wife reads some of it sometimes. It is there mostly in case something I see online is so long that I want to sit back and read it on paper rather than on screen. Or if a friend of mine publishes something so I want to cut it out. Or my name appears in it, and I want to cut it out and save it, to show my Mom.

But back in the old times, when I actually read newspapers on paper, how did I do it? I pick up the paper. I open it up. I take out all the sections I am not interested in – Sports, Auto, Business, Real Estate, Classifieds, etc. – and throw them directly into the recycling bin. Then I read the parts I am interested in (front sections, domestic and world news, opinion, Sunday Magazine, Week In Review, Book Review). When I was a kid, I read the comics first, then TV and movie listings, then Kids section, perhaps some nature/science, perhaps some sports.

Other people have their own preferences. If there is such a thing as “Environment” section, or “Health” section, or “Science” section, how many people do you think automatically recycle them and go straight to Sports instead?

A dedicated Environment section is a pull method. It pulls in readers who are already interested in the topic. Others never see it. And being online doesn’t change a thing – it works the same way as on paper, in its own ghetto, isolated from the stuff people actually read.

The ‘push’ method inserts science/health/environment stories everywhere, in all sections of the paper, linked from all the pages of the website. It includes science/health/environment angles into many other stories. People interested in politics, economics, education, art, culture, comic strips, whatever, get a steady diet of relevant information mixed into their breakfast. They can’t avoid it any more. It is pushed onto them without their explicit request.

Let’s hope that The New York Times is thinking this way, as that would be the best possible outcome.

Central importance of the Green Blog

The managing editor Dean Baquet was reported to say this about the Green Blog: “If it has impact and audience it will survive”.

That is disappointing. Green Blog’s destiny is not, and especially now should not, be decided by the vagaries of traffic. It has suddenly become much more essential to the Times than they know, or so it seems. Let me try to explain…

Dispersing all the environmental reporting all around New York Times is a potentially great “push” strategy – feeding the unsuspecting readers a steady diet of environmental thinking.

But dispersing all the environmental reporting all around New York Times also makes it very difficult for the “pull” audience, the readers who are interested in environment, to find everything. People who are interested in environment, people like me, will be forced to look into automatically recyclable sections, like Business or Real Estate for articles with potentially environmental angles. That takes time and energy we don’t have, so we’ll rather miss those articles.

Now, some tech-savvy know-it-all is likely to post a comment “Use Tags”. Sure, you are a programmer, you know what tags are. Can you explain that to your grandma? Can you teach her how to use them?

No, the answer is Green Blog.

Green Blog should now become not just a cool place for interns to build their reporting chops, but also:

– place where all environmental reporters link to, explain, describe and quote from all their articles that appear elsewhere in the Times,
– place where someone puts together, every week, a summary and round-up of all environment-related Times articles of the previous week,
– place where all environmental reporters come to crowdsource their stories, get feedback and expert information from readers as they are working on their more and more complex stories
– place where all environmental reporters come to see each others work, now that they are not sitting next to each other,
– a central place where people like me can come and at a single glance see all of the Times environmental reporting in one place, and
– a central place where someone like Andy Revkin can check each day to see what else is going on in the Times regarding environment, so he can blog about it on Dot Earth.

This is like what ethologists call the “central foraging place”, like a beehive. Honeybees (readers) get information (blog posts) from other foragers where the flowers (NYT articles) are, so they go there (following links) to get nectar. They then return to the hive (Green Blog) to deposit the nectar (their comments), to tell others where else the flowers are good (e.g., on other sites beyond NYT) and to get new information so they can go for another run, again and again.

Now that there is no Environment desk and no Environment editor, the Green Blog should assume those two roles.

Now, if only higher ups at the Times get to read this post. If you know them, can you share the link to this post with them?

Image: Everystockphoto.com


Can We Ask Presidential Candidates about Science?


Back in December 2011, The Guardian USA and New York University’s Studio20 (see their Tumblr – note: I am associated with the program) announced a new joint project – US presidential election 2012: the citizens agenda. Here is some background information from that time:

The Guardian USA:

The citizens agenda: making election coverage more useful: We invite you to help refresh the media’s tired templates of campaign coverage to address issues people really care about

Studio 20:

Studio 20 Will Collaborate With The Guardian on How to Improve Election Coverage: On Dec. 8, Studio 20 and The Guardian US jointly announced that they will collaborate in the development of a “citizens agenda” approach to election coverage during the 2012 campaign for president.

Nieman Journalism Lab:

Civic journalism 2.0: The Guardian and NYU launch a “citizens agenda” for 2012: Jay Rosen and Amanda Michel reunite for a project that aims to inject citizen voices into campaign coverage.


The Citizens Agenda in Campaign Coverage: The idea is to learn from voters what those voters want the campaign to be about, and what they need to hear from the candidates to make a smart decision. So you go out and ask them: “what do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes in this year’s election?”

Nadja Popovich:

Re-thinking Elections 2012: As part of the Studio 20 graduate program at NYU, we’re partnering with the Guardian on a big question: how do we make election coverage more useful to the average user? So, today we launch the “Citizens Agenda”, an attempt to do just that.

What does that all mean?

The idea is for a media organization with a strong reputation, large audience, and necessary resources to team up with a group of smart, dedicated, innovative, tech-savvy and Web-savvy students of journalism to explore and analyze the questions posed by the media to the presidential candidates (most notably during the presidential debates), to see what questions are asked frequently, what questions rarely, and what questions not at all – and then to provide the citizens with the opportunity to have their own voices heard, adding questions they want to ask, inquiring about topics they care about the most:

Have the 839 GOP debate questions reflected the ‘citizens agenda’?: By studying the 20 Republican presidential debates of this election season, we can better see if the questions being asked correspond with the issues voters actually care about.

Some questions that may be of great interest or importance to the voters may be tip-toed around or completely ignored by the media, while other questions that are asked often may not be as informative to the public. For example:

Don’t ask, don’t tell: Mormonism mentions scant at GOP debates: Despite being the religion of two candidates, only three questions over 20 debates have dared to utter the M-word.

There have been 20 presidential debates so far this season, generating a total of 839 questions. The students have analyzed the questions, classified them and are starting to publish the details of the analysis – this is the first one, with more to come over the next several days:

The GOP debates: what questions do journalists like to ask? We looked at all the questions that have been posed to the Republican candidates in the 20 debates since May 5, 2011.

Interestingly, most of the questions were quite serious and substantial, but a small percentage could be characterized as “fluff” questions, designed primarily to entertain the audience, and secondarily hoping that a candidate may trip up or say something unusual or revealing:

The nine quirkiest questions from the Republican debates: There have been some strange moments over the last 20 debates involving the GOP candidates. Here are our favourites.

Interestingly, in some of the debates, the candidates were asked questions posed by the public, either by the members of the audience in the room, or from Twitter. Those questions were much different – they covered different topics, were often quite tough, and usually had a personal story as a starting point. By posing problems, the audience questions forced the candidates to abandon the talking points and put themselves in a “problem-solving mode”, which may be potentially much more useful to the television viewers at home:

At the GOP debates, ‘regular people’ didn’t shy away from tough questions: When the mic was handed over to audience members, they framed their questions around personal stories – and big issues

What was asked so far?

According to the first analysis (and more is upcoming), there are certain topics or types of questions that were asked at the debates very frequently. For example: on the economy and jobs (227 questions), the candidates’ lives and records (223 questions), fixing government and reducing the debt (188 questions), foreign policy and national security (160 questions), strategy and maneuvering among the candidates – the “horse-race journalism” focused on polls, electability and mutual criticisms of candidates, attempting to provoke a fight between them on the stage (113 questions), and the “How conservative are you?” type of question (104 questions).

Interestingly, concerning foreign policy questions, out of 200+ countries of the world, only a handful were mentioned in the questions, most frequently Iran and China, while many other countries, regions and entire continents were completely ignored (including very rare mentions of Iraq).

On the other end of the spectrum, restoring American greatness (“Are we still as powerful as we once were?” – 9 questions), human interest fluff (12 questions), education (12 questions) and religion (24 questions, but see above for lack of questions on Mormonism), were not often asked. There was nothing about, for example, women’s issues (apart from abortion), or about small-business owners.

In the middle are: immigration (61 questions to multiple candidates, 16 to Gingrich, nine to Romney, six to Santorum, six to Paul), healthcare (53 questions), social issues: abortion and gay rights (46 questions), and social spending: Medicaid, Medicare, social security and unemployment (42 questions).

Science and technology questions, including space and climate, were in the middle of the pack, with a total of 44 questions asked to date. Here are some examples:

On climate change:

John Harris (Politico): Governor Perry — Governor Perry, Governor Huntsman were not specific about names, but the two of you do have a difference of opinion about climate change. Just recently in New Hampshire, you said that weekly and even daily scientists are coming forward to question the idea that human activity is behind climate change. Which scientists have you found most credible on this subject?

And a follow up: John Harris (Politico): Just to follow up quickly. Tell us how you’ve done that. [applause] Are there specific — specific scientists or specific theories that you’ve found especially compelling, as you? (both from September 7, 2011 | Republican Candidates Debate in Simi Valley, California)

On stem cell research:

Shannon BREAM: Alright, Governor Pawlenty, just days ago a Federal court struck down the ban on using Federal funds for embryonic stem cell research. You identify yourself as strongly pro life, but you don’t oppose government funding for research on existing stem cell lines already derived from embryos, but is that still spending tax payer money on elements that were generated by, at some point destroying an embryo. (MAY 5, 2011 | FOX SOUTH CAROLINA DEBATE)

On energy and environment:

Brian Williams (NBC News): Governor, time. Congresswoman Bachmann, a question about energy, back to that subject for a moment. Were you quoted correctly — and do you stand by it — as wanting to drill in the Everglades in Florida? (September 7, 2011 | Republican Candidates Debate in Simi Valley, California)

On green energy:

Bret Baier (Fox News): Governor Perry, you — you have railed against the special treatment of Ford and Solyndra as have the other candidates here tonight. And particularly the tax code incentives for green technologies and allowances that have been made for this industry. But it’s nexus, governor you have afforded the same attention to the oil industry. Back in 2003, you signed a bill that reduced the tax paid by some natural gas companies that have helped them reap since, better than $7 billion in tax savings. So I — I guess what I’m saying is, are you guilty of the same behavior as governor, favoring an industry, that you claim this president has, favoring the green industry? (December 15, 2011 | Republican Candidates Debate in Sioux City, Iowa)

On the EPA:

John DISTASO: Speaker Gingrich, what exactly is an Environmental Solutions Agency? I don’t — I think a lot of people might not know or understand that — why you want to disband the EPA and set up — set up something that kind of looks like the EPA? (Republican Candidates debate in Concord, Hampshire January 8, 2012)

On nuclear energy and the Yucca Mountain:

Q from audience: QUESTION: My question for you is, do you support opening the national nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain? ANDERSON COOPER: Speaker Gingrich, we’ll start with you. [crosstalk] ANDERSON COOPER: Sorry, go ahead. ANDERSON COOPER: Is Yucca Mountain that place? ANDERSON COOPER: You were for opening it in Congress, right? (Republican Candidates debate, Las Vegas, Nevada October 18, 2011)

On the space program:

WOLF BLITZER, CNN: We have a question. I want to speaker to weigh in as well. [applause]This question is related from — we got it from Twitter. Speaker Gingrich, how do you plan to create a base on the moon while keeping taxes down in eight years? [laughter] (January 26th, 2012 | Republican Candidates Debate in Jacksonville, Florida)

How to build a citizen’s agenda?

Next presidential debate will be on Wednesday, February 22nd, moderated by John King of CNN. Another four debates have been scheduled in case no clear candidate emerges in the meantime. After that, there will be general election debates between the candidates of the two major parties. As the year progresses, the program will evolve, adapting to the circumstances on the ground.

In this first phase, between today and the next debate, the citizens (both of the USA and other countries) will be encouraged to post their questions – what they would like to see the candidates asked – in the comment sections of this post. Alternatively, people can tweet their suggested questions at @JohnKingCNN using the hashtag #unasked. The students will also do a quick classification of all the questions to send to John King’s producer just before the debate.

Will there be many questions? Will they be much different from what the media asks anyway (after all, the mass media shapes the public opinion)? Will a few of those questions emerge as strong contenders by being asked repeatedly by many people? Will John King actually ask one or more of these questions? Will moderators of future debates ask the citizens’ questions? Will other media outlets pick up these questions and ask the candidates whenever they have the opportunity to do so? That is still to be seen.

Asking about science?

Many important policy questions are in some way related to science or rely on scientific information. The same can be said of medicine, environment and technology.

While many science publications collect candidates’ quotes on scientific matters every four years (including us, just a couple of weeks ago), attempts to get presidential candidates to answer science questions have been made in the past without much success. Most notably, ScienceDebate.org managed to get some answers from both Obama and McCain four years ago, and intends to try to do the same this year. Occasionally a very lucky blogger may get an exclusive interview with one of the candidates specifically about science (I was that lucky four years ago, interviewing then presidential candidate John Edwards).

But questions posed by a large number of citizens are harder to ignore than questions posed by an organization, be it a specialized science media organization, or an organization of scientists (which can be dismissed as an “interest group” by the politicians). Also, questions about science, when placed in the mix with other questions of interest to the public, may have a better chance to get answered than if science is kept in isolation and treated as a special topic.

I am confident that the readers of Scientific American would love to ask science-related questions of the candidates, and can come up with good, well-informed questions that can lead to important and informative answers. This is your chance to influence the Citizen’s Agenda, by posting science-based questions on the Guardian site or on Twitter. Let’s see if we can influence the Citizen’s Agenda, and if that, in turn, may affect what questions get asked of the candidates in the mass media.


Image: Nadja Popovich

#sci4hels – the ‘killer’ science journalists of the future want your feedback

If you are a really regular, diligent reader of this blog, you may remember back in September when I announced a panel I have organized for the next year’s WCSJ2013. The eighth World Conference of Science Journalists, organized by World Federation of Science Journalists will be held in Helsinki, Finland on June 24-28th, 2013, and in that post I explained in great detail what the panel will be all about, what was my initial motivation for proposing that panel, and the systematic method I used to pick, out of dozens and dozens of excellent potential candidates, the four people who will travel to Finland and dazzle everyone there.

The session is:

The ‘killer’ science journalists of the future

The science media ecosystem has never been as big, as good or as vibrant as it is today. Many young writers are joining the ranks of veterans each year – and they are good! Many of them have science backgrounds. They all write really well. And they are digital natives, effortlessly navigating today’s online world and using all the tools available to them. But some of them are going beyond being well adapted to the new media ecosystem – they are actively creating it. They experiment with new forms and formats to tell stories online, and if the appropriate tool is missing – they build it themselves. Not only can they write well, they can also code, design for the web, produce all types of multimedia, and do all of this with seemingly more fun than effort, seeing each other as collaborators rather than competitors. I’d like to see the best of them tell us what they do, how they do it, and what they envision for the media ecosystem they are currently building.

The panel will explore skills and attitudes needed to succeed in the emerging science media ecosystem and in building that ecosystem to be even better, more efficient, and having a broader reach. It will explore how to make the world better both for science journalism and for science journalists. We will explore what skills and attitudes are important for new, up-and-coming science writers to become successful and to help bring in a better science media world into being.

Different people have different goals. Some will be hired as staff writers or editors in specialized science media organizations, others in general-purpose media organizations, be it online, print, radio, television, or other types of media. Some will pool resources with friends and start new media organizations. Some want to become successful Public Information Officers for universities, institutes, companies, organizations of governmental entities. Others want to become successful as freelance writers. And yet others may want to become respected, popular science bloggers while keeping their other daytime jobs.

We will explore issues related to necessary technical skills, attitudes toward tasteful self-promotion, required levels and types of expertise, and more, both as advice to individuals, and as advice to science writing programs and journalism schools on how to upgrade their teaching philosophies to adapt to the 21st century.

The panelists are not waiting till June, though. They have already started, and will use the next seven or so months to discuss all of these issues in various ways. It’s not just what they will say during the 60 minutes of the panel, but also how they will do it – show, not tell. This will not be a traditional series of droning talks with dreaded PowerPoints. As veterans of ScienceOnline conferences, they know how to make a panel dynamic, interactive and exciting. The panel itself is not all, it will be just the final highlight of months of discussion, and hopefully the discussions will continue after the panel as well, provoked by the panel.

First, make sure you visit, bookmark and regularly check the updates on the panel’s Homepage! The website will be active, continuously adding resources, tools, important links (including to the blog posts by all of us and reactions by others), and hoping to foster discussions of the topic. They may have other ideas as well, perhaps a Question Of The Week, some Google Hangouts, we’ll see.

If you are going to be in Helsinki at the WCSJ2013, we hope the website/blog will motivate you to attend our panel. It should also help you come prepared, so you can join in the discussion.

If you cannot be there, the discussions will occur – and are already occurring – online: before, during and after the panel, so please join in.

For now, follow our discussions on the website and our blogs, as well as on Twitter by searching for the hashtag #sci4hels. Also follow us on Twitter at @sci4hels and subscribe to our Twitter List. Also check out our Facebook page and our Google Plus page.

We’d like to hear from you. Science journalism students and professors. Editors at specialized science media outlets and at general media outlets. Founders of new media start-ups. Freelancers. PIOs and directors of internal communications. Bloggers. Researchers. People who entered the science journalism profession “horizontally”, bypassing schools of journalism and going straight from science, perhaps via blogging, into the business. And most importantly the audience, the users of science content – what do you like, what do you want, what do you expect?

We have already published several blog posts on the topic, gearing up toward the event. And we will collect those, as well as other relevant articles, on the Essential Readings page. These can be a good starting point for the discussion. See, for now:

Erin Podolak:

The Question of Code

Kathleen Raven:

Generalists and specialists can coexist

Erin Podolak and Bora Zivkovic:

The SA Incubator: Helping Hatch Science Writers Since July 2011
The SA Incubator, or, why promote young science writers?

Bora Zivkovic:

#sci4hels – ‘Killer’ science journalists of the future ready to take over the world!
Beats vs obsessions, columns vs. blogs, and other angels dancing on pins
Nate Silver and the Ascendance of Expertise
The other kinds of expertise

Finally, in case you missed it back in September, let me introduce the panel again:


Bora Zivkovic

Bora Zivkovic was born in former Yugoslavia where he studied veterinary medicine and trained horses. He moved to the USA in 1991 and did his graduate research on circadian rhythms in birds at North Carolina State University. He is currently Blogs Editor at the Scientific American, where he manages a network of almost 60 top-notch science bloggers. He is also a Co-Founder and Director of ScienceOnline.com and the series editor of the annual anthology ‘Best Science Writing Online’ (formerly known as “Open Laboratory”). In his spare time, Bora teaches Introductory Biology to non-traditional students at N.C.Wesleyan College. Homepage, blog, Twitter, ScienceOnline, Open Laboratory.


Rose Eveleth:

Rose Eveleth is a producer, designer, writer and animator based in Brooklyn. She switched from studying krill as a scientist to studying scientists who study krill as a journalist. Now she tries to explain sciencey stuff for places like The New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed, BBC Future, Smart Planet and OnEarth. She’s a regular blogger for Smithsonian Magazine’s newest online endeavor – Smart News, and a part time editor of all things animated at TED Education. In her spare time she makes weird collages, bikes, and day dreams about hanging out with a pack of foxes. Homepage, blog, Twitter, Facebook page, The SA Incubator interview, Scientific American articles, Scienceline posts


Lena Groeger:

Lena Groeger is a journalist-designer-developer who builds data driven interactive web applications and graphics at ProPublica, an investigative news organization in New York City. She has a masters degree from NYU in science journalism, and is particularly interested in psychology and neuroscience. Homepage, blog, Twitter, ProPublica articles, new job announcement, Scientific American articles and blog posts, Scienceline posts.


Kathleen Raven:

Kathleen Raven is a freelance science and health writer based in Athens, Ga. She recently wrapped up a science writing internship at Nature Medicine in New York City. In May 2013, she will graduate from the University of Georgia’s Health & Medical Journalism M.A. program. Last year, she earned her M.S. degree there in conservation ecology. Homepage, blog, Twitter, Reuters Health articles, Spoonfull of Medicine articles, Scientific American articles, Scientific American blog posts, The SA Incubator interview, ScienceOnline2011 interview.

Erin Podolak:

Erin is a member of the narrative reporting team at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, MA in the United States. At Dana-Farber she concentrates on writing about basic science, clinical research and new technologies for several different types of cancer. Erin recently completed her Master’s degree in Journalism with a specialty concentration in science communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She also studied science writing at Lehigh University where she earned her Bachelor’s degree in 2009. Erin has held a variety of internships in journalism and communications, including a year of writing science news for the website of the journal BioTechniques. In addition Erin writes and manages her own blog Science Decoded – one woman’s adventures navigating science and the media. Homepage, blog, Twitter, Incubator interview.

The other kinds of expertise

If you read my old and new posts about the media, science journalism, etc., you know I come down strongly on the side of specialists and against generalists. But it is a caricature, a simplification I have to use to make my posts clearer, and to cut my posts down to a semi-manageable length 😉

Yes, people are hungry for information. They are asking to be educated, not served content. And education requires expertise.

If people were not hungry to be educated, and if there was no inherent trust in experts, there would be no interest in either editing or using Wikipedia, there would be no interest in TED talks, and there would be no interest in either producing or using MOOCs and other forms of online education. I am far from being the only one who sees an article in a newspaper and, before sharing the link anywhere, first double-checks it with an expert blogger. Which is why expert bloggers are so popular.

We used to read a newspaper, nodding along, assuming they got it all right, until we get to an article that covers a topic on which we actually know something, an article within the domain of our own expertise. Then we scream bloody murder: “Why can’t they ever cover X correctly, idiots!”. The assumption everyone had was that media covered everything well except the domain of our expertise.

The emergence of the Web, especially the expert blogs (and expert commenters), opened our eyes. We saw that every expert is complaining about (and skillfully dissecting) the coverage of their own area of expertise, leading to the conclusion that the traditional media covers everything poorly. We started losing trust in the media and consuming it less. The way media reacted to economic consequences of lost trust was to fire experts and hire generalists who were asked to cover seven different topics per day, not covering anything well. Audience asked for expertise and for education that could only be provided by specialists, yet the media responded by offering more and shorter articles all written by diluted generalists.

But these are extremes I needed to use in my past writing in order to make a point clearly and strongly. So, here is the missing piece, about varieties of expertise that exist between the two extremes of super-expertise of hyper-specialists and the super-diluted non-expertise of hyper-generalists.

Temporary Expertise

If you work for one of those media mills, expected to churn out several articles per day, good luck with that. The work will, inevitably, be shallow, superficial, formulaic and sprinkled with inaccuracies.

But if you have the luxury of having time to write something longer, perhaps a feature, or a series of articles or blog posts on the same topic, then you have time to become a temporary expert. You have time to read books and articles on the topic, to study, to interview many experts, to take a class, to go to a meeting or conference or a series of public lectures, to think about it, process it, digest it, internalize all of that knowledge. You have time to learn enough to be able to write a piece that is accurate.

Expanding into new Expertise

Every one of us is an expert on something, at least one thing, probably several things.

This also means that each one of us is completely non-expert on many other things.

One can argue that each one of us is the expert on our own personal experiences. And if one writes about that, this can certainly be wonderful, riveting reading. But it’s fiction, and entertainment, even if it hints at some bigger generalities about human condition. It is not expertise, and it does not educate or inform.

And then there are topics we all think we are experts on and like to pontificate about. For example: politics. But even there, there are people who know the arcane rules of the Senate, or details of how Electoral College works, or actually sit down and read through thousands of pages of the bill going through the House. Such people have a much more deserved reputation of being experts than the rest of us cheering for our side.

My personal rule: never write about topics I am not at least somewhat expert on. And if I write about politics, to make it clear it is personal opinion, colored by my own background – from comparing USA to ex-Yugoslavia, to having studied some psychology of voter behavior.

There is no money you can pay me to write about exoplanets (or baseball!!!). I find the topic fascinating, but I have zero background. It would take me months of intense, focused, time-consuming study to even reach the level of “temporary expert” (and several years to become a real expert). Thus, I’d run my draft of the article by real experts…who should have written the piece themselves anyway, right?

My narrowest expertise is in “role of gonadal steroid hormones in the development of individual, strain, age and sex differences in circadian and photoperiodic time-measurement in Japanese quail”. While doing my own research on this, I also read a lot and thought a lot about related topics. I know quite a lot about sex hormones, brain and behavior, about circadian rhythms, and about bird physiology and behavior. Even more broadly, I studied quite a lot about animal physiology, animal behavior, and evolution. I took several graduate courses in history and philosophy of science. I have written blog posts about biological clocks in non-bird organisms, from bacteria, protists, fungi and plants, to arthropods, mammals and even humans (although I systematically avoided the literature on humans throughout grad school). I have written blog posts about other aspects of bird behavior. I have written about evolution and ecology and hormones.

So, a few weeks ago, when a bunch of people started asking if NYC subway rats would drown or survive Sandy, I decided I had enough background to be able to extend my area of expertise to rats. This is not my area of expertise, but I knew enough to know where to look, how to evaluate information, and how to quickly get up to speed. So I wrote a blog post about it (and a follow-up) and ended up linked and quoted all over the media. I was a ‘temporary expert’ on rat behavior during floods, but this expertise was not isolated from my other expertise – it is tangential to it, quite closely related.

When I write about human clocks, that is expanding my expertise. When I write about sleep, that is expanding my expertise. Those are not the cores of my expertise, but they are related enough, close enough that I can figure it out pretty fast.

The worst situation is when one is not even aware that a topic requires expertise and pontificates anyway. Remember a few years ago when old-skool, curmudgeon journalists wrote op-eds making fun of blogs (and later Twitter), each one of them instantly revealing they have never actually seen a blog?

Or today’s example – this one – which appears totally ignorant of a decade of writing, studies, companies, software and other stuff related to Open Access publishing (and scientific publishing in general, and alternative methods of peer-review). How does one even start critiquing such a piece? Where does one start, when so much has happened in the decades since the last time those arguments may have appeared valid? With the definition of “publishing”? Or “what is publishing for?”. Or “at what point in the timeline of scientific process does publication fall (hint: not at the end)?” Or “when did pre-publication, publisher-driven peer-review become accepted (hint: around 1960 or so, before which science worked perfectly fine for a few centuries)?”

So, better to stick to one’s own expertise, and then slowly expand to neighboring topics. Don’t jump head first into a topic you know nothing about. People will know. And they will point and laugh.

Technical Expertise

There are many more ways to tell a story than just a block of text. There is art and illustration. There are comic strips and cartoons. There is data journalism and infographics. There are talk podcasts and non-talk sound files. There are photography and slide-shows. There are animations and videos. And there is interactive stuff – “move the sliders!” – where users can change inputs to see how it changes the output.

Just like long articles (and blog posts) have a much longer staying power than short ones, good multimedia packages also are treated differently by users, regarded as valuable resources, something to save, bookmark and share with friends.

People who make that stuff are not topical experts. They have other kinds of expertise. They have technical skills needed to make that. They may have heightened sense of visual aesthetics. A really good ear for rhythm and timing. They may be really good at math. And as this kind of work usually takes more time, they may become ‘temporary experts’ on the topic as well.

Just like we, as users, run to topical experts, our “Go To” people to learn about the topics that are in the news, so producers of media run to their own “Go To” people when they want to produce videos, or infographics, or multimedia packages.

Many people produce videos, but not all have the same appeal. There are many good cartoonists out there, but there is a reason why we all flock to XKCD, PhD Comics and The Oatmeal – they are really, really good. For data journalism, infographics and interactive stuff, some big old organizations are really good at that, e.g., The Guardian and The New York Times, but we also check out ProPublica which really specializes in that format and sets the standard for everyone else.

For a multimedia package to work both short-term and long-term, it has to be appealing, inviting, intuituve to explore, entertaining, informational, educational, beautifully and clearly written (the text parts of it), and 100% factually accurate. Thus such a package is usually done by a team, at least two people: a topical expert, and a multimedia expert. Both are experts, both are specialists, both are journalists, and both can become hot commodities in the media market.

Amazing Writing

Let’s go back to the wild days of those silly “bloggers vs. journalists” op-eds a few years ago. It is interesting how they all had the same pattern, using some of the same arguments.

“But who will report the news as it happens, from the scene?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples of bloggers who did exactly that.

“But who will do in-depth, investigative reporting?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples of bloggers who do that every week.

“But who will cover local town councils and school boards?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples of bloggers who are doing an amazing job with that.

“But who will speak truth to the power?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples of bloggers who did just that.

“But who will effect positive change, affect legislation, diplomatic efforts?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples when bloggers did exactly that.

“But the word Blog is funny!”

Eh? That’s an argument? Well, “nut graf” is funny, too. And so is “lede”. And “word limit” is a funny concept.

“B-b-b-but at least we can write! So there!”

To which the only appropriate response is a throaty laughter.

I don’t think you mean what we mean when you say “writing”….

Writing is not just the ability to compose grammatically correct sentences. Writing is not the ability to put together sentences really fast in order to turn in the copy on deadline. Writing is not the ability to follow the formula of the 500-word inverted pyramid news piece that is just like all such pieces everywhere, including all the tired old metaphors, topped by over-hyped headlines. Though all of those skills can be useful sometimes. And writing is not keeping readers’ attention because they cannot avert their eyes from the train-wreck of an op-ed you just wrote.

Writing is the ability to get the reader who finished your first sentence to decide to read your second sentence. And third. And then fourth. And all the way to the end. And then say “Wow, this was good, let me share with all my friends”. Topic, length, form, format – those do not matter. It can be a tweet, it can be a book. It can be about duck penises, it can be about cancer. A good writer writes riveting, beautiful prose. Not convoluted, Victorian-style prose, but clear, exciting prose imbued with one’s personality.

Writing is also the ability to write riveting, can’t-put-down prose without giving up one inch of factual accuracy.

People who write riveting prose but what they say is BS are not good writers, they are what I like to call ‘seductive’ writers. I already mentioned David Brooks last week as a good example of a ‘seductive’ writer.

The way he invented stuff out of thin air about neuroscience and psychology was much worse error by Jonah Lehrer, another ‘seductive’ writer, than any plagiarism, “self” or “non-self” (non-responsiveness to expert criticisms in comments was his #2 error, and complete lack of interest in being a part of the science blogging community from which he could have learned both neuroscience and ethics was his #3).

There is a reason why we all stop whatever we are doing and go read long new pieces by the likes of Deborah Blum, Steve Silberman or David Dobbs. They do beautiful writing, their writing is assuredly 100% factually accurate, it is always interesting, and we always learn something new.

What I am trying to say is that good writing is a form of expertise. Many can quickly put together a formulaic news piece. Relatively few are really good writers in the sense I am trying to convey here. Media organizations that want to be successful have to try to lure in and hire some of those good writers, no matter what their area of topical expertise, or how much they explore neighboring topics to extend their expertise, or how much they tend to hit new topics and become temporary experts on those (and how much time they need for this). Some topical experts are also good writers. Some technical experts are also good writers. Mix and match, combine the different types, give them freedom and incentives to collaborate with each other, and you can have an awesome newsroom.

Expertise: the next generation

You are probably aware that one of the things I most like to do is “scouting” for talent, discovering new, up-and-coming science writers, bloggers and journalists, giving them opportunities, mentoring them, promoting their work, helping them become visible and successful.

Several science writing programs in the USA are churning out small armies of such amazing new writers each year (unfortunately, most other US schools and all the rest of the world are yet to catch up).

Many of them have background in science, thus have real scientific expertise to draw from. Others have always been fascinated by a topic and explored it in great detail over the years. So they are topical experts, always working on expanding their expertise, but being careful not to jump into something they don’t know anything about.

Many of them are skillful with a variety of modern tools, can troubleshoot them, modify them, and generally get them to work the way they want. Many experiment with a variety of other, non-textual forms of communication. Many can code and thus make their own tools if needed. Thus many of them are also technical experts.

They tend to be sticklers for accuracy. They do triple fact-checks on every word, number, symbol and punctuation point before turning in the piece. This also makes them good temporary experts whenever the assignments calls for it.

And many of them are beautiful writers as well, keeping my attention all the way to the end.

So, the new generation seems to combine all kinds of expertise. And working with them is a pleasure. They are so…professional!

Working with one of them, e.g., for a Guest Blog post, is so easy! We do not exchange 500 emails, half of which are irrelevant, half of which are CCd to irrelevant other people, half of which contain bits and pieces of the assignment (and I am the one who needs to track the most recent versions and patch them all together?), half of which contain images in wrong formats I cannot use, etc. No, the usual exchange is about six emails:

Email #1: Hey Bora, here is my pitch.
Email #2: That sounds great. Do it. When do you think you can have it done?
Email #3: How about April 15th?
Email #4: Deal. April 15th at 12 noon EDT it is.
Email #5 (on April 15th at noon): Here it is (attached), let me know if you want any changes.
Email #6: Perfect. Published. Thank you so much. The URL is: http…. ”

What I get is perfectly formatted text (not for Word, for WordPress), perfectly sized images with links and credits, author bios, and perfect embed codes that render multimedia exactly the way they should look. Publish-ready.

I sit down ready to edit and realize, fifteen minutes later, that I have come to the end without having to make a single change, not even to fix any typos as there were none. And I really enjoyed reading it. And that is not easy – I am a jaded, old blogger with ADHD, so keeping my attention all the way to the end is hard, and making me enjoy it even harder.

Yet these new generations keep doing this to me! Over and over again (sure, some of the veterans are also extremely good, but there the experience varies). Just the latest example – this post was due at 1:00pm. I received it (including images, embed code, etc) at 1:00pm. It was published at 1:16pm. It came in perfect. All I needed to do was read, copy, paste and click “Publish”, then spend a couple of minutes promoting it on social media and my work for the day was done. Easy. How nice for me. More time for me to read something else, or write a post of my own. Or take a long weekend.

They are really good, which makes me hopeful for the future. Now go ahead and hire them (you can find many of them in the archives here)! If you don’t, they’ll start their own media empires and vanquish the competition that still hires generalists 😉


Nate Silver and the Ascendance of Expertise
Beats vs obsessions, columns vs. blogs, and other angels dancing on pins
#sci4hels – ‘Killer’ science journalists of the future ready to take over the world!
The SA Incubator, or, why promote young science writers?
Science Blogs – definition, and a history
#scio12: Multitudes of Sciences, Multitudes of Journalisms, and the Disappearance of the Quote.
Blogs: face the conversation
Is education what journalists do?
Telling science stories…wait, what’s a “story”?
The line between science and journalism is getting blurry….again

Nate Silver and the Ascendance of Expertise

Nate Silver is now a meme (also source of the image on the left).

I usually pepper my posts with links, but today I feel lazy, so I listed a bunch of links at the bottom – hours of fascinating reading you can have after you read my post!

Who is Nate Silver?

Nate Silver likes to play with numbers. He started out with sports, then burritos, then politics. He, using statistics, correctly predicted most (not all, but almost all) presidential and congressional races in 2008, 2010 and 2012. Back in 2010, he came to ScienceOnline and moderated a session (together with Arikia Millikan) on using math to study human behavior online – the Web Science.

What does Nate Silver do?

Twenty years ago, there were only a few pollsters out there and they did relatively few polls. Today, there are many polling organizations and they, especially in the home stretch of an election, poll incessantly, every day. They do national polls, state-wide polls, even local polls. Over the years, they refine their methodology. Some predict outcomes better than others, for a variety of reasons.

Nate Silver averages all the polls, weights each poll according to the statistics of past performances, and produces a daily-changing set of numbers predicting outcomes of various electoral races. For the Presidental elections, unlike pundits focusing on national polls, he rightly focuses on state polls, especially in swing states, in order to predict the winner of the Electoral College – the only thing that really counts (we can discuss if that is right or wrong, but that is how the game is played now, so that it what he measures).

What did Nate Silver not do?

As a couple of bloggers (see links at the bottom) pointed out, Nate Silver did not do Big Data. These are pretty small and limited data-sets he has at his disposal. In aggregate, they are powerfully predictive, but that is not Big Data, though the motivations and methodologies are similar.

As Silver started in sports statistics, being a part of the Moneyball movement in baseball, people assume that what he is doing now is the same thing. But it is not. It is also not the same as what he did with burritos, though that comes closer.

In baseball (and later in basketball, though horse racing and betting industry has been doing this for a century at least), there are hard data. Player hit the ball or did not. Caught the ball or did not. The ball ended in a spot X or did not. It was a home-run or it wasn’t. Empirical data. Are two players good buddies or not does not matter that much at that level – they are both professionals and will do their best regardless of interpersonal relationships, body language and other subjective parameters. Thus, stats in sports work well, as they are based on clearly measurable things. From such stats, one can rank players and teams, and predict with quite a high degree of accuraccy which teams will win and which will lose. Or which horses have which odds for winning a race.

So again, What did Nate Silver do?

People focus on numbers, imagining they are hard data. But remember that the numbers come from polls. Polls are questionnaires. What Nate Silver did was social science.

Polls ask questions. People answer them differently. They may have conscious or unconscious biases. They will have different backgrounds and different levels of being informed. Some will lie on purpose, to skew the polls, as part of their activism. Some will lie unconsciously because they are afraid to tell what they really think. People respond differently if they are polled over their land-line phones (public) and differently if called on their cell-phones (private), and differently in online polls versus being asked in person, face to face (e.g., in exit polls). Some people put a lot of thought into their answers. Others want to do it as fast as possible and go with gut feeling, or even almost-random responses.

Different pollsters will ask similar questions, but with slightly different wording. And we know that wording affects the responses. The order of questions also affects responses.

Each pollster can only reach a limited number of people, so the small sample size results in a pretty large error.

But when Nate (and others) averages the polls, he increases the sample size, thus reducing the error. When he takes into account the past accuracy of pollsters and weights them accordingly, he further reduces the error. People who lie in opposite directions cancel each other. Pollsters who are biased in opposite directions cancel each other. A well-balanced, weighted average can take care of all of that, and produce a much more accurate prediction.

But importantly, it is still not numbers from physical measurements. It is statistics (and yes, Statistics is a sub-discipline of Mathematics) applied to messy human minds and brains and emotions and moods.

It’s people!

Why Nate Silver now?

A lot of it has to do with the current political climate. I wrote my thoughts about it on my Tumblr as I did not think it was appropriate to post it here, but go take a look.

In short, it is a backlash to alternative reality, alternative facts, alternative science, alternative math. It is a backlash to the self-perpetuating cycles of mutual lying between rightwing media, rightwing politicians, rightwing donors and rightwing voters, each preventing the others from straying one millimeter away from this alternative fantasy world. It is a backlash against anti-empiricism, anti-science, anti-facts, head-in-the-sand, “we make reality now” mindset. Practical solutions require dealing with the world as it is, not the world one imagines to be or wants it to be.

And when postmodernism in public life reaches a point of saturation, and when people have had enough of it, and when there is a backlash, people will go for as extreme opposite as they can find. In this case: math. Numbers. Hard, cold numbers. Unbiased analysis. No “gut feelings”. Which is why they go for Nate. Which is why they tend to ignore that Silver’s numbers are people.

Why Nate Silver and not other numbers guys?

Because Nate is a blogger. Really. Others put data out there as well (see links at the bottom). Nice graphs and charts and tables. Great numbers, essentially the same as Nate’s. But they don’t tell a story about the data. He does. He’s been doing it for years. He has regular readership. He has a recognizable voice. He has earned trust not just by the strength of his predictions, but also by the strength of his writing, his personality that shines in his blog posts, his transparency about his thinking and about his methodology.

People focus on Nate and trust Nate because he is an expert, but more importantly because he is an expert who can tell the story. An expert who can explain stuff in ways that people understand. He narrates his work and his numbers.

Why Nate Silver’s blog?

A number of people, some unhappy that other number-crunchers did not reach Nate’s fame (or rightwing wreath), explain his prominence by the fact that his blog is hosted by New York Times (see links at the bottom). Even the NYTimes public editor suggested that his fame is due to the association with the NYTimes brand.

This is upside down. And she got instant and strong backlash. It is Nate who is the brand. NYTimes profits more from having Nate on their site (the traffic to his blog just before and during the election day dwarfed all the traffic to everything else on their site) than he does from being associated with them. He is strengthening their brand, by being an expert on site, rather than the other way round.

NYTimes reported on Nate’s traffic in a pretty vague way – number of site visits that included visits to Nate Silver’s blog. But we know that very few people go to sites via homepages. Older people and people within the news business may still have that habit. But most people do not. I bet that at least 90% (and more likely 99.99%) of the traffic to Silver’s blog on the election day did not come from the NYTimes homepage, or any other page on the site. It came from direct links, social media, “dark social”, emails, bookmarks, RSS feed readers, searches, etc.

Nate Silver and the Ascendance of Expertise

What New York Times does smartly, to enhance its brand, is to hire people with real expertise, people like Nate Silver (and Paul Krugman etc.) and give them a prominent spot on the site (and even sometimes in the paper version). Washington Post does the same with Ezra Klein. Many media outlets, including the one you are on right now, have set up blogging networks specifically in order to attract and host writers with real expertise.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago:

Landing on the New York Times page after you followed a link tells you something about it, to a certain extent. You still have to figure out if you trust the article you are about to read. Your expectations are higher than if it was Daily Mail, but you are still on guard. How do you decide in advance? By the name in the byline. If it is Maureen Dowd, you expect entertainment, but not much depth. If it’s David Brooks, you expect seductively beautiful writing that is based on pseudo-sociology he picked out of thin air to conform to his ideology. But if it’s Paul Krugman, you know you will get a better understanding of some aspect of economics because the guy knows his stuff – he is an expert.

And you know exactly what you’ll get if you see the byline of Nate Silver.

Expertise engenders trust. When I write about biology, my readers trust me as I am an expert. When I write about media, people trust me a little bit less because my expertise in this came later, was not “official” (i.e., no graduate school degrees), and is mostly based on my own impressions and experience, though my track record so far has been pretty good. When I write about politics…why would anyone trust me? Everyone has a political opinion, right?

What is important to note is that there is hunger out there for expertise. I started as a political blogger. Back in 2003/2004 there was a bunch of us starting political blogging. We each tried to add a particular angle, or bring in our other expertise (I focused on psychology of ideology, a nascent field now called ‘political psychology’), but mainly we pontificated about politics and performed acts of media criticism and of political activism. After the 2004 election, many of us specialized. Ezra Klein focused on health care and became a “Go To” person for it, resulting in his hire by the Washington Post. Many others did something like that and got hired as campaign managers, or writers, or consultants, etc.

I focused on science and ended up at Scientific American. In January 2005 I started a science blog, separate from my political blog. And instantly, with my very first post, the new blog reached the same traffic levels as the old blog. There were comments, questions. In science, I was an expert, and people trusted me and were hungry for information.

I said and wrote this many times, but long posts that do not shy away from nitty-gritty details (including numbers, formulae, technical terms if explained first, even Latin names for animals – see super-successful Tetrapod Zoology blog right here on the network) do extremely well. They may not get an instand surge of low-quality traffic from Slashdot, Digg, Reddit, Stumbleupon or Fark, but they accrue tons of traffic over time. Such pieces are not seen as entertainment, but as resources – something to be saved, bookmarked and shared with friends. Such pieces keep getting re-discovered and re-shared for years after initial publication. They provide value that a one-hit wonder, entertaining piece does not. They provide value that standard, short, news pieces do not – they provide context and detail and quality of explanation that comes from expertise, something that a 400-word piece cannot possibly contain, as there is not enough space for it. Longform writing works.

What is expertise?

How does one become an expert?

There are two ways. There is the 20th century method (yes, 20th century is an outlier on everything), in which one does hands-on research on a very narrow project while, hopefully, reading a little bit more broadly, resulting in an official badge of expertise – an MS or PhD or MD or some such degree.

And then there is the historically traditional method that is making a big come-back now – having a deep interest in the topic and doing it yourself, reading, discussing with others, doing own research, blogging about it, writing and reporting on it for years, establishing oneself as an expert on the topic. This is how the most respected journalists became most respected – by becoming the Go To experts on a particular topic.

The generalists and pundits – or, if you want, foxes as opposed to hedgehogs – are the reason why the audience is losing trust in the traditional media. They have seen expertise, and they are not going back.

There is something importantly different about l’affaire Silver, though. Most of the cases in the past were impressionistic. We used our own ‘gut feelings’ to say that a particular blog post by an expert X was better than a traditional news article by a journalist Y. But now we can back up our gut feelings with numbers. This case is empirical. Expert blogger Nate Silver was correct, while pundits and traditional bloviators were not…and here are the numbers.

How does expertise fit inside the new media ecosystem?

It is easy here at Scientific American. We are an expert publication almost by definition. When news breaks, and there is a science component to it, others come to our site to get the reliable scoop on it. Generalist news organizations link to our articles on the scientific aspects of news stories. All our editors are experts on the topics they write about (and some even have the 20th century badges of expertise, i.e., PhDs and such). And then we have the blog network, where we have about 50 additional experts in other fields.

Being on, or regularly reading, Scienceblogs.com over several years, where science bloggers were treated as ‘media’, taught us a lot. We learned from one another, learned from our own mistakes, and learned by analyzing mistakes of traditional media. We encountered and studied the traditional journalistic ethics and best practices and incorporated the best of it into our blogging. The Pepsigate scandal was a particularly useful teaching moment for all of us. We became better writers, better journalists, and better bloggers. The distinctions between these blurred.

But we remained experts in our domains. And we resisted some of the traditional media trappings. Being Web natives, we vehemently resist the alien concept of “word count”. No blogger I know ever counts words in their posts (if they do, they are too ashamed to say it publicly). The post is done when it’s done, when all the historical, philosophical, social and methodological context is included, all details hashed out, all conclusions finalized. And we know that #longform works best. And we resist detached “objectivity”. We know we gain rapport and trust with our readers if we insert ourselves into our stories, explain what is the personal connection, where does our expertise on the topic come from, what are our potential biases on the topic, why are we particularly excited about this topic and decided to write about that and not about something else.

As I said yesterday, the traditional and new forms are fusing, learning from each other, getting better as a result, and we are all better off because of it. The line between blogs and columns, and between beats and obsessions is getting fuzzy, and that’s a good thing. Many traditional journalists are now also blogging, experimenting with forms and formats, and then transferring those into their more traditional writing.

This is why forward-looking media organizations are hiring experts. And why the pundits and bloviators, once their contracts expire or they retire, will gradually disappear from the media ecosystem (this will take many years, especially on TV which is the most resistant to change). This is why journalism schools are training experts. This is why media organizations are hiring bloggers. And then some of those bloggers get desks in the office, salaries equal to staff, benefits, etc. One day, that will be the norm. Let’s hope.


Nate Silver: the verdict.
Under Attack, Nate Silver Picks the Wrong Defense
The Times’s Washington Bureau Chief, and Legions of Others, in Defense of Nate Silver
New York Times wants to hold Nate Silver to newsroom standards
Sorry, Margaret, You Need to Get Out More
Your Employee Is an Online Celebrity. Now What Do You Do?
Nate Silver probability map vs. Actual map
Three Lessons From The Nate Silver Controversy
Here’s What the New York Times’ Nate Silver Traffic Boom Looks Like
In defense of Nate Silver: Pundits bare their misunderstanding.
‘How Can That Be?’ More on the ‘They Can’t Both Be Right’ Saga
Wrath of the Math: Obama Wins Nerdiest Election Ever
Silver Medal
In Defense of Nate Silver, Election Pollsters, and Statistical Predictions
The Nate Silver backlash
Data, uncertainty, and specialization: What journalism can learn from FiveThirtyEight’s election coverage
Nate Silver gets a big boost from the election
Why Math is Like the Honey Badger: Nate Silver Ascendant
Nate Silver of 538.com and his critics in the press corps. Get your literacy up.
Nate Silver’s Braying Idiot Detractors Show That Being Ignorant About Politics Is Like Being Ignorant About Sports
In defense of Nate Silver — and basic math
Today’s War on Nate SIlver: Quiet Flows the Don Edition
The Passion of Nate Silver (Sort Of)
Pundits versus probabilities
What’s FiveThirtyEight Good For?: The Inevitable Nate Silver Backlash
How did Nate Silver Get the Election Odds so Wrong?
Math and Discipline — Why Nate Silver’s Accuracy Isn’t About “Big Data”
Nate Silver the Real Winner of Election 2012
How did Nate Silver predict the US election?
Among the top election quants, Nate Silver reigns supreme
Drew Linzer: The stats man who predicted Obama’s win
Was Nate Silver the Most Accurate 2012 Election Pundit?
Climate science is Nate Silver and U.S. politics is Karl Rove
Debunking Two Nate Silver Myths
Whatever Nate Silver Does, Isn’t Science
How a nerd named Nate Silver changed political reporting forever.
Nate Silver: Why I Started FiveThirtyEight
Pundit Forecasts All Wrong, Silver Perfectly Right. Is Punditry Dead?
Can Nate Silver’s example save political journalism?
Gallup is very upset at Nate Silver
Nate Silver on the Election, Pundits, and His Drunk Alter Ego
Foxy Nate Silver and why old-media hedgehogs could soon be old news

#2012SVP – what do Vertebrate Paleontologists talk about?

If you are not a vertebrate paleontologist, or play one on TV, what do you think vertebrate paleontologists do?

If you were a kid who knew all dinosaur names, but now only remember that period occasionally when paleontology appears in the media, what would you expect you’d hear if you suddenly appeared at the annual meeting of the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology?

You may have missed it, but I was there, so I will tell you. I am not that different from most of you. Childhood fascination with dinosaurs, graduate studies in physiology and behavior of perfectly living animals, a brief burst of intense study during one semester taking ‘Dinosaur Osteology’ course with Dale Russell, followed by getting my paleo news from media and blogs.

My colleage Kate Wong will cover several stories from the meeting (here is the first) and we’ll have some syndications from Nature (here’s the first)

My assignment? “Blog it!”, said the Editor-In-Chief.

Big Questions

If your paleo diet depends entirely on mainstream media, you may be excused if you think that all paleontologists do is dig fossils and announce discoveries of new species. Sure, a few new fossils were presented at the meeting, and they were interesting. But that was not the centerpiece of the meeting, or topic of most conversations. It is not what you find any more, but what you do with what you find once you found it. Digging it up is just the first step, the interesting science happens later.

If you have not paid attention lately, you may think that some old questions and controversies are still around and unresolved. For example, “were dinosaurs warm-blooded?”. That is a poorly worded question, and it was answered, with some reframing of the question, a decade ago. “Warm-blooded” probably does not mean what you think it means (that would be “endothermic”), but today’s researchers are working out the details of thermoregulation mechanisms, not re-fighting the old wars of decades past.

Likewise, “did birds evolve out of dinosaurs?” has been answered more than a decade or so ago. And the answer is: birds are dinosaurs, the only surviving, living dinosaur lineage. Much more interesting is the current work on details of the origin of flight and feathers.

So, what are the current big questions (and methodological approaches)?

How the animals of the past evolved, developed, looked, lived, made a living, behaved, and died? What information can we extract out of fossils beyond “it belonged to species X”?. And new, often hi-tech approaches are now all the rage.

First, there is math. Lots of math. Math used to analyze taphonomy and what one can infer from the exact position of fossils at the site where they died. Math used to calculate lift and drag and other forces required for powered flight or gliding. Math for computer analysis of evolutionary relationships.

Then, there are machines. Machines that grind teeth against each other to mimic chewing, to see how different kinds of chewing affect the tooth wear, thus enabling us to learn more about the diet of extinct animals. Machines that plop claws into mud to analyze how track fossils are shaped. Different kinds of microscopes that can be used to analyze fine structures of bones, teeth and egg-shells. X-rays, and CAT-scans, and high-speed video. And of course, computers.

Molecular techniques. Combining genetic and anatomical data to build better phylogenetic trees. Using molecular techniques to see if we can find DNA or proteins in dinosaur fossils. A poster from Mary Schweitzer’s group suggests that melanosomes – intercellular packets of pigments we are now using to figure out colors of fossil feathers – may not be melanosomes, after all, but remnants of bacterial films aggregated on the surfaces of feathers.

Eggs. Lots of work on eggs, embryos and development. Especially interesting, to me, was the work by MSU students whose China Paleontology Expedition was documented on our Expeditions blog, using microscopy to explore fine structure of egg shells, then using that structure to figure out relationships between different kinds of extinct animals, including dinosaurs, turtles, etc., and learning some new things about evolution of eggs.

Comparative studies in living animals. And not just dissection of an ostrich (although that, too). Dissections of many species (and individuals) to study the variability, relationship between anatomy and function, between anatomy and ecology, and between anatomy and behavior. There is no such thing as a “model animal” when one studies evolution – good inference from fossils requires understanding of anatomy in a wide variety of related organisms.

If you want to figure out from fossil record if extinct horse species at a particular locality were under strong or weak selection for a particular level of performance, you compare the anatomies of a bunch of tightly selected modern horses (eventers) and a bunch of protected, semi-wild horses where selection is now relaxed (mustangs).

If you want to know if ichtyosaurs bit or sucked their prey, you observe and dissect a lot of aquatic organisms that do one or the other and make a comparison. Ichtyosaurs did not suck, some turtles do:

If you want to know how extinct reptiles, mosasaurs and dinosaurs moved, you put a bunch of different species of alligators and crocodyles in a tunnel, motivate them to run as fast as they can, film them and analyze the videos:

And if you are interested in origin and evolution of flight, you take an X-ray video of a guinea fowl during flight, then scare it to force it to turn in mid-air. And you discover stuff about anatomy and function of living birds that it never occurred to zoologists, veterinarians or poultry scientists to ask, yet it may be useful knowledge to them as well:


I was pleasantly surprised by how evenly different groups of animals were represented. I expected much more primates, especially those fossils interesting for human evolution, but there were not that many talks and posters about them – I guess those folks go to their own meetings.

While there was a lot of dinosaur stuff – and yes, that is very exciting! – they did not dominate the meeting nearly as much as I expected. There was a lot of work on birds, mammals, extinct and living reptiles, including aquatic and flying reptiles, some work on amphibians, and quite a lot on fish.

Perhaps it is only my own biased perception, but it seemed to me that fish people are somewhat a world of their own – unless it’s an absolutely terrifying shark or bone-plated fish with enormous jaws, I did not detect much interest in fish work by researchers who study more terrestrial organisms. Which is a pity – I saw some interesting posters about fish. Or, if we think phylogenetically, everyone was interested in fish:


One of the beauties of paleontology is that the rewards are mainly intrinsic. It is hard to find a job, and if you snag one, it’s unlikely to be at Harvard. No matter how much of a superstar you become, you cannot just hire an army of students, postdocs and technicians to do the work for you while you sit in the office writing grant proposals or travel around the world giving talks – you still have to go out in the field, suffer the heat and dust, and wield the hammer, then come back to the lab and do some manual work yourself. You can become famous, but are unlikely to get rich. No patents, no Nobel Prizes. And importantly, the findings are unlikely to directly affect lives or livelihoods of millions of people (as in medicine, for example), which allows one to follow one’s curiosities wherever they may lead.

Thus, paleontologists are a really fun bunch to be around. They are not secretive about their work, instead they want to tell you everything about it. No fear of scooping, as this is a small, tightly knit community where everyone knows what the others are doing, where they are digging, etc. I asked a bunch of people “Where will this work be published?” and in nine out of ten cases the answer was PLOS ONE (and in one case “PLOS ONE, or perhaps PeerJ”). Only once I heard “so, so sorry, but this will be behind a paywall, ugh”. Openess rules.

Controversies are big and loud, people disagree, but in the end everyone’s a friend, have beer together at the end of the day, and let the scientific process work its charm and come up with the resolution in the end. Was Torosaurus a species or just a juvenile Triceratops? They can argue in a really heated way, yet in the end they are not enemies, they do not hate each other.

I am not much of a star-seeker or fanboy. And I did not really have much to ask of the big stars of the field. I think, in any field, the most interesting work is done by junior researchers and students, and what they say (and the enthusiasm by which they say it) may be more revealing about the future of a field. Which is why I focused on the posters.

Yes, I did see a bunch of talks (and it seems all the talks of greatest interest to me were happening simultaneously on the last afternoon of the event, on Saturday). But I went to see the posters every day during lunch break when the posters are already up, but people are not there yet. I checked out every single poster, in order to get a feel for the field as a whole. Then I would focus on, and completely read, 4-5 posters each day. In the afternoon, when the poster sessions starts, I homed in on those 4-5 posters and talked to the authors, asked more questions. A number of those posters will end up here on our site, written by authors on the Guest Blog, over the next several weeks and months.

One more observation. It appeared to me that the sex-ratio of the meeting was roughly fifty-fifty. But the age distribution was different between the sexes. Males were of all ages. Most veterans are male. Females were mostly younger, usually students. As I have not been to a SPV meeting before and cannot observe trends over time – this is just a snap-shot – I cannot make a good explanation for this. It can mean two things. First, a traditionally male-dominated field is getting a healthy influx of women, and what we see if a transitional period toward equity. Second possibility, there are always young women entering the field, but they exit from the leaky pipeline around the postdoc/job transition, leaving only men to achive seniority in the field. Perhaps long-time members of the society can chime in, in the comments, about this.


Twitterfall in the hallway
Twitterfall in the hallway

I attended the ‘Paleontology and the Media’ workshop on the first day. Dana Ehret explained how to work with a PIO to craft a good press release. Matt Kaplan gave good advice on how to work with a journalist. And Brian Switek explained the ways researchers can now bypass the PIO and the journalist, and communicate directly to the audience via blogs and social media.

Apart from Matt Kaplan, Brian Switek, Kate Wong, Michael Balter and myself, I am not sure if there were any other representatives of the traditional media at the event. Thus Brian’s advice appears to be most important: not so much about bypassing traditional media, but getting your work out in the vacuum where there is no media. Which is why I wish more people attended the workshop to hear what Brian had to say.

In 2012, the notion that shameless self-promotion is a dirty word is anachronistic, dangerously so.

The number of paleontology bloggers and twitterers is pretty small – though a great bunch!

#2012SVP tweetup

#2012SVP tweetup

Being active on Twitter certainly has some advantages:

But what I was most careful about was always asking people what is and what is not OK for me to blog about. There is still so much misunderstanding about the way publishing works these days, and especially about the notorious Ingelfinger Rule (see this Embargo Watch post specifically about SPV policy, and Tony’s post about the utter illogic of not making the meeting’s abstracts public, which is also why I cannot link to individual abstracts in this and future posts). People don’t seem to understand it, and assume much harsher rule than it really is. Much of the communication stuff they are afraid of doing is actually perfectly acceptable (and not considered as “prior publication”) by the major publishers like Nature, Science and PLOS.

Society meetings used to be semi-private events. They certainly felt private. A bunch of friends and colleagues get together, exchange data, results, ideas, have a beer and assume nobody else will know anything about it. If there is media at the event, it is carefully corralled away and spoon-fed information under harsh embargo rules.

But today, meetings are truly public events. When the means of production of media change hands, and is now cheap and easy to own by anyone, there is no such thing as media any more. Everyone is potentially “the media”. Researchers are now their own media. Thus, the media cannot be controlled. Thus, the researchers (and scientific publishers) need to adapt to the new world.

Reminder: “to publish” means “make public”.

No, your paper in a journal is not the only “publication” of your work.

If you give a talk or poster, that’s a publication. If you tweet or blog about your work, it’s publication. If others livetweet your talk, it’s publication. If others discuss your work on their blogs, it’s publication. When your paper appears in a journal (typeset and formatted in traditional ways to appeal to traditionalists), that is also publication, one snapshot of it. Media and blog coverage of your paper is publication. TV and radio appearances are publication. Your own blog post detailing the background information and context of your research is also publication. People who tweet out links to your blog post are also publishing it. Every blog post and comment in the back-and-forth you may have with colleagues on blogs (or social media, from Twitter to Facebook to Google Plus) about your work is an item of publication. Your next paper is also a part of the publication cycle of your previous paper (unless you suddenly switch your research interests from Hadrosaurs to particle physics).

Just like science, publishing is not a singular event – one piece, one date, one time. It is a continuous work and continuous conversation. It is not a single paper-bound broadcast by just one lab. It is a discussion between a number of players, continuously, in various venues, and in different forms and formats. My bugging SVP (several tweets, a blog post, an email, and saying it out loud during the media workshop, especially about the availability of free wifi as an essential element of a modern conference) are not bugging, not angry criticism – they are intended to help the society move faster into modern media times. Those things help publication, in all of the forms I noted above – researchers’ presentations, livetweeting/blogging, traditional media coverage, everything. And publishers are quickly adapting to the new world as well, gradually diminishing the scope of Ingelfinger Rule, hopefully to abandon it entirely in the near future. And as a result, science will do better. Don’t we all want that?

What 3 Science Questions Do You Think the Presidential Candidates Need to Answer before November 6th?


As you may remember from back in February, the Guardian U.S. and NYU’s Studio 20 journalism lab teamed up to learn what all citizens think about the upcoming election, not just those who care about politics with a capital P.

Back then, the questions were posed to the candidates in the GOP primary race. Now that this race is effectively over, it is time to shift focus to the general election.

Now we want to ask the science-loving Scientific American community to voice their questions, ideas and concerns with what’s been missing from the national conversation so far. What do you want to know before you cast your vote this November?

Other (media) organizations will tap into their own communities to identify questions relevant to their interests. We want to her you, the STEM community, as to which science, engineering, technology, medicine, environment and technology-related questions you want to see asked of the two major party candidates.

So tell us: if you could pose a question to both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, what would it be?

Give us your own question and “like” your favorites from fellow Scientific Americans on our Facebook page, and we’ll publish the top three both on our site and The Guardian’s Citizens Agenda.

Add your three suggestions to our Facebook page by Tuesday at noon.

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