On making the local news

This is a bit of a rehash from the social media platform whose name I will not utter here, but earlier this month I made my first TV appearance as an “expert” on Joshua trees, talking about the Joshua Tree Genome Project common garden experiments as a first step towards assisted gene flow to help the trees cope with climate change. It was a weird experience! The reporter emailed to arrange things and I agreed to an interview on Zoom, but I didn’t fully realize I was being recorded for broadcast until we were wrapping up. Mercifully, he selected the most coherent bits of what I told him and I didn’t make too many weird faces.

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Unknown, but not hidden

A Joshua tree in the desert, with low cliffs in the background, and a cloud-chased sky above
(jby, Flickr)

Word is that Twitter is selling out to Elon Musk, whose (speculated) plans for the platform are not especially encouraging. On the one hand, Twitter privately owned by a “free-speech absolutist” may not be appreciably less pleasant for a person like me than Twitter as a publicly traded company with some nominal interest in the experience of users besides Elon Musk. On the other hand, this is as good an excuse as any to take a step back and see if I can, finally, log off.

I’m not deleting my account — not yet — but I’m going to see if I can’t get back to something like my online behavior from the era before Twitter was my first social login of the day. Way back in the Obama administration, I posted to this blog (actually, its incarnation on, yikes, Blogger) multiple times a week. I didn’t break my thoughts up into pithy little snippets, or plan longer discussions in strings of 280-character sentences. I just … wrote.

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Reasons to download the entirety of the “Savage Lovecast” archives, in order

Dan Savage. Photo by soundfromwayout.

8. Because you’re training for a marathon/ putting in a lab-work marathon/ cleaning house/ doing anything that’s better with someone talking in your earphones, and you’re just not getting enough with NPR, Slate, and that one about the things from the British Museum—and you’ve already used up all the Audible.com freebies offered via those podcasts

7. To hear Dan take a victory lap after Rick Santorum lost his Senate seat (while trying not to dwell on how U.S. politics have changed/not changed/gotten ten times worse since then)

6. As part of creating a drinking game for a sex-ed themed cocktail party (maybe you’re hosting a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood?)

5. For the episode recorded immediately after Thanksgiving dinner

4. To pin down the exact moment of origin of the phrase “tech-savvy at-risk youth”

3. For every time Dan has a special guest/ co-host/ foil

2. Because back in the day Dan and/or the TSARY weren’t so selective about which calls deserved an answer

1. For the old, Monty Pythonesque brass band intro music

It’s all available via www.thestranger.com!

Edit, 2011.09.29: Corrected link to the Savage Love archives. Oops! ◼

Science Blogs in refreshing, sugary ethics kerfuffle

ScienceBlogs, the mothership of online nerdery, just made a big, bad-publicity splash, launching a nutrition-themed blog sponsored—and written—by PepsiCo.

Photo by Roadsidepictures.

Readers have been irked, and many ScienceBloggers, for whom this apparently came as a surprise, are expressing feelings ranging from barn-burning outrage to nuanced concern to biting dismissal—and also resigning in protest (or exhaustion). It isn’t the first time ScienceBlogs has run a corporate-sponsored column, but those previous ones had writers who were independent of the sponsor. The affiliations of the new blog, Food Frontiers, are indicated in the header bar and the masthead, but not especially loudly—and the blog’s content will apparently be aggregated to Google News alongside the work of non-corporate ScienceBloggers. As Knight Science Journalism points out, ScienceBlogs’ treatment of Food Frontiers pretty clearly violates old media journalistic ethics.

In an e-mail to ScienceBloggers leaked to The Guardian, SEED editor Adam Bly wrote

We think the conversation should include scientists from academia and government; we also think it should include scientists from industry. Because industry is increasingly the interface between science and society. It is our hope that the Xeroxes and Bell Labs of the future will have a real presence on SB – that they will learn from our readers and we will learn from them.

That’s a pretty poor equivalency Bly is making, frankly. As far as I can tell, the academic scientists who write for ScienceBlogs do so without an explicit mandate from their universities or even funding agencies. Pepsico food scientists writing on behalf of Pepsico are not doing the same kind of science communication.

With more visible caveats, and maybe some sort of special treatment in the ScienceBlogs RSS feeds, Food Frontiers doesn’t have to be the end of all credibility for ScienceBlogs. But, boy, it doesn’t look good right now—and, if I’d spent a substantial portion of my blogging career helping to build ScienceBlogs into the hub of respectable online science writing it’s become, I’d be pretty upset. It looks like ScienceBlogs is losing some really strong writers over this, and that seems like a poor trade-off.

The only possible upside? The possibility we’ll get to hear PZ Meyers and Rebecca Skloot interviewed by Bob Garfield.

Losing the scientific lede, continued

So, in spite of having pretty consciously tweaked the science blogging community when I wrote, in Monday’s post

Blog posts are best when they’re less than 700 or 800 words long, and their contents are readily summed up in a headline and only slightly expanded upon by the first paragraph. Think newspaper, not magazine articles. Do people read posts longer than that? Sure they do. But the longer a post is, the more possibility there is that some fraction of the readers will quit reading before the end, and maybe even pass on links or comments based on that incomplete understanding. I realize I’m not in the majority of online science writers in taking this position, but I think this better reflects how the average online reader reads.

I nevertheless managed to miss when Bora Zivkovic gently tweaked back over Twitter:

Do you agree? Losing the scientific lede: http://bit.ly/94zroM by @JBYoder compare: http://bit.ly/cJj3vs Long is fine.

But I did notice a larger-than-usual traffic spike associated with the post, and, being pretty sure of the source, I thought I’d just add to what I said previously, in light of the quite coherent and reasonable defense Bora makes for long-form posts.

In Bora’s older post, the point is not so much that blog posts should be long, but that blogs are a good venue for science communication because posts can be long:

Context – there is no space for context in a short article. Yet it is the context that is the most important part of science coverage, and of science itself – remember the “shoulders of giants”? Placing a new study within a historical, philosophical, theoretical and methodological context is the key to understanding what the paper is about and why it is important, especially for the lay audience. Even scientific papers all provide plenty of context in the Introduction portion (and often in the Discussion as well) which is sprinkled with references to earlier studies.

I strongly agree that context is important, and I also agree that blogs are great at providing context—but because a post can link to context, not necessarily provide it itself.

Much of my feelings about what a good blog post should look like are determined by two things, both of which are more aesthetic than empirically justifiable. Both are also related to my all-but-minoring in English as an undergraduate: I am a devoted follower of Strunk and White, and I wrote for the campus paper and took courses in newspaper writing. So I try to follow the inverted pyramid to some approximation, and when a post starts to spill below what displays in a browser window without scrolling down, much like this one, I start to worry that I’m not omitting needless words.

It’s my own online reading experience that short posts, which communicate a single scientific result, work better than longer posts trying to synthesize lots of different results. Again, that’s mostly an aesthetic judgment, but as I said in Monday’s post, I think that short posts are more likely to be read to the end, and less likely to result in distortions as a post propagates across social media (or, rather, only has the distortions I’ve introduced myself!).

Of course, maybe that’s a moot point. If a reader mischaracterizes my post in a Facebook update, but includes a link to it, everyone who clicks through will see that the post said something different. Right? Well, again, when they do click through, I suppose I’d like them to be able to take in the point of the post quickly, and understand what it actually says without needing to read all the way to the end.

Losing the scientific lede

ResearchBlogging.orgOver at SEED, Dave Munger reflects on how online publishing and dissemination methods can strip the nuance from scientific news:

I thought I was being careful to explain the results of several studies, showing that suicide is a difficult problem with many potential contributing factors and confounding variables, including mental illness, depression, and the seemingly contradictory influences of intelligence. Yet on social-networking sites, many readers latched on to one finding: That countries with higher average IQ tend to have higher suicide rates.

Munger suggests that this problem can be mitigated by careful consideration of both the nut graf sent out via Twitter and RSS and the audience receiving them, and that’s clearly right. But I think it’s also worth considering whether some subjects are less appropriate for blogs.

Consider your medium! Photo by K!T.

Blog posts are best when they’re less than 700 or 800 words long, and their contents are readily summed up in a headline and only slightly expanded upon by the first paragraph. Think newspaper, not magazine articles. Do people read posts longer than that? Sure they do. But the longer a post is, the more possibility there is that some fraction of the readers will quit reading before the end, and maybe even pass on links or comments based on that incomplete understanding. I realize I’m not in the majority of online science writers in taking this position, but I think this better reflects how the average online reader reads.

Posts about individual, straightforward results work well in that context. For example, my colleague Jeanne Robertson recently discovered that desert lizards under divergent selection for camouflage have also become confused about visual mating signals. It’s simple—one lizard population moved to white sand dunes and evolved lighter coloration, so now light males think that dark males from the ancestral population look like females—and it supports a lot of catchy headlines that don’t sacrifice accuracy. The title of the talk at Evolution 2010 in which Robertson presented the discovery was “Dude looks like a lady.” I’d say the Wired Science article I linked to above captures all the interesting details.

Complexity doesn’t work so well. Scientific papers based on broad surveys of the literature, or many interrelated experiments, are inevitably going to lose some potentially important nuance when translated into an RSS-suitable post title, and explaining them accurately may take a lot more than 700 words. I’ve run into exactly this trying to write about complicated papers—either I go on for longer than I think my readers are likely to follow, or I have to omit detail and rely on readers to follow up with the links to the literature.

Mind you, this length-versus-content balance is a universal problem in disseminating scientific results—just look at the short-form journals Science and Nature. Some results are perfectly suited to the three-pages-and-online-supplement format, like an experimental result showing that sexually-reproducing lines of the worm Caenorhabditis elegans maintain more fitness in the face of mutation than asexual lines [PDF]. (I’ve posted about another result in this experimental system.) It’s a simple result easily understood even without getting into the Supplementary Material. Compare that to a recent statistical survey of evolutionary trees that concluded species interactions weren’t important in the history of life [$a]. That, too, fits into three pages of Nature, but the result is deceptively simple—even after delving into the Supplementary Material, the statistical reasoning underlying the core result isn’t clear, as the comments thread on my post about the piece reveals.

Which isn’t to say that online science writers should stick to covering simple experimental results or flashy natural historical notes, any more than scientists should never tackle complicated projects. They do, however, need to consider the limitations of the medium in which they report scientific results. Is a topic too complicated to fit in a single post? Maybe it’s suitable for a series of posts. I like how Slate handles this, building collections of interrelated articles that can stand alone, but link into something like a long-form magazine article—see Will Saletan’s great series on memory manipulation for a recent example.

And now I’ve blown through 700 words in the service of an extended, hopefully nuanced, discussion. Take from that what you will.


Morran, L., Parmenter, M., & Phillips, P. (2009). Mutation load and rapid adaptation favour outcrossing over self-fertilization. Nature, 462 (7271), 350-2 DOI: 10.1038/nature08496

Venditti, C., Meade, A., & Pagel, M. (2009). Phylogenies reveal new interpretation of speciation and the Red Queen. Nature, 463 (7279), 349-52 DOI: 10.1038/nature08630

On my iPod: Slate

With its mildly lefty contrarian tone and frequent crossovers with NPR – and, I should say, solid but accessible policy analysis and spot-on cultural reviews – Slate has long been a staple in my online reading. It’s also been a staple in my podcast lineup, ever since I got my first iPod and suddenly needed something to put on it for long spinning sessions. Since several of the Slate podcasts are calling for listeners to recruit more listeners this week, I thought I’d note my favorites, and where to get them.

The Political Gabfest is the original Slate podcast, and the template for newer models. Emily Bazelon, John Dickerson, and David Plotz talk about (usually) three topics in the week’s (usually) political news. Plotz is a liberaltarian grump, Bazelon more idealistic, Dickerson focused on the political mechanics behind the issue of the moment; all three bounce off each other in endearing and enlightening ways. Dickerson mediates (or tables) at least one Plotz-Bazelon argument per episode. (Subscribe in iTunes.)

Political Gabfesters Emily Bazelon, John Dickerson, and David Plotz at a live Gabfest event last May. Photo by presta.

The Culture Gabfest applies the Gabfest model to cultural news. Stephen Metcalf moderates in Plotz-y tones, and is usually joined by Julia Turner and Dana Stevens – but the Culture Gabfest often includes fourth or fifth panelists to discuss particular topics. My tastes track Metcalf’s pretty closely, but Stevens’s reviews were informing my movie-going decisions long before the podcast launched. (Subscribe in iTunes.)

Dana Stevens also helms Spoiler Specials, in which she and another film critic or two dissect a current movie, with no regard to hiding plot points. It’s great fun after you’ve seen a movie, or, if you’re into schadenfreude, often just as much fun with reference to a movie you have no intention of seeing (Transformers, for example). (Subscribe in iTunes.)

Hang up and Listen is back to the Gabfest model, but about sports – the conversation between sports journalists Stefan Fatsis, Josh Levin, and Mike Pesca is like sports talk radio, but you don’t call in, hence the name. In fact, it’s not really like sports talk radio, inasmuch as I, a nerd whose sports are unwatchable individual endurance events (running, cycling), find it totally interesting. Part of this may be because both Fatsis and Levin Pesca* are regular NPR contributors, who are used to talking sports with an audience that doesn’t follow them. (Subscribe in iTunes.)

Conveniently, you can subscribe to each of these individually at the links I’ve given above (they’re all on a weekly-ish cycle, with Spoiler Specials somewhat less frequent), or get them as part of Slate’s daily podcast stream. If you go with the daily stream, you’ll get a few less-frequent ‘casts I’ve left out, that are nevertheless good when they show up.

*Corrected 15:18, 18 Feb 2010

Research Blogging Awards 2010

Research Blogging Awards 2010On the heels of Science Online 2010, the ResearchBlogging.org community has announced the Research Blogging Awards, honoring online writing about peer reviewed research in a wide range of categories. Nominations are open until 11 February, and can be submitted by anyone; a panel of judges will select 5 to 10 finalists from nominees in each category, and winners will be selected by a vote of the RB.org membership.

#scio10 day two: In which the discussion turns to duck genitalia within the second session

Science Online is not like the Evolution meetings. This was evident in the first session I entered, where the plastic click of laptop keys underlay the conversation between the panelists and the audience. Twitter was a second venue for discussion the whole conference, and you could track audience interest in a given session purely from posts with the #scio10 hashtag. Notes on the sessions I attended:

  • From blog to book: Tom Levenson, Brian Switek, and Rebecca Skloot discussed the usefulness of blogging for authors and developing authors, mostly as a venue for promoting books, but also as a space for developing ideas and writing to develop a book.
  • Rebooting science journalism: Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, John Timmer, and David Dobbs led discussion about the future of science journalism online, with emphasis on unique ways to connect the diverse and Balkanized interest groups of the web to science news, and an extensive aside on the recently discovered role of sexual selection in the morphology of ducks’ penises and vaginas – Carl wasn’t able to publish much detail via a print magazine, but (perhaps unsurprisingly) the story proved popular online. This set off a flurry of interest in the article in question, and revealed I’m not the only one who thought this phenomenon makes limerick fodder.
  • Demonstrations of a new German science magazine for children, an online hub for New Zealand-centric science reporting, use of Second Life as a science education resource, and the Open Dinosaur Project. I wasn’t strongly impressed by the Second Life presentation – I don’t see the usefulness of the 3-d environment over conventional instant messaging. On the other hand, Andy Farke’s Open Dinosaur Project is doing amazing things with a bunch of volunteer “citizen scientists” assembling a morphological data from the literature. It’s a new model for digging data out of old publications, and it’s not hard to think of other projects that could benefit from a similar approach.
  • An open history of science: John McKay and Eric Michael Johnson discussed the history of media employed in scientific societies. Turns out that Enlightenment-era scientists corresponding by mail, the informal science societies they formed, and the journals they compiled from each others’ letters were more like the modern blogosphere than you might think.
  • Online reference managers: representatives from Citeulike, Mendeley, Zotero, and Scopus talked about their various products’ approaches to organize researchers’ electronic reference libraries, and to use personal contacts and library content to recommend new material. There’s some interesting possibilities – enough that I’ve downloaded Mendeley (the only one, so far as I could tell, that has a locally-installed client) to play around with for a bit. I’d love to ditch EndNote, if I can extract my thousands of references and linked files without too much bother.

The day concluded with a banquet at the hotel, capped by a series of brief “ignite” talks on everything from the benefits of blogging while working toward tenure to a crowd-sourced project to check the accuracy of chemistry information in online sources.

Here’s a slideshow of photos uploaded to Flickr with the #scio10 tag, mostly from Saturday if I’m not mistaken.