Illustration by David Parkins, Nature
Today, Nature released a news feature by Geoff Brumfiel on the downturn in mainstream science media. We’ve all known that this is happening; the alarms become impossible to ignore when Peter Dysktra and his team at CNN lost their jobs last year. For mainstream outlets like CNN or the Boston Globe to cut science may seem appalling – but in an unforgiving economic climate which has already triggered the collapse of major newspapers like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, such cuts are logical, because science reporting isn’t a big money-maker. The question everyone seems to be asking now is whether independent web media like blogs and podcasts are going to “fill the void” and replace traditional science journalism. The answer to that question is still unclear.
What is clear is that the internet has put a strain on traditional journalism in general – not just science journalism. Web media outlets successfully competed for readers by offering benefits traditional media could not – lightning-fast news cycles; accessibility to non-subscribers; accessibility at work, at home, or on mobile devices; openness to participation by the reader; instant shareability with social networks. As traditional media outlets embraced the Web (in some cases it was more like a shotgun wedding) they started using these traits to their advantage as well, but the question remains: to what extent is the Web compatible with traditional journalism? Can the type of thoughtful, fact-checked, research-heavy science journalism written by veterans like John McPhee survive? Or is that genre an outdated dinosaur, pressed to extinction by a fundamental change in the journalistic climate?
In a recent Science editorial, Christopher Reddy of Woods Hole called for graduate students in science to be better educated on how to communicate with the public and media. It’s well known and often lamented that the majority of science graduate programs require no formal training in communication and don’t prioritize communication skills in their graduates (or teaching skills – but that’s another story). This is by no means a new problem. In fact, it’s precisely why some of my fellow grad students and I started the Berkeley Science Review back in 2001: to give graduate students an opportunity to practice and polish their communication skills. Because such opportunities were scarce, we had no dearth of volunteer writers, editors, and illustrators. Today, BSR alumni write and edit at places like Nature. However, If the blogosphere eight years ago had been what it is today, I doubt we’d have felt the same urgency about starting the BSR. Today, anyone can start a blog, write for the public, and get immediate feedback on their efforts. Many grad students and undergrads have outstanding blogs. They’re good writers. One could argue that science blogging is directly addressing Reddy’s concerns about scientists and public outreach/engagement.
But are science blogs ready to bear the standard of science journalism? I think most traditional journalists, and many bloggers as well, would say no. Different people have different reasons for this answer. One reason, the one I have least patience with, is a blanket distaste for blogs. At a panel a few weeks back, I saw several science reporters speak disparagingly, even bitterly, about blogs. The blogosphere certainly has its blemishes. But is frustrating to hear journalists tar all blogs with the same brush, calling them poorly written, unsourced, blatantly biased and badly researched. It makes one wonder how experienced they are with the blogosphere: are they unaware of the many excellent science blogs out there, or are they simply defaulting to the hoary old chestnut that scientists don’t know how to communicate with non-scientists, can’t learn how, and don’t much care to try?
Scientist-bloggers bristle at such criticisms, because we have among our ranks many talented, compelling writers. We are called to task for small things like typos (byproducts of the fast news cycle/lack of editors in blogging), when many of us wish we had more time to draft posts and someone to do a quick copyedit for us. Many science bloggers work for free, or if paid, make about enough to cover our internet connection. We don’t have access to the skilled staff described by veteran science writer John McPhee in his recent New Yorker article about heroic fact-checkers. Keep in mind, mainstream journalists make typos and errors too: they just have someone to catch typos before they go to print! So it left a bad taste in my mouth when the Nature piece called attention to a typo by Larry Moran: “Most of what passes for science journalism is so bad we will be better of [sic] without it”. Ha ha, Moran made a typo while criticizing bad journalism. It’s like he misspelled “misspelled.” But most scientists I know would say such a typo, even twenty such typos, are far less of a problem than the inaccuracies, over-generalizations and misrepresentations we see in popular science journalism every day.
On the other hand, the traditional journalists might justifiably reply that a decline in the quality of science journalism is largely due to the loss of experienced science journalists like Dykstra, increased workloads, and too few scientists willing or qualified to explain their work. Few journalists today have access to the heroic fact-checkers and editors of McPhee’s era. Journalists are operating under pressure, too – and this isn’t just a hobby or sideline for them.
The truth is, scientist-bloggers are not trained journalists. Some scientists may disregard such training, or feel journalistic credentials are unnecessary, because many of the skills that make good scientists are learned through trial and error. Graduate training prioritizes hands-on experience: go in the lab, get your hands dirty, prove your experimental chops. But that doesn’t mean one doesn’t contemplate experimental design in advance. A scientist’s success depends on his/her ability to think scientifically. While the critical thinking skills deployed in science share much with the critical thinking skills deployed in journalism, they are not identical skill sets. Trained journalists have skills and qualities that even talented and enthusiastic amateur journalists don’t. And with the support of a solid news organization, professional journalists can create truly investigative, multi-layered stories that are difficult for part-time, independent bloggers to do. It will be tragic if we lose the culture of traditional science journalists and their unique skills.
Consider the role of investigative journalists in ensuring accountability to the public. According to the Nature article, The Wall Street Journal‘s Robert Lee Hotz “doubts that blogs can fulfil the additional roles of watchdog and critic that the traditional media at their best aim to fulfil.” When science bloggers are blogging about their own research, or research within their field, they are both more qualified to discuss it than a layperson, and more likely to be biased in overt and covert ways.
Fortunately, scientists prize and strive for objectivity. In fact, we do so precisely because we know it’s hard to achieve. A recent article for The Scientist by Steven Wiley illustrates this problem:
Data interpretations depend on a scientist’s underlying assumptions and worldview. For example, a molecular biologist might think of protein expression as an outcome of mRNA levels, whereas a biochemist might think in terms of synthetic and degradation rates. Both are right.
Every scientist has winced as a favorite hypothesis is blown to bits by experimental data. We all have favorites; we all have personal biases. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t. That’s why at least some investigations into scientific controversies and scientific practice should originate outside science, with trained journalists who don’t have a dog in the fight. Those journalists need the help of scientists to evaluate the situation, particularly if it involves esoteric methodologies, but in the end, the non-scientist’s independent perspective is valuable precisely because it comes from outside the scientific community. And that’s something even the best scientist-bloggers can’t offer.
The Nature article also brought up the echo chamber effect – the splintering of media into progressively more specialized (and potentially biased) niches. To be fair, this is hardly the fault of blogs, nor is it unique to the Web: what do you think Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN are doing, if not divvying up market share by catering to and reinforcing pre-existing perspectives among their audience?
Anyone wishing to know more about echo chambers and their potential impact on public literacy should really read Cass Sunstein’s Republic 2.0. The point is that the decline of mainstream media means that we are not all getting the same “balanced meal” of news, as we might if we each read the New York Times cover to cover. Instead, we’re getting slices of news based on personal interests and biases – what Nicholas Negroponte calls the “Daily Me.” We subscribe to RSS feeds, we follow people on Twitter – but likely only those people and blogs we are already interested in or already agree with. We build ourselves cozy Web 2.0 nests, in which we are unlikely to encounter opposing viewpoints or learn about unfamiliar topics.
I’m the first to admit that I don’t have enough hours in the day to read everything, and I don’t seek out things that will anger me or stress me out. I have certain channels blocked on my television so I don’t accidentally stumble upon them and thereby experience dangerously elevated blood pressure. As Sunstein warns, this behavior can potentially lead to group polarization. I avoid this by regularly talking to (or arguing with) people who disagree with me. I read articles I disagree with, including those with a different political bent. In fact, I find that niche blogs are sometimes a really good venue for this type of debate. People drawn together by a shared interest – in art, for example – don’t necessarily share identical political views. However, having at least one mutual interest in common may help them be more receptive to a dialogue about other topics. Some blogs, including bioephemera, explicitly target boundary areas like the science/art intersection in order to bring people representing different communities of thought together in one place. In sum, while the Web exacerbates the echo chamber effect, there are also creative ways to use blogs to actively combat the “ghettoization” of science that Peter Dykstra foresees.
Nature‘s editors also point out that resistance to blogs comes from within the scientific community as much as without:
Blogging will not help, and could even hurt, a young researcher’s chances of tenure. Many of their elders still look down on colleagues who blog, believing that research should be communicated only through conventional channels such as peer-review and publication.
Although your peers may well drop by and leave a review in the comments, blogs aren’t peer-reviewed publications, and I don’t think they are a good platform for peer review. Nevertheless, they are a new and potentially productive way of engaging peer expertise and soliciting constructive criticism – a way of creating a wider network of mentors and colleagues than most scientists have in their home institutions. Unfortunately, blogs and social networks are not yet seen as appropriate professional activities for graduate students and faculty. I don’t think this resistance is entrenched; I think it’s mostly due to ignorance, and it will probably change. As these attitudes change, we have the opportunity to influence what role blogs will play in undergraduate and graduate education, as well as public science literacy and science journalism.
A few months ago, I wrote a post in which I argued that blogs were by their nature interactive, individual, and idiosyncratic. These three traits pose tough challenges when we try to integrate blogs into academe, government, and yes, journalism. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try anyway – it just means we (scientists, bloggers, and readers) should take a hard look at the strengths and weaknesses of blogging. The illustration of two scientists at the top of this post, by David Parkins, beautifully captures the good and the bad: blogging may be scientists helping and mentoring their peers, learning to communicate, and making previously inaccessible knowledge available, which would be great; or it may promote insular scientific niche communities that talk within themselves, are increasingly out of touch with a scientifically illiterate public, and won’t be held publically accountable – which would be not so great.
Today’s blogs aren’t a replacement for traditional journalism; they’re a complement to it. And while science blogs (or Twitter, or wikis, or any of a number of other interactive media) may eventually “fill the void” left by the regrettable decline of traditional science journalism, to do so credibly, they’re going to have to evolve into something better adapted to the task.
Scientist Citizens. Science.
The Problem of Perception. The Scientist.
previously on BioE: Will Blogs Reshape the Scientific Process?