Neuron Culture

DobbsandZimmer

Me (right) hypnotizing Carl Zimmer just before the Rebooting Science Journalism session at ScienceOnline 2010. It worked. Carl had planned to use his 5 minutes to just say, “We are DOOOMED.” Instead he talked about duck sex.

I’ve been meaning for two weeks now to post on ScienceOnline 2010 and the Rebooting Science Journalism session, in which I joined Ed Yong, John Timmer, and Carl Zimmer as “unpanelists.” Lest another frenzied week delay me further, here’s my addition to the #scio10 #reboot corpus.

Journalists-v-bloggers is (almost) dead

Many at the conference, and pretty much everyone in the Reboot session, agreed that the distinction between journalist and blogger would continue to fade — and that “good science journalism” would increasingly be defined as well-informed, well-crafted, transparent writing about science. (Transparent as in clear, yes — but especially as to declaration of possible conflicts of interest.)

Two kinds of stories: “Wow” versus “This smells kinda funny”

In my own 5 minutes (see way below), I drew a distinction between “wow” stories (about cool/new findings, theories, etc) and “something smells funny here” stories (of more investigative or critical nature). The former are often easily and well done by bloggers with good BS detectors; Ed Yong’s many excellent explanations of new or replicated findings are a prime example. This poses obvious competition to writers and pubs who rely heavily on such pieces.

The “Smells Funny” stories, however, may be more threatened by decline of paying venues if writers can’t find supplemental funding to support the extensive reporting these require. I’m split on that prospect. On one hand, the MSM and traditional science press have bankrolled some great examples of this sort of story — the numerous great stories the Times has done on conflicts of interest in pharma/psych research, for instance, as were the stories on the horrid conditions at Walter Reed. My own story on PTSD took many, many weeks of time and thousands of dollars of travel. Yet there are Smells Funny stories the MSM won’t touch and others it botches badly; perhaps new models will do as well or better in funding these.

Yet I do wonder how such Dig the Dirt stories will reach readers if general interest MSM outlets die or quit running such stories altogether. Most people don’t want to hear about funny-smelling stories. If stories like Vioxx and Walter Reed don’t appear in the Times or the WaPo, will they get enough play to have public impact? I worry.

But how will more substantial work get paid for?

Although I still harbor concerns about how writers are to research substantial pieces without funding, I feel far more optimistic about it now than I did a year ago. Why? Because the past year has seen alternate pay models such as fellowships, spot.us, ProPublica.com and other funding mechanisms emerge. As publishers pay less, writers will have to be savvy and resourceful to combine such sources w declining story fees to make it work. The pay source(s) and the pub venue might not be the same. I certainly don’t know that those structures will combine with reduced per-word income, blog income (what’s that?), speaking fees, etc. to reliably support a healthy number of skilled journalists in full-time work. But the rise of these efforts convinces me that they might. This is a tumultuous period of adjustment. The flexible and adaptive will find ways to survive and perhaps even thrive. It’s going to be tough. But it’s tough now, and for most writers, it’s been tough for a long time. A year ago, it just seemed like everything was falling down. Now you can see people building new structures, and others bent over blueprints.

Quality control — and a glimpse of a brave new world

But who will play the role of editor and filter in this more freewheeling world? That very question came from a post this week in NASW-Talk, an email listserve hosted at the National Association of Science Writers. The answer, I think, is a) at times, a few surviving editors; and b) at other times, everybody else.

I suspect will still be places where writers work with good editors, and I’m glad: this new media debate often overlooks how much good editors contribute. So it’s sensible to ask how standards will be upheld in a seemingly chaotic, editor-scarace world of People Blogging All Over the Place on Science.

Reboot geeks will find the blogosphere’s answer familiar: The blogosphere’s open nature will provide filtering and oversight by correcting errors and shaming those who consistently work sloppily, just as the blogosphere does now with MSM. For a look at this in real time, follow the tweets of NYU journalism professorJay Rosen, Reuters medical editor Ivan Oransky, journalist-bloggers Steve Silberman, Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, Ben Goldacre, and other Keepers of the Bullshit Filter. (I’m sure I’m missing some good ones; please suggest others in the comments.)

We’ll have to see how well that works at large scale. Failures will occur. Yet the work already being done along those lines, and the dynamics I saw at ScienceOnline 2010, suggest that the more open nature of online writing, particularly its imposition of crowdsource correction, may do the job pretty well. Far from perfectly, of course — but so the MSM has proven as well.

I saw and experienced this directly at the conference. By design, the speakers and panelists at this conference (or “unconference,” as BoraZ calls it) enjoy an authority understood to be provisional (as in, only as good as their presentation) are should talk for only about half the 65-minute session before inviting discussion by a highly informed, multidisciplinary crowd — pro writers, bloggers, scientists, others — whose job is to keep you honest.

As both audience member and panelist, I was amazed at how energetically this encouraged a particularly frank sort of honesty and humility, with a resulting richness of exchange. As a panelist I was keenly aware that my facts and opinions were far more open to challenge than in most venues. This made me more rigorous in my vetting my remarks. The mere anticipation of quick, proximate correction inspires rigor. (Surely there’s a study somewhere that shows this.) At the same time, it imposes both humility and a recognition of the power of the crowd. It was a riveting, invigorating, almost intoxicating experience. It seemed a glimpse of the sort of honesty, rigor, transparency, and quality of thought and discussion that a more open system of science communication and discussion might generate.

(The transparency is key; it is assumed, but ensured only through vigilance. The one worry about this wide-open “unconference” format people who don’t declare conflicts of interest could exploit it. The small size of this crowd made it relatively difficult for someone to pass themselves off as something they weren’t. Yet even so, one attendee, perhaps through sheer momentary forgetfulness (for this was the conference’s second day, and he might have assumed everyone knew whence he came), almost pulled it off: In a moment both alarming and reassuring, this speaker was just finishing working the room with a 5-minute flash presentation railing on Jenny McCarthy and other anti-vaccine advocates when a journalist at the front table (skepticism training at work!) yelled, “Who are your clients?” Pharmaceutical companies, it turned out. “You need to tell us that right up front, and loudly,” another journalist said. The guy looked rattled. Well he might be.

The beta. It binds.

This unconference mode aims to recreate the open call-and-response nature of the blogosphere. It assumes, among other things, that all the presentations, as well as all writing and all science, offer what amount to “beta” articulations of possibility. “It’s all beta,” as the saying goes. Carry that to journalism, and every story, like every theory and every blog post, is patently provisional and patently subject to and even expecting revision.

I have complex feelings about this. Especially on longer work, I tend to research and then write each piece until i simply can’t find any way to improve it, and my filing and bills haven’t been done, and I’ve forgotten the names of the people I live with, and have not, of course, blogged in weeks. I’m all in; and I don’t want to send it out till I’m done. So I struggle — I’m thinking mainly of my blogging here — to allow myself to write something that I’ve not fully reported and read up on. I can tell myself it’s all beta all I want; but I find it hard to just write, proof, and publish. It feels too … well, beta.

In some senses, of course, it’s liberating and just outright more honest. No matter how many weeks or months I spend researching and writing a piece, no matter how complete or accurate a view it offers at the time, it stands only as a beta version in the longer term. I know this. And it doesn’t bother me that what seems just right when I publish it might seem a bit off-target later. I don’t mind being read that way.

Yet I find it hard to write that way. On longer pieces in particular I think it’s best to forget the whole beta thing — to write as if this is the last thing anyone will ever write on the thing, the only chance to get it right. Research it that way and you see dimensions of a story you won’t see if you’re thinking beta. Write it that way and you can show your reader dimensions neither one of you would see otherwise. So even in a beta world, I’ll always believe in striving for the full 1.0.

Note: A typo in original version (there are other still remaining) had mangled Ivan Oransky’s twitter link. It’s now fixed above and here. H/t to Ivan for pointing this out to me, thereby displaying the power of the Keepers of the Typo Filter.

Comments

  1. #1 Arikia Millikan
    February 1, 2010

    Awesome, loved your session and it was great to finally meet you :)

  2. #2 Coturnix
    February 1, 2010

    Brilliant! And a lot of food for thought…. Thank you!

  3. #3 JerryM
    February 1, 2010

    You could use a proofreader though…

  4. #4 John Timmer
    February 1, 2010

    I’m probably in the “published as beta” category for most of my work, so consider that as my full disclosure. Ars does run long-format pieces, though (an 8,000 word explanation of quantum computing ran the weekend after the conference, as it turns out), and I know when I’m writing those, I do agonize over getting things right, and make multiple editing passes before turning the mover to other editors for them to look over.

    It’s the shorter pieces, usually 1,200 words or less, that sometimes get sent out before I’m happy with them. It’s not that they’re written with an “oh well, it’s just in beta” attitude. In shorter pieces, the way you approach the story tends to dictate how well it flows, and sometimes you only recognize that you haven’t chosen a great approach after the piece is mostly done – the only option then tends to be starting it over. For better or worse, I simply work in an environment where I can’t afford the time to do a complete rewrite on pieces that often (people who are more efficient or organized than me might).

    I guess that’s a long-winded way of saying that it may not be a question of writing process as much as it is an issue of internal and external expectations.

  5. #5 Ed Yong
    February 1, 2010

    I have heard it said that writers/artists never really finish a piece, they just let it go. A touch pretentious perhaps, but true as well.

  6. #6 Isis the Scientist
    February 1, 2010

    Interesting thoughts, David. I wonder if in the future we’ll transition from one person being the keeper of the bullshit filter, to a moderator and his/her diverse and educated community being the keeper of the filter. This makes me think of what recently happened on White Coat Underground with the discussion of steroids and one particularly vile internet doctor. Pal presented the bullshit and them more than one additional expert added to the discussion. Do you think both models acheive the same outcome?

    Hmmmm….

  7. #7 David Dobbs
    February 1, 2010

    JerryM, thanks for the heads-up. Helpful — and funny.

    “You could use a proofreader, though…”

    I’m trying to figure out whether that’s beta meta or meta beta.

    Hope to fix typos and other mistakes later. Right now, beta get back to work.