Posts Tagged ‘science journalism’

Am I the Matt Taibbi of science journalism? Asked and answered.

April 5, 2010

Last night I vomited in my mom’s driveway. As the partly digested mashed potatoes, cabbage and corned beef passed my lips, little did I realize I would soon be struck with the urge to restart this blog, which, when I look back at it, was a fucking awesome blog.

In January I started a blog called Working Dogma over at True/Slant, the blogger network featuring Matt Taibbi. In a cheap ploy for kudos, I wrote a self-congratulatory post about science as “a resource for inspiring myself and others to get off our asses and create a better world.” Ugh, right? As usual, I didn’t think very far ahead. The only subjects I have any expertise in are the universe and myself (or what I like to call the Minkelsphere). A blog about world-changing science is gonna require one hell of a lot of research and reporting on the front end. In other words, I was setting myself up to fail.

It’s time to get back to my roots. I am about bullshit — mine, yours and anyone else’s who’s vying for our eyeballs.

I am about oversharing, sticking my foot in my mouth, backpedaling like a spineless jerk, and then loathing myself for not standing my ground.

So, without further ado, let the fun re-commence.*

*Edited for posterity’s sake. (See, the fun has started already!)

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Missed opportunity – not debacle – in bogus schizophrenia genes coverage

July 6, 2009

Journalist Brandon Keim has a smart post about how he approached last week’s over-hyped schizophrenia genetics story, the latest in a long string of them.

Basically, some high-tech efforts to scan the genome for links to schizophrenia turned up thousands of rare gene variants, each of which might account for some tiny fraction of all schizophrenia cases, and together explained only about 30 percent of all cases. (Papers here, here and here.)

Given that researchers had been looking for meatier schizophrenia genes for years and years without finding anything substantial, this was to be expected, especially if you’re the kind of person who questions whether there are very many genes “for” anything.

Brandon notes that a number of web stories uncritically hyped the journal’s spin, namely, that this was a big, juicy, pharmacologically relevant finding, which it wasn’t. He uses NYTimes reporter Nicholas Wade as his stalking horse, following Wade’s transformation from “gene-whiz” kid to genomics realist.

Here’s Brandon’s point of view:

From a journalistic perspective, there are two possible stories here. First, the straight story: schizophrenia is extraordinarily complicated, and genetics can’t now explain it in any useful way. And two, the contextual angle: for years, the public has expected, and scientists have sometimes promised, that genetics would illuminate this disease — and it failed, just as it has for nearly every disease. 

(Useful perspective: search Eurekalert for “schizophrenia” and “gene.”)

When these studies showed up in my pre-embargo pipeline, I made a quick note of them — see above — and moved on. I’m already reporting for a long-form article on the disappointment of genomics, and this didn’t feel like a Wired daily news story. It would require at least a half-dozen interviews, and ultimately produce a narrative preaching caution, tempered expectations and patience. Instead I chose to write about an interesting finding on salamander limb regeneration, and waited for the inevitable onslaught of “Schizophrenia! Unlocked!” stories.

Brandon links to a number of such stories. He wants to portray this as a failure of science journalists — his subject line calls the story a debacle — which I’m inclined to second-guess. As journalists, we tend to critique ourselves from the supply side: we look at the world and see bad things, then look at what our colleagues are doing and see bad things, and then try to link the two, because it reinforces our sense of efficacy. And that’s probably appropriate here.

The other half of the story is the demand side. Can we prevent uncritical science stories from being published? Not by ourselves as journalists. It’s a structural issue that journalists can and should address in the only way they can — by directing skepticism at their own motivations, at least where times allows, and it doesn’t allow much these days for a working journalist. If I was living in a Brooklyn apartment right now instead of my mom’s place in Nashville, you probably wouldn’t be reading these words, although who knows.

I’d argue that Brandon inadvertently makes my point for me.

Knowing that others news outlets would herald the finding uncritically, and assuming that was a bad thing — which calling the coverage a “debacle” implies — what should Brandon have done? By passing on this story in favor of salamander limb regeneration, he passed on an opportunity to confront scientists in real web time about the unmet promise of genomics in understanding complex disease. It could have started something like “Studies appearing in Nature today will be trumpeted as a triumph for the genetics of schizophrenia, and they shouldn’t be,” similar to Nick Wade’s blog post about the coverage, which Brandon says was the only piece to get the story right.

As someone who’s been there, I know what I’m suggesting is easier said than done, although Brandon obviously had the chops to write the tougher story. I’ll forgive him (this time), if for no other reason than because, like he says above, he’s working on a bigger story about the failed promise of genomics, which I can’t wait to read.

So what to make of the schizophrenia coverage? Barring demand-side evidence to the contrary, it was hardly a debacle. The subtext of Brandon’s post is that it’s actually the culmination of a long story arc. It reflects an underlying attitude of scientists and journalists. Attitudes take time to change, and rightly so. I wish I was in a better position to argue about whether the human genome project was oversold, and whether the big daddy gene assumption represents an institutionalized failure of a masculinist theoretical assumption, to paraphrase Evelyn Fox Keller.

We need journalists to step up, in part so other journalists will step up. I am Spartacus, right? With than in mind, I take Brandon’s critique of Wade as a positive.

Not long ago, Wade could be relied upon for reductionist coverage of genetic links to disease. (On the subject of genes and schizophrenia, here’s Wade in July 2002: “Researchers hope they are now starting to close in on some of the genes that go awry in schizophrenia.” In December 2002: “The long search for a gene that helps cause schizophrenia may at last be bearing fruit after many false starts and disappointments, scientists are reporting.” In April 2006: “Researchers have made progress in understanding how a variant gene linked to schizophrenia may exert its influence in the brain.”)

But Wade, who arrived at the Times in 1981, seems to have finally lost patience with the “gene-linked-to-(fill in the blank)” narrative that he and so many others told, and were sold, for so long.

That’s called intellectual honesty! And it’s something all science journalists should aspire to, starting… now.

Related: NYTimes | 1) A Dissenting Voice as the Genome Is Sifted to Fight Disease, 2) Gene-Hunters Find Hope and Hurdles in Schizophrenia Studies

Question for somebody: To what extent do genetic studies reflect a desire to treat the disease, as opposed to wishing we could find a gene to make it go away?

Science journalists: lazy, credulous, overworked?

June 29, 2009

Last week some elder colleagues of mine were Twittering about the lack of skepticism among science journalists, particularly in cases where scientific journals are perceived as strongly dictating story selection, a practice that was characterized as “lazy.”

They were referencing a special report on science journalism published by Nature. Here’s the full list of stories.

My former boss at SciAm.com, Ivan Oransky, highlighted a piece on the invention of newspaper science journalism as an outgrowth of the Progressive era’s faith in perfecting the world through science and technology.

It’s an eye-opening article, written by Boyce Rensberger, the influential former director of MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Fellowship. David Dobbs made the point that if science journalism was so recently conceived of, and in a specifically cheerleading mode, it could explain why members of our profession are content to report journal articles as the main news of the day.

As someone who has always secretly wanted more guidance from veterans in his field, but hasn’t always known where to turn, I inserted myself into the conversation. I’d love to hear some of those folks (Rebecca Skloot was the third) elaborate on how they think skepticism is apportioned in our profession, so those of us working in it can improve what we do. 

For starters:

  • Do reporters in particular beats tend to be less skeptical than reporters in others?
  • Is there something about those beats that drives them toward or away from skepticism?
  • Is there more skepticism in web-only publications or in web-print? And again, in what subjects or types of content?

I feel more comfortable engaging with a separate piece by Toby Murcott, a former BBC science reporter, on “toppling the priesthood” of science. I’m not sure what I think of the specific strategy he recommended — that science somehow be “opened up” for journalists to help them cover it more analytically — but I concurred with his description of what it’s like to be a reporter covering a science beat.

I have a PhD in biochemistry and three years postdoctoral research, so if I am reporting a discovery in my field, I can make a reasonable attempt at understanding the technical detail and will have a sense of the overall history, evolution of ideas and current debates. I will know who is a leader in the field, and who is an outlier; I will be able to distinguish majority views from minority ones. Yet as a science journalist I am expected to cover more than just biochemistry. I need to be able to report on findings in cosmology, ecology, particle physics and much more. To draw on the knowledge of scientists in these fields, I must first find out which scientists are most relevant, and have a sense of their opinions and place within the field. All of this takes time, which reporters often don’t have.

This is partly why so many journalists resort to doing the bare minimum: reproducing press releases. Many journalists will telephone or e-mail one of the main contributors given on the press release to ask a few supplementary questions; but there is rarely the time or the expertise to go into the full story of how an item of research came to be, and how it fits into the bigger picture.

(See my previous post, on bullsh-t and science journalism.)

Interestingly, Murcott makes one of the same points Rensberger did: science journalists are not respected by their peers!

As science correspondent for the BBC World Service, I regularly experienced the quiet frustration some elements of the newsroom felt with science journalists. My colleagues felt that we reported on published papers without significant analysis, depth or critical comment: we just translated what scientists said.

Indulge my defensiveness for a moment: Would these “other journalists” be, say, the hard-hitting business journalists who saved us from the financial meltdown? Or maybe the genius White House correspondents who kept us from invading Iraq? I know he’s talking about the BBC. But you get what I’m saying. If science journalism is less than uniformly skeptical, it’s hardly the sole offender.

I’m not saying science journalism isn’t “problematic” by the standard of cultural perfection, or even optimality. As Rensberger alluded to, we’re still coming out of a cultural conception of science as revealed truth, which muddies the perception that science can be a powerful tool for defending subtle elements of the status quo. The science stories I see on sites like Yahoo News and CNN.com are often pure entertainment, which is fine. We all like that stuff, to some degree. Stoned wallabies making crop circles? You need to know about that before you die. (I’m sure other science news orgs had their own jokes like we did at SciAm.com about what kinds of stories would get pageviews. It wasn’t only sex. I think monkeys were high on the list.)

To Murcott’s point, I think we’re all trying to topple the priesthood in our own way, meaning we can disagree on how to get there from here. My colleagues above would probably not agree with Murcott that science needs to be “opened up.” They’d say, cultivate sources, find better stories, give more context. I don’t disagree. I do think Murcott is right to point to structural institutional effects, which are at least transiently relevant. 

  1. To have a science news web site, you have to put up — what? — a good dozen pieces of content a day, including news and light features, especially multimedia, and with breaking news on top of that.
  2. For “news” to mean something other than what’s in the journals that day, you need good beat reporters. By no means do any of them have to be MDs or PhDs. But you have to acquire some of the specialized knowledge of your beat somehow, and having it upfront could mean the difference between burnout or room to breathe.
  3. Once you’ve got experienced, knowledgeable reporters, you can start to approach something like the Wall Street Journal Health Blog. And even if you have to throw up a lot of fluff to attract eyeballs, with forethought and skill, you can still insert the kinds of stories that deserve to be read: conflicts of interest in biomedicine, DNA evidence in the courts, regulatory agencies gone rogue.

I don’t have any numbers here, but from what I remember of Digg Science, I feel like there’s a healthy market for muckraking, although maybe interspersed with enough fluff that we don’t all get too depressed.

To speed the day, Murcott recommends opening up peer review reports to journalists. (To be published in most scientific journals, a manuscript has to survive scrutiny by several independent experts in the field.) My immediate reaction was, “Pff, whatever. I’ve had access to that in some cases, and the reporting uncovered it all.” And I had no journalism background going into this line of work! I’m the kind of person who got into the field for journalistically “incorrect” reasons, in particular a semi-idolatrous relationship with science.

As it stands now, I’m inclined to reassess how to put my skills to best use. Maybe I need to divide my time between academic pursuits and journalistic ones. I think it would be fun to be a cross between Sally Lehrman and Evelyn Fox Keller, using science and critical theory to expose ways that scientific discourse enforces damaging ideas about race, class and gender. Any good daily journalist is doing the same thing, just on shorter deadlines and with less theoretical baggage.

If you’ve read this far and consider yourself a working journalist, I’d be interested to hear how you handle the pressures of the job and what motivates you to get up in the morning.

Update [7/1/09]: Brandon Keim, a writer for Wired Science, has posted a really compelling reply to my final question. See also the comment below by Robin Lloyd of Live Science, who radiates Zen. I’ll say something more explicit about my own motivations soon.