"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Sustainable Science Journalism Toward a Sustainable World

This is something of a rant about science journalism and my place in it. 

The core of the matter is this.

In our peculiar circumstances, science writing has an ethical component.

Although speech is free in a free country, individuals or corporations aren't free of ethical responsibility for what they write. The problems we face these days are so vast, the decisions we collectively make so consequential, that the ethical responsibility is greatly magnified. 

That said, here is the problem.  I heard Clay Shirky say this at the ill-fated #sxswbp: filtering (editing) is everything.
"The filter is the single most important function on the internet today."

Before the internet, anybody could say anything, but nobody could get anybody to listen. The Brits maintained their soapbox tradition in Hyde Park, I imagine, but I doubt anybody gathers much of an audience that way anymore. The action, for almost a century now, has been in the mass media. Consequently,
for the lifetime of everybody living and until just a few months ago, it was the moneyed interests who decided who would speak and who would be silent.

This broke down a bit in the period of 1966-1974, often called "the sixties", a brief period when radicals understood media better than the people who owned them. Soon enough everything interesting about that period was sanitized, obfuscated and duly forgotten by everybody who wasn't privileged to come of age exactly at that moment.

Control of intellectual input by the corporate sector is totally shattered now.
There is no governance on the internet. It's totally mob rule, as a Google search on "global warming consensus" will instantly reveal. The corporations run a bigger chunk of the economy than ever; even our barristas are publicly traded. But they have lost control of the media in a way that makes the revolution of the sixties look like a fraternity prank. (Which, in a way, it was, come to think of it.)

The corporate control of the Overton window (thanks to Eli for teaching me the concept) was already weakening before the great AIG screwup proved what many of us had always suspected about the Phil Gramms of the world. Now it's hopeless.
Speech is uncontrolled but it doesn't matter very much, because nobody trusts anybody anymore.

This is both very good news and very bad news. Freedom is the good news. If you have something interesting to say, you can find the audience to whom it is interesting. There is much more interesting stuff to read nowadays. 

Unfortunately, we also have the bad news. Lies are cheaper than truth, vague misgivings cheaper than balanced analyses, and wild-ass guesses cheaper than interview and investigation. In short, noise dominates signal. As things stand, most people lack effective filters. 

An important function that the corporations used to provide for us, and before that the culture and the churches, was to provide a sense of what was reasonable and what was outlandish, what was worthy of polite conversation and what was certifiable. As we lose this imposed sense of propriety, we are in desperate need of filters, of reliable mechanisms to connect the people who have lost faith in every institution to the people who really do mean well and really do know what the f*** they are talking about.

Now, one could argue (I used to argue this more vehemently) that science at least provides a model for how this could be done. It turns out that for a vast range of reasons, that science is struggling to scale up to its modern circumstances as well.

Instead, it surprisingly appears that the most functional corner of civilization nowadays is the software design community. (The reasons for that could fill books, and better books need to be written on the subject.) Many people are already  looking to the software community, particularly the open source community. for models of how to better organize ourselves at scale. This is promising, one of the few trends that is promising. And indeed, that model may solve science's internal communication and validation problems as it tries to scale to unprecedented complexity. That isn't the problem that has been occupying me, though.

The problem that suddenly fell into my lap was not that of George Will, nor of Roger Pielke Jr., nor of Mark Morano, nor Glenn Beck (nor Laurie David or James Kunstler either). These people's successes and failures all shine some light on our collective dysfunction in one way or another, but
the moment I slapped my forehead and said, that's it, I'm in the wrong game, something has to be done, was specifically in reference to Andy Revkin.

Three things, to me, are fairly obvious about Andy Revkin:
  • 1) he has a wonderful job and enjoys it and does it competently and successfully
  • 2) he thinks he is helping
  • 3) he isn't.
And it's point three that specifically galvanized me into rethinking whether this blog is really a hobby.

 It started with removing Revkin from my blogroll, but of course I don't think he cares. At worst it will cost him a handful of hits a month, and honestly, I am not going to stop reading it. To his credit, despite the extent to which I am on his case, Revkin still takes my comments, too. Delisting him on my humble little blog seems a pathetic and futile gesture, and maybe it will turn out to be. It's meant as a gesture. What matters in substance is replacing the Times as an authoritative source for scientific reporting. If Revkin thinks his family's comfort is more important than the survival of the planet, if he doesn't have the cojones to stand up to the publisher and say "kill the Dyson crap or I am out of here" or something like that, he is not doing us much good. As my good friend John M says, "you can't achieve anything if you're not willing to quit your job over principle".

Revkin might say that somebody else will be glad to do his job at the Times. A problematic excuse, of course. One thing you can easily say is just, yes, Andy, but not as well. We need you telling the truth full time, not 50.00% of the time.

The problem, of course, is that the Times is a pre-internet institution, and is incapable of blunt honesty that might be inconvenient for its owners or its advertisers. This is just a human foible under ordinary circumstances, but the time for hemming and hawing is over. The world is changing in ways that are casually obvious and are likely to become overwhelming if not grappled with soon. If these ways are embarrassing to the corporations that own newspapers, they simply must be replaced. I know that sounds grandiose, but I am not just windmill-tilting here. The Times is not serving effectively in science journalism of policy consequence. (The same phenomenon likely applies to the rest of their reporting, but that's not my topic here.)

In the huge tangled quandary that the world faces today
truth is the commodity in most desperate shortage, and its lack is traced to the lack of its raw material, trust.

what will replace the Times given that the Times has gone out of its way to prove that we cannot actually trust the Times?

A good place to start is from analyses of the future of the press in general, and Steven B. Johnson has that one right. And here is his figure, which I am lifting from his sxsw talk.

It seems that there must be a role for me in developing some corner of Johnson's model for scientific communication to the general public. But what? What's the business model? It's obvious to me that filtering is crucial.

The issue in scientific reporting is about trust.
One has to create mechanisms for individual science writers to establish trust with their audience. This isn't without precedent. I trusted Asimov, I trusted Sagan, I trusted Gould. Didn't you? The writer is the brand. It is only with the individual human voice that trust develops. I read those guys because I trusted them. I trusted them for at least three reasons:
  • they wrote things I could understand,
  • they were close enough to science to know how it works,
  • they spoke with their own voices in ways that average everyday people around me never seemed to manage.
The great pop science writers of my youth were lucky to be on relatively uncontroversial turf (less so Gould, I guess, but I always found doubts about evolution to be laughable.) Nowadays though, I just discover someone like the unspellable Hrynyshyn and find myself trusting him, whether he is being controversial or not, whether I agree with him or not. When I take the time to read Hrynyshyn I get something out of it; it alters my point of view. When I read Revkin, I expect him not to get the facts wrong, but now that I understand what he does better, I am very surprised if the experience affects my behavior or beliefs in any way. Revkin is not wrong, usually, but a scientist is usually right, and usually in a non-obvious way. There is a difference. And in the quandary we are all facing, that is the difference we desperately need.

In the course of becoming a not entirely anonymous blogger I've met a couple of science journalists in person, some of whom I admire more than others, some of whom are quite commendable. I hope I'm not out of line in singling out John Fleck as a standout. But unfortunately he also seems to me still something of an exception. For the most part,
I get a lot more out of reading scientists, or journalists who were trained as scientists, on science than I do from reading trained journalists on science, even if that's their beat. Don't you?

(Less profoundly and with more exceptions, but still strikingly, I get more out of reading scientists on politics and economics than I do journalists, politicians and economists. For instance, Steinn Sigurdsson has been "indispensible" on the Iceland story, but has opened my eyes to many other aspects of the economic crisis as well. Steinn is an astronomer.)

It doesn't matter what level of sophistication the article is pitched at. Scientists writing at the 11th grade level are usually much more interesting to me than journalists writing at that level. See Grumbine, for instance, or my scientific colleagues on the imperfect but lamented Correlations blog.

So, let's pretend a business model has emerged in my fevered brain out of all these constraints. What would it be like?

What I'm willing to say about it:
  • reporters must own their content and be their own brand
  • filtering is crucial and must be achieved by a collaborative infrastructure
  • new software is involved
  • I think I see how the people who work hard enough and produce a good enough product can get paid even though the content will be free. Anyway after pondering it intensively for six weeks, I have an idea worth considering.
  • Science journalism is my target, but the core idea will probably work for some other branches of reporting.
I'd like to talk this through with someone willing to confer in confidence. I need allies to make this work (even as a nonprofit, which is definitely a consideration). Which is really the point of this great long rant. I am looking for somebody to talk business who understands the nature of the problem, something about how the web works, and a little bit about making a business concern go. 

The business model chart, as I said, is lifted from the linked Steven B Johnson article

The comic clippings are from an episode of Tom the Dancing Bug

I thought Bora Z might be having some similar thoughts so I deliberately avoided reading his recent article on science journalism until I got this out to avoid undue influence. So finally I looked at it. He did indeed say some similar things among many ideas. His recent article on blogging, journalism and science is excellent indeed and very highly recommended for those who care about communicating science.


Anonymous said...

Similar problems exists in engineering as well. The journalism for example in the space sector doesn't give much insight, at worst its just forwarding NASA press releases uncritically. Hey, a program adds two years of delay every year, and every time all is just fine.

Until the program is cancelled. Who would have thought of it?! (Hint: maybe those people who saw it was *technically* very unlikely to succeed right from the start.)

There is no information content in much of such journalism. One doesn't learn anything real from the subjects from there. The real status of many space projects stays completely behind the "iron curtain".

I think it's because the journalists don't have the faintest technical background so they can't really question anything. Of course this is a very hard problem.

Just treating everything as opinions (some scientists say the Earth is flat, so we should report it) and living completely detached from reality is a tempting thought model since it is so simple, but it is disastrous.

I would think it would be easier in science - the scientists who are working on the issues themselves actively publish their work, and they are actively trying to tell the press about what they have just done, why, and how it relates to everything.

Robert Grumbine said...

A source that had occurred to me about science writing is the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. It's an award for quality of writing, and doesn't have any necessary connection to science. Norman Mailer, for example, won in 1969 for Armies of the Night. On the other hand, science-oriented books do sometimes win. Richard Rhodes for The making of the atom bomb and Carl Sagan for The Dragons of Eden.

If the routine argument from journalists and a certain quarter of academic journalism is right, then almost all Pulitzer prize winning books that are about science would be written by science journalists. I'm not being exhaustive here, and this biases my count since I do know the scientists better than the journalists. Still, as a start:

Journalists writing on science:
Richard Rhodes
Tracy Kidder
John McPhee

Scientists writing on science
Carl Sagan
E. O. Wilson (twice)
Douglas Hofstader
Jonathan Weiner
Jared Diamond

I'm, no doubt, missing a few (probably for each group). Still, I'm pretty confident that Mailer and Tuchman (Barbara Tuchman being the only other 2 time winner in this category to my cursory look) and the like weren't writing about science.

So, at first cursory glance, it's remarkable how seldom journalists have won rather than scientists. 3 of the 9 being by journalists. Writing for general audiences is not something that scientists have has a main part of their job evaluations or time (there's another discussion to be had here), but it is exactly what journalists are supposed to be doing in their job.

Not that I'll be holding my breath for either of us to be winning a Pulitzer. But it does seem that the upper reaches of writing about science at least, that scientists don't do too badly vs. journalists -- as judged by a journalistic panel! That's heartening.

Thanks for the good word about my writing.

Arthur said...

Michael, this is an excellent article and echoes a lot of my own thinking on all this (as we've discussed a bit). Lots of good quotable phrases in there!

That said, there's something wrong with Steven Johnson's picture, and I don't feel the structure of this is sufficiently clearly outlined to really think clearly enough about it yet, let alone build business models off it (at least for my taste).

Recently I've been slowly reading through Douglas Hofstadter's latest book, "I am a Strange Loop" (so was glad to see penguindreams' mention of him!) and thinking about what it all means. Almost all the things that are most important to us have at their heart at least one "loop", and sometimes many, which creates a self-sustainable self-consistent and stable structure that has reference to its foundation, but important properties that seem not derivable from what underlies it.

Money and language are examples of self-consistent self-bootstrapping loops of that sort. I remember learning algebra when I was about 10 years old, something finally "clicked" and the symbols on the page started to mean something different than they had just minutes before - something fundamental about mathematics bootstrapped itself into my mind at that point, and there's a loop of self-consistency at the heart of that.

For much of science, I believe, you have similar loops and webs of consistency, cross-checks and feedbacks that amplify truths, and drown falsehood.

So I believe what is centrally needed is a structure, perhaps similar to science or software development, that has at its heart a self-reinforcing loop or web that amplifies only trust-worthy information, things that relate to real truths about the world. That loop or web somehow has to connect to real observation and consequences or it will go off the rails. It also has to be able to counter the important point you make, that "lies are cheaper than truth" - the amplification of truth has to be faster than the relative cost disadvantage.

How do we get there? I think more complete analysis of the science information system or our sharing of "news" in general is needed, but I still have no clear picture. Steven Johnson's and Jay Rosen's and BoraZ's pictures help quite a bit - but we're not there yet, and some sort of loop, or web, rather than hierarchical thinking, has to be central to the answer.

Michael Tobis said...

You are getting warm, Arthur.

One problem is that pulling together a business model requires a phase of strong coffee and tight lips.

Given that sharing info is what we are all about that doesn't come easy.

I'd rather not speculate on algorithms out in the open. You have my email, let's keep the conversation going privately.

Of course I can't stop you from speculating some more, but I really am looking to build a core group to work on this in confidence for a few months. I am serious about building not just a business model but an actual business.

EliRabett said...

Hofstadter is much too much into onanaism for Eli. Sort of thing that pretentious 17 year olds enjoy

Arthur said...

Hi Eli - well, I grew to love Hofstadter from his delightful Scientific American columns, not Godel-Escher-Bach. When I was a postdoc I also happened to do a bit of work in physics that overlapped with his one major contribution there before he became a philosopher (or whatever it is he does now). I only read GEB a couple of years ago; it's certainly on the over-exuberant side, and the deep thoughts could probably have been condensed considerably, but thinking about the human mind is a rather tricky business...

His latest is a lot more humble and sober - and personal - but so far it's answered pretty much every objection I had ready for him in his approach. Haven't finished it yet though, but it's a very different, quite clarifying, look at Hofstadter and the understanding of human thought he's still groping for after all these years.

And I think here we're groping for an understanding of something similar. Not one human's thoughts and self-realization, but the corpus of ideas and concepts and truths about the world that humanity as a whole has developed. How do we keep that grounded in reality in a way that is accepting of new truths, without succumbing to the ease with which falsehood can be created and disseminated?

Comparing our situation as a species to the individual human mind level, we are in danger of succumbing to a form of psychosis that too easily accepts falsehoods, that divorces ourselves from reality. The Republican party in the US and large segments of the population already seem to have taken that route. How do we prevent this psychosis from overcoming the rest?

Or comparing to the world of mathematical proof that Hofstadter likes to talk about, where Godel reigns; if you allow just one false theorem in so that your system of logic becomes inconsistent, the whole edifice collapses and every statement becomes acceptable, from "1 = 2" on up.

Talk about loops and webs may seem "loopy", but it seems to me our thinking tends to be far too hierarchical, like the Steve Johnson diagram, and we're missing something very important. To me Hofstadter's ideas are at least a clue to what's missing.

Michael Tobis said...

As the last of the dualists I don't care for Hofstader's handwavy implication that self-reference somehow explains (I would say "explains away") consciousness.

But I still find a lot of value there, not least in his managing to have conveyed to me an understanding of Godel's theorem, for all that he turns around and overvalues it.