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If I thought there was too much daily information for me to absorb and process before Nov. 8 – well hoo, boy.

I’m trying out some techniques to a) read a sliver of what’s important to me, b) keep track of the research and story ideas that generates and c) try and occasionally go back to my notes, re-read, synthesize and think about misinformation problems on a deeper level.

Technique 1 is to keep a daily research journal. I’ve made a few entries. It’s a start.

Technique 2 is to write VERY QUICK blog posts on what I’m pondering and/or hope to research, with links to the stories that sparked the ponders. That way I can hopefully connect with people interested in the same ideas.

OK, today’s VERY QUICK thoughts:

  1. What can we learn from Wikipedia? What exactly are the “rigorous logic and rules” cited here? Could fact-checkers apply these? Can we teach these in news literacy courses for kids and the general public?
  2. What kind of research do we have about what techniques work in teaching news literacy to adults? I don’t mean broad-brush ideas like “don’t lecture, don’t insult” but really nitty-gritty approaches. I get the feeling from my interactions on Facebook that a lot of people assume the really simple debunk checks are beyond them, when they’re really not. How do we break through that assumption?
  3. Do we have anything like the well-rounded understanding of how people in the U.S. acquire news about the world in today’s info environment (e.g. social media vs. mainstream news sources vs. Wikipedia vs. personal conversation vs….?) I’m guessing no, though I intend to read up. Where do communication scholars think the biggest gaps are? It seems like we are fighting so blindly, trying to combat misinformation and misperceptions when we don’t fully understanding the components and interplay of people’s media diets.

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Stanislaw Burzynski, the Houston doctor who has treated thousands of cancer patients with unproven medications, is set to take the stand to defend his medical license today.

As I wrote for Newsweek recently, Burzynski is a celebrated figure in the alternative medicine world, and credited by some with saving their lives. The Texas Medical Board, however, says Burzynski overbilled, misled patients and made numerous medical errors – and the board’s expert witness said Burzynski’s use of untested drug combinations amounted to “experimenting on humans.”

The hearings started last November, when the Texas State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH) heard the board’s case. Now Burzynski’s lawyers will bring their own witnesses, beginning with the doctor himself. A document filed with SOAH estimates that Burzynski’s testimony will take two days.

According to the document, Dr. Burzynski will testify about the standard of care at his clinic, the use of antineoplastons, compliance with the FDA and charges of false advertising, among other issues. He will reply to “allegations of non-therapeutic treatment,” “inadequate delegation,” and “the aiding and abetting of the unlicensed practice of medicine.”

A number of patients and Burzynski Clinic employees will testify on Dr. Burzynski’s behalf, as will several outside physicians who treated clinic patients, and Mark Levin, a board-certified oncologist.

The hearing resumes just weeks after the Burzynski Research Institute announced that it has started patient enrollment in an FDA-approved phase 2 study of antineoplaston use in diffuse intrinsic brainstem glioma, a cancer that mainly attacks children.

The hearing is scheduled to run until May 12.

Hear more about the Burzynski story in my interview with the Point of Inquiry podcast.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANote to readers: I just returned from a captivating trip to the Galapagos. Since I couldn’t blog from the islands themselves, I’ll be recapping the trip in a series of day-by-day posts based on the journal I kept and photos I took.

The purpose of this trip wasn’t originally tied to my interest in science communication; I simply had the pleasure of keeping my Dad company because my mother has a thing about reptiles. But after I finish combing through my 900+ photos, and get over this lingering case of boat-induced vertigo, I do hope to draw out some science comms connections.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADay 2: After a surprise night in Miami, thanks to American’s malfunctioning cargo doors, finally got to Quito. Carlos, the driver, took a liberal attitude towards lane markings. But for that, the drive was enjoyable. He coasted gently, though rapidly, round the bends and down the deep hillsides, like a skier carving a path in fresh snow. Traffic was remarkably light, as if the roads were undiscovered. Indeed, most of the asphalt was new, as was the airport itself.

Hazy blue mountains and deep green ravines swung into view from time to time. Then Quito revealed itself, tall hotels perched like a dinosaur’s spikes along the spine of a sharp emerald ridge.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe narrow buildings of the Carolina district, mostly 10 stories or so tall, stand shoulder to shoulder. They’re nearly all of a 1960s to 1980s vintage, unattractive taken in isolation, but a pleasant hodgepodge all together, with their jostling attitude and their pops of color. Lying here on the hotel bed, I yearn to go out and taste more of the city, but I ought to be here when my dad gets back. I also fell behind with my altitude sickness regimen, due to the delay in Miami, so not surprisingly I feel myself in a languorous stupor.

A maid just knocked on the door and offered a basket of cute little pastries. I have no idea what this means – as I’ve had to point out with shame to two people already, I don’t even speak “un poco” of Spanish.  I said, “No, gracias” to the nice pastry lady and closed the door.

Finally decided I had to escape for a bit, and spent a pleasant hour in Parque La Carolina.



Ran across a jubilant crowd of black-and-yellow clad sports fans, drumming and singing in the permanent grandstands that occupy a long stretch of Av de los Shyris:

And here are the grandstands from the back:


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Note: I have joined the “virtual class” component of Dan Kahan‘s Science of Science Communication course at Yale University. As part of this I am endeavoring to write a response paper in reaction to each week’s set of readings. I will post these responses here on my blog – the second such response is below. The first is here.

I will also be participating in the discussion on Kahan’s own blog. (The discussion on session 2 is here.) Comments are welcome are either site.

By several accounts it seems we have Jon Miller and his colleagues to thank for bringing a certain amount of scientific rigor to the study of science literacy. According to Miller, his work was the first attempt to use item-response theory (IRT) technology to design reliable cross-national estimates of public scientific understanding. Pardo and Calvo write that Miller’s work, and that led by John Durant in Britain, built an empirical foundation for the field through use of “clearly specified dimensions and comparable questionnaires.” Indeed, Miller’s methods were adopted by the National Science Foundation for its science literacy surveys; and likewise his colleague Durant laid the groundwork for the European equivalent, the Eurobarometer.

Miller’s civic scientific literacy (CSL) measure of 1998, however, shows room for improvement in several areas – as does the Eurobarometer.

Pardo and Calvo’s criticisms

Pardo and Calvo in particular focus on the Eurobarometer’s sub-optimal reliability, demonstrated by a Cronbach’s alpha coefficient of 0.66, below the standard 70 cut-off point. True-false questions bear much of the responsibility for the test’s low reliability.

Pardo and Calvo argue that the overall difficulty of the test – and therefore its discriminatory power – is low. “If the test were applied in an educational context, almost all of the items in Q55 and Q56 could be answered correctly by most individuals in the population,” they write. It appears the test’s discriminatory power was strong enough to allow comparisons between countries, but within the more scientifically literate nation, the test is not finely calibrated enough to give insights into sub-populations.

These authors also posit that the test items are not a very representative sample of what constitutes a firm grounding in elementary science, because:

  • they pose questions about basics of scientific theories, alongside others on more specialized “or even esoteric” matters;
  • a majority of questions call on explicitly taught knowledge (memory recall), while two others require recalling and combining several pieces of knowledge;
  • the survey has a poor balance between different scientific subjects.

My criticisms and questions

Several other aspects of Miller’s (and in some cases, Durant’s) method jumped out at me as ripe for refinement or at least questionable, and I would be curious to hear others’ thoughts on this:

  • The 67 percent threshold (location or difficulty level): beyond the fact that this equals two-thirds, is it just arbitrary? Why is two-thirds a good level at which to peg the threshold? I’m tempted to say that with Miller’s questions being as elementary as they are, it’s very hard to think of someone who only gets two-thirds right as scientifically literate at all!
  • Miller doesn’t detail the model underpinning his confirmatory factor analysis. Now, CFA is a new concept for me, so correct me if I’ve got this wrong. His CFA reveals factor loadings that vary from 0.46 to 0.83 for the United States study, and from 0.34 to 0.70 for the European study. He says this process reveals nine items in each study that constitute “a unidimensional measure of construct vocabulary.” So he seems to be saying that these nine items do load on the factor of construct knowledge, i.e., they are good indicators of such knowledge. But what does this actually mean to the reader, without understanding how the loadings were calculated or what assumptions Miller may have used?
  • The methods questions seem flawed to me. For example, the Eurobarometer asks respondents to rate “how scientific” astrology is, on a scale of 1 to 5. The answer, apparently, is 1. Is this an objective fact? While it’s certainly no 5, you could make a convincing argument that astrology deserves perhaps a 2 – it does have a certain system to it that its practitioners follow, albeit one completely ungrounded in physical reality. There is no commonly understood rubric of what it means for a discipline to be a 2, 3 or 4 on a 5-point scale of scientific-ness – so how can you objectively say the answer is definitely 1?

The cultural criticism

However, I wish to take issue with one family of criticisms against the Miller/Durant style of measurement: that it fails to take account of cultural differences. Pardo and Calvo write of the Eurobarometer, “No allowances is made for the idea that some population segments might be influenced in their appropriation of a scientific proposition by values or beliefs in their society’s culture.” This is true, but I don’t think it’s a damning criticism. It simply points out that the NSF and Eurobarometer surveys measure the “what” rather than the “why.” It is important – but not sufficient – to note what percentage of a population agree “all radioactivity is man-made.” Researchers are right to then explore the cultural cognition that goes into creating agreement or disagreement with that statement.

To put it another way, just because we measure the public’s science comprehension, does not mean we necessarily adhere to the science comprehension thesis. We can use science comprehension measurements as a stepping stone on our way to more complex analyses.

A final note: understanding versus belief

I think Dan Kahan raises a more important criticism in his research on evolution. This work demonstrates that people are capable of two simultaneous mental states that, on the surface, appear conflicting: they can *understand* the theory of evolution, and yet *not believe* in the theory. Further surveys on science literacy should tease apart the prevalence of, and interaction between, these very different dimensions.

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Ebola shifted from a running story to red-alert breaking news yesterday, as the first diagnosis was made in the US – and in Dallas, my home. As a local, a journalist and a researcher on misinformation, I’ve had many reasons to follow the developing news closely.

So far I’ve detected few howlers. The local broadcasters, newspapers and their online operations have pretty much stuck to the information officials have given them. While in many cases we might decry journalists “toeing the official line,” in the case of a rapidly evolving health story that official information becomes much more important. Few journalists are in the position to question the CDC’s scientific advisories, and speculating about the questions that agencies have refused to answer could lead to a host of undesirable outcomes – from misinforming the public and causing panic, to ethical violations against the patient and his family, to just plain appearing foolish.

As usual, if you want to see abhorrent misinformation, you can turn to Alex Jones’ Infowars – though I don’t really recommend it. Among the examples of responsible service journalism exhibited there today is the assertion, “The Ebola infection is contagious during the incubation period. This, however, is disputed by the World Health Organization.” Interesting epistemological approach there: basically, “we have the facts, and we won’t spell out the source, although we’ll link to eMed.tv. WHO seems to disagree with the authority that is eMed, so I guess we’ll mention that.”

We can also count on Glenn Beck to go where others won’t, although his sins are more in the realm of silly conjecture than actual misinformation about the facts. Beck used the opportunity to compare the unnamed Ebola patient with Typhoid Mary, and this leads to the inevitable conclusion that the government’s preparing to “fence people up.” Also, the question of why Texas has been hit by both West Nile and Ebola comes up, and the answer is: “a gigantic open door” welcoming diseases from Africa, Mexico, and Central and South America.

What are you seeing in the Ebola coverage? Any gross misinformation or rumor-mongering? I’d especially like to see interesting examples of local media coverage in Dallas, and to hear from my fellow journalists in the Big D.

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I’m working on developing a feature pitch regarding journalists’ application of psychological research on misinformation. This piece would take one of two very different shapes. Either I find examples of such practices, and write:

Story 1. How Reporters and Editors are Applying Psychology to the Newsroom

…or I find credible evidence that journalists are not currently applying such research, and write:

Story 2. Does Psychological Research Have a Place in the Newsroom?

Some thoughts on how this could develop:

Starting with trying to write story #1: I’ll be asking some leading lights in the misinformation field about what examples they’ve heard. Also, major think tanks (Poynter, Knight Digital Media Center, etc). and fact checkers. Next, on to editors to ask if they’ve applied any of these principles. Any leads gratefully received! This is really at an early exploratory stage. At this point the approach is very anecdotal, as I very much doubt there’s been a survey on this… though I’ll ask…

Story #2: I think this is a likely outcome. And while #1 is probably an easier write/read (everyone likes to read about interesting new practices that their colleagues/competitors have adopted), perhaps #1 #2 is truly where the conversation should start. In the literature, some researchers have offered advice on how journalists should apply their findings. That these findings should be applied ASAP may seem trivial.

But, could it not be argued that it is too soon to make changes based on the research? After all, we don’t approve drugs based on only a couple of trials. Perhaps we ought to tread carefully and wait for a more solid evidence base. (In fact, do we even have evidence that negations are ineffective corrections? Nyhan and Reifler couldn’t find it.)

Just think of a news organization trying to institute changes now, working at the usual lumbering page of a media corporation, and debuting their ground-breaking new model just as researchers find that they got some of their research absolutely wrong. On the other hand, some of the changes hardly seem to require years of reinvention… and on the other, other (!) hand, this is an industry in need of reinvention. In that process, surely it should incorporate researchers’ best available description of how people absorb and retain information.

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Having recently completed another big wind power report, I found some time to go back to my first love of urban revitalization. A good chance, then, to check out Metromorphosis IV at the Cityplace conference center.

The one-day conference organized by the Greater Dallas Planning Council was this year focused on the theme of the “global city” – what is a global city, and how does Dallas position itself to become one as it emerges from the recession? In the end, though, the sessions highlighted the same concerns that would emerge from any discussion on Dallas’s future: the education system, public transit, and sense of place.

As someone who’s spent years writing about urban problems and urban renaissance, I enjoyed the chance to get acquainted with the major players trying to reshape Dallas. As an increasingly frustrated non-driver in this car-loving city, I had even more reason to perk up my ears and listen for signs of progress. Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, there isn’t much to point out just yet.

I got the impression that Dallas does have a core of dedicated people – professionals in planning, development, transportation, education and media, and even a few enthusiastic amateurs – who know we need a serious break from the past. But that realization seems to have dawned only recently. If I were at a planning conference in London in 2010, and a speaker’s presentation consisted entirely of the message that “We must design our city more sustainably,” that speech would be considered laughably vague and trite. But in Dallas, it seems, such a statement is not yet a truism. A few of the speakers hardly elaborated on that message. There were a few hints of the hows (economic and political tools) and the whys (obstacles that have held us back), but not much.

That’s cause for both frustration and hope. Frustration, that such platitudes are considered novel enough in 2010. Frustration again, because if such a knowledgeable and well-connected crowd is still dealing in vagaries at this point, what hope then for the average Dallas resident to change their way of life? Frustration multiplied, that at this point we’re mostly still dealing with ambitions rather than plans.

Speaking at the conference, mayor Tom Leppert pointed to some progress on major projects: the star architect-designed theater and opera house, recently opened after decades in the dreaming. Next door, the section of interstate being transformed into an urban park. And the first bridge (another star architect creation) is being built as part of the Trinity River project.

But I think he’s missing the point. The point as I see it is not big projects, but fundamental changes of policy and process.  What Dallas really lacks is not a sheaf of pretty CGIs, depicting New Urbanist wet dreams of pleasant mixed-use space filled with smiling, diverse residents. From what I can tell, it’s lacking the planning policy framework, governmental structures and incentives to ensure that development tends towards the green, the pedestrian-friendly, the inclusive and the uplifting. In any decent-sized city nowadays you will find developers willing to craft LEED-silver islands of brick to cater for the mostly well-off and environmentally conscious. The question is not how to build green homes, however. The question is how to institute comprehensive planning, up to Dallas city limits and beyond, to send developers a clear signal: green is the NORM of how we do things now, and it encompasses everything from the grid pattern to the street lamps. Like it or go elsewhere.

Which you might think makes me naive and anti-business. But I think Dallas has the rare luxury right now to be both high-minded and business-minded.

Here’s where the hope comes in: Dallas has fared marvellously in this recession. As the Metromorphosis presentation by Robert Long of the Brookings Institution made clear, we largely escaped the boom-and-bust that has devastated other real estate markets. DFW Airport (8th in the world in passenger air traffic) makes us an extremely attractive destination for corporate re-location and conferences, and our proximity to I-35 is also a key asset. Dallas is also projected to see one of the country’s biggest population booms over the next few decades.  When real estate capital really gets going again, this is one of the places it will go first.

So are we going to direct that capital wisely? Are we going to shape it, to create a city where people enjoy living? Or will we let the money control us, further entrenching our environmental problems? The choice is ours.

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