Archive for the 'Communication' category

ScienceOnline, #scioSafe, and ways forward together.

Mar 08 2014 Published by under Communication, Conferences

This document grew out of the #scioSafe session at ScienceOnline Together 2014. It is an attempt to reflect the sentiments of a substantial portion of the ScienceOnline community, though we recognize and appreciate that this community is large and holds a diversity of viewpoints. We offer this document in the sincere belief that we share with the leadership of ScienceOnline a desire to make this organization and its endeavors going forward shining examples of the good that can come from powerful collaborations between motivated people.

What we are asking for:

1. More frequent and clearer communication from the ScienceOnline Board to the community.
Members of the community feel out of the loop on changes that the Board has planned but not fully implemented, on actions that the Board may be considering (or may have considered but rejected) and on the reasons that the Board has chosen to follow a particular course of action rather than the alternatives. Whenever possible, we would appreciate that communications from the Board include:

  • what was done
  • why it was done
  • alternatives that were considered and why they were rejected
  • explicit identification of instances where deliberative details cannot be shared due to legal, financial, or other considerations.

2. More transparent mechanisms for engaging with and responding to communication from the community to the Science Online Board.
Members of the ScienceOnline community who have made suggestions, shared concerns, or asked questions of leadership are frequently unsure whether what they have communicated has been heard and shared with the Board. We would appreciate, wherever possible, public acknowledgement of the feedback communicated to the Board, as well an indication of how (if at all) the Board plans to act on it.

3. An expanded ScienceOnline Board of Directors, including members from more diverse background.
We recognize that there are current plans to expand membership of the existing ScienceOnline Board of Directors. We encourage the organization to move efficiently on this expansion. We ask that the expertise of members of the Board and their responsibilities to the organization be clearly and publicly communicated. In addition, we ask that the selection criteria for Board members and timeline for member searches be made transparent. We suggest that one or more of these appointments be directed at the goal of improving representation of and communication with the larger ScienceOnline community.

4. A strengthened response team and more clarity on available official responses to reporting to support meaningful implementation of ScienceOnline conference Code of Conduct and Harassment Policy.
We applaud the Board of ScienceOnline for adopting a strong Harassment Policy and conference Code of Conduct. We urge the Board to take the necessary steps to ensure that these policies can be enforced to achieve welcoming, inclusive conferences. These steps might include hiring external professionals to serve as the response team or providing direct training of a community volunteer response team by external professionals. In addition, we ask the Board to seek guidance from external professionals to create a mechanism for anonymous reporting of incidents. As well, in light of the large barrier that exists to people speaking up about conduct that makes them uncomfortable, we request that the Board clarify the likely range of responses to conference-goer reports. We recognize that some of these steps will have costs associated with them, but we are willing to help the Board meet those costs.

5. A clarification of Bora Zivkovic's relationship to the ScienceOnline organization and its conferences, events, and initiatives going forward.
We appreciate the swiftness with which Bora Zivkovic was removed from leadership of the ScienceOnline organization in the wake of revelations that he harassed multiple women, including women within the ScienceOnline community. However, the last official statement from the ScienceOnline organization specified that he would not be attending any ScienceOnline events in 2014. Members of the community would like to know what happens after 2014. We ask the Board to seriously consider making the separation between Zivkovic and the ScienceOnline organization, its conferences, events, and initiatives permanent.

6. Serious exploration of transition to a membership organization.
We recognize that ScienceOnline is currently incorporated as an educational non-profit rather than a membership organization. This means that at present, individual participants in ScienceOnline events are essentially customers. Active segments of the community banding together to provide suggestions or feedback, to volunteer their efforts or raise money for the organization, function more or less as lobbying groups, whose only recourse if their feedback is not welcome or seriously engaged is to vote with their wallets and their feet. While this relationship flows logically from the current organizational structure of ScienceOnline, it leaves members of the community in a suboptimal relationship with the organization and its leadership. Recognizing that reorganizing ScienceOnline would require time and resources to navigate bureaucratic hurdles, we nonetheless urge the Board to consider the benefits to both members and the organization that may flow from actively engaging the community in the ongoing business, large and small, of ScienceOnline.

7. An entirely elected leadership for the ScienceOnline organization.
In the event of a successful transition from its current organizational structure to a membership organization, we hope that the Board of Directors will become a democratically elected body, representative of and accountable to the interests and needs of a diverse and vibrant ScienceOnline community.

Background for the #scioSafe session:

A significant number of attendees of ScienceOnline Together 2014 came to the #scioSafe session at 12:00 noon on Saturday March 1, 2014, in the lobby of the McKimmon Center. (Those who were taking a headcount put the attendance at something above 65.)

This was not a session in the official conference program, and so was announced in a tweet just two hours before the session was to start. Because the word was spread primarily through Twitter, a number of people didn't know the session was happening until it was underway or until after it had wrapped up. Also, there were six other officially scheduled sessions going on concurrently (at least two of which I had wanted to attend). So, since humans can only be in one place at a time and are always making the best choices they can with the information they have, we heard the voices of the people who came.

It's worth noting that a number of us who felt the need for a session like this -- the session some of us thought "Boundaries, Behavior, and Being an Ally" was going to be -- had been asking Anton Zuiker and Karyn Traphagen to put something official on the schedule before the end of the conference. Since an official session was not scheduled, we put one together in the spirit of ScienceOnline's unconference style.

Indeed, once this session was organized, ScienceOnline leadership made themselves available to engage with those convened and their concerns. Executive Director Karyn Traphagen spoke to us right before session began, indicating that she was busy attending to logistical details but would be available to speak to anyone who wanted to during the lunch session. Board members Scott Rosenberg and Anton Zuiker asked if they could join us in the session but were asked if they could let us convene without them, the better to be candid about our experiences and hopes going forward.

There was agreement within the session that participants would respect requests not to transmit particular contributions to the session via social media or other means.

Summary of what was expressed in the #scioSafe session:

Many people expressed their hurt with how the leadership of the ScienceOnline organization had dealt with their needs and concerns, especially around issues of harassment and pressures not to discuss it, to get over it, to forgive on someone else's timeline.

Some expressed concern that there was never a clear official acknowledgment at the conference from the leadership of the harm done to members of the community by harassment from one of the founders of ScienceOnline, and moreover there was never a clear official acknowledgment at the conference from the leadership of the harm done to members of the community by the minimization of that harassment, casting those upset by it as "bitter," by another founder of ScienceOnline still in a leadership position. The impact of Anton Zuiker's post of January 2014 was deep, with many in attendance expressing that they were not sure if they would ever be able to trust his judgment again.

The lack of official acknowledgment of particular events, more than one person shared, conveyed a message that we should not use the ScienceOnline conference spaces to name and discuss problems like harassment, nor to process our responses together as a community. Some pointed to the "Boundaries, Behavior, and Being an Ally" session as one where they hoped to find such a space but were thwarted by the way the session was moderated. Others mentioned clear (and unfriendly) signals from members of ScienceOnline leadership that continuing to discuss these issues, whether face to face or via social media, was inappropriate, a refusal to let go of things.

In short, people perceived a lack of official transparency from the board of ScienceOnline, both about specific events and general stance towards harassment and responses to it, that meant many of us had to keep having a conversation about the conversation we were not having (or were getting the message that we were not supposed to be having). Multiple people in attendance expressed that they want to be able to move on from this conversation to focus on the other topics on the program but that they felt they could not until this issue of climate had been addressed. The official silence from leadership paired with the unofficial pressure from certain members of ScienceOnline leadership to keep quiet or get over it made the ScienceOnline Together 2014 conference feel unsafe.

It's worth noting that new attendees at the session also identified the official silence on specific events as alienating, describing their feelings of being out of the loop and wondering if they were really a part of the community.

A number of the conference volunteers on the response team, tasked with helping conference-goers with incidents of harassment or violations of the conference Code of Conduct, shared their concerns that they may not have been given the training, tools, and especially support they needed to fulfill their roles. In particular, they felt concerned about their ability to effectively respond to harassment when, ultimately, response to their reports would be left to management. The lack of clear (and enforceable) consequences for violations of these policies, coupled with tenuous trust for ScienceOnline leadership, meant many in attendance had little confidence that the harassment policy or Code of Conduct would do much.

A question was raised about what mechanisms, if any, were in place in the event that those in leadership positions violated either of these policies. Given the current reporting structure, those present wondered how members of the ScienceOnline board, for example, would (or could) be held accountable for engaging in a harassing or disrespectful manner with a conference-goer. People expressed that it was hard, in the current climate, to have faith that the proper channels would work.

The conversation shifted to the broader question of the relationship between the community and the ScienceOnline organization and its leadership. Some present wanted more clarity about what the leadership's goals are for the organization, and about where the community fit into those goals. There was a recognition within the assembled group that Science Online's status as an educational non-profit puts constraints on its activities and its priorities, but there was also a desire for a clearer explanation of what that meant as far as the involvement of members of the community and accountability to their interests and needs.

Some suggested that a significantly bigger board (of 10-15 members) could help ensure better representation of the diverse interests of the community. Others suggested that there should be at least one community-appointed member of the board (although the group recognized that the logistics of this could be complicated). Still others voiced the opinion that reincorporating as a membership organization would be a better way to ensure that the organization and the community were accountable to each other.

Despite these differing views, there was wide agreement that the community would benefit from a clear statement of how the leadership of ScienceOnline sees the community in the mission of the organization, and a clear statement of how, if at all, leadership of ScienceOnline sees itself and the organization as accountable to the community and its needs.

Signed by:

Brian Abraham

Eva Amsen

Michele Banks

Aatish Bhatia

Deborah Blum

Bethany Brookshire

Raychelle Burks

Katy Chalmers

Kate Clancy

Russ Creech

Jen Davison

Lali DeRosier

David Dobbs

Drug Monkey

John Dupuis

Peter Edmonds

Nicholas Evans

Emily Finke

Matthew Francis

Suzanne E. Franks

Simon Frantz

Sonia Furtado Neves

Greg Gbur

Jacquelyn Gill

Brian Glanz

Dwayne Godwin

Stephen Granade

David Grinspoon

Marga Gual Soler

Nicole Gugliucci

Tara Haelle

Samuel Hansen

Kelly Hills

Frances Hocutt

Karen James

Anne Jefferson

Eric Michael Johnson

Madhusudan Katti

Greg Laden

Pascale Lane

Tom Levenson

Ben Lillie

Rachael Ludwick

David Manly

Erik Martin

Maryn McKenna

Joseph Meany

Elizabeth Moon

PZ Myers

Brent Neal

Liz Neeley

Kelly Oakes

Jeffrey Perkel

PhysioProf

Erin Podolak

Sandra Porter

Elizabeth Preston

Catherine Qualtrough

Kathleen Raven

Eve Rickert

Alberto Roca, Executive Director, DiverseScholar

Adrienne Roehrich

Lauren Rugani

Matt Russell

Travis Saunders

Marie-Claire Shanahan

Matt Shipman

Justin Starr

Janet D. Stemwedel

Melanie Tannenbaum

Andrew David Thaler

John Timmer

Holly Tucker

Brandi VanAlphen

Hannah Waters

Mindy Weisberger

Allie Wilkinson

Emily Willingham

Natalie Willoughby

Josh Witten

Ed Yong

David Zaslavsky

If you would like to add your name to the list of signatories, please leave a comment to let us know.

70 responses so far

Civility, respect, and the project of sharing a world.

In recent days, this corner of the blogosphere has come back to the question of what constitutes civil engagement online (and, perhaps, offline).

If you've not being keeping up with the events that spurred this iteration of the conversation, you might want to read this, this, this, this, and this as background. However, believe me when I say the discussion in this space -- in this post -- is about the broader issue, and that you are not invited to weigh in here on behalf of your "team" in the recent events.

I'm someone who "does" ethics for a living, and my sense is that at its most basic level, ethics is a matter of sharing a world with other people.

Sometimes that world is one where we're sharing physical space, close enough to look each other in the eye or punch each other on the arm. Other times, the world in question is a virtual space in which we interact primarily by way of words on a screen.

Either way, whether sounds or strings of characters, the words we use are connected to ideas, and the people sending out or taking up those words are humans with their own interests, histories, social environments, grasp of the language, powers of empathy. These humans have privileged access to their own thoughts, intentions, and emotions, but not to those of the others with whom they're sharing a world. The words passed back and forth are part of how a human might get some (necessarily incomplete) information about what's going on in other humans' heads.

Conversation, in other words, is a hugely important tool for us in the project of sharing a world. So, arguably, figuring out what's happening when our conversations derail could help us do a better job of sharing that world. Continue Reading »

11 responses so far

Guest Post: Missteps on the road back.

This is a guest post from Martin Robbins, who writes about science and other interesting things for The Guardian, Vice and New Statesman.

* * * * *

The first time I ever met Bora Zivkovic, we talked about sexual harassment. We were in Dublin to take part in a panel at ESOF 2012, and I found him beforehand catching some air outside. The issue of harassment policies at TAM and other conferences was high on the agenda, and he explained to me that he felt a similar policy was unnecessary at ScienceOnline, though they’d probably stick one in to ‘keep people happy’. Bora argued that maintaining a high proportion of women at events was more likely to lead to a safe environment than any policy. It seemed like reasonable logic at the time.

During the panel, I took this photograph. As you can see from the comments, the #IHuggedBora meme was in full swing. If I’m honest I found his fixation on hugging everybody – even showing us pictures of previous hugs on his phone - a little odd in person, but nobody seemed to mind. It was July 2012, the same month that Bora told Kathleen Raven that he wanted to have sex with her, a few weeks before he told Monica Byrne that he was a ‘very sexual person’, and two years after he began his pursuit of Hannah Waters.

In October, these stories and others came to light. Bora was forced to resign from his positions at Scientific American and ScienceOnline, and he removed himself from public discourse. On January 1st he returned to the blogosphere - supported by his friend and ScienceOnline cofounder Anton Zuiker – with the intention of rebuilding his reputation and career.

In the rest of this post I intend to explain why I’m deeply unhappy with the manner of Bora’s departure and return. Along the way I will fisk Zuiker and Bora’s posts, and Bora’s later addendum, and explain why Bora’s apology is not just insufficient, but concerning to me. Then I’m going to try to answer Bora’s question, about what he needs to do next.

I’m going to do all of this without any personal anecdotes about brewing with root vegetables, and in considerably less than 5,500 words. Continue Reading »

127 responses so far

Good strategies and bad strategies for furthering your cause.

Let's say you're a non-profit organization "dedicated to building a global community who will speak up for the ocean."

Maybe part of your strategy to make this happen is to aggregate relevant news about the ocean environment and the impacts of human activity upon it on your website.

A quick and dirty way to do this might be to scrape content from other websites.

However, the people who generated that content might object to their copyright being violated by your quick technological solution.

Given that the people writing the stories that describe the ocean environment and the impacts of human activity upon it (whether in words or in pictures) might already be sympathetic to your organizational goals, a better strategy might be to respect their copyright (and, more broadly, their intellectual and creative labor). Instead of scraping their content, and burying attribution to the actual authors or artists at the very end of the post, it might be better to quote a paragraph, link prominently to the source, seek explicit permission for use, and cultivate a network of relationships with scientists and blog readers.

It takes relatively little to get the people blogging about science (and the audiences reading them) on your side. However, being too lazy or careless to respect their work is likely to communicate that you're running one of those non-profits that plays fast and loose with important things when it suits you. Maybe those important things are proper attribution, maybe those important things are sound scientific research. If you're cutting one kind of corner, what are the odds that you're willing to cut another kind?

Don't do that. In a crowded field of nonprofits, this kind of careless behavior will make you stand out in the wrong way.

2 responses so far

An open letter to men scared that women will call out their behavior publicly.

Hey guys,

It's come to my attention that some of you are feeling kind of uncomfortable at the possibility that women in your life -- in your community, in your trusted circle of friends -- might call you out in the event that you engage in behavior that hurts them or someone they care about. Some of you have been telling me that you're especially worried that you'll be called out in front of other people, labeled persuasively as a bad guy, and that this will destroy your good name, your career prospects, your happiness.

I don't doubt that you are anxious here. So, I have a few questions about how you'd like us to proceed.

First, can you provide assurances that, when women bring criticisms of your behavior to you privately, you will take those critiques seriously and change your behavior accordingly?

If so -- and if you make this commitment public, so the women in your world know about it -- you should be fine! You'll address the harm you are doing right away, and everyone will move on.

In the (I'm sure rare or non-existent) event that you don't respond to privately raised critique of your harmful behavior in a way that addresses the harm, can you provide assurances that you will respond promptly and constructively to a gently worded public critique?

If so, you should be fine! You'll address the harm you are doing promptly, and everyone will move on.

In the (purely hypothetical) event that you don't respond to a gently worded public critique of your harmful behavior in a way that addresses the harm, how many free passes on your harmful behavior do you believe you are entitled to?

Give us the number -- is it two? five? ten? -- so we know the point at which you recognize that you deserve a critique that is not private and not gently worded.

Yes, having your behavior criticized makes you feel defensive. We know this. As fellow human beings, we have those feelings, too.

But if you are defaulting to the position that it's never OK for the women in your life to tell you when your behavior is harming them, never OK for them to expect you to address those harms, you know what? The women in your life will be defending themselves against you.

They will not trust you. They will not see your good-guy status shining through your actual behavior. When you proclaim yourself an ally, your best-case reaction will be eye-rolls.

It does not feel good to be told your behavior is hurting others. But it does not feel good for others to be hurt by your behavior.

Prioritizing your own hurt feelings over growth is a sure way never to be trusted as an ally by anyone paying attention.

And we are paying attention. For our own well being, we have to.

Sincerely,

Dr. Free-Ride

_____

Related reading:

On being an ally and being called out on your privilege

On the Fixed State Ally Model vs. Process Model Ally Work

On allies.

On the labor involved in being part of a community.

11 responses so far

Why reporting abusive tweets to the twit's mother might not work.

Folks have been tweeting about a particular exchange on Twitter in which:

  • One person tweeted something abusive at another Twitter user
  • A third Twitter user offered to provide the target of the abuse with the mailing address of the first person's mother, the better to print out and mail her the abusive tweet her darling son had sent
  • The first person tweeted what he said was a sincere apology for the abuse in his earlier tweet

The conclusion some have drawn from this one exchange is that Twitter needs a "report this tweet to the tweeter's mom" button, which will seriously cut down on Twitter abuse.

Now, I chuckled at the abusive twit's speedy about-face, but it only takes a few moments' reflection to recognize that this strategy for reducing online abuse has problems. Here are just a few from the very top of my head:

  1. It's not a sure thing that Mom will have any problem with the offspring flinging abuse at others. (Maybe Mom flings online abuse herself! Maybe that's where Mom's offspring learned how to fling abuse!)
  2. It's not a sure thing that the offspring flinging abuse actually cares whether Mom knows about it. There seem to be significant stretches of the lifespan during which Mom's approval isn't a goal worth putting any kind of effort toward.
  3. Even if the offspring flinging abuse does care if Mom knows about it and disapproves, tasking Mom with communicating her approval -- especially to offspring no longer living under Mom's roof -- is just giving her more work. When will Mom's thankless work be over?
  4. For some Twitter users one might try to shame, there's a decent chance of misidentifying the corresponding Mom. Now you're giving that misidentified Mom thankless work generated by some other Mom's offspring, which is not cool at all.
  5. Maybe Mom has shuffled off this mortal coil. How are you going to shame her surviving offspring into behaving online now?
  6. Maybe the offspring flinging abuse is not using a real name online.
  7. Maybe the mother of the offspring flinging abuse is not using a real name online. Are you going to compromise her anonymity (for which she may have very good reasons), including providing her actual mailing address to a stranger, simply to deal with her offspring's online behavior? That's not cool.
  8. Where the hell is Dad is all of this? Why is Mom presumed to be the only parent capable of exerting a civilizing force on offspring?

So, nice try, but we're going to have to think harder about how to share online spaces and how best to prevail on people not to be abusive jerks to each other. This is just a subset of the project of being a grown-up who is also a decent human being, and Mom would really like you to figure out how to do this without her constant intervention.

(Plus, would it kill you to sit up straighter while you're online?)

2 responses so far

On the apparent impossibility of having dispassionate arguments about dogs or guns.

Mar 03 2013 Published by under Communication, Critters, Politics

I have been following the discussions at DrugMonkey's and PhysioProf's blogs (here, here, here, here, and here) about apparent parallels between arguments offered to defend gun-ownership and arguments offered to defend dog-ownership, particularly when it comes to dogs of breeds that have been identified (rightly or wrongly) as "more dangerous" or at least capable of inflicting more harm in a hurry (like, perhaps, assault weapons or guns with big clips). The back-and-forth in these discussions has been heated, as you might imagine. There's at least the appearance of lots of people talking past each other, disagreeing about what should be counted as credible sources of evidence, even disagreeing about what questions are relevant to the central thing they thing they're discussing (and, on account of that disagreement, either pressing for answers or refusing to answer).

It's the kind of back-and-forth where you might hope (if you're optimistic about the power of rationality, and about people's commitment to arguing in good faith, and that smart people are open to the possibility of critically examining their own stands and changing those stands when the facts warrant it) that someone could come in and lay out the logical structure of what's in dispute, with Ps and Qs (rather than pitbulls and assault rifles) and everyone could step back and say, "Hmm, I'm not sure I'm as committed to that stance as I thought I was," or, "OK, when you put it that way, I see your point," or, "Now I see what's wrong with that analogy." If you're an optimist with training in analytic philosophy, you might even roll up your sleeves and try to reconstruct the logic of the arguments yourself, including pinning down the implicit premises on both sides, and then try to offer a diagnosis for why the sides are talking past each other.

Yeah, I was going to try to do this. In fact, I've tried to dig into it half a dozen times already.

But honestly, every time I attempt to pull back to a position at a sufficient critical distance to offer a clear, analytic view, my brain hits me with the equivalent of the spinning beach ball of death. (I am really not kidding about having serious Mac neural patterning.)

And, it's not that I don't think there are logical arguments being offered on each side. It's not that I don't think it would be possible to reconstruct the claims with Ps and Qs, nor to tease out implicit premises and ask folks whether they endorse them or not. It's not even that I have a dog (or a gun) in the race myself. I just have this strong hunch that none of it would actually make any difference to the people having the argument, so why bother doing all that work?

But, as you might imagine, this puts a dent in my optimism.

As a practical matter, we need to figure out how to share a world with people whose sentiments about dogs, or guns, or personal freedoms, or the importance of minimizing harms to others differ from our own. Figuring out how to discuss this stuff productively with each other might help us. But somehow our sentiments, especially when it comes to dogs, and guns, and personal freedoms, and the importance of minimizing harms to others, are really strong and resistant to critical examination, to the point of making us fighty.

Is this just how humans are (and analytic philosophers have been misled by their Vulcan mentors)? Or is there something particular about dogs, guns, personal freedoms, and the potential for harm to others that throttles our brains and puts us in the fighty place?

11 responses so far

What did Jonah Lehrer teach us about science?

Los Angeles Times book critic David L. Ulin wishes people would lay off of Jonah Lehrer. It's bad enough that people made a fuss last July about falsified quotes and plagiarism that caused Lehrer's publisher to recall his book Imagine and cost him a plum job at The New Yorker. Now people are crying foul that the Knight Foundation paid Lehrer $20,000 to deliver a mea culpa that Lehrer's critics have not judged especially persuasive on the "lesson learned" front. Ulin thinks people ought to cut Lehrer some slack:

What did we expect from Lehrer? And why did we expect anything at all? Like every one of us, he is a conflicted human, his own worst enemy, but you’d hardly know that from the pile-on provoked by his talk.

Did Jonah Lehrer betray us? I don’t think so.

Ulin apparently feels qualified to speak on behalf of all of us. In light of some of the eloquent posts from people who feel personally betrayed by Lehrer, I'd recommend that Ulin stick to "I-statements" when assessing the emotional fallout from Lehrer's journalistic misdeeds and more recent public relations blunder.

And, to be fair, earlier in Ulin's piece, he does speak for himself about Lehrer's books:

That’s sad, tragic even, for Lehrer was a talented journalist, a science writer with real insights into creativity and how the brain works. I learned things from his books “How We Decide” and “Imagine” (the latter of which has been withdrawn from publication), and Lehrer’s indiscretions haven’t taken that away.

(Bold emphasis added.)

Probably Ulin wouldn't go to the mat to assert that what he learned from Imagine was what Bob Dylan actually said (since a fabricated Dylan quote was one of the smoking guns that revealed Lehrer's casual attitudes toward journalistic standards). Probably he'd say he learned something about the science Lehrer was describing in such engaging language.

Except, people who have been reading Lehrer's books carefully have noted that the scientific story he conveyed so engagingly was not always conveyed so accurately:

Jonah Lehrer was never a very good science writer. He seemed not to fully understand the science he was trying to explain; his explanations were inaccurate, overblown, and often just plain wrong, usually in the direction of giving his readers counterintuitive thrills and challenging their settled beliefs. You can read my review and the various parts of my exchange with him that are linked above for detailed explanations of why I make this claim. Others have made similar points too, for example Isaac Chotiner at the New Republic and Tim Requarth and Meehan Crist at The Millions. But the tenor of many critics last year was "he committed unforgivable journalistic sins and should be punished for them, but he still got the science right." There was a clear sense that one had nothing to do with the other.

In my opinion, the fabrications and the scientific misunderstanding are actually closely related. The fabrications tended to follow a pattern of perfecting the stories and anecdotes that Lehrer -- like almost all successful science writers nowadays -- used to illustrate his arguments. Had he used only words Bob Dylan actually said, and only the true facts about Dylan's 1960s songwriting travails, the story wouldn't have been as smooth. It's human nature to be more convinced by concrete stories than by abstract statistics and ideas, so the convincingness of Lehrer's science writing came from the brilliance of his stories, characters, and quotes. Those are the elements that people process fluently and remember long after the details of experiments and analyses fade.

(Bold emphasis added.)

If this is the case -- that Lehrer was an entertaining communicator but not a reliably accurate communicator of the current state of our best scientific knowledge -- did Ulin actually learn what he thought he learned from Lehrer's books? Or, was he misled by glib storytelling into thinking he understood what science might tell us about creativity, imagination, the workings of our own brains?

Maybe Ulin doesn't expect a book marketed as non-fiction popular science to live up to this standard, but a lot of us do. And, while lowering one's standards is one way to avoid feeling betrayed, it's not something I would have expected a professional book critic to advise readers to do.

2 responses so far

#scio12 traces in real life: sketch notes from my department meeting.

One of the highlights of ScienceOnline 2012 for me was getting to meet Perrin Ireland, a graphic facilitator who specializes in science communication, and to see her in action. Before the conference, Perrin had emailed to ask if she could "live scribe" the citizen science session Amy Freitag and I would be co-moderating, creating a visual record of the content of our discussion with markers on foam core boards as the session unfolded.

Of course, we accepted the offer, because how could we not? (Stills of Perrin's work from our session and others can be seen in this post.)

Perrin also offered a Science Scribe 2.0 Workshop (which I missed, because one can only be so many places in a time), in which she taught participants how to create these visual records ("sketch notes") and then turned them loose to practice these skills in other conference sessions. Here's a slideshow with examples of their work.

Michele Arduengo participated in this workshop and gave a vivid (and illustrated) account of it on her blog. This was enough to embolden me, the Tuesday after the conference, to take sketch notes of our start-of-the-semester department meeting.

They are not nearly as visually arresting as the sketch notes that Perrin's apprentices created at ScienceOnline. However, I did observe that being alert to how I could make my notes (of pretty mundane academic and administrative stuff) more visual seems to have gotten me to pay more attention to the meeting as it was happening -- to look for unifying themes or recurring motifs, for example. And, it left me with a set of notes that, more than a week later, makes the big issues and small details easy to remember ... which means that, potentially, my notes will actually be useful in a few months, too.

2 responses so far

Straightforward answers to questions we shouldn't even have to ask: New York Times edition.

The Public Editor of the New York Times grapples with the question of whether the Times' news reporting ought to get the facts right.

The question is posed nicely in a letter quoted in the piece:

“My question is what role the paper’s hard-news coverage should play with regard to false statements – by candidates or by others. In general, the Times sets its documentation of falsehoods in articles apart from its primary coverage. If the newspaper’s overarching goal is truth, oughtn’t the truth be embedded in its principal stories? In other words, if a candidate repeatedly utters an outright falsehood (I leave aside ambiguous implications), shouldn’t the Times’s coverage nail it right at the point where the article quotes it?”

Arthur S. Brisbane, the Public Editor, responds by asking:

Is that the prevailing view? And if so, how can The Times do this in a way that is objective and fair? Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another? Are there other problems that The Times would face that I haven’t mentioned here?

Here's a suggestion: Budget some money for fact-checking, whether by dedicated fact-checkers or the reporters themselves. And then, make sure every piece of the story that makes a factual claim -- whether it is in the reporter's background or analysis, or in a direct quotation from someone else -- is checked against the available facts. Tell us whether the claims are supported by the available evidence. Present the readers with the facts as best they can be established right there in the story.

Because people reach for newspapers to get factual details of things happening in the actual world we're trying to share. If the paper of record views getting the facts right as a style choice, where the hell is the public supposed to get the facts?

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