Posted By Caulimovirus on July 23, 2009
“An Outtake From ‘Canadian Lunch‘”
.: During our chat in his office, Larry Moran mentioned a science conference he attended that had more Web 2.0 zealots than he cared for. He asked me what I thought blogging could offer science,
poisoning the well biasing the question prefacing the question with his own negative thoughts on the matter. I’m not well versed in this, but I’m largely in agreement with him. As much as I love reading science blogs and following the arcane imbroglios that frequently crop up in them, I don’t see them as anything revolutionary, especially with regard to that contentiously hot topic of “science outreach”.
.: The main benefit of science blogging, in my opinion, is not to the lay public; instead, it’s to the science bloggers themselves. In my (sadly abandoned) blog The Weekly Virus, I learned a great deal from every post I researched and wrote. A couple of people took interest in my posts, but the blog really wasn’t for them. Another good example of selfish benefit is my post on Dembski’s visit to Baylor, which helped score me a letter of recommendation from a professor who, unaware to me at the time, read my blog (Hi Dick!).
.: As Larry remarked, when he’s sitting at the lunch table with his colleagues, they’re not talking about accommodationism (or whatever this week’s popular flavor on science blogs is); they’re more interested in which concentrations work best for which reactions. You know, boring old science, not the stuff that makes for exciting blogging. The firestorms of disagreement that occur in the science blogosphere are, let’s face it, mostly inconsequential to everyone who’s not involved. There is simply no way I can introduce the highly specific tiffs between PZ Myers and Chris Mooney to someone who isn’t already keen to that area and maintain their interest for very long. I can’t imagine describing the situation to someone like my mom — no intellectual lightweight she — without the scenario ending with a bored and bemused expression on her face. Nor, for that matter, do I see many of my science peers engaged in science blogging. By and large, most don’t care. They want to pass their tests, not read about who’s really to blame for dismal science education.
.: The topic then shifted to “pure” science blogging compared to the more popular mixed bags we so often see. Larry gave the example of T. Ryan Gregory over at Genomicron as someone who started out adamantly refusing to adulterate his “pure” science blog with non-science posts. That didn’t last. Of course, the most popular science blog is anything but pure. It seems obvious – though I haven’t crunched the numbers – that the popular science blogs aren’t restricted to science. This is not to denigrate the value of those blogs who heroically maintain science purity. One of my daily reads, Ed Yong’s Not Exactly Rocket Science, offers interesting stories from science and is consistently written in a responsible, accurate, and accessible style. To me, his posts are the model of what science writing should be, and yet he nets at most a dozen comments per post — far fewer than PZ, Phil Plait, or Ed Brayton. What gives? If a science blogger of Yong’s quality is unable to achieve the same stature as those three (one of whom is more prone to write about Sotomayor than science), then maybe that helps us answer our original question: what does blogging have to offer science? I’d say not much.
.: Spell the question a different way, though, and my answer changes: what does blogging have to offer to scientists? Quite a bit! Scientists aren’t used to having a voice, and blogging gives them that opportunity more so than any other tool. How many news reports include the phrase “according to scientists…” or “scientists say…” or, when they don’t even feel like nominally acknowledging their existence, “research shows…”? Wouldn’t it be nice to see what scientists are really saying without the filter?
.: Whatever benefits the readers of science blogs receive, I’d argue, are secondary to the benefit of having more and more scientists speak out. And scientists should talk about more than science. If we’re operating under the assumption that scientists are people who are trained to reason about and evaluate claims with regard to the available evidence, then those are precisely the people who need to be talking – about whatever: science, politics, laws, religion, values. There’s enough honest disagreement within the group that it won’t become a monolithic force hell bent on assimilating all those who profess to differ. At the same time, dishonest disagreement and arguments in bad faith will not be so readily countenanced (I’m looking at you, denialists).
.: So what of those oft-derided non-scientists who choose to write about science, the dread science writers? It seems that my desire for scientists to speak without a filter demands a de-emphasis of the science writer’s role. And, well, kinda. But I still see a place for the responsible science writer, even if their goal (greater science outreach) and their medium of choice (blogging) perhaps aren’t as fruitful in combination as we’d like. For my flight back to New Jersey, I picked up a copy of Carl Zimmer’s Microcosm. It was good — great, even. The man knows how to write about science without sacrificing the essential components that make science different from other topics. This is a book I could give to a non-scientist friend to help them better see the world as a scientist sees it. I can think of no higher compliment for a science writer.
.: In fact, the Ed Yongs and the Carl Zimmers are just as important as the scientist who blogs about non-science topics. Only, in this case, the question of what blogging has to offer science is not answered with the overzealous glee exuded by the “OMG Web 2.0 revolution!” crowd; rather, I see the “pure” science blogs of professional science writers as a natural extension of science journalism – only with instantaneous letters to the editor and hyperlinks. If anything, the major innovation science blogging brings that traditional media lacks is the opportunity for immediate policing by others. Nothing is fundamentally different from before – just faster. Now we just need to see more policing, and everything will be hunky dory.