Junk science and junk bonds

Guess what Answers in Genesis is using to keep their sinking Creation “Museum” and “Ark Encounter” afloat? Junk bonds!

Guess what Answers in Genesis is using to keep their sinking Creation “Museum” and “Ark Encounter” afloat? Junk bonds!

Krakens and crackpots—again

The ridiculous idea of “kraken” arranging the ichthyosaur vertebrae as art claim made in 2011 appeared to be dead and forgotten—until last week, when it was revived with even worse logic—and the media ate it up!

The ridiculous idea of “kraken” arranging the ichthyosaur vertebrae as art claim made in 2011 appeared to be dead and forgotten—until last week, when it was revived with even worse logic—and the media ate it up!

Sham Science

The debunked “Bigfoot DNA” claim has just be re-asserted, and the Bigfooters have gone a step further: they proposed a scientific name for an organism that doesn’t exist!

The debunked “Bigfoot DNA” claim has just be re-asserted, and the Bigfooters have gone a step further: they proposed a scientific name for an organism that doesn’t exist!

Should we let the clowns run the circus?

The head of the House Science and Technology Committee (largely run by science deniers) is threatening to inject politics into the process by which NSF determines what science gets funded. This is incredibly dangerous and stupid for lots of reasons.


The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom
—Isaac Asimov

A few weeks ago, we heard in the news the chilling and alarming statement that Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the House Science and Technology Committee, wants to subject all the scientific research grants of the National Science Foundation (NSF) to political scrutiny. No longer was it sufficient that the NSF conduct peer review of grants by experts in the field to determine whether they are worthy of funding. No, the House Committee has decided that they are better judges of good science that the scientific community itself, and they ought to be able to override the decisions of scientists who work in the field.

We’ve seen this kind of political interference in science before, but never at such a high level. Even more disturbing, the GOP members of the House Science and Technology Committee are not the kind of people that most of us would want judging the quality of science. They are nearly all science deniers of one sort or another. This committee includes such luminaries as Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia (an M.D., even!), who said (in a recent speech at the Liberty Baptist Church Sportsman’s Banquet):

“God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. It’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior. There’s a lot of scientific data that I found out as a scientist [note: Broun is NOT a real scientist] that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I believe that the Earth is about 9,000 years old. I believe that it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says. And what I’ve come to learn is that it’s the manufacturer’s handbook, is what I call it. It teaches us how to run our lives individually. How to run our families, how to run our churches. But it teaches us how to run all our public policy and everything in society. And that’s the reason, as your congressman, I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C., and I’ll continue to do that.”

In addition to several other creationists on the panel, they also include Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner from Wisconsin. He’s one of the loudest climate-deniers in Congress, with a list of quotes showing he’s absorbed nearly every lie from the climate denier lobby. Or how about Congressman Ralph Hall from Texas, who

was asked about climate change and said, “I don’t think we can control what God controls.” He also said he agrees with Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) that climate scientists are involved in a conspiracy to receive research funding. When the reporter noted that a survey published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that 97 percent of climate-science researchers agree that human activities have contributed to global warming, Hall responded, “And they get $5,000 for every report like that they give out,” adding, “I don’t have any proof of that. But I don’t believe ‘em.”

Or take Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, who still chatters on about the debunked idea that scientists were predicting global cooling in the 1970s. Or Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, from an extremely conservative district in southern California. He has said in recent months that

an earlier period of global warming may have been caused by “dinosaur flatulence.” Last year, after coming under fire for seeming to suggest that if global warming is real it could be addressed by cutting down trees (when in fact forests reduce global warming by absorbing atmospheric carbon), he issued a statement saying, “I do not believe that CO2 is a cause of global warming.”

These statements of scientific illiteracy and science denialism are appalling enough by themselves, but even scarier is the thought that they come from the members of the House Science and Technology Committee! Lamar Smith (another climate change denier) is the Chair, Rohrabacher is the Vice-Chair, and Hall, Sensenbrenner, Broun, and Brooks are all prominent members. Previous members included the infamous Missouri Republican Todd Akin, a creationist with rather peculiar views on human reproduction. How is it that the House Committee with the greatest influence over science funding and policy in this country is dominated by people with demonstrably false views about science? How is is that the clowns are being allowed to take over the circus?

[It’s no surprise that most of these guys are climate deniers. In addition to climate denial being a party platform of the GOP, most of them received a major share of their campaign funds from the oil and gas industry. Lamar Smith received over $83,000 in 2012 alone from the oil industry, and over $342,000 from all energy industries since 1999. Ralph Hall’s largest contributor by far was oil and gas, with $59,000 in the last year alone. Broun received $10,000 from oil and gas, even though he represents a district in Georgia with no oil resources. You can go to the website www.opensecrets.org to find a rundown on how many of the climate deniers in Congress are heavily subsidized by the energy industry.]

This is not the first time we’ve heard politicians making appallingly ignorant statements about the value of science. Last year, Sarah Palin made a fool of herself attacking fruit fly research that was actually essential to prevention of an infestation of important crops in the U.S. Or take the recent attacks on a project doing research on snails, which sounded trivial at first until the important benefits were explained. Nearly every time politicians target one specific proposal (usually amounting only a trivial cost), they are quickly schooled on the fundamentals of the science, and why the project was deemed worthy of support by people who actually know science (as opposed to the science deniers and science illiterates on the House Science Committee).

Perversely using the Orwellian name “High-Quality Science Act,” Smith and the other members of that committee are now proposing new criteria for decisions about funding NSF grants, specifically that they “advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science.” However, we already spend a huge part of our federal budget on national defense, and health is funded by the NIH, so there’s no need for the NSF (which funds pure, non-defense related, non-health related, non-commercial science) to do the same. Besides, NSF grants already have that criterion built into them. When I wrote my last few grant proposals, “intellectual merit” was no longer sole criterion for funding, but we also had to discuss the “broader impacts” to the scientific community and society in our grants. When I served on NSF panels that looked at all the reviews and made the recommendations for funding, those “broader impacts” on society made a lot of difference on what grants actually get funded. That’s not a trivial task, since most branches of the NSF fund at most 20% to 30% of the proposals they receive, and lots of excellent, world-famous scientists get turned down routinely.

But this raises a larger question: how are we to know which research will advance society? As I pointed out in a previous post, “pure” science which follows curiosity and doesn’t need to justify its benefit to society is where nearly all the great breakthroughs in science occur. Many of the greatest discoveries are made by accident, by serendipity, and cannot be predicted or anticipated by the researcher trying to justify their work in a grant proposal. When we fund pure research, we make unanticipated discoveries that have been shown to pay off at least 20 times as much as they cost. If we clamp down on pure research and only fund projects which have obvious practical societal benefits, we will choke all the creativity and sense of exploration from science, and guarantee that we will no longer be the ones who make the next great, unanticipated discovery or breakthrough. Members of the scientific community who do the grant review process know this—but its clear from their track record that politicians don’t.

In a Slate blog, “Bad Astronomer” Phil Plait put it clearly:

This is not a joke. Smith wants politics to trump science at the National Science Foundation. This prompted a brilliantly indignant letter from Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), who calls this idea “destructive” to science. She’s right. What Smith is doing strongly reminds me of Lysenkoism, when the Soviet government suppressed science on genetics and evolution that didn’t toe the party line. In these attacks on the NSF, a few lines of research have been highlighted that sound silly out of context. We’ve seen this before from those on the far right who attack science, from Sarah Palin to the Wall Street Journal. But when you look more deeply into the research you usually find it’s actually quite important, leading to new insights in biology, medicine, and more. While government funds science and should have oversight to make sure that funding is fairly granted, the best people to make the decisions about what constitutes good science are the scientists themselves, not agenda- and ideologically-driven politicians. And there’s a bigger picture here as well. The entire endeavor of science must be allowed the freedom to pursue ideas wherever they lead, and must have the flexibility to pursue ideas that may not pan out. From a financial view, the ones that work invariably subsidize the ones that don’t. We can’t know in advance what lines of research will yield results, but the ones that do succeed benefit us, increasing our knowledge vastly and leading to a better understanding of the world. That’s a critical human endeavor, even ignoring the vast, overwhelming material benefit we get from scientific advances. And the huge return on investment we get as well. What Smith is advocating is incredibly dangerous. When a society’s government starts dictating what can and cannot be investigated, scientific and creative progress stalls. Lysenko’s work, advocated by Stalin, led to the USSR falling almost irretrievably behind other, more progressive countries; ones like the United States. That was a hard-won lesson in history for the Soviets, but apparently lost on many current American politicians.

Bellybuttons and Testable science

Many creationists try to get around the fact that the world LOOKS like it has a long history by arguing that God created it that way! That argument was actually first put forth in 1857, and completely rejected by both scientists and religious people, f…

Many creationists try to get around the fact that the world LOOKS like it has a long history by arguing that God created it that way! That argument was actually first put forth in 1857, and completely rejected by both scientists and religious people, for different reasons.

In the belly of the beast

Mathematician Jason Rosenhouse hangs out with the creationists, and reveals how they think

A Review of Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Lines,

by Jason Rosenhouse

(Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012, 256 pp.)

I’ve spent over 40 years of my life wrestling with the problem of creationism, while trying to maintain my research career, keep up with book deadlines, teach my classes, and take care of my family. As I described in my 2007 book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters, battling the evolution deniers seems to be a thankless, never-ending task because no amount of effort in science education or good science in the media seems to make any difference. Their numbers (around 40% of Americans) have remained constant in the polls over many decades, no matter what approaches are tried. This is an endless source of frustration for many of us, since creationism is like the many-headed Hydra in the labors of Hercules: every time you cut off one head, it grows back two more. Science never seems to make any progress in blunting their efforts to contaminate schools with their religious dogma. At the end of my 2007 book, I tried my best to delve into the psychology and motivation of creationists, and to understand why they can deny obvious reality and tell outright lies over and over again without any guilt or self-awareness.

But I rarely spend much of my precious time reading their literature any more (I’ve read much of it over 40 years, and it never changes), let alone paying my hard-earned money to hear them speak day after day. Listening to the way they lie and distort the facts, and call professional scientists evil, is too much for me to sit through without getting upset. But Jason Rosenhouse has a much stronger stomach for their garbage than I. He attended one creation conference after another, calmly listening to their preaching and talking to the attendees while maintaining his cool. For that alone, I am in awe of him.

Rosenhouse is Associate Professor of Mathematics at James Madison University in Virginia, having previously taught at Kansas State University, so he is close to the epicenters of much of the creationist movement in this country. He regularly discusses the topic on his EvolutionBlog. As he describes, he is culturally Jewish but became an atheist, yet he has the patience of Job to sit through days and days of creationist drivel and read their atrocious books without getting angry. He is genuinely interested in understanding who they are and what motivates them, and why they can shut themselves out of so much of scientific reality and believe so much that is patently false.

Rosenhouse’s approach in this book is to recount vignettes and anecdotes of his experiences at various creationist conferences and venues, intermingled with his dispassionate and extremely lucid dissection of the logical, philosophical, and scientific issues raised by creationism. He went, among other places, to the Creation Mega-Conference at Liberty University, the Darwin vs. Design Conference in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. He’s a mathematician by training, so he is personally offended when he hears creationists abuse math or statistics, just as I am when they lie about paleontology and fossils. In his words, “I am not saying that creationists had interesting points to make, but had misunderstood some difficult, technical detail. I am talking instead about errors indicative of a total incomprehension of the subject.” For a mathematician, his level of philosophical sophistication is very advanced. In chapter after chapter, he runs circles around many of the specious arguments used by creationists and theistic evolutionists who try to squirm out of the problem with special pleading. It comes as no surprise that he is also a ranked chess champion as well—he sounds like someone who is brilliant, cool, analytical, and dispassionate. Through all of his sacrifices spending time listening to the creationists, he is still honestly seeking answers to who these people are and what motivates them.

I found the motivation part of the book particularly revealing, because he has the patience to listen to them carefully, and analyze how their thinking works. It turns out that the answer in pretty clear and something we’ve known for a long time: creationists place their religious beliefs first, and anything else that science or culture tells them must conform or be twisted to fit their worldview. These beliefs include the idea that God watches over them, that there is a heaven, that humans are the purpose and goal of the universe, and that their religion provides the only source of meaning and morality in life. With such a strong belief filter in place, it’s no wonder that science such a threat to their worldview. They reject not only the idea that humans are related to the rest of the animal kingdom, but any science (geochronology, cosmology) which places humans at the very end of billions of years geologic history or away from the center of the universe. As they say over and over again, they view “Darwinism” as “reducing us to animals,” in their minds denying our “special relation to God” as well as “reducing morality to survival of the fittest” (the common confusion between evolutionary biology and social Darwinism). No wonder they reject not only the biological and paleontological evidence of our evolutionary relationships with other organisms, but also most of astronomy, geology, anthropology, and any other field that does not conform to this narrow but comforting perspective.

Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi, in his book The Great Derangement (2009), describes going undercover in an evangelical church for many months. He found that creationists live in a very cloistered cultish subculture, where they read only what their church elders tell them to read, attend many church meetings and intensive weekend retreats to receive constant reinforcement, and avoid listening to or reading any outside sources that might challenge their worldview. No wonder they never bother to learn about the actual facts of science or evolution, but instead they get a distorted view of science from their creationist leaders. Such cult-like isolation from the real world explains why no amount of presenting science to them in an appealing manner will ever reach them. As long as the conclusions of science threaten their cherished worldview, they are not going to change their minds or learn to distinguish real science from creationist bunk. Instead, as Rosenhouse details again and again, they are easily swayed by shallow intuitive arguments that sound good when you don’t think hard about them. But for a true skeptic like Rosenhouse, these arguments are very simplistic and unsatisfying, since he weighs evidence and looks at the totality of the argument from a much broader, less dogmatic perspective than do the creationists.

Among the Creationists is a very insightful book that allows the skeptic and scientist alike to better appreciate the forces that we are up against in the United States. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the creation-evolution wars as a valuable resource for dealing with the never-ending battle with the forces that deny science.

zip lines and con jobs

Two news developments from the creationism battlefield reveal their sleazy use of funds, and the financial problems of the “Creation Museum”

This week brings news from several different parts of the creationist battlefront. Even as Louisiana failed to overturn its recent law allowing the teaching of creationism in public schools (despite nationwide pressure led by student Zack Kopplin), there was some more revealing news from the two biggest creationist organizations in America:

1) In an earlier post, I discussed the decline in attendance and loss of money from Ken Ham’s “creation museum” in Kentucky. Now even they must pay attention to the problem, since the declining attendance has put a crimp in their budget and brought the fundraising for their “Ark encounter” to a standstill. Their problem, as I outlined before, is that their exhibit is 5 years old now and has not changed, so most of the local yokels who might want to visit it have done so. There’s no point to making the long trip and seeing the expensive “museum” again if there’s nothing new to see. (Unlike real science museums, which must change exhibits constantly not only to boost repeat attendance, but to reflect the changes in scientific thinking). As Mark Joseph Stern wrote on Slate.com:

There could be another explanation, though. A spectacle like the Creation Museum has a pretty limited audience. Sure, 46 percent of Americans profess to believe in creationism, but how many are enthusiastic enough to venture to Kentucky to spend nearly $30 per person to see a diorama of a little boy palling around with a vegetarian dinosaur? The museum’s target demographic might not be eager to lay down that much money: Belief in creationism correlates to less education, and less education correlates to lower income. Plus, there’s the possibility of just getting bored: After two pilgrimages to the museum, a family of four would have spent $260 to see the same human-made exhibits and Bible quote placards. Surely even the most devoted creationists would consider switching attractions for their next vacation. A visit to the Grand Canyon could potentially be much cheaper—even though it is tens of millions of years old.

So how did they deal with the attendance dilemma? Did they open some new galleries with “latest breakthroughs in creation research”? (No, that’s not possible because they don’t do research or learn anything new). No, they opted for the cheap and silly: make it into an amusement park with zip lines. Apparently, flying through the air for a few seconds suspended from a cable is the latest fad in amusements, so the Creation “Museum” has to have one to draw the crowds—and hope they can suck in a few visitors to blow $30 a head or more to see their stale old exhibits as well. Expect that by next year they’ll be a full-fledged amusement park with roller coasters and Tilt-a-whirls, just like so many other “Biblelands” do across the Deep South.

And what do ziplines have to do with creationism? As usual, they have a glib and non-responsive answer:

Zovath’s response to the museums critics who wonder how zip lining fits with their message?

“No matter what exhibit we add, the message stays the same,” Zovath said. “It’s all about God’s word and the authority of God’s word and showing that all of these things, whether it’s bugs, dinosaurs or dragons – it all fits with God’s word.”

I was hoping for something more imaginative and relevant, like “zip lines make you feel like an angel flying down from heaven.”

2) Our old friends at the Discovery Institute in Seattle (the main organization which once promoted the “intelligent design” argument until it died in court in 2005) are doing some very shady fundraising and bookkeeping. Their site is constantly beating the bushes to get religionists to contribute to them, and they have extensive funding from a number of right-wing foundations that want to promote religion in public society and get around the 1st Amendment separation of church and state. They have a budget that is ten times the size of what their main opponent, the tiny National Center for Science Education, has to spend. They claim to be a tax-exempt non-profit, yet they also claim not to be a religious organization.

So on what basis are they tax exempt? Are they really a charity which spends most of its funds on social welfare? The website Cenlamar.com dug into the 990 tax forms for the Discovery Institute, and found some remarkable things. Almost 90% of the money they raise goes to salaries of their “research fellows,” plus lawyers, lobbyists, administrators, overhead, and expenses. No more than 13% could go to what could charitably be called “research,” although they don’t actually publish ANY peer-reviewed research, only stuff for their own house journals, and PR documents to push their cause. As their founding document, the “Wedge Strategy”, pointed out at the beginning, their motive isn’t to discover new science; it is conduct a PR campaign to get their viewpoint equal time in public schools and elsewhere in the media and public discourse, and skip the hard, complicated process of doing the scientific research that might support their position. As Cenlamar.com points out, however, 90% spending on overhead and salaries is WAY out of line for a non-profit charity. By contrast, organizations like the BBB Wise Giving Allowance or American Institute of Philanthropy spend no more than 35-40% on the same thing, and the United Way spends only 20%. This is typical of most non-profit charities, and clearly the Discovery Institute is not following the normal guidelines for non-profts.

So how do they get away with it? They use a clever sleight-of-hand to dodge the IRS guidelines for tax-exempt charities. They make “grants” to something called the “Biologic Institute”, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Discovery Institute. Then the Biologic Institute spends this “grant” money for more salaries and overhead. Even though they claim to the IRS that they are funding grants, they are essentially sending the grant money to themselves to dodge the tax structure. I’m not familiar with the tax laws, but this sounds like a pretty shady deal which clearly violates the spirit if not the letter of the tax laws. As Cenlamar.com shows, it’s a “con-profit”, not a real non-profit. It’s a great con job which allows them to essentially spend all their money on their PR campaign and their staffers, with no obligation to do actual research, or to send money outside their own building.

So much for the honesty of these “Christian” creationists….

Sex, dinosaurs, or chocolate

A workshop of scientists and journalists entitled “Reporting across the Culture Wars” wrestled with the issues of science journalism for three long days—and learned a lot from each other.

The workshop was held at NESCent, with modern facilities built inside classic old brick buildings that used to be warehouses on the Duke campus

The workshop was held at NESCent, with modern facilities built inside classic old brick buildings on the Duke campus that used to be warehouses

On the weekend of March 22-24, 2013, I was privileged to be part of an amazing workshop entitled “Reporting across the culture wars: engaging media on evolution.” Hosted by the NSF-sponsored think tank, the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) on the Duke University campus in Durham, North Carolina, it brought together some of the top names in both science and journalism, all experienced in the battle over evolution and creationism. It was organized and moderated by Lauri Lebo, the local reporter at the 2005 Dover, Pennsylvania, “Intelligent Design” trial who wrote a best-selling book, The Devil in Dover, about her experience, and by molecular biologist Dr. Norman Johnson of University of Massachusetts Amherst. These two organizers raised the funds to bring in a very diverse panel of experts, including Dr. Ken Miller of Brown University, one of the leading biologists battling creationism (he was the star of the Dover trial, and has beaten creationists in debates many times); Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), who handles their efforts to support citizens fighting creationism in their schools; several authors of books about evolution and creationism, including yours truly, plus Dr. Michael Berkman of  Penn State, Dr. David Long of George Mason University, and Dr. Daniel Fairbanks of Utah Valley University; a distinguished group of biologists, including Dr. T. Ryan Gregory of Guelph University, Dr. Melissa Wilson Sayres of UC Berkeley, Dr. Craig McLain of NESCent, and Dr. David Hillis of the Univ. Texas Austin; anthropologists, including Dr. Holly Dunsworth of Univ. Rhode Island, Dr. David Long, and Dr. Briana Pobiner of the Smithsonian; and paleontologists including myself and Brian Switek of the Laelaps blog on Smithsonian.com. Among the journalists were Greg Bowers of the Univ. Missouri Journalism school, Lou DuBose of the Washington Spectator, Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones, as well as e-journalists such as Cara Santa Maria, the science editor of The Huffington Post (her regular podcast, “Talk Nerdy to Me”, is a big hit on HuffPo), and Danielle Lee and Bora Zivkovic of the Scientific American blog. In addition, there were local Public Information Officers (PIOs), who handle press relations for scientists, including Dr. Robin Smith of NESCent and Karl Bates of Duke University. In short, this panel brought both a lot of experience and a lot of brainpower to the discussion, with a panel ranging from freelance print journalists to e-journalists to science writers to distinguished scientists in biology, anthropology, and paleontology—and nearly everyone on the panel has their own blog.

The panel met in a large room with a U-shaped table, and everyone had their laptops open as they multitasked.

The panel met in a large room with a U-shaped table, and everyone had their laptops open as they multitasked.

Naturally, with all this experience and brainpower, and diversity of background and opinions, it was difficult to keep the discussion very focused on one idea for long. It was often an exercise in herding cats. This group was amazingly tech-savvy, so many of them were tweeting away throughout the meeting, and you can capture the drift of the discussion by following the Storify version of the tweets here. As someone who has just stepped into the world of iPhones and has 4000 “friends” on Facebook but refuses to yield to Twitter yet (I already spend too much time on line), it was amazing to see all the multitasking going on. The panel was both trying to follow the conversation and contribute to it, but also tweeting and checking their laptops for the latest on Facebook and their Twitter feed. The moderators were fairly hands-off and let the discussion proceed organically, so we covered a lot of ground but didn’t focus on any topic for too long. After the initial greetings, Ryan Gregory and Norman Johnson did a brief presentation “Evolution 101: What scientists want journalists to know”, which focused on many of the fallacies in the public conceptions of evolution that are often perpetuated by journalists. These included the  ”march through time” linear portrayals of evolution versus “tree thinking”,  misconceptions about “primitive” organisms and anthropocentric portrayals of evolution as culminating in humans, misconceptions about natural selection and population concepts vs. change happening in individuals, and some basics of genomics. Much of the presentation was interrupted by passionate complaints from some journalists about how these concepts are already too advanced and abstract not only for more science-illiterate Americans, but even for most journalists. When several examples were presented, the journalists argued that the subtle differences between “right” and “wrong” versions of the biology were nearly impossible to render in a short article or post, and the differences won’t be remembered by most readers anyway. Lauri Lebo then summarized the journalist’s perspective, pointing out how fast conventional print journalism is vanishing and how many journalists are losing their jobs, how the journalistic world has changed with the expansion of e-journalism and major science blogs, and especially how science blogging has become the latest method for fact-checking when a hot science story breaks but has not been fully vetted or peer reviewed. In fact, the room featured some of the most prominent science bloggers in the country, many of whom were also trained scientists as well. After lunch on Day 1, the entire group was broken into five small groups of five people, each a mixture of scientists and journalists. Each group ended up coming up with their own view of the most important issues, but we came to a lot of similar conclusions. Most ideas were focused on the difficulty for modern journalists (with the print media and their jobs vanishing and their training in science very limited) of keeping up with and doing a good job reporting science accurately and yet make it comprehensible to the layperson. Several times the journalists reminded us of the differences between “news” and “regular science”, with the “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality in most journalism. The meme “it’s only going to be reported if it has sex, dinosaurs, or chocolate in it” soon became the regular gag line of the meeting. The scientists pointed out that most science is pretty conventional and rarely leads to startling or shocking conclusions, and thus not “newsworthy”—yet essential to the scientific enterprise of slowly expanding knowledge. I pointed out that science and journalism work on very different time scales, with months to years for a single scientific publication to reach press, and even many more months before a startling idea that is featured in the media and then forgotten has been truly evaluated by the scientific community.

Day 2 began with another free-ranging session which focused on the parallels between pseudoscience and “pseudojournalism” (never clearly defined, but vaguely referring to “journalism” produced as propaganda by denier groups with an agenda, or just plain sloppy, poorly researched science journalism). We then broke into two different groups. One group (mostly journalists) went to a different room and discussed the issues associated with the anti-vaxxer scare. I remained with the group which discussed the problems with the reporting last year about the ENCODE project, which falsely claimed to have shown that there was very little “junk DNA”, and used over-the-top publicity tactics that claimed that the project could cure cancer and many genetic diseases. The journalists in this room, however, pointed out that it was the lead scientists of Project ENCODE who had misled the journalists with their exaggerated claims (“the biology textbooks will need to be rewritten” and “this discovery is groundbreaking” are clear red-flags for science hype), and the journalists only fed this false message to the public uncritically. After both groups took a break for lunch, we heard Ken Miller summarize some of his personal experiences as the key witness in the Dover trial, including “know your audience,” “be clear and keep your wording simple,” and “use simple analogies to make your point.” Then we  began to draft a document of “best practices” or “do’s and don’t’s” for both scientists and journalists when it comes to working with each other, and reporting a science story accurately but simply enough that the average reader can comprehend it. I won’t repeat the entire list but I’ll post it here. Most of the key issues revolved around scientists trying to get the journalists to write accurately about complex issues without oversimplifying or using bad metaphors, while avoiding ambushing the scientists or misquoting them. Journalists need scientists to be more PR-savvy, be prepared to explain any science story so that your grandmother could understand it, and make the importance of the project as clear as possible without overdoing the hype and overselling the importance of the research. By the end of Day 2, we were getting worn out, and glad for a short popsicle break at a local Durham favorite, Locopops.

By Sunday, Day 3, the discussion was much looser and more relaxed as we covered issues not previously discussed, and tried to sum up what we had learned over the marathon weekend session. Since we all had to catch the airport shuttle bus at 2:00, we wound up early after lunch, and most of the time each of us was busy tweeting or sending posts on our blogs or Facebook. Then we all charged out into the cold rain and rode the shuttle to the airport, and before long we were all battling the airlines on our way home (13 hours in transit for me). But we all agreed that we came away with a lot of important insights about the process of science journalism, the differences between the needs and practices of scientists vs. journalists, and the pitfalls of making science understandable and interesting to a public that cares more about Kim Kardashian or Lindsay Lohan that it does about science which might change their lives or their futures.

Personally, I found the workshop a very surprising and novel experience. I’ve been to three Penrose Conferences (I’ve organized and moderated two of them), and these meetings (sponsored by the Geological Society of America) are somewhat similar in format. They are built on the same loose structure, where the moderators let every topic develop without a strict time limit, and no one attends without presenting something. However, this is the first such meeting I’ve attended where I had no formal responsibilities to present a talk.  I was happy to let the more talkative people speak  while I  just sat back and listened; I only chimed in when I felt I had something useful to offer. (And since I didn’t tweet my thoughts, I’m not represented on the Storify twitter summary). Hearing the opinions of so many people from different perspectives, from print journalists to e-journalists to PIOs, to scientists of other fields, was refreshing and eye-opening to me. Most importantly, we arrived on Friday morning as complete strangers (I had previously only met Miller, Rosenau, and Switek), but by the end we each knew the others very well, and had bonded over our shared experience. I now have a network of people I can use as a resource for almost anything, from my book writing to my blogging, to getting my writing featured in major media where it would get more attention.

There is no symposium volume of our observations, and we didn’t solve all the issues of science journalism overnight, but our “list of best practices” is a starting point. It appears this meeting will be the seed for further meetings down the road, which could be even more productive if they are more focused on a specific goal. Already my email box is full of the chatter between us as we e-brainstorm ideas that we never got around to discussing while we were all together. We may not have solved the problem of how to deal with creationists or climate-change deniers or anti-vaxxers, but I think we learned a lot of important things for scientists to know about journalism, and journalists to know about science, and that’s essential in this changing landscape of science journalism.