Writing, Authority, and Responsibility

I watched, from the wings, as a rather heated discussion broke out between Kelly and Bora about the function of blogging and journalism, and in particular when a blogger acts under the banner of a purported  authority—in this case, the Scientific American blog site. The essence of the disagreement was about the authority and accountability of authors, and the consequences of imparting information to an audience from a position of power.

The whole thing, as I sat in my slightly woozy state (I’m suffering from some pretty chronic pain right now), reminded me of my first article—a piece on the responsibility of scientists to communicate information about science accurately. I’ve thrown a proof of the paper up on academia.edu for those interested.

The central argument of the paper—excusing my distinct lack of voice—is that scientists have a responsibility to ensure their work is interpreted correctly because:

  1. People are vulnerable to misrepresentation or misinformation (a general obligation toward communicative mindfulness, if you will);
  2. Scientists (or their proxies) have a special obligation because of the power they possess as specialists and professionals.
  3. Scientists (or their proxies)  have self-interested reasons to ensure their work is interpreted correctly.

The longer arguments are in the paper, and I’m really only interested in what follows from point two above. What about the journalists, bloggers, and science communicators that are an important part of the way that scientific knowledge—and importantly, the scientific enterprise—is communicated?

The answer, I think, is the same. If you communicate about science, and you do so with authority, you have a responsibility for what you produce. That authority might be through a PhD; a byline with a prestigious organisation; or just being known long enough, and by enough people, to count (i.e. possessing esteem).

In particular, science does things. It does lots of cool things, and just as many scary things. When you are in a position to influence how things get done, of course an attendant obligation follows. How could it not?

The piece that motivated the debate this morning was a piece that referred to the “truth” about nuclear power. Truth about a 75 year old (well, depending on which advance you take as “the beginning”), controversial, potentially dangerous set of technologies that have been mired in a number of very big explosions, an arms race, systemic corruption, and secrecy. And form part of a very expensive military-industrial project. Anyone who purports, under the name of an institution that has existed since 1845, to have truth about that sure as hell better know what they are doing. (I’m very skeptical that’s the case, but that’s for another post—tomorrow.)

The contention is, however (e.g. here and here), that bloggers need freedom to grow, expand their knowledge, strike out on their own, and make mistakes.

I didn’t see anyone doubt that.  It’s just that it is beside the point.

Need for growth doesn’t abrogate responsibility. Everyone needs an opportunity to make baby steps into new areas of expertise. But when your baby steps can be mistaken for firm, adult strides, you need to be careful. Writing under the byline of an institution like SciAm is a powerful force, and I believe that goes for the blog section as well by virtue of the reputation it leverages.

The reply, of course, is that in the age of interactivity, bloggers will be corrected in comments and growth can happen there: the writer’s equivalent of “many eyes make all bugs shallow.” But just like in software, or engineering, or physics, you need the right eyes, and then everyone else needs to see the fix. Bloggers don’t always post errata, and even if they do it can be too little too late. Readers don’t have time, energy, or (depending on the topic) the stomach to read through the comments and stitch controversy together. Follow up after follow up can cause fatigue (check out climate-change fatigue, kids!) And again, it misses the point that the bigger the authority, the larger the responsibility.

The responsibility that comes from possessing authority shouldn’t necessarily cap growth, but should be in the minds of writers as they strike out in new directions. Moving from a position of expertise to one with less isn’t problematic in itself, but if no one else gets the memo—or the writing doesn’t convey that change—then problems can and will occur. And as readers, knowledgable or otherwise, we should hold people accountable for what they write.


14 thoughts on “Writing, Authority, and Responsibility

  1. Glendon Mellow (@FlyingTrilobite)

    Disclosure: I am a blogger on the SciAmBlogs network.

    I don’t disagree with anything here generally, but I think this post is guilty of what it’s also saying.

    Dan, you’ve got links to comments on Twitter about this discussion, but what posts are a problem? Was a SciAm blogger recently outed as a fraud? Is someone continually posting about a topic which they have little or no education in and just making stuff up? There’s no specifics here to address, so the complaints here and on Twitter are very difficult to understand. My background is in oil and digital painting, but I like to think I am adept at opening a discussion about balloon sculptures or copyright practices.

    Examples? Links? What posts or bloggers are a problem in your opinion or opinions you’ve heard?

    1. Nicholas Evans Post author

      Hi Glendon, thanks for replying.

      So the post that motivated all of this was by Ash over at Curious Wavefunction; the post I linked to in the article. It is worth saying, and strongly, that by no means is Ash guilty of fraud—I took some of his claims to be either stronger than I thought they should be, or based on what I believe to be an incomplete picture of the nuclear sciences and especially the nuclear power industry.

      Kelly and I have talked often about the presence of evolutionary psych posts that talk about morality. She and I diverge at some point on the issue, but where we tend to see eye to eye is that for the most part these blog posts have some really systematic and (to us) troubling aspects—in the main, they omit or neglect the connections between the framework of evolutionary biology and psychology; the descriptive observations of (parts of) applied ethics, sociology, history, anthropology, and so on; and (I think the really important point that is *thoroughly* neglected) the distinction between what people believe they ought to do, and what people actually ought to do. A new and emergent field like EvPsych can’t be taken lightly when it makes such broad ranging prescriptions.

      Another recent example are recent articles on a 10-year old girl in PA that needs a new set of lungs, and her family’s use of media attention and now getting a judge to overrule medical advisory boards on lung transplants (see e.g. http://jezebel.com/a-10-year-old-girl-needs-a-new-set-of-lungs-ethical-fi-511487921). This is a super contentious issue, and the way language frames the issue (for instance, that organ donations should be based on who “deserves” those organs) are really fraught conversations that people with a platform need to be mindful of.

      The list goes on—when I wrote the article from which I drew this post back in 2010, I was talking about things like promising things from nanotech (more recently, I’ve been looking at synthetic biology), the Wakefield-MMR case, the power of MRI imaging in science communication, and so on.

      Do I think you yourself should be able to comment on balloon animals or copyright law? Absolutely. Do I think that clarity becomes more important as you get deeper into copyright law? 100% yes. As long as someone has a platform the risks of harm from disseminating incorrect or incomplete info become higher. Now I don’t want to dismiss balloon animals, but the risk that commentary on law be taken as legal advice can end really badly, and while readers have responsibilities for themselves, writers have responsibilities for what they produce (which is as much point 1 in the above article as point 2).

      Am I guilty of what I charge others with? Maybe in this case, and certainly I have been in the past. This idea formed in my head when I was called out for inadvertently misrepresenting a position in a paper I was presenting on advances in military robotics. But, as a general rule, any lapses in my ability to fail to live up to a justifiable standard does not make that standard unreliable or invalid. It just makes me a human that needs to work on his own stuff 😉

  2. Curious Wavefunction

    Thanks for raising some excellent points in this post. Firstly I think you are reading too much into that “truth” part of the title. When you encounter a political blogger writing about the “truth about the Obama administration”, it’s clear that he is conveying what he thinks is the truth; it should be obvious that he is not claiming to be the only possessor of facts that nobody else in the world has access to. Anyone who assumes that the writer knows the absolute truth is being naive, and the burden of belief is on his or her shoulders. In another sense, the “truth” that I described in my post does apply to a literal sense to the facts which I talked about regarding the realities of radiation, the nature of nuclear waste etc. at least as they are understood right now. I am not an expert in nuclear energy but I have been reading about it for quite some time and do think I know more about it than the average layman. But that does not mean I won’t make mistakes or will leave no stone unturned; I think it’s a little unrealistic to say that I must know about the topic of my post with complete authority to use the word “truth” in the title.

    But this really gets to a broader and more relevant question, one which I think is more complex than it sounds. How do you propose we as bloggers make sure that people “get the memo”? Should we append every post with a disclaimer that we are writing about an area in which we are either a. real experts b. partial experts or c. amateurs? I am not being facetious when I ask this question since I think it introduces a real problem. Even with areas in which we think are experts people will always find something to quibble about. So a formal disclaimer saying that we are experts will make matters worse. In addition such a disclaimer won’t even be accurate since most posts are a mix of expert opinion, non-expert opinion and…well, just opinion.

    I think the root of the problem is that people still haven’t come to terms with the nature of blogs. The real strength of blogs is that they represent a terrific diversity of knowledge; on my blog I am free to write articles reflecting solid facts, tentative speculation, wild conjecture and pure opinion. But people who come to Scientific American don’t always understand this; they think all posts are written by “experts” and are officially sanctioned by Scientific American (in spite of the disclaimer at the bottom of every post). Well, some of them are expert pieces and others are not. That leads to outrage along the lines of “I can’t believe that Scientific American would publish this” which completely misses the point. The fact is that individual bloggers can’t always apologize if a commenter misunderstands the nature and purpose of the post.

    I completely agree with you that blogging entails responsibility, and I can assure you that each one of us on Sci Am was picked by Bora because he or she was known as a generally responsible writer. But being a responsible blogger does not mean abandoning opinionated pieces or getting every post accurate down to the hemline of the skirt. It doesn’t even mean giving every side an equal hearing (unless one side has an obviously earth-shattering and infallible argument to make; then you can’t ignore it); this is impossible partly because of time constraints and partly because even a neutral blogger is coming from somewhere. Bora says it best in his post when he points out that many of us often deliberately blog about controversial and ill-understood topics to get a vigorous discussion going in the comments section. As he says we often don’t cross the Ts and dot the i’s because otherwise there would be no spirited conversation. Instead of worrying about whether a particular post should or should not have been written under the banner of Sci Am, commenters’ time would be much more fruitfully spent criticizing and commenting on the post.

    The beauty of it is that regular commenters and readers quickly learn to distinguish expert posts from more speculative and incomplete ones. For instance a recent post I wrote about quantum gravity had a lot of commenters pointing out mistakes and fuzzy thinking/writing; I genuinely appreciated this, we all learnt from it, we did not spend time debating what “kind” of post it was and I certainly did not regret writing it. I have learnt that ultimately it doesn’t really matter to commenters whether a post reflects “true” expertise since every post is an opportunity to debate, share and learn irrespective of its nature. Personally I think that the distinction is not as important as we think since in one sense none of us are experts and arguing about this only detracts from the real purpose of blogs, which is to share, learn and provoke. Is the system imperfect? Certainly so. But it’s the only way we can encourage as diverse a set of writings as is possible in this brave new world of the Internet.

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