Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Machines or Magic

"In the study of physics we begin with simple mechanisms, wedge, lever and fulcrum, pulley and inclined plane, all of them still as useful as when they were first invented. We proceed by a study of discoveries.” (Ezra Pound, “How to Read”)

As I recall, I was shown a picture of Niels Bohr's atom in a science textbook in grade five or six. It wasn't until high-school physics that I was taught Galileo's inclined plane experiment—complete with the historical detail that, lacking a mechanical clock, he timed the rolling ball against a musical phrase that he would hum. Not yet a teenager, I was being taught that apparently solid matter consisted mostly of empty space, that the function of science is to make fools of my senses. (They call this "wonder" sometimes.) Only much later did I learn that science was a way of making sense of my experiences.

I don't want this to be a complaint about K-12 educational ideologies, but the difference between these two images is interesting to me. Bohr's atom is a wildly inaccurate representation of an object that I will never experience with my senses, and which only very few people ever really learn how to observe empirically. Galileo's inclined plane is a sensible object and a physical machine that, as it happens, shows us very precisely how one of the indisputably most important forces in the universe operates. At best, Bohr's atom helps us to remember that there are (whatever they are) electrons, neutrons and protons. Galileo's plane teaches us how to decompose the motion of an object into its vectors, and thereby determine its acceleration due to gravity.

On one of my other blogs, I recently argued that we could safely leave the teaching of evolution out of the elementary school curriculum.* For one thing, it would avoid making our children's minds an ideological battleground that pits parents against teachers, religion against science. Instead, we could simply teach our students how to actually observe the life around them. Our current approach is to insist they come to believe in a theory of our origins that is, when you think about it, very difficulty to understand, very difficult really to get your mind around. Even those who rightly think evolution is true, often don't really know how it works. It's a bit like teaching children that matter is really mostly space. They might get that answer right on an exam, but it's unlikely to be based on an understanding of the fluctuations of the quantum ether.

By a similar token, I believe that the "crisis of representation", the "metaphysics of presence" and the "archaeology of knowledge", however rightly they may get at the complicated situation of contemporary writing, have distracted us from the heart of the matter, which is not "language" or "experience" but words and letters arranged to be about something.

The teacher of prose who has grown bored with the paragraph is like the teacher of poetry who doesn't want to see another sonnet. It's time to find another subject to teach, not to declare the genre retired. (I know. That's the second potshot I've taken at Adam Banks this week. I'll try to come at him more directly next week.) It is because we lack the patience to show students the full variety of expression that is possible using at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words arranged to support a central claim that we have turned to occult notions of "inspiration" and "expression". We have to show students once again that three quatrains and a couplet are resources, not constraints, when the aim is to be precise about our emotions.

We should confine education to the teaching of things we know. There is so much out there that our students don't yet know the first thing about. And we refuse to teach those first things to them. It is a mystery to me why we waste their time trying to get them to believe things they are unlikely to be able to understand. We're leading them to believe that our machines work by magic. They certainly seem increasingly unable to distinguish between sticks and stones and words.

*[Update, October 1: In the comments, Jonathan rightly points out how weird this suggestion is. I wish I could claim I meant it as a "modest proposal" of some kind, but at the time (even yesterday) I thought it had some plausibility. Obviously, it could never be implemented in actual curriculum design, and the suggestion, taken as an analogy, probably just reflects the depth of the despair about writing instruction that I mentioned in my last post. When I'm more optimistic (which I usually am) my ideas are less ridiculous.]

Monday, September 28, 2015


"Man is an over-complicated organism. If he is doomed to extinction he will die out for want of simplicity." (Ezra Pound, Guide to Kulchur, p. 135)

In the early twentieth century, around the time of Einstein, science was driven by the dream of reducing our understanding of the world to basic, simple principles. The physical universe was to be understood as a composition of simple mechanisms (balls, levers, walls, lenses) that could ultimately explain, at least in theory, the complexity and variety of experience. But the frontier of knowledge was pushed forward, and as the equipment that was needed to observe things that are ever smaller (think: subatomic particles) or ever more remote (think: protogalactic quasars) got more specialised, we came to realise that the "simplest constituents" were not so simple after all. Today, a scientists is not someone who is possessed of an elegant "theory of everything", but rather an expert in a particular something. And the expertise is usually evident in the mastery of a rather esoteric jargon.

Even our understanding of our own selves has been subject to this trend. The social and psychological sciences advance through the study of ever bigger datasets and ever finer neuronal networks, approached with ever more sophisticated statistics and equipment. Our basis for understanding everything from political power to artistic creativity is found, not in the lived experience of statesmen and artists, but in "scientific" methods whose application is framed by a bewildering complexity of "theories" of human behaviour. Each thesis can be competently evaluated only by a handful of specialists, and no one seems qualified to bring it all together into a comprehensive account of "human nature". "Am I," any one of us might ask, "even qualified to know who I am?"

My own interest is in writing—specifically, academic or scholarly writing— and I've lately been driven almost to despair at the sophistication with which we have theorised this practice. At this point, understanding what students are doing when they are writing essays seems to depend on resolving a series of incredibly subtle disputes between, say, Derrida, Foucault, Barthes—even Lacan—about the nature of writing and authorship. Under these conditions, it is no wonder that writing teachers are increasingly calling for us to "retire" the essay as the focus of instruction. The idea seems to be that our best available theories tell us that a five paragraph essay is as far removed from the truth about Writing as a marble on an inclined plane is from the truth about Reality. What we need is a "quantum theory" of writing, it is said, or, indeed, a "mothership of funk" to take us beyond prose and into the stars.

I have warned against this kind of sophistication before. I'm not at all sure that our efforts to improve undergraduate (or even doctoral) writing skills need to be guided by theories of writing as sophisticated as those of Michel Foucault or Roland Barthes (to confine ourselves, for the moment, to thinkers that I respect a great deal.) The vast majority of writing is done by people who are "authors" in a much less problematic sense than they (otherwise rightly) suggested. Or, to take another example (with which I am, admittedly, less familiar), I suspect that the vast majority of writing does not succeed or fail in proportion to how well it leverages the play of différance. Likewise, the great majority of the buildings in which we live and work depend neither on wave functions nor chaos effects for their stability. They are ordinary Newtonian machines. Or at least I hope this is the case.

This will be my theme this week. I am once again trying to write my way of out of a particular kind of despair about modern scholarship and present-day academia. I think writers who eschew (or avoid or neglect) the paragraph as a literary form and site of instruction are like physicists who can't describe the fall of an object under the acceleration of gravity. I guess I believe that the paragraph is as close to the truth about Writing as the inclined plane is to the truth about Reality. The simple principles and the simple machines that constitute ordinary experience are where we should begin, and where most of us can safely remain. From there, we should proceed with caution. The Devil, perhaps, lurks in the details.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


A good question has been coming up lately when I've been talking to students. It has been asked by first-year students as well as professional master's students and follows naturally from my advice that you should practice your writing even when you don't have an assignment due, just as you should go for a jog even if you've got no place to be or a race to win. How, the students ask me, can they know they are making progress? How do they know that they are doing it right?

When I say a question is "good", I don't mean that in the ironic sense of being stumped by it. I usually mean that I have a good answer to it, and that's also the case here. Now, the first answer is of course to seek feedback from others on a regular basis. If your teachers are too busy, then ask your fellow students. Give them simple tasks like reading a paragraph out loud to you and identifying the key sentence. If this is easy for them, you're doing something right. You can also ask them for some frank but constructive criticism.

But don't let everything depend on outside criticism. Remember that it is your style we're talking about. Learn how to evaluate your own writing as well.

To see how this can be done, begin with our usual paradigms of "practice" and "training": music and sports. If you sit down at the piano every day for twenty minutes and practice Bach's thirteenth invention, as I have, there will be little question in your mind that you've made progress after a few weeks. The impossible becomes possible; the painful becomes pleasurable. Likewise, if you go for a five kilometer run every other day, as I also have, you won't be in much doubt about whether your stamina is improving. Your legs and your lungs will give you some pretty direct feedback about your progress.

In both cases, of course, your "learning curve" may taper off. At some point, you may feel that regular practice is merely maintaining your form. And, in some cases, working without a teacher or coach and pushing yourself to reach ever high goals, you may find yourself straining a little; you may even suspect that you are injuring yourself, or developing a bad habit. This, of course, is when you should seek advice and guidance. In the meantime, relax your regimen a little.

The most important aspect of this kind of self-assessment, to my mind, is the pleasure you take in your writing. Are the twenty-seven minutes you spend working on a particular paragraph increasingly enjoyable? When you read your paragraph out loud at the end of your writing session, does it give you pleasure to form the words and to hear them spoken? (This is like paying attention to the sound of your music or the pain of your muscles.) Remember that writing is something you are training your body to do; it is a coordination of your hands with your mind through the heart. The body is an excellent, natural instrument of "feedback". Listen to it. Feel yourself improving.

Monday, September 21, 2015

A Sequence of Fact and Motion

Here's a Hemingway passage that I think bears upon my discussion of fact and nuance in sociology, journalism and literature.

I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what your were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced. In writing for a newspaper you told what happened aided by the element of timeliness which gives a certain emotion to any account of something that has happened on that day; but the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if your stated it purely enough, always, was beyond me and I was working very hard to try to get it. (Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon, 1932, p. 10)

I've written about it before in this post.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Opinions and Motives

"...I have to retrace my steps by way of the shadows. I try to interfere as little as possible in the evolution of the work. I do not want it to be distorted by my opinions, which are the most trivial things about us." (Jorge Luis Borges)

Every now and then I find myself growing suspicious of my motives and my opinions. I have to remind myself that they are, for the most part, not "mere" opinions, nor base motives, but the refined product of many years of experience and conversation. At the moment, however, they've gotten me mired in self-doubt, along with feelings of triviality and superficiality, which is why I haven't been writing. (It can happen to anyone.) I hope the weekend's immersion in the practical contingencies of volunteer work will lighten my mind a bit.

For those who want something to read, I've written about how to form scholarly opinions at this blog before. As for motives, it's something I've touched on, albeit with a hint of mysticism, on my other blog.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Fact and Nuance 3

Given the prevalence of "nuance" in contemporary sociology, I'm sure some readers of Kieran Healy's excellent essay, "Fuck Nuance", have interpreted its message more radically as "Fuck Sociology" and, of course, if they are themselves sociologists, "Fuck You".

Alice Goffman and her supporters might, for example, read it this way. When her facts in On the Run were drawn into question, first by Steven Lubet and then by Paul Campos, the common defence was that her aim was to capture the nuance of urban poverty, not the mere facts. I have to admit, actually, that this is my interpretation of the defence; I've been able to find a few explicit invocations of "nuance" among her defenders, but not nearly as many as I had expected based on my memory of reading about the controversy. But my impression of her famous TED talk was, precisely, that she was trying to wrap the brute facts that she presented in her "one slide" about incarceration rates in a lot of narrative nuance in order to try to make the problem more "present" to her audience.

The question that Healy raises (though not about Goffman directly) is whether this is good sociology. If it isn't, then what is it? The answer that some of her critics have suggested is that it's just bad journalism or, worse, undeclared fiction. I haven't had as much time to think about it since Friday as I would have liked, so this post isn't going to accomplish everything I wanted to. But I'd like to at least get the distinction on the table that I announced on Friday, namely, the distinction between fact, theory and nuance.

"We need better theory," says Healy, "not less of it." He might also have said we need better theory, not more nuance. But this is not, he stresses, because nuance is a bad thing, just that it's not good for sociology. I agree with him on both points. I think sociology should theorize what can be theorized (though this is less than most sociologist think, I suspect) and leave the nuances to novelists.

That's, of course, what I also think Goffman should have done. Since she has destroyed her field notes, there is, to my mind, very little to distinguish her field work from the "life experience" that novelists draw on to write their stories. These stories are then able to capture what Healy calls the Actually-Existing Nuance of the experience of urban poverty. Some novelists seek out such experiences. Others are merely born into them. And some write not novels but memoirs. If we want a "nuanced" account of the experience of being black and incarcerated, we do better to read Dwayne Betts than Goffman, I think. But fiction has a certain license with the facts, and memoirs are, of course, subjective. So isn't that where Goffman's work makes its contribution: it's "scientific", objective, factual and nuanced?

Well, I think the Goffman controversy shows that the sort of local facts that make up her narrative are not best left to ethnographers. Rather, we do better to trust journalists whose reputations depend on actually getting those facts right. (Remember that Sabrina Rubin Erdely's career was seriously harmed by her UVA reporting for Rolling Stone, whereas Goffman's reputation is largely intact among sociologists.) She does not seem to be as accountable to the facts as journalists would be, which is probably some part of the explanation for how the controversy unfolded in the media.

Anyway, I don't have time today to do this argument (or Healy's essay) justice, but I think theory should be developed with an eye to explaining large, well-established social facts, and journalism should investigate the smaller facts, the particular details. Ideally (in a world where no one made mistakes and no-one lied), a social theory would never deny an actual fact, i.e., one that a journalist has correctly described, nor would a journalist try to pass off facts that make no sense from the perspective of a well-established theory, but, in real life, they will no doubt constantly challenge each other. The relationship between sociological theory and journalistic fact could be one of respectful competition.

So-called "nuance", in the sense that Mailer promotes (in journalism) and Healy dismisses (in sociology) occupies a strange, spectral and, like I say, unaccountable middle ground. That ground, I believe, is literary. It's where the writing happens, and that's why it's also relevant, to a degree, in both sociology and journalism. Mailer was a "literary journalist", and there are plenty of like-wise "literary" sociologists. Part of me thinks that if I follow my impulse to agree too much with Healy, I will also have to dismiss what is perhaps Mailer's most significant contribution to American letters. On the other hand, perhaps my equal and opposite impulse to celebrate Mailer's achievement will give us a way of understanding and, ultimately, approving of Goffman.

As Mailer said to the protester's on the eve of their march on the Pentagon in 1967. "This is an existential situation. We don't know how it will turn out." More on Wednesday.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Fact and Nuance 2

There's has been some good discussion in the comments to my last post, which I think is worth moving into a post of its own. Randall Westgren wants to know about the boundary between fact and nuance, while Jonathan Mayhew, pulling in the opposite direction, is not sure that nuances are usefully contrasted to facts. (Thomas Presskorn took things in a somewhat inside-Basbøll direction with his "pangrammatical" question—a reference to the work I've done on my now-retired other blog. I'm always happy to defend that style of thinking, but I can't really demand that anyone follow me there. Those who are interested can perhaps start with this post, which actually touches on Randy's question.)

Roughly speaking, I said to Randy, nuances are the stuff of poems and novels and facts are the stuff of science and journalism. That's not to say that you can't have facts in a novel or nuances in a field report. It might be more accurate to say that novelists and poets pride themselves on getting the nuances right, whereas scientists and (though I sometimes wonder!) journalists pride themselves on getting the facts right. But everyone deploys both fact and nuance to achieve their ends. Norman Mailer says that "a fact is a compression of nuance". Conversely, we can say that a nuance is the surface of a fact. That is, we can't have one without the other, but we can be interested in one over the other.

Jonathan, however, pointed something out that made me see that in making this distinction I'm actually reifying nuances, turning them into "things", individual existences. "Nuances," Jonathan reminds us,

are subtle differences and distinctions, and can pertain to either facts or non-facts. For example, it is un-nuanced to say the Franco killed Lorca. It would be more nuanced to describe in factual terms what actually happened. Which factions of the Right wanted him dead, exactly? Being nuanced means being more fine-grained, less simplistic, and, in many cases, more factual as well.
Jonathan also points us to a recent paper by Kieran Healy called "Fuck Nuance", which will be the subject of part three of this series (on Monday). I want to deal with what Jonathan and Healy have in common, namely, the definition of "nuance" in terms of "subtle differences" and "shades of meaning", which, as Jonathan rightly points out, make them inapt as correlates or complements of individual facts. Shouldn't I use some other term to denote the fleeting, perhaps "subjective", side of facts. Wittgenstein's "aspects" might do.

My somewhat self-serving answer is that I need the fact/nuance distinction in my reading of Mailer's writing, especially his journalism of the 1960s. I believe that Mailer was working with almost explicit "phenomenology" that attempted to restore "nuance" to a world of "fact", dominated by science and (non-literary) journalism. But I have to remember that nuances aren't recoverable as such. They aren't sights, sounds and smells that we have stopped noticing because we're too aware of the facts beneath or behind them. A nuance is always between one thing and another, it's where one experience (of a color or an emotion) "shades off" into another. The question, then, is what are nuances fundamentally differences between.

It's probably not really "things" and I'm reluctant to say facts. (The difference between one fact and another is probably just another fact, as I think Jonathan's "Who Killed Lorca?" example is intended to show.) So I'd venture that nuances are always differences between images. But this can all get quite subtle, quite shady—"nuanced", if you will. After all, if I'm going to say that a smell is "nuanced" insofar as it is a difference between images of facts it could, precisely, be the difference between the olfactory and the visual image of the rose.

I use smell as an example advisedly. Mailer's book about the moon landing ends with a touching scene in which Mailer, with "the pain of all these months of a marriage ending and a world in suffocation and a society in collapse", goes to visit a rock that had been brought back from the moon and finds an objective correlative for his emotion in the "hermetically tight glass bell" that keeps him from, yes, smelling it. "All worship the new science of smell!" he says. "It was bound to work its way trough two panes of glass before three and a half billion more years were lost and gone." That, he would argue, was an attempt to find the "nuance" in his encounter with the moon rock, rather than merely to state the fact of its presence here on Earth.

Mailer's critique of modern politics was also that it had lost nuance.

[A] President suffers intellectual horrors. His information is predigested—his mind is allowed as much stimulation as the second stomach of a cow. He is given not nuances but facts; indeed, he is given facts not in whole, but facts masticated, their backs broken. (PP, p. 2, my emphasis.)

Elsewhere he says that, "A fact is a compression of nuances that alienates the reality," though that's actually a "strong" (Bloomian) misreading of Mailer's sentence, which corrects what I think is a typo.

Back in 2009 when Barack Obama became President, I (somewhat grandly, for all concerned) tried to approach his presidency as Mailer approached Kennedy's. And so I took issue with what I thought was a poor joke he made about Rahm Emanuel by riffing on Mailer's jab at an anecdote about Kennedy. "The worst story I ever heard about Jack Kennedy was that he sat on his boat one day eating chicken and threw the half-chewed bones into the sea," says Mailer (PP, p. 101). He presents that story, we might say, as a fact: Kennedy threw chicken bones into the sea. Then he explains: "Throwing a chicken bone into the sea is bad because it shows no feeling for the root of death, which is burial. Of course Kennedy might have muttered, 'Sorry, old man,' as he tossed the bone. That is the difficulty with anecdotes. One cannot determine the nuance" (PP, p. 102). He says "the nuance", i.e., he talks about nuances as individual states or moments or experiences, not as shades of difference. I believe he's talking about the nuance of the fact that Kennedy threw bones into the sea.

Like I say, I'll continue this on Monday. There's some work to be done here in distinguishing literary nuance from both sociological theory and journalistic fact. I thank you for your patience.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Fact and Nuance

Science posits a world of facts, which it undertakes to discover. These facts presumably subtend the variety of phenomena that we experience in our everyday encounters with things and people. The encounters are often too fleeting and too ambiguous to give us knowledge of the facts of the world. Indeed, I'm reluctant to say that the sights, sounds, and smells that I encountered yesterday evening on my jog through the park are facts about how the park looks, sounds and smells. It is a fact that I went for my jog and that the park exists. The familiar route that I ran, the trees and the grass around me, are facts, confirmed by repeated encounters. (They remain facts this morning, visible from my window.) But the phenomenal experience, the thoughts and feelings that passed through my body on that particular run—these are not facts. Let's call them nuances.*

Likewise, my encounters with other people consist, in the moment, largely of nuances, not facts. It is not a fact that my lover is pleased to see me, nor that my child is unhappy. Not at first pass, not as I encounter them. It is not a fact that my colleague is annoyed with me, nor that my boss is worried about my performance. Rather, in the encounter, I'm aware of nuances that suggest such interpretations. An ethnographer who is observing my "interactions"—let me interrupt myself to say I don't like this word when used in everyday speech, precisely because it sounds so scientific, but it is the technically correct term here—an ethnographer who is observing my "interactions" would register these nuances in their field notes and, perhaps, given further observations, one day be in a position to construct a fact—of my lover's pleasure, my child's unhappiness, my colleague's annoyance, my boss's worry. But the nuances themselves are not facts.

There are, no doubt, some scientists who believe that the universe is just an enormous collection of discoverable facts, and that even a nuance is reducible to a series of physical, biological, neuronal facts about the working of my body, its senses and muscles. It is a hypothesis that they pursue and I am happy to let them do so. But life is simply too short to acknowledge every fleeting nuance of experience as though it is a fact about which the truth could have been known. I'm happy to dwell, first and foremost, "proximally and for the most part" (as Heidegger might put it), among nuances.

*I get this distinction between facts and nuances from Norman Mailer who invokes it a number of times in his Presidential Papers. One day, I'll write a paper about it. I think it is an important part of his philosophy, his phenomenology.

Monday, September 07, 2015

The Highest Standards of British Science Writing

(This is a long post. Some may want to start with part 2, which is where the "news" is: the Association of British Science Writers continues to stand by Connie St Louis' Tim Hunt reporting, even in the light of subsequent developments. The first part is mainly background.)


During the summer break, I had a brief email exchange with Martin Ince, the president of the Association of British Science Writers, about Connie St Louis' journalism in the Tim Hunt case. ABSW had previously come out in "full support" of St Louis, who serves on its board, in the face of criticism of her cv by the Daily Mail that followed her coverage of Tim Hunt's allegedly sexist remarks in Seoul in June. In its statement, ABSW described the Mail's criticisms as part of "a media furore directed at Connie for the everyday act of reporting a news story". The board stood by her "as an organisation of science writers which fosters excellence in journalism" and vowed to stand by any of its members who face similar "personal attacks" in the future.

The critique of St Louis' credentials, of course, has become part of a much more comprehensive unravelling of the story that she broke in early June. It now appears that she's not quite the science journalist (nor, in fact, the "scientist") that she has previously claimed to be, just as it seems very clear that Tim Hunt is not the sexist that she originally made him out to be. In the early days of this story, many of us were trying to figure out who to believe, and the "ad hominem" argument, i.e., the question of who has greater credibility, has become a natural part of the process.

My view, as I've said on Twitter, is that Connie St Louis is no longer a credible journalist, just as Tim Hunt is no longer a credible sexist. By and large, those two judgments go together. Given Connie St Louis' claims (and the absence of any kind of correction or retraction on her part) I can't adjust my opinion of Tim Hunt without adjusting my opinion of Connie St Louis, and vice versa. The sort of credibility we're talking about here is precisely the kind that David Kroll gained in spades when he publicly apologised for running with St Louis' story without checking the facts first. It's impossible, at this stage, to have respect for both St Louis' journalism and Hunt's feminism. One has to choose.

I didn't create that situation, nor did Tim Hunt. It was Connie St Louis who contrived to tell a story that is now entirely her word (and that of, on my count, three deeply implicated "eyewitnesses") against Hunt's (supported by eyewitnesses, photographs, an audio recording, a leaked official report, and common sense, at least.) Moreover, while everything depends on whether we believe Connie St Louis, almost nothing depends on whether we believe Tim Hunt. Unlike, St Louis he hasn't made any strong statements about what happened; he has merely acknowledged that his words may have been misunderstood. And he has a great many very credible character witnesses behind him. (I don't think even one person has come forward to accuse Hunt directly of inappropriate behaviour.) Indeed, I'm inclined to discount a good portion of Hunt's early "confession" as largely coerced. It's not a question of whether Hunt's defence is convincing at this stage, but of whether St Louis' allegation is even plausible.

As I've been saying for some time now, my conclusion is that, whatever Hunt may have said or meant, the coverage of his remarks was extremely shoddy. If there was a story about "sexism in science" somewhere in what he said, St Louis botched the telling of it terribly. If this was indeed an important occasion for feminism, she did not rise to it.

That's why, for some time now, a good part of my curiosity has been directed at how the science writing community responds to what is happening. This is similar to the shift of focus that took place in Rolling Stone's UVA rape story, where it became increasingly important to arrive at a judgment about the quality of the journalism, rather than continuing to use it as an occasion to talk about the campus rape problem or the appropriateness of the university's response. The question, for a time, became whether the original story had gotten the facts even remotely right. As in that case, I still think Tim Hunt's university acted rashly. I.e., I'm not letting UCL off the hook for accepting Tim Hunt's resignation. But this post is about the journalism alone.

The focus of my query to ABSW was what I saw as the undisclosed conflict of interest that was implicit in Connie St Louis' role on the executive board of the World Federation of Science Journalists, which hosted the World Conference of Science Journalism. (The WCSJ is the semi-annual conference of the WFSJ, which is traditionally organised by a national member organisation that bids for and wins the honor of doing so.) When St Louis said that Hunt's "hosts" were much offended, she should have included herself under that label. That is, she should have taken part of the responsibility for her guest's behaviour and, in my opinion, should have taken steps to mitigate any possible damage his words might have done rather than to compound it by amplifying his remarks. At the very least, she owed her readers full disclosure of her role at the conference.


My exchange with Martin Ince culminated in a statement from the executive board of the Association of British Science Writers that runs as follows:

[W]e do not think that this situation constitutes a journalistic ‘conflict of interest’, in that Connie St Louis’s position as a Board member of the World Federation did not directly influence her reporting of the story. The question to ask is, if her position was stated explicitly in her first tweet whether it would have changed the story, or individuals understanding or response to the story – in our view it would not.

There are a number of points we would like to make to expand on our view. First, Connie has never intentionally tried to hide the fact that she is a Board member of the World Federation of Science Journalists. Second, the World Federation Board is not the organiser of the Conference. Those responsible for choice of sessions/events/speakers were the Korean Science Journalists’ Association who won the bid to organise the event. The Conference website shows the organisational structure quite clearly, the World Federation is considered a ‘host’. Third, we would consider it inappropriate at a journalism conference to ‘gag’ members of the Federation Board or those more directly responsible for choosing speakers. As journalists they should be free to report on the event as they see it, whether that be critical or not. When the ABSW organised the World Conference of Science Journalists in London we demanded no restrictions on reporting by any of those involved, all of whom were free to debate issues at the event and report on them in whatever way they felt appropriate. Finally it is important to note that Tim Hunt has not disputed the quotes that have been attributed to him by Connie St Louis.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I disagree with ABSW. I do believe St Louis had a conflict of interest, and one that should have been disclosed. And I certainly would have been differently receptive to her initial comment if the story had been "Member of WFSJ executive board and two members of WCSJ program committee denounce sexist comments made by their invited speaker." You can't tell me that wouldn't have been a completely different story.

As for the other details: First, as I understand the norm of disclosing conflicts of interest, i.e., being up-front about them, one does not meet it merely by not intentionally trying to hide them. Second, it is sufficient, to my mind, that Connie St Louis be "considered a host" to give her an interest worth disclosing. Third, I'm not suggesting that anyone be "gagged" but rather that, in this case, their first responsibility was to minimise the harm of Tim Hunt's remarks, and only then, and after discussing it with their guest (i.e., Tim Hunt), move to tell the story publicly, in a way that could shed maximum light on the issue of gender bias in science.

I'm sure ABSW "demanded no restrictions" of their members when they hosted the conference themselves, but I would hope that they expected their own executive board members, and the members of the program committee, to raise any possibly scandalous incidents through internal channels before, perhaps in frustration, taking them public. Note that, in that case, the scandal would be much greater, since it would amount to whistleblowing on the ABSW, WCSJ and/or WFSJ's unwillingness to act against a speaker who made an outrageous comment. (In this case, in fact, there has been no official statement from WFSJ, i.e., no comment from the very board that Connie St Louis serves on and who, as ABSW points out, can be considered Tim Hunt's "host".)

Finally, I find it really outrageous that ABSW feels that "it is important to note that Tim Hunt has not disputed the quotes that have been attributed to him" when he has, very clearly, including in his oft-promoted apology to KOFWST, disputed the meaning that Connie St Louis attributed to him. To say that Hunt's assurance that he was trying to make a joke does not count as "disputing" St Louis' claim that he seriously suggested sex-segregated labs is so ignorant that it'd almost be kinder to call it dishonest.

In any case, the ABSW's standing orders state that "members of the Association are expected to observe the highest professional standards. Wilful or frequent misrepresentation or inaccuracy, wilful breach of confidence, or behaviour in any way prejudicial to the interest of the public in accurate scientific reporting, or of the professional interests of the membership of the Association, shall be considered in breach of these standards," and may lead to "suspension or expulsion" from the Association. So long as Connie St Louis remains a member in good standing of ABSW, I assume we can take her work on the Tim Hunt story as exemplary of "the highest professional standards" of British science writing. We can form our judgments of that professional group accordingly.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Starting up Again

It's been a long summer, with more blogging and tweeting than I expected, so I've extended my blogging break into September this year. I will begin blogging seriously again on Monday. I've got a lot of things to talk about, including (I regret to inform you) the Tim Hunt affair, which appears to continue with new contributions on both sides of the controversy (see Jon Foreman's and Tom Levenson's recent, and very different, accounts of the events and their significance). I also want to write about what I learned during my time with Oliver Reichenstein's Information Architects in the Alps last week. They made me realize that my own "architecture" leaves a lot to be desired and that I could make myself more useful to more people by thinking seriously about my web presence. If I build it, it now seems reasonable to suppose, they will come.

Finally, I definitely want to write more about academic writing. I have way too much to say on the topic and part of my information architecture is going to have to be sorting it usefully into seminars for researchers, courses for students, a book or two, some journal articles, talks and lectures, and the aforementioned website. I have spent more than a decade now, I realize, trying to identify the essence of scholarly of writing and I have, by and large, been successful—at least from an intellectual point of view. I've been a bit less effective at building a coherent career around that essence, forever ambivalent about whether I am, myself, a scholar and teacher or a consultant and coach. The next ten years, let's say, will be devoted to deciding that question and living according to its answer.