Science Writing You Should Read

scicommtweet

I tweeted that a little while ago, and I really do try to live those words. Don’t tell my advisor, but I have been reading more popular science writing than actual research papers. But it can be pretty hard to know what to read. Where can a savvy consumer go for quality science writing? I’m here for you. Take these tips to heart.

New York Times

“The Gray Lady” has been a bastion of quality journalism for more than a century and a half. Fortunately, this includes the science coverage. The Times employs some great writers, including Carl Zimmer. You should start reading his work now if you have not already. In a world of science writers who just over-hype stories and don’t try to find holes, he is extremely skilled at getting all of the angles. If you want to read great, complex science stories, he is a great place to start.

Washington Post

Like the Times, this paper does great science writing in a newsy style. Their work tends to be a quicker read than the Times, and they print some quality stories. Check out Sarah Kaplan‘s work; she always has some interesting bylines.

The Guardian

Along with the Post and Times, the Guardian is also a newsy publication. The science coverage is always interesting, but I have detected a little sensationalism at times. It is nothing if not entertaining.

The Atlantic

Ed Yong might just be the best science writer doing it right now. Not only is his stuff great to read, but he also very accessible on social media (he favorited my tweet once). He is also extremely prolific, so check out his stuff on the Atlantic’s site.

Vox

Vox is a really cool online publication, where the writers always seem to be thinking just ahead of the curve. My new favorite science writer Brian Reznick writes for Vox, and I would encourage you to check out his work. He writes about anything, but he does seem to have a real interest in psychology and neuroscience. The rest of the science writers publish a ton of stories that will keep you reading throughout your workday.

FiveThirtyEight

I am a huge FiveThirtyEight fanboy. My heart stops every time I think I see Nate Silver on the street. Unfortunately, I have been a little disappointed with their science coverage. They just don’t publish that often…but what they do publish is pure gold. The main science writers, Maggie Koerth-Baker and Christie Aschwanden, are incredible. They also co-host a monthly science podcast in the FiveThirtyEightWhat’s the Point?” feed, if podcasts are more your thing.

Science

Science is usually regarded as a top research journal, but they have some great news writers. They will write up anything from their journal–or a competitor–as long as it is an interesting story. They do so accessibly enough for non-scientists to enjoy, but rigorously enough that scientists do not get bored. They also do some great writing on the intersection between science and politics, which is becoming a more and more interesting field in our current political moment.

Blogs
There are plenty of great blogs out there (just like this one). If you want to find some quality writing by people who just love to write about science, you should check out SciBlogHub or one of the other communities that compile and promote amateur science writing. Don’t forget to tell the writers what you think of their stuff. I know I love feedback, and I only wish I could get more of it.

RealClearScience

RealClearScience is just a page to point you toward the best science writing of the day. If you are just looking for someone to tell you what to read–and I’m busy or otherwise not responding on Twitter–just ask RealClearScience.

In the age of digital media, it is really not that hard to find science writing. Quality writing that is also accessible can be a stretch, though. But it is out there, and I will always be here seeking it out wherever I can–and trying to produce it, when I can. Let me know if you have any suggestions on publications that I missed. Happy readings.

March for Science, but that’s Just the First Step

*Emily Willingham at Forbes expressed some of these same ideas and then some over here. Please give that a read and let her know how great she is.

Anyone reading this blog knows that I am a scientist and that I am into politics. Currently, there is a debate happening in the scientific community about whether the March for Science that is planned for April 22 should be “political.” I think that the question is stupid. The March for Science is necessarily political. I think detractors question whether the march needs to be partisan, which is a separate question. Incidentally, I think the March for Science is necessarily partisan too. I want to point out why the march is necessarily political and partisan, and explain why I think the march–and what it represents–is important.

The March is being organized in response to a specific series of events. We did not call a march when Bush stopped stem cell research. This time it feels different though. We have a president who has openly doubted the value of vaccinations. He expressed skepticism toward the science of climate change. He showed disdain for the EPA and nominated a director who wants to dismantle the agency. The Trump administration’s habit of consistently disregarding the knowledge of experts seems to signal that he will try to govern without using empirical data to inform policy decision-making. Since this is a question of how our nation is governed, it is necessarily a political issue. The GOP has also made it clear that this widely-held belief among their adherents, making it partisan. As proponents of evidence-based policy, we are obliged to stand up to these decisions and the people making them.

None of this is entirely new or unexpected. We could have assumed that a Republican administration would lead to the same deregulation and climate science denial that was the hallmark of the Bush administration. The Republican Party has been denying the science behind climate change for years. But this is clearly a larger problem. Now we are litigating the value of vaccines, the EPA, and whether research will continue to be funded. Trump is the inevitable conclusion to years of conservative anti-science policy. Not content to just disagreeing on how to translate widely accepted scientific facts into policy, conservatives deny the validity of those facts and the experts who work to uncover those facts. The attitude of denying facts and questioning the motives of scientific experts reached its logical conclusion in the election of the authoritarian Trump, who eschews expert advice, norms of conduct, and the validity of facts. It is up to us–scientists and empirically-minded non-scientists, alike–to take our place in policy discussions. We should have been there all along, making sure that our worldviews were represented in the realm of public policy. After all, we are highly skilled professionals with a unique way of seeing the world. We have a lot of value to add to policy discussions. But many of us have neglected our roles as citizens. Now is the time for us to show that we have something to say about governing based on solid facts instead of a partisan agenda. Marching for science is a solid start.

Pirates Go Super-Nova

The weather outside is frightful, but the hot stove fire is so delightful. I am delighting even more after my Pirates re-signed free agent starter Ivan Nova to a three year, $26 million dollar contract. Putting aside the fact that $26 million is more than I will ever earn in my lifetime (and probably you too, dear reader), $26 million over three years is steal for a pitcher of Nova’s caliber. Simply put, Nova should have made much more on the open market than he got from the Pirates in his freshly-inked three year deal.

To understand how valuable Nova is, you have to understand how players are valued. Typically, a ballplayer’s value is expressed in terms of wins. There are different formulae that attempt to model the value of a player in terms of wins, but several of them fall under the heading of “wins above replacement (WAR),” meaning the number of wins–above that of a replacement level player–that a given player brings to his team over the course of a season. The different formulae to calculate WAR mean that there are different flavors of WAR depending on who you talk to, but I will be focusing on Fangraphs data and the Fangraphs WAR calculation (fWAR). If you look at Fangraph’s Free Agent Tracker, you can see that most of the 2016 free agents with the highest 2016 fWAR values are projected to regress toward the mean/come back to earth/not do as well in 2017. But if you look for Ivan Nova on that list, you will notice that he is among the select group of free agents projected to have a better 2017 than 2016 by fWAR. The caveat here is that we are talking about a projection, and baseball projections have been shown season after season to not hold up in retrospect. But this should make for a fun exercise nonetheless. If we restrict our analysis to 2017 free agents with a positive fWAR, Nova ends up in the top 25% of free agents by projected increase in 2017 fWAR. But the real kicker for me? Nova is the only 2016 free agent with a 2016 fWAR greater than 2 (denoting a “solid starter“) who is projected to have a better 2017 fWAR. In short, among the best players who would become free agents in 2016, he is expected to be the one to continue to get better in 2017.

Another key point I want to make is that the Pirates may have turned the free agent market on its head with this signing. The free agent market tends to be all about big paydays for past achievements. A lot of players do not live up to the numbers they put up before their first free agent paycheck, but that is how the business side of the sport works. By signing Nova, and from my investigation into his previous and projected fWAR marks, I propose that the Pirates might actually be paying him for future value. If Nova lives up to his 2.5 win Fangraphs projection before giving another couple of years as a one to two win player, the Pirates come out on top. Based on analysis by Neil Paine at FiveThirtyEight, those 5.5 or so wins over the three years of Nova’s contract would cost about $42 million on the open market. This sounds more like the Pirates club that we all know and love, with a front office that seeks value above all other things.

I cannot help but wonder what made Nova offer the deep discount to Pittsburgh. Plenty of ink has been spilled on the topic of the contracts that starters are commanding this off-season, but Nova seems to have given the Pirates a hometown discount. Not being the type to look a gift horse in the mouth, I am just excited to see him pitch at PNC Park in 2017. Maybe I can even catch him at a doubleheader with Jose Quintana.

*Note added after publication: a blog post by Travis Sawchik at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review hit on some of the same points.

FiveThirtyEight, Elo, and Baseball

Now is as good a time as any to say how big of a FiveThirtyEight fan I am. Nate Silver’s site publishes the best data-driven stories on the web (NY Times’ Upshot is another good one to check out if you’re interested, but it has a decidedly more economic bent). Silver and his colleagues do an amazing job of bring data to bear on any question they can think up, and lucky for me that often includes baseball. If you want to see what I mean, take a look at the pieces that they published in the last 24 hours:

The Complete History of the MLB, an interactive, Elo rating-based way to compare teams throughout baseball history.

2016 MLB Predictions (along with an explanation) also uses Elo, but this time to project the remainder of each team’s performance this season. A nice touch is that this one updates after each game.

FiveThirtyEight has gotten some real mileage out of using Elo ratings to compare basketball and football teams, but this looks like the biggest project they have tackled using the rating system, working with data going back over 100 years.

I plan on keeping my eyes on the 2016 predictions for the rest of the season, and I have already had a ton of fun going back and comparing teams from 100 years ago. So far, it looks like my own Pittsburgh Pirates still haven’t managed to reach their apogee of the turn of the 20th century, even with the recent run of competitive teams. Adding to my frustration, the damnable Chicago Cubs have the highest stock that they’ve had in decades. Everyone gets their moment in the sun, I suppose.