"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Grist for the Mill

Using SXSWi as an occasion to ponder the future of journalism has been fruitful so far.

Larry Lessig did not disappoint. He really had two themes. He said that the first problem is separating congressional job retention form money. "That's bnot the only problem. That's not the most important problem. But is is the first problem."

The odd thing is that while he made a compelling case for solutions to that problem being logically precedent (in the USA, what about elsewhere?) to all the other ones, it seems to me he ALSO made a case for a different logically precedent problem.

As Dylan Otto Krider quotes Amanda Gefter, "It is crucial to the public's
intellectual health to know when science really is science". And there is no shortcut. Lessig showed a very disturbing vidoe of RFK Jr, siding with the vaccination paranoids, calling real research "tobacco science". There really is no shortcut to knowing which science is the real science, and it is completely necessary.

The big picture, of course, is this: if you don't trust your government, your industry, your press or your scientists, you aren't going to come up with very clever solutions to your problems, are you?

Anyway, the relation between science and journalism in America in the next few years may be a linchpin for the future of the whole world. With all due respect to the people whose lives are being disrupted, I think it's a good thing that science journalism has to be reinvented under the circumstances; what this means for the rest of journalism doesn't concern me.

I'm starting to get some business ideas, but much as I'd love to babble about them here it's probably best to be a little circumspect.

Meanwhile, a lot of fascinating stuff to think about.

This one from Craig Shirky has been causing a splash in journalism circles this week: "Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism."

Here's Tim O'Reilly's amen.

Similarly, a recent article in The New Republic by Yochai Benkler: "The newspaper's decline does not portend anything resembling the end of democracy."

There there's Steven Johnson's talk, the last few seconds of which I caught. A rough model for the new journalism business is sketched out at the end.

And here's Seth Godin on keeping existing businesses going.

Remember, science isn't the only topic that is being mishandled, though. Are the existing newspapers institutions we can afford to have around anymore?

(Picture: A guy wearing Google Austin shirt at SXSW)


amoeba said...

Newspapers are just the disease carrier. When newspapers are no more, the disease will continue its spread via any other vector.

The only way to stop this disease, is disinfection and innoculation.

George M. Crews said...

Hi Michael,

What I might have said, of course, is this: you can't trust your government, your industry, your press, or your scientists to come up with very clever solutions to your problems. :-)

It is not the establishments themselves that are the problem. It is the people in them.

But that is actually a cause for optimism. First, put good people in any of the above fields and good things happen. Secondly, we don't have to have a great understanding of, say, science to sense hubris, sophistry, or confirmation bias.

So my focus would be on people rather than the relationships between, say, science and journalism. We can distinguish good people from bad not by what they say but how they come to say it.

Arthur said...

People need sources they can trust, especially on science - your Krider/Gefter quote is right but perhaps not expansive enough: it is crucial to the public's interest on many levels to know when science really is science. How do we get there? Wikipedia points at the potential of doing much through small contributions from many, but reliable it is not. Has anybody built something web2.0'ish that can be regarded as a foundation for a reliable information system of the kind we're talking about? How do you keep such a thing honest and free from inappropriate influence?

Michael Tobis said...

Anyone interested in Arthur's question is encouraged to contact me offline.

I am just picking up my cards. It's far too soon to be laying them on the table. I'm very interested in corresponding with people of good will on this matter.

George M. Crews said...

Hi Michael,

I have studied software quality assurance and one of the first things I had to learn was that quality is not a property of the software, rather it is a property of users' opinion about the software.

And before users experience the software, even this is not quite right. Non-programmers have no hope of understanding the software code and very little understanding of quality software engineering processes. Thus, users' opinion about the quality of software is based on their opinion about the developers and the development organizations.

I think you may be discussing an analogous problem -- issues concerning the perceived quality of AGW science and related computer models. Therefore, you might consider attacking this problem the same way software quality assurance professionals address their problems. Unfortunately, this discipline is not very advanced.

I do know that the appearance of quality is very important and once lost is very hard to get back. Therefore, I think it a disaster for climate activists or skeptics to engage in sophistry or cherry-picking.

The workhorse process of software quality assurance is independent verification and validation. For critical software, verification is based, in so far as practicable, on testing.