Exasperating Ignorance

Oh George.

I dont blame you for being angry. I attacked your profession, your profession is an extension of you, thus you took my comments personally, and completely missed what the hell I was talking about.

1– I dont know whether she had a bad experience with ‘The Wichita Beacon Journal’*…

Someone who lives in Santa Fe, a hotbed of pseudoscientific wooshit, is not *exactly* in a position to be making fun of ‘Wichita’ for being backwards. Someone who is trying to establish that *he* is the better communicator probably shouldnt talk down to an entire segment of the country either.

Just sayin.

But on this topic, no, I have had no personal bad experiences with local journalists. I have a problem with basically all journalists. Which I thought I firmly established when talking with Ed– Every week I get emails from readers wanting to know about articles they read in newspapers or GoogleNews or whatever: ‘WE CURE DEH AIDZ!’ ‘AIDS BE GON IN 5 YERS!’ ‘VACCINE FOR DEH AIDS!’ ‘AIDS BE GONE IN 2 YERS!’ ‘NO MORE AIDZ IN 3 YEARS!’ ‘ANY DAY NAU: NO MORE HIV!’

Do you realize what this means to people, George? How much a preventative HIV vaccine or cheaper/better/easier medications for HIV/AIDS means to people? How fucking scary HIV is to people? What these kinds of messages (WE CURE AIDZ NAU! LOL NOT REALLY!) do to the general public? What it does to their trust of scientific research in this country?

And who is held accountable for this endless stream of scientific garbage journalism?

Scientists. We are the ones that have to deal with the frustration, disappointment, and distrust of the general public when those ‘cures’ and ‘vaccines’ never pan out.

Not the idiots scientific journalists that wrote the misleading articles.

*I* live with the consequences of this bullshit journalism, not you.

2– (she thinks) the purpose of a science journalist is to be a scribe…

The general public is paying for scientific research. It is their right to know what their money is going towards. Thus I think the purpose of a science journalist is to accurately report new scientific findings to the public in a way that is accessible, yet still accurate.

But the general public doesnt get that, do they?

To quote Steven Novella:

This state of affairs has lead to its own category of cliches – the headline cliche. We just have to accept the fact that every new fossil is a “missing link,” every new discovery is a “breakthrough,” the smallest of minority opinions will render any issue a “controversy,” and even the slightest uncertainty means that scientists are “baffled.”

Who benefits from this kind of reporting?

3– … scientists like science to be misrepresented for money… their message is self-serving…

You should have read beyond Page 1, George.

But let me dump a big bucket of ice cold realism on the press release that spawned those ‘science journalism’ articles: This research is completely impractical in The Real World, and it sure as hell doesnt “Put Personalized HIV Therapy Within Reach”. Giving the general public that impression is deceptive and mean.

Again, I want to make it clear that I dont see anything ‘wrong’ with this paper. Its made up of good science and good ideas. My problem is the way its been ‘framed’ (as usual), so lets just look at the paper and its implications without spin.

The actual science behind those bullshit ‘science articles’ stood on its own. It was sound research with fantastic results. The authors of that paper dont need to mislead the public or ‘advertise’ to get more money to do more research– they will be fine.

So who benefited from those sensationalist articles?

4– … science journalists have more context than you do, stuck in your rat-hole of a laboratory…

This is helpful? This is a helpful comment? Is this what you think of scientists, George?

Ignoring the fact I work on the top floor of a beautiful building with a beautiful view– I have had no personal issues with ‘science journalists’, but my boss has. The journalist wrote that my boss was going to get rid of HIV/AIDS in two years (this was more than two years ago). My boss will never speak to a journalist again.

My boss helped set up an HIV/AIDS research clinic in Africa a long while back. He knows about the cultural history of Africans dealing with white researchers, how hard it is to win their trust, how hard it is to keep people coming back to the clinics, how hard it is to get mothers in labor to take their goddamned antiretrovirals, how hard it is to do life-saving research in countries when you can never count on electricity… And my boss has been heavily involved in a nation-wide science education program, using HIV-1 to teach people about evolution.

Do you think he had more ‘context’ than the twat science journalist that interviewed him? Has he left the ‘rat hole’ enough for you?

5– … Shes bragging about the fact she cant write…

I cant write. But I still have a relatively successful science blog.

I dont want scientists to be intimidated by blogging because ‘they cant write’. You dont have to be a professional writer to talk about your research with the general public. I thought I made it clear that I highly respect blaggers who have the ability to write well and talk about their favorite science topics (I mentioned Ed and Orac), but I do not want scientists to think they have to write well to interact with the public directly via blag.

6– [reads eight lines of this epigenetics post]

Thats what epigenetics is, George. Sorry. If you had clicked over to Sandwalk, you would know that defining epigentics is ‘an issue‘:

But there is one thing that’s worth noting. Eva Jablonka has done what few of her fellow epigeneticists have attempted. She defines what she means by epigenetics!

The point was to contrast my sterile, frank definition of epigenetics to Jablonkas paradigm-shifting nonsense to illustrate the fact that even scientists can look like idiots overstating their work (sans science journalist). Not to teach everyone about epigenetics. I thought that was clear, but if you were hunting around my blog for ‘evidence’ I cant communicate science, well that quote-mine was as good as any. Good job.

*shrug* Look, George, like I said, I dont blame you for taking my comments personally. But at this point, to me, you are just part of the problem. Blaming scientists for the inadequacy of your own field rather than listening to criticism and improving your profession.

Just to be clear, though, other than the fact I am constantly undoing the damage science journalists do, I dont really care what ultimately becomes of professional science journalism. Stay the same, for all I care. Cause scientists can be citizen journalists now… we dont really need you.

* O/T– This reminds me of Christians who decide I must have had a bad experience with a Christian, and thats why Im an atheist. I cant have logical/strategical reasons for my position, it must be emotional. lol.

Comments

  1. #1 LanceR, JSG
    December 21, 2008

    Don’t hold back, ERV… tell us how you *really* feel! <grin>

    All kidding aside, *three cheers*! I absolutely hate trying to defend science after some journalist slaps together some lazy-ass headline tripe for the 10 o’clock news. The people never get the real story, just sound bite journalism. “Butter is bad!” “Margarine is bad, use butter!” “Butter will kill you, use margarine!” Yikes. It’s no wonder people don’t understand/believe science.

    Sorry… personal hot-button.

    Love the blog!

  2. #2 Tyler DiPietro
    December 21, 2008

    “Just to be clear, though, other than the fact I am constantly undoing the damage science journalists do, I dont really care what ultimately becomes of professional science journalism. Stay the same, for all I care. Cause scientists can be citizen journalists now… we dont really need you.”

    Ouch, cut his dick off. :-)

  3. #3 William Wallace
    December 21, 2008

    *I* live with the consequences of this bullshit journalism, not you.

    Could you explain how you live with these consequences? Aside from your blogging, which, if you stopped, would not affect your research?

  4. #4 Lenny
    December 21, 2008

    Tell me more about the “chromotone,” George!

  5. #5 magetoo
    December 21, 2008

    Ed commented on this (over at 3.14) too.

  6. #6 Lycosid
    December 21, 2008

    I teach HS Biology, and I find myself spending a significant amount of time dissecting and demolishing scientific “headline journalism” in class. Thank you for not mincing words on your blog.

  7. #7 biopunk
    December 21, 2008

    Abbie Smith, Ignorant Interloper with no context in your little rat-hole of a lab…

    Oh, his attempt to read your blog is too funny!

    But really, I think he’s just a pretentious man trying to make up for his atrophying profession’s inability to understand the cultures and concepts involved, and biology in general. Have you perused his book? The one regarding experimental aesthetics? Mostly about physics? How relevant that is to the dissemination of knowledge? I haven’t read it, but apparently it’s a best seller on Amazon…

    Unfortunately, he sold some books and now thinks he’s more relevant to the scientific community in some way.
    “A Brief History of Time” sold a lot of copies too, but how many of those copies actually got read, and how many of those readers actually understood the concepts?

    I’m not holding my breath that science journalism will achieve any level of respectability while writers like him think they are doing the rest of us some kind of service just by being there.

  8. #8 Paul Lundgren
    December 21, 2008

    Abbie, I think I’ve said this before, but I’m embarrassed for my former profession. Granted, I was a radio reporter and therefore had even fewer words with which to work than a print journalist, but there’s no excuse for sloppy reporting.

    I will say this: these people work hand-in-glove with politicians all the time. Politicians tend to want to make the issues as simple as possible so as to sway the population. Journalists love that because headlines and soundbites make an easy sell. And that leads to a mentality of “sell the sizzle” in all aspects of their work. Yes, it sucks, which is why I don’t work in that business anymore.

    Have a great holiday, and scratch Arnie’s ears for us.

  9. #9 Comrade PhysioProf
    December 21, 2008

    The so-called profession of journalism is nearly dead. What is left is nothing more than corporate shillery and marketeering.

  10. #10 The Chimp's Raging Id
    December 21, 2008

    Sock it to ‘em, Abbie.

    The whole profession of journalism, not specifically science journalism, needs a red hot poker rammed up its collective asshole. Its failings are numerous, but I’d summarise the main issues as follows:

    1. Attention deficit disorder. If you can’t fit an idea into 60 seconds, it won’t be explained or contextualised, just idiotically regurgitated. The Internet has a part to play in this, but I’d lay the blame principly with the 24 hour rolling news channels (when was the last time you actually learned anything about the world from CNN, for example?).

    2. Closeness to power. Journalists need access. They’ll only be granted that access if they are seen as safe territory for the powerful to get their message across. Those noble few journalists who do their jobs and try to hold power to account often find themselves marginalised and/or demonised.

    3. Dependence on revenue from advertisers. While the exact percentage varies between media, the majority of for-profit news organisations receive the largest proportion of their income from selling ad space. Is a corporate advertiser really going give its ad $$$ to a news source that consistently criticises it?

    4. Corporate ownership. As if the issue of ad revenue were not enough to prevent commercial news sources from being an effective critic of the corporate system, they themselves are a part of that very system. Obvious, epic fail.

    Off the top of my head, if modern journalism worked we could never have gone to war in Iraq, parents wouldn’t have got frightened about vaccinating their children, we wouldn’t have wasted the last 15 years deciding that we should perhaps do something about global warming… I could go on but I’ve probably spewed enough bile for one comment.

    Anyway, don’t let any grumpy old farts stop you from doing what you’re doing. Your chosen profession is already a public service but the fact you see it as your duty to also explain what your research entails does you extra credit. Keep it up.

  11. #11 LanceR, JSG
    December 21, 2008

    Could you explain how you live with these consequences?

    So sayeth one of the aforementioned consequences.

  12. #12 Stacy S.
    December 21, 2008

    Well, here’s what I think – even though it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things – I don’t understand much of what Abbie is saying a lot of the time but I can always come here to the blog and inevtably, someone is very nice to me and answers whatever question I may have.

    So, thank you Abbie. It would be neat to pick up a journal and ask it questions – but I don’t think that’s happening anytime soon.

  13. #13 Daniel Reeders
    December 21, 2008

    What a blowhard. The existence of a small handful of science journalists who do their job really well says absolutely nothing about the problems caused by the vast majority who do not. That’s elementary school logic, probably taught in the same class where you learn that ad hominem attacks are poor form, bad faith, and logically irrelevant.

  14. #14 george.w
    December 21, 2008

    OK, so you’re not Shakespeare. I’m a reasonably literate non-scientist and find your blog very informative. I’d much rather read through slightly rocky prose than slide along on gracefully worded exaggeration.

  15. #15 llewelly
    December 21, 2008

    … stuck in your rat-hole of a laboratory…

    ERV! Please tell me your laboratory is not really a rat-hole. I was sure it was a sekrit hideout, like Dr. Horrible’s.

  16. #16 Eric
    December 21, 2008

    Great post ERV. It pains me that the only place to go for good science is the journals. It’d be so nice if the media could report it accurately, but instead it just makes me want to hit myself in the head with a hammer.

  17. #17 clinteas
    December 21, 2008

    Gee,that was a bad “Hannity and Colmes” parody….

    Arrogant schmuck,that one is.

  18. #18 ERV
    December 21, 2008

    Dont be mean, guys. I think we all could be friends with George– hes got the right intentions, just a bad attitude right now because Ed and I attacked his profession. I really dont blame George for taking it personally.

    But I wish he would have turned his irritation into a blog post, and we all had a nice back-and-forth… Or like, emailed me… oh well.

  19. #19 ERV
    December 21, 2008

    *blink*

    John and George upset Bora.

    *angry face*

  20. #20 William Wallace
    December 21, 2008

    So sayeth one of the aforementioned consequences.

    Yeah, aside from blogging, how does she have to deal with it? (Note, she hasn’t even answer this simple question.)

    My experience with journalists is they are too uncritical of what activist biologists say. I just busted the StarTribune lying about a declining moose population in Minnesota, said non-existent declining population blamed on global warming by biologists who are activists. Never mind that the survey data shows an increasing population.

    I teach HS Biology, and I find myself spending a significant amount of time dissecting and demolishing scientific “headline journalism” in class. Thank you for not mincing words on your blog.

    But yet there is no time to mention problems with evolutionary theory until the children are sufficiently inculcated.

    As a friend of mine says, teaching is a profession for those too stupid to make it in journalism. (LOL, and his wife is a teacher, but she’s an exception.)

    ERV, when do scientists “have to deal with the frustration, disappointment, and distrust of the general public when those ‘cures’ and ‘vaccines’ never pan out.”?

    When?

    When is the last time some HIV patient came to your lab asking why you haven’t come up with a cure yet?

    Total BS and you know it.

  21. #21 Chris Nedin
    December 21, 2008

    … science journalists have more context than you do, stuck in your rat-hole of a laboratory…

    They generally do have more context than scientists. Unfortunately it’s generally the wrong context.

    Journos usually have a story angle worked out prior to contacting the scientist, and then incorporate the facts to suit the story angle. The angle is one which will get the story published, not convey the facts.

    I’ve had a journo in all sorts of trouble when the story angle he brought to us did not fit the facts. His problem, having pitched the story as he saw it to his editor, was geting a story that he could pitch.

  22. #22 Eric Saveau
    December 21, 2008

    But yet there is plenty of time to invent non-existent problems with evolutionary theory before the children are even minimally educated.

    Fixed it for you, Wally. Oh, by the way; you’re a lying, child-raping, America-hating shithead.

  23. #23 clinteas
    December 21, 2008

    William Wallace,ignorant know-nothing mumbled:

    When is the last time some HIV patient came to your lab asking why you haven’t come up with a cure yet?

    I imagine that would usually happen in the context of friends,relatives,people you know asking you about the HIV cure etc.The ones that cop this usually are the medical professionals,when once again some humbug claim has been made on TV or to fill the Sunday paper,I get asked about that all the time,where’s the cure,whens the drug available and so forth.
    The “journalists” never cop that.Which was Abbie’s point.

  24. #24 Tyler DiPietro
    December 21, 2008

    “Total BS and you know it.”

    Yes, we know everything you say is total BS. Now that you’ve admitted you can shut the fuck up.

  25. #25 LanceR, JSG
    December 21, 2008

    Okay, Limp Willy, perhaps I was being too subtle for your pig-ignorant mind to grasp. You weren’t exactly my target audience, but…

    You are a prime example of what ERV is talking about. Someone who does not understand science, does not understand what she’s talking about, and thinks that therefore nobody does. Science and scientists do know what they are talking about, but the media distorts the message seeking to hype the “OMG CURE FOR CANCER” headlines. Ignorant twits like you latch onto the subsequent reality shock and say “See! Scientists were wrong!”

    You really need to crack a book.

  26. #26 Eric Saveau
    December 22, 2008

    You really need to crack a book.

    He’s too busy tossing them into bonfires, as his moral and intellectual ancestors did at Nuremburg.

  27. #27 Dr Benway
    December 22, 2008

    Science journalists have to answer for the success of “alternative medicine.”

  28. #28 William Wallace
    December 22, 2008

    You’re still breathing? Wow.

  29. #29 biopunk
    December 22, 2008

    You know, WW, just because the post is entitled “Exasperating Ignorance”, it doesn’t mean you have to outdo your usual self…

  30. #30 Steven
    December 22, 2008

    What you attacked are the crap journalists that cover science but don’t care about it.

    People like John Horgan, George Johnson, Carl Zimmer, Chris Mooney, Ed Hong and others write great books and articles. They are distinct from the crap main stream media articles about science.

  31. #31 Azkyroth
    December 22, 2008

    But yet there is no time to mention problems with evolutionary theory until the children are sufficiently inculcated.

    If such problems were to be found, rather than fabricated (poorly), there would be a case for mentioning them. As it stands…

  32. #32 Christophe Thill
    December 22, 2008

    Mr “I’m a great Science Journalist and I can write, not you’, should wonder why such science writers as he are hated by scientists; whereas others (eg Carl Zimmer) are deeply respected by scientists and general public alike. There must be a reason, don’t you think?

  33. #33 Blake Stacey
    December 22, 2008

    As I said at Bora’s place, the occasional stochastic encounters I’ve had with George Johnson’s writing made him seem like a reasonable and competent fellow. (He had one of the better write-ups of the Bogdanov Affair, for example, several years back.) Horgan? Ah, well. . . it’s been said before.

  34. #34 Josh
    December 22, 2008

    But yet there is no time to mention problems with evolutionary theory until the children are sufficiently inculcated.

    …and since it has to be done every single time, please list one of those “problems” with evolution, William.

  35. #35 Matt Heath
    December 22, 2008

    I was right with until:

    I dont really care what ultimately becomes of professional science journalism. Stay the same, for all I care. Cause scientists can be citizen journalists now… we dont really need you.

    It really does matter that MSM science reporting blows. Even if in five years time the MSM is very different and less clearly defined it’ll still matter if the most popular news sources are bollocksing up their science. Nearly nobody reads blogs by scientists (check the top 100 blogs on technorati; PZ is the only scientist there, and pretty low down, compared to a metric fuckload of journalists). Also many people don’t have the skills for telling a legitimate science blog from a crank site. If the Daily Mail says “ZOMG EVERYTHING CAUSES CANCER!!!!11″ or HuffPo says “Teh quantum physics proves Hindu mysticism” it’s not enough that a scientist writes a good, measured taken down that will get a couple of thousands of views from people who already care about science.
    We need people write in the centre of the public square explaining science in a way that is readable and not misleading if we don’t want to deal with all sorts of public idiocy. That means more journalists who’ve actually studied science and know what it is about. It would also be good if they would treat science bloggers as allies and be prepared to sometimes act as curators sifting the real science from the bullshit and linking to the good stuff.

  36. #36 William Wallace
    December 22, 2008

    Anyone up for some holiday fun? I’m a bottom just in case you’re wondering.

  37. #37 rrt
    December 22, 2008

    WW: It’s never occurred to you that your teacher-hating-married-to-a-teacher friend might be an ass?

    Interesting.

  38. #38 JanieBelle
    December 22, 2008

    haha! First intelligent thing Wee Willy Wanker has ever said!

    As for that George guy, he and his profession are largely irrelevant now, and I take comfort in that.

    Pretty much everyone I know gets their science news straight from scientists who write blogs. Of course, the inherent bias is that I don’t know a lot of people like George, cranky old men still desperately clinging to their newspaper subscriptions and bemoaning the evils of whipper snappers like me.

    I’ll just stay off his lawn so I don’t give him a heart attack.

  39. #39 Blake Stacey
    December 22, 2008

    Chris Nedlin:

    They generally do have more context than scientists. Unfortunately it’s generally the wrong context.

    All too true. It’s hard to imagine what sort of “context” would be helpful in understanding a scientific discovery, other than the background knowledge of the science itself. And as for the political implications of scientific research — work on climate change, say, or human genetics — how can you even address that sort of thing honestly without understanding the science itself first?

    Matt Heath:

    If the Daily Mail says “ZOMG EVERYTHING CAUSES CANCER!!!!11″ or HuffPo says “Teh quantum physics proves Hindu mysticism” it’s not enough that a scientist writes a good, measured taken down that will get a couple of thousands of views from people who already care about science.

    We need people write in the centre of the public square explaining science in a way that is readable and not misleading if we don’t want to deal with all sorts of public idiocy. That means more journalists who’ve actually studied science and know what it is about. It would also be good if they would treat science bloggers as allies and be prepared to sometimes act as curators sifting the real science from the bullshit and linking to the good stuff.

    I agree in full.

    I know a newspaper has resources that I don’t. They can pay people to go around and ask questions. What they shouldn’t be doing is squandering their resources on garbage.

  40. #40 Sili
    December 22, 2008

    Posing under the name of another poster is bad form.

    Sorry for saying this, Abbie, but damn, girl! That was hot!

  41. #41 Matt Heath
    December 22, 2008

    @Blake: Thanks for adding the proper line breaks when you quoted me; it needed that. next time feel free to correct my idiotic homophone errors as well; “write in the middle” indeed!

  42. #42 PalMD
    December 22, 2008

    In medicine, we deal daily with the consequences of shitty medical writing, and it affects real lives immediately, whether it’s people stopping a medication, or whatever. I’ve written many times about how crappy medical writing can be, and the latest was in a local mag in which the “journalist” literally googled the topic and ate up the first hit. Just lovely.

  43. #43 biopunk
    December 22, 2008

    George has had “second thoughts” in the comments over at blogging heads, unfortunately he still comes off as a dickhead…

  44. #44 Dlx2
    December 22, 2008

    I have the feeling that this is an extension of the social discomfort with scientists in general. People have this feeling that scientists somehow cannot communicate, which is kinda funny, considering that we don’t spend a quarter-million dollars and four years on a degree about how to talk down to people.

  45. #45 The Chimp's Raging Id
    December 22, 2008

    Good to see the hive has been stirred up on this thread. :)

    Steven @ #30

    I don’t think this has been lost on any of the commenters. Going back to Ed’n'Abbie’s original diavlog, the target of their ire was clearly the MSM’s generally extremely poor reporting of scientific news stories, NOT genuinely honest and talented science journalists such as those you have mentioned. The problem is a couple of old relics (who individually may be great science writers) lacked the ability to understand where the criticism was being directed, and chose – stupidly – to engage in some unseemly and misguided ad hominem attacks. Neither Ed nor Abbie, nor those of us who appreciate their writing, were about to take this lying down. Hence the response.

    Matt Heath @ #35

    It really does matter that MSM science reporting blows. Even if in five years time the MSM is very different and less clearly defined it’ll still matter if the most popular news sources are bollocksing up their science.

    Tragically, Matt, I fear you are correct. On reflection, I’m surprised that nobody before you (myself included) made this point. Even if the readership of credentialed scientists’ blogs increases dramatically, this will still not compare significantly (amongst the general public) to those who get their science “news” from the MSM, which is going to keep bollocksing up – as you put it (a fellow Brit?) – science reporting. Right now, I’m not sure I know the best response to this issue. My first thought is that we need to keep the pressure on publications most reponsible for bollocksing it up. Whether this will work, who knows? I guess we have to try.

    To whoever is pretending to be William Wallace @ #36

    Give it up. Impersonating another commenter is puerile and cowardly. WW is entitled to give his opinion; the rest of us are entitled to point and laugh (as we generally do when we can be bothered). Futhermore, using “gay” as an insult is infantile and bordering on outright homophobic. If you want to criticise Wallace directly, by all means do it, but don’t engage in such infantile behaviour that demeans you and drags the rest of erv’s regulars into the same slimepit you inhabit.

    All
    Sorry if I’m not making any sense – tonight my grammar and spelling have gone the same way as the festive spirit(s) I have consumed. Must now sleep…

  46. #46 The Chimp's Raging Id
    December 22, 2008

    OK, got a bit too fired up over this and couldn’t go to sleep. I read the review Blake mentioned and concluded… Horgan’s a dickhead. Typical hyperbole spewing journo. And they wonder why we display such contempt for their profession. Perhaps its because they deserve it?

  47. #47 hayburner
    December 22, 2008

    I studied music and literature. Sometimes I get to listen to people expound upon the limitless theoretical joys of a John Williams soundtrack, or a John Grisham novel, and I long for a spear or something to be accidentally shoved through my head.

    Because I studied music and literature, I work for a government-funded, corporately-administrated entity providing health care for the aged, the disabled, and the underprivileged. Sometimes I get to listen to people rattle off their all-encompassing five-word solutions to the United Statesí current health care crisis, and I ache once again for an inanimate object (preferably sharp) through the brainpan.

    I canít help but wonder if a serious professional media theory/poli-sci wonk might not read your reaction to Mr. Johnsonís comments and suddenly find herself desperately resisting the urge to climb to the top of and subsequently fling herself from the nearest available tall tall thing.

    I was entertained by your hilariously blunt response to Mr. Johnsonís hilariously blunt response to your hilariously blunt diavlog appearance, but you have yet to seriously and completely refute any of Mr. Johnsonís comments.

    What you have done is gone the rest of the way and said that he and his like are obsolete. A statement like that from an individual who is completely immersed in the whole media theory whatever blahblahblah stuff would be asked to back a statement like that up with some hard fact and killer logic. Coming from someone who is not so immersed, it may sound terribly similar in some ways to the very bullshit that you decry.

    I am not so immersed, so I will now go play video games.

    Also, this blog is totally bitchin awesome. Thank you.

  48. #48 Tyler DiPietro
    December 22, 2008

    “…but you have yet to seriously and completely refute any of Mr. Johnsonís comments.”

    Unless you are deliberately obfuscating in an attempt to win an award for the biggest wankfest of a comment, could you please be more specific about what you find unsatisfactory about Abbie’s rebuttal? As far as I can tell, Johnson was firing his lazors at a bunch of strawmen, and Abbie just tossed in the “you’re obsolete” comment as icing on the cake.

  49. #49 grumpyphd
    December 22, 2008

    Hi Abbie;
    nice to meet you. Followed a link from Isis to this post; I’ve only read this one post of yours, but will you be by BFF? Love it, can’t wait to read more.

    Regarding this post: at the risk of offending the atheist… Amen, sister.

  50. #50 ERV
    December 22, 2008

    Crosspost– my response to Georges response:

    That’s a great line, and it captures how I felt listening to those remarks about science journalism. It’s true, however, that I overreacted, and I’m sorry I called Abigail Smith’s laboratory a rathole. I should know better than to venture out in public when my brain is still smeared across seven time zones.

    No prob. Like I said, I attacked your profession, and you took it personally. I dont blame you at all. However, unless you are a shitty journalist writing throw-away articles about how ‘WE CURED TEH AIDZ!’ or ‘CANCER BE GON NAU!’, my comments were not directed at you.

    Down-in-the-trench laboratory blogs are a valuable source of raw material for journalists. But for an outsider trying to understand science, they can be like music from the perspective of a phonograph needle. A scientist complaining about a writer’s attempt to explain a slippery concept like epigenetics has to offer a better alternative than this:

    “Histone and DNA modifications that alter chromatin structure–> gene expression. Some people also include siRNA.”

    If you’re interested in communicating with the outside world, you need to pop up a couple of levels of abstraction and use language instead of terminology.

    That post was contrasting a lab-standard definition of ‘epigenetics’ with the meaningless definition put forth by Dr. Jablonka in the latest edition of SEED. That is crystal clear in my post. You are quote-mining to misrepresent me and my blog. The fact the topic of that post is ‘epigenetics’ is funny, because that was one of the topics in my first appearance on BloggingHeads. PZ and I later elaborated on the basics we brought up on video (huh, I also denigrated shitty journalism there too).

    Mostly my crankiness was a cumulative reaction to the low level to which public discourse has been dragged by so much blogging. Of course I was contributing to the problem with my fulminations.

    Blogs arent a problem. They are an evolved solution to a problem.

  51. #51 John
    December 22, 2008

    He kind of did have a point, though. You can’t exactly admit to spelling badly, using scientific jargon, etc. and be seen as having a valid critique of those trained as communicators. True, there are bad science journalists, and scientists good at communicating, but the vast majority of each is not in those categories.

  52. #52 Tyler DiPietro
    December 22, 2008

    “Mostly my crankiness was a cumulative reaction to the low level to which public discourse has been dragged by so much blogging. Of course I was contributing to the problem with my fulminations.”

    I think we may have found the only person more self-important than Lee Siegel. What a douche.

  53. #53 William Wallace
    December 22, 2008

    To whoever is pretending to be William Wallace @ #36
    Give it up. Impersonating another commenter is puerile and cowardly.

    If you want to see puerile and cowardly, you should ask PalMD (in #42) how and why he was rewriting my comments on his blog.

  54. #54 AemJeff
    December 22, 2008

    Piling on George Johnson misses the point completely. Try reading Strange Beauty and tell me that George doesn’t get it. George’s complaint was misdirected. ERV’s response was relatively measured, and George has apologized. Dumping on him in full idiot-bloggese (really, “douche” is just a lousy, pointless insult) just reinforces his general point. I’d suggest saving some of that bile for, say, Rick Warren.

  55. #55 Eric Saveau
    December 22, 2008

    Windy! The Gimp has gotten loose again!

    If you want to see puerile and cowardly, you should ask PalMD (in #42) how and why he was rewriting my comments on his blog.

    Silly Willy, we all already KNOW how puerile and cowardly you are, so there’s no need to ask PalMD (or Mark or Chris, for that matter) anything about that. But if we did ask, it’s a safe bet that the answer would be two-fold – first, because it was the appropriate way to respond to you and second, because you’re a lying, child-raping, America-hating shithead.

  56. #56 William Wallace
    December 23, 2008

    Let’s just hope nobody is impersonating the person who formally resided at 144XX XXXXXXX XXX X.

  57. #57 laserboy
    December 23, 2008

    I read George’s notappology and came to the conclusion that Bora was only partially right, this was not just an attempted drive by character assassination. He really wants to shoot the whole science blogging community.

    His statement that blogging has lowered the level of scientific discourse is demonstrably false. We have a wider range of scientific output presented to lay folk (with varying degrees of success, of course). The interpretation of the significance and consequences of a particular paper are more nuanced (and you will actually find disagreement between bloggers, showing the actual mechanics of science at work). But the best part is that blog articles can be, and are corrected to keep factual content and context accurate.

    It is this process that attracts me to reading and writing science in this format. The thing that strikes me about websites like the BBC, CNN et al. is how all their science articles seem to sound the same–really bland pap that gives science a bad rap. The best part is having readers who know more than me about a topic correcting me in the comments and starting a real conversation on the science. This is when I really learn the most about both the writing process and the science.

    The thing is, I kind of disagree with Abbie. I think science reporting is mostly all right as far as accuracy goes. Of course, I can only judge this accurately for physics, so maybe things are much worse in biology. What really kills it for me is that it is boring. Science writers can’t seem to make science exciting without attempting to oversell a particular finding.

    Mostly, I think this is a combination of lowest-common-denominator journalism, where writers are afraid of making their readers work a little bit, with a desire for neatness. It just doesn’t seem to do to admit that somethings aren’t yet known, or are known but we don’t know why they are so. This lack of loose ends and direction is frustrating because it makes science seem a random fact gathering process.

  58. #58 Armchair Dissident
    December 23, 2008

    The funny thing I find with science journalism is that every time I read a science article in a newspaper, or hear a science news item on the BBC in the morning, the first thing I do is look to the respected science blogging community to find out how they screwed up the reporting. Not if: how. And rarely do the science journalists get it right.

  59. #59 Eric Saveau
    December 23, 2008

    Let’s just hope nobody is impersonating the person who formally resided at 144XX XXXXXXX XXX X.

    That’s “formerly” not “formally”, moron.

    Can’t we get a higher grade trolls here?

  60. #60 Tyler DiPietro
    December 23, 2008

    Awww, looks like William Wallace takes Computer Science III. We’re fucked.

  61. #61 Doc Bill
    December 23, 2008

    “Rat hole of a lab.”

    That comment got to me.

    I worked in a “rat hole” of a lab, crowded with equipment and cables and reagents. I worked there every day, tweaking, thinking, cursing, trying again and again.

    I loved my little “rat hole.”

    This statement is not really in the Christmas Spirit but to George I say, “Fuck you!” How dare you impugn that those of us who spent years in “rat holes” seeking our dreams and advancing knowledge through science, because, what, we’re not good at flouncing words in the popular press?

    Well, George, it’s said that those who can do, and those who can’t teach and those who can’t do become “science journalists.” And, in your case, you definitely earned your double quotes.

    Congratulations.

  62. #62 Eric Saveau
    December 24, 2008

    @Tyler DiPietro
    Awww, looks like William Wallace takes Computer Science III. We’re fucked.

    Oh, but it’s much worse than that – Wally, like Dubya before hm, has now “used the Google”. And so, having already trolled me at my blog, he will now troll at a place I used to live years ago, perhaps with a bullhorn (“I know you used to be in there!!!!”). So I should feel… threatened. Somehow. Or… something. I dunno. I’m having a hard time getting past the whole not-giving-a-flying-fuck-about-Wally’s-half-hearted-attempts-to-sound-vaguely-sinister-ish thing…

  63. #63 SLC
    December 24, 2008

    Just for the information of Ms. Smith, she is in good company in being on the receiving end of a diatribe from Mr. Johnson. Several years ago, he bad mouthed Nobel Prize winning physicist Murray GellMann who, by the way, also now resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico and is affiliated with the Santa Fe Institute which he co-founded.

  64. #64 Mr. Soprano
    December 24, 2008

    Yo Abbey!

    Ya know? Youse one of my favorite blogs to read, and I noticed that you might need me to do a little counseling with this George goombah, right?

    So, howz about we just do that over da next couple-tree days, and we take care of this for you. We’ll be doin some couselling wit him, so’s you just get back to having fun, and don worry bout nuthin – I was gonna go to Vegas anyway, and meet some family, so’s not a problem.

    George? Now he’s not gonna have no more problems neither!

    Love, Tony

  65. #65 Shirakawasuna
    December 24, 2008

    George just keeps digging himself deeper, doesn’t he? How he can manage to accuse blogs of lowering discourse as he utterly fails to handle even fairly quoting you in context is beyond me, at least if he honestly considers himself to be a professional. Why should we consider him to have any better standards in his science writing?

    Personally, I have found blogs to be far, far superior to normal journalism in terms of the level of discussion and accessibility. You really don’t get the extra context of multiple links to the subject matter, the step-by-step explanations, etc, all in one source like you do on a science blog. It’s like getting a great explanation from PZ’s SEED column, but with all kinds of context thrown in. And sometimes you get to see a bit of fire when there’s someone stupid on the internet, or when there’s a scientific disagreement between bloggers.

    It’s rare that I find a mainstream science journalism article without sensationalism. If we take an entire magazine or a newspaper, I doubt I’d find a single one that doesn’t have some overblown sensationalism contained within, some damaging misrepresentation of the actual science.

    laserboy, I recommend checking out the science journalism you can find on quantum mechanics. Go to a Barnes & Noble or something, grab a National Geographic (considered scientifically sound by the general populace). If it has an article, I bet you’ll find something to take issue with. Now don’t get me wrong, 90% of even a ‘bad’ science journalism article is usually just fine. But the 10% is awful and often the entire point of the article. Take Abbie’s example of CURE TEH AIDZ! articles. I bet you’ll find a decent amount that’s right in them, particularly when there’s actually good quotes from the researchers. But then that extra 20% of implication and speculation jumps in and makes the whole thing misleading and ultimately damaging to the general public’s perception of science. Have you heard someone with ‘average’ scientific knowledge (U.S. average) say something like, ‘if science is so great, why isn’t there a cure for X? There’s always a cure just around the corner’. The same goes for medical treatments in general, as I’m sure anyone here in the a medical field can confirm.

  66. #66 Shirakawasuna
    December 24, 2008

    I also have to wonder what better or greater context George thinks a science journalist has than a researcher. Researchers often spend a lot of time in their labs, but they are still people who get out, socialize, etc, and stay informed.

    I’m guessing that he’s simply repeating the common misconception (in his mind) that scientists are to blame for the public’s misperceptions of science and that science journalists do a better job of bridging the gap between Actual Science? and the lay-public. Sorry, George, but while the best science journalists can do so, in my experience there’s a lot who have very low standards, don’t understand the basics of science, and/or are simply too lazy to do a good job. Those people hurt the public understanding of science, and there’s nothing more hurtful to learning a concept than learning it *wrong* the first time. I’ve found science bloggers to have much higher standards than the average science journalist, to understand the issues better, and most importantly to be able to effectively communicate their story to the ‘lay-public’.

  67. #67 Shirakawasuna
    December 24, 2008

    #54: He may personally become more convinced of his point if he gets insulted on a blog’s comments, but his point is still daft and *not* supported by those insults’ mere existence.

    What lowers the discourse on science? Is it the presence of some insults and lolspeak but *good* science, or the misrepresentation of science in a nice tone?

  68. #68 Shirakawasuna
    December 24, 2008

    John:

    “He kind of did have a point, though. You can’t exactly admit to spelling badly, using scientific jargon, etc. and be seen as having a valid critique of those trained as communicators.”

    Why not? Those people who spell badly and use scientific jargon often have a lot of informal training as communicators, they know how to explain their work to people in general, what others find interesting, and where people get confused. Using and explaining or linking to explanations of scientific jargon is precisely what we want from a science blogger. Understanding the terms is an integral part of any science communication.

    Sometimes a science blog post does require familiarity with the topic. But it’s a blog – not all articles need to be a public outreach effort. I find that most posts tend to be very accessible, usually moreso than what I read in SciAm, the daily paper, or any sciency TV show.

    What we seem to see George Johnson doing is taking things out of context, repeatedly, in order to overreact to and take personally some accurate statements that may not even apply to him. That’s bad scholarship in general, on a personal level, and should seen as overly defensive. If anyone’s point is getting supported in this discussion, it’s Bora’s.

  69. #69 Shirakawasuna
    December 24, 2008

    hayburner, sometimes going through every little part of a reaction isn’t helpful. I think Abbie made a good decision in not going through everything George said with a fine-toothed comb. Instead, she listed some bullet-points and made some general, cutting remarks. Anyone interested can read what she wrote in the past and see how George distorted the meaning and intention of what she said. Almost every one can be simply be rebutted with this: “No, Abbie never said X was an example of fine public outreach when taken out of context like that, let me point you at the whole article. Read it and tell me how it both gave you that impression and was damningly high-level.”

    Alright, I’ve posted way too much in a row. Sorry!

  70. #70 Timothy Wood
    December 24, 2008

    amen.

  71. #71 Tyler DiPietro
    December 24, 2008

    Dear Mr. Soprano,

    Shut the fuck up, you fucking wop. Where’s my pizza?

  72. #72 Doc Bill
    December 25, 2008

    Hey, hey, HEY! Tyler DiP!

    It’s Christmas.

    Show some charity.

    It’s where’s my pizza, PLEASE!

    Capiche?

  73. #73 thingsbreak
    December 25, 2008

    This isn’t exactly on topic, but is somewhat related to the blog itself:

    I saw this and thought it would be a nice way to say “Happy Holidays“…

  74. #74 thingsbreak
    December 25, 2008

    Trying that again:

    Happy Holidays!

  75. #75 Mr. Soprano
    December 26, 2008

    Yo Doc Bill and Tyler – Okay, youse are tough guys – an I respect dat. So. Here’s wat I’m a gonna do – it being Christmas and all, howsz about I trow in a little absolutely free, “counselling” for that William Wallace character too? Okay? Are we all together now on dis?

    And Abbey we should be able to ring in that new year, with some good news, ok?

    Love Tony

  76. #76 Doc Bill
    December 26, 2008

    Yo, Mr. S,

    My cousin Vinnie has a town car with a “very big trunk” if youse gets my drift.

    Pick youse up at 7.

    Guido

  77. #77 Matt
    January 3, 2009

    ERV: I’m somewhat sympathetic to the overall message of this blog post, but your swearing and nastiness is really over the top. It makes your post unreadable.

    As a graduate student and young scientist myself, I can’t imagine representing myself with such vitriol and course language in public. I’m sure you’re a great scientist, but I think even on the internet there are compelling reasons to present oneself professionally. By way of gentle advice, you will find that people are much more receptive to your views if your present them in a professional manner.

  78. #78 Matt Heath
    January 3, 2009

    Matt@#77: I believe the traditional phrase at these times is “your concern is noted”.

  79. #79 biopunk
    January 3, 2009

    Precious, precious Matt #77, it’s coarse language you object to. Of course, on the internet there are many objectionable things like science writers who have no scientific credentials and do go on and on about the lamentable state of language on blogs that an actual scientist would deign to use, nay, publish, for all to read.

    Heavens! A scientist representing herself that way…

    Why, one would think she shouldn’t micturate on, or fling feces back at, the grumpy old man who was so nasty to her.

    Pffft! That’s the sound of flatulence Matt. Deal with it.

  80. #80 MemeInjector3000
    January 5, 2009

    Joining this conversation late, with a long-winded screed…

    I’m a PhD scientist who has many times decried the poor quality of mainstream science reporting. However, the answer to this problem is certainly not to replace science journalism with blogging, but to elevate the quality of existing science writing.

    We need quality science journalists because:

    1- Many scientists are non-native English speakers (over 50% in some disciplines);

    2- Most scientists who are native speakers can’t write, or at least can’t write beyond the formal structure of the research paper;

    3- Most scientists only know their own field, and lack a science-wide and/or historical perspective, which the best science journalists have;

    4- Almost no active scientist has the time to write anything beyond grants, research papers, conference materials, etc, etc.;

    5- Few scientists have the motivation/interest in translating their work into a form palatable to the average “Parade Magazine” reader;

    6- Most scientists’ work, most of the time, doesn’t have the societal importance that would warrant an article in the mainstream media. Unfortunately, many scientists have an inflated sense of their work’s importance, which brings me to the related point…

    7- Most scientists (eg, PIs of biomedical labs) are mini-PR machines, bolstering their own work and dissing others. Top scientists are not known for their modesty, and nasty grudges among them is common. This can lead to biased writing. (For the same reason, we would frown upon politicians writing stories about themselves.)

    Active scientists who pass all these hurdles are few and far between, and are often tenured or emeritus academic professors who have the time. Of course, they can and do write fantastic books: Robert Sapolsky, Steven Pinker, Sean Carroll, Stephen J. Gould, Carl Sagan, etc, etc. They are largely missing, however, from the bylines of day-to-day science news coverage. Can science bloggers fill this gap better than journalists?

    Blogging is a profoundly positive new development in science education and popular media — as a source of further reading on a topic, and as an adjunct, fact-checking mechanism for mainstream journalism, nothing more. Are bloggers going to travel to visit labs and interview other scientists for comment on a story? Are they going to find and develop business, academic, and governmental contacts? Are they going to quit their day jobs and devote their lives to covering emerging stories full-time? I think not, and it is naive to suggest otherwise.

    The notion that the “new media” of blogging will replace the “old dinosaurs” of newspapers and magazines smacks of self-serving utopianism. It may happen, but for the sake of US science literacy, I hope not.

  81. #81 Eric Saveau
    January 5, 2009

    @MemeInjector3000
    the answer to this problem is certainly not to replace science journalism with blogging, but to elevate the quality of existing science writing.
    The notion that the “new media” of blogging will replace the “old dinosaurs” of newspapers and magazines smacks of self-serving utopianism. It may happen, but for the sake of US science literacy, I hope not.

    You misunderstand; the point of posts like this (and the ones that preceded it) is not to elevate blogging above journalism, but to point out that most of science journalism has degraded so far that that most of science blogging is better by comparison, and also to point out that many science bloggers have been actively – and admirably – working to fill the void left behind.

    The rise of science bloggers in the face of the decline of science journalism is not an “answer”, it is merely an outcome, and a quite welcome one when one considers the prospect of otherwise having no intelligent voices in the media to advocate for science. If you are concerned about the shoddy state of science journalism I would suggest that the bloggers are not the appropriate target for your dismay; rather, feckless hacks masquerading as journalists, along with news departments that elevate sensationalism over substance and/or dismantle science reporting altogether, are.