Bloggers And Journalists


There is a bit of a foofaraw going on right now in the science blogosphere concerning the relative ability of actual working scientists versus science journalists to convey the content of scientific advances to the general public. There are three main points I want to make here. The first concerns whether conveying the content of scientific advances to the general public is even a worthwhile goal. The second concerns whether science journalists are mostly clueless fuckwits who hinder, rather than advance, general understanding of the relevance of science to their daily lives. The third concerns whether the stylistic freedom enjoyed by science bloggers harms the communication of science to the general public. (It should go without saying that these issues arise in the more general case of blogging versus journalism, and have been explored in that general case deeply by outstanding bloggers like Glenn Greenwald and Digby.)

(1) Communicating the substantive content of scientific discoveries to the general public is a red herring. What needs to be communicated to members of the general public is the *importance* of science to their daily lives. Everybody understands that engineering is really, really important for making sure, e.g., that bridges and buildings don’t fall down, that planes don’t routinely plummet from the sky, etc. But they don’t give a flying fuck about the actual content of civil or aeronautical engineering principles.

Yes, there are enthusiasts who are interested in the details, but trying to explain the details to non-enthusiast members of the public is a fool’s errand. What scientists do need to do is convincingly explain what practical outcomes that hugely influence people’s daily lives would never have occurred without a robust scientific enterprise.

(2) The vast majority of science journalists suck complete total ass at correctly conveying the content of scientific advances. Here’s just one example from a few days ago in CNN:

updated 3:24 a.m. EST, Tue December 23, 2008
Scientist: Stem cells could end animal testing

There is not a single quote from any scientist in that article that suggests anything even close to “stem cells could end animal testing”. What the quoted scientist is asserting is that tests based on stem-cell derived tissues could exclude particular drugs from further animal and human testing. But there is not a single legitimate drug discovery scientist in the entire fucking world who would ever assert that any drug could ever be tested on human beings without first being tested on live animals. Period. This is because of that thing called physiomotherfuckinology!!

And, yeah, some science journalists have whined that it’s not their fault when editors write headlines sensationalistically. Well, first, this sentence appears in the piece:

Even if stem cell drug testing does mark the beginning of the end for animal testing, the ethical vacuum is already being filled by another storm of controversy surrounding the use of embryonic stem cells.

If you’re a clueless fuckwit editor who doesn’t know jack didly shit about drug discovery or physiomotherfuckinology, and you read this sentence, it’s only natural to assume that the point of the article is that stem cell research could end animal testing. And if the journalist never wrote that sentence, or its meaning was distorted in the editorial process, then the journalist can simply refuse to write for publications that grossly distort their pieces.

(3) A couple of douchecornet science journalists apparently got all up in a tizzie about the wonderful blogger and actual working scientist ERV, complaining that because she writes with a very colloquial style that incorporates elements of LOLspeak to convey her enthusiasm for the scientific content she writes about, instead of using the traditional journalistic style taught in journalism schools and newsrooms, she is RUINING EVERYTHING!!!!1!1!!1!1!!!! If you want to follow up on this in more detail, Almost Diamonds collects some of the important links here.

ERV is an awesome fucking writer. And what some of these assholes seem not to understand is that the purpose of writing a motherfucking blog is totally different from the purpose of writing a scientific paper or an article in Science Times or a letter to the editor of the Journal of Toenail Fungus.

It’s a motherfucking relief for scientists–many of whom are outstanding writers–to be able to relax their writing from the shackles of “In order to test the hypothesis that blah, blah, blah, we performed the following experiments”, or “While it is known that blah, blah, blah, bleh, bleh, bleh remains a key question the field. We thus propose the following specific aims”. That shit has its place, and is the bread-and-butter writing of working scientists. We blog to get the fuck away from that shit!!!!!!

If these dumbfuck journalists don’t like it, then let them put us out of business competitively by writing more compellingly. If dumbass thinks ERV’s blog is TEH SUX00RS, then let him write about virology so compellingly and comprehensively that no one bothers to read ERV’s virology posts anymore. Otherwise, shit-for-brains journamalists can kiss my ass.

Comments

  1. says

    Most journalists are NOT scientists and only have a rudimentary understanding of science (eg fire = hot). Picking up one or two sciencey-sounding buzz words and writing an eloquent article that ordinary people can understand will not adequately convey what the science is all about and how important it is, particularly if things are taking out of context as clearly illustrated in the CNN article. The key is to find scientists who can communicate clearly and simply.

  2. George Smiley says

    “Yes, there are enthusiasts who are interested in the details, but trying to explain the details to non-enthusiast members of the public is a fool’s errand. What scientists do need to do is convincingly explain what practical outcomes that hugely influence people’s daily lives would never have occurred without a robust scientific enterprise.”

    You are so full of fucking shit, PhysioProf. You may know something about research, but you’ve just shown that you do not know jack shit about science education or communication. In fact, you know less than jack shit: you “know” things that are demonstrably wrong. You are being a fuckihng idiot.

    Carl Sagan (Cosmos) and Frank Oppenheimer (Exploratorium, San Francisco), among others, both demonsrated that people care about science — care passionately — when it is presented in the right ways. I was in the new California Academy of Sciences a week ago, on a weekday (ASCB had little to offer me that day), and it was fucking PACKED. As was the American Museum of Natural history, the last time I was in NYC.

    You are just so catastrophically wrong on so many fucking levels that I (almost) feel sorry for you.

    Get back into the fucking lab where you have some hope of actually doing some good. Here, you’re way the fuck out out of your fucking depth.

  3. George Smiley says

    Let me expand on this a bit further: 90% of EVERYTHING is crap. Beating down on science journalism/communication because of the bottom 75% is pointless.

    If you focus on the top 10%, amazing work is being done. And if 5% of the public gets turned on through these efforts, that’s enough to mean major change on a lot of important issues.

  4. says

    Yeah, Smiley’s right! The amazing top 10%, like our flagship the New York Times, with fine, credible science bloggers like John Tierney. I don’t know how you missed that one, Phys.

    And Carl Sagan did a great job promoting details of science to the masses. He was an awesome science journalist! Oh wait, he was actually a SCIENTIST. As is Hawking, as was Gould, as were most of the people who we enjoy for their detailed descriptions of real science. Natalie Angier, though a bit florid, would be one of the few journalists I can think of who writes fairly detailed science.

    Also, the Natural History Museum etc are run by scientists and museum curators with much more knowledge about science than your average science journalist.

  5. says

    Why can’t we all just get along?
    Everyone makes good points and I don’t see the point in shitting on each other over some differences in opinion. I tend to agree that *most* science journalists do not tap the full potential of a work’s significance for their stories (see Prof in Training bove). However, as Smiley Part II and Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde pointed out, there are some good science writers out there. Historically, though, I think some of the best science writers have been actual trained scientists–not journalists. Which is why I think it is so important for scientists to be able to write for the lay public, because as “enthusiastic” as I am about my work, I think I’m the best person to convey the importance of my work. Similarly with PhysioProf, etc.

    Forget about what others say (journalists or scientists), if one can get the public to appreciate the significance of science (at this point any appreciation of any significance is better than none and also a good start), I think that’s a success right there.

    What–too cheezy?

  6. George Smiley says

    Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde argues that if it’s in the NYT, it must be in the top 10%. A bizarre suggestion. As for Sagan: he wrote and produced television shows about a vast array of topics, only a small subset of which he had specific expertise in, you dumbshit.

    Read Weiner’s “Beak of the Finch” and Taubes’s “Good Calories, Bad Calories” if you want to see some good fucking science writing — in Taubes’s case, with better analysis than a lot of the pubished science.

  7. says

    I second most of George Smiley’s points, but I wonder if he thinks that 25% of articles about molecular/cell biology in the MSM rise above the level of crap? I think that he’s at least an order of magnitude off.

  8. says

    I take my children to science focused museums, and yes, they are packed. Especially on rainy days and school holidays. But I often find myself wondering why some people even bother to bring their children to such places. Our local one is usually full of kids who are running around pushing every button they can find, without paying any attention to what the button actually does, and throwing anything that isn’t nailed down. I rarely see the parents of these children read any of the carefully prepared information, or even just suggest that they slow down and, you know, actually LEARN something. In fact, I don’t even really see much interaction between the parents and children. I find this frustrating, because I love to check things out with my kids and cherish the time to talk about science with them on their level. In fact, I sometimes even leave feeling offended, like the time I witnessed a parent hold her child up so he could throw a coin into the model of Archimedes’ screw – repeatedly.

    So I wonder – whose fault is that? Is it the parents’ for treating the museum as an indoor playground? Is it the museum for not making the exhibits engaging enough? Or do we just throw our hands up and blame our society in general for not valuing science? Oh, wait, I forgot. Smiley said that people ARE interested in science. Maybe I’m just a bitchy little elitist…

  9. George Smiley says

    “In fact, I don’t even really see much interaction between the parents and children.”

    Yes. We should begin by criticizing how (other) people raise their kids (I have noticed that this is a — perhaps THE — favorite pastime of people who have kids).

  10. George Smiley says

    Alex Palazzo:

    I think that the top 25% of the reporting on MCB that I read is not total crap — IF you first subtract out the garbage about studies of yeast and worm “aging,” which in aggregate appear to make up about 50% of the total published MCB articles ;-).

  11. George Smiley says

    Speaking of steaming heaps of horseshit — and we were, of course — check out this monster takedown of an apparently common statistical approach used in brain imaging studies. And read the cited manuscript, not just the summary.

    That is going. to. disturb. some. shit!

  12. says

    I’m actually not criticizing how anyone raises their kids. I’m actually calling you on your bullshit assertion that because science museums are full, that must mean that the people are really really loving teh science.

    I just don’t see it. And you haven’t given anything to back up your statement that “people care about science — care passionately — when it is presented in the right ways” other than attendance at two museums on two single dates.

    I’ll say it again – yes, people go to the museums, but I don’t think the majority of them go for the science or are even interested in what is being presented. The most sensational, lowest content exhibits are overwhelmed, and the rest are unappreciated. So try again to tell me how much the public loves science for science’s sake.

  13. says

    I fully agree with you CPP, when you say that “What scientists do need to do is convincingly explain what practical outcomes that hugely influence people’s daily lives would never have occurred without a robust scientific enterprise.”

    For instance, the other day I was telling a (non-scientist) friend about some cool research on MC1R, and the role of intercellular MSH signalling in the tanning response. He wouldn’t give a damn about that except that he is a red-head who burns like a lobster, and this will likely lead (somday) to a topical cream that can turn him into a bronze Adonis. It’s all about the sell.

    Maybe your mother and your best friend will pretend to care about your research “just because”, but in general, non-scientists are not interested in the details unless it somehow affects them personally. The simple message is best – there will be a cream that will make you tan. Not all the details about signalling pathways and such.

    Of course, that makes it harder for those of us who do basic science research. Then you have to throw out a tenuous but tasty sounding connection to something people actually care about, even if your work is really ten thousand steps removed from a new antibiotic/cure for cancer/understanding of aging or whatever.

  14. says

    Which brings this back to why it is important for actual scientists to communicate this stuff, because otherwise, the tenuous connections become ridiculous, an example of which CPP graciously provided above. Obviously, submitting to interviews won’t do.

  15. George Smiley says

    I am currently an active researcher (NIH-funded PI at a top-tier state university), I teach undergrads and grad students, and I formerly worked in a science museum, doing direct science education with kids and adults. My wife has worked in a science museum for several years, spending much of her time doing science education with the general public. We talk shop almost daily. Based on our many combined years spent in three very divergent science museums, I can say without hesitation that you are wrong, acmegirl.

  16. says

    Perhaps we are not talking about the same general public. I’m sure you’ve met many families like mine at the museums, we are the ones who sign up for classes and who would take advantage of the wonderful educational opportunities they provide. But you probably haven’t met the family I see at reunions and such. The ones who stared at me blankly when I told them I was going to graduate school and didn’t even bother to ask what I was studying. When I think of the general public, that’s who I think of.

    I love science museums, and I think that they have an important place in our society, but I’m not sure if they are really reaching a broad slice of the population.

  17. BikeMonkey says

    Beating down on science journalism/communication because of the bottom 75% is pointless.

    If you focus on the top 10%, amazing work is being done. And if 5% of the public gets turned on through these efforts, that’s enough to mean major change on a lot of important issues.

    No sale. What you are overlooking in your enthusiasm for the fans of Sagan is that they do not constitute a voting majority in these here United States. Not even close. The voting majority are the ones that come away from the article referenced in the OP thinking animal research is now unnecessary. They are the ones that come away from muddled, faux-balanced reporting thinking all kinds of theologically driven crap might be “just as valid” as the real truth.

    And they vote according to their knowledge base. Which leverages that majority of crap reporting into serious policy that affects 100%.

  18. George Smiley says

    “they do not constitute a voting majority in these here United States. Not even close. ”

    Put words in other folks mouths much, BikeMonkey?

    I never even implied such a thing. I said that those people MAKE A DIFFERENCE. Large majorities are infavor of medical and space research; a minority of them are Sagan fans.

    On issues where you have, say, a 47/53 split — and there are many in U.S. politics — swaying a few percent can make a huge difference in the outcome. This is a fundamental property of all political activism, including science education. We’re not after everyone. We’re after those who can be persuaded.

  19. says

    “This is a fundamental property of all political activism, including science education. We’re not after everyone. We’re after those who can be persuaded.”

    I see. I thought you were all about the general public. But since it takes a lot of effort to reach the unwashed masses, and they might not turn to your side in the end, you just don’t count them.

    I want to see science communication that can reach everyone. The level of basic science knowledge in this country is appallingly low, considering just how much of the increase in our quality of life is thanks to scientific advances. It’s not acceptable to me to “target” the efforts of science education toward those who might vote the way we want them to. It’s not acceptable to me that scientific reporting is just WRONG so often. I’d rather see some watered down, but accurate content in the papers that a reasonable approximation of the general public reads than the crap that gets published there now. It is folly to focus on the best of the best at the exclusion of standards like the New York Times.

    If a paper can have excellence in its other types of journalism, why do we think it is acceptable that the science section can suck so bad? And why aren’t we encouraging scientists to get involved in tackling this problem.

    “Get back into the fucking lab where you have some hope of actually doing some good.”

    Indeed.

  20. George Smiley says

    “I see. I thought you were all about the general public.”

    I am. It’s the only way. And I walk the talk: I teach an intro-level course to hundreds of students a year.

    “But since it takes a lot of effort…”

    A huge fucking amount of effort.

    “…to reach the unwashed masses, and they might not turn to your side in the end, you just don’t count them.”

    I did not say that we always succeed. I said that a huge fraction of people are INTERESTED. A smaller fraction are willing or able to assimilate what they have seen and heard. It’s a matter of degrees. You don’t count people who aren’t “taking classes.” I count everyone who shows genuine interest.

    Without science writing and science museums and a couple of great science teachers, I’d never have entered the profession. The people responsible — Gould, Sagan, Oppenheimer, a high school chem teacher and two profs in college — changed my life. That’s the way of the world. We address everyone, we reach some. We can’t know in advance who we will reach, or to what extent.

    “If a paper can have excellence in its other types of journalism, why do we think it is acceptable that the science section can suck so bad?”

    I see NO evidence that any U.S. paper has the posited consistent excellence in “other types of journalism.” As I said upthread, 90% of EVERYTHING is crap. Well, maybe not everything. If we’re lucky, perhaps only 60% of the peer-reviewed biomedical literature is garbage — pointless, repetitious, corrupted by disgusting conflicts of interest, and quite often simply wrong.

    It is simply inexplicable to me (well, I do have an explanation, but it’s not pretty) that we would attempt to hold journalists to a standard so much higher than that to which we hold our own colleagues.

    Perhaps we should consider the glassiness of the houses in which we reside, before w start hurling rocks willy nilly at others who are earnestly, if often misguidedly, trying to be of help.

  21. says

    “Perhaps we should consider the glassiness of the houses in which we reside, before w start hurling rocks willy nilly at others who are earnestly, if often misguidedly, trying to be of help.”

    OMFG! The irony is so thick, I could cut it with your first comment!

    I still agree with CPP – the average person isn’t all that interested in the details of scientific research. They want to know what it has to do with their daily lives. I also agree that the state of science reporting is pretty miserable. It is imperative that scientists get invloved in finding new and better ways to communicate science to non-scientists, WHILE REMEMBERING what the average person cares about.

    And this has nothing to do with the state of peer review. Most people have no idea what peer review is or how it works. They have no idea how much is behind a seemingly simple statement like, “Stem cell research could reduce the amount of animal testing required to find good drug candidates.” The science news they get is filtered through so many hands, that it is imperative that we hold science reporting to high standards for accuracy.

    And BTW, WTF are you trying to prove with your link? It’s way too easy to bring up the tired old “BigPharma is buying up all the scientists” refrain. The fact that so much of the public believes that we are all out to design poisons for drug companies to sell to them is due in large part to the abyssmal state of science reporting.

  22. George Smiley says

    The point is that there’s garbage everywhere. Do we as scientists focus our thinking on the bad papers? Do sports fans (other than hard-luck cases like Cowboys/Bills fans) focus thier attention on the shit teams? If you want to improve science reporting, the first order of business is to not only point out what’s wrong, but what’s right. And a lot of science reporting is in fact competent, if boring. Of course, we tend to ignore those articles because they don’t generate an emotional response (i.e., they don’t piss us off).

    As for the NYRoB, article, it’s is about the corruption of vast swaths of biomedical research. It is written by the former editor of NEJM, and it’s pretty fucking devastating, because a significant number of our colleagues are pretty fucking seriously corrupted by their connections to big pharma. I cited it to point out that no system of knowledge produciont is even close to perfect — even the best one ever invented (modern science).

    My view is that imperfect science reporting in the mass media is stilll preferable to the ACTUAL alternative, which is NO science reporting in the mass media.

    Out of sight is out of mind. If we want the public to support our efforts, we NEED science reporters, science museums, and science education.

  23. BikeMonkey says

    Smiley, I never suggested you mentioned anything about voting patterns in fact my point was that you were overlooking this critical bit of evidence. Project much?

    And I walk the talk: I teach an intro-level course to hundreds of students a year.

    So you have contact with a minor fraction of the individuals who will eventually receive a degree from your institution. Who are in turn a minor fraction of the college educated who are a minor fraction of the general public in the US, last I checked. I appreciate you are doing what you can but you are still not grasping the scope of the real problem here with communicating science. We’re in a big hole here in the US with respect to the science literacy of the general population. Reaching the geekery that already like pointy headed presentations ain’t going to get the job done.

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