On science blogs this week: Cloudy

The climate for science writing, the climate for mammograms, the climate for climate

 

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COP15. Climate Blog Central, the UN Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen. You didn't think you were going to get away from climate change here, did you?

The Washington Post has a brand-new blog, Post Carbon, a showcase for its fine environmental writers. Post Carbon is billed as live staff reports from COP15; does that mean it will be abandoned at the conference's end? Juliet Eilperin is on the ground in Copenhagen, posting several times a day. Her Copenhagen Morning Reads is a daily roundup of news about COP15 from all over. Steven Mufson is contributing too; for his roundup of commentary on the redoubtable Sarah Palin's infamous, notorious, amusing, denialist Op-Ed, see here.

What's up with denialists, anyway? Wired Science's Brandon Keim interviews Kari Marie Norgaard, a sociologist who studies climate change deniers--not the professional skeptics with axes to grind and oxen to shield from goring, but just folks who are skeptical in good faith. Except, it turns out, their skepticism is not exactly in good faith. Norgaard says, "If I don't want to believe that climate change is true, that my lifestyle and high carbon emissions are causing devastation, then it's convenient to say that it doesn't." We need a sociologist to tell us that?

Skeptics are being tracked at Dot Earth, which is busy with posts too. Among them: "Copenhagen 101," a video collaboration between New York Times reporters Andrew Revkin and Tom Zeller. Another collaboration, according to Chris Mooney at The Intersection, joins that blog with other like-minded publications--The Nation, TreeHugger.com, Grist, Mother Jones--to form the Copenhagen News Collaborative via Publish2. It's a feed aggregating COP15 coverage, presumably with a progressive slant.

Can we go without mentioning ClimateGate, the stolen email scandal? Of course we can't. So here's a juicy rumor. Shanta Barley, at Short Sharp Science, reports on speculation that the climate scientists' email at East Anglia University was hacked by the Russian Secret Service. I yearn to say something 007ish, but the brain is blank. Maybe you can think of a Jamesian quip.

SCREAMING ABOUT SCREENING. The flap over whether mammograms are a good idea for most women in their 40s is not dead either, and there's nothing amusing about it. Especially if the controversy kills off any hope for sensible use of medical technology as one way of controlling health care costs.

Selected critiques of the critiques, beginning with the highest dudgeon: Val Jones, at Science-Based Medicine, hurls science-based vituperation in several directions, and a lot of it lands on the media. Alison Bass continues castigating professional groups for what she regards, correctly, as their self-interested and less-than-honest trashing of the mammogram recommendations. Laura Newman, at her Urology Blog, is more temperate, but dismayed at the idea that the US Preventive Services Task Force, which made the mammogram recommendations, will be remodeled in a way that destroys its independence.

CONSERVING RESOURCES. Science-writing resources, that is, and this week there is lots to say. Brett Israel, at 80 Beats, describes new Google tricks that could be a help in finding background and other information useful in your writing. Of special note for us is probably the fact that Google is adding real-time content such as news articles, blog posts, and Twitter feeds to its search hits pages, with social networking (Facebook, MySpace) to follow. I'm not sure I wouldn't prefer those sources segregated into separate Google searches, but we'll see how it works. In real time.

Google Wave is rolling out of limited release and can now be had by the hoi polloi. Google Wave is--what? The ultimate collaboration tool? Really superior e-mail? The most ambitious (and confusing) web application ever created? These things and more, according to The Complete Guide to Google Wave. That description comes from fans, which gives me pause. So I'm not going to spend my resources figuring Google Wave out right now, but I'd love to hear your report.

While I'm up, let me mention "Living Stories," an experimental collaboration launched by Google, the New York Times and the Washington Post. The idea is to bring online readers groups of articles and related material under single subject headings. Clicking on a main page topic heading takes you to a summary of the story so far, a timeline of of recent events, full-text articles, images, videos, opinion pieces, and resources outside the papers. The beta service, which is still in Google Labs and ad-free, is now limited to only a handful of topics. But two of them--"Washington Tackles Health Care Reform" and "Battling Swine Flu"--happen to be our topics.

This week, SciScoop Science's David Bradley blogs on Intute, new to me. Intute "provides a curated database of 120,000 high-quality websites, each carefully chosen and evaluated by a network of subject specialists from prominent universities across the UK." The idea is to be helpful to students, but we're students, aren't we? There's a ton of useful stuff at Intute, see for yourself.

The much newer Medpedia Project is "a long-term, worldwide initiative to develop an online collaborative source of health and medical information for medical professionals and the general public." Imagine a kind of mashup of Intute, Wikipedia, Answers.com, Facebook, and LinkedIn, with a foundation of contributions by expert individuals and top-drawer institutions like med schools at Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, and the University of Michigan. To that impressive base Medpedia adds user-generated material, blog and news aggregation, Q&As on specific medical conditions, and communities of patients and professionals. Medpedia started only in February, is still pretty embryonic, and is inclined to set off in 14 directions at once. But if even a few of its ambitions are realized, Medpedia might eventually be quite useful, not least to science and medical writers.

SCIENCE WRITING 101: Looking at Medpedia got me thinking about how we might exploit such a site, and not just for articles that tutor us quickly in some unfamiliar disorder, essential as those articles are. It's not the site's aim, presumably, but if Medpedia's ambitions flower, it could offer medical writers one-stop reporting, for background and data but also fast access to experts for interviewing--institutions, docs, patients.

The Washington Post has recognized the potential of this approach and formalized it with Story Lab, a blog saddled with this pompous subhed: "Reporters, readers and the quest for journalism's next frontier." It explains itself at length in this introductory post, but its first "product," introduced this week, exploits a simple technique writers have been using since Usenet and recently transferred to Twitter: posting a request for opinions and tales of personal experiences to be used as the basis for a story.

In the Links column on the left of the Story Lab page, a familiar name jumped out: Murray Kempton, now dead, but a gift to journalism in the last half of the last century. Obviously the folks at Story Lab think so too. The link was to a talk Kempton gave in 1995 when he accepted an award from Colby College in Maine. Among other observations, Kempton foresaw the dreadful state of publishing. But this is the comment that sticks:

....the reporter who is worth his salt recognizes that his one commanding duty is to go out himself and look for the victim.

This applies to journalism, yes, but not only to journalism. Reporting is essential for all science writing. And, it occurs to me, not just science-based nonfiction, either. You could call Ian McEwen's brilliant Saturday a political novel, or a day-in-the-life novel, or a novel about family. But read it and tell me if you don't think McEwen spent hours and days researching and reporting on Huntington's disease, dementia, and the profession of neurosurgery.

Which brings us back to where we started today. McEwen's new novel, out next year, is about climate change.

December 11, 2009

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