bioephemera

Interesting social media reading

I’ve simply got too much to do this week to review these articles with the time and thought they deserve, so I’d just like to point them out to you.

First, Scibling Bora has written a massive critique of “Investigative Science Journalism.” It’s well worth a read, but set aside some time for it. One of the interesting issues Bora addresses is trust:

Journalists display an inordinate amount of skepticism – even deep cynicism – about anyone’s honesty. Everyone’s a liar unless proven not to be. Scientists, knowing themselves, knowing their colleagues, knowing the culture of science where 100% honesty and trust are the key, knowing that exposure of even the tiniest dishonesty is likely The End of a scientific career, tend to trust scientists a great deal more. On the other hand, scientists are deeply suspicious of people who do not abide by high standards of the scientific community, and The List of those who, due to track record, should be mistrusted the most is topped by – journalists. . .

Those on the “inside”, the scientists, are already swimming in these waters and know instantly who is to be trusted and who not. Scientists know that Lynn Margolis was outside (untrusted) at first, inside (trusted) later and outside (untrusted) today again. Scientists know that James Lovelock or Deepak Chopra or Rupert Shaldrake are outside, always were and always will be, and are not to be trusted. Journalists can figure this out by asking, but then they need to figure out whose answer to trust! Who is inside and trusted to say who else is inside and trusted? If your first point of entry is the wrong person, all the “sources” you interview will be wackos.(source)

Trust is obviously in the eye of the reader. It’s not surprising that we are more likely to trust individuals who subscribe to a similar worldview and have been trained in similar disciplines as ourselves. It would be wrong to assume that outsiders have nothing to offer – that because their methodologies are different or counterintuitive, they’re invalid – but it can also be very hard to understand the outsider’s perspective. Especially when the outsider doesn’t seem to be making a reciprocal effort!

So from the scientific community’s perspective, when is the investigative journalist demonstrating “skepticism” (scientists love skepticism) as opposed to “distrust”? It’s a good question. Unsurprisingly, Bora used Twitter to get a discussion going on the topic:

Me: What is, exactly, ‘investigative science reporting’?
@davemunger: @BoraZ To me, it means going beyond looking at a single study to really understand a scientific concept. Diff from traditional “inv. journo”
@szvan: @davemunger @BoraZ And looking at methodology, statistical analysis, etc. to determine whether claims made match what was studied.
@LeeBillings: @BoraZ Re: “investigative science reporting,” isn’t it like all other investigative reporting where you dig deep and challenge your sources?
@Melhi: @BoraZ I thnk it means, “we cut/pasted from Wiki, all by ourselves.” Seems to be what it means when “scientific” is removed from the term.

And so on. It’s an interesting conversation, and I’m sorry I missed it – but I’m barely on Twitter these days. Which brings me to my next point. Twitter is problematic for me. I’ve been on it for a year or so, and although I’ve used it pretty regularly, and have sometimes found it quite useful, in general I don’t think it is worth the time it takes to maintain and engage properly. Plus, there is the constant threat of having Tweets misconstrued – very easy, given that they’re 140 characters and often partake of text message vocabulary. Re-Tweeting often leads to misquoting (see danah boyd’s recent work on this).

I think a lot of the institutional discomfort with Twitter (which hasn’t really been there so much with liveblogging) is based on the medium’s propensity for misunderstanding and error. See these two posts on the WaPo’s new Twitter policies for journalists. In the Columbia Journalism Review’s writeup, Megan Garber sounds exactly like she’s been talking to Bora:

Journalistic credibility comes not from the ability to disguise one’s opinions–or, worse, from a journalist’s lack of any in the first place–but rather from an openness to adjusting those opinions when new information warrants. ‘Transparency is the new objectivity,’ the catch-phrase goes; and it is intellectual open-mindedness, more than anything else, that is the unifying quality of both of those principles.

Yet the Post ignores that crucial distinction, painting its social-media policy instead with a broad–and therefore reductive–brush. In that, it washes over the obvious: that credibility questions about large news organizations have largely been the result not of reporters having opinions, but of those reporters having opinions which they are then compelled to disguise. It’s a kind of institutionalized dishonesty–one made in good faith, to be sure, and one that, in the past, had some validity. But it’s also a relic of the days when a paper’s mandate was to be all things to all people–and thus to narrate the news, both comprehensive and generalized, in Olympian tones of universal authority. (source)

The theme of Garber’s piece is that the WaPo and other outlets are afraid that if their reporters reveal their personalities and biases on Twitter, their journalistic cred will go out the window. Although I think the WaPo is probably overreacting, and way too late at that (shouldn’t they have come up with a Twitter policy last year sometime?), I have another concern about Twitter. Bluntly, Twitter is a terrible medium for meaningful conversation. It’s an interesting way to make quick connections and share links, but to have a deep conversation on Twitter is incredibly hard, and for most people, impossible (which is why Bora goes back to his blog and writes 10,000 word posts on tough subjects).

If we as scientists hate dumbed-down sound-byte coverage of science that fails to explain basic concepts and exploits inappropriate metaphors, why aren’t we similarly concerned about Twitter? The misleading and simplistic nature of short Tweets is analogous to the misleading and simplistic titles of studies like these, that have House Republicans up in arms. It’s impossible for a title to explain why a study is relevant, important, or useful. We shouldn’t expect a title alone to do that – nor a Tweet!

No, I’m not claiming Twitter is going to destroy science communication. If you enjoy it, good for you. But for me, I’ve decided it’s not a helpful tool. It’s just one more avenue of communication I don’t have time to monitor – and one that imposes additional unnecessary costs in clarity, time, and frustration. That’s why I’ve decided to pretty much ditch Twitter and plow that time back into blogging and other things I find more rewarding.