Tom Chivers

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AMA: Tom Chivers, science writer, science editor at UnHerd

Oh I never replied to this one. BUY MY BOOK (either one, but especially the new one: https://www.howtoreadnumbers.com/ ). Or, I dunno, read my stuff and be available to chat if I need to speak to someone about some topic.

AMA: Tom Chivers, science writer, science editor at UnHerd

gah I'm annoyed I didn't think of Stephen! A great journalist. I don't know Jeremy's work well but I've heard good things

AMA: Tom Chivers, science writer, science editor at UnHerd

all this makes a lot of sense, by the way, and I will take it on board.

AMA: Tom Chivers, science writer, science editor at UnHerd

OK I think that's all the questions! Thanks for that and sorry again for the delay. I hope it's been interesting! Best, Tom

AMA: Tom Chivers, science writer, science editor at UnHerd

no I don't, and I was unaware of the idea. I am very unsystematic in my choices of what I write about and I don't have any good way of measuring how many minds I change (just the hopelessly survivorship-bias-tainted one of people telling me that they've changed their minds). So it's all very finger-in-the-wind.

AMA: Tom Chivers, science writer, science editor at UnHerd

Oh dammit I forgot 4). Hmm. This is such a big and important question and I should have some ready answer for it.

I suppose my most general answer, and it's not all that recent, is that I've become MUCH less trusting of the scientific literature in loads of fields, especially social sciences, because I've become much more aware of the statistical problems. But that's a bit of a dodge, isn't it.

And relatedly I think in Covid times I've become less happy with the public-health-institutions model of scientific/health evidence, of thinking "there isn't an RCT supporting it" equals "it doesn't work"; I've become much more of a Bayesian, or at least I try to think in terms of probabilities and best guesses and cost-benefit analyses rather than "this works" and "this has not been rigorously shown to work ergo we will say it doesn't work". I was already on that route I think but it's become very obvious in the last year

AMA: Tom Chivers, science writer, science editor at UnHerd
  1. I've said elsewhere in this AMA, but I suspect that journalism, for all its many flaws, actually is really important, and that democratic societies would be much harder to organise without a free press. I suspect that journalism isn't hugely popular among rationalists (and since I tend to think of EAs as being the same people, I assume it's not hugely popular with them either), but I think it's really important.
  2. I think there's a huge miscalibration about what's "actually" important in the media – there's a huge focus on problems of the Western world, and especially US problems (which then get exported to the UK and other places;  eg I think problems with race in the UK are very different to the ones in the US, but we see everything through a US lens).  A murder in the UK (or a school shooting in the US) is objectively less important than 1,000 people dying every day of malaria, but it gets many times the coverage. But it's hard to say "actually this doesn't matter" when it's some named person dead in a horrible way, and compare it to thousands of real but faceless individuals dying off-camera.

    Funnily enough I think Covid has shifted this a bit because it's a genuinely global and important story about infectious diseases and vaccinations. But I'd love to see more focus in the mainstream media on diseases of poverty in the developing world, things like that. That said - as I've said elsewhere, you can't run a media industry on the things that you OUGHT to write about, you have to give readers what they want as well.
  3. Since this is about journalism, I'll stick to that example: I think EAs/rationalists tend to assume journalists are out to destroy people. It's not that that's wrong exactly, but it's incomplete. For instance, when I've written about quack charities – autism charities telling people not to get vaccinated, say, or to  have awful heavy-metal chelation therapy or whatever – it is 100% my intention to damage those charities' ability to function, or get their CEOs to resign, because I believe that they are damaging children, and that revealing their bad practices is good for society. I think most people here would agree with me. But other journalists are doing the same thing - they've just sometimes made different judgments about what "good for society" is, and I very often disagree with those judgments. But they're not out to destroy for the fun of it; they're usually trying to do good. (That said, there is a tendency to measure journalistic impact in how many people you've forced to resign, which is understandable but kind of icky.)
AMA: Tom Chivers, science writer, science editor at UnHerd

Short answer: no.

Long answer: I think that what is underappreciated about journalism is the time pressure. If you're writing for a daily paper, or some equivalent, you often have to become passably expert in some topic in a few hours. It is a miracle that, say, the Times puts together enough material for a medium-sized novel every 24 hours. Some of it is longer lead times, the mags and features sometimes you have a week or so, and the real glossy mags like the Atlantic and the Economist and so on you might have weeks or more to research. But it is absolutely incredible to witness a paper go from "literally nothing exists" at 11am to "here is a full paper, with relatively few typos and hopefully no libels and tens of thousands of words of news, analysis, criticism, a topical cartoon, sports reports, the weather" by 9pm. There just isn't time to do a full fact-check. The sheer just-in-time nature of it is incredible. Same with TV and radio; everything is spinning like a gyroscope, seconds away from going wrong.

(The Atlantic and the Economist and the New Yorker, etc, it's totally different, everyone sits around in oak-panelled rooms thinking deep thoughts and writing one piece a month which is then picked to the bone by fact-checkers like vultures on a dead buffalo. I exaggerate somewhat.)

And then you get the incentive issues that while journalists definitely think of themselves as performing a public service, and we are, we're also contributing to a business and that business needs to sell papers or get clicks or whatever so "1,000 people died of malaria today" can't be the splash headline every day. It just can't. Journalism is in the public interest, but it ALSO needs to provide what the public is interested in, and if it doesn't do the latter then it can't be the former. And there's a coordination problem that if I say "I will do only high-minded journalism that is in the public interest", the next guy can say "great, I'll do scurrilous celebrity hackery and sell 40 times what you do and put you out of business".

AND THEN you have to remember it's staffed by humans with biases and political opinions and families to feed and social status to uphold.

So with those limitations in mind, I think journalism does a pretty good job of giving readers/viewers/listeners a rough picture of reality. But they're really big limitations and it's unrealistic to expect anything approaching a clear, unbiased window on the world. 

AMA: Tom Chivers, science writer, science editor at UnHerd

I think this is a really interesting question, but I don't know enough about the business of journalism to have good answers. Somewhere else in the Qs I've talked a bit about the impact of journalism and why it's important, which is probably relevant.

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