Visions of the Crash

Fifteen years ago I got my first vision of the future: a pair of black holes, ringed by rainbows of fire, crashed into each other so violently they sent a tsunami through the fabric of space itself.

The vision did not come from angels or mushrooms. I was sitting at my desk, looking at the saucer-sized screen of a MacIIsi. I was not gazing at actual black holes, but a two-dimensional simulation. And it was not  the simulation that astonished me. I was stunned instead by the fact that my Mac was communicating with another computer 800 miles away.

A few days earlier, I had called Ed Seidel, a scientist then at the University of Illinois. I was going to write an article about his research on black holes. He had published a paper with stills from the simulation, and on the phone he tried to conjure the full movie for me. Words were failing him, and he wished I could just see it for myself. He asked if I could use the World Wide Web. I had no idea what he was talking about.

With Seidel’s help, I rigged up a 9600-baud modem at Discover, loaded a program called Mosaic on my computer, and then punched in his web site address. Even the letters http were mysterious to me. Underlined words appeared on the screen, which I realized were links. I could look at Seidel’s papers, his resume, even pictures of his family. And when I clicked on a link for the black holes, the movie slowly appeared on my screen, strip by strip.

As the black holes began to crash into each other, I knew I was seeing something new. But at the time, all I thought I was seeing was a new way for me to do research for stories. No more wasted hours photocopying journal articles at the library. I didn’t realize at the time that I was looking at a journalistic collision in the making, a collision between an old way for people to learn about science and a new way. It would take fifteen years or so before the two finally crashed.

—–

I’ve been thinking a lot about the crash recently, thanks in part to a couple of long phone calls. Geoff Brumfiel of Nature and Curtis Brainerd of the Columbia Journalism Review have published articles on the subject in the past week. During their research, they both called me to get my thoughts. I’m not very good at sound bites, which is a little sad given that I’m always on the hunt for the apt quote. In Brainerd’s piece, I sound a little stoned. On the phone with Brumfiel, I was apparently so hopeless that he had to turn me into a mute journalist, surrounded by lethally pithy bloggers:

“You get a press release that is slightly rehashed by somebody in the newsroom and it goes in the paper! It’s wrong, its sensationalist, it erodes the public trust in scientific endeavour,” says Bora Zivkovic, author of A Blog Around the Clock on ScienceBlogs and an online community manager for the Public Library of Science journals. Myers takes a similar view. “Newspapers realize that they can get their audience by peddling crap instead of real science,” he says. Not surprisingly, those who came to blogging from journalism — such as Carl Zimmer, who writes for a range of publications, including The New York Times, and blogs at Discover — tend to disagree. But Larry Moran, a biochemistry professor at the University of Toronto, Ontario, who blogs at Sandwalk, seemed to speak for many bloggers when he recently wrote “Most of what passes for science journalism is so bad we will be better of [sic] without it”.

Will we be without science journalism soon? Science writing as we’ve known it is certainly changing, and for those of us who do it for a living, some of the latest changes have been scary. CNN recently shut down its science, technology, environment and weather unit. The Boston Globe just stopped running its weekly science and health section. I recently wrote a couple articles for a magazine called Best Life, a men’s lifestyle magazine. I wasn’t sure what it would be like to write for a magazine like that at first, but I was pretty pleased to discover that they didn’t want me to shy away from the science of my stories, such as this one on aging. But I won’t be writing for Best Life any more: they just went belly up.

We science writers have been wailing and gnashing a lot, but I don’t think we should burden other people too much with our economic woes. We like to justify our work by saying it’s important for the public to understand science and to be kept up to date with scientific advances, as well as the ways science affects our lives. I agree that those things are important. But it’s not as if the Founding Fathers established a Federal Department of Science Writing to protect the public’s inalienable right to the stuff.

The science sections, science magazines, and other outlets we see around us today were set up as businesses. They got their start in a big boom in the late 1970s, when the post-Sputnik emphasis on science and the growing advertising for computers and other kinds of technology made publishing stories about science look like a good way to make money. Readers were hungry to learn about new developments in science, as well as the bad effects of some science, such as environmental damage from pollution.

A lot of those sections and magazines are gone now, but they were fading long before bloggers came on the scene. During the 1980s, a lot of science magazines bought each other up. Newspaper science sections have been dwindling ever since they reached a peak of 95 in 1989. By 2005, only 34 science sections were left. There are many reasons for the decline, I suspect. The magazine market got glutted, for example, and advertisers shifted some dollars away from science coverage.

Like all magazines, science magazines are facing some lean times. But I don’t think they face quite as scary a future as newspapers. The entire system by which newspapers used to make money has been knocked out from under them by people with names like Craig. It seems that when newspapers try to cut their costs, science sections are vulnerable. In other cases, the science reporters just end up on the street with everyone else.

But the disaster for any individual science writer may not be so bad for the person on the other end–the one reading about science. Twenty-five years ago, a reader who wanted to keep up with developments in science didn’t have much choice beyond the coverage in the local paper. But now it’s possible to read stories online from all over the world.

This change in technology, from paper to Internet, may mean that our collective hunger for news about science can be met by fewer science writers. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be a demand for good local science writing–a demand that will come from both local and international audiences. But the precise number of science writers left in 10 years will not be decided by a technocrat at the National Science Foundation.

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The rise of blogs about science has brought me many pleasures. I’ve particularly liked the astringent criticism of bad science journalism. As soon as a piece is published, scientists who know the lot about the subject can, if necessary, rip a journalist a new one. I personally have been very influenced by Mark Liberman, a linguist at Penn, who has time and again shown how important it is for reporters to pay attention to the statistics in science. What seems at first like stark results–like the difference between the male and female brain–can melt away if you look at the actual data.

But some bloggers go a step further. They claim that these individual cases of journalistic misconduct add up to an indictment of the whole business. Hence, as Moran declares, we can live without science journalists.

It’s odd that many of the people making these pronouncements are scientists themselves–people, in other words, who know that you don’t do science by anecdote. If a blogger sits down in the morning and reads ten stories in a newspaper’s science section and notices that one that makes a howler of a mistake, you know what that blogger will be writing about. Blogs are an outlet for righteous fury. Bloggers are much less likely to write a post that begins, “I read nine articles this morning about science that were fairly accurate and pretty well written.” Ho hum.

The judgment you find in blogs is not just incomplete. It doesn’t even add up to a coherent picture. Take, for example, a recent righteous rant from Ben Goldacre, a British doctor who writes the blog Bad Science. Goldacre is doing fabulous work on his blog, taking on irresponsible sensationalism and misinformation about vaccines, quack medicine, and other offenses. His guns are blazing particularly hot in a recent post about some awful reporting on recent studies on prostate cancer. He concludes with this sweeping condemnation of our trade:

Journalists insist that we need professionals to mediate and explain science. From today’s story, their self belief seems truly laughable.

You’d be forgiven if you read this passage and got an image of all journalists on Earth spontaneously bursting into flame in punishment for their laughable self-importance. But Goldacre is actually only attacking British journalists. To show how badly our British colleagues botched this story, Goldacre contrasts their work to the accurate coverage in American newspapers. Why we American writers possess the powers to see the real story while British reporters are putting themselves out of business Goldacre fails to explain. For whatever reason, British science writers = bad; American science writers = good.

Turn to PZ Myers of Pharyngula this week, and you get a different message. Myers writes about the distress creationists feel when they are met with skepticism from typical British journalists. “Take a bow, any typical British reporters reading this. Could you please come over here and give lessons to typical American reporters?”

So now the scientists are telling us American science writers = bad, British science writers = good?

I don’t mean to single Myers or Goldacre out for special criticism. I don’t dispute the basic notions that the British press botched this cancer story big time or that some American reporters fall into the fair-and-balanced trap when writing about creationists. But the fact remains you can’t get a clear picture of the overall state of science writing from blogs.

There have been some attempts to scientifically measure the accuracy of science journalism, but the ones I’ve come across have only covered a narrow range, like this one on genetics. (It concluded that journalists do a pretty good job, actually.) But to test the crap hypothesis of Myers and others, you’d need something more ambitious. You could get 100 scientists to judge, and give them 1000 articles chosen from the most popular publications–stripped, of course, of any identifying marks that might bias anyone’s judgment. And then you could track the accuracy through time–backwards into whatever Golden Age you want to visit, or forward as economic forces continue to stretch and crush the business.

I don’t know what answer you’d get. There are certainly some dark forces at work in the science media ecosystem these days. Brumfiel rightly points out that journalism-by-press-release is on the rise. In fact, there are some web sites that churn out these press releases as their sole form of “news.” I find this pretty vile. Any outlet that presents a press release as news is making no independent attempt to explain the research involved or to find other scientists who might help create a more objective picture of it. It’s sad that there isn’t any effective backlash that is forcing newspapers or web sites to abandon this practice.

That being said, there is still a lot of good work out there (see the Knight Science Journalism Tracker for some examples). And it’s not as if we were free of bad science coverage twenty years ago. Bat Boy, anyone?

Blogging has certainly opened up a valuable new way for people to point out the errors in science journalism. But we don’t know how good or bad science journalism is overall. And the quality of science journalism doesn’t have that much to do with the quandary of the business right now. You can write as accurately about quantum physics as you want, but if your company just took out $8 billion in loans they can’t pay back,  you and your accuracy may still get fired.

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“Science journalism is in decline; science blogging is growing fast. But can the one replace the other, asks Geoff Brumfiel.”

That’s how Brumfiel’s Nature article kicks off. It’s a question that I’ve heard many times in one form or another. But I’ve never been able to figure out exactly what it means.

Let’s imagine that indeed all science journalists around the world spontaneously combusted, leaving behind the bloggers to write about science. Instead of people who research and report articles on a range of subjects, a network of experts would collaborate do the job. Advances in climate research handled by climatologists; advances in studies on spiders handled by arachnologists; and so on.

Will they be able to “replace” the vanished journalists? The question may sound reasonable, but it’s ultimately absurd. It is based on the idea that the Department of Science Writing is planning a shift from journalists to bloggers to fulfill some fixed quantity of writing, just like the Defense Department recalls a platoon of Marines from a war and sends in a new one with different equipment. Bloggers will write, and people who are interested in what they have to say will read them.

A more realistic question is this: how many of the millions of people who read about science in magazines and newspapers will shift their attention over to blogs written by scientists?

I think there could be a modest shift at best. We can’t know for sure what a world of science bloggers would look like. But we do know what a world of proto-bloggers looks like. Before scientists could blog, they wrote reviews for magazines like Scientific American. Scientific American has since moved to a mix of stories–some written by journalists, and some written by scientists but then edited by non-scientists and then illustrated and designed by professionals. Today, there are still some magazines that capture that proto-blogger spirit. But they have very modest readerships. American Scientist, for example, has a circulation of 144,000.

Bigger magazines are not necessarily better, of course. And a junky story in a magazine with 5 million readers is still a junky story. But I doubt that the detail-rich, lecture-like blog posts that a lot of scientists tend to write will reach millions, no matter how many journalists end up out of work.

Brumfiel’s piece is full of interesting stats, but it lacks hard numbers about where people read about science. It would be interesting to see just how many people now rely solely on blogs, having walked away from newspapers and magazines. It would be interesting to see how many people find blogs unpleasant and stick with old-fashioned reporting. But perhaps Brumfiel didn’t bother because it’s a statistical swamp.

Let’s say you read Ben Goldacre. On which side of the blog-MSM divide does that put you? It’s hard to say. If you read Bad Science at badscience.net, I guess you get your information from blogs. But you may read the exact same posts from Goldacre every week in the Guardian. Myers has joined Goldacre there as well. Maybe there was a divide once, but now it’s about as impermeable as a cheesecloth.

—–

Last week I wrote about bats. If I had written about bats ten years ago, I would have had to convey the beauty of their flight with words alone, or with the help of some modest illustrations with arrows to hint at the movement of their bodies. Now I can illustrate my article with high-definition movies. This is a science fiction dream I had in the nineties, which I now get to enjoy in real life. And I don’t need an army of film editors and programmers to help me.

This is the reason I started blogging in the first place. The Internet had matured so much since Ed Seidel revealed it to me that it has become a journalistic laboratory. I can experiment with many different ways of exploring science. Blogs are good not just for combining text and video, I find, but also for pursuing stories that don’t fit neatly into a single post–such as the drawn-out saga of George Will’s fact-checking fiasco over global warming.

Darcy Frey published this article seven years ago in the New York Times Magazine. When I recently called out to readers of the Loom for examples of great science writing, several people named it. And I recalled it as well. It stands out in my memory more clearly than a vast number of other pieces that I’ve read more recently.

Here’s how it begins:

This is a story about global warming and a scientist named George Divoky, who studies a colony of Arctic seabirds on a remote barrier island off the northern coast of Alaska. I mention all this at the start because a reader might like to come to the point, and what could be more urgent than the very health and durability of this planet we call Earth? However, before George can pursue his inquiry into worldwide climate change; before he can puzzle out the connections between a bunch of penguinesque birds on a flat, snow-covered, icebound island and the escalating threat of droughts, floods and rising global temperatures, he must first mount a defense — his only defense in this frozen, godforsaken place — against the possibility of being consumed, down to the last toenail, by a polar bear while he sleeps. He must first build a fence.

Cooper Island, June 4, 2 o’clock in the morning. The sky is a cold slab of gray, the air temperature hovers in the upper 20’s and the wind — always the wind — howls across hundreds of miles of sea ice with such unremitting force that George has disappeared beneath a hat, two hoods and a thick fleece face mask covering all but his bespectacled eyes. Standing near the three small dome tents that make up his field camp on Cooper, George raises a pair of binoculars and begins to scan for bears. Past the island’s north beach, a wind-scarred plain of sea ice stretches uninterrupted to the pole. To the south, the nearest tree stands 200 miles away on the far side of the Brooks Range. Here, some 330 miles north of the Arctic Circle, with the sun making a constant parabolic journey around the sky, George surveys a view that replicates in all directions: the snow-covered island merges with the sea ice at its shores, the dazzling sheets of sea ice stretch to meet a pale gray dome of sky. Surrounded by a vast, undulating whiteness, he appears to be standing in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. He appears to be standing on the tops of cirrus clouds.

You can’t write a story like this with a bit of embedded code. You can’t write it after spending half an hour reading over a paper in Geophysical Research Letters. You have to go to Cooper Island and stay there, you have to read and talk, you have to write and rewrite.

Frey couldn’t have written the story without back-up: an organization that paid for his plane tickets, that employed editors who helped him make the story better and fact-checkers to search for errors and photographers to add arresting images. The story benefited from being printed in ink on paper–a medium that lets you read several thousand words without feeling as if your eyes are going to fall out of your head. To get the ink on millions of pages, Frey also depended on people running massive printing presses. He depended on the people who sold subscriptions to the paper and wooed advertisers into buying ads. An army stood behind him.

I for one want to read stories like “George Divoky’s Planet” in the future. I wouldn’t mind writing a few of them myself. But if we must say goodbye to the old networks that made these stories possible, we won’t get to read them unless new networks rise to take their place. I don’t know what a new network would look like. They might be slightly retooled versions of the newspapers and magazines we see on the newsstand and online today. Or perhaps writers will end up working as entrepreneurs, selling their stories for all to read on Kindles.

When black holes collide, they can reshape entire galaxies. The little galaxy of journalism is being reshaped as well, but you, dear reader, are not a passive particle enslaved by the laws of physics. You can rail against the shallow and the petty, and throw your support behind the new experiments that deepen your understanding of the world. After the crash, you can help shape the galaxy.