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Interview with David Dobbs

March 13, 2010

David Dobbs is a long-form science journalist, author, and blogger. We talked about “that’s cool” versus “that smells funny” science journalism, the effect of the blogosphere, and the Keepers of the Bullshit Filter.

[The phone was sort of jittery at some points, sorry]

Colin: The first question I had for you is, what do you see your role being as a science journalist?

David: Sort of hard to answer. That’s the sort of thing you see from the outside. The canned answer is that my role is to find interesting science that I think is important, or intriguing, and write about it so people can understand and take an interest in it. That’s sort of the social service role, but it’s easier for me to answer why I write about science.

I write about it because I find it interesting and other people find it interesting. So I make that connection. I know there is one, but it’s not as if I’ve identified a role that I’m trying to fill.

C: In the other interviews I’ve been talking to people and they sort of see themselves as – some people like to take science and translate it to the public, other people like to critically examine the science.

D: One way I talk about that is that in a way you can boil down the majority of science stories to one of two kinds. One is the “wow that’s cool” kind, which is a fairly straightforward translation model for the writer where there is an interesting or important finding or idea that you find interesting, so you explain it to the readership.

The other kind of story is the “this smells funny” kind of story. And that’s the critical kind that you refer to. And this is where you attend not just to the findings, but to what goes on behind the curtain. That kind of story is about funding, it’s about sociology of science, it’s about people’s motives. It’s about whether or not some funny business is going on, whether studies are being tweaked for one reason or another. You know, warped by conflicts of interest.

The stories that I’ve written along those lines include a lot of stories about the pharmaceutical industry and the liberties it has taken in doing it’s clinical trials, and the role of the FDA and research universities, and university researchers. As well as a big feature I did for Scientific American about PTSD which looked at the idea that we are wildly over-diagnosing PTSD.

So these are the “that smells funny” stories as I like to call them. And that is the more critical kind. So I guess the journalist’s role, some feel more comfortable with one kind of story it seems like, and others tend to gravitate towards the smells funny kind of story. I’m drawn to both of them, and I find it refreshing to do both of them. There’s science that I think is done well and it’s exciting to look at, where the researchers are working with integrity and insight, and turning up interesting things.

And there are other situations where the science is problematic for reasons that tie in to culture – there’s always an overlap between culture and science. And that’s a whole interesting realm for me, and I go back and forth.

C: In addition to being a standard science journalist you’re also a pretty prevalent blogger. I was just wondering how you feel blogging has changed your job?

D: If you go back and look through my blog, I think I started in 2005 or 2006. I was ambivalent about blogging for a long time, and went back and forth. I blogged for a while and then stopped. Then I think again I blogged for a while and then stopped. It took me a while to feel comfortable with the length and provisional beta-nature of blogging, since I naturally gravitate towards longer pieces in my writing that are written where there is 20 drafts, and I don’t want to let them out of my hands until they’re really worked over. So the blogging venue felt uncomfortable to me for a while.

But then I started to see that it really served another purpose. That it was more of an ongoing back-and-forth conversation with the rest of the blogosphere, and with readers. Then I became very comfortable with it. I don’t know how much it’s changed my writing, other than I now feel more comfortable writing in a more provisional, less polished way. On the blog, not in print.

But it has changed my job in the sense that I can see some areas where I just sort of want to curate a conversation, and aggregate and comment on areas that I don’t necessarily write upon at depth. Or, one very attractive thing about blogging, and how it changes a magazine writer’s job, is I can write about something at length. And where it used to be I’d write about it at length and really not visit it again unless I wrote some short pieces elsewhere – now I can keep coming back to visit it on the blog as I do with the flu and PTSD and depression issues. There are a lot of things that I can sort of keep on my stove-top and still tend to on the blog. I think that’s a huge enrichment for the writer and the readers, and the whole conversation.

C: How do you think being able to constantly revisit a topic affects your reader’s ability to grasp the bigger point you’re going for?

D: It’s a different sort of engagement. I’m experiencing this right now as I continue to write about this sensitivity, or orchid hypothesis, in behavioural genetics. I wrote a 7,200 word feature for The Atlantic. Well 12,000 words was what I first turned in, and we had to ween it back, because not even the Atlantic will print 12,000 words. When I do a story of that length I write it as if – I know it’s not the last thing that will ever be written – but I want to write it as if it’s the last chance I’ll ever get to write about it. So it’s a complete package that the reader can take in.

At the same time, it is a lovely thing that I can come back and visit it and answer questions or concerns or objections that come up from readers in response to the article. Or, to continued developments in the area. So I think these things enrich reader’s understanding.

At the same time, [phone cut out for this sentence], yet if someone encounters an issue in a blog post for the first time, sometimes they clearly misunderstand what’s being said because they’re taking something partial, fragmented, and provisional that’s written in a blog as a kind of final word, and respond to it. But the way you can walk in on a conversation on the street between two friends, you might hear something one of them is saying and not fully understand the context, and come to the wrong conclusion about they’re saying or what they’re talking about. That’s part of what I think made me uneasy about blogging for a while, but now I’ve learned to accept that it’s a complication or a downside that is offset by the upside.

I think altogether the two things enrich each other, and they provide a bunch of different avenues in for readers, which is good, because you want to be able to give them a bunch of doors into the room as it were.

C: One thing that I came across that I think it was you and Ed Yong were working on. What can you tell me about the BS Filter?

D: The bullshit filter. This is just simply a matter of the need for any good journalist to be skeptical of information they come across, always. This doesn’t mean to assume that all information is tainted, but to be aware that it might be. And be aware – and this goes back to the “something smells funny” kinds of stories – to be aware that in every realm of life, and science is no exception, people… There are many ways to get things wrong, even with the best intentions. And sometimes people don’t have the best intentions, or their conflicts of interest are so great that they aren’t even aware that they’re conflicted. So in all of journalism – but it can be a little more difficult in science because the trail is often technical – you need to really ramp up and work on, and have your bullshit filter on all the time.

And this goes back to – I don’t know if this is where the phrase originates, but it’s where a lot of people first come across it – Hemingway in his Paris Review interview with George Plimpton [Page 30]. A fun thing to read, and very instructive for writers, even today. He was asked what’s one of the best tools a writer can have, and he says a good bullshit detector.

So I made that bullshit filter. And you need your bullshit filter on so you don’t get hoodwinked, so you don’t get sold a bunch of findings that are based on bad science, and so you can tell the difference between a story that is a “gee whiz this is cool” story, and a “this smells funny” story.

So that’s the idea with the bullshit filter, so we started using that in Tweets to mark stories where it seemed like something was smelling funny.

C: So you sort of, as you come across other media stories about science, if you find one that looks a little off you’ll just flag it on Twitter with the #BSFilter tag?

D: Yeah there was some of that. You know it’s not a rigorous campaign, but it kind of made the rounds. I think I noted, it was in the wake of the Science Online conference, I made a blog post about the “Keepers of the Bullshit Filter.” And I named Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer and Ivan Oransky and some other people. People who are particularly good at calling bullshit when they see it.

C: Is that, I’m not going to call it a critical analysis of media, but just calling out other journalists that maybe aren’t doing the best job. Is that the sort of thing that you could do in a newspaper or in a magazine where you have a staff job?

D: I’ve never had a staff job at a magazine so it’s hard for me to say. I think there are not a lot of magazines that do this regularly. It’s something that you see more regularly in the blogosphere, which is one of the huge values of the blogosphere. It serves as a good bullshit filter for the mass media, and I think that’s having a beneficial effect on a lot of the mainstream media. Or now that the mainstream media is starting to [phone jittered], but you know the more conventional, well-heeled, established media outlets. I think they’re more aware, they’ve been forced to be more aware, that they’re being observed and fact checked by the blogosphere. It’s an extremely healthy thing.

One of the best people at calling this out is – you know the best keepers of the bullshit filter on the media world – is Jay Rosen at New York University. He’s constantly calling out iffy stories, as are the other people I mentioned, you know Carl Zimmer, Ivan Oransky – there’s a bunch of others who aren’t coming directly to mind. These are people I know so their names come to mind more readily. But the blogosphere and now the twittersphere are doing a really nice job of that, and it’s a huge improvement in the media world.

C: Why do you think it is that these stories get produced. That maybe the scrutiny is not there in the first place that makes this sort of work necessary?

D: There are several reasons. One is, even if you’re me, an independent journalist and blogger, your inbox is choked with people writing you about new findings where they’ve discovered this and that, or they’ve developed this or that new medication or treatment. Sometimes they’re clearly hacks, and other times they have legitimate credentials. And sometimes the stuff is solid, and sometimes the stuff is far from solid.

You are exposed to this, and if you rely on that stream for some of that material – which a lot of journalists I think end up doing – because they’re so pressed for time – it’s easy to pick up the wrong story.  And, it either doesn’t set off your radar because you don’t know that field, and it doesn’t come up in whatever reporting you do to check the thing. So you end up printing something that is really on shaky ground. I think that’s one reason it gets in.

The other is people, sometimes, reach for a story when it’s not there. The media demands novelty. And sometimes journalists heighten the importance of something that causes them to overplay and oversell the idea of the story you’re trying to write about. Because you’re well aware that editors like novelty. They like things that are new, they like things that are stark, they like things that are big. So there’s always a temptation to turn up the dial a bit on those aspects, and you can get into a little bit of trouble.

It’s not necessarily that people are corrupt.  There’s all kinds of temptations, and sometimes they’re blatant and obvious and other times it’s hard to tell the “this is cool” story from the “this smells” story. And you’ll write about something that later you’ll back on, or someone else will look on right away, and realize “No, this is overextended, this story is overreaching, you’re making too much of it.”

I think that’s happened to most science writers at one time or another. Some of them spectacularly, and others not so.

C: Just to switch gears for a minute, I was just wondering what you think of the audience. You tend to write not explicitly for science-focused publications. You’ve worked for The Atlantic, and that’s not a science magazine. How do you adjust your work for those different audiences?

D: In a way it’s not terribly hard. For the general interest magazines that I write for like The Atlantic and The New York Times Magazine, the readership there, you have a pretty good idea of. They’re very educated, they’re curious, they don’t mind some challenge. Yet, you cannot assume any real grounding in the particular area of science you’re writing about. So if you’re writing about neurology and brain surgery, you need to make things very clear, very efficiently. You need to explain things to those readers that you won’t need to explain to readers at Scientific American or Nature. But I don’t find it a huge adjustment. It’s a bigger adjustment writing at 5,000 words versus 700 than there is between those two audiences.

I’ve written for kids magazines too, and they’re just another – you know you go further down that road of having to explain things and put things very simply, and recognize that there’s only so many layers down you can go. You can go more layers down for an explicitly scientific readership than you can a general interest readership. And you can go more layers down with The Atlantic and the Times Magazine than you can with some other publication.

C: The other thing I was wondering about the audience is, how do you think the audience interprets science facts? Let’s say they’re confronted with something new, they don’t have a lot of background in it, how do they approach those facts?

D: I usually try to think of my sister when I’m writing for those kinds of magazines, the kind I usually write for. She’s an English professor. She’s very smart, very curious, but if I refer to a gene or a neurotransmitter, I better explain what it is and what it does. And if I explain what it does as a fact or as a theory – the challenge is making it simple and understandable, yet true in it’s essence.  Essentially accurate, to whatever dynamics you’re trying to describe.

I think people take facts, well, I don’t know actually. I think some take them to easily, they’re too credulous. When you write you have to explain things clearly and be honest and not try to hoodwink people.

C: How do you engage an audience who, they’re bright and all this, but maybe they’re not particularly interested in science. How would you engage someone like that?

D: I think whether they consider themselves as having an interest in science or not, people are interested in stories of people solving problems. Or people being confronted with mysteries. So if you have a scientist – and most good science stories has a scientist, or a group of scientists confronting and solving a problem – you have a detective story there. Everyone likes a detective story. If you are writing a medical story where there is a patient involved, I think everyone can relate to that. Having something go awry with their body, or their mind, if I can be dualistic for a minute. I think everyone can relate to that, and there’s a mystery there that needs to be solved.

It’s the same thing writing about business, or sports. You need a story. You need a story that has a progression, and you need a character that you can actually be interested in. So I don’t think it’s that different from writing about other stuff when you’re writing for a general readership.

Now again if you’re writing for a real science publication you can go lighter on the story aspect and just lay out the science, because those people will read the science just for the science. But even for them you’ll enrich the story if you have a narrative aspect to it. Like editors always say, they want a story, it always comes back to story. There’s no reason not – if you’ve got the time – to have some story in there for a science story of any length.

C: The last question I had for you is, what do you feel is the biggest issue facing science journalism right now?

D: I think it’s everyone figuring out how to keep doing it and get paid. And it’s not that getting paid is the point. The point is that if you’re not paid, assuming you’re not independently wealthy, if you’re not paid you can’t continue to do the work. And then you have to do something else. And if you love to write, and you love to write about science, then this is the big challenge. How is it going to work. And I don’t want to boil this down to business models, because the important thing about writing about science is writing about science. But if you can’t do it without money, you need to figure out some way to make it work. And nobody knows the answer here, everyone’s trying to figure it out.

The one thing I feel certain about is that it won’t work in the same way in five years as it works right now. Just as right now it’s not working in the same way as it did five years ago. None of the outlets I write for now I have absolute confidence that they will be both in existence, and paying in the same manner at the same rate as they pay now. So I’m constantly trying to figure out how this is going to work so that I can put together a package where I can still do this work that I love so much.

And I got in a little tift online with Dave Winer who had some tweet that, you know, he said he couldn’t wait until all the professional journalists get out of the room so that the real work can begin, or something to that effect. And I objected – I don’t write for the money, I write for the money so that I can write.

C: No one gets into journalism to be a millionaire.

D: Well not anybody with any brains, yeah. I think that’s the big challenge. I think there are other huge challenges, and we’ve already talked about some of them. One is that at a time when so much money is at stake with science, to write about science where you’re not sort of strung along, or lured in, by people who are trying to sell a story that will help them make money. And it’s always a challenge to keep your bullshit filter on at the right level. So that you, when something smells funny, you smell it. And you’re not fooled. And everybody gets fooled now and then, and those are eternal challenges. But the biggest in-your-face challenge right now for science journalists is clearly how to make this keep working.

I’m actually pretty optimistic.  I think already new ways of getting paid are coming up, and funding science journalism, I don’t think it’ll be the same all way – I talked about this a bit at Science Online – where you might get money from one source and publish in another. So it won’t be necessarily that I get paid by magazine X and that story goes in magazine X. I might have a fellowship, I might make money speaking, any number of things that give me the money to do the stories. And then I would place them in a bunch of different places, or continue to place them in the same places, but still be able to afford to do it if those places can’t afford to pay me as much anymore.

Everyone’s trying to figure that out, that’s the big slippery spot.

C: Thanks so much. Do you have anything you want to add?

D: I guess that it’s easy to be overly pessimistic about what things are going on. I’m one of those who thinks that – you can either distinguish between the health of science journalism, which is a term that gets fuzzier all the time, but writing about science – the health of that as a public resource, how robust is the public conversation about science. I think it’s more robust now than it has ever been, and it will continue to be robust. This is a separate issue somewhat from the issue of how science writers get paid.

In the end, it doesn’t matter to that many people whether I continue to get paid to do this. It may not matter to very many people whether I continue to do it. That’s important to me obviously, and I wan’t to continue to be part of the conversation. But that’s a different issue from how healthy the public conversation is. I think the public conversation is as healthy as it’s ever been and the blogosphere has a lot to do with that. We’ll figure that out, and hopefully people who really want to keep writing about science will be able to do so.

It’ll be hard, but it’s always been hard. It’s hard now, and it was hard 10 years ago, and it was hard 30 years ago.

C: One question just popped into my mind – I was wondering how well do you think people learn science form the media compared to other places where they might learn science?

D: I don’t know. I think people learn a fair amount.  To what extent the media is bringing science to people who wouldn’t get it otherwise is a little harder to say. There’s a lot of sceince writing produced that tends to get consumed by the same people, I think. But when I publish a story, even this last story in The Atlantic, I got an incredible amount of email and I felt like a lot of it was from people who didn’t necessarily think of themselves as steady readers of science. And they probably don’t subscribe to any science magazines. They came across the story because someone told them about it, or something.

So I think it exposes people to science, so they’ll learn a little bit. I don’t know if you can get a science education from being exposed to science in the media, but I also don’t have that much confidence in my own answer.

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