Archive for the 'Journalism' category

Guest Post: Missteps on the road back.

This is a guest post from Martin Robbins, who writes about science and other interesting things for The Guardian, Vice and New Statesman.

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The first time I ever met Bora Zivkovic, we talked about sexual harassment. We were in Dublin to take part in a panel at ESOF 2012, and I found him beforehand catching some air outside. The issue of harassment policies at TAM and other conferences was high on the agenda, and he explained to me that he felt a similar policy was unnecessary at ScienceOnline, though they’d probably stick one in to ‘keep people happy’. Bora argued that maintaining a high proportion of women at events was more likely to lead to a safe environment than any policy. It seemed like reasonable logic at the time.

During the panel, I took this photograph. As you can see from the comments, the #IHuggedBora meme was in full swing. If I’m honest I found his fixation on hugging everybody – even showing us pictures of previous hugs on his phone - a little odd in person, but nobody seemed to mind. It was July 2012, the same month that Bora told Kathleen Raven that he wanted to have sex with her, a few weeks before he told Monica Byrne that he was a ‘very sexual person’, and two years after he began his pursuit of Hannah Waters.

In October, these stories and others came to light. Bora was forced to resign from his positions at Scientific American and ScienceOnline, and he removed himself from public discourse. On January 1st he returned to the blogosphere - supported by his friend and ScienceOnline cofounder Anton Zuiker – with the intention of rebuilding his reputation and career.

In the rest of this post I intend to explain why I’m deeply unhappy with the manner of Bora’s departure and return. Along the way I will fisk Zuiker and Bora’s posts, and Bora’s later addendum, and explain why Bora’s apology is not just insufficient, but concerning to me. Then I’m going to try to answer Bora’s question, about what he needs to do next.

I’m going to do all of this without any personal anecdotes about brewing with root vegetables, and in considerably less than 5,500 words. Continue Reading »

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What did Jonah Lehrer teach us about science?

Los Angeles Times book critic David L. Ulin wishes people would lay off of Jonah Lehrer. It's bad enough that people made a fuss last July about falsified quotes and plagiarism that caused Lehrer's publisher to recall his book Imagine and cost him a plum job at The New Yorker. Now people are crying foul that the Knight Foundation paid Lehrer $20,000 to deliver a mea culpa that Lehrer's critics have not judged especially persuasive on the "lesson learned" front. Ulin thinks people ought to cut Lehrer some slack:

What did we expect from Lehrer? And why did we expect anything at all? Like every one of us, he is a conflicted human, his own worst enemy, but you’d hardly know that from the pile-on provoked by his talk.

Did Jonah Lehrer betray us? I don’t think so.

Ulin apparently feels qualified to speak on behalf of all of us. In light of some of the eloquent posts from people who feel personally betrayed by Lehrer, I'd recommend that Ulin stick to "I-statements" when assessing the emotional fallout from Lehrer's journalistic misdeeds and more recent public relations blunder.

And, to be fair, earlier in Ulin's piece, he does speak for himself about Lehrer's books:

That’s sad, tragic even, for Lehrer was a talented journalist, a science writer with real insights into creativity and how the brain works. I learned things from his books “How We Decide” and “Imagine” (the latter of which has been withdrawn from publication), and Lehrer’s indiscretions haven’t taken that away.

(Bold emphasis added.)

Probably Ulin wouldn't go to the mat to assert that what he learned from Imagine was what Bob Dylan actually said (since a fabricated Dylan quote was one of the smoking guns that revealed Lehrer's casual attitudes toward journalistic standards). Probably he'd say he learned something about the science Lehrer was describing in such engaging language.

Except, people who have been reading Lehrer's books carefully have noted that the scientific story he conveyed so engagingly was not always conveyed so accurately:

Jonah Lehrer was never a very good science writer. He seemed not to fully understand the science he was trying to explain; his explanations were inaccurate, overblown, and often just plain wrong, usually in the direction of giving his readers counterintuitive thrills and challenging their settled beliefs. You can read my review and the various parts of my exchange with him that are linked above for detailed explanations of why I make this claim. Others have made similar points too, for example Isaac Chotiner at the New Republic and Tim Requarth and Meehan Crist at The Millions. But the tenor of many critics last year was "he committed unforgivable journalistic sins and should be punished for them, but he still got the science right." There was a clear sense that one had nothing to do with the other.

In my opinion, the fabrications and the scientific misunderstanding are actually closely related. The fabrications tended to follow a pattern of perfecting the stories and anecdotes that Lehrer -- like almost all successful science writers nowadays -- used to illustrate his arguments. Had he used only words Bob Dylan actually said, and only the true facts about Dylan's 1960s songwriting travails, the story wouldn't have been as smooth. It's human nature to be more convinced by concrete stories than by abstract statistics and ideas, so the convincingness of Lehrer's science writing came from the brilliance of his stories, characters, and quotes. Those are the elements that people process fluently and remember long after the details of experiments and analyses fade.

(Bold emphasis added.)

If this is the case -- that Lehrer was an entertaining communicator but not a reliably accurate communicator of the current state of our best scientific knowledge -- did Ulin actually learn what he thought he learned from Lehrer's books? Or, was he misled by glib storytelling into thinking he understood what science might tell us about creativity, imagination, the workings of our own brains?

Maybe Ulin doesn't expect a book marketed as non-fiction popular science to live up to this standard, but a lot of us do. And, while lowering one's standards is one way to avoid feeling betrayed, it's not something I would have expected a professional book critic to advise readers to do.

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Objectivity, conflicts of interest, and book reviews.

Let's say you're a book review editor for a large circulation science periodical. You receive books from publishers and you look for scientists with the relevant expertise to write reviews that really engage the content of the books they are reviewing.
The thing with having the relevant expertise, though, is that it may put you right in the middle of a controversy that the book you've been asked to review is probing or advancing.
In other words, it may be tricky to find a reviewer who is conversant in the scientific issues the book raises and simultaneously reasonably objective about those issues. If you know enough to grok the horse race, you may actually have a horse in that race.
The question, however, is whether large circulation science periodicals are offering book reviews with the tacit promise that they are objective (or as objective as an individual's own assessment of a book can be).
To get a quick sense of your expectations on this, here's a poll:

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#scio10 aftermath: some thoughts on "Talking Trash: Online Outreach from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch".

Here are some of the thoughts and questions that stayed with me from this session. (Here are my tweets from the session and the session's wiki page.)
Among other things, this panel took up the article panelist Lindsey Hoshaw wrote about the garbage patch for the New York Times and some of the reaction to it (including from panelist Miriam Goldstein).
Lindsey's article was interesting because of the process. To get a spot on the ship going out to the North Pacific gyre, where the garbage patch is, she had to come up with funding. (We learned during the session that ship time on some of these expeditions can run to $18,000 a day.) Rather than pitching the story idea to the New York Times and hitting them with the bill, or covering the cost of the ship time herself, she "crowd-sourced" her participation -- that is, she turned to readers of Spot.Us, a nonprofit web project that supports freelance journalists, for donations. The pitch she gave when asking for this money described deliverables:

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#scio10 aftermath: some thoughts on "Rebooting Science Journalism in the Age of the Web".

Here are some of the thoughts and questions that stayed with me from this session. (Here are my tweets from the session and the session's wiki page.)
The panelists made a point of stepping away from the scientists vs. bloggers frame (as well as the question of whether bloggers are or are not properly considered journalists). They said some interesting things about what defines a journalist -- perhaps a set of distinctive values (like a commitment to truth and accuracy, possibly also to the importance of telling an engaging story). This, rather than having a particular paying gig as a journalist, marked the people who were "doing journalism", whatever the medium.

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In which the school newspaper's article on H1N1 vaccination angries up my blood.

This, our first week of classes of the Spring semester, also marked the return of regular publication of the daily student newspaper. Since I'm not behind on grading yet (huzzah for the first week of classes!), I picked up yesterday's copy and read one of the front-page articles on my way to my office.
And dagnabbit if that article didn't angry up my blood.
The trouble is, I'm having a hard time figuring out where properly to direct that anger.

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25 responses so far

#scio10 aftermath: my tweets from "Getting the Science Right: The importance of fact checking mainstream science publications -- an underappreciated and essential art -- and the role scientists can and should (but often don't) play in it."

Session description: Much of the science that goes out to the general public through books, newspapers, blogs and many other sources is not professionally fact checked. As a result, much of the public's understanding of science is based on factual errors. This discussion will focus on what scientists and journalists can do to fix that problem, and the importance of playing a pro-active role in the process.
The session was led by Rebecca Skloot (@RebeccaSkloot), Sheril Kirshenbaum (@Sheril_), and David Dobbs (@David_Dobbs).
Here's the session's wiki page.

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#scio10 aftermath: my tweets from "Writing for more than glory: Proposals and Pitches that Pay".

Session description: What is a sellable idea? How do you develop one? Is your idea enough for a book, is there more you can do to develop it, or should it just be a magazine article or series of blog posts? This will be a hands-on nuts and bolts workshop: Come with ideas to pitch. Better yet, bring a short (1 page or less) written proposal to read and workshop. This workshop will provide handouts on proposal writing as well as sample proposals you can use to help develop your own in the future. Useful for anyone hoping to someday write for print or online publications.
The session was led by Rebecca Skloot (@RebeccaSkloot), who enlisted the assistance of David Dobbs (@David_Dobbs), Ivan Oransky (@ivanoransky), and Cliff Wiens (@CliftonWiens).
Here's the session wiki page.

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#scio10 aftermath: my tweets from "Talking Trash: Online Outreach from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch".

Session description: Debris in the North Pacific Gyre received unprecedented attention in 2009 with voyages from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, Project Kaisei, and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Each voyage integrated online outreach into its mission, but emphasized very different aspects of the problem. What are the challenges of creating a major outreach effort from one of the most isolated places on earth? How can scientists, journalists, and educators balance "exciting findings live from the field!" with "highly preliminary unpublished non-peer-reviewed data that our labwork might contradict"? And why is the public so interested in the issue of trash in the ocean, anyway?
The session was led by Miriam Goldstein (@oystersgarter), Lindsey Hoshaw (@thegarbagegirl), and Annie Crawley (@AnnieCrawley).
Here's the session wiki page.

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#scio10 aftermath: my tweets from "Rebooting Science Journalism in the Age of the Web".

Session description: Our panel of journalist-blogger hybrids - Carl Zimmer, John Timmer, Ed Yimmer Yong, and David Dobbs- will discuss and debate the future of science journalism in the online world. Are blogs and mainstream media the bitter rivals that stereotypes would have us believe, or do the two sides have common threads and complementary strengths? How will the tools of the Internet change the art of reporting? How will the ongoing changes strengthen writing about science? How might these changes compromise or threaten writing about science? In a world where it's possible for anyone to write about science, where does that leave professional science journalists? And who actually are these science journalists anyway?
The session was led by Ed Yong (@edyong209), Carl Zimmer (@carlzimmer), John Timmer (@j_timmer), and David Dobbs (@David_Dobbs).
Here's the session wiki page

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