I’ve got some blog news.
Starting next week, I will be publishing the Loom with National Geographic Magazine. I’ll be part of a new blogging team there, collectively called Phenomena. I’ll be joining three gifted writers, all of whom I’ve been fortunate to know for a number of years: Virginia Hughes, Brian Switek, and Ed Yong,.
I’ve had a great time blogging at Discover over the past four years. Highlights have included arsenic life, science tattoos, hounding George Will for bogus climate claims, and, of course, duck penises. Blogs work best (for me at least) as a place to play, rant, chat, and experiment; I’m grateful to everyone at Discover who helped me use the Loom for these ends–especially the web team of Amos Zeeberg and Gemma Shusterman, who held back the ocean of technical glitches that is always threatening to crash on a blogger’s head.
And I am, of course, most thankful to you, for reading these posts and sharing them with your friends. I’ve gotten to know a lot of interesting people through the comment threads, some of whom I’ve even met in person.
(On a related note, I’m also grateful to Discover editor-in-chief Corey Powell for inviting me to write a brain column when I moved the Loom here, and to editors Pam Weintraub, Eric Powell, and Siri Carpenter for their guidance. Next month’s column will be my last. You can read some of my favorites in my two ebooks, Brain Cuttings and More Brain Cuttings.)
I’ll be publishing a few more posts here this week, including one with the final url and RSS information for the Loom’s new home. And then I hope you’ll follow me onward at National Geographic.
Each year I run a workshop for science graduate students at Yale, encouraging them to write clearly, compellingly, and effectively. I’m tempted next year to just cue up this video of Steven Pinker discussing his next book–a psychology-based guide to good writing–and kick back.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science has just announced this year’s Kavli Awards for Science Journalism. I’m pleased to report that I won in the category of newspapers with a circulation of 100,000 or more.
The award was for three stories I wrote for The New York Times. They didn’t have much in common, which is how I like it:
A Sharp Rise in Retractions Prompts Calls for Reform (April 17)–The scientific enterprise is getting dysfunctional. The fact that this article received 341 comments suggests to me that it hit a nerve.
Studies of Microbiome Yield New Insights (June 19)–I explore the emerging concept of medical ecology, in which we look at our bodies as wildlife parks to be managed, rather than battlegrounds to be carpet-bombed.
Evolution Right Under Our Noses (July 26)–My editor at the time, James Gorman, came across a cool paper on the rapid evolution of fish in the Hudson River. I said, “It’s nice, but it’s not unique by any means. I mean, evolution’s going on all over New York.” Gorman, with that sharp editorial nose of his, said, “Really? Then write about that.” So off I went to the wilderness of Manhattan parks and median strips.
I am now officially barred from winning this award again, having won it in 2004 for my writing here at The Loom and in 2009 for another batch of stories for the Times. I happily hang up my cleats and thank AAAS for all three honors.
Of course, you can’t win a prize for newspaper writing without a newspaper to write for, so I have to give heaps of thanks to the Times, to which I’ve been contributing stories for the past eight years. Along with Jim Gorman, I’ve worked with many other fine folks at the Science Times (including David Corcoran, Michael Mason, Jill Taylor, Jennifer Kingson, and Barbara Strauch), as well as Jamie Ryerson at the Sunday Review. They are compatriots in curiosity. Over the past eight years we have looked anxiously at the woes faced by our dear Gray Lady, as the entire world of journalism has shuddered with changes. Things are not all lollipops and rainbows in 2012, but there are many reasons for optimism–not least of which, I think, is the mere existence of the Science Times, still dedicating every Tuesday to the world beyond elections and quarterly employment reports after more than 30 years.
I’ll be heading up to Boston in February to pick up the prize at AAAS’s annual meeting. My wife Grace will be accompanying me, which only makes sense, since she makes it possible for me to scurry off after new species of ants living on Broadway without the rest of our life collapsing in on itself. Ultimately, all thanks must go to her–including thanks for going to Boston in February.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been dipping into a project called “Moby Dick Big Read.” Plymouth University in England is posting a reading of Moby Dick, one chapter a day. The readers are a mix of writers, artists, and actors, including Tilda Swinton. They are also posting the chapters on SoundCloud, which makes them very easy to embed. Here is one of my personal favorites, Chapter 32, “Cetology.”
When I was an English major in college, I read Moby Dick under the guidance of English professors and literary critics. They only paid attention to a fraction of the book–the fraction that followed Ishmael on his adventures with Captain Ahab. This was the part of the book that they could easily compare to other great novels, the part they could use for their vague critiques of imperialism, the part–in other words–that you could read without having to bother much with learning about the particulars of the world beyond people: about ships, about oceans, and, most of all, about whales. How many teachers, assigning Moby Dick to their students, have told them on the sly that they could skip over great slabs of the book? How many students have missed the fine passages of “Cetology”?
I’ve read Moby Dick several times since graduating college and becoming a science writer. I look back now at the way I was taught the book, and I can see it was a disaster, foisted upon me by people who either didn’t understand science or were hostile to it, or both. Of course the historical particulars of the book matter. It’s a book, in part, about globalization–the first worldwide energy network. But the biology of the book is essential to its whole point. Just as Ahab becomes obsessed with Moby Dick, the scientific mind of the nineteenth century became mad with whales.
“Cetology” reminds the reader that Melville came before Darwin. Ishmael tries to make sense of the diversity of whales, and he can only rely on the work of naturalists who lacked a theory of evolution to make sense of the mammalian features on what looked like fish. You couldn’t ask for a better subject for a writer looking for some absurd feature of the natural world that could serve as a wall against which Western science could bang its head.
The people I know who don’t like the “whale stuff” in Moby Dick probably hate this chapter. It seems to do nothing but grind the Ahab-centered story line to a halt. (No movie version of Moby Dick has put “Cetology” on film.) But do you really think that a writer like Melville would just randomly wedge a chapter like “Cetology” into a novel for no reason–not to mention the dozens of other chapters just like it? Or perhaps it would be worth trying to find out what Melville had in mind, even if you might have to do a bit of outside reading about Carl Linnaeus or Richard Owen? It would be quite something if students could be co-taught Moby Dick by English professors and biologists.
“Cetology” is organized, explicitly, as a catalog, but don’t let the systematic divisions of its catalog put you off. This is science writing of the highest order, before there was science writing. Listen to the words he uses to describe each species. If you go whale watching some day and are lucky enough to spot a fin whale raising its sundial-like dorsal fin above the water, chances are you will utter to yourself, “gnomon.”
In June, a writer named Jonah Lehrer got busted for recycling material on a blog at the New Yorker. Lehrer, who specialized in writing about the brain, had been writing a blog called The Frontal Cortex for six years at that point; having just been appointed a staff writer at the New Yorker, he moved it to their web site, where he promptly cut and pasted material from old posts, as well as from magazine and newspaper pieces.
At the time, I just thought he was squandering a marvelous opportunity. When I was asked to comment on the situation, I wrote that some of the things Lehrer had done were uncool, while some were fairly harmless. But Lehrer himself acknowledged that what he was done was stupid, lazy, and wrong. So I figured he’d gotten the sort of school detention that wakes you up and keeps you from getting expelled.
Four months later, I’m struck by how wrong I was.
I’m quoted in the latest of a long string of articles about Lehrer’s misdeeds, a feature in this week’s issue of New York by Boris Kachka. Kachka talked to me for a long while, and it’s clear that he talked to a lot of other people–journalists and scientists alike. He’s ended up with the best account I’ve read of this sad, strange story.
A lot of the other stories and commentaries have been twisted to showcase people’s assorted bugaboos. I’ve lost count of how many times people fussed over Lehrer’s fancy jackets and haircut, as if they were tied up in his moral standing. If Lehrer had a mullet instead, it would not diminish his misdeeds. There was a fierce passion driving people to draw lessons from Lehrer’s story–lessons, I suspect, that they had already drawn and for which they were now just looking for evidence to confirm. In a rare misstep, for example, Reuters blogger Felix Salmon declared Lehrer the exemplar of all that is wrong with TED talks: “TED is a hugely successful franchise; its stars, like Jonah Lehrer, are going to continue to percolate into the world of journalism.” In fact, Lehrer has never given a TED talk. When you’re condemning a culture that promotes the distortion of facts to fit an easy story, it’s best not to distort the facts for an easy story.
In his densely reported piece, Kachka rightly sees two major aspects to this story: Lehrer’s own misdeeds and the culture that fostered and rewarded it.
I was willing to cut Lehrer some slack at first, but as the additional evidence came in, I wondered if I was making excuses for him. The breaking point came when I read about how he had warped a story about a memory prodigy, claiming that he had memorized all of Dante’s Inferno instead of just the first few lines. When someone noted the error, Lehrer blamed it on his editor, but kept on using the enhanced version of the story in his own blog and on Radiolab (which later had to correct their podcast). It’s easy to slip up with facts, but we have an obligation to admit when we’re wrong and not make the same mistake again. It would have been bad enough that Lehrer distorted the facts and continued to do so after having the facts pointed out to him. But he was also willing to damage other people’s reputations along the way. That’s when I signed off.
As for the other side of the story–the culture that fostered Lehrer–I appreciate that Kachka avoided silly sweeping generalizations–that all popular writing about neuroscience has become the worst form of self-help, that speaking about science in public is the intellectual equivalent of pole-dancing. Kachka instead reflects on the trouble that arises when a science writer reduces complex science to a glib lesson. He’s right to zero in on Lehrer’s 2010 New Yorker article “The Decline Effect and the Scientific Method” as an example of this error. For years, a lot of scientists and science writers alike have grown concerned that flashy studies often turn out to be wrong. But Lehrer leaped to a flashy conclusion that science itself is hopelessly flawed.
That makes for great copy (29,000 people liked the story on Facebook), for which I’m sure his editors were grateful. But Lehrer himself didn’t believe what he was writing. If scientific studies were fundamentally unreliable, then why did he continue to publish articles and a book full of emphatic claims about how the brain works–all based on those same supposedly unreliable studies?
The reality is more complicated. After Lehrer’s piece came out, the Columbia statistician Andrew Gelman was asked what he thought of it. “My answer is Yes, there is something wrong with the scientific method,” he wrote–adding (and this is crucial)–“if this method is defined as running experiments and doing data analysis in a patternless way and then reporting, as true, results that pass a statistical significance threshold.”
In other words, this is not a matter about which we should simply issue Milan-Kundera-like utterances, like Lehrer does in his article: “Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe.” In fact, this is a matter of statistical power, experimental design, posterior Bayesian distributions, and other decidely unsexy issues (Gelman explains the gory details in this American Scientist article [pdf]).
Kachka understands there’s no easy way out of this dilemma, quoting Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel-prize-winning, best-selling Princeton behavioral economist: “There’s no way to write a science book well. If you write it for a general audience and you are successful, your academic colleagues will hate you, and if you write it for academics, nobody would want to read it.”
I put it to Kachka in a similar way, referring to writers like Lehrer: “They find some research that seems to tell a compelling story and want to make that the lesson. But the fact is that science is usually a big old mess.”
And the very way we choose to read about science makes it hard to convey that messiness. I will use my own work as an example of that failure.
In the current issue of Discover, I examine electroconvulsive therapy. I had about 1500 words to write about it, and so I only focused on a single study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. I think it’s an important piece of research, because it uses fMRI for the first time to look at what happens to the brain when ECT pulls people out of major depression.
But it’s also true that the study was necessarily small, that the particular method of fMRI they used is very new, that for now the study remains unreplicated, and that there’s a lot of debate in scientific circles (not to mention beyond) about some of the impacts of the treatment.
In the end, I probably oversimplified, leaving people with too much of a feeling that ECT is a perfect cure (it’s not) and an impression that we know exactly how it works (we don’t). But, to paraphrase Kahneman, there’s no way to write a science article well.
Still, the article I wrote was, I believe, the best of my options for discussing the subject. I didn’t have ten thousand words to use to explore its full complexity. I certainly wasn’t going to get many readers if I wrote a scientific journal paper. And waiting for fifty years to see if this research holds up seems like a worse option as well. So I had to fall short. Again. And I will take the criticism that my article triggers and try to do a better job the next time around.
I don’t mean to sound hopelessly fatalistic. Writers can either tackle this dilemma with eyes wide open, or they can look for a way to cut corners and pretend that the dilemma doesn’t exist. And readers can improve things too. When you find yourself captivated by someone talking to you about science in a way that makes you feel like everything’s wonderfully clear and simple (and conforms to your own way of looking at the world), turn away and go look for the big old mess.
Last month I blogged about the unsavory practices of French scientists who unveiled a study purporting to show that genetically modified corn and herbicide cause cancer in rats. Not only was the study weak, but the scientists required reporters to sign an oath of secrecy to see it in advance. As I explained to the NPR show On the Media, this strategy raised the odds that all those pesky questions about statistical significance from meddling outsiders would be absent from the first wave of reporting.
In Nature today, Declan Butler continues his great reporting on the affair, unearthing additional disturbing parts of the story. My favorite was this passage from the agreement that some reporters–incredibly–agreed to sign:
“A refund of the cost of the study of several million euros would be considered damages if the premature disclosure questioned the release of the study.”
Who knew that doing basic science reporting could land you catastrophically in debt? Well, aside from Simon Singh…
[Update: Link to Nature fixed]
My outburst last week about scientists trying to get reporters to sign a confidentiality agreement to see a paper on genetically modified food landed me on the radio. I spoke to Brooke Gladstone of “On the Media” for this week’s show. I’ve embedded the interview here.
I don’t like starting the weekend in a state of infuriation, but here we are.
On Wednesday, French scientists had a press conference to announce the publication of a study that they claimed showed that genetically modified food causes massive levels of cancer in rats.
The paper appeared in a peer-reviewed journal. That being said, outside experts quickly pointed out how flimsy it was, especially in its experimental design and its statistics. Scicurious has a good roundup of the problems at Discover’s The Crux.
But those outside experts were slow to comment in part because reporters who got to see the paper in advance of the embargo had to sign a confidentiality agreement to get their hands on it. They weren’t allowed to show it to other experts.
We’ve seen this sort of bad behavior before from scientists. In 2009, paleontologists held a spectacular press conference at the American Museum of Natural History (complete with Mayor Bloomberg in attendance) to tout a primate fossil that was the centerpiece of a big cable TV show that aired that week. The paper describing the fossil was released minutes before the conference. Only one reporter managed to get her hands on the paper earlier than that, but she had to sign a confidentiality agreement with the production company.
In both cases, the strategy was clear: prevent science writers from getting informed outside opinions, so that you can bask in the badly-reported media spotlight. Sure, the real story may emerge later, but if you get that first burst of attention, you can lock in people’s first impressions. The documentary about the primate fossil got the audience its producers were hoping for. The French scientists got the attention of the French government, and thus reinforcing opposition to genetically modified foods, although the study itself fails to make that case. Mission accomplished.
This is a rancid, corrupt way to report about science. It speaks badly for the scientists involved, but we journalists have to grant that it speaks badly to our profession, too. If someone dangles a press conference in your face but won’t let you do your job properly by talking to other scientists, WALK AWAY. If someone hands you confidentiality agreements to sign, so that you will have no choice but to produce a one-sided article, WALK AWAY. Otherwise, you are being played. Saying, “Well, everyone else is doing it” is no excuse. You do remember your mother asking what you’d do if everyone else jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, right?
Science writing has been marred in recent weeks by plagiarists and fabulists. We need to live up to our principles, and we need to do a better job of calling out bad behavior.
BBC, AFP, and Reuters: you all agreed to do bad journalism, just to get your hands on a paper. For shame.
UPDATE 9/22 1:22 pm ET: Jonathan Amos, the author of the BBC’s article, just left a comment pointing out that he did not, in fact, sign a confidentiality agreement. On Twitter, he added that the BBC was offered the paper the day before the press conference in exchange for signing the agreement and declined. To which I can only say, Good on you, and please accept my apologies. But I am left wondering why the article itself describes the confidentiality agreement that journalists had to sign, and then does not explain what Amos just explained. (Also, I am curious who else signed the confidentiality agreement. Any French journalists have some insight?)
UPDATE 2 9/22 5:13 pm ET: In the commoents, Pascale Lepointe links to an article in Le Monde, which states flat out that they agreed to keep the paper confidential. Classy.
UPDATE 3 9/25 Zen Faulkes, among others, points out that the lead scientist on the paper also has a book coming out this week on GMOs. And there’s a TV documentary that’s been in the works for a while that’s about to air. Science as marketing!
Next Friday (August 31) I have the honor of taking part in the Kristine Bonnevie Lecture, an annual lecture held at the University of Oslo to honor the first female professor in Norway. I’ll be speaking along with Cori Bargmann of Rockefeller University, who has done hugely important research on the links between the anatomy of the brain and how animals behave. Details are here.
If there are any Loom-readers in Norway (perhaps a few?), I hope to see you in Oslo.