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July 14, 2007


Great, great post, thank you.

"I like to pick on the New York Times for illiteracy in science reporting. My point isn't to say that the New York Times is the worst offender -- it's not (the London Times is)."

Correct - and it is a Murdoch paper...and don't we know it here in the UK!

Here's a gentle suggestion...expand, upgrade and finance adult education. It's not as sexy as, say, blowing $12 a month on Iraq and Afghanistan, but there's alot of science we adults just don't know because of how fast basic scientific knowledge expands.

There's a strong "compelling state interest" argument to be made on this point. Upgrading our collective scientific literacy would have immediate pay-offs (say in health care), as well as better science policy overall. At 44, I've been amazed how many of my peers somehow missed out some key understandings regarding human physiology, and the impacts oh, say, various drugs and substances can have on brain chemistry.

Yes, the author is spot on: We NEED better science education across the board. But the US collectively needs to be willing to fund it. Otherwise, it's not gonna happen.

This sounds like an excellent idea that ought to be instituted immediately; but then I wonder what standards and thresholds the "President's Core Knowledge For Adult Literacy Board" appointed by the Bush Administration would mandate.

tangential, but also sad experience:

Explaining science (and medicine) is difficult. If experts don't weigh in, others fill the gap, and sometimes they do a better job (from Don (Mr. Wizard) Herbert to Bill Nye, the science guy) and sometimes not. Reporters don't always have the wherewithal to learn, or take the time, but there have been some outstanding examples (historian John Barry's book The Great Influenza explaining flu replication) of people willing to take the time to learn and using their writing skills to explain.

Inevitably what follows is the experts taking shots at the 'so-called experts'. That's a term I've heard used to refer to flu bloggers (I was in the audience and challenged it, but you get the picture. See video). I'm not referring to emptypockets' needed post, wherein he corrects inaccuracies and makes different points. I'm talking about those who don't ever communicate with the public or do it poorly and then get mad when others do a better job.

So, how do you deal with that part of education? Someone's got to explain complicated stuff, or things outside our normal sphere. It'd be great if there were a curriculum for the explainers, a PhD in science journalism. And it'd be even better if they were cut some slack by those who aren't helping.

FWIW, this problem/opportunity isn't going away. Knowledge (markets) segment. Microsoft cornered the market on operating systems for PC's. The market segmented and others now dominate operating systems for non-PC's.

I completely agree with the need for adult education, but I think waiting for the government to fund it simply will not happen. There are too many other crucial services, meat, food, and water, inspection, to name a few, that only government can do and they need to do a lot better.

Big hat tip to emptypockets and DemFromCT for all their fine work to date.

Also, it's not that the "adult science education," isn't happening, imvho, it's that the wing-nut think tanks who are flooding the shrinking and less profitable MSM with falsehoods. These not-for-profits-in-name-only have no goal other than to further the naked, and narrow shareholder interests of oligopolies. That's guaranteed to be against long term public health. I think a better model than "adult science education," would something akin to Consumer Reports.

I think Hamsher and Kos are at the forefront at trying to make blogs profitable. I hope really valuable assets such as emptypockets and DemFromCT watch. Both bloggers are outstanding examples of science literate thinkers who can translate complex science into terms that otherwise illiterate lay people can follow. The key here is trust. Unlike the wing-nut think tanks, emptypockets and DemFromCT are not advancing a corporate agenda for their own enrichment. It's not that emptypockets and DemFromCT have to know everything. I think the goal is to attract talented commenters in a number of different fields. Professor Foland over at FDL is a Harvard scientist I believe. OT, when Cheney shot Harry, I was stunned by all the die-hard hunters who read FDL. They were all lurkers and came out of the woodwork to explain the details of bird shot and basic hunting safety, that DeadEye completely ignored. For that whole week, the best place to learn about the shooting was FDL threads and FDL traffic numbers reflected that. I think that's a riff on the Consumer Reports model that might work. Posts are an attempt to find/outline the best positions for the progressive communities on a whole variety of science based issues. It's a process. IIRC Sara has posted some about getting a foundation to underwrite some of the blog's costs which is another excellent idea. Another option is for emptypockets and DemFromCT to approach Jane Hamsher and inquire about a weekly science post. Again, I don't know the details of that and I am sure they need to be kept proprietary. Another riff off of the Consumer Reports model would be attacking the wing-nut foundations who have tax exempt status via 501(c)3 to bludgeon the MSM with neocon science. I think there are a ton of really interesting subjects to write about/link to. The choke point maybe the legitimate need to reimburse editor/writer who select write/link/select posters and monitor the comments. If it attracts eyeballs, it will also attract advertisers.

Apologies for the double post of such a long comment, if anyone wants to delete the first one, I would be grateful.

Boo Radley

Some excellent points. You refer to 'sound science', the Bush euphemism for industry-funded PR (global warming deniers) or ideologically driven claptrap (Intelligent Design).

As a point of information, I have front page posting privileges at Daily Kos and have been posting science and other things there since 2003.

As I see it there are two basic objectives of science education: to convey an understanding of the scientific method; and to pass on to the student the knowledge base that the method has revealed about nature. These objectives hold at the most basic introductory level in primary and junior high school, or all the way up to the post-grad level and beyond. The only differences are the breadth and depth at which they are addressed.

Both of these pose challenges. As EP points out, the knowledge base of biology (and all branches of science) is a perpetually moving target, not to mention its vastness. Educators rightly spend a lot of time on what elements of this base should be presented at each level, and how. Inevitably, important things are going to be left out, sometimes with embarrassing consequences for the students and teachers.

In my view, however, the most glaring weakness of science education in this country is the lack of explicit emphasis on the scientific method per se. To the extent it is focused on at all it is done so in the lab and field study elements of the individual branches of science. Students learn only how it applies in the branch under study, or in even narrower foci in the cases of advanced courses. They get no perspective on the tree, let alone the forest. What's missing is an the teaching, and the resultant lack of understanding on the part of the citizenry, of the epistimological base on which the scientific method rests.

In my winding down working life I dealt with engineers (mostly electrical) for over 40 years. And I am continually amazed at how many of them are ardent religious fundamentalists of various types, serenely living with the profound cognitive dissonance between their careers in which they make use of it and the superstitions that hold sway in the rest of their lives. Like so many millions of the rest of the American people they have no idea that there is a fundamental difference between the origins of scientific knowledge and "revealed knowledge".

I believe an introductory course, or at least unit, should be taught that covers the epistimology of science in general, and also a brief overview of how it is applied in each major branch of science. In an ideal world this would be a prerequisite to courses in individual science. But I'm not holding my breath.

Is it a science experiment to say that the cream rises? I've been watching for years as my favorite bloggers gain large followings and credibility--because they're great writers with something to say. Keep after it, gang. The rise of cream is inexorable.

And by the way, the most entertaining science of all, IMO, is found at RadioLab on public radio. Almost all of their 15 one-hour shows (to date) are on podcasts (available on iTunes or at Oden.com), and the shows will change your life. Unbelievably entertaining stuff. This week's podcast is called "Morality." Go get it.

There used to be adult education programs where people could go to take classes in subjects they were interested in (my mother took classes in tailoring and patternmaking, as well as one in genealogy), but these seem to have diasppeared as being 'frills' since they don't lead to degrees and they don't lead immediately to jobs.

I miss the idea of breadth of education as a goal, rather than just depth.

Correction--the podcast repository I mentioned above should be Odeo.com, not oden.com. Sorry about the error.

P J Evans, that is so true. I think in some ways the best science education is a good liberal arts education and vice versa. At least that way you can both rationally and cogently discuss this issues!

Anyway, the question on the table is whether science people should be better communicators or whether communicators should be better grounded in science.

The answer is yes.

I'm delighted that you mentioned Rosalind Franklin, the physical chemist and crystallographer (Ph.D., Cantab.), and third member of the team, without whose finely crafted X-ray images Watson and Crick might have taken much longer to come to their “Eureka” moment.

She is rarely mentioned except as an anonymous assistant, in part owing to her work being physics-based rather than medical or biological, in part to the sexism and class-bound arrogance of 1940’s British academic life, and in part owing to Watson and Crick’s unwillingness to share the limelight for one of the century’s great scientific achievements.

The Economist magazine, when it was in less conservative garb, used to offer an annual fellowship for science writers. It may still. Their announcement for candidates was explicit and unusual at the time. They wanted science-trained professionals who wanted to write well (and for a general, educated audience), NOT writers with an interest in science.

Among the other writers of science written for the general audience, I would include the late Stephen Jay Gould, whose essays blend pop culture with sophisticated explanations of biology, geology and natural history.

Believe it or not, I just wrote a brief paper on Williams Syndrome for "Pediatrics in Review". Here's my description of it, which isn't nearly as clear as emptypockets':

Williams syndrome is a chromosomal deletion syndrome that is classically caused by a 1.5 million base-pair deletion on the long arm of chromosome 7. The deletion usually occurs during meiosis in one of the parents and results from unequal crossing-over between low-copy repeats that flank the deleted region, leading to a loss of more than 25 genes.

Thanks to all for your comments: it's a pleasure to log in and find over a dozen thoughtful comments.

It seems like there is broad agreement that public education in basic science is worthwhile, and the debate is who should do it and how. The options I'm hearing are:

o My proposal is for the scientific societies, possibly with the National Academy of Sciences, to get behind it. Many people aren't aware of what a scientific society is: it's something like a union or political party, except dedicated to advancing a particular field of science rather than a political agenda. Its members are all scientists in the field, and its budget comes largely from dues paid by the membership (which in turn is paid out of lab budgets that are composed mostly of federal grants). The societies' primary function is usually an annual convention where breaking science in the field is presented, but the big ones all have very active outreach/education programs and political lobbying offices.

o DemFromCT suggests, with good reason, that scientists are usually too busy, lazy, or communicatively-impaired to be effective, and that educating the public is a job for whoever's willing and talented enough to do it. He suggests essentially a new job of science communicator, with its own career track starting at the graduate school level. There are some limited opportunities to do this as a post-doc after getting a biology PhD: post-doc fellowships sponsored by the National Academy or by philanthropy groups like Howard Hughes Medical Institute that are aimed at bringing the top biologists into legislative work or public outreach. But I agree, there should be more opportunities to enter from the side: for non-PhDs with a passion and a talent for explaining things to enter the mainstream of science communication without coming up through the MD or PhD tracks. In my view, this kind of "outsider" recruitment should be part of what the scientific societies are doing.

o Others here raise the possibility of a government-funded panel, acknowledging as they suggest it that it may be difficult to fund it or to divorce it from political abuse. These concerns, frankly, are why I prefer going through the scientific societies and the NAS, because while they are fairly timid politically (they need to answer to large memberships, and their focus is on advancing the science, not making political waves) they have the advantages of autonomy in their budgets and agendas.

o A final option is to take advantage of community-based teaching, like adult continuing education programs (at least here in NYC, the 92nd St Y and CUNY each have terrific course catalogs open to the public). My fear is that most people today wouldn't have the time to go to these kinds of courses, and that biology would be too heavy a subject (they'd prefer wine-tasting or music appreciation courses, for example). But I could well be wrong, and I can appreciate the argument that it's better to reach a small group of passionate people really well, than to try to target everyone and do it weakly.

These four strategies are by no means something we need to choose between: rather, I think together they make up a pretty good outline of what a public science literacy program should encompass.


just wow

science stuff always blows my mind

and I'll be sure to avoid believing the nyt science pages (like I believe anything in the nytimes anyway)

thanks ep

freepatriot, I should have made clear in the post that the Science Times section that runs each Tuesday is almost always very well done. As has been pointed out to me, the Magazine (where the article here comes from) is run as a separate operation, with its own editors and writers (often freelancers). Again, the point here wasn't to pick on NYT -- their science coverage is among the best, and no one's without mistakes -- and I'm sure if I read any other papers I would find even more blatant mistakes even more often.

You can consider the NYT Magazine as its own publication, and treat it here as a stand-in for almost any press outlet in the country. I'll send a note on this to the Public Editor now, but the fact that no one else corrected it yet emphasizes my real point: that Americans are not well-versed enough in high school level biology to tell when they're getting good or faulty information, and that it's the basic biology repertoire of the American public -- not just the press -- that should be improved.

The fact that countless debates have been held over the content of high school biology courses by people who couldn't pass one of the courses in the first place is, of course, the topic for a separate rant elsewhere.


it is an old problem. I deal with it all the time trying to explain things to boards that have the money but not the skill for some technical matters.

It can be rewarding to condense something that is complicated into a very simple statement that is correct, instructive and yet clear to a layperson.

The larger print/online newspapers and magazines might do well if they don't have a dedicated person, who has followed these topics, to find and ask a guest contributor that will not only write a part of the piece but check the newspaper writers text.

I have done that on occasion. It is a way to get your name in print for one, and the big people like it as well, usually, after a certain time in the whole development cycle.

literacy is one thing... a good thing, but typically a conservative thing...

helping public understand how science can be useful in pursuing personal and social interests is something else...

unlike the interests expressed above in scientific societies & teaching "the epistemology" of science, i am more curious about how participatory forms of science education can engage the public in socially relevant and personally meaningful ways...

in such instances, i suspect scientific literacy would be a natural by-product of communicative activity...

: )

by the way I would never, ever, write about DNA.

incidently, an interesting example of participatory science in the New York Times was a piece about a local artist (Mosher) drawing a high water mark across NYC (that would result as a consequence of global warming)... good art, good reporting...

Science illiteracy is rampant, yes. One would expect that printed publications would have final reviews of technical articles done by those with the expertise to do so, but that is not the case. Apparently, publishing has gotten to the point where that is either too expensive or too time-consuming.

Case in point: see "Prime Vertebrae" illustration in current article in Seed, a journal whose intent is to increase science literacy. Not only did they reverse the cervical and thoracic vertebrae in the image, but the artist took some liberties to add some foramina here and there (observable because of the grid used as a background).

Also apparently missing is the prominent spinous process of the thoracic vertebra, seemingly because it would not allow the bone to lay attractively flat on the background. An amazing string of errors made for just an illustration of two little bones!

Sadly, this was an illustration to an otherwise good article by PZ Myers (of Pharyngula blog), and I'm sure that if they had asked HIM to review their artwork, he would have pointed out the errors.

It is a rare experience to read anything nowadays without finding at least a few errors, and it does seem that publishers don't really care anymore. Gone are the days when you could rely on the excellent editing that was famous in some publishing houses.

One of my favorite errors was in a story by the LA Times wherein they referred to Titan as a moon of Jupiter. This was in a story about one of the Voyagers.

CNN did a story about a NASA probe being tested in a cenote in Central America in which they said that Enceladus was the only body in the solar system, other than Mars and Titan, that was known to have liquids (or liquid bodies). I promptly e-mailed them with the obvious correction ('Hello, Earth?'). That was egregiously bad writing.

I expect at least the competence of an eighth-grade student in nationally-available work. (My eighth-grade science teacher would give some of these failing grades.)

It might be helpful to take a look "north of the border" at Canadian adult education. Granted, it's coordinated at the provicinial level, but I was pretty darned impressed by what I saw in late April of this year (At the University of Alberta).

The adult education programs were substantive, well-attended and cheap to attend. There were a series of week-long workshops for the curious on a host of topics (from history, culture, language and science). Granted, many of the attendees were retired, but there were also a few vacationing folks who were intensely curious.

If we're going to crank up general knowledge of science, we'll need ways to give people the time, space and affordable opportunities to learn. It in our country's best interests to be well-educated across the board, not just in various (and narrow) specialities.

I'm David Dobbs, who wrote the article on Williams syndrome you take issue with here. I don't mind having an error pointed out to me, but I think you need to consider the implications of the message you're sending with this post. The post suggests we should toss out or ignore an entire article about an interesting bit of science -- or perhaps never have printed it -- because of an isolated error. To do so, it seems to me, would harm rather than help the cause of making the public more educated about scientific matters.

The gist of your message seems to be that the error(s) in the description of meiosis are such that the writer and presumably the article "flunk" the test of scientific literacy. You end the piece by saying "we need reporters and editors to write at a level where they could pass high school biology, and we need a nation of readers able to recognize when they're failing and who know when to demand better sources." Presumably the mistake about meiosis shows clearly that I couldn't pass high school biology, and that I should thus not be writing about science. Presumably the rest of the article isn't worth reading, so grievous is this mistake about meiosis; and indeed, you don't mention the rest of the article, which reinforces the impression you feel the error in the third paragraph renders the whole thing suspect, unreliable, and worthless.

Some problems with this argument:

You point out one mistake in an article of 5500 words. There may be others as well; I'm human, it was a lot of material, I read and re-read scores of papers and interviewed scores of people and may have misunderstood a couple of other things, and the Times Magazine fact-checkers -- who, believe me, are extremely thorough -- are human too, and by nature must be generalists rather than specialists. So perhaps a couple other mistakes passed through the sieve. But I'm assuming you pointed out the one most you considered most grievous. So I got that wrong, and maybe a couple others.

Last I checked, however, getting one or two answers wrong in a long exam does not cause you to flunk the exam. You want writers who can pass high school biology? I did, and I passed college bio (Oberlin), and I could again. Your language leaves the impression I don't understand anything about biology. You leave unmentioned that after the 5500-word article also explains a lot of other science -- neurodevelopmental concepts, gene expression, gene-environment interactions, evolutionary and social-brain theory -- in a way that lay readers could understand. The vast majority of that material was vetted with experts and passed muster, with a few minor, much-appreciated corrections along the way. This one slipped through -- primarily because trying to explain a hemideletion to a lay audience in about 100 words is, as you suggest, extremely difficult. We decided to add that paragraph late in the going, to make clear the nature of the mishap (and that it wasn't inherited in the classic sense, the way, say, Down syndrome is), and in the extreme constrictions of time and space I overcompressed the language and described it poorly.

Yet because this error about meiosis was printed, you suggest -- you all but say -- that the I "flunk out" by failing to meet "a literacy standard at least as rigorous as what's expected of high school students" and that the article is so inaccurate that the public should "demand better sources.' So should I not have conceived, proposed, and written, and the Times not have published this piece? (The article was my idea, conceived only because despite my illiteracy I read and understood the neuroscientific literature, and most likely not have been pitched to the Times otherwise.) Would it have served society better to leave the social implications of Williams syndrome unexplored? Does the mistake about meiosis render the rest unfit for consumption? Does this article as a whole degrade rather than raise the public's scientific knowledge? Those are the impressions the post and its responses give.

It's fun, apparently, to catch the Times in an error. I suppose I can understand that. But it does not seem constructive to condemn, on the basis of an error about meiosis that has almost no bearing on the article's main subject, an entire article about a genetic syndrome and its highly intriguing implications about social behavior. I too want to see a more scientifically literate public. I'm not sure this game of Gotcha furthers that cause.

David, thanks for responding here. You may be surprised, but I agree with almost everything in your comment. In fact, I tried to emphasize (though I wish I'd done it better) that this was one mistake in an otherwise well-researched article, to acknowledge that it's difficult to convey these concepts concisely, and not to tear down the article as a whole (I thought it was a good piece).

I'm sorry that didn't come through better. I agree with you that I went overboard at the end of my post by generalizing that isolated error too broadly. I do think that an error this egregious, coming right at the beginning of an article in a major national medium, reflects poorly and shouldn't be shrugged off as just one of those mistakes that's bound to happen when writing a long article. Science writers shouldn't make such basic mistakes, and science editors shouldn't let them get to print.

But I agree completely with you that your article was a valuable and informative piece. If it hadn't been, I wouldn't have been reading it and would never have caught the error. It's an unhappy fact that I'm only going to find the problems in the really good articles in the really good media, because I'm not going to spend my time reading the shoddy ones. I could well have picked on the writer in February who got nucleotides and amino acids mixed up. I happened to pick on your piece because it was an example of how these errors appear even at the top tier of science writing.

The misinformation on any episode of CSI is far worse, and reaches a bigger audience. But it doesn't carry the same authority, and so it isn't held to the same standard. The error I pick on here isn't meant to knock you out of the top level; rather, it's because you're at the top level that I find such a stray error so unacceptable.

Fair enough, EP, and thanks for your gracious response. And I don't meant to shrug off the mistake, but merely to put it into perspective. Had it or a similar error formed a foundation of the piece, I'd have considered it much more serious. In any case, I've rewritten the paragraph many times in my head now and feel I'm CLOSE to conveying what needs to be conveyed in the space I had.

I do, by the way, know quite well the difference between genes and base pairs. In retrospect I see I settled on a poor solution to the problem of conveying this lost zipper-teeth idea, for the one I chose (a) treated 23 chromosomes as if they were in one long string and (b) poorly chose genes as the zipper teeth when, as you say, the more accurate choice for the tooth role in that metaphor is the base pair.

I regret I got it wrong, partly because there's so much pleasure in getting such passages right. Science writing has many pleasures, and one of the keenest is accurately conveying a complex fundamental process like meiosis or gene-environment interaction accurately, concisely, and clearly. Also one of the hardest things to do! I've illustrated that difficulty here, unfortunately, winning concision and clarity at the expense of accuracy -- one of those times when 2 out of 3 is ... well, not so good.

In any event, I think we're on the same side here, and hope I didn't sound overly combative. if your critique struck me as heavyhanded, rest assured it will help strengthen an already intense desire to Get It Right.

I've got to say, one of the most fun parts of writing a "picking-on-the-media" post is when I get about halfway through explaining how I think it SHOULD have been said, rewrite it six or twenty times, and finally realize the thing wasn't nearly as easy to say as I'd thought.

One crutch that some writers use is to avoid jargon by substituting baby talk, for example referring to a cell's nucleus as the "cell center," or embarking on tortured analogies. The Williams syndrome article did a good job of NOT succumbing to either of those problems. The zipper metaphor happened to be the wrong one for this case, but in the rest of the piece the language was not dumbed-down.

I ought to get more in the habit of saying what a piece does well, besides what it gets wrong -- not just for fairness's sake, but to remind myself what makes good writing work!

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