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:
- People are vulnerable to misrepresentation or misinformation (a general obligation toward communicative mindfulness, if you will);
- Scientists (or their proxies) have a special obligation because of the power they possess as specialists and professionals.
- 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.)
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.