BUDDIE Winner Rejects Alternative Facts
by Mick O'Leary
In 2017, a new phrase—alternative facts—abruptly entered the nation’s political vocabulary. It was a clever way to validate lies (which we meekly continue to refer to as “untruths,” “fake news,” or “disinformation”). The original alternative fact, referring to the size of an inauguration crowd, was widely ridiculed. In retrospect, it seems mild, and even quaint, when compared to today’s far more dangerous alternative facts. Alternative facts about COVID vaccines have led to unnecessary harm and death for millions. Untruths about past election results imperil U.S. political stability. Fake news about climate change endures in the face of worldwide weather disasters.
This Year's BUDDIE Winner
The BUDDIE winner is Knowable Magazine (knowablemagazine.org), which draws upon content from Annual Reviews and other scientific journals to produce a general audience publication that covers the practical issues and applications of scientific research.
A little-known database defiantly resists this virulent surge of alternative facts. It is produced by one of the world’s great purveyors of “non-alternative facts”—i.e., “truths”—and yet, its modest public presence makes it fitting for this year’s BUDDIE award.
BUDDIE WINNER PROMOTES ‘NON-ALTERNATIVE FACTS’
The BUDDIE award, for the Best Unknown Database, is bestowed annually by the Database Review. There are three criteria: It must be of interest and value to a wide swath of serious information consumers; it must be thoughtfully designed and meticulously maintained; and it must be unknown or, at least, far less well-known than its merit deserves. And now, the envelope, please! Do not look ahead! The envelope is being slowly opened, and its contents are being slowly read. ... The BUDDIE winner is: Knowable Magazine!
Knowable Magazine reports on the most recent, accurate, and important information from the world’s broad scientific community. It’s an armory in the multi-front war against alternative facts, both for policymakers and average citizens. (If you think that this war is fought only by intellectual elites, please consider the COVID anti-vax movement and the Stop the Steal insurrection. In each, large numbers of wrongly informed average citizens are wreaking widespread havoc.)
A NEW MISSION
Knowable Magazine is produced by Annual Reviews, one of the world’s most important science publishers. The first Annual Review was published in 1932 by a biochemist who found it impossible to keep up with the scientific literature in his field. The idea took off, and now there are 52 Annual Reviews. The majority cover the physical and biological sciences, but the social sciences are well-represented, with Annual Reviews for Psychology, Economics, Sociology, Anthropology, and others.
An Annual Review is a technical publication written for a small readership of researchers and academics. In 2017, the publisher decided to extend its mission to a much larger audience of general readers. Knowable Magazine was launched as a site that “explores the real-world significance of scholarly work through a journalistic lens.”
Knowable Magazine doesn’t just rewrite Annual Reviews for lay audiences. It is a standalone digital publication with its own staff. Its content is created not by Annual Review authors, but instead by an independent corps of highly qualified science journalists, who are skilled at understanding technical research and then interpreting it for general readers. The magazine’s editorial process seeks not only to present new research to the general public, but also to explain how it affects—in the most practical and important ways—their daily lives.
The Knowable Magazine site has hundreds of articles and other content types, dating to October 2017. About 10 new items are added monthly. Its content is covered by a Creative Commons BY-ND copyright license, which allows extensive free usage. This includes, for a short time, Annual Reviews articles that are cited. Knowable Magazine has no subscription costs or other fees, and it receives support from foundation donors.
A COVID CASE STUDY
A good way to understand Knowable Magazine’s system is with a case study showing how it tracks a single subject: the pandemic. As of November 2021, Knowable Magazine had published 107 articles about COVID and its effects. The first appeared on March 20, 2020, when the full import of the disease was becoming widely apparent and the first large-scale shutdowns occurred. The article describes the virus, its actions, and the prospects for a vaccine. Knowable Magazine has continued giving heavy attention to the subject, following two separate tracks: one that reports on scientific and medical developments and another that delves into societal aspects.
In the first track, articles cover effects on children and the elderly, the “Cytokine Storm,” the race to develop vaccines, “long haulers,” emerging COVID variants, etc. In the second track, they investigate the work-from-home movement, COVID and race, effects on the healthcare system, how American individualism shapes COVID responses, psychological aspects, and other economic, political, and social outcomes.
Knowable Magazine has several other content collections. These are much smaller than the main articles collection, typically with 1 or 2 dozen items each. These collections cover the same range of subjects as the articles. Each also addresses COVID in its own distinctive format:
- Events—hour-long discussions among researchers and practitioners
- Videos—10-minute segments
- Opinion—opinion pieces from expert commentators
- Explained—short primers providing basic introductions
- Q&A—interviews with Annual Reviews authors
- Comics—more seriously known as “graphic nonfiction”
SCIENCE WRITING AT ITS BEST
Knowable Magazine articles are models of science journalism. They strike a fine balance, presenting the science at a level that informs, but does not overwhelm, the general reader. They are amply enhanced with photos, charts, and graphics. Articles are based on deep research from Annual Reviews articles and other scientific literature. Links to these sources are included, as well as references to other relevant Knowable Magazine articles.
Articles are classified into seven broad topics—Health & Disease, Society, Food & Environment, etc.—and are also assigned tags, which refer to specific disciplines. There is a basic keyword search; results can be sorted by topic, collection, tag, and author. Articles average 2,500–5,000 words.
THE BUDDIE IRONY
The intent of the BUDDIE award is to draw attention to high-quality databases that are known only to a very small number of the people who would find them valuable and interesting. The irony is that—even with the imprimatur of the BUDDIE award!—they are likely to remain underused and underappreciated. For some databases, this overlooked status may be unfortunate, but in the case of Knowable Magazine, it can be dangerous and tragic.
Knowable Magazine ’s wide-ranging coverage of COVID is a good example. In the U.S. alone, millions of people act on the basis of inaccurate COVID information when they avoid vaccines and masks or ingest poisonous “remedies.” These actions, driven by alternative facts, gravely harm not only themselves, but also their families, schools, workplaces, and communities. Would people have avoided or reversed poor COVID decisions if they had read Knowable Magazine’s coverage? It’s hard to say. Nevertheless, those who follow sound, knowledge-based COVID practices fare far better than those who don’t.
Knowable Magazine ’s subtitle could be “The Practical Value of Good Information” because it covers a host of topics for which choices have consequences—and its content will lead to the right ones. We can hope for a time when Knowable Magazine is no longer eligible for a BUDDIE.