Recap of “Science Writing in the Age of Denial” (part 2)

My Storify recapping of last week’s Science Writing in the Age of Denial” conference continues….

Previously, I recapped the first two sessions of the meeting organized by the University of Wisconsin-Madison (April 22-24, 2012), which covered “Communicating Science in Politicized Environments” and “The Denial of Evolution, and the Evolution of Denial.” (In the interest of disclosure, I should note that last fall I was a science writer in residence at UW-M, and that I was a paid, invited participant in the meeting.) Now I’ll pick up with what happened in the two later sessions that first day.

Cheerleading, Shibboleths and Uncertainty

There was no better keynote speaker for this session than Gary Schwitzer (@garyschwitzer), the founder of The site, funded by the Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making, provides independent reviews of the accuracy, balance and completeness of news stories about medical treatments, tests, procedures, and products.

Unfortunately, Schwitzer explained, about 70 percent of all the stories evaluated by HealthNewsReview failed to meet those criteria. Rather, too much of the time, medical news was dominated by an attitude of uncritical cheerleading for any and all new offerings, without an adequate exploration of the relative costs, tradeoffs in risks, credibility of the evidence or conclusions, conflicts of interest, and other important considerations. (A list of the site’s rating criteria can be found here.)

New medical technologies he said, get treated like “shibboleths”—objects of cultish devotion. As a consequence, journalists who should be helping to their audience to set intelligent health agendas are instead just flooding the public with half-baked information and conflicting messages, according to Schwitzer. With a dig at FOX News (which he said was notably awful in this regard), Schwitzer called the present “an age of infoxification.”

For a good example of a dreadful phenomenon, Schwitzer pointed to coverage of cancer screening. Mass screening is expensive and potentially harmful, so it should be balanced against the potential benefits. But anyone recommending that younger people not get mammograms or prostate antigen tests was loudly accused of wanting to “ration health care” or not caring whether people died.

Schwitzer has posted some of the slides from his presentation online. …

Read the rest of my recap on Storify….

Category: Climate, Environment, Evolution, Health, Journalism, Media, Politics, Science Writing, Skepticism | 1 Comment

Recap of “Science Writing in the Age of Denial” (part 1)

Here begins my Storify summation of day one from this week’s timely conference, “Science Writing in the Age of Denialism.”  Go to the conference website for complete details on panels and speakers, which also featured PLoS Bloggers Deborah Blum and Steve Silberman.  (In case you’re not familiar with Storify, what you’re reading between the short passages I wrote is a selected assortment of tweets made by participants at the conference on the hashtags #sciencedenial and #denialconf, and which I later curated.) I’ll have one or more further summaries of this sort on the rest of the conference, which I’ll try to complete soon.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison assembled a roster of science-writing all-stars to consider the roots of the public’s resistance to accepting the science about evolution, climate change, vaccines, and other matters.

The organizers made their goals for the event clear in the description listed on its website at

Science writers now work in an age where uncomfortable ideas and truths meet organized resistance. Opposing scientific consensus on such things as anthropogenic climate change, the theory of evolution, and even the astonishingly obvious benefits of vaccination has become politically de rigueur, a litmus test and a genuine threat to science. How does denial affect the craft of the science writer? How can science writers effectively explain disputed science? What’s the big picture? Are denialists ever right?

Welcome and Introduction

Science writer par excellence Deborah Blum of UW-M welcomed the audience at the event’s start and introduced some of those making it possible. University chancellor David Ward considered the tensions between science and irrationality, modernity and anti-modernity, inclusive pluralism vs. ideological pluralization.

David Krakauer, the head of the relatively new Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (the venue for the day’s discussions), then pointed out that all of us engage in our own forms of denial. For example, journalists covering the denial of climate warming et al. fooled themselves into thinking that they could change public opinion. For decades, Krakauer noted, popular films had carried the message that we ignore scientists’ warnings at our peril, yet the public still had this distrust of scientists.’

David Krakauer: “the science communicator’s denial? That the work makes a difference.” #sciencedenial sciencedenial

David Krakauer: “If Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott have failed, what can science writers do?” #sciencedenial   Mark Riechers

“But journalists aren’t the only ones.”  Scott Dodd

“We’re actually in the age of denial – of the end.” John Krakauer #sciencedenial Adam Hinterthuer

Communicating Science in Politicized Environments

Arthur Lupia, professor of political science at the University of Michigan, kicked off the session with an energetic and engrossing review of what biology and psychology had discovered about the challenges of making complex arguments to diverse audiences. The fleeting, fragmented nature of human attention and the phenomenon of “motivated reasoning” almost guarantee that people will not absorb and accept upsetting information unless it speaks meaningfully to their priorities and values.

Lupia: “Familiar communication plan is that if we give people right info, they will make the right decisions. But often fails.” #sciencedenial John Rennie

Lupia: “The problem is us, not them. We have unrealistic expectations about how they’ll react to info.”  #sciencedenial John Rennie

Read the rest of my report on Storify

Category: Climate, Evolution, Health, Journalism, Media, Science Writing, Skepticism | 6 Comments

Coffee, Bugs, and Death

Credit: Sheri Terris, via Flickr

People, why must you ruin my coffee-drinking life? When I indulge my fondness for the nectar of the burnt bean, I’m looking for a rich java experience, one brightened with a faint hint of bugs and a remote hope for the sweet surcease that only caffeinated death could bring. Must you take even this from me?

Buckling under pressure from the all-powerful vegan lobby, Starbucks has announced that it will soon stop preparing some of its drinks and foods with a red dye made from crushed insects. As the Associated Press reports:

The company says it will swap out cochineal extract, which is made from the juice of a tiny beetle, and instead use lycopene, a tomato-based extract.

Cochineal dye is widely used in foods and cosmetics products such as lipstick, yogurt and shampoo. Starbucks had used the coloring in its strawberry flavored mixed drinks and foods like the raspberry swirl cake and red velvet whoopie pie.


Let us first stipulate that I am already on the record as a man not unwilling to eat insects. Indeed, sometimes I can be enthusiastic about the prospect. (Why? Circle of life, my friends, the circle of life: the bugs will get their chance soon enough.)

But lycopene? Does no one see what putting a tomato extract into foods already laden with sugar, corn syrup, salt, and other ingredients will mean? It will mean that they are making ketchup! You can’t add ketchup to whoopee pies! It’s madness!

Furthermore, are people unaware of the noble history of the insect dye in question, as so gloriously explained by Amy Butler Greenfield in her book A Perfect Red (HarperCollins, 2005)? The cochineal insect (Dactylopius coccus), which is native to cacti growing in Mexico and other parts of Central America, produces the dyestuff (also known as carminic acid) in its exoskeleton to repel predators

"Indian Collecting Cochineal with a Deer Tail" by José Antonio de Alzate y Ramírez (1777). (Credit: Newberry Library)

The Aztecs and Mayans discovered the dyestuff (also known as carmine) in crushed preparations of the cochineal insect (Dactylopius coccus) native to cacti growing in Mexico and other parts of Central America and used it to create fabrics more vividly colored than any seen before. (The carminic acid in the insect’s exoskeleton helps it to discourage predators.) In 1519 Spanish conquistadors brought it back to Europe and gave Spain a prized monopoly on the dyestuff for many years: after silver, cochineal became the most valued commodity imported from Mexico. Greenfield describes how the brilliance of what the chemist Robert Boyle hailed as “a perfect Scarlet” ignited a fierce industrial struggle among European powers:

Determined to break Spain’s lucrative monopoly, other nations turned to espionage and piracy. In England, the Netherlands, and France, the search for cochineal soon took on the tone of a national crusade. Kings, haberdashers, scientists, pirates, and spies all became caught up in the chase for the most desirable color on earth.

Meanwhile, as bright red fabrics and pigments became more widespread, European attitudes toward the color red changed. Red garments, which had once been available only to the wealthy, nobility, and high-ranking clergy, was embraced by the poorer classes—and that in turn led the contrary Victorian gentry to start wearing dark clothes and to dismiss red as vulgar, immoral extravagance.

By the 1880s, the invention of inexpensive artificial dyes such as alizarin had busted the market for cochineal, and the laborious raising and collection of cochineal insects on plantations around the world mostly ended. Today, Peru is the leading exporter of cochineal, primarily for food colorings and cosmetics in which all-natural ingredients are prized.

As Greenfield wrote in her book’s prologue:

The history of this mad race for cochineal is a window onto another world — a world in which red was rare and precious, a source of wealth and power for those who knew its secrets. To obtain it, men sacked ships, turned spy, and courted death.

Ladies and gentlemen, I beg of you, let us not spurn cochineal casually. It is a proud, magnificent tradition that we honor when we drink our heroic flagons of strawberry frappuccino.

• • •

Indeed, should we not cherish the death-defying act involved in drinking every cup of coffee? Years ago when I worked in a cell biology lab at Harvard Medical School, the other techs and I would sometimes eye the big plastic bottle of pure caffeine powder stored in one of the reagent freezers. (It was a hand-me-down from some long-forgotten set of experiments unrelated to anything we did.) We would idly speculate about what would happen if we were to take a big heaping teaspoon of the white powder and swallow it all in a gulp. How fast would our hearts explode?

And is there any grad student or journalist on deadline who hasn’t morbidly wondered whether his or her next cup of coffee might not be one too many, freeing us from all care forevermore? What simple joy such thoughts brought us.

But apparently the very witty David Ng cannot leave well enough alone: he has gone and calculated exactly how much coffee we would need to drink for its caffeine to kill us. Read all the details of his back-of-the-envelope calculations, because the problem turns out to be more complicated than one might think. Death by coffee means not only consuming enough to achieve a lethal concentration of caffeine in the tissues but also overcoming the rates of elimination of caffeine from the body.

Long story short, Dave makes a case that drinking enough coffee to kill yourself with caffeine (or with over-hydration, for that matter) borders on the impossible:

I haven’t had a chance to extrapolate this over the full year (365 days), but I’m pretty sure that even a constant coffee drinking regime (1 cup every 24 minutes for the full year) wouldn’t work out to a retention amount above the lethal dose.

All to say that your body pretty much kicks ass in its remarkable metabolism. Now, it’ll be interesting to maybe dig a little deeper with regards to how messed up a person gets with that base 2500mg inside them (as I’m sure the case will be). As well, not sure what the deal would be with 15 litres of expresso shots per day – that may just about be enough!

To which I can only say: Stop ruining away my fantasies, Dave Ng! You’re in no position to dismiss the deadliness of my habit because you have never tasted my coffee.

Category: Entertainment, Health, Science Writing | 4 Comments

Science Bloggers’ Year of Favorites

Yesterday, I put together a list of my favorite pieces of my own work from the past year. But why not spread the favoritism around? Here’s a compilation of similar lists—some selecting the writer’s own work, some shining the spotlight on others who deserve it—by the science blogosphere’s brightest. I’ll try to update it as I learn of others; please feel welcome to add more in comments.

My apologies to anyone I’ve managed to leave out; if this exercise in compilation shows anything, it’s that the science blogosphere is rich in wonderful voices and remarkable writing. Thanks for lots of great work, everybody.

Category: Media, Science Writing | 8 Comments

2011: The Year in Me

Having misplaced my anti-narcissism drugs earlier this week, I can’t see any reason not to usurp the year-end retrospective trope and look back at some of what I’ve most enjoyed writing in 2011. I don’t maintain that the stories listed below are objectively my best work—that’s for others to decide. But these are my favorites, for reasons I’ll try to note briefly.

A great many of them appeared here on “The Gleaming Retort” at PLoS Blogs. And why wouldn’t they? PLoS Blogs was kind enough to invite me to be one of its writers when the site debuted. It gave me complete freedom to write what and how I wishes, and it let me bask in the elevating company of Steve Silberman, Deborah Blum, David Kroll, Daniel Lende and Greg Downey, Peter Janiszewski and Travis Saunders, Misha Angrist, Martin Fenner, Melinda Wenner Moyer, Sarah Kavassilis, Seth Mnookin, Shara Yurkiewicz, Hillary Rosner, Emily Anthes, and Jessica Wapner, along with (pause for breath) the contributors to EveryONE, PLoS Podcast, Speaking of Medicine, The Official PLoS Blog, The Guest Blog, and The Student Blog—as accomplished, gifted, smart and warm a group of writers and people as you’ll find anywhere in the science blogosphere. (And no, I don’t always count writers as people. Why? Because I’m an editor, and I’ve watched writers eat.)

So let’s start with what my favorites for PLos Blogs and proceed in no particular order thereafter.

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Category: Animal Behavior, Artificial Intelligence, Biology, Climate, Creationist Twaddle, Economics, Energy, Entertainment, Environment, Evolution, Evolutionary Psychology, Health, Journalism, Media, Politics, Psychology, Science Writing, Skepticism, Technology | 3 Comments

A Final Word from Management

Take the fight to your adversary without warning. That advice from my father, which he would utter so frequently during the long, brutal training sessions in ninjitsu that consumed my childhood, came back to me as I placed the explosive squib by Brian Mossop’s door. Attack without hesitation.

Penetrating the outermost layers of security in the cliffside fortress that PLoS kept as its headquarters had been elementary: the guards silently dispatched, the lasers easily deflected, the genetically engineered honey badgers roaming the grounds distracted by my robotic cobra decoys. But this office was the inner sanctum of the community manager himself, and the defenses that he might have rigged against his countless enemies were impossible to foresee. My only hope was to take him by surprise here, to hope that my training would be sufficient, so that I might at least put an end to his online reign of terror. Strike without mercy.

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Category: Entertainment, Science Writing | 3 Comments

Revkin Replies to “False Equivalence” Post

Andy Revkin has been kind enough to respond to my previous post about his “False Equivalence on Climate Message Machines.” He’s gentleman enough to concede that he was overly glib in equating a scholarly paper’s study of how institutions push climate disinformation to a climate blogger’s name-calling parody of it. His mea culpa covers only the least important point in my critique, however. The more important matter was whether Andy truly regarded the climate disinformation apparatus discussed in the paper as equivalent to the scientific bodies, IPCC, environmental groups and other organizations that promote climate activism.

Andy seems to leave little room for doubt that he does: as he describes them, they represent committed points of view and both make statements that aren’t trustworthy, so they are more or less the same. The actual differences in how well or truthfully those sides have historically represented the science involved don’t seem to make much of a difference. Systematic efforts to undermine the science by sowing uncertainty wherever possible are apparently no worse than overstatements and zealous rhetoric. (And put aside questions about the motivations on both sides.)

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Category: Climate, Economics, Energy, Environment, Journalism, Politics, Science Writing, Technology | 7 Comments

Revkin’s False Equivalence on Climate Message Machines

One can certainly debate how much the spread of misinformation on the science of global warming has hurt efforts to develop rational policy responses to climate change. Maybe the deep cultural issues on either side of the divide would always doom the discussion, as the work on cultural cognition argues. Or maybe the unscientific falsehoods spread by those opposing recognition of the problem have had a larger influence in locking up the political process over the issue. But surely we can all agree that misleading or sloppily written articles don’t help the situation.

Which brings me to an unfortunate post on Andy Revkin’s widely read Dot Earth blog this past Sunday, concerning “A Map of Organized Climate Change Denial.” As Keith Kloor of Collide-a-Scape remarked (in a post more supportive of Andy’s than I can be):

So two antagonists representing opposite ends of this debate fault Revkin for his interpretation of the chart. Make of that what you will.

What I make of it is that in an almost reflexive effort to seem journalistically objective and above the fray, Andy unnecessarily created a false equivalence between many of the people and organizations on either side of the climate dispute. As such, he’s stumbled into exactly the kind of bad “he said, she said” coverage of the topic that most science journalists and critics such as Jay Rosen have come to recognize as deficient. (Andy has seemed to speak out against it himself, too, so it’s all the more disappointing that he’s committed it here.)

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Category: Climate, Energy, Environment, Politics, Science Writing | 27 Comments

So Why Does the Garlic Trick Work?

When it comes to cooking and working marvels in the kitchen, I can pour a bowl of cereal with the best of them. Everything that chefs do surprises me. So I was accordingly amazed by this video from Saveur magazine, which I watched at Open Culture thanks to many comments on Twitter. It shows how to peel an entire head of garlic in just 10 seconds.

The short version is that vigorously shaking a crushed head of garlic inside two metal bowls will within seconds separate the cloves cleanly from the dried peel around them. The question is, why?

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Category: Entertainment, Physics | 32 Comments

The Greenhouse Effect at 150: The Planetary Perspective

John Tyndall. (Credit: Tucker Collection, New York Public Library Archives)

One hundred and fifty years ago, the brilliant Irish physicist John Tyndall published a paper in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society that helped to prove the existence of the greenhouse effect and its important influence on climate. Only for the 25 years or so have his discoveries been controversial, thanks to a steady pushback motivated by politics and financial interests. Tough break, science.

Nevertheless, in celebration of Tyndall and his work, the Royal Irish Academy and the Environmental Protection Agency have convened a conference in Dublin for Sept. 28-30. Richard Black of the BBC has written an excellent appreciation of Tyndall as well, which I heartily recommend.

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Category: Climate, Environment, Politics, Space | 2 Comments