Academic Discourse in the Age of Popular Media

Thursday, December 2, 1999
5:00 - 7:00 p.m.

[The text below is an edited summary, not a complete transcript.
Stephen Jay Gould has requested that no summary or transcript
be made of his contributions to this Forum. The draft manuscript of
a book-in-progress titled Beyond the Ivory Tower with contributions
from William Calvin and Alan Lightman is also available online.]

David Thorburn: As a graduate student of English literature at Stanford, I studied under Irving Howe, one of the great public intellectuals of post World War II America. He was the editor of Dissent and the author of many books. Howe believed that democratic societies could not thrive without a public discourse carried on in general magazines and newspapers that was intellectually rigorous yet accessible to ordinary citizens. That still seems to me one of the great ideals to which trained intellectuals should aspire. Our speakers today have honored such principles in their writing.

Saleem Ali: The idea for this project, which inspired this event, came to me soon after the death of Carl Sagan. As I read eulogies of this great public intellectual, who was both revered and reviled, I felt that there was a need to have an organized discussion on this theme. I would like to thank David Thorburn for hosting this event. He has done a tremendous service to the academy in general.

Alan Lightman: I want to draw some remarks from a famous intellectual of the past, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and a famous intellectual of the present, Edward W. Said. I hope that these remarks will help to set the stage for our panelists and raise some questions that we can talk about.

Over 150 years ago, Emerson considered the meaning and function of the intellectual in his great essay, "The American Scholar," which he delivered not far from where we are sitting right now. Emerson put forth the idea of the "one man," by which he meant the complete person who embodies all the human dimensions of both potential and actual -- the farmer, the professor, the engineer, the priest, the scholar, the statesman, the soldier, the artist. The intellectual is this whole person while thinking. The intellectual, although enriched by the past, should not be bound by books. His most important activity, according to Emerson, is action. Inaction is cowardice. The intellectual preserves the great ideas of the past, communicates them, and creates new ones. He is the world's eye, and he communicates his ideas to the world, rather than just the fellow intellectuals. Finally, Emerson's intellectual does all these things, not out of obligation to society, but out of obligation to himself. Public action is part of being the one man, the whole person.

A more political tone for the concept of the public intellectual was suggested a few years ago by Edward Said of Columbia University in a series of lectures entitled "Representations of the Intellectual." According to Said, an intellectual's mission in life is to advance human freedom and knowledge. This mission often means standing outside of society and its institutions, then actively disturbing the status quo. At the same time, Said's intellectual is a part of society and should address his concerns to as wide a public as possible. The intellectual is constantly balancing public and private. His or her private personal commitment to an ideal provides the necessary force, but the ideal must have relevance for society.

We have several juxtapositions and tensions here. How does the intellectual stand both outside and inside society? How does the intellectual find common ground between what is a deeply personal and private interest, and also what is a public interest? How does the intellectual engage himself or herself to the changing issues of society, while, at the same time remaining true to unchanging principles? Finally, a more delicate concern, is the intellectual entitled or even obligated to speak out on issues beyond his or her specialty? Both Emerson and Said agree on two things. That the intellectual can not fall to sleep in his books, he must be active, and that the intellectual's proper audience to a large extent is not fellow intellectuals, but the entire public. I think that sets the stage for our panelists today, who are public intellectuals that have written for both their scholarly areas and the public.

Thurow: When you are thinking about what you want to do with your life, one of the things you have to ask yourself is "what is going to be fun to do?" I think people write for a general audience if they think it is fun to be a communicator, and they like to write. I certainly like writing, and I also like to talk. I will tell you why. When I was a boy, my father was a Methodist clergyman, and if you were the son of a minister with multiple churches, you were expected to show up for every church service. So I would hear my fathers sermons five or six times a day. The question was, after I heard it the first time, what was I going to do? I had to sit there and look like I was interested, so I used to play a game. "If I were my father, how would I give this sermon better than he's giving his sermon?" I think that, having set through all those church services, although I wasn't born with religion in my genes, I think I have a little bit of a preacher in me.

If I look at my academic articles, I take some pride in writing them clearly, but there is just a limited amount of imagination you can put in to those kinds of things. It doesn't make much difference if you think it is going to be a famous article, and it often doesn't matter that much if it is well written. The fact is that some of the most famous things that have ever been written are barely understandable. For example, there is a German translation of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, even though it is written in German! It's such dense German that even Germans can't even figure it out. Some academics don't even try to communicate with a general audience because they only want to communicate to the inner group of their specialty. They like to think, "what I am doing is so complicated and so difficult, you have got to have a Ph.D. to understand it." Of course, they are also thinking, " if you need to have a Ph.D. to understand what I am doing, then that means I must be pretty smart." If a high school graduate could understand it, then it must not be that complicated, right? I firmly belive that there is nothing important that anybody does that can't be communicated to reasonable people around the world.

The great thing about writing books about economics is that it gives you the chance to communicate things that aren't in a black and white format. A peculiar thing about economics is that the press thinks that everything has to be framed as a debate. During television interviews, the reporter will say, "is it the end of the world, economically speaking, is global melt down here?" All they want is a yes or no. Whatever you say, they will go to some other economist who will give them the opposite answer. The media think that is an economic discussion.

I think a lot of academics don't write for general audiences because they aren't willing to face public criticism. If you write something that isn't for a technical group, there are going to be some third order subtleties and fourth order nuances that you deliberately leave out, because it gets too complicated if you try to put them in. Then some of your colleagues will say "he didn't know that nuance or third order effect." It is frustrating, because you know you deliberately left it out. Academics must also accept that only their first book will get universally good reviews. No matter how well you write, after your first popular book, the editors are going to find your worst enemy to review it. This is particularly true in economics, because they want to frame everything as debate. I've gotten more hostile reviews in The Wall Street Journal than you can imagine. But the important thing is to be reviewed, so you have to take somebody saying "this guy is an idiot" in a very pubic place with millions of readers. You have to smile and then come back and continue to write. You also have to face that sometimes you are going to say things that look dumb ten years later. You will predict something isn't going to happen, or you are going to leave something out. I will tell you the dumbest thing I ever did in writing a public book. Head to Head came out in 1991 after the Japanese economy melted down in 1990. I didn't mention it, because I assumed it was going to be like the American savings and loan crisis in the 1980s. I expected them to clean it up so that no long term damage would be done. Of course, I couldn't have been more wrong. In the 10 years since the 1990 meltdown, what was essentially the best performing economy in the world has become the worst performing economy in the world.

One of the reasons that people like to write publicly is that it is more fun than consulting, and sometimes it even pays better. They also like to succeed, which requires good timing. Daniel Yergin wrote a famous book about the history of the oil industry called The Prize. You might think that doesn't sound like a fascinating book, but it came out during the Gulf War, and instantly became a best seller. People asked him how he got his timing "so good", and he said "I delivered the manuscript four years late." I also had good timing. The two New York Times best sellers that I have had were both published during recessions. If you write a book about economics during good times, when people feel rich, they are not going to be anxious to read it, but when people's money is melting away, they are interested. The first book that I wrote for a general audience was Zero Sum Society. It came out as hard cover in 1979, then paperback in 1980. I wrote it for a very simple reason. I was on President Carter's economic advisory group before he was elected. That was reasonable, because I might have gotten a job in Washington, but I didn't for a variety of reasons. Then I decided to write a book to tell the world what I would have told Carter if I had been working for him. When Zero Sum Society came out in hardback, it wasn't a tremendous success. Then the paper back happened to come out at the time that Ronald Reagan was elected, and it became an enormous best seller, because people wanted to know about the alternatives to what Reagan was going to do, and the Zero Sum Society essentially became the option. I would like to tell you that I planned that, but like Daniel Yergin's book, it just basically happened.

Of course, there is never guaranteed success. Head to Head was on the New York Times best seller list for around 28 weeks, but it only got to number two. It would have been nice to be able to say I had a number one best seller in America, right? I didn't have it because of Princess Di. Somebody wrote a book about her, and with books like that, people either want to read it or they don't. If they want to read it, they buy it and read it in the first three weeks. So, for the three weeks when I would have a chance to be the number one best seller, the book about Princess Di was there. I've always said, you can't compete with a beautiful princess. It doesn't work if you are an economist.

The bottom line is that if you want to do public writing about science or economics or anything else, you have to want to be a communicator and think it is a lot of fun. During one of my sabbaticals, I actually worked on the New York Times as a journalist and a member of the editorial board. To me, that year was just good fun, and I think that has to be the game.

[The full text of Calvin's article is available.]

Calvin: Occasional success in popularizing science needs to be studied for lessons that can be used by anyone hoping to contribute to the effort. I will frame my conclusions from such an exercise with the aid of an evolutionary concept called the empty niche. A niche in ecology is all that a species needs to function. It can include things like the right food and climate. An empty niche is more or less a proven niche that is going unused. I will specifically discuss migration routes, protection from predators, nesting sites and so forth.

Migration Routes. Where do readers come from? Bleed over from popular psychology to cognitive neuroscience is easily a major source of readers, and I think most of you in other fields could also identify the bleed over route. In cognitive neuroscience we also have some important secondary sources. For example people may come from an admiring mechanistic route in which people from Physics and Computer Science come to look at our neat mechanisms. That gets us to the problem of serious readers. Readers in adjacent fields are an extremely important audience for the progress of science. Pharmocologist are likely to get much of their information about cerebral localization of function from the popular media, rather than by going out and reading a review article on the subject. Certainly, I got my beginning education in evolutionary biology by reading Steven Gould's columns twenty years ago. So, this business of talking to the public is also the business of talking to other scientists.

Protection from Predators. The scientist writing for a wider audience will often assume that others in his own field will be critical, worry about justifying simplifications or omissions, and fear that it will appear that he or she is trying to seek fame and fortune by passing the hard long grind of academic publication. While such comment surely happens on occasion, I think the writer is much more likely to be almost invisible in their own field. The reason for this is fairly simple. Scientist are also general readers. They only have so much time to read, and they mostly read outside their own field. A neuroscientist will read popular books on Cosmology or Evolutionary Biology, but they won't bother to read the books on brains.

Interlopers. Scientists writing about adjacent fields, rather than their own, have advantages and disadvantages. I am a neurophysiologist, but last year I ventured outside my own field to write a cover story for the Atlantic Monthly on abrupt climate change. The editor had to twist my arm for a few weeks to get me to do it, because I fully expected that people within geophysics might be somewhat unhappy about this trespass. I thought that even if I avoided all the usual conceptual errors and didn't leave out important things, they would still be unhappy. It didn't happen. What made it possible for me to write about geophysics was that the oceanographers and atmospheric scientists have put all their teaching materials, review articles and grant proposals on web pages. This was an amazing resource. Nobody in geophysics could possibly try to do what I did in reverse, because my field hasn't put out the resources for an interloper to look at. That will change, and you will find that if you want to try writing about other fields, there will be enormous resources there for you. One disadvantage of interloping scientists is that some come with an agenda, such as an answer in search of a question. For example, quantum physics might have the answer to consciousness. Interlopers might also invent unfortunate terms. For example, the term neural networks was invented in 1982 by the physicists to represent an abstract web like set of elements, which they thought was loosely like the way the brain worked. They did this in ignorance of the fact that the term neural networks had been in use for a long time. Every since, when neuroscientists have had to preface remarks by saying, now in "real neural networks" we sort of curse the physicists that hijacked our term.

Nesting Sites. Writers need an established way to reach an audience. The opinion-editorial pages of local newspapers can provide a place for writing of 700 words or so. This is an entry level niche that didn't exist about 20 years ago. This type of writing is likely to expand a lot because web portals are going to have editor selected commentary. Regular columns play an important role, particularly if later converted into books. Lewis Thomas and Steven Gould came by this route, thanks to farsighted editors of the New England Journal of Medicine and Natural History. Unfortunately, the regular column for a wide audience is largely unexploited in many fields. Science journalists have often filled this niche. They write as observers rather than as participants, but the sustained output of someone like Daniel Goleman writing about Psychology is very important. It doesn't require a Ph.D. in a field to do this. Most science reporters were journalism majors that developed into fans of science over the years. They are often better at judging what will confuse general readers than are people who are used to dealing with students who have taken all the prerequisites.

Delivery Vehicles. You have to be good at writing very short succinct pieces. Even if you want to write a book, the book proposal has to be short and succinct. So you are either writing short articles or things about twice that size for book proposals. When you are going to write longer pieces, let me suggest that you think about structuring them using narrative and storytelling. This offers two major advantages. First, framing material within a narrative makes it more memorable, so that it is more likely to still be there two weeks later. Second, the reader is more likely to make it all the way to the end, because spontaneous abortions are very common in reading --people don't finish things if they get hung up somewhere.

I would like to conclude by pointing out that any writer who aspires to a wider audience has a number empty niches to contemplate filling. Loren Eiseley and Jacob Bronowski died in the mid 1970s, and then Carl Sagan and Lewis Thomas died in the mid 1990s. There is still no one new on the scene comparable to them. Other niches are empty in some fields simply because there is no established counterpart to someone like the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.


Question: Alan Lightman chaired a study of MIT students which showed that they are lacking in their writing skills. Many students just don't see the need for humanities. I wondered how you would suggest engaging scientist and engineers in the humanities?

Thurow: My son, who graduated from MIT not long ago, started out at Williams College. Then, because of a serious traffic accident, he needed to have physical therapy that couldn't be done at Williamstown, so he transferred to MIT. He was only going to be here a year, but he liked it and stayed. He said that if you compared MIT to Williams, there wasn't any difference in the quality of the teaching. The difference was what the students took seriously. At MIT, if you had a problem set in physics and something due in humanities, you knew the problem set was going to get done. At Williams, it was the other way around. The real question is, how do you get the students to take it seriously? If you teach undergraduates at MIT, you quickly learn to give a hell of a lot of problem sets. The name of the game is that if Physics gives five problem sets, you give seven. There are also similar differences between Harvard and MIT. If you are give an economics exam at Harvard with too many mathematical questions, students complain "you are giving me too many mathematical questions, how do you expect me to show how good I am." At MIT, it is the other way around. If you don't have the mathematical questions on the exam, they complain "how do you expect me to show how good I am, you haven't put any math on the exam?" However, I think that curiosity is the most important thing in any area. There are always new problems in Evolutionary Biology, Paleontology, Briain Science or Economics.

Calvin: The problem is keeping the problem sets from swamping the curiosity.

Thorburn: As a professor of literature who has been teaching at MIT for over 20 years, I would like to tell you about my experience with the students in both my introductory and advanced courses. Often, they have been moved in scientific and technical directions from a very early age, so their verbal skills are undeveloped, but their skills are there. One of the most interesting and exciting aspects of teaching these students is to suddenly have them awaken to their verbal skills. In fact, sometimes you succeed too well. You have chemistry and engineering majors coming to you and saying, "I want to go to graduate school in English." Then you to say to them, "that's really not the best idea -- there are better ways of utilizing your verbal skills." I think that one of those ways is the kind of model that the people on our panel illustrate. It seems to me that one implication of what's been said here is that it would be very healthy and important for institutions like MIT to show a greater recognition that verbal skills matter, and there are ways that could happen, even in this institutional setting.

Question: The function of peer review in traditional scientific discourse is to make sure that new ideas are robust and well grounded in what has come before. In popular science writing, there often isn't a peer review step in the middle, so it is possible for scientists or quasi-scientists to present ideas to a very wide audience very quickly. What is your view of how the peer review process relates to the process of writing for a general audience? Should you wait for ideas to be peer reviewed before writing them for popular consumption?

Thurow: The question is, "how do you get rid of error?" The answer is that you can't. When we started the MIT Lemelson Prize program, I went to talk to the Nobel prize people about what you should or shouldn't do. They wait twenty five years, yet three Nobel prizes have been given for things that we now know are 100% wrong. If you wait until it is 100% true, you will never say it. The article Bill Calvin did on abrupt climate change was very well done. It said that there is a great range of uncertainty, but this may be the most likely thing. If you wait until you get certainty, you are going to wait forever.

Calvin: The issue of reviewing is very different in academic and popular journals. The Atlantic Monthly may have an idea for a story, they may search around and find somebody like me to write it. They may send it out to some of their friends to look at it. They aren't necessarily experts in the field, but they know enough to go ask an expert. That sort of thing happens at the level of national magazines, but I would hate to see a real peer review system established. It is very time consuming. Peer review takes years.

Thurow: The climate issue is a good illustration of the same type of thing that happens in economics. You might have 95% of economists who agree about something, but the newspaper is going to find the 5% who don't. You might have 99.9% of all scientists believe that there is global warming, but the newspaper is going to find the one legitimate scientist who doesn't, and they are going to be quoted as if it were the equivalent of the 99% who are really on the other side. That is the way the American press works.

Question: Don't the readers get confused about what the real scientist say?

Thurow: Of course they do!

Question: Then you are saying then that it is a good thing that readers now believe that half of all scientist don't believe in global warming?

Thurow: No, it is not a good thing, but it is inevitable. I don't know how you get rid of it. People who write newspapers have to sell them. Controversy and scandal sells. That's why scandals are so nice from a newspapers point of view. If sales go up because you've got a scandal, then you go out and find a scandal. If sales go up because you've got a controversy, then you go out and look for a controversy.

Calvin: There is a niche for saying "they are not really sure yet." All the stuff that we are seeing about not being sure about global warming is because some midwestern oil and gas people were promoting this whole thing. It is just like what the tobacco people did for 30 years. From 1964 surgeon generals' report until the 1994 there wasn't much action. It was just a very good sales job from their stand point.

Question: How do you say nobody knows, and there is this and that to consider? Do you need more than one person?

Thurow: Right now, you have television programs like Crossfire which make the assumption that there needs to be really aggressive debate, and that there is no truth on either side. I don't think there is any way that you can intellectually and honestly participate in those programs.

Question: All of the panelist have fields where they provide information to a general audience which has implications for behavior and social implications. To what extent have you each felt a sense of political or social responsibilities, so that instead of just informing the public about interesting or intriguing facts about science or economics, you implore people to take particular courses of action?

Thorow: There are some topics that we don't want to hear about that we should. You can't deal with them every week, but you should come back to them every once in awhile. For example, for the last twenty five years in the United States, there has been an enormous spreading out of the distribution of income and wealth. If you are in the top 20% of the population, the last decade has been the best in the history of the United States. Stock market wealth and income has gone up. On the other hand, 60% of the population's real wages are down 20% over the same period of time. The simple fact of the matter is that American's don't want to hear about it, anymore than they wanted to hear about Bill Clinton. The question is, how often do you come back to these things? The issue isn't what to do about it. That is pretty clear, once you decide you want to do something about it. If you believe it is a serious issue with serious consequences for America in the long run, which I do, then you try to keep it on the burner, and hope that at some point there will be interest in doing better. So, you keep coming back, and you don't let people forget it, even if they would like to forget.

Calvin: My Atlantic Monthly article was about abrupt climate change. Every couple of thousand years in the Earth's past, there have been these really abrupt changes. We didn't know they existed fifteen years ago. It was just the analysis of ice cores from Greenland that allowed us to see this. About ten years ago, when it was just appearing in Science and Nature, I watched and thought, "people need to get on to the band wagon about this--someone ought to write some good articles." Despite the fact that Science and Nature wrote articles on the subject every year, it didn't escape into the popular press. Since that's where a lot of science reporters get their cue, that was really surprising. I think that science editors felt that it was far too complicated, or that it was just another form of global warming. Global warming had sort of filled that niche, and nothing else was getting in. After watching nobody else write the story for ten years, I had my arm twisted, and I felt sufficiently guilty about not having written the story before that I went ahead and did it. There are times where you look and say to yourself, "this is a prescription for disaster and nobody is talking about it." Then you get an opportunity to do something.

Question: How you think the Y2K coverage by the popular media over the next year is going to impact the general public's sense of science and technology? Do you think the coverage is going to have an economic impact?

Thurow: I think the Y2K is fascinating, because what's going to get you is the unknown unknowns. You will correct for anything you think will happen, and it will not happen. Then the question is what things are out there that you never even think about, and what problem is that going to cause.

Calvin: The Y2K is also a good example of one of those things that you can make a lot worse by talking about it. Regardless of what happens, there will be a lot of people who will take their money out of the stock market because there will be some good bargains later. That creates problems. Its hard to win these things.

Question: There is a case for saying that corporate interest play a very heavy hand in the way in which scientific issues are presented, never mind the way science is shaped by corporate interest. Since we are talking about the popular expression of that, would any of you care to comment on how power and wealth influence the way in which these issues are presented through corporate media to the American people?

Thurow: You can see examples on both sides. For example, there are clearly powerful political interest that wanted to preserve the nuclear power industry, but they completely failed when science was on their side. Every study that has ever been done of nuclear power shows that more people will die generating the same amount of electricity from a coal fire plant as a nuclear power plan. You have to consider the number of men who die from the coal mines and on the railroads. Piles of coal even give off a little bit of radiation, so you don't even get rid of your radiation problem. But it's a ghost, right? It is something you can't hear, see or smell that can kill you. All the corporate power in the world was completely helpless to influence American public opinion, even when they had most of the science on their side. You can certainly find other cases on the other side. Tobacco is the major one. They stonewalled in thirty years, but the facts came down on the other side, and they lost in the end. People clearly have vested interests in how they present these issues, but I don't think you can say there is some sort of evil Machiavelli out there pulling the strings in a way that works, because I don't know of any examples where pulling the strings has worked in the long run. For example, the automobile companies have gotten the message, and if you look at the amount of money they are putting into fuel cell research, it is enormous. They are aware there is something going on out there, and they are assuming they are going to be treated like the tobacco was, and want to escape that game by going to a different fuel source. When GM announced that they were going to spin off Delphi-Delco, the big parts manufacturer of GM, they moved the fuel cell research into GM because they didn't want to give that to an outside company. If you are in the oil business, you are between a rock and a hard place. You are saying, "hey, that's my livelihood-- that's what I do!" So you resist, and I don't think that's terribly strange.

Question: How much disclosure should science writers give about their own personal involvement, entanglements and sources of support in respect to material they write about?

Thurow: Let me respond with an example from Economics. Suppose you were writing about the Microsoft case, which a lot of economist are right now. Anybody writing about that case from either side who has any related financial dealings has got to say so, because this is a little bit Seattle vs. Silicon Valley. If you do something to break Microsoft up, the big winners are all in Silicon Valley. Here is a case where billions are riding on it. If you are going to write about the issue, and you are making money from either Sun or Microsoft as a consultant or lecturer, I think you've go to say so.

Question: I would like to ask the panel if when they had tenure when they started writing for the general public?

Thurow: I started out of frustration with not going to Washington. I had tenure, but I don't think that made a big difference. One of the problems is that most people don't have an instant success. A lot of people in economics have tried to write a popular book which sold about fifty copies, and they never tried again. You don't have one success after another, or at least I don't. It requires a certain amount of persistence.

Lightman: I was asked to write some essays for a magazine. I started with Smithsonian, then I went to Science. That was in the early 1980s, when there was just beginning to be the feeling that science writing by scientists was a legitimate activity. It was still very early though, and I also had the same feeling that it was something that I needed to keep in the closet for awhile. It was not given very much value, but I felt that I had to write. Lester Thurow talked about writing for the fun of it. I think many writers and scientists, which I would say rather than science writers, do it because they feel like they have to write. This is something Virginia Woolf said in "Letters to a Young Poet." A young clerk asked "do I have it in me to be a poet, to be a writer." Woolf replied, "you should be a writer if you feel like you have to write." It is hard to articulate it better than that. Its a passion that I think overrides concern about tenure or concern about reaction among professional colleagues. In some ways, I think it even overrides some of the lofty ideals that Emerson was talking about. There is just a sense that you have to write to express yourself, and you have to communicate your subject to a larger audience. It is a compulsion. I would guess that everyone sitting at this table felt that compulsion at some point that was at least as strong a factor as any of the other factors in their decision to write. (Other panelists showed agreement.)

Compiled by Mary Hopper

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