Deconstructing Sandy

Yesterday, I got to have a great conversation on Minnesota Public Radio's The Daily Circuit. Host Tom Webber and I spent a good 45 minutes talking about Hurricane Sandy, climate change, and why it's so hard to talk about the connections between the two in an easily digestible, sound-bite format. In the meantime, he might have gotten some good sound bites out of me.

Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson leaving for UAV startup 3D Robotics

Image: Chris Anderson, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from joi's photostream

Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson is leaving the magazine after 11 years to lead the robotics company he founded, 3D Robotics (blog). He broke the news at an all-hands Wired staff meeting in San Francisco today. He’ll remain at in his leading role at Wired until parent company Conde Nast finds a new editor-in-chief.

More: Venturebeat, NY Observer.

As Dylan Tweney notes,

3D Robotics has a Facebook page, Twitter account, and domain name (3drobotics.com), but currently no website. Currently, that URL redirects to DIY Drones, another company Anderson founded, which sells kits and parts for people making their own unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — robotic aircraft, essentially. It appears that 3D Robotics is an outgrowth of that company.

The new company is billed as an "amateur UAV superstore," and is reported to have facilities in San Diego, California and Bangkok, Thailand.

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Authors of study linking GM corn with rat tumors manipulated media to prevent criticism of their work

Earlier today, I posted on the recent paper that claims to have found a link between eating genetically modified corn and the growth of tumors in rats. Short version: The research sucked. It's a terribly done study and it demonstrates why "peer reviewed" does not always mean "accurate".

But now, this story is getting worse. Turns out, the authors of the study (and their financial sponsor, The Sustainable Food Trust) manipulated the media to ensure that the first news stories published about the study would not be critical of its methods or results.

First, some background. When a journal is about to publish a study that they think will be big news, they usually offer the full study to reporters under an embargo system. The reporter gets to read the study, do their reporting, and write a story ... but they can't publish that story until a specific day at a specific time. If you're a daily or an online publication, there's a lot of pressure to have your story ready to go the moment the embargo lifts. Otherwise, you'll look like you weren't on the ball. There's a lot of problems with this system, but it's very common.

What's not common: Forcing journalists to sign non-disclosure agreements promising to not show the study they're reporting on to any independent researchers or outside experts. If you're trying to make sure your publication runs a story on the study right when the embargo lifts, but you can't show the study to any third-party experts before the embargo lifts, then the story you run is going to (inevitably) contain only information the authors of the study want you to talk about. It ceases being journalism and becomes PR.

This is what the authors of the GM corn/rat tumor study did.

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ENCODE, the media, and what we really know about the human genome

If you've read anything in the past week about ENCODE—a group of laboratories that recently published their latest work on the human genome—then you need to read John Timmer's excellent piece over at Ars Technica.

What ENCODE has actually done, and why it matters, has been widely misrepresented in the mainstream press—largely because of misleading press releases put out by ENCODE, itself. Timmer sets the record straight. It's a long read, but a fascinating one. Highly recommended.

This week, the ENCODE project released the results of its latest attempt to catalog all the activities associated with the human genome. Although we've had the sequence of bases that comprise the genome for over a decade, there were still many questions about what a lot of those bases do when inside a cell. ENCODE is a large consortium of labs dedicated to helping sort that out by identifying everything they can about the genome: what proteins stick to it and where, which pieces interact, what bases pick up chemical modifications, and so on. What the studies can't generally do, however, is figure out the biological consequences of these activities, which will require additional work.

Yet the third sentence of the lead ENCODE paper contains an eye-catching figure that ended up being reported widely: "These data enabled us to assign biochemical functions for 80 percent of the genome." Unfortunately, the significance of that statement hinged on a much less widely reported item: the definition of "biochemical function" used by the authors.

This was more than a matter of semantics. Many press reports that resulted painted an entirely fictitious history of biology's past, along with a misleading picture of its present. As a result, the public that relied on those press reports now has a completely mistaken view of our current state of knowledge (this happens to be the exact opposite of what journalism is intended to accomplish). But you can't entirely blame the press in this case. They were egged on by the journals and university press offices that promoted the work—and, in some cases, the scientists themselves.

Read the rest of John Timmer's story at Ars Technica

Image: Micah's DNA, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from micahb37's photostream

How the entire world's media got a Nature cover story totally, utterly wrong

Moran Cerf, the Israeli military hacker turned good-guy bank-robber turned neuroscientist, tells the hilarious stories about how the best day of his scientific career -- when he got the cover of Nature -- was ruined by press sensationalism. He and his colleagues invented a machine that let him show people pictures of what they were thinking about. A BBC news producer misconstrued this as meaning that he'd invented a machine that could record dreams. They ran with it, and the story spread all over the world, morphing into an account of how scientists could record your dreams and soon there will be product on the market that does this. When he stopped talking to the press, they ganked photos of him in a Freud Hallowe'en costume and dubbed him "the new Sigmund Freud." He continued to be the top news story on Google News, only slipping to number two when the US midterms results were published. He got calls from Apple asking to buy the dream recorder; from Inception's producer asking to go on tour with him, and so on. The story's pretty amazing, and a great commentary on how science stories spin out of control.

The Moth Presents Moran Cerf: On Human (and) Nature (Thanks, Moran!)

Running mate Ryan handsome young suction gold

Machine-translating the official Chinese translation of the New York Times back into English results in curious delights.

Olympics 2012 opening ceremony honors Tim Berners-Lee, but NBC anchors don't know who he is

"Tim being Englishman Tim Berners-Lee... if you haven't heard of him, [laugh], we haven't either." — Meredith Vieira, derping out with Matt Lauer during the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics.

Meredith, Matt: You guys. You could look it up on the World Wide Web.

Video here, courtesy of Ethan Klapper.

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What news ombudsmen should do to make the news part of the Web, and vice-versa

Dan "Mediactive" Gillmor sends us his latest Guardian column, a thoughtful and fascinating manifesto for what the role newspaper ombudsmen could morph into, in order to maximize the relevance and centrality of newspapers and news organizations on the Internet:

• Aggregate (quote and link to) every thoughtful critique of the organization's work that I could find, and invite readers to analyze and comment on those critiques. I would ask permission to crosspost some of these on the blog. When I thought a critic was wrong, I'd say so. I'd also note when they were, in my view, making fair points. I'd deal with disrespectful critiques on a case-by-case basis, recognizing that sometimes a nasty person can make a good point.

• Create a robust, open forum about the newspaper's work. This would most likely take the form of a traditional bulletin board system where readers could create their own topics, using moderation software that would minimize staff costs while still filtering out the worst trolls.

• Strongly encourage newsroom staff to participate in these conversations. The discussions would still work to some degree without the staff, but with them, the conversations would be vastly better. Of course, some newsroom folks – Nicholas Kristof is a prime example – are already engaging with readers in terrific ways; I'd point to those interactions. But my main goal here would be, whenever possible, to have the newsroom explain how it operates and why it does what it does. Serious journalism is hard work, and I don't think readers understand how hard. As I wrote in my most recent book, greater transparency in an honorable news organization will lead your audience to trust you more even if they may believe you less.

• Use the Sunday column mostly as a guide to (with highlights from) the online conversations.

There's more -- be sure and click through to read the whole thing.

A manifesto for the newspaper's public editor in the social media era (Thanks, Dan)

You got your Syfy in my science

An Animal Planet documentary, which the station insists was intended to be taken as science fiction, has forced the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to publicly deny the existence of mermaids. If you need me, I'll be out back, drinking whiskey and taking aim at the television.

How To: Get an amazing photo from the flanks of Mt. Everest

Image: Chhiring Sherpa provides the lighting for a photograph of Swiss mountaineer Ueli Steck. Photo by Grayson Schaffer, used with permission of Outside.

Hint: It involves a lot of sherpas.

Grayson Schaffer, an editor for Outside magazine, is currently embedded at Base Camp on Mt. Everest, covering several teams attempting to climb the mountain's West Ridge—which Outside describes as "a route nearly as many climbers have died on as have summitted." He's sending back stories and photos from the tallest mountain in the world. But that presents a problem. The kind of photography that's used in a glossy magazine is not the kind of photography that is easy to produce with a team of one in a bare-bones climbing camp.

In a recent post, Schaffer explains the tools he's using to get his shots and shows us how he's wrangled random sherpas, climbers, and camp staff into assisting him. It's a neat bit of media behind-the-scenes.

The key piece of gear that makes it all possible is the new Pro-B3 1200w/s AirS battery pack. It's the lithium-powered update to the older 7B power pack, and it delivers consistent flashes even in subzero temperatures at 17,500 feet. We've got two of these with a set of spare battery inserts but have yet to run down in a day's shooting. To charge these beasts, we've been using a basic GoalZero solar setup, which, thanks to the Pro-B3's built-in trickle-charging capability, can top off a charge in a sunny afternoon.

Read Schaffer's post on taking photos on Mt. Everest

Follow Schaffer's daily reporting on the West Ridge ascent

Image: A yak inspects Grayson Schaffer's camera gear boxes. Photo by Grayson Schaffer. Used with permission of Outside.

Act now! Special offer!

Ridiculous subscription pricing policies at the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Be prepared to headdesk so many times that you dent your furniture and/or give yourself a concussion ... especially when you get to the spreadsheets. (Via Nieman Lab)

UK MPs: Rupert Murdoch is "not a fit person" to run an international corporation

The long-running UK Parliamentary investigation into the NewsCorp newspapers' practice of hacking emails and voicemails has wound down, and delivered a final, damning report. In it, the cross-party Parliamentary group describes Rupert Murdoch as "not a fit person" to run a major corporation. It also says that James Murdoch -- Rupert's son -- practiced 'wilful ignorance' of illegal activities at his papers. From Dan Sabbagh and Josh Halliday in The Guardian:

The cross-party group of MPs said that Les Hinton, the former executive chairman of News International, was "complicit" in a cover-up at the newspaper group, and that Colin Myler, former editor of the News of the World, and the paper's ex-head of legal, Tom Crone, deliberately withheld crucial information and answered questions falsely. All three were accused of misleading parliament by the culture select committee.

Rupert Murdoch, the document said, "did not take steps to become fully informed about phone hacking" and "turned a blind eye and exhibited wilful blindness to what was going on in his companies and publications".

The committee concluded that the culture of the company's newspapers "permeated from the top" and "speaks volumes about the lack of effective corporate governance at News Corporation and News International".

That prompted the MPs report to say: "We conclude, therefore, that Rupert Murdoch is not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of major international company."

James Murdoch is described as exhibiting a "lack of curiosity … wilful ignorance even" at the time of the negotiations surrounding the 2008 Gordon Taylor phone-hacking settlement and later in 2009 and 2010. The younger son of Rupert Murdoch is criticised for failing to appreciate the significance of the News of the World hacking when the "for Neville" email first became public in 2009 and during subsequent investigations by parliament in February 2010 and a New York Times report in September 2010.

Rupert Murdoch 'not fit' to lead major international company, MPs conclude

How to: Read science news

How you read matters as much as what you read. That's because nothing is written in a vacuum. Every news story or blog post has a perspective behind it, a perspective that shapes what you are told and how that information is conveyed. This is not, necessarily, a bad thing. Having a perspective doesn't mean being sensationalistic, or deceitful, or spreading propaganda. It can mean those things, but it doesn't have to. In fact, I'm fairly certain that it's impossible to tell any story without some kind of perspective. When you relate facts, even in your personal life, you make choices about what details you will emphasize, what emotions you'll convey, who you will speak to—and all of those decisions are based on your personal perspective. How we tell a story depends on what we think is important.

Unfortunately, sometimes, perspective can be misleading. That's why it's important to be aware that perspective exists. If you look at what you're reading, you can see the decisions the author made, you can get an idea of what perspective they were trying to convey, and you will know whether that perspective is likely to distort the facts.

Emily Willingham is a scientist who blogs about science for the general public. Over at Double X Science, she's come up with a handy, six-step guide for reading science news stories. These rules are a great tool for peeking behind the curtain, and learning to think about the perspective behind what you read. In the post, she explains why each of these rules is important, and then applies them to a recent news story about chemical exposure and autism.

3. Look at the words in the articles. Suspected. Suggesting a link. In other words, what you're reading below those headlines does not involve studies linking anything to autism. Instead, it's based on an editorial listing 10 compounds [PDF] that the editorial authors suspect might have something to do with autism (NB: Both linked stories completely gloss over the fact that most experts attribute the rise in autism diagnoses to changing and expanded diagnostic criteria, a shift in diagnosis from other categories to autism, and greater recognition and awareness--i.e., not to genetic changes or environmental factors. The editorial does the same). The authors do not provide citations for studies that link each chemical cited to autism itself, and the editorial itself is not focused on autism, per se, but on "neurodevelopmental" derailments in general.

4. Look at the original source of information. The source of the articles is an editorial, as noted. But one of these articles also provides a link to an actual research paper. The paper doesn't even address any of the "top 10" chemicals listed but instead is about cigarette smoking. News stories about this study describe it as linking smoking during pregnancy and autism. Yet the study abstract states that they did not identify a link, saying "We found a null association between maternal smoking and pregnancy in ASDs and the possibility of an association with a higher-functioning ASD subgroup was suggested." In other words: No link between smoking and autism. But the headlines and how the articles are written would lead you to believe otherwise.

The one rule of Willingham's that I would question is "Ask a Scientist", not because it's bad advice, but because it's not something most people can easily do. Twitter helps, but only if you're already tied into social networks of scientists and science writers. Again, most people aren't. If you want to connect to these networks, I'd recommend starting out by picking up a copy of The Open Laboratory, an annual anthology of the best science writing on the web. Use that to find scientists who write for the public and whose voice you enjoy. Add them in your social networks, and then add the people that those scientists are spending a lot of time talking to. That's the easiest way to connect with some trustworthy sources. And remember: An expert in one subject is not the same thing as an expert. It doesn't make sense to ask a mechanical engineer for their opinion on cancer treatments. It doesn't make sense to as an oncologist about building better engines.

Read the rest of Emily Willingham's post on reading science news.

Buy The Open Laboratory 2010 (the 2011 edition hasn't been published yet).

In Guatemala, pirate Mayan radio connects marginalized indigenous communities

I missed this great read published a few months back by photojournalist Connor Boals in Columbia Journalism Review, but it's worth revisiting now: a story about the indigenous pirate radio stations that connect poor rural Mayan communities throughout Guatemala.

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When life hands you cancer, make cancer-ade: via lemonade stand, 6yo boy raises $10K for dad's chemo

A story making the rounds this week: Drew Cox, a 6 year old boy in Texas, "decided to sell lemonade to help his father with medical bills." His dad, Randy Cox, has a rare form of metastatic cancer, diagnosed a few months ago. The family says Drew's lemonade stand earned more than $10,000. They have an online fundraising site here, where they're trying to raise more.

I am currently undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, diagnosed about four months ago. When I saw various versions of this story popping up on news sites, several thoughts came to mind.

First, hooray for this child. I hope his dad gets the treatment he needs, that the treatment is successful, and that the family doesn't go into debt or have to forego treatment for lack of funds.

But second: this is a disgrace. I hate it when stories like this are flogged in media as "feel-good" stories. This story should make America feel ashamed, not feel good. Seriously? A working father gets cancer, and the family has to rely on charity, and a lemonade stand manned by their 6 year old son, to obtain life-sustaining medical treatment?

It's not the first such lemonade/chemo-money story to make the rounds in the media, wrapped up in feel-good. When life hands you cancer, the news narrative seems to be, just make cancer-ade!

Well, I have cancer. I have insurance. I still pay what is for me a huge out-of-pocket sum, even after my insurance, for each chemo infusion every two weeks. As a wise fellow cancer patient told me, if the disease doesn't kill you, the medical bills just might.

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