Trust and Critical Thinking in Science Reporting: A Case Study

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve heard me say before that I’m not a science blogger. However, over the weekend, I authored a guest post that was not merely science blogging but also blogging on a peer-reviewed publication. I wasn’t thinking about it at the time, but it was an opportunity to apply some of my thoughts regarding my upcoming session on Trust and Critical Thinking for ScienceOnline, which seeks ideas on how to report science in a way that teaches readers to interact with information skeptically.

Given that, I thought I’d capture what I set out to do in my post. Mind you, all these strategies involve modeling critical thinking. I have no data on how effective modeling may be, but it’s the best idea I have right now and it’s fairly easy to do as a writer.

Let me know how I did at Quiche Moraine.

Reaction Times and IQ Tests

In the ongoing discussion about disparities between racial classifications on IQ tests, Dr. Bryan Pesta requested that we consider his paper, “Black-White differences on IQ and grades: The mediating role of elementary cognitive tasks.” Because as he rightly points out, not everyone will have the background to evaluate the paper, I thought it would be helpful to discuss the paper in the context of the cognitive science literature.

Okay, this time I can’t say I’m not doing science blogging. In order to take advantage of some of the functions of Research Blogging without the setup time, this one is posted at Greg Laden’s Blog.

Paint Me on Velvet

What do you get a very good friend who has almost everything he wants and really only wants for things you have no power to give him? Well, if he’s an author with a sense of humor and a bare wall over the mantle that’s been begging for art for years, you might get him this.


That’s right. You give him a velvet painting of the cover art from his first book–in the “delightfully ostentatious golden ornate frame.”

And how do you procure such a thing? You hire an agent to have the painting done in Tijuana, where they take velvet painting far more seriously than you do, and you end up with something frighteningly awesome (seen here just finished, pre-framing and shipping).


But how do you keep said author from discovering that something is afoot during all the arrangements? Well, you don’t do what James did and start cackling about evil plans two months before Christmas, or chatter with your co-conspirators with shoulders hunched and heads tilted together. Luckily for us, Kelly is very good at compartmentalization and refused to do much speculation before the unveiling, because if I’d run misdirection, he’d really have known something was up. As he said, “From the way you said, ‘Evil,’ I suspected I was the victim.”

Then you unveil it at a Christmas party with as many of the conspirators present as possible. You play a mariachi version of “La Bamba” to tell the world that the cheese factor is entirely intentional. Someone notes, “It’s the first unveiling I’ve been to that wasn’t a tombstone.” Your friend is speechless for an hour for the first time since his wedding, and you are entirely satisfied.

Oh, yes, and you don’t forget to tell John Scalzi that it’s all his fault.

Artichoke-Crab Spread

Or, the joys of a well-stocked pantry.

It’s holiday party time again. I was planning to bring cupcakes with a cream-cheese-based frosting to a party today, but one of the hosts started talking about all the baking she was doing, including cupcakes. Never “compete” with your host’s cooking. So I was stuck for something to bring. I’d just gone grocery shopping, so I didn’t want to head back to the store. After looking around, here’s what I came up with.

Artichoke-Crab Spread

1 8-oz package of cream cheese
1/2 cup sour cream
1 can artichoke hearts, drained
1 can crab meat, drained and liquid given to cat
4 cloves garlic
1-1/2 t. dried thyme
1 t. lemon juice
salt & freshly ground pepper to taste

Throw the cream cheese and sour cream in a bowl. Use one just a little bit larger than you expect to need. This isn’t easy to mix.

Chop the artichoke hearts, chokes more finely than leaves. Add artichokes and crab meat to the bowl.

Mince the garlic. Chop the thyme slightly to break up the leaves. Add.

Drizzle lemon juice over the contents of the bowl. Add a heavy pinch of salt to begin. Go lightly on the pepper. With the thyme in the mix, you won’t need as much as you might think.

Mash the ingredients into the cream cheese to break it apart. Once you’ve achieved a uniform consistency to the mix, taste. Add more salt and pepper if needed, but be aware that the flavors will not have blended yet.

Rest in the refrigerator to rehydrate the thyme and pepper for at least one hour.

Spread on crusty bread and nom.

Tell Me a (Political) Story

Terrified Tabetic is getting a bit cynical, it seems. Commenting on PZ Myers’ commenting on Making Light’s commenting on Boing Boing’s commenting on Peter Watts’ experience at the U.S.-Canadian border:

I am completely unsurprised that border guards would rough someone up and treat them disrespectfully. I am also unsurprised that another arrogant white dude seems shocked that people are mistreated by law enforcement officials.

The ennui, it burns.

TT, you’re not shocked by the treatment Dr. Watts received. I’m not shocked by it. PZ’s not shocked by it. Nobody who’s paying any attention to the world around them is shocked. Some of us are still outraged, as we’ve been outraged all along.

Isis, on the other hand, is amused.

Many of us in the blogosphere quietly chuckled because this thing that happened to Watts, horrible and unjustifiable as it is, happens to brown people all the time. And it generates no outrage.

Now, as someone who wrote about Dr. Watts’ situation last week, I’ve got a couple things to say on the situation. First, my reaction to the news was not shock. The only surprise for me in the story was that the U.S. border patrol was stopping people leaving the country.

That didn’t stop me from using the story to draw attention to the problem. This is a pervasive problem, not just at the border, not just for white (although I just had to look that up to be sure), Canadian science fiction writers with doctoral degrees in marine mammal biology. In fact, like any pervasive problem, I’m well aware that it’s going to have a disproportionate impact on the “invisible” people–ethnic and religious minorities, the poor, the uneducated, people with mental and physical disabilities, people with unpopular political views.

However, because I have close ties to the online science fiction community (and Dr. Watts participated in last year’s run-up to ScienceOnline), this was the opportunity that got pushed across my screen. I grabbed it, hoping to push it into another sphere and make people who haven’t been paying attention as outraged as I am. And yes, I looked at it and chuckled to myself, “Yeah. Just try to do your oh-they-must-have-been-asking-for-it-cause-they’re-somehow-scary dance on this one, jerks. Time to face up to the fact that this problem can bite you too.”

I don’t like the fact that the vast majority of people are empathy-challenged. I’m doing what I can to change that, to get people to understand that different doesn’t equal wrong doesn’t equal not entitled to the same basic rights. I want a world in which no one needs, as Isis said, “some white patrons to show them to the majority culture.”

That is my goal, but in the meantime, I’m not a purist. If somebody hands me a political sledgehammer for use on one of those pervasive issues, I’m going to use it, because the vast majority of people can’t be moved to political action by anything short of that. I’m going to use it even if it exploits something in society that I hate, because it is still a “real injustice” and because, even if the sledgehammer is of the majority culture, that doesn’t change the fact that most of the injustice happens to minorities.

Zuska compared PZ’s post to the news coverage for a missing white woman, but I don’t think that’s quite the right analogy. Ryan White was the face of AIDS research. Gay men largely stopped dying from the disease. Minority homeless people benefit from the snow-white appeals for Christmas donations to shelters. Who stands to benefit from the enforcement of due process and a curb on the arbitrary exercise of nonexistent police authority? Everybody who isn’t already too powerful to have to worry about it. It’s cynical as hell, but it’s doing something.

That brings me to my second point. Terrified Tabetic noted that he had a friend, Mohammed, who experienced similar problems. I asked (responding to cynicism with the same, I’m afraid), why this was the first time he was telling me about it. Isis talks about brown injustices being shunted aside, but she doesn’t provide any stories.

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that either TT or Isis isn’t walking the talk. They both do. But what they’re both doing in this situation is responding to white-guy story with minority-inclusion critique, and critique just isn’t as powerful as story.

Dr. Watts is a science fiction writer. That means that unless he’s very, very good–in terms of sales, not writing–he’s squeaking along moneywise. For a pasty guy, he’s not very powerful. There’s no good reason for his story to be noticed over any other pasty guy’s. In fact, the press was entirely uninterested.

However, Dr. Watts knows Cory Doctorow, otherwise known as Boing Boing (yes, I’m simplifying slightly). Doctorow wrote a short narrative piece on Dr. Watts’ ordeal. Boing Boing made sure that plenty of people saw the story, and it stuck and spread. It spread successfully, in part, because the people passing it on were also storytellers and because Dr. Watts’ own version of the story is short, bitter and shows why his work is award-nominated.

Story works. Story matters. Story is remembered in a way that arguments and reasoning aren’t. Without story, we wouldn’t have so damned many teenaged (of whatever chronological age) libertarians running around. Story is what I do all over this blog, whether I’m talking about science or politics or art–even when I’m making a logical argument–and that’s what gives this tiny blog an influence entirely disproportional to its small readership (and by the way, I love you guys).

To bring this back to the topic at hand, Isis has a point about repackaging. Some experiences do get repackaged. However, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. I took “Carrie’s” parents’ Facebook status updates–pure worried experience–and repackaged them and my knowledge that portion of the anti-vaccine movement that isn’t motivated by profit into a story about the consequences of non-vaccination. I did the same thing with another friend’s outrage on Twitter over not being able to get health insurance for his daughter. These aren’t my experiences–I’m not even a parent–but I translated them into stories aimed at particular audiences, and the people whose experience I used thanked me for it. I got them heard.

Dr. Watts is not a brown person repackaged. He’s an individual who had an all-too-common experience. If brown people’s stories need to be repackaged, from personal conversations or as excerpts from blog posts or whatever, in order to be heard (and yes, they do), the situation isn’t that different than that with the political sledgehammer. The need may be distasteful but it still exists. We can do that. It doesn’t subtract anything from the original story to add more stories. And those of us privileged enough to be heard by the majority can tell those stories even as we work to eliminate the need for repackaging.

Annotation Please

Greg wrote a post yesterday that is academia erotica. No, really, although it’s probably not what you think from that description.

It was like they were standing at far end of a room full of books and periodicals, with no walls separating the room from the outside, standing on the edge of an unfinished floor and observing poorly resolved things floating around before them that might or might not be useful data or other constructs. Shapeless forms of possible knowledge floating in the dark and cold unknown. Every now and then the scientist is able (using some tool or another) to grab on to one of these poorly defined forms in an attempt to wrestle it into a place where it could be understood. Sometimes, the thing they would grab would be reformed into books and articles to add to the shelves in their proper place. Sometimes (often) putting the new item on the shelf required tossing what was already there out into the vague abyss at the edge of the room, sometimes the thing they grabbed would wriggle free and escape before sense was made of it. Sometimes it would be thrown back because it was crap.

Definitely worth a read.

Aside from its own merits, it reminded me of a conversation I had with him recently. I don’t know how the subject came up, but I do remember telling him how I wanted books to change. It was a recent conversation, so I was probably a bit out of it, but I still agree with what I said then.

Blogs, particularly science blogs, have spoiled me. There are books out there I want to read, weighty little things like Jared Diamond’s tomes and 1491 that are broad overviews of topics with which I just don’t have enough familiarity. But I’m not reading them. I’m not hesitating because it’s too much reading, mind you. Blogs haven’t spoiled my attention span. I’m hesitating because the books are wrong.

They have to be. These books cover so much that their authors can’t be experts in all the details (where they are experts in any of them). There is information that has gone through at least two rounds of Telephone–simplification and translation to popular or vernacular that will change some of the meaning. There is information that is outdated. I don’t want to learn and rely on this stuff only to have to redo all my work later.

I want what I have when I read a science article online and see a trackback, or what I get simply by keeping up with several science blogs. I want a notation that someone else has something to say on the subject. Not unedited, of course, because that extra shaping is part of the point of a book, but I want flags and the option to see when an expert says, “Well, this matter shouldn’t be presented as settled,” or “Stating this in that way, while not incorrect, is misleading. The more complex truth is….”

When I’m reading for information, even if I’m reading something aimed at the lay audience that I am, I want information, and I’m slowly becoming dissatisfied with anything else.