The Loom

In about a month I’m heading to Colorado for the “Science and Media Summit” at the Aspen Science Center. The name may conjure up an image in your mind of a long table with diplomats from Science on one side and Media on the other, tensely negotiationg an end to some sort of bloodshed. As I understand it, though, the meeting should be much more amicable and interesting. The subtitle for the meeting is “Getting It Right: Science and the Media in the Emerging Media Landscape.” Our mission will be to come up with a blueprint for good reporting on science in the age of blogs, YouTube, and implanted science magazine brain chips (D’oh! I accidentally revealed my sinister plot.)

The line-up is daunting–Pulitzer Prize winners to the left, former directors of the National Science Foundation to the right. But I have a secret weapon. No, not the brain chips. I deny ever saying anything about brain chips. I’m talking about you, my loyal and perspicacious readers. As far as I can tell, I will be one of only two bloggers at the summit (the other is Mike Lemonick at Time). So let us pool our collective wisdom about these matters. As the media evolve into a strange new beast, what’s the best way to ensure that people get an accurate picture of science, and that they don’t get fed hogwash? How can people be sure they’re getting information based on real authority, rather than something hatched in a PR office? Share your thoughts in the comment thread here.

I won’t be surprised to hear a lot of harsh criticisms of the media. Astringent blogging about bad science writing is unquestionably good medicine. But there’s a limit to what simply complaining can accomplish. I think we need to balance destruction with creation–with constructive suggestions for shaping the new relationship of the media and science.

Update 5/29 10:30 am: It’s great to see the comments already flowing in. But reading the early responses, I realize I should clarify my request. Most of the suggestions so far would have been relevant 30 years ago. What can we do to improve the situation with the web 2.0 that couldn’t be done with newsprint?


  1. #1 TR Gregory
    May 29, 2007

    I think this is a GREAT idea.

    I have done my share of complaining recently, though I did also offer some simple recommendations as well:

    Suggestions for Science writers

    Chimps are not more evolved than humans or anyone else

    Cracking the code?

    The main theme in such posts has been to suggest that writers avoid some common practices that undermine the science component of science writing: 1) appealing to misconceptions or ignorance for the sake of a catchy headline or phrase, 2) exaggerating the breadth and/or controversy of a new discovery, 3) claiming that some new finding is revolutionary on its own and overthrows some long-held idea, 4) using catchphrases that are misleading, inaccurate, or cliche.

    That said, I think science writing has a very important place and I mean these in a positive light to make a good thing better.

  2. #2 ancientTechie
    May 29, 2007

    How about establishing a non-profit science journalism review group? Annual awards for the best science reporting could be awarded and periodic reviews of the best and worst science writing posted.

    If sufficient prestige could be attached to awards for outstanding reporting in various scientific fields, writers efforts to garner those awards would lead to improved science coverage, which could only be a good thing.

  3. #3 Martin McKenna
    May 29, 2007

    Well a start might be to include links to the relevant published research for any extravagent ‘breakthrough’ claims. Personally I would also like to see some reference on differing opinions, alternate views etc to begin to get the point across that in Science very very few things are clear cut and definitive expecially in the biologival sciences.

  4. #4 Blake Stacey
    May 29, 2007

    A while back, I wrote up a crude taxonomy of bad science journalism which might be a useful/entertaining read.

  5. #5 SG
    May 29, 2007

    Thanks for requesting input- this conference sounds like a good first step in what is a major issue. Personally, I think the problem with media coverage of science is the media doesn’t recognize that good science often leads to THE TRUTH, and unlike politics and religion and other “soft sciences” (whoever came up with the term “political science”, anyway?), THE TRUTH is immune to spin. Clearly there are controversial topics in science (global warming & evolution, to name but two), but even within these topics there are irrefutable facts (the temperature of the ocean is increasing & organisms evolve through variation in their DNA sequence), and the media has not taken the time to point out where statements made by naysayers are at odds with these irrefutable facts. As a result, the perception is that scientific findings do not carry any greater credence than opinions expressed on the editorial page…but those of us who engage in scientific research know that rigorous science is “opinion proof”. In fact, many great results have been the exact opposite of what the scientists were expecting to find. One can always cite examples where key findings were irreproducible, but over time there are many many cases where good science ended up changing the way we view our world- the double helix, evolution and plate tectonics are three prime examples of this, and let’s not forget about the discovery that the earth revolved around the sun!

  6. #6 bug_girl
    May 29, 2007

    I definately have struggled with this, looking at the awful coverage of the bee dissapearance (colony collapse disorder).

    I don’t have any brilliant ideas, other than to suggest the reporters actually try speaking to the *scientists*–that’s how the whole “EMF is killing the bees” thing got started.

    Here’s some examples of good and bad coverage on bees, if you want examples:

    I’m glad you are participating! Thank you!

  7. #7 Carl Zimmer
    May 29, 2007

    Thanks for the comments so far. But let me ask this: wouldn’t most of these suggestions have been relevant 30 years ago? What can we do to improve the situation with the web 2.0 that couldn’t be done with newsprint?

  8. #8 Jim Hu
    May 29, 2007

    Martin McKenna’s suggestion of better links is certainly not applicable to 30 years ago, and I second and extend it. One of the unfortunate casualies of spam has been trackbacks. When those work properly, they enrich blogs and other online material a lot. The problem is that most attempts to tackle the spam problem by filtering can be spoofed by spammers. There is a solution that could work, but would require the kind of maintenance effort that the MSM could do: whitelisting.

    Of course, as you know, I’d also like to see scienceblogs lead the way by turning trackbacks back on after doing something about spam! Perhaps scienceblogs could do a whitelisting experiment. Start by whitelisting trackbacks from each other and from science blogs on each of your blogrolls. Publish a process by which a blog can be certified as having science content and not being spam. Then share the whitelist with your MSM colleagues.

    I’d also like to see science journalists do more blegging, perhaps by soliciting comments on early drafts of pieces.

  9. #9 Tabitha Powledge
    May 29, 2007

    I’m not so sure that print publications are a useless guide to Web 2.0. In fact there is the same broad range of trustworthiness (or lack thereof) in print as there is on the Web (although I concede that the language is mostly more temperate.)
    There are the top newspapers that have gotten that way by building trust for decades (and they still make plenty of mistakes.) There are other papers like the NYPost that are known to have a political agenda, but that doesn’t prevent huge readership. There are the gossip rags that lie blatantly all the time, but their readers don’t seem to care. There are “sponsored” publications whose aim is selling a particular drug or raising the profile of a particular disease and lobbying for donations and/or government funding. Or even selling a particular view of cosmology and human origins. Their agendas may or may not be obvious to readers.
    Only a small proportion of these pubs are sources of approximate scientific truth, and scientists and good science writers regularly wring their hands about that. One result has been informative publications and press conferences that writers rely on, although even they have their individual agendas too. But I’m not sure what can be done other than organizations trying to get the correct word out there. And that applies as much to blogs as to print.
    Eventually I suppose professional organizations will begin to serve a semi-gatekeeping function for science bloggers, just as they do now for other science writers. Membership in NASW will admit writers to many scientific meetings, but they have to have some kind of track record to get into NASW to begin with, and that is certainly true of other writer orgs too. (Full disclosure: I’m on the NASW board.)
    This is by no means a perfect system, which is why there’s always so much hand-wringing about it. But it’s not clear to me how, since we haven’t been able to ensure good science in most print pubs, we’re going to ensure good science on blogs either.

  10. #10 John Timmer
    May 29, 2007

    The worst offenders with regards to modern science journalism aren’t the traditional science outlets or the mainstream news sites (although both make some pretty glaring stumbles now and again). The biggest problems come from the tech sites (and i should know – i write for one).

    Most of them don’t have anyone on staff that can critically analyze a press release, and will print flawed, incoherent, and non-sensical ones nearly verbatim. This problem gets exacerbated by sites like Slashdot and Digg, which drive traffic and hype further, again without any critical analysis of the actual science behind the story.

    What role can bloggers have in all of this? Harness the power of public humiliation. If an outlet gets something glaringly wrong, debunk it and try to make sure your work gets as much attention as the original did. Hopefully, if these sites are made to look foolish often enough, they’ll try to be a bit more careful in the future.

  11. #11 RPM
    May 29, 2007

    Links to the article(s) being discussed (doi’s, etc). Links to blogs discussing the same articles (those can be found via technorati or postgenomic). Y’know, the whole web2.0 shebang.

  12. #12 TR Gregory
    May 29, 2007

    Yes, and 30 years later they still haven’t been fixed. I don’t think adapting to new technology is the important issue in that sense. That said, modern media do allow you to link to research articles (not possible with print media), to easily contact authors (email, plus fewer hard deadlines as with newsprint), to get the accuracy of wording checked readily, and to correct problems in stories even after they have been posted online (not possible with printed articles).

  13. #13 Dave Hone
    May 29, 2007

    Well, linking news stories to good websites would be a good start. It lets people get more information, though of course you might risk losing your readers, or sending them to inappropriate or biased sites.

    Of course I suspect we (the scientists) were complaining about some of the same things 30 years ago, but then they are still wrong! I have lost count of the times pterosaurs or even ancient fish are called ‘dinosaurs’ simply becasue they lived a long time ago. Taxonomic names are often not italicicsed and no-one seem to knwo the difference between a genus and a species. At the risk of being patronising (since I have been on first-name terms lets say with your writing Carl) I would be more concerned with the science reporting improving in general before you look too far ahead.

    THere are superb writers and reportes out there and condensing a complex theoretical paper for general consumption is no mean feat, but still small mistakes can lead to big confusion in the genarl public, and as far as I’m concerned, there are still a great many of them!

  14. #14 SG
    May 29, 2007

    Sorry for misinterpreting the initial question- but it was fun writing up my “why I hate most science reporting” manifesto.

    I think what the web 2.0 can offer is some type of “blog aggregator” for all the diverse (and divisive) responses to a new scientific report (in strong agreement with comment #3). That way, whenever the NYT or AP or FoxNews mangles a new manuscript out in Science or Nature, people would be able to go to the bloggregator and in one fell swoop be able to read the rapidly evolving commentary. I like to see multiple perspectives, and my impression of blogs in general is that they tend to attract folks who already agree in large part with the owner of the blog. That’s not a criticism- blogs are a community- but it would be helpful to get a big picture view of the responses to a specific manuscript. For example, one might be able to see that 95% of the responses to a global warming article agreed with the findings…which is very different than reading a typical “point/counterpoint” piece in the newspaper.

    There are some technical issues associated with this type of approach (for instance, how do we make sure everyone is talking about the same paper- DOIs? how do we link comments across different blogs?). It is already clear that the web offers a seamless link between the primary literature (which is often overwhelming to the uninitiated) and various levels of commentary. The bloggregator may also help feed new users to blogs which are written on a level that the reader finds best suited to them (like this one, for me). Even better, the views expressed on the bloggregator will likely be timely enough to influence (in a good way) the articles that science writers plan to publish in more traditional sources.

  15. #15 matthew
    May 29, 2007

    “Getting It Right: Science and the Media in the Emerging Media Landscape.” … “As far as I can tell, I will be one of only two bloggers at the summit…”

    Wait wait wait wait wait. TWO bloggers? Just two? Are you two going to be at the center of it all and asked each question first? Wouldn’t you expect a lot more than that if they plan on getting anywhere?

    Regardless, I think that websites like RealClimate are great examples of good science blogging/reporting. Everything is cited with clickable links (no wikis) and there is a profile for each person so you know how knowledgeable they (should) be on the subject. What it comes down to is honesty; and if you visit their website for the first time you can figure that out for yourself very easily by checking up on their provided citations and refrences. Other good examples would include Media Matters (for obvious reasons) and DeSmogBlog. They’re all transparent, which allows the honesty and integrity to shine through.

  16. #16 Keith
    May 29, 2007

    One of the biggest problems is the disproportionate coverage of different ideas. Even though 99% or so of scientists agree that human-caused climate change is a reality, that other 1% still get 50% of the media coverage (If not more) making it seem like a completely viable alternative to the more scientifically accepted understanding. This is the reason why my dad still thinks that human-induced climate change (and also global warming) is just a bunch of liberal scare tactics, and that really there are just as many scientists who don’t accept it.

    It would be great if there were one place where people could see clearly how much support different ideas get by the scientific community. A web 2.0 approach would be difficult because the majority of people are not scientists, and probably have similar views to my dad. Perhaps a more limited citizendium-like approach would be more effective? Only allow (via some kind of verification) scientists who have an understanding of the issue to vote on it.

  17. #17 bug_girl
    May 29, 2007

    Um…respond faster?

    That’s a good question.
    I will chew on it, but I think that’s all I have for you.

    Most of the bad work I see is simply people not doing their homework, and responding to the *pace* of web 2.0, without basic due diligence.


  18. #18 Ford
    May 29, 2007

    One thing the web makes easier is to quickly see who’s published lots of peer-reviewed papers on a given topic. So if they want comments from another scientist, they can now quickly find a real expert, rather than asking someone they already know who may be a scientist, but with less relevant expertise. One thing the web may make harder for mainstream journalists is that bloggers may jump on a story faster than they can. But haven’t there always been trade-offs between being first and getting the story right?

  19. #19 ERV
    May 29, 2007

    Oh! If youre interested in web-specific suggestions, I would say more hotlinks. There are words I use all the time on my blog that I described the first time I used them, but then just link to the Wiki entry every time I use them after that. You dont have to feel bad using ‘jargon’ if you link the weird term to a place where readers can learn about the term. It appears as if science journalists are quick to fall back on catch phrases and cliches, rather than introducing new terms.

    Id also like to see any article that ‘summarizes’ a paper have a hotlink to the PubMed abstract. We recently had difficulty with a SciAm paper on ‘junk DNA’ that didnt give any reference to the paper he was ‘summarizing’! It would have been almost impossible for a lay person to look that article up. And, I would be sooooo happy if lay people became as familiar with using PubMed as they are using Google.

  20. #20 Marilyn
    May 29, 2007

    *** Multiple Articles ***
    During this century, science has greatly increased our knowledge of the natural world around us. Its telescopes have revealed the awesome wonders of the starry heavens, just as its microscopes have disclosed the amazing complexities of molecules and atoms. The marvels of design in plants and animals, the wisdom reflected in our own fearfully and wonderfully made bodies—this knowledge also comes to us through the discoveries of hardworking scientists. We are not unappreciative.
    But there is another side to science. Not all its practitioners measure up to the image of the objective, passionate pursuers of truth, regardless of where it might lead. There are too many scientists who select the material that supports their theory and discard what doesn’t. They report studies they have never made and experiments they have never performed, and they fake what they cannot establish. They plagiarize the writings of fellow scientists. Many claim authorship of articles they have never worked on and maybe have never even seen!
    Flagrant fraud may be rare, but some of the manipulating of data mentioned above is common. Even more common, however, are two additional kinds of fraud, both involving deceitful propaganda. The four articles that follow examine the problem.

    *** g90 1/22 p. 3 Fraud in Science—It Makes the Headlines ***
    The image of scientists as invariably dedicated to truth has been tarnished, as these headlined items show. ***
    “Ethics in Science”
    “A fight is building in the U.S. House of Representatives over fraud, misconduct, and conflict of interest in science.”—Science, July 7, 1989.
    “Two New Studies Ask Why Scientists Cheat”
    “It was an innocent enough question: how do scientists behave when no one is looking? But it has produced an incendiary answer: not too well, reports a paper this month in the British journal Nature.”—Newsweek, February 2, 1987.
    “The Case of the ‘Misplaced’ Fossils”
    “A prominent Australian scientist has examined two decades of work on ancient Himalayan geology and alleges it may be the greatest paleontological fraud of all time.”—Science, April 21, 1989.
    “Now It’s the Journals’ Turn on the Firing Line”
    “[He was speaking] specifically about how poorly many [science] journals have handled scientific fraud. . . . The same message previously dispatched to other members of the scientific community has now been addressed to the journals: clean up your act or you may find legislators getting into it.”—The AAAS Observer, July 7, 1989
    “Do Scientists Cheat?”
    “After the initial inquiry by this [congressional] committee into this subject, the committee has had growing reason to believe that we are only seeing the tip of a very unfortunate, dangerous, and important iceberg.”—NOVA broadcast on PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) on October 25, 1988.
    *** w90 2/15 p. 28 Insight on the News ***
    “Hijacking Fossils”
    Under that title, the French daily Le Monde reported the case of a paleontologist in India who “for 20 years . . . apparently deceived his colleagues concerning the origin of fossils that he submitted to them for their appraisal.” It is claimed that the “hijacking” consisted of sending them fossils obtained in the United States, Africa, Czechoslovakia, and the British Isles, saying they had been discovered in the Himalaya Mountains. This scientist published his findings in over 300 articles. The fraud was brought to light by an Australian scientist via the British scientific journal Nature. He wondered ‘how it could be that such a large quantity of doubtful findings remained unchallenged for such a long time.’
    One possible reason, according to Le Monde, was the law of silence heeded by many members of the scientific community. The article noted that this fossil “hijacking” has “made useless practically all the facts accumulated [over the past 20 years] on the geology of the Himalayas.”
    Obviously, this new case of fraud in science does not cast doubt on the entire scientific world. It does, however, provide further evidence that arguments of paleontology when pitted against the unfailing accuracy of the Bible record are often nothing more than what the apostle Paul called “the contradictions of the ‘knowledge’ which is not knowledge at all.”—1 Timothy 6:20, The New Jerusalem Bible.

    ***Fraud in Science—Why It’s on the Increase
    “THE competition is savage. Winners reap monumental rewards; losers face oblivion. It’s an atmosphere in which an illicit shortcut is sometimes irresistible—not least because the Establishment is frequently squeamish about confronting wrongdoing.” So opened the article “Publish or Perish—or Fake It” in U.S.News & World Report. To escape perishing, many scientific researchers are faking it.
    The pressure on scientists to publish in scientific journals is overwhelming. The longer the list of published papers to the researcher’s name, the better his chances for employment, promotion, tenure in a university, and government grants to finance his research. The federal government “controls the largest source of research funding, $5.6 [thousand million] a year from the National Institutes of Health.”
    Because “the scientific community shows little stomach for confronting its ethical dilemma,” “has been strangely reluctant to probe too deeply for hard data about its ethical conduct,” and “isn’t keen about cleaning house or even looking closely for malfeasance,” congressional committees have held hearings and considered legislation to do the job of policing for them. (New Scientist; U.S.News & World Report) This prospect wrings from scientists much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Yet, one science journal asks and answers the question: “Is the house of science clean and in order? The bit of evidence that reaches the public invites serious doubts.”
    Some researchers eliminate data that does not support what they want to prove (called cooking); report more tests or trials than were actually run (called trimming); appropriate for their own use data or ideas of other researchers (called plagiarism); and make up experiments or data they never performed or produced (called forging). A cartoon in a science journal poked fun at this last tactic, one scientist talking to another and saying of a third: ‘He’s published a lot since he took up that creative writing course.’
    “What’s the major product of scientific research these days? Answer: Paper,” U.S.News & World Report said. “Hundreds of new journals are being founded each year to handle the flood of research papers cranked out by scientists who know that the road to academic success is a long list of articles to their credit.” Quantity, not quality, is the goal. Forty thousand journals published yearly produce a million articles, and part of this flood “is symptomatic of fundamental ills, including a publish-or-perish ethic among researchers that is stronger now than ever and encourages shoddy, repetitive, useless or even fraudulent work.”

  21. #21 Greg Peterson
    May 29, 2007

    The two things that come to mind are speed and interactivity.

    I said in a note a couple of weeks or so ago that when I heard a story on NPR on my drive to work about possum evolution, I felt sure that “The Loom” would have more information on that story, and sure enough, you did. If I had not been able to run with that thread of curiosity more or less immediately, I probably would not have followed up on it at all.

    Also, blogs like this one enable me and others to clarify information and challenge misinformation in something approaching real time. I can–as I did last week–venture a response to something like one poster’s front-loaded ID argument, knowing that my response is “peer reviewed” and “refereed” on the spot.

    Science media is more two-way than ever, and I have felt very privileged that as a result of the Internet, I have been able to interact with several top scientists.

    Obviously researchers, authors, and teachers don’t have time to respond personally to every half-baked email that clutters their in-boxes, but when it’s possible for working scientists and science writers to, selectively, invite us non-scientists into the conversation, the informational value is enormous. Blogs serve an obviously analogous function.

  22. #22 Paolo Amoroso
    May 29, 2007

    Concerning how to improve science reporting with Web 2.0, do blogs qualify? If so, a few months ago I posted some comments on how to best use science blogs in a related discussion. Just my 2 Sigmas.

  23. #23 Kent
    May 29, 2007

    Journalists have to understand statistics before they can properly report on typical medical/biology news. But since many scientists don’t understand statistics, based on the papers they write or approve, I don’t know where to start with this. It’s hopeless.

    I think Wikipedia could become the new “for Dummies”. Wikipedia has a combination of older static pages that provide mini-tutorials on any topic, combined with newer dynamic pages that treat current newsworthy topics, sometimes with up-to-the-minute updates.

    I can’t imagine how old-line print media can possibly adapt and the television media is hopeless. Bloggers might adapt, but they need to focus more energy on the “web site” aspect of their blogs and less attention on the “stream of unconsciouness” time-serialized blob^Hgs.

    I guess what I am saying is that to understand any technical topic, you need to read Carl Sagan and Carl Zimmer. You can’t do one without the other. You might argue that Carl Zimmer can do both, but you can’t do both without both books and magazines. How do you combine books with magazines on the web? It’s a wiki, perhaps with a little more editorial control than Jimmy Wales tends to exert. Maybe it’s a wikiblog?

  24. #24 Doug
    May 29, 2007

    The greatest web advantage may be in short videos [including animations] that cannot be reproduced in print as can images of various types.

    The web also allows for faster interaction with respect to Q_and_A.

  25. #25 Bunjo
    May 29, 2007

    How about every time a great science article is published (on the web) it is also added, or edited, on Wikipedia by the author or some volunteer band of heros? In this way Wikipedia becomes more and more complete and comprehensive, and becomes the gold standard for science reference, displacing woo and bad science.

    I know it’s not perfect and there are all sorts of issues about ownership and effort to resolve, but several blogs have started to build libraries of basic evolutionary/genetic science articles which could be shifted over very easily.

    If we can also persuade dead tree media to add to Wikipedia too this will encourage good, well researched, articles as the writer’s efforts will be visible for a long time (not just until the next issue) and open for edit/debate to improve them.

  26. #26 Mark Powell
    May 29, 2007

    This won’t be solved by calling for more straight-up science in journalism. We need to do a better job of engaging people with the amazing stories we can tell.

    If people aren’t scientifically literate, then it is the fault of scientists for failing to make science literacy attractive. Hiding behind “accuracy” as a reason for an unappealing message is just laziness or worse, not really being interested in the people we’re trying to attract.

    As media fragment and people choose what they want to see, the problem will only get worse if reading science is like wearing a hair shirt.

    Tools like Google earth can be used to engage people and the science message can follow. Science communication can be like fishing. First attract the reader, then set the hook, then work them in closer until they’re in the boat.

  27. #27 Herb
    May 29, 2007

    Maybe science websites could become “accredited” in some way. Then there could be one-stop shopping for these sites on the web. There should be a single website that people can use as a hyperlink hub for reliable science sources online. Then you could advertise the hell out of this one website.

    E.g. I should be able to search for “global warming” and get links to NAS, IPPC, RealClimate, but not ExxonMobil propaganda.

    I know this idea seems stifling, but it’s not like we’re getting rid of Google, so alternative information is always out there.

  28. #28 Ian B Gibson
    May 29, 2007

    As the media evolve into a strange new beast, what’s the best way to ensure that people get an accurate picture of science, and that they don’t get fed hogwash? How can people be sure they’re getting information based on real authority, rather than something hatched in a PR office?

    How about encouraging people to actually think for themselves, rather than relying on being fed information by competing interested parties and then deciding what to believe based on whatever is most compatible with their personal ideology?

    An absence of critical thinking skills as well general ignorance of science and the ‘scientific method’ are surely the most pressing issues right now.

  29. #29 Blake Stacey
    May 29, 2007

    I’d like to ask a slightly different question: what are the shortcomings in Web 2.0 which can be addressed by bringing mainstream media organizations into the science journalism game?

    For example, we don’t really have mechanisms for bringing bloggers together in debate and deliberation. (Blog carnivals are retrospective affairs; the people who put them together are effectively secretaries, not committee chairs, jurists or presidents.) What if magazines organized regular “round table” discussions with prominent scientist-bloggers?

    I second SG’s request for a “blog aggregator” (blaggregator in xkcd-lingo) which can follow the replies, replies-to-replies and so forth to news articles.

  30. #30 Peter Erwin
    May 30, 2007

    Two comments:

    First, I’d like to recommend the linguistics blog Language Log as a standout example of scientists intelligently critiquing media coverage of science. Their focus, naturally enough, tends to be on linguistics, but this includes aspects of psychology, neurology, and cognitive science, so it’s a wider net than one might think. They’ve done an excellent job not only of picking apart bad news stories (particularly from the BBC), but following how bad science or bad science stories spread in the media. (I’d also recommend Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column/blog, but I suspect you already know about that.)

    Second, a minor suggestion for improving “old media” news stories on the web (in addition to the obvious one of providing links to the actual scientific article, or at least the abstract): allow for updated links to relevant commentaries (e.g., blog entries) elsewhere. Part of the problem is that news stories tend to be treated like copies of print stories: fixed and unalterable, and to be discarded the day after they’re written. The reality is that people will read news stories days and sometimes weeks after they’re posted (if they’re still available), and science news keeps somewhat better than other news.

    So a provision to add links to relevant commentaries/corrections which appear after the news article goes online seems like a good idea. (Part of the solution may be getting past the traditional news-media mindset that they are the source of all knowledge, and that their readers want or need no other sources of information.)

    Unfortunately, making this work properly would at this point require human attention, since the potential for trackback and other sorts of spam is rather high (especially for, e.g., for stories about medicine). It also means resisting the temptation to turn this into another opportunity to sell ads; Google’s approach (keep the ads separate) is a good model.

  31. #31 Theodore Price
    May 30, 2007

    I personally think the media does a pretty good job of covering science but some outlets are obviously bad apples. I have no idea how to solve that problem, but I do have some other suggestions:

    I think one of the major hurdles is that most people do not have access to the primary literature. A strong push to get open access across the board would be a great step in the right direction. One problem with open access is that it is not always immediate. Take the NIH policy (6 months to a year after publication). Most media reporting will be immediate and most people will not be able to go look for themselves at the original paper (even with the NIH model) unless they are able to keep the idea of the media report in their mind for 6 months and then go look. If we can move toward open access then media reports could contain links to the original article and the interested reader could go right to the primary source and see for themselves.

    Some may say that this will still not do the trick because most readers will not be able to comprehend the original work published in an academic journal. This may be true… to combat this problem I would suggest that journals make room for a lay summary in their journals to at least give the general public an entry point to getting into the details of the manuscript. On the other hand, I think that if the general public had access to the primary literature on a daily basis that more and more people would eventually become acquainted with perusing it and would eventually become knowledgeable critics. I’m sure many will not agree with this sentiment, but, I’m a neuroscientist — the brain has a remarkable ability to learn and I refuse to part with that optimistic viewpoint.

  32. #32 Jud
    May 30, 2007

    Hyperlinks and blogs form the foundation for a degree of interactivity between the science-interested public and those doing original research that would have been impossible before Web 2.0. But more is necessary. Researchers must do one or both of the following to make their research more accessible to bloggers and the public: (1) publish in open-access journals; (2) push the traditional journals toward more open policies in whatever reasonable way they can. (It would also be nice if someone showed traditional journals a way to continue to be profitable while being more accessible.)

    It’s possible that with more direct and immediate interchange between researchers and the public (fostered by online science media), researchers may gain practice at explaining their research and what’s exciting about it. It may also help to weed out poor science reporting if a researcher can post a comment on a blog saying “No, that’s not what I meant at all.”

  33. #33 Stephen
    May 30, 2007

    I don’t see how the public is going to get the straight story on science as long as the plecebo effect continues working. In order for it to work, the patient has to believe that it works. For that, there has to be a good story. When science comes up with solutions like chemotherapy, others will be willing to come up with a come up with a good story that doesn’t hurt so much. Like peach pits. And since it will sometimes work, it’s a hard story to kill.

    Have there been studies on effective ways to use the plecebo effect? How about without actually telling the patient lies? All i’ve heard is that blue pills work better than other colors…

    As an American, more is better. I pray to God for a double strength plecebo.

  34. #34 Larry Moran
    May 30, 2007

    It looks like there will be 19 people at this meeting. Five of them appear to be practicing scientists. Of thoses five, four are physics professors and one is from another undefined discipline.

    There are no biologists.

    If they had wanted a serious discussion about science education there are several people who could have been invited. Some of them are on record as being critical of the science media.

    PZ Myers of Pharyngula would be an obvious choice and so would Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy. Eugenie Scott from NCSE might have been able to contribute. How about Bruce Alberts, the former President of the National Academy of Sciences? Niles Eldredge is so interested in science education that he has founded a new journal on the subject.

    I’m really looking forward to hearing about this meeting. Meanwhile, I’m trying to start a debate about it on my own blog. I’ll link to here.

  35. #35 igor zolnerkevic
    May 30, 2007

    Dear Carl,

    As I see the things, the challenge of science writing in the age of Web 2.0 is to master and not to be mastered by the “faster, looser and cheaper” model which this fantastic vehicle of publication allows.

    Frequently, as a blogger, I found myself caught in a publishing fever. I feel like to publish just to publish. After all it seems so easy; when I see, for example, an interesting press release with nice pictures and explanations, I feel an urge to show it immediately in my blog, as saying, “look everybody what a cool thing I found!” Then, I add a few comments, supported by my background in sciences and ta-r�! Here comes one more post!

    Is this “science journalism”? Absolutely no. Now, I’m trying to push the reins, think and try to ask properly who, what, where, when, why, who gave the wherewithal, why the reader should care about it.

    I fear that more and more people have blurred in their minds the distinction between production and reproduction, communication and information.

    I read somewhere that “journalism is the discipline of verification”. I like this definition. We need more fact-checking, more criticism, more writers going deep to understand all aspects.

  36. #36 Deepak
    May 30, 2007

    Sticking to Web 2.0.

    The whole trackback system is totally screwed up. I actually think there should be a mechanism by which one can choose to convert a post on a block into more than just a trackback link. One should be able to follow the conversation. Either that or a good general scientific memetracker (megite just doesn’t cut it, postgenomic is the best bet)

  37. #37 factician
    May 31, 2007

    Some suggestions for science journalists:

    1. Poor scientists will try to publicize their work by press conference rather than by peer-reviewed publication. Journalists shouldn’t facilitate this. Insist on quality peer-reviewed work. If someone holds a press conference to announce data that hasn’t been published: don’t go.

    2. Balance. Balancing someone who is right with someone who is wrong isn’t helpful.

    3. I can’t count the number of times I’ve finished an article and said, “I don’t think the author actually understood his subject.” Having scientists read an article and comment on it isn’t a bad thing. It’s rather a little different than letting a politician have his say about the accuracy of an article.

    4. Re: Web2.0 Link to the relevant peer-reviewed literature. Link to the relevant scientific editorials.

    5. Re: Web2.0 Provide space for scientists who are involved in that article to discuss the issue. Instead of having a blog-like response section that is filled with informed discussion mixed in with yahoos, actually moderate the discussion. Give logins to the relevant scientists, and allow them to post further comments and critiques of the article.

    6. Remove declarative statements unless they have data. For example: “Scientists think that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, while creationists think it is 6000 years old”. Replace this with “Scientists think that the earth is 4.5 billion years old due to radiological (expand), cosmological(expand), geological(expand) and biological(expand) data. Creationists think it is 6000 years old because their book tells them it is.” Granted, it turns a short sentence into a much larger paragraph, but it makes it clear this isn’t a debate. It provides a lesson in how science is done, rather than merely comparing declarative statements by two groups.

    I’m not sure that Web2.0 is going to be terribly useful until we solve the 30 year old problems that largely still exist.

    I’ll end my rant here, I hope it’s helpful.

  38. #38 david maas
    June 1, 2007

    This is going to sound a bit off-the-track, and perhaps it is… but my answer is: spore.
    The game.
    The next big project by SIMS maker Will Wright puts the player at the base stage of evolution and offers open-end variations and community game-playing options… or at least this is what has been discussed about it. The game itself hasn’t been released yet.
    If the question at hand is how to shape new relationships with science, then I cite this as a real-life example of
    1) speaking to a much larger profile of “readers”, expanding the arena of science interest
    2) turning science (or at least one aspect of it) into an experience… an emotionally felt encounter.

    This may not sound like science, and it isn’t… but that’s where Web2.0 comes in. If the game is half-way as successful as the hype surrounding its anticipation, there will be masses of curious searching for primordial worm names, models of symbiotic relationships and evolutionary role-models. A perfect chance for the scientific community to play host to a playful curiosity.

  39. #39 Matt Bull
    June 1, 2007

    How about implementing a kind of voluntary, peer-review buddy system for science bloggers? Blogs that participate can use a logo on their page that could say something like “A peer-reviewed science blog.” Kind of a better-business-bureau approved type of thing.

    The idea is that writers would be paired up with one another and before anything goes live on either of their sites, the other would be asked to review the article and all the original sources it’s based on before they give it a stamp of approval, to cut down on fudging and misinterpretation.

    It also might make sense to try something similar in any publication that prints science stories. Rather than have an overloaded editor in charge of reading everyone’s primary source material, assign both writing and fact-checking to a pair of science writers who swap duties every other story.

    Certainly, it’s still open to abuse, but it might help.

  40. #40 Siamang
    June 1, 2007

    I think the web folks need to create an annual “Science stinker award” for the worst reporting of science.

    You could give one for worst reporting of a sound scientific study. And you could give another for the most credulous reporting of a faux-scientific news item.

    And maybe a special “Williams Jenning Bryant” award annually for lifetime achievement in poking your nose into fake science, and tub-thumping it to personal glory…. I nominate Michael Crichton for the innaugural recipient… but maybe Lou Dobbs could be a runner up.

    You’d need rules. I submit that only traditional media stories need apply, print and broadcast. The periodical in question must have a circulation in the hundreds of thousands at least… no homespun newsletters or souvenier small town papers.

    And extra points for the circulation size. I think points should be multiplied by the circulation numbers.

    And the award should name the JOURNALISTS and the PERIODICAL that committed the blunder. For perpetuity they should be called a Golden Stinker Winner for Worst Science Reporting 2007.

    The users of Web 2.0 get to collect the articles and bring them to the attention of the community, a science panel gets to pick the candidates for worst offenders and write up companion critiques of why each one is so awful… complete with cites. Then of the worst offenders… the nominees are voted on by the Web2.0 community members.

    Come on, Carl, this would be FUN! I promise you’ll never win one.

  41. #41 Jennifer Jacquet
    June 5, 2007

    It seems there are a lot of recommendations for better sourcing of information in the blog world, including links to original articles.  If I was in your shoes, I would appeal to the scientists to ensure that the journals they publish in make a concerted effort toward making articles available via open access.  After all, scientists do not get paid to publish and their work is largely funded by taxpayers (especially the NSFers). Everyone should have the ability to access and read the work and hopefully even benefit from it.  Bloggers can help lubricate this process (and voice the work’s messages) but the research must first and foremost be available to everyone…

  42. #42 Josh
    June 5, 2007

    “As the media evolve into a strange new beast, what’s the best way to ensure that people get an accurate picture of science, and that they don’t get fed hogwash?”

    There are multiple ways of doing this, some easier, some not so much. In my shiny little ideal world I view there being an accreditation for wouldbe authors from some trusted source (similar to the Trustee privacy data certifications that used to be popular). Wouldbe authors could submit a couple sample articles to an accrediting website, where previously accepted members do a bit of a peer review and give a yea or nay and when enough affirmatives arrive (with every nay being subtracted from the affirmative total) the author qualifies and gets to put a nifty little logo on their site (and gets the ability to read other people’s submissions and act in the accrediting process), thus establishing some level of trust. The challenge here is promoting the idea, and properly educating the populace about the accreditation.

    This grants a level of trust to the source. There are technological solutions that can be used to prevent misuse of the logo (various web crawlers that can search based on keywords and then do image matching against the images on any websites turned up in the search).

    I will echo sentiments that blog discussions and such should have a level of moderation about them, and should also require logons to post. Logons would allow for slashdot style user based moderation, where posts could have a numeric rank established, establishing what posts can’t be trusted (additionally, criticism of abusers could be attached to their user name, much the same way that ebay handles user feedback).

    Mildly related, but what I would love to see is a website of videos and animations demonstrating some of the principle concepts that are the base of a lot of the scientific ideas. The reason that ID has caught on at all is because way too many people think that evolution = “the theory that man came from monkeys” which is misleading at best. We can’t have proper discussions on science until those participating are educated in the base concepts, and I think the best way to do that is an officially sanctioned, well designed site that explains the information to laymen in an easy to approach manner.

    A great/horrible example of such a video that could be on the website is the double slit electron experiment from “What the Bleep”. It is great in that it has a very approachable feel to it despite it being a complex subject. It is not so good in that it leaves out some key details and was designed entirely to support a propoganda movie by a nutjob who believes she channels a 30,000 year old warrior. However, if approachable movies like that were made by the science community at large, and seeded to youtube, or msn soapbox, or whatever, I think it would have huge benifit, all the moreso if there was an official website that could aggrigate those movies (and articles).

  43. #43 bug_girl
    June 8, 2007

    I’ve been struggling with this in the whole DDT is good for you/Carson is evil fiacso, and Doug from Gossamer Tapestry made this brilliant comment on one of my posts that I thought summed up the problem nicely:

    “I note (with dismay) many parallels between this debate and the creationism debate. The anti-science side spews out whole bunches of, at best, loosely related bad arguments. People like yourself can and do take the time to make the detailed, point by point case for why they are wrong. It�s really easy to be wrong in quick sound bites, and very difficult to be correct and accurate in the same format.”

    (original context:

  44. #44 Hank Roberts
    June 12, 2007

    I commend David Brin’s warning to you all — he was writing to the newly elected Congress and to public servants generally, but I suggest this is a caution to journalists and webbies as well. Don’t expect to be safe if you are doing any good.

    The current kerfluffle over DDT — coincidental? Note what’s happening in the EU. Google News finds it but not in the USA; we get stuff like John Tierney in the NYT.

    … regulation on the Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH), …

    International Herald Tribune, France – Jun 1, 2007
    The law bans the use of some of the most dangerous chemicals in the 27-nation European Union. …

    ABC Online, Australia – Jun 1, 2007
    Legislation has come into force throughout the European Union (EU) requiring tens of thousands of chemicals to be tested for safety. For the first time, …

    Bloggers who are trying to educate readers about the DDT story get attacked for it. Fifty years of such attacks since Rachel Carson. It’s an industry.

    I’d like to see Web2.0 include a certainty that the ‘new’ web will detect censorship and route around it.

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