I had a delightful time at the SpotOn London 2012 conference this weekend, chatting to people about all things related to science, journalism and the internet. For reasons best known to them, the organisers decided to inflict me upon the attendees in three separate panels, videos of which are below.
This one’s on how to do smart journalism in the face of complex science. I lay out my thoughts on why people often criticise journalists for screwing up science reporting in boring ways, when there are more advanced forms of screw-up to consider and avoid.
This one’s about whether information from organisations like my former employers, Cancer Research UK, will replace traditional journalism. Spoiler: No.
And this one’s about safeguarding against fraud and dodgy practices in science. It touches on all the psychology-related material that I’ve been covering for the last year, and has a rather good discussion.
See the Storify below:
Over the last year, I’ve written several pieces about problems in psychology – namely, an overwhelming skew towards positive results, a lack of replications to check if they are correct, and a disturbing number of cases of misconduct. But of course, psychology is not alone here. These problems are pervasive in science, and it’s important to discuss them.
I did so at Bristol University last Friday, in a talk entitled “Science is only human”. The brief from Professor Phil Langton, who invited me, was to shake the graduate students out of an early reverie of the scientific process, and discuss why that process sometimes fails. Here’s the description:
The ideal, perhaps naive, conception of science is a self-correcting march towards greater truth and understanding about the world around us. In practice, it’s done and published by people, and people can be influenced by ego, motivated by power and swayed by personal biases. Science writer Ed Yong will talk about how this tension affects the conduct of science, its communication in the mainstream press, and how the internet is changing things for the better.
Tamsin Edwards graciously tweeted and Storifyed some salient points, but the full audio of the talk is now available. I’ve embedded it above. Do have a listen. Contrary to what I say at the start, it’s just 45 minutes long and, hopefully, should be interesting.
Photo by Lara
David Quammen, a giant of natural history writing, has a new book out today called Spillover. It details the fascinating and frightening world of diseases that spread to humans from other animals, also known as zoonoses. Here’s the description:
David Quammen’s Spillover is a work of science reporting, history, and adventuresome travel, tracking this subject around the world. For five years, Quammen shadowed scientists into the field-a rooftop in Bangladesh, a forest in the Congo, a Chinese rat farm, a suburban woodland in Duchess County, New York-and through their high-biosecurity laboratories. He interviewed survivors and gathered stories of the dead. He found surprises in the latest research, alarm among public health officials, and deep concern in the eyes of researchers. Spillover delivers the science, the history, the mystery, and the human anguish as page-turning drama.
From what innocent creature, in what remote landscape, will the Next Big One emerge? A rodent in southern China? A monkey in West Africa? A bat in Malaysia that happens to roost above a pig farm, from which hogs are exported to Singapore? In this age of speedy travel between dense human populations, an emerging disease can go global in hours. But where and how will it start? Recent outbreaks offer some guidance, and so Quammen traces the origins of Ebola, Marburg, SARS, avian influenza, Lyme disease, and other bizarre cases of spillover, including the grim, unexpected story of how AIDS began from a single Cameroonian chimpanzee.
Spillover asks urgent questions. Are these events independent misfortunes, or linked? Are they merely happening to us, or are we somehow causing them? What can be done? But it’s more than a work of reportage. It’s also the tale of a quest, through time and landscape, for a new understanding of how the world works.
I cannot recommend it highly enough. A few weeks ago, I tweeted several reasons why it has earned an easy spot on my shelf of favourite books. Here they are:
Journalists have an almost superhuman ability to hold forth on the ethics of our own profession. And yet, despite endless talk about “self-plagiarism” or some such, we have been wilfully blind to the more grievous ethical breaches carried out by revered reporters who cover the so-called “superhero beat”. Perhaps we are unwilling to admit that those who write about truth and justice are the least likely to champion transparency and proper attribution. Here are some examples of the most severe offenders:
When it comes to journalistic ethics, Mr Kent is not so super after all. He regularly reports about himself without disclosing as much. He deceives his employers by moonlighting during working hours as a doer of derring, leaping his contractual obligations in a single bound. Worst of all, he uses the privileged inside information that he gleans as a journalist for his own personal gain during his extracurricular activities. Here is a man who is faster than a speeding bullet, stronger than a locomotive, and about as transparent as either of those.
Seemingly strong-willed and single-minded, Ms Lane superficially seems like a role model for aspiring journalists. But closer investigation reveals a troubling tendency to sit on stories that clearly belong in the public domain, especially when it benefits her friends. She has won a Pulitzer for reporting about a source who she has long been romantically involved with – a fact that remains undisclosed. Sympathetic readers will see a journalist torn between personal emotions and professional duty. Others will see a woman who is not just hiding the location of weapons of mass destruction from her readers, but is actually sleeping with one.
Or to give him his official epithet: “Superman’s pal: Jimmy Olsen.” His sin is in plain view: this hungry, young, and undoubtedly talented photographer has gone native. He has sacrificed his journalistic independence by revering one of his sources as some sort of lofty superhuman god, becoming little more than a snap-happy PR agent to the Man of Self-Promotion. Perhaps “Superman’s Pal” might better serve the public interest as “Superman’s Critical Friend”.
Imbued with the proportional strength, speed and ethical judgment of a spider, Parker has made a career of taking photos of himself in a mask and selling them to his employers. Some might argue that Parker is merely a symptom of the poor wages awarded to photojournalists, and the intense pressures they face (“I want pictures! Pictures of Spider-Man,” his editor regularly exhorts). Amid such a cutthroat environment, this promising talent has clearly learned that with great power comes great ethical lapses.
Finally, a journalist whose ethics are beyond reproach. Hound of truth. Scourge of authority. Ignoring the guns and wanton drug use, here is a reporter we can all look up to.
(Inspired by this Daily Mash piece and the fact that discussions of journo ethics can get a touch po-faced. Contributions from Tim Carmody and Dean Burnett via Twitter.)
In the new EconTalk podcast, I chat to Russ Roberts about my recent story about replication problems in psychology, the problem of replication in general, and the challenges facing science journalists today. This was fun to do. Hopefully it’s fun to listen to as well.
I make no secret of the fact that I am President of the Carl Zimmer fan club. Carl’s writing was a big influence for me well before we became colleagues at Discover. So when Alok Jha at the Guardian asked me to write a piece analysing a great piece of science writing, I didn’t have to search very hard. You can find that piece in the Guardian today. Consider it a (short and incomplete) guide to good science writing, and an ode to a peerless chum.
It begins like this:
Scientific papers aren’t known for their catchy titles. Here’s a typical example: “Ancestral capture of syncytin-Car1, a fusogenic endogenous retroviral envelope gene involved in placentation and conserved in Carnivora.”
A good science writer could tell you what each of those technical words meant, or translate them into their everyday equivalents. They would also explain the concepts encapsulated by those words, and why they deserve your attention. And a great science writer might start with something like this: “If not for a virus, none of us would ever be born.”
Photo by Russ Creech
Recently, I took part in a debate about improving science journalism, hosted at the Royal Institution. It was somewhat mixed, but at least, it allowed a variety of viewpoints to rise to the surface. The videos are now up. I’m at 31:00 in the first one, acting as a first-responder to the initial two speakers. I’m basically writing this on the spot, so it’s a bit rambling. For those who can’t be bothered to watch, basically my points are these:
As of this week, I’m starting a new column over at the BBC, as part of their new science and technology super-site. The goal, based on feedback from the BBC’s readership, was to create a space for deeper, richer sources of science writing to complement their typical news pieces. Regular readers of this blog will know that this is a goal that I have a lot of time for. There will be lots of features, and some regular columns. I’m providing one of the latter.
So the column is called “Will we ever…?” The goal is to take far-flung and possibly optimistic applications of basic scientific research and look at the steps and obstacles between now and then. You know that sentence in the fourth or fifth paragraph of most science news pieces? The fluffy one that says, “This discovery could eventually lead to [insert optimistic distant application here]”? This column will expand that sentence into a thousand words.