Looking for more of my latest comments on science, medicine and technology? I’m also blogging regularly for the Public Library of Science on its PLOS BLOGS science blogging network. Visit me there at “The Gleaming Retort,” or watch the RSS feed in the column at right for the titles of my latest posts.
Posts from the ‘Science Journalism’ Category
Ray Kurzweil, the justly lauded inventor and machine intelligence pioneer, has been predicting that humans will eventually upload their minds into computers for so long that I think his original audience wondered whether a computer was a type of fancy abacus. It simply isn’t news for him to say it anymore, and since nothing substantive has happened recently to make that goal any more imminent, there’s just no good excuse for Wired to still be running articles like this:
Reverse-engineering the human brain so we can simulate it using computers may be just two decades away, says Ray Kurzweil, artificial intelligence expert and author of the best-selling book The Singularity is Near.
It would be the first step toward creating machines that are more powerful than the human brain. These supercomputers could be networked into a cloud computing architecture to amplify their processing capabilities. Meanwhile, algorithms that power them could get more intelligent. Together these could create the ultimate machine that can help us handle the challenges of the future, says Kurzweil.
This article doesn’t explicitly refer to Kurzweil’s inclusion of uploading human consciousness into computers as part of his personal plan for achieving immortality. That’s good, because the idea has already been repeatedly and bloodily drubbed—by writer John Pavlus and by Glenn Zorpette, executive editor of IEEE Spectrum, to take just two recent examples. (Here are audio and a transcription of a conversation between Zorpette, writer John Horgan and Scientific American’s Steve Mirsky that further kicks the dog. And here’s a link to Spectrum‘s terrific 2008 special report that puts the idea of the Singularity in perspective.)
Instead, the Wired piece restricts itself to the technological challenge of building a computer capable of simulating a thinking, human brain. As usual, Kurzweil rationalizes this accomplishment by 2030 by pointing to exponential advances in technology, as famously embodied by Moore’s Law, and this bit of biological reductionism:
Previously, I slightly differed with David Crotty’s good post about why open blogging networks might be incompatible with the business models of established publishing brands, particularly for scientific brands, for which credibility is king. David had diagnosed correctly the very real sources of conflict, I thought, but those problems should only become unmanageable with networks whose pure, principled openness went beyond anything publishers seemed interested in embracing anyway. The more important consideration, in the eyes of the bloggers and the increasingly digital-savvy audience, will be how the brand handles the problems that will inevitably arise—in the same way that how publications manage corrections and mistakes already becomes part of their reputation.
Or to put it another way: the openness of a blogging network doesn’t imperil a brand’s editorial value so much as it helps to define it. (Would that I had thought to phrase it so pithily before!)
Nevertheless, I do think blogging networks potentially pose at least two other types of problems that could be more seriously at odds with commercial brands plans. But neither is exclusive to blogging networks. Rather, they are business problems common to many digital publishing models—the presence of a blogging network just amplifies them.
For the most part, I agree with the individual points and criticisms that David raises. Whether I agree with his bottom-line conclusion that open networks are incompatible with established brands, and maybe most especially with brands built on scientific credibility, depends on the purity of one’s definition of open.
Unquestionably, leaving a troop of bloggers to their own scruples while publishing under your banner is fraught with risk, but as problems go, it’s neither unprecedented nor unmanageable in publishing. In fact, I’d say the open blogging network problem is really just a special case of the larger challenge of joining with fast-paced, out-linking (and poorly paying) online publishing culture. Some of the best prescriptions seem to be what David is suggesting or implying, so perhaps any disagreement I have with him is really over definitions rather than views.
By rights, I should have seen and commented on this article in the New York Times days ago, and perhaps a better blogger would now shrug it off as a lost opportunity. But even if it is only a fairly trivial example of the chronic problem with false balance that dogs reporting on the climate policy debates, this particular instance of it still annoys me so much that I need to vent it out of my system anyway.
Tom Zeller, Jr., writes:
In any debate over climate change, conventional wisdom holds that there is no reflex more absurd than invoking the local weather.
And yet this year’s wild weather fluctuations seem to have motivated people on both sides of the issue to stick a finger in the air and declare the matter resolved — in their favor.
Last February, for example, as a freak winter storm paralyzed much of the East Coast, relatives of Senator James M. Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who is a skeptic of climate change, came to Washington and erected an igloo.
They topped it with a cheeky sign asking passers-by to “Honk if you ♥ global warming.” Another sign, added later, christened the ice dome “Al Gore’s new home.”
Now, with record heat searing much of the planet from Minnesota to Moscow, people long concerned with global warming seem to be pointing out the window themselves.
“As Washington, D.C., wilts in the global heat wave gripping the planet, the Democratic leadership in the Senate has abandoned the effort to cap global warming pollution for the foreseeable future,” wrote Brad Johnson at the progressive Wonk Room blog, part of the Center for American Progress.
Must it be necessary to point out that the climate deniers and the environmentalists are “invoking the local weather” in completely different, nonequivalent ways?
Inhofe and the sign makers were implying that the cold weather disproved claims of global warming and showed they were ridiculous. The scientific fraudulence of that argument is precisely why using isolated weather incidents to argue about climate is absurd.
In contrast, even though the Times titled this story, “Is It Hot in Here? Must Be Global Warming,” no one in the story makes that argument. Johnson did not say the heat wave proved global warming was real. Instead, he highlighted the irony of lawmakers forsaking a sound response to the problem while the world was suffering from extreme heat—a kind of heat that will only become more commonplace and extreme as global warming continues.
One side illegitimately used weather as evidence. The other used weather as an example. Were Zeller and his editors too foolish to recognize the difference or was the thrill of getting to say both sides are doing it just too sweet to ignore?
JR Minkel, who blogs as only he can over at A Fistful of Science, recently brought to my attention this Paul Adams article for Popular Science (and indirectly, this news story in the Guardian) about the underappreciated importance of insects as a food source for many people around the world. That prompted me to dig out this recollection of my own foray into eating insects, which I wrote up years ago.
Memoirs of an Entomophage
My reputation in some circles as a person who eats bugs has been blown out of proportion. Yes, I have knowingly and voluntarily eaten insects, but I wish people wouldn’t pluck out that historical detail to epitomize me (“You remember, I’ve told you about John—he’s the bug-eater!”). It was so out of character for me. As a boy, I was fastidious to the point of annoying priggishness; other children would probably have enjoyed making me eat insects had the idea occurred to them, but I wouldn’t have chosen to do so myself. Bug eating was something I matured into, and performed as a professional duty, even a public service.
Here’s how it happened. Back in 1992, the New York Entomological Society turned 100 years old, and decided to celebrate with a banquet at the map-and-hunting-trophy bedecked headquarters of the Explorers Club on East 70th Street. Yearning for attention, the Society’s leaders had the inspiration to put insects not only on the agenda but also on the menu. For hors d’oeuvres, you could try the mini fontina bruschetta with mealworm ganoush, or perhaps the wax worm fritters with plum sauce. Would you care for beetle bread with your potatoes, or are you saving room for the chocolate cricket torte? Waiter, could I get more mango dip for my water bug?
Mind you, eating insects is not so bizarre and alien a concept in most of the world. According to Gene DeFoliart, the editor of the Food Insects Newsletter (that’s right, they have a newsletter), societies outside of Europe and North America routinely eat at least some insects, sometimes because they are the closest things to livestock that’s available. Most of the world does not share our squeamishness about eating things with antennae. Moreover, the consequences of our cultural bigotry can be serious. The U.S. and Europe largely drive the budgets for food-related research around the world, which means that most spending on raising better food animals goes to studying cows, chickens and the like. Millions if not billions in Africa, Asia and Latin America however, would get much more direct benefit from knowing how to improve the fauna with six legs (or more) that provide much of their protein.
Then, too, it’s not as though most of us in America haven’t ever eaten insects. Eight million of us live in New York alone, after all, and the Board of Health can’t be everywhere. The key difference is how many insects we’ve eaten, and how aware we were of it at the time.
The constructive chaos triggered by the PepsiCo fiasco at Scienceblogs.com continues to evolve, in ways that I have to hope will ultimately be to the advantage of bloggers, scientists and the science-reading public alike. The latest evidence is that as of 10:00 a.m. EDT today, there’s a new game in town: Scientopia.org, “a new blogging collective to educate and entertain anyone interested in eclectic voices of science,” according to the press release announcing its launch (emphasis added).
We invite the world to ponder, argue, converse, and laugh along with us. Each blog is produced by an individual or group that retains complete editorial control of its own content. Some bloggers are moving from other networks; others are creating new blogs. At launch Scientopia will consist of 24 blogs, including the following:
The Urban Ethnographer (scientopia.org/blogs/urbanethno) Krystal D’Costa
This Scientific Life (scientopia.org/blogs/thisscientificlife) GrrlScientist, formerly of Living the Scientific Life, and Bob O’Hara
Skulls in the Stars (scientopia.org/blogs/skullsinthestars) Greg Gbur
Adventures in Ethics & Science (scientopia.org/blogs/ethicsandscience) Janet Stemwedel
Good Math, Bad Math (scientopia.org/blogs/goodmath) Mark Chu-Carroll
WhizBANG! (scientopia.org/blogs/whizbang) Pascale Lane
The complete listings can be found on the Scientopia.org home page. More blogs will be added in the months to follow.
The Scientopia network is more than a collection of individuals: it’s a scientific community. It serves the common goals of sharing our love of science, while respecting the diverse interests of its members. At Scientopia, the community — of bloggers and readers, engaging with science and each other — is not a side effect. It’s the whole point.
To my mind, that last part about community is the most important, and the one that bears most strongly on the raison d’etre for blogging networks. Individual blogs with their individual authors’ voices can link to one another informally as easily as networked ones can; they can encourage cross-talk and mutual traffic, too, in loose alliances. So why have the formal structure of a network at all?
Martial arts are my hobby and explaining science is my job, so the recent appearance of “How karate chops break concrete blocks” on io9.com naturally caught my eye. Unfortunately, not only did it fall far short of my hopes of offering a lucid explanation, it parroted misleading statements from an article on exactly this same subject that has been annoying me every time I remembered it for 10 years. (Oh wonderful Web, is there no old error you can’t make new again?) Indulge me while I try belatedly to set the record straight.
The io9 article starts by asking how the squishy human hands of martial artists can break concrete slabs, wooden boards and other considerably harder objects. Reassuringly, it wastes no time on talk of chi and similar Eastern mysticism but instead goes right to a very loose discussion of the biomechanics of hitting efficiently and striking to vulnerable positions in the target. So far, so good, although the descriptions of what to do are probably too vague to be helpful to readers who don’t already know what they’re doing.
Then the article seems to go off the rails (emphasis added):
That didn’t take long. The PepsiCo-sponsored blog on Scienceblogs that caused such an uproar this week, and which I discussed here, has now been removed completely from the network site. Paul Raeburn at Knight Science Journalism Tracker had published a further follow-up this morning that included some additional steps announced by publisher Adam Bly to improved the presentation of advertorial blogs on the site. In the end, though, PepsiCo’s Food Frontiers blog proved too much of a sore point to retain. (Surely, even PepsiCo must have started to see the initiative as liability.)
Still, damage has been done to the Sb’s relationships with its bloggers, some of whom have decamped permanently. What any of this will mean to Sb’s audience, or for the future of blog networks more generally, remains to be seen.
This episode illustrates one potential obstacle that all would-be blog networkers should consider. Are the management, the bloggers and any sponsors all of a like mind about what the network’s mission is? Is everyone clear on what the supposed advantages and ground rules for the existence of the network should be? Do all the parties understand what the stakes are for the others? If not, severe conflicts like this one seem more than likely to occur.
Pity, if you will, Andy Revkin. As a reporter who worked the environment beat for The New York Times for many years, and who now continues as the author of the Dot Earth blog for that paper, Andy has the mixed blessing of being one of the most prominent journalists covering climate change, which means that he is a prominent target for arrows from all sides. Those who doubt, deny or otherwise resist efforts to stop anthropogenic global warming—whom Andy calls stasists and whom I’m usually comfortable calling deniers or denialists—attack him for pushing “climate alarmism.” Meanwhile, proponents of climate policy reform paint Andy as frustratingly, deliberately centrist: too willing to echo the talking points of seemingly respectable opponents; too willing to discount the efforts of the disinformation campaign that maintains the energy/climate status quo.
Of course, anyone who knows Andy and is familiar with his body of work can have no doubt that he recognizes the reality of climate change and the importance of trying to prevent it. I know his heart is in the right place. I know he isn’t namby-pamby on the subject.
But it’s easy to see why so many climate scientists throw up their hands at Andy’s work when, in a post about the wild goose chase that was Climategate, he writes things like this (emphasis added):