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For Good Science Journalism, Blogs Are a Better Bet Than "Old Media"
Imagine you are a scientist who has just received the latest issue of the most important journal in your field. As you look through the papers published there, you'll probably recognize some names (hey, it's Boris from grad school, good for him), and maybe glean an idea or two for your own work (what if we try it on knock-out mice next time?). You might read a conclusion with surprise and find it stimulating to think about. Or annoying to think about (why oh why are there still people in this field who believe that?). All of which makes for stimulating reading. But you probably won't decide, on the basis of any one article, that some age-old mystery has been solved; that everything you've learned about sports or snails or stars is wrong; or that the cure for cancer is at hand.
Scientists, I believe, read journal articles cupfuls of information drawn from an ever-flowing river. Over time, with a lot of dips, you get an impression of the river. But you don't rely on any single instance to tell you about reality.
And that's how readers should (and, I hope, do) read blogs.
This is why, I think, blogs are a much better form for representing science than are print and broadcast journalism. A good blog is a portrait of a mind in motion, exploring, doubting, advancing and retreating. That is a pretty good approximation of what Carl Zimmer calls "the big old mess" of science, which resists the dramatic arc of a good story and the satisfying reassurance of an easy take-away. Science rarely advances on via one all-conquering experiment, for instance. Instead there are many experiments, some of which contradict each other, some of which don't reproduce or are reinterpreted to mean something other than what their originators intended. With three steps forward and two back and one sideways, usually with serious people saying we're marching in the wrong direction, science moves along.
The blog form can capture that. Magazine and newspaper articles cannot, as Zimmer notes. Why? Because just as a blog is a picture of a mind in motion, a piece of print journalism is a portrait of a mind made up. After all, ink and paper and gas for the trucks are expensive commodities: If I'm going to use them up telling you about Professor X's paper in Neuron, then that paper had better be important, and it better be right. So that's what my article says. With this new insight into mirror neurons, we can cure autism and give you ten tips to manage your company better.
Never mind that the paper's importance or rightness can't be known for years. My piece has to run next week, so, explicitly or implicitly, I will make science—an open-ended process that jumps from question to question—look as if it is a closed process that jumps from answer to answer. Even Zimmer, who is just about the best in the business, realizes that this circle can't really be squared. With only 1500 words in a magazine to recount a recent study on electroconvulsive therapy, he explains, "in the end, I probably oversimplified, leaving people with too much of a feeling that ECT is a perfect cure (it’s not) and an impression that we know exactly how it works (we don’t)."
I agree with Zimmer that there's always a tension between narrative accessibility and the reality of research (Lucretius compared the science he wants to convey to a cup of bitter wormwood, while elegant writing is the honey on the cup lip, which helps the patient drink it down—and Lucretius was engaged in science writing 2,000 years ago). However, I think old-media journalism makes the tension worse, by requiring that writing convey a sense of certainty and importance that is inevitably exaggerated. New-media forms, inherently open and mutable, are a better fit.
A thought prompted by an interesting observation in Boris Kachka's new piece on the science writer Jonah Lehrer (whose fall, let us remember, took place because he wrote all honey and no wormwood—making up facts, and not correcting errors, to keep his narratives neat). Kachka has noticed that, as he writes, "Lehrer was not a new-media wunderkind but an old-media darling," whose biggest defenders were not bloggers, but old journalism hands. Old-media specializes in making satisfying stories that are simpler than science (as in the movies that are always "based on a true story"). Blogs by comparison are a "big old mess." They're a better fit for the "big old mess" of science.
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Got $55 million lying around? If so, you might be able to score a spot aboard the International Space Station starting 2024.
- NASA awarded a contract to startup Axiom Space to attach a "habitable commercial module" to the International Space Station.
- The project will also include a research and manufacturing module.
- The move is a major step in NASA's years-long push to privatize.
Image: Axiom Space<p>But first, space-tourist-hopefuls would have to pass through physical and medical exams, and 15 weeks of expert training. After that, the trip sounds pretty comfy:</p><p>"There will be wifi," Suffredini <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/09/style/axiom-space-travel.html" target="_blank">told the New York Times</a> last year. "Everybody will be online. They can make phone calls, sleep, look out the window. [...] The few folks that have gone to orbit as tourists, it wasn't really a luxurious experience, it was kind of like camping. [...] Pretty soon we're going to be flying a butler with every crew."</p>
A render of the ISS tourist experience.
Image: Axiom Space<p>In a blog post, NASA wrote:</p><p>"Developing commercial destinations in low-Earth orbit is one of <a href="https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-opens-international-space-station-to-new-commercial-opportunities-private" target="_blank">five elements</a> of NASA's plan to open the International Space Station to new commercial and marketing opportunities. The other elements of the five-point plan include efforts to make station and crew resources available for commercial use through a new commercial use and pricing policy; enable private astronaut missions to the station; seek out and pursue opportunities to stimulate long-term, sustainable demand for these services; and quantify NASA's long-term demand for activities in low-Earth orbit."</p>
NASA's push to privatize the ISS<p>When a Russian rocket launched the first module of the ISS into space in 1998, NASA expected the space station to operate for about 15 years. But the agency has extended the life of the ISS twice, with funding currently set to expire in 2024. NASA spends between $3 and $4 billion per year operating and shuttling astronauts to and from the station. That's a decent chunk of the agency's $22.6 annual budget. What's more, the "major structural elements" of the ISS are certified only through 2028.</p><p>Meanwhile, NASA has been eyeing other projects, namely: putting humans back on the moon in 2024 and establishing a lunar presence. So, to save and redirect money, the agency has been starting to hand over the aging space station to the private sector, which could use it for commercial research and space tourism.</p><p>But some have questioned the move to privatize the ISS, including NASA's own inspector general, Paul K. Martin.</p><p>"An obvious alternative to privatization is to extend current ISS operations," Martin wrote in a <a href="https://oig.nasa.gov/docs/CT-18-001.pdf" target="_blank">2018 report</a>. "An extension to 2028 or beyond would enable NASA to continue critical on-orbit research into human health risks and to demonstrate the technologies that will be required for future missions to the Moon or Mars."</p>
Image: Axiom Space<p>Martin noted that "research into 2 other human health risks and 17 additional technology gaps is not scheduled to be completed until sometime in 2024," meaning that any slip-ups in the process would mean such research might go uncompleted. He also wrote that it's "questionable" whether the private sector could turn a profit on the ISS without "significant" government funding. The Institute for Defense Analyses, a federally funded research and development center, <a href="https://docs.house.gov/meetings/SY/SY00/20180517/108302/HHRG-115-SY00-Wstate-LalB-20180517.pdf" target="_blank">also found</a> that it "is unlikely that a commercially owned and operated space station will be economically viable by 2025."</p><p>The implication is that, if the ISS is handed over to the private sector, taxpayers could end up indirectly supporting space tourism for the ultra-rich. Whether that's worth any of the research benefits that might come from the ISS post-2024 is anybody's guess.</p><p>As the ISS enters its final years, China <a href="http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-10/17/c_138479514.htm" target="_blank">plans</a> to complete construction of a manned space station in 2022.</p>
The coronavirus pandemic has brought out the perception of selfishness among many.
- Selfish behavior has been analyzed by philosophers and psychologists for centuries.
- New research shows people may be wired for altruistic behavior and get more benefits from it.
- Crisis times tend to increase self-centered acts.
Paul Krugman on the Virtues of Selfishness<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="7ZtAkm6C" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="828936bf6953080e9018307354c0c02b"> <div id="botr_7ZtAkm6C_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7ZtAkm6C-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/7ZtAkm6C-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7ZtAkm6C-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> The Nobel Prize-winning economist on the virtues of selfishness.
Evolution Is Moving Us Away from Selfishness. But Where Is It Taking ...<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cyeqmYCb" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="6c5efecb56456e9acc25cf36935b1826"> <div id="botr_cyeqmYCb_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cyeqmYCb-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cyeqmYCb-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cyeqmYCb-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Exploring Morality and Selfishness in Modern Times<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="02eX1Cag" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="45cc6180db791f32683988fb52faff26"> <div id="botr_02eX1Cag_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/02eX1Cag-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/02eX1Cag-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/02eX1Cag-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> Philosopher Peter Singer discusses the state of global ethics.
Parenting could be a distraction from what mattered most to him: his writing.
Ernest Hemingway was affectionately called “Papa," but what kind of dad was he?