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Say It To My Face, Jonah Lehrer

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Today, Jonah Lehrer gave the final address at the Knight Foundation’s Media Learning Seminar. For an hour, he spoke about his journalistic transgressions over the course of the past few years, which came to light over the summer.

He was paid $20,000 for his time. 

What struck me the most wasn’t Lehrer’s robotic, characteristically arrogant speech, but one of the questions posed by a conference attendee. She stated flippantly that Lehrer’s plagiarism affected her less than a “typo on Wikipedia,” and didn’t understand why people expected public apology for something that didn’t specifically hurt them.

Alrighty then. Let’s talk about how Jonah Lehrer has hurt the journalism community. Come on, raise your hand if you’ve ever felt personally victimized by Regina George.

First of all, the public inherently trusts successful journalists, especially ones hired as staff writers for publications as reputable as The New Yorker. Should people be skeptical of everything they read? Yes! Please, be skeptical. Should readers have to wonder if every word written in a magazine they trust is a lie or a fabrication? Dear god, I hope not.

A screencap from our furious twitter rampage

A screencap from our furious twitter rampage

Lehrer was a public darling. I was never a fan of his writing (I found it over simplified and written with a cocky tone that rubbed me the wrong way) but I always appreciated how good he was at playing into what the mainstream wanted to read. To end up in a position like that and then abuse it is to tarnish public view of journalistic morality. Permanently.

Let’s get more specific, shall we? Lehrer wrote about science. Science journalists have another layer of public trust to navigate, because science has gotten a reputation for being confusing, boring, and elitist. It’s hard to get the public listening to you when you talk about science, and Lehrer had his finger on the pulse. So yes, I do feel that there’s something wrong with Lehrer ending up on a science journalism pedestal and then making shit up, pulling quotes out of thin air, and muddling facts so that they fit the narrative he knows will sell a book. Personally.

One more thing. Jonah Lehrer’s behavior was offensive to me. Specifically me. Me, and every other young, emerging science journalist. Do you know how unobtainable a staff position at The New Yorker is, especially for a science writer, in the age of dying print and literary cutbacks? I would cut out my own kidney if it got me a regular blog on Wired, let alone a longterm print contract. The respect, stability, and readership attached to that gig is the sort of thing I’m afraid to even dream of. Jonah Lehrer got it, and he abused it. He recycled old pieces. He copy and pasted from others’ work. He didn’t provide the content he was being paid to provide.

If he hadn’t been caught, that job would still be his–and that would be one less staff position for a young science writer willing to actually write about science.

Did tweeting live zingers about Lehrer while he spoke make me feel better about what he’d done? Not really. Especially now that I know how much money he made for his lackluster public apology.

Find a new playing field, Lehrer. The other kids don’t want you here anymore. 

Help us get to ScienceOnline!

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ScienceOnline2013 is going to be amazing. The seventh annual “unconference” on science and the web, Scio13 is happening in Raleigh, North Carolina from January 30th through February 2nd. Quite serendipitously, Rachel’s 21st birthday is on February 3rd. She’d like to thank the good people of ScienceOnline for throwing her the greatest birthday party of all time. It will also serve as a belated bash for Arielle, whose birthday is on January 2nd.

If you’re not familiar with ScienceOnline, it’s pretty magical. Every January, Raleigh is host to a veritable flood of science communication gurus and junkies. Together, they put together three days of programming in “unconference” style. Everyone who’s been to a conference, especially one in the sciences, knows that the best stuff happens not in the lecture hall, but just outside of it. ScienceOnline brings those conversations to the center of attention. Sessions are proposed in a planning wiki by anyone with a cool idea, commented on and perfected, and then chosen based on group interest and pizzazz. At the conference, moderators start and lead discussions instead of clicking through power points. The result is part brain trust and part slumber party, with a guest list that makes our hearts go all fluttery.

For a young science writer, this conference is a gold mine. A bastion of knowledge. She can finally meet all the writers she follows on Twitter, including that one she cried over a tweet from a couple months back. She can get advice on what to do after grad school. She can learn about cool new science she should be writing about, learn new ways to write about it, and learn how to use new online tools to make sure other people read about it.

Most importantly, she can hug Bora.

So yes: We, Rachel and Arielle, roommates and proud SHERPies, have our hearts set on attending this extraordinary gathering. We’ve already made it through the Survivor-esque registration, so the worst is over. Unfortunately, we still have to pay for it.

SHERP provides us some funds to attend conferences, but we’re trying not to blow it all in our first semester of the program. Instead we’re digging into our own pockets, and asking the good people of the internet to help us out.


Good luck saying no to these faces…

Our goal is to crowd-fund $700 to cover our hotel and airfare. Anything over that will go towards the cost of our registration, dinner on Friday (the only meal on our own–seriously, Scio is awesome), taxis, and overpriced coffee at LaGuardia. If we actually receive money we can’t use to cover legitimate expense (read: Rachel will not use your money to buy whiskey sours), we’ll hand it back over to ScienceOnline with a donation after the conference.

To shamelessly copy Jacquelyn Gill, who successfully crowd-funded her trip to Raleigh last year, we’re going to pledge to interview one Scio13 attendee for every $100 we raise. Yes, you’ll get to read adorably tag-teamed interviews by the pair of us. All interviews will also feature beautiful photographs by Arielle. . . and throughout the conference, we’ll both be tweeting, blogging, and photographing up a storm.

Other things we’re willing to offer for donations: Baked goods, open-mic serenades, hugs, karaoke partners, drinking buddies, portraits, and more hugs.

Please consider helping us out by donating or sharing this post!

The best way to donate is via paypal: RAFeltman [at] gmail [dot] com. If you’d rather send a donation by mail, email us for our home address.

Thanks for your help!

Update: As of 11.30.12 we have received $495! 

Things I’ve Learned in the First Month of (Science) J-School

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Hello there, readers!

A lot has happened in the past month. I’ve moved to the city, settled into my apartment in Hamilton Heights, and (most importantly) started grad school at SHERP. My blog has been grossly neglected, but hopefully pretty soon some of my early assignments will start making their way onto Scienceline and you’ll no longer have a Rachel-Feltman’s-Awesome-Science-Writing-Shaped hole in your life.

To illustrate my findings, here’s a really tired meme:



But seriously, here are some things I’ve learned so far:

1. Stephen Hawking runs over journalists’ feet. I must have my foot over by Dr. Hawking as many times as possible in my lifetime.

2. I hate interviews, but I’m not totally terrible at them. Seriously though, I’m a socially awkward person and a child of the 21st century. I don’t even like to order pizza from places that make me talk to them on the phone, and suddenly I have to talk to four or five strangers a week at length. I’m probably going to give myself an ulcer. Good thing I love everything else about the job, yeah? And I think it’ll grow on me. Like a fungus. A flesh-eating fungus.

3. Science writing takes you to really exotic places…Like Long Island.


In all seriousness (or at least some seriousness), SHERP is amazing and I’m having a great time. We’re off to Brookhaven for our big overnight tomorrow, and I’ll definitely be posting about it when we get back! Then I’m spending the weekend covering The Maker Faire. It’s just a whirlwind of science journalism over here, folks.

Thesis Time #2: Foragers

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Hello, lovely readers. I’ll be posting pieces I wrote for my senior thesis for the next couple of weeks. If you’d like a PDF of the whole mess, shoot me an email. 




They walk among us unnoticed, a band of modern men and women who forage in the woods for fungi. . . for fun. A common practice in many Slavic countries, so-called “Mushroom Hunting” is seeing a rise in popularity across the United States. Dressed warmly to fight the chill of an early fall morning, mushroom hunters gather with likeminded individuals or venture out alone into wooded hills and empty fields to practice their craft. Standard procedure requires a wicker basket tucked under the arm, but the modernist can replace this with a more sophisticated receptacle if he wishes.

The value of fungi as a renewable resource is anything but news. Five thousand years ago, Otzi the Ice Man had a Fomes formentarius and Piptoporus betulinus with him when perished in the Alps. The former, aptly named tinder fungus, was used for starting fires. He carried a birch polypore for its antimicrobial properties: A wound dressed with the mushroom atop it will heal faster, with less risk of infection. Even in Otzi’s day, man knew the value of mushroom hunting.

While the increase of agriculture and urbanization caused a decline in the practice, it became a culturally significant activity in the Soviet Union when many, even city dwellers, were starving to death under Stalin’s policies. Families began to venture into the woods to forage, and they quickly found that mushrooms were the most plentiful resource to be found. At that time, mushroom hunting became competitive because of how much the foraging could help a starving family: One did well to hide their biggest harvests, and physical brawls breaking out over a good haul weren’t uncommon. Today, a knowledge and love of fungi is an integral part of the culture of the Ukraine and other Eastern European countries, and what was once a desperate attempt to survive has evolved into a national past-time.

With the U.S. economy seeing hard times and our ecological health at a questionable low, more and more American citizens are seeking out ways to make their living more sustainable. Foraging is the very epitome of sustainable eating, and it stretches the mushroom hunter’s diet while also being kind to the earth. Mushrooms, as we know them, are only the fruiting body of massive fungal networks. The mushroom hunter need never worry that they might be destroying their food source by harvesting it, because the bit they pick to consume is comparable to the very tip of a gigantic iceberg. Mycellium, the cobweb-like tissue that builds all of a mushroom’s structures, remains underground, shooting out in all directions like an intricate network of nerve pathways. The largest known mushroom, which lives in a national forest in Oregon, covers at least 2,200 acres under the surface of the Earth. Fungi, which are actually more closely related to animals than plants (their cell walls are made of chitin, the same polymer that makes up exoskeletons in insects and crustaceans), can provide sustainable food, medicine, and countless other supplies to the dedicated forager.

Most Americans are most familiar with Agaricus biporus, the species that produces both the common button mushroom (when young) and the portobello mushroom. Clever marketing presents the latter as a fancier variety, but the truth is that originally they were impossible to sell. Once a button mushroom was full grown, it’s fruiting body having bloomed into a flatter capped, brown specimen with peeling skin, no one would have them. Now they’re usually marked up in price! Of course, the mushroom hunter isn’t limited to what their grocer is pushing in the sale flyer. Morchella mushrooms, known as morels and often found in backyards that border woods, can be prepared stuffed with sausage or walnuts for fancy finger food, or dipped in buttermilk and breading and fried. Pleurotus ostrestus, aptly named the oyster mushroom, grows like velvety versions of its namesake up the bark of an autumn tree. These are best in chowders and risottos, adding texture and a sweet taste. Genus Laetiporus is called Chicken of the Woods, and that’s no mistake. The hearty orange shelf fungus becomes juicy and tender when cooked, and is especially delicious when sauteed with lemon. The chanterelle, Cantharellus cibarius, is said to look like a golden flower sprouting up in the middle of the woods. It can be prepared in a traditional Russian style, cooked in fresh bacon drippings with onion and sour cream. For most species of mushroom, the preparation is limited only to the chef’s imagination.

The table is an obvious destination for the mushroom, but one venture into the forest can yield everything from preservable snacks to art materials. The genus Ganoderma, for example, which grows like woody little shelves on the sides of trees, contains the Artist’s Conk (Ganoderma applanatum). Artist’s Conk is unique in that its underside, while still fresh, can be drawn on using a stick or blade. The images will be preserved when the mushroom dries. Also members of the same genus are G. lucidum and G. tsugae, commonly referred to as reishi mushrooms in Japan and lingzhi mushrooms in China. reishi are known for their anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. While their tough texture makes them basically inedible, they’re easily brewed into tea. In many countries where mushroom hunting is culturally significant, cancer patients will drink a daily dose of this tea to support their health while they undergo conventional treatment. For winter treats, the mushroom hunter can dry or pickle any of their edible catches: While this sometimes changes the flavor, it can often be for the better. A good mushroom guide will indicate which species can be improved by drying. Even mushrooms that are poisonous, wormy, or otherwise undesirable can be used with a little creativity. Trametes versicolor, or Turkey Tails, grow on trees all over the Northern United States. Grinding them up into a watery pulp provides a base for making paper. Such paper, or any wool or other textile, can even be dyed with easy to find mushrooms. Tapinella atrotomentos, or Velvet-Footed Pax, produces a mossy, gray-green shade. Hypholoma fasciculare, known as Sulfur Tufts, dye wool a pale yellow reminiscent of sunshine. Cortinarius semisanguineus resembles a “little brown mushroom” or LBM, so called for the difficulty in distinguishing them from all of the other LBMs, but their red gills make an incredibly vibrant dye, with shades ranging from bright orange to blood red. All of these dyeing mushrooms happen to be inedible, but just as many delicious mushrooms can also have a place in the dye pot.

The best way to start learning about fungi and how to forage for them is to find a group of enthusiasts. Americans seem to have an almost universal distrust of mushrooms that don’t come sealed in plastic, so attending a meeting of Mushroom Hunters can be a bit of a culture shock. Far from fearing wild fungi, these hunters are confident in their ability to harvest the edible and discard the poisonous. They gather in groups, sharing knowledge and experience, until each individual has an arsenal of known species that they can pick and consume safely. At some meetings, members will lay their hauls out and identify them together, allowing for some added security before anything is consumed. Mushroom Hunters form a unique community, their meetings a place where one can find a history and ecology lesson, a great hike, and a delicious meal all in one day.