MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing http://cmsw.mit.edu An innovative program that applies critical analysis, collaborative research, and design across a variety of media arts, forms, and practices. Thu, 15 May 2014 14:30:01 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=193 Podcast: Philip Jones, “Gaming in Color”http://cmsw.mit.edu/philip-jones-gaming-color/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=philip-jones-gaming-color http://cmsw.mit.edu/philip-jones-gaming-color/#comments Fri, 09 May 2014 14:22:48 +0000 http://cmsw.mit.edu/?p=9411 A discussion of Gaming in Color, a full-length documentary of the story of the queer gaming community, gaymer culture and events, and the rise of LGBTQ themes in video games.

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A discussion of Gaming in Color, a full-length documentary of the story of the queer gaming community, gaymer culture and events, and the rise of LGBTQ themes in video games. A lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or otherwise queer gamer has a higher chance of being mistreated in an online social game. Diverse queer themes in storylines and characters are still mostly an anomaly in the mainstream video game industry. Gaming In Color explores how the community culture is shifting and the industry is diversifying, helping with queer visibility and acceptance of an LGBTQ presence.

Philip Jones is a queer youth and activist, who began in the games industry with journalism and podcasting. He is now best known for his work in directing the video games documentary Gaming in Color which focuses on queer gamers. He also has a hand in other MidBoss projects, currently head of the expo hall and vendor relations for the second GaymerX convention, as well as assistant writer for upcoming adventure game Read Only Memories. When not working on these projects, he studies and wears too much flannel at his home in Texas.

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Job opening: Web Developer for “Promise Tracker”http://cmsw.mit.edu/job-opening-web-developer-promise-tracker/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=job-opening-web-developer-promise-tracker http://cmsw.mit.edu/job-opening-web-developer-promise-tracker/#comments Fri, 09 May 2014 13:52:44 +0000 http://cmsw.mit.edu/?p=9357 Help the Center for Civic Media design a web-based tool that empowers community organizers to hold officials accountable to the public promises they make.

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5/15: Inside the Creative Industries Prototyping Labhttp://cmsw.mit.edu/inside-creative-industries-prototyping-lab/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=inside-creative-industries-prototyping-lab http://cmsw.mit.edu/inside-creative-industries-prototyping-lab/#comments Thu, 08 May 2014 13:04:07 +0000 http://cmsw.mit.edu/?p=9381 Hear what happened when six Comparative Media Studies graduate students went to Lima in April to work with some of Peru's most promising entrepreneurs in the creative industries.

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robots1 225x300 5/15: Inside the Creative Industries Prototyping Lab

Hear what happened when six Comparative Media Studies graduate students went to Lima in April to work with some of Peru’s most promising entrepreneurs in the creative industries.

Rodrigo Davies, Erica Deahl, Julie Fischer, Jason Lipshin, Eduardo Marisca, and Lingyuxiu Zhong facilitated a series of collaborative and interdisciplinary lectures, workshops and design sessions, leading participants through the potentials and challenges of working in the digital creative industries. Through a process of critical technology design, the workshop produced prototypes of tools, media and processes that allow groups and communities to share creative visions — and helped participants develop the knowledge and skills they need to build audiences, make an impact on social issues, and develop sustainable creative ventures.

The projects were presented at a public event at Peru’s Ministry of Culture, and the group hosted a panel at the HASTAC 2014 conference, which was held outside the US for the first time this year.

We’ll be sharing the projects, our insights on the process and plans for the future. Join us!

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Podcast: Tarleton Gillespie: “Algorithms, and the Production of Calculated Publics”http://cmsw.mit.edu/podcast-tarleton-gillespie-algorithms-production-calculated-publics/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=podcast-tarleton-gillespie-algorithms-production-calculated-publics http://cmsw.mit.edu/podcast-tarleton-gillespie-algorithms-production-calculated-publics/#comments Fri, 02 May 2014 13:32:24 +0000 http://cmsw.mit.edu/?p=9298 Calculations and motivations behind the production of calculated publics helps highlight how algorithms are relevant to our collective efforts to know and be known.

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Algorithms may now be our most important knowledge technologies, “the scientific instruments of a society at large,” (Gitelman) and they are increasingly vital to how we organize human social interaction, produce authoritative knowledge, and choreograph our participation in public life. Search engines, recommendation systems, edge algorithms on social networking sites, and “trend” identification algorithms: these not only help us find information, they provide a means to know what there is to know and to participate in social and political discourse. In this talk Tarleton Gillespie will highlight one particular dimension of these algorithms, their production of calculated publics: algorithmically produced snapshots of the “public” around us and what most concerns it. Understanding the calculations and motivations behind the production of these calculated publics helps highlight how these algorithms are relevant to our collective efforts to know and be known.

Tarleton Gillespie is an associate professor at Cornell University, in the Department of Communication and the Department of Information Science. This semester he is a visiting researcher with Microsoft Research, New England. He is the co-editor of Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society (2014), and the author of Wired Shut: Copyright and the Shape of Digital Culture (2007), and the co-founder of the scholarly blog at culturedigitally.org.

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Online Annotation and the Future of Readinghttp://cmsw.mit.edu/online-annotation-future-reading/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=online-annotation-future-reading http://cmsw.mit.edu/online-annotation-future-reading/#comments Thu, 01 May 2014 14:27:06 +0000 http://cmsw.mit.edu/?p=9258 Video and podcast on using the tools of online textual annotation -- collaborating on interpreting a work, making annotations public, and responding to interpretations by others.

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Introducing the discussion, Noel Jackson starts off with a series of images. Fra Lippo Lippi depicts the solitary St. Jerome reading at a desk; Rembrandt’s mother, dressed austerely in black, hunches over her book; in the “classic” and “much imitated” painting by Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson sits alone, intensely staring at his reading material. Jackson asks: Is this the picture of reading that is now being disrupted and revolutionized by new social forms of reading?

Noel Jackson 300x199 Online Annotation and the Future of Reading

Noel Jackson

In the next few slides, Jackson presents images that represent reading as a social rather than a solitary activity: a third century A.D. mosaic of the poet Virgil being read aloud (or dictated) to by the muses and a sketch of Lowell Massachusetts factory women reading together, for example. Jackson observes that social reading predates solitary reading and has coexisted with it for centuries. However, the practice of digitally annotating texts using applications such as Annotation Studio and Rap Genius strike Jackson as “a development of undeniable importance” to the history of reading.

“As long as people have been able to read,” Kurt Fendt says, “they’ve also been annotating.” Fendt presents on Annotation Studio, a tool developed at HyperStudio, MIT’s laboratory for the digital humanities. Annotation Studio provides “a way to get students back into the process of close reading.” The tool emerges from “a clear pedagogical practice,” developed in conjunction with colleagues who use Annotation Studio in their classrooms. In this digital space, Fendt says, readers’ marginalia become social. Annotation Studio allows students to control how they’d like to share their ideas: users can keep their annotations private, make their annotations public to their class, or share annotations with a smaller working group.

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Kurt Fendt

Because Annotation Studio is open-source, other organizations and institutions can create their own version of the web application and modify it for their own needs, as Stanford University has done. Currently, around 80 to 90 institutions are using Annotation Studio in their classrooms for a wide range of subjects, both in and outside of the humanities.

While Annotation Studio was developed for the classroom setting, activity on Rap Genius takes places in the public at large. Jeremy Dean explains that Rap Genius started as a lyric website in which users could annotate lines in hip hop songs; “now,” he says, “you can read Moby-Dick on the site.” He then asks the audience to analyze a line from a song by Kanye West that reads “I’m like the fly Malcolm X, buy any jeans necessary”—a play on the activist’s well-known phrase.

On Rap Genius, all contributors are called “scholars” so as to emphasize that anyone can take control of the reading of the text. One annotation might be authored by many users around the world. Rap Genius also adds what Dean described as “a social network functionality”: in addition to reading other comments, users can up- and down-vote annotations, follow other users, and receive update notifications regarding posts they had previously annotated. In effect, Dean says, the “annotations and comments become a conversation.” As an example, he shows author & CMS/W professor Junòt Diaz’s comments on a footnote in his Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao—“an annotation of an annotation.”

Jeremy Dean 300x200 Online Annotation and the Future of Reading

Jeremy Dean

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Wyn Kelley

Wyn Kelley opens her presentation by considering “what we do when we write all over a text,” both in relation to her experience using digital annotation in literature classes and to the larger question of the future of reading. At MIT, she has found that using Annotation Studio in class helps make texts “relatable”—a word that “students love and scholars hate.” With Annotation Studio, Kelley says, her students become editors, producing commentary on texts that makes the work relatable to a community of peers.

But in another sense, Kelley suggests, annotations might have the opposite effect, and create distance between readers and texts. She invokes the scholarly work of Lisa Zunshine, who believes that literary texts “reward what cognitive scientists call a theory of mind.” We are constantly trying to read other people’s minds—attempting to understand their beliefs, intentions, and desires. Literature acts as a “safe space” for this “mind reading” practice, “relieving the stress of not understanding social signals and creating characters whose motives we may eventually understand.” A theory of mind, thus, could suggest that relating to a text serves as important social training. Ralph Savarese, who studies autism and whose son is autistic, finds that autistic readers encounter a text without a theory of mind. [Clarification appended.] Ultimately, both Zunshine and Savarese suggest that we cannot ever fully trust our readings of a text. Kelley agrees: “We cannot assume we know what we think we know; we cannot be sure we have the right or the knowledge to write all over someone else’s text.” By helping to bring students to these realizations, Kelley suggests, digital annotation can “protect the strangeness of texts,” training readers to respect that many legitimate readings of a text can coexist.

Kurt Fendt and Wyn Kelley 300x202 Online Annotation and the Future of Reading

Jackson asks the panelists about the kinds of annotations they’ve observed or assigned. Do educators using the Annotation Studio or Rap Genius give guidance on the kinds of annotations students should make? For Kelley, the approach depends on the class. She often asks students to start annotating with their first impressions, then slowly asks them to build to interpretations. She often projects students’ annotations onto a screen in order to share peer work with the class. In one class, she was surprised to find annotation taken place during the class session—students were using digital annotation as public note-taking. Kelley also believes Annotation Studios’s private/public option is valuable for students. The “choice to go private is something that gets [students’] feet off the ground” before they “toggle to decide when annotations go to the world.” On Rap Genius, however, all annotations are public. Dean agrees that having private comments could be beneficial for students, but argues, “you will never become a good writer until you start to think about your writing as something not just for teachers.”

During the Q&A, MIT Communications Forum director David Thorburn asks if there is a dark side to digital annotation. For Dean, one of the potential drawbacks to online annotation is the loss of the personal, solitary experience of reading. Jackson points to the loss of physical inscriptions in manuscripts and books as annotation moves online.

Comparative Media Studies graduate student Desi Gonzalez wonders whether public annotations of texts on the web could follow the path of SparkNotes, a study guide website infamous for being used by students who skim its book summaries instead of reading original texts.  As a former teacher, Dean has “a deep anxiety” about Rap Genius going the way of SparkNotes. But he pointed to two reassuring facts that, on Rap Genius, the original text is always there; and users can continue to add new interpretations.

Visiting scholar Kelley Kreitz asks how digital annotation is being used outside of the realm of education. Wyn Kelley imagines using annotations as a form of creative writing. Later, Comparative Media Studies graduate student Liam Andrew wonders if tools like Annotation Studio or Rap Genius could be used for remixing literary texts to give birth to new works. Fendt mentions that future functionalities of Annotation Studio might allow users to do so. Annotation Studio is taking on the transition from annotation to writing, developing features that would allow users to start composing their own writing within the website. Additionally, users will be able to annotate two texts side-by-side, allowing readers to find commonalities across works.

CMS/W Professor James Paradis, CMS/W professor and part of the Annotation Studio team, asks what the panelists think reading might look like in the future. Dean believes that the future of reading will be very different from the future of the book, the latter of which he is less optimistic about. He thinks that, because of the proliferation of digital technologies and social media, young people are reading and writing now more than ever. These may not in all cases be the most responsible forms of reading and writing, so we should “help them learn how to write for the twenty-first century.” Fendt finds that, as texts move to the digital space, annotation can be a way to sustain readers’ engagement with longer works. Kelley observes that tools like Rap Genius can turn reading into a kind of game, making learning a more engaging and interactive process.

Jackson asks Kelley to expand on a suggestion from her presentation that digital annotation can help students cultivate a sense of responsibility toward texts. As more and more text moves to the digital space, Kelley says, she is concerned about “keeping alive” frail manuscripts and perishable physical reading material. Perhaps online annotation tools can offer one solution: “I see annotation as a form of nurturance,” she says.

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Podcast: Science in Fictionhttp://cmsw.mit.edu/podcast-science-fiction/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=podcast-science-fiction http://cmsw.mit.edu/podcast-science-fiction/#comments Fri, 18 Apr 2014 14:23:49 +0000 http://cmsw.mit.edu/?p=9023 A Communications Forum featuring authors Hanya Yanagihara and Alan Lightman and moderator Seth Mnookin.

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Abstract

Hanya Yanagihara’s first book, the widely celebrated The People In The Trees, is loosely based on the life and work of Nobel Prize-winner physician and researcher D. Carleton Gajdusek. She joined author and physicist Alan Lightman, the first professor at MIT to receive a joint appointment in the sciences and the humanities, to discuss the unique challenges of respecting the exacting standards of science in fictional texts. Forum Co-Director Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus, moderated.

Summary

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Hanya Yanagihara. Photo by Greg Peverill-Conti.

Hanya Yanagihara began this Communications Forum event by summarizing her critically acclaimed first novel, The People in the Trees. Based in part on the life of the infamous Nobel Prize-winning scientist, D. Carleton Gajdusek, the novel tells the story of a scientist who travels to a remote island in the South Pacific, where he finds a mysterious tribe of indigenous people who live for hundreds of years. Like Gajdusek, Yanagihara’s protagonist becomes an instant star for his discovery. Several decades later, he is charged with the abuse of an indigenous child that he had adopted. One of the questions the book poses, Yanagihara said, deals with “the line between a great scientist and a great man.”

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Alan Lightman. Photo by Greg Peverill-Conti.

Seth Mnookin, Associate Director of the Communications Forum, next introduced Alan Lightman. Lightman, the first professor at MIT to hold a joint appointment in the sciences and humanities, has written award-winning novels as well as numerous non-fiction books. His bestselling book Einstein’s Dreams describes a series of imaginary worlds, each of which represents a different conception of time. One of Lightman’s inspirations, he said, was Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, in which each chapter describes a different city. “I wanted to do for time what Calvino had done for space” Lightman said.

After these introductions, Mnookin asked the writers whether they felt a “responsibility for accurately describing scientific details” in fiction. Yanagihara, whose father was a research physician at the National Institute of Health when she was growing up, said that she wanted to pay homage to the bureaucratic, status-oriented culture she witnessed as a child. Yanagihara said that she wanted to recreate a very particular scientific culture, and in this way to pay homage to the bureaucratic, status-oriented culture of her childhood. Although People in the Trees is a work of fiction, the novel describes in realistic terms the culture of science in this period. Yanagihara said she thought it was necessary to include accurate scientific descriptions of, for instance, telomeres, because such details added plausibility to the story. She contrasted this approach to the genre of science fiction, which creates fantastic worlds. While People in the Trees has strong elements of fantasy, Yanagihara contends that truth and fact are important for “giving the reader something to hold on to.”

Lightman agreed with Yanagihara that accuracy in the depiction of scientific facts helps bolster believability in a fantastic world. He observed that when you’re basing a piece of fiction on a real scientist, the writer needs to take into account the fact that readers will possess biographical knowledge of the scientist. But, Lightman added, “when you’re creating art, you don’t have any obligations to anything.” To him, literature does not need to be a place to teach science; its purpose is to create an emotional response in the reader.

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Seth Mnookin. Photo by Greg Peverill-Conti.

Mnookin asked about scientific illiteracy in general and the writer’s responsibility to communicate scientific ideas clearly to the public. Yanagihara agreed that scientific illiteracy is an enormous problem. One cause of this, she said, is the decline of “core curriculums” at liberal arts colleges. For instance, she said, despite attending a top school — Smith College in Northampton, MA — she had not received any math or science education since she was sixteen. Learning science is not only incredibly important in itself, she said, but it is important because it gives people different ways of looking at the world around them. Lightman elaborated on Yanagihara’s point, arguing that ways of thinking in the arts and humanities were fundamentally different from those in the sciences. To Lightman, the sciences are solutions-oriented, with research into “the well-posed problem.” The humanities and arts, on the other hand, pose questions that don’t have easy answers, and gravitate toward enduring questions of importance.

With respect to Lightman’s point about disciplinary differences, Yanagihara observed that there is a huge diversity of approaches even within the scientific community. In her childhood, she said, she saw a stark transition in her father when he switched from research to clinical work. As a research scientist, Yanagihara said, her father would talk about the “beauty” of a virus. But as a physician, he couldn’t focus on a virus and its structure; he had to attend to the patient. To Yanagihara, the difference between a research scientist and a clinician is like the difference between a philosopher and a priest: the philosopher is interested in knowledge for its own sake, whereas the priest is interested in helping people in the real world.

Q & A

Angela Harring, a science writer at Northeastern University, said she was writing a story about a fictional scientist who wins a Nobel Prize. She asked about the appropriate amount of real science to include in her story and wondered how to create the impression of scientific plausibility in a fictional world.

Yanagihara replied that a story about a Nobel Prize-winning discovery doesn’t necessarily need to be peopled by real scientists. She said that one narrative strategy that has proven productive for her is to imagine the life a minor character in a major discovery (i.e. Rosalind Franklin and her role in the discovery of DNA). Scientific discoveries are frequently accompanied by these interesting “footnotes,” Yanagihara noted, which can provide rich material for fiction writing about science.

Lightman suggested one way to create the impression of scientific plausibility is to interview real researchers in the field. If, for instance, one was writing about a prize-winning chemist, the writer should talk to chemists to learn what problems are currently regarded as most important and exciting in the field.

Mary Fuller, Professor and Head of Literature at MIT, challenged Lightman’s notion that scientists are interested in solving problems and humanists are interested in tackling unanswerable questions. Some humanists, she said, are interested in solving problems, just as some scientists may be interested in vast and potentially unanswerable questions.

Lightman responded by clarifying his distinction between the two kinds of thought. He said that in the sciences, researchers break big problems down into smaller ones, which can then yield well-defined answers. While a cosmologist like Alan Guth might be interested in large scale, fundamental questions as the nature of the universe, Lightman pointed out that his theories are founded on answers to smaller problems that can be quantified and measured.

While the humanities may use evidence to address problems, Lightman said, humanists do not “solve” problems in the same ways scientists do. He pointed to William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience as exemplary of research in the humanities. The evidence James presents in the book, Lightman said, is meant to articulate the human experience of God rather than to provide an answer to the question, “What is the nature of God?”

David Thorburn, Director of the Communications Forum, asked about other contemporary fiction that incorporates scientific material. Were there other books the panelists thought particularly compelling?

Lightman replied that Richard Powers, Rebecca Goldstein, and Andrea Barrett were good examples. Yanagihara said that she admired Margaret Atwood for the way that she was able to take the germ of the real in the present and extrapolate its consequences into the near future. Mnookin said he admired Allegra Goodman.

Yanagihara returned to an earlier distinction between science fiction and science in fiction. She argued that science fiction is fundamentally more interested in world-building, whereas most literary fiction is more character-based, grounded in observation of how people think and act. Lightman agreed that some science fiction focuses more on technology and science than on character, although he noted that many science fiction writers have produced rich, character-driven work, citing Ursula Le Guin as one notable example.

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Podcast: Susan Murray, “‘Natural Vision vs. Tele-Vision’: Defining and Managing Electronic Color in the Post-War Era”http://cmsw.mit.edu/podcast-susan-murray-television-color-post-war/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=podcast-susan-murray-television-color-post-war http://cmsw.mit.edu/podcast-susan-murray-television-color-post-war/#comments Wed, 16 Apr 2014 20:26:03 +0000 http://cmsw.mit.edu/?p=8995 The discourses that framed and managed color use and reception not only in the standardization period, but also during RCA and NBC's early attempts to sell color to consumers, sponsors, and critics.

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The standardization of color television in the US during the postwar era was, in large part, discussed and determined in relation to historical developments in color theory (philosophical, psychological, and physical), colorimetry, color design and industry, psychophysics, psychology and, of course, what had already been established industrially, culturally, and technically for monochrome television. In this presentation, Susan Murray explores how these various threads of scientific, aesthetic, philosophical, and industrial knowledge were built into the standards, processes, and procedures for and around the technology and use of color television from the late 1940s and into the early 1950s. This presentation is less about color programming itself, and more about the discourses that framed and managed color use and reception not only in the standardization period, but also during RCA and NBC’s early attempts to sell color to consumers, sponsors, and critics.

Susan Murray is associate professor of Media, Culture and Communication at NYU. She is the author of Hitch Your Antenna to the Stars! Early Television and Broadcast Stardom (2005) and the coeditor (with Laurie Ouellette) of Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture (2004, 2009). She has received fellowships from the ACLS and NYU’s Humanities Initiative for 2013-14 and is currently writing a history of color television from 1929-1970, which is under contract with Duke University Press.

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Recruit the CMS Class of 2014http://cmsw.mit.edu/recruit-cms-2014/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=recruit-cms-2014 http://cmsw.mit.edu/recruit-cms-2014/#comments Thu, 10 Apr 2014 18:43:18 +0000 http://cmsw.mit.edu/?p=8856 The resumes of Denise Cheng, Rodrigo Davies, Erica Deahl, Julie Fischer, Alexandre Gonçalves, Jason Lipshin, Eduardo Marisca, and Lingyuxiu Zhong.

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3 Questions with Seth Mnookinhttp://cmsw.mit.edu/3-questions-seth-mnookin/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=3-questions-seth-mnookin http://cmsw.mit.edu/3-questions-seth-mnookin/#comments Wed, 02 Apr 2014 15:21:30 +0000 http://cmsw.mit.edu/?p=8600 Journalist and best-selling author discusses the challenges and impacts of science writing.

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Seth Mnookin 1024x739 3 Questions with Seth Mnookin

MIT Assistant Professor of Science Writing Seth Mnookin is the best-selling author of The Panic Virus, which examines how inaccurate scientific reports linking vaccines to autism have reverberated through the media, causing incalculable damage. Fearing vaccines, some parents have exposed their children to the risks of measles, mumps, and rubella, while scarce research dollars pour into disproving the erroneous reports.

Now the Associate Director of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing, Mnookin was recently selected by ScienceOnline to be included in the Open Lab 2013 anthology of the best science writing online. He sat down with SHASS Communications recently to share his views on science journalism today.

What unique challenges do science writers face, and how does MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing prepare trustworthy science journalists?

A major challenge for writers communicating with the public is simply understanding the language of science, which asserts that we can never be 100 percent sure about anything. Scientists say, “With all of the tests that we’ve done, we’re fairly confident that vaccines don’t cause autism.” In science-speak, that means we’re virtually 100 percent confident. In media-speak and public-speak that implies there’s real doubt. That’s why we need science writers — people who really understand the language of science and the language of non-scientists and can translate between the two.

At MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing (GPSW), we’re giving reporters a year’s worth of instruction on what good science writing looks like. One of the coolest things about the program is how our students are integrated with the MIT community. For instance, we require them to spend 20 hours in the lab with scientists so they understand what it means to do science in a real, tangible way. We also train students in every available medium — they write blogs and a thesis, they do radio and TV segments.

Our hope is that, eight to 10 students at a time, we can inject good science writing into the nation’s bloodstream. And we’re succeeding. To mention just a few of our accomplished alumni: Lisa Song, SB ’08, SM ’09, recently won a Pulitzer Prize; Erico Guizzo, SM ’03, has twice won the Neal Award, considered the “Pulitzer Prize for business media;” and a number of additional GPSW alumni have been honored in recent years for extraordinary work in health care reporting and environmental journalism.

Why is good science reporting important to non-scientists, and what can typical readers do to ensure the information they get is accurate?

We are seeing so many ways in which cutting-edge research is impacting daily lives. Genetic sequencing is a perfect example. It wasn’t that long ago that genetic sequencing seemed like pie-in-the sky, futuristic technology. In 2006, it cost $10 million to sequence a single genome. Today an exome [the subset of the genome made up of DNA segments that code for proteins] can be sequenced for around $1,000. That’s incredible. As diagnostic sequencing becomes more widely available, the public needs to understand the limitations of this incredibly powerful technology; otherwise, people will be vulnerable to snake oil salesmen making outlandish promises.

There are so many sources of information out there, and it’s important to remember they’re not all equally reliable. Just because someone has a slick YouTube channel with good lighting doesn’t mean they’re reputable. I try to remind people that seeing “MD” after a name doesn’t mean that a person is ethical or even intelligent. So, if someone forwards you a link about a medical procedure you’ve never heard of, and it’s never been covered in the mainstream press, you as the consumer have to be skeptical about what’s going on.

Your book The Panic Virus underlined what can happen when science reporting goes wrong. Has the field improved since that story began spreading in the late 1990s? What are the biggest challenges for the field today?

One issue I have with our colleagues in the media is that they tend to do this reflexive “on the one hand, on the other hand” thing — even in cases, as with vaccines and autism, where there aren’t two hands. In the last 10-15 years, there’s been a growing awareness of the fact that merely giving voice to something lends it a kind of legitimacy. When the first specious reports connecting vaccines and autism were published, a lot of news outlets justified their coverage by saying, “We’re not in position to judge.” Today, people for the most part realize that doesn’t really cut it.

When I did my first book, Hard News, about The New York Times, I’d hear a lot of complaints about journalism being unreliable — but it turned out that very few people I talked to were subscribing to newspapers or news magazines. If you care about quality journalism, you need to vote with your wallet. There have been enormous cutbacks in dedicated science reporting, and one reason is because news organizations aren’t convinced that’s what readers care about or are willing to pay for.

We’re lucky in Boston in that we have a fantastic science reporter at the Boston Globe — Carolyn Johnson, a graduate of an early class of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing. Also, The New York Times has a dedicated science section, with phenomenal reporters. So there are plenty of places that do not hype shoddy studies or oversell inconclusive results, and the more those places are supported the more they’ll be able to do the type of responsible science reporting that is so important.”

Seth Mnookin’s books

Mnookin’s most recent book, The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear, explores the controversies over vaccines and their rumored connection to developmental disorders. The New York Times-bestseller Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts, and Nerve Took a Team to the Top chronicles the the John Henry-Tom Werner ownership group of the Boston Red Sox. Hard News: The Scandals at The New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media, was a Washington Post Best Book of the Year.

Originally published by the MIT News Office.

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Video: Neil Gaiman’s 2008 lecture at MIThttp://cmsw.mit.edu/video-neil-gaimans-2008-lecture-mit/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=video-neil-gaimans-2008-lecture-mit http://cmsw.mit.edu/video-neil-gaimans-2008-lecture-mit/#comments Fri, 28 Mar 2014 17:55:39 +0000 http://cmsw.mit.edu/?p=8543 After six years hiding out on DVD, our video of Neil Gaiman's lecture and conversation at MIT is now available for free online.

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After nearly six years hiding out on DVD, our video of Neil Gaiman’s lecture and conversation at MIT is now available for free online. (Watch above, or download the mobile version.)

Gaiman’s talk and follow-up chat with CMS/W founder Henry Jenkins was the largest event we’ve ever hosted, filling MIT’s largest venue.

Sure, you may not be familiar with Gaiman himself, but you can’t read his writing (The Sandman, Coraline, The Graveyard Book) without recognizing his influences. Carroll, Tolkein, C.S. Lewis. Alan Moore. Lovecraft. Jenkins’ loves Gaiman specifically because he can channel those influences into something both original and wholly borrowable: he’s turned out to be one of the great sources of fan fiction.

Anyway, we’re really happy to finally have the full video up. We also want to give huge credit to Paul B., MIT class of 2011, who put together a complete, geeking-out write-up of the lecture.

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