Columns can be as important to scholarship as monographs and research papers. I emphasize the modal because this is possible but by no means inevitable. In this column I offer what I consider to be the most important qualities of good columns.
It is important to understand at the onset that columns are not investigative journalism, though they may serve as hand maidens of journalism by calling attention to authoritative works of others. The column is no place for unbridled opinion and undocumented polemic. Worthy columns should be a vehicle for thoughtful, well-reasoned and verifiable argument and a conduit to “ground truth data” produced by scholars, journalists and domain experts. The most important element of the column is the “link” (URL of a document or Web resource, traditional reference to a publication, suggestion of specific issue of some publication, name of journalist of book author, mention of the work being conducted by a research center, and so forth) to legitimate journalism and scholarship without unnecessarily cluttering the pages.
Columnists should not be propagandists. The chief spokesperson for propaganda in the 20 th century was Edward Bernays. The first paragraph in his book entitled Propaganda says it all: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.” (Edward Bernays, Propaganda, 1928 repr. 2005 by lg Publishing) This principle was subsequently strengthened and reshaped by Walter Lippman into “the manufacture of consent” (cf the rejoinder by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, 1988, Pantheon ed. 2002). Bernays and Lippmanenvisioned their brand of “democracy” (What political scientist Robert Dahl labeled a polyarchy) as inherently paternalistic and controlling. Propaganda served a vital role in accomplishing the sought after compliance and obedience. Martin Heidegger went beyond the rhetoric to build an entire alethic philosophy on such principles. His defined truth as “that which makes a people certain, clear, and strong in action and knowledge.” ( cf. http://www.chomsky.info/articles/19670223.htm ). Heidegger felt that this post-modern definition of truth provided an effective antidote to the nihilism that could undercut popular support of the prevailing ideology or established power. While Heidegger specifically used the concept of pragmatic truth to justify German National Socialism under Hitler, it has been found useful to other authoritarian regimes in modern times.
Euphemisms are used these days since the Nazi's poisoned the p-word. Phrases like “agenda journalism,” “stakeholder journalism,” and “corporate journalism” are used instead. But it all comes to the same thing: propaganda. One characteristic of our current media miasma is that those who complain most vociferously about the aforementioned activities are likely to be using it to their own advantage. This irony is an outgrowth of propagandist's success with the mythical liberal media bias that has played so well for decades.
Propaganda is one of the more brutish and unsophisticated (but nonetheless effective) components of what media scholars like Neil Postman call “media ecology.” ( http://www.media-ecology.org/media_ecology/index.html ) The intoxicating body of research that has taken place in this area over the past fifty years is beyond our scope. However, I call attention to the effect of the more nuanced forms of thought-massage like agenda setting, framing, cueing and priming. Such phenomena may be very nuanced and even accidental. But in the hands of skilled authoritarians, these tactics are far more dangerous to democratic principles than propaganda, especially when delivered by what Marshall McLuhan called “hot media.”
Columns are no place for feelgoodery. We are drowning in a sea of political hype and hubris, historical revisionism, pseudo-scientific malfeasance, psycho-babble, unreflective nationalism, and false pride all shoveled at the mass audiences to mitigate responsibility for each and every deplorable condition in world affairs. We're not that innocent! Columnists should lead the charge against attack blogs, ambush media, aggressive memes, twitter bombs, and eschew spin and focus on facts. The columnist is an antidote to false beliefs and provides checks on rampant cognitive biases.
Columns must avoid being write-only publications. If the column can't engage and connect with the targeted audience they should be abandoned. The worst columns are those that are content-free but have name recognition – “celebrity porn.” The fact that columns are not original research does not absolve them from the responsibility of refined scholarship and the synthesis of important ideas. Columns should be engagingly objective and meticulously crafted.
Columns should not be apologetic of any group or interest. We don't need any more apologists for the entrenched interests. Interlocking networks of media outlets, think tanks, ideological foundations, tax exempt groups, front groups, training institutes, pseudo scholars, lobbyists, and Political Action Committees already advance these interests. Columnists should not be polemicists, but they should also not shy away from speaking truth to power. Columns are the place for counter-narratives to flourish and mitigate mass media-induced putrefaction. We observe that this was precisely the problem during the ramp-up of the 2003 Iraq war where virtually the entire press corps remained silent on the bogus claims made in support. This general complacency made it possible to silence the few media personalities who actually did speak up, a phenomenon that I call the (Phil) “Donahue Effect” ( http://consortiumnews.com/2012/01/15/silencing-donahue-and-anti-war-voices/ ). It is also behind the myth that there's a shortage of STEM workers (Robert Charette, The STEM Crisis is a Myth, http://spectrum.ieee.org/at-work/education/the-stem-crisis-is-a-myth ).
First, columns should keep important issues alive . The mass media miasma already disfavors any discussion that might be considered an irritant to the stakeholders. It's not likely that you will see any earthshaking exposés on Amazon Web Services covered in the Washington Post. Nor, for that matter, will you see any criticisms of Fox news bias in media outlets like the Daily Caller ( http://www.politico.com/blogs/media/2015/03/mickey-kaus-quits-daily-caller-after-tucker-carlson-204135.html ). All media and publishing venues are vulnerable to such pressures, even if unwittingly and even if in service to the public or profession. But with increasing regularity media outlets in service to special interests seek to keep important issues buried. More than that, while all individuals have a burning need for cognitive closure, for some readers this becomes pathological. They are constitutionally ill-equipped to deal with ambiguity, un-clarity, and uncertainty, preferring instead order and regularity. These “cognitive closers” (aka close-minded) actually avoid any exposure to contrasting opinions. While there are many published social scientific studies on this subject, more accessible accounts may be found in recent books by Chris Mooney (The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science- and Reality, Wiley, 2012) and former Presidential counsel John Dean (Conservatives Without Conscience, Penguin reprint, 2007). Columns may be the best hope of getting an alternative viewpoint presented to an unreceptive if not hostile audience. To be purposeful these columns must not degenerate into sub-scholarly opinion journalism (e.g., editorials and op-ed pieces) for that would be self-reinforcing and counterproductive.
Demagogues and political hard liners who might be content to be driven by basal emotions like fear, anger, jealousy, revenge, etc. are not going to let fact interfere with opinion. Any column that is not ideology-reinforcing is wasted on them. On the other hand, those who are both open minded and less deferential to other people making decisions for them are likely to derive benefit from worthy columns.
A closely related requirement is iconoclasty . Most of us lead relatively active professional lives and are able to keep abreast of the issues most relevant to our work. Serious scholars look for resources not normally found in the normal course of work (most especially those from other disciplines), or thoughtful opinions that either complement or contrast with their own views. Such orthogonal input is the best source of deflection points on the otherwise basically linear evolution of ideas. Columns can cross the Wallace line of truth by breaking through shrouds of anti-science and Lysenkoism that all too often rear their ugly heads in popular science. The column should bring transparency to issues, even if they occasionally affront stakeholder interests. Distorted ideas grow in a political vacuum. Open discussion will reveal the underlying illogic and irrationality of really bad ideas.
Columns should be an abduction engine in the logician's sense of delivering the best explanation of the events of interest. Abductive inference ( http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/abduction/ ), unlike inductive and deductive inference, may be thought of as inference to the best explanations rather than probability estimates or necessary conclusions. Urbain Le Verrier used abduction in the mathematical prediction of the existence of Neptune in the 1840's: either the unobserved planet had to exist or Kepler's and Newton's laws of celestial mechanics had to be rejected. There was no other good way, much less a better one, to explain the irregularities in Uranus' orbit. The presence of Neptune was the best explanation! Science wouldn't be possible without abductive inference. Neither would diagnostic medicine. One of the most important functions of the column is to document for the reader how a position is the best explanation of the observed events. If the issues were amenable to deduction or induction, a proof rather than a column would be the appropriate medium.
These last two requirements, iconoclasty and abduction, are the technical foundation of the worthy column. Unfortunately, we live in a world where puerile opinion and sound argument are frequently given equal weight. This is the genesis of talk radio popularity, as predicted by George Orwell (1984, Signet Classic, 1950), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World & Brave New World Revisited, Harper Perennial Modern Classics reprint, 2005), and amply exposited by Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Penguin 20 th Anniv. Edition, 2005), although that fact seems itself to have fallen into an Orwellian “memory hole.” It is worth noting in this regard that Orwell defined a working vocabulary for what we now call talk shows: “newspeak,” “duckspeak,” “bellyfeel,” etc. ( http://www.orwelltoday.com/duckspeak.shtml ). One of Huxley's great insights was that the dysfunction was distributed and cultural and not simply a product of “Big Brother.” One of the columnist's most important goals is to challenge the pageantry of misinformation that goes under the fraudulent label of news these days.
Finally, columns must inevitably be contextual and that may have political implications . In fact, it is unreasonable to expect science and engineering to be apolitical. The issue has been forced on the broader scientific and scholarly community by politicians and industry. Anti-science has evolved into a lucrative cottage industry for big tobacco, big pharma, religious conservatives, and all manner of deniers who seek to distort the scholarly record to fit their own biases and agendas. We now witness the injection of illogic and unscientific method into the silliest of positions on evolution, pollution, acid rain, endangered species, diet, stem cell research, climate change, the health effects of third-hand smoke (big tobacco seems to have given up the claim that first and second-hand smoke are harmless), genetically modified food, pesticides, etc. (Chris Mooney, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future, Basic Books/First Trade, 2010; Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt, Bloomsbury Press reprint, 2011; Shawn Lawrence Otto, Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, Rodale Books, 2011). The most recent example may be Senator Ted Cruz' (R, TX) that “global warming alarmists are the equivalent of the flat-Earthers.” ( http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2015/03/25/ted-cruz-compares-climate-change-activists-to-flat-earthers-where-to-begin/ ) Cruz confirms Chris Mooney's that education does not necessarily decrease bias - on occasion it can actually increase it. Mooney calls this the “smart idiot effect”. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ANeW7U0qRKo ). Anyone who doubts this should become familiar with the social scientists' studies of cognitive biases. A brief literature review will reveal a very long list at this writing. And things are getting worse for the scientific community. As Dan Vergano reported in USA Today, former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop “testified that if he had been impeded in the same way as his successors, some of his most important work — including reports on smoking and health — ‘would never have happened.'” ( http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/tech/science/2007-08-05-science-politics_N.htm ). In today's world, a column that avoids any controversy is impotent.
Columnists who agree with my formula would benefit from independent wealth or retirement because speaking truth to power is always career threatening – as Dan Rather and Phil Donahue found out!
But columns bring rewards to their authors. First and foremost among them is the constant interaction with intelligent readers.
Columnists should understand that appreciation of conflicting points of view is an acquired taste and not likely to have universal appeal. Any column that attempts to be everything to everyone will fail miserably. The columns (and blogs) that I read are targeted for a readership with which I self-identify. Any column worthy of the name will provide information and perspectives that I wouldn't have otherwise had. And by the way, this works in two directions. I use the Out-of-Band readership as a recommender system for new publications. I can say that thus far (though I make no guarantees for the future) I have purchased every book that readers have recommended to me and I have already read most. What is more important, so far this recommender system has proven to be 100% accurate - I have yet to have a book recommended by one of you that I didn't find interesting and important! This is infinitely more efficient and satisfying than trying to interpret reviews by strangers. The only liability is that I can't read the books as fast as you can recommend them to me
I've left the most important requirement for last: a good column should make the mind smile.