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NSF officer speaks on the future of journalism and science

MADISON – M. Mitchell Waldrop has put his Ph.D. in theoretical physics to use —not in research, but as a journalist and now as a public affairs officer for the National Science Foundation.

Named the University of Wisconsin-Madison science writer in residence for the week, he presented a public lecture on March 23 titled, "Making Sense: Science's (and Journalism's) Secret Weapon,” at which he discussed the relationship between writing science for the public and writing for scientists. He laid out a challenge to increase the level of fairness and clarity in journalism about science and technology.

Waldrop, a UW-Madison graduate who also holds a MA in journalism has written three popular science books and scores of articles for publications such as Scientific American, Fast Company and Science, where he served as a senior staff writer for 11 years. He may be best known for his book called Complexity, a popular treatment of the Santa Fe Institute and complex adaptive systems published in 1992.

Waldrop's most recent book, “The Dream Machine,” published in 2001, is a history of computing that pays special attention to search technology, which he said was not sufficient enough to deal with increasing volumes of information.

"There's lots of search technology, but very little connect-the-dots technology," he said. "And if we ever doubted that, remember 9/11, and what we know in the aftermath is that one of the reasons … the intelligence community didn't anticipate it is they weren't able to connect the dots."
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Besides bureaucratic inefficiencies, he attributed this failure to simple human cognitive limitations — the inability to deal with the quantity of information that crosses intelligence agencies' desks daily. Perhaps better information technology could have sifted through all the available data effectively, Waldrop suggested.

In the meantime, Waldrop called for a human solution.

"As it turns out, science and journalism already have, actually, an enormously powerful technology for connecting the dots and making sense … what is possibly the most powerful error-detection tool ever devised: disputation," he said.

The classic description of the scientific method as conducting experiments to test hypotheses is relatively "bloodless," Waldrop said; the reality involves publication and endless debate and disputes that bring multiple perspectives to every issue.

For journalists, "your skull is the place where this disputation is going on," he said. In writing anything with multiple sides, a journalist must be fair to each side — not, he said, to be objective, but to give everyone their due.

Readers and listeners, too, must be given their due, even when their views are based on inexact knowledge of the science and technology that is changing their world.

"Those of us who have done call-in shows … know that most of the people who call in are pretty chuckle-headed," he said. "They really don't understand. … In the case of scientific concerns, it's usually some variation of the Frankenstein monster."

But that is no reason to ignore people's concerns, he said. Nor should different scientific disciplines, which often suffer from fragmentation between "hard" and "soft" fields or even between related fields in the physical sciences, ignore each other.

"[In the physics department,] we actually sneered at chemistry," he said. "And then math sneered at us."

Waldrop is the latest in a line of science writers, one per semester, brought to the university for the last 12 years, according to journalism professor Sharon Dunwoody, who teaches science writing. She, along with another science writer and representatives from University Communications, choose the writer each semester.

"With Mitch, the physicists are all-out interested," she said. "Another year, we might have a biological science person."

Terry Devitt of University Communications said, "This is a public resource aimed for people who are interested in science and how it's communicated to the world."

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Jason Stitt is a staff writer for the Wisconsin Technology Network and can be reached at jason@wistechnology.com.

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