About half a billion people live on fan-shaped floodplains that form where rivers meet the sea.
Those plains, called river deltas, share the same fan-like shape the world over. Even after controlling for factors like the size of the river, the slope of the land its channel traverses, and the makeup of the local soil, river deltas have a remarkably consistent shape.
Yesterday, I wrote about why many pieces about the need for investigative science journalism don’t acknowledge the factors behind its scarcity.Conversations about investigations in science journalism often seem to assume that reporters don’t see critiquing science as important, but journalists’ individual interests don’t set the tone for journalistic coverage all by themselves. In journalism, economics and politics shape our work. It’s basically impossible to disentangle why an article was written the way it was from simply reading the article.
Discussing the economics and politics that shape editorial decisions is a crucial part of addressing the relative absence of investigative science journalism, because for many reporters, quick hits– daily news stories, magazine blurbs, and blog posts– are our bread-and-butter (…when we get any bread at all…). Most casual readers encounter science via casual quick takes more often than they encounter it through investigative and/or longform articles.
There are definitely books and workshops out there to teach journalists how to chase down leads and verify what sources say, but at the end of the day, every investigative reporter I’ve met says that a lot of investigation is just spending a lot of time going through interviews and documents, looking for patterns. It’s very, very hard to justify putting in Spotlight-esque hours without a steady salary.
Unfortunately, the economic realities do not prevent verification issues from rearing their heads in short news stories…
This past Saturday, I got to listen in on an all-star panel sponsored by the Future of Life Institute on the potential risks and benefits of technologies like artificial intelligence, personal genetics, and automated factories.
We heard from George Church, one of the world’s best-known synthetic biologists, on the future of bioengineering; Ting Wu, director of the Personal Genetics Education Project, on how to convince laypeople to learn about genetics; Andrew McAfee of MIT’s Center for Digital Business on how automated factories will impact developing countries’ economies; Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek on the difficulties we’ll face ensuring that robots won’t decide to harm us; and Jaan Tallinn of Skype on the ethics of creating sentient AIs. Alan Alda, of M*A*S*H* and The Flame Challenge was the moderator.
I’m not the first science blogger to point this out, but it bears repeating: The billions we spend on funding federal scientific may sound extreme on paper, but once you realize we spend $17 billion a year on Valentine’s Day, suddenly a 5 billion dollar NASA budget doesn’t sound so crazy.
Case in point: Estimates for spending this past Valentine’s Day hover in the 17 billion to 20 billion dollar range.
“Scientists, they’re isolated. They’re out of touch with real world concerns, and that’s why they can’t get funding. What can we do get them interested in relevant projects so that they can get their funding?”
This was an audience question at a Nova-sponsored Science Cafe in Cambridge, MA. The speaker was Ari Daniel, an oceanographer-turned-radio-producer, and the audience member asking the question was a middle-aged man with brown hair and glasses and a plodding, pedantic tone of voice.
The audience member went on, “I mean, there was a forest that the scientists wanted to save, and there was no money for it, so they got some hikers in there, and then they were able to raise money for it. So how can we get scientists to do more things like that? How can we convey to them that they need make their work relevant to people?”