For Good Science Journalism, Blogs Are a Better Bet Than "Old Media"

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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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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