What I Meant When I Meant What I Said: Checking and Blogging and Writing about Science edition

James Kwak over at Baseline Scenario paid me the compliment today of taking something I wrote recently quite seriously.  In the last section of my tome of a screed about Megan McArdle’s misleading use of sources to defend a dubious position on health care reform, I went all Mrs. Grundy on the obligations of science journalists, the need to be meticulous in checking the literature and handling sources.

But then Kwak used what I had written about McArdle to query his own blog practices — and while I certainly don’t mind introspection by any writer — his worries made me realize that I hadn’t been quite clear about how my plaints about science journalism dovetailed with my complaint about McArdle’s blog writing.

There is, I think, a difference obvious to everyone not hopelessly invested in alter kocher journalism, between blogs and other forms — features, books and so on. That there are huge variations, even genres in blog writing is obvious too, but I’m not going there.  Here I just want to talk about issue or subject focused blogging with pieces that mostly follow the text-and-exegesis form familiar to anyone who’s listened to a sermon (however skillfully buried the text might be).

There, the reader understands that what s/he’s getting is interpretation.  The essential bargain to be made with the reader is that whatever the text may be has been accurately represented.  In our journalism instruction at MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing, this is where we emphasize the need (especially for investigative pieces) of making sure you present your source’s argument as well as they would if they could.

But what I was trying to point out is that McArdle routinely performs a sleight of hand.  She asserts journalism, research specific to the posts at hand.  She makes claims of fact, of having reported some story or part of a story — and then uses that claimed authority to assert her opinion as fact — or perhaps better, as logically necessary.  In the post I attempted to eviscerate, she claimed that her reading of the academic literature proved that we have to pay whatever Big Pharma wants, for the alternative had been shown to be the death of grandma.

Which is bullsh*t, as I attempted to demonstrate in the series linked above.

That is:  I think it’s reasonable to demand that folks making claims that are essentially classically journalistic do what journalists should do (though that obligation is certainly often enough honored in the breach) — they can’t just run on their gut; they have to report, check, verify.

Kwak’s response to that was (a) to question whether he does what he should in his own blogging and (b) whether, as the current controversy over Leavitt and Dubner’s Superfreakonomics suggests this is a general problem with any attempt to run a discourse, online or off.

I leave (a) aside:  again, I think that as long as blogging is honest about its own ambitions, the charges I levy at McArdle don’t apply.  As for (b), I agree with Kwak that this is an issue to which there aren’t obvious solutions — and certainly there does seem to be a Gresham’s law of argument: bad flashy stuff drives out good as often as not.

That is:  the miracle of McArdle and others like her is that such a sustained run of shoddy work hasn’t made her an embarrassment too great to bear even for those who are in sympathy with her rhetorical goals.  But, really,  it comes as no surprise that our journalistic society mirrors society at large, in which identity — membership in an in-group, an institution, The Atlantic! — counts for much more than action, the actual quality of one’s deeds or work.  Same goes for Leavitt and Dubner, the real subject of Kwak’s post, and many more besides.

But I do not think, and I didn’t want to imply in my rather waspish remarks that seem to have troubled Kwak, that the relative lack of internal checks in online writing is the chief problem.  It’s not the errors that occur (though they are damned embarrassing when you have to admit them).  Rather, the question is whether or not criticism of bad work can catch up to the impact of the shoddy stuff in our society.

And my answer is a hearty maybe.  We get the norms we enforce as a society.  In the blogosphere, we have more tools of enforcement now:  more voice.

I’m not Dr. Pangloss. The McArdles of the world, the Douthats and the Kristols and all their herd, paid and happy to comfort the comfortable, are always going to have big megaphones, perhaps the biggest.  And certainly the right-blogosphere shows that there are plenty of rank and file out there to amplify voices that should be ridiculed into silence.

But the fact that what would quite recently have been allowed to echo through the discourse essentially unchallenged is now almost immediately entangled in argument is what gives me hope.

Compare this health care debate with that of 1992.   Betsy McCaughey’s nonsense, propelled into national prominence by Andrew Sullivan in TNR, managed to contribute a great deal to the dismantling of health care reform then; this time, it has not, though some damage has been done.  One big difference is that despite dismal coverage by most of the MSM, a lot of online writers have hammered the death panel crap and all the rest, to real effect.

It’s a wearying prospect, having to jump up and down again and again on knowing deceit and simple willed not-knowing.  And the sheer repetition of the same zombie stories induces incredulity:  surely no one can believe this or that idiocy; shurely we need not go down this path again.

But in essence, that’s the job — or rather, that’s the tool we have now:  the ability to create and nurture the counter argument.  It’s deeply imperfect, but it is I think demonstrably better than the situation as recently as the late nineties, when the media seemed literally about to collapse to no more than five or six huge organizations.

Or so it seems at this hour past the acceptable time for blogging.

Good night, all.

Image:  cartoon of Czech painter Soběslav Pinkas (left) and reporter P. V. (right), before 1872

Explore posts in the same categories: blogospheric tail chasing, future of journalism, Journalism and its discontents, quis custodiet ipsos custodes

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3 Comments on “What I Meant When I Meant What I Said: Checking and Blogging and Writing about Science edition”

  1. Bill Keane Says:

    Just wanted to say thanks for what you have done on this issue. Everyone loves a good wingnut bollocking but the beauty of your contribution is its focus on substance. If there is one wish I have for internet discourse (and communication generally) it is – “more light, less heat”. You cannot persuade anyone unless you first inform them and you are about as informative as they come. Thanks and best regards,

    • Tom Says:

      Many thanks Bill. It’s fun, though I have to ration myself, otherwise I’d run out of both hours and happy places to go to when the crazy gets too much.

      best T.

  2. AJ Hill Says:

    I share your annoyance at the innumeracy [pace Prof. Paulos!] of individual writers
    and bloggers, but I’m bothered even more by large scale organizations that are dedicated to spreading scientific misapprehension.

         I refer to groups like The Discovery Institute and
    the von Mises Institute, which strive to
    lend faux respectability to purveyors of nonsense. As you probably know better than I, their efforts can be dismayingly effective. Without a formal background in physics, for example, even an intelligent and otherwise well informed person might be deceived by this
    misconstrual of thermodynamics.

         Professional organizations like the National Academy of Sciences, go to great lengths to facilitate the spread of scientific knowledge, but they’re hampered in their work when contemporary news services fail to distinguish between them and unqualified sources in reporting scientific issues.


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