Xark began as a group blog in June 2005 but continues today as founder Dan Conover's primary blog-home. Posts by longtime Xark authors Janet Edens and John Sloop may also appear alongside Dan's here from time to time, depending on whatever.
I'm a fan of science. I use it every day. I'm using it right now. And with a smile. But that doesn't mean, in my view, that science should poke its nose into everything. Particularly when the science under consideration is the kind that scientizes something just because it can. I'm talking here about two related phenomena: The first is for researchers to study and then quantify something that was more fun when it was explained via non-science, and the second is for news organizations to report such psuedo-science as, well, news. Not only does the scientization suck the fun out of these events, it also cheapens the idea of scientific journalism.
I bring this up because today, on three major (online) news outlets, I came across headlines for three articles detailing such scientization. These were: an ABCNews.com story on the mortality rates of rock stars, a CNN.com report on a study that "confirms" that men are attracted to attractive women, and a stop-the-presses from MSNBC.com about how scientists have (finally!) located the gene which controls skinny. My issue is not just that these studies seem a little unfocused (look at the sample rates, for instance), or that this is headline news (which it was on two of the three sites), but rather that I can't figure out the motive behind the stories and their newsworthiness in the first place. Why is it worth scientizing things that most people knew anyway? Who benefits from this research and reporting? What am I supposed to do with this information?
Scientists will outline dramatic evidence this week that suggests a
comet exploded over the Earth nearly 13,000 years ago, creating a hail
of fireballs that set fire to most of the northern hemisphere.
Stone Age cultures were destroyed and populations of mammoths and other
large land animals, such as the mastodon, were wiped out. The blast
also caused a major bout of climatic cooling that lasted 1,000 years
and seriously disrupted the development of the early human
civilisations that were emerging in Europe and Asia.
A day after the Mooney/Nisbet article on "Framing Science" appeared in the journal Science, yours truly stood on a stage beside some truly distinguishedcompany and tried to explain to a room full of graduate biology students, researchers and professors how -- from a journalist's perspective -- they could become more effective at communicating what they know.
Where do you begin? Well, I figured the best advice was to determine what you're trying to accomplish first and then work backward from that. Because there's no single goal of communication, and you can't judge effectiveness if there's nothing to which you can compare your results. After delivering that little piece of vague wisdom I counseled the students on the value of repeating key points and suggested that blogs were a really interesting medium with implications for scientists that we really don't understand yet.
I was, of course, upstaged by the great Bud Ward, whose talk included a New Yorker cartoon of two aging scientists in a quiet, darkened lab office. One says to the other, "Well, at least we never stooped to popularizing science." There's a lot of dark humor implied in that subject, and it's not related solely to scientists.
When my son was in elementary school he came home one day and mentioned that he'd told the teacher that I was Jewish. His reasoning: He knew I wasn't a Christian, and the only possible alternative was that I must be Jewish. Because what else is there?
Well, I'm not Jewish, and I can't call myself a Christian because Christian belief requires that one accept that Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead. I don't reject the possibility, but I don't have the faith required to say, honestly, that I believe that essential concept. I think it's proper to let a religion define its rules for membership, and regardless of my feelings about Jesus and the church's other teachings, I don't meet the Easter resurrection standard.
This brings me, finally, to the last thing I want to write about on this three-day church-state binge: The mechanisms that make one thing "normal" and other things deviant.
In 1998, I had it figured that the dot-com boom would become a
dot-green boom. It took a while for others to get it. Some still don't.
They think I'm joking. They are still used to thinking of greenness as
being "counter" and "alternative" -- they don't understand that
21st-century green is and must be about everything -- the works.
Sustainability is comprehensive. That which is not sustainable doesn't
go on. Glamorous green. I preached that stuff for years. I don't have
to preach it anymore, because it couldn't be any louder. Green will
never get any sexier than it is in 2007. Because, after this, brown
will start going away.
Could I return to my first paragraph for a
second? That part about me and the crowd of Serbian radicals? Serbia
may be the world's single-greatest locale for a professional futurist.
Awful things happen there faster than awful things happen anywhere
else. The Balkans is a tragic region that denied stark reality, broke
its economy, started multiple unnecessary wars, and basically
finger-pointed and squabbled its way into a comprehensive train wreck.
It suffered all kinds of pig-headed mayhem, all unnecessary.
just how the world behaved with the climate crisis, too. The time for
action isn't now. The time for action was 40 years ago. Today we live
in a stricken world that bypassed its time for action. We have wreaked
science-fiction levels of havoc on the unresisting carcass of Mother
Nature. The real trouble is ahead of us.
So what's the good part? They never gave up around here. On the
contrary: There's a certain vivid liveliness in the way they're
scrambling and clawing their way out of yawning abyss. The food is
great, the women dress to kill, and sometimes they even laugh and dance.
You don't have to predict the future when you live in it.
Oh, and FYI -- this is what's on Gibson's mind at the moment...
One of the things that drew me into spending the past 15 months at Charleston.net was the experience of conceiving a relatively simple Web product and discovering that the system we had in place simply couldn't (or wouldn't) support it.
That product was this package from April 2005, which attempted to provide people with a non-narrative way to examine the global warming debate. In its original conception, the full-page grid was to have appeared online with extensive hypertext linking to the original sources behind the summaries. Anyway, the material (sans photographs and graphics) still sits on Charleston.net, where nobody ever sees it.
But I want people to see it, and talk about it, and consider it -- left, right and otherwise. Because while the most basic science is resolved (and was already resolved in 2005), much of what's most important to human beings remains unknown. What should we do about the anthropogenic contribution to global warming? I dunno.
Anyway, since I've got a blog, I can repost it here. And tag it. And get it search-indexed. Like this...
Global Warming Making Sense of the Debate April 18, 2005 For
most of us, the problem with understanding the global warming story
isn't the lack of information, it's the glut of it, much of it
Nor is it true that Americans just aren't paying attention. A
majority of us say we're familiar with the global warming issue and are
concerned about it.
Yet pollsters find an interesting trend when they examine our
attitudes more closely. Not only are we unsure of what to make of
global warming, we think others are, too. Half of us believe scientists
still are divided over whether global warming is taking place.
So you might be surprised to learn that:
An overwhelming majority of scientists now believe the basic
questions about global warming have been answered, and the answer to
the question, "Is it real?" is a resounding "yes."
This scientific majority is reflected in the number of
"peer-reviewed" articles (studies that are published only after other
scientists vouch for the work's accuracy) that support global warming
claims. An article in the January issue of the journal Science tallied
the pro-vs.-con ratio at 928-to-0 in favor of global warming.
Despite this apparent consensus and the charged political rhetoric that surrounds the issue, scientists as a group are not
saying that they know what the outcome of unmitigated global warming
will be. Rather, science is telling us that the possible outcomes of
global warming include catastrophic risks that nations might be wise to
Though claims such as "global warming is the biggest hoax ever
perpetrated on the American people" are collapsing under the weight of
evidence, the existence of global warming doesn't automatically endorse
the argument for Kyoto-style solutions.
Global warming requires interdisciplinary science, and no
single science describes the whole picture. A single-source solution
To help untangle the global warming debate, we've broken it down to its component parts as simply as we could, with a comparison chart on Page 4D.
Take a look for yourself and decide how you frame the issues.