11 March 2010

Science Bloggers Discussing Scientists Discussing Science Blogs

Bora Zivkovic wrote a post this week about an article in the Journal of Science Communication that suggested that science blogs may not be doing enough to engage non-scientists in discussions about science. (Or something like that. I'm not a scientist.) Bora questioned the methodology. But he also said something that seemed rather obvious to me:
Most bloggers write for their own amusement and not with a specific goal of popularization of science, and, after a while, tend to adapt to what their audience actually is. Thus, a knowledgeable audience will result in further posts being written at their level of interest and understanding.
Similar sentiments -and more - came from Sean Carroll, Richard Hoppe, and PZ Myers. I liked this - Bora linked to it - from Science Kitchen :
Different blogs serve different purposes, but one common justification for science blogging is that it can serve as a way for scientists to speak directly with the public, as a tool for engaging non-scientists, keeping them up to date with current discoveries and promoting the enormous value of research.

A recent study in the Journal of Science Communication, however, points out that science blogs are failing to provide this useful service (link found via A.J. Cann, thanks)

Is this really a failure or is it an unrealistic expectation?

I think it's an undeserved knock. To me, criticizing science bloggers for not being accommodating enough toward non-scientists on their blogs is a bit like turning down a dish of homemade apple pie because it didn't come with ice cream. Sure, I'd like the added bonus of someone stopping the discussion and explaining quantum physics to me, but let's just agree I'm not going to get it and move on.

Scientists deserve their own online community like any other group of people with similar interests. The science blogging community is large and diverse. It has its ups and downs, its rivalries, its own jargon, and so on. It's like any other community. There shouldn't be a need to defend the practice of discussing issues and ideas within one's own community.

But here's the thing: a lot of scientists and science bloggers - I'm sure even some of those I linked to above - want people outside the science community to see the value in their work and their writing. Not all of them, of course - but many do, and there's real societal value in that. It's important for people to understand why, say, molecular biology matters. People should understand there's more to paleontology than dinosaur bones. (though, let's face it, dinosaur bones are kind of cool.) The best possible people to make this case are the people who do it.

More importantly, I think all these science bloggers are implicitly acknowledging we can't expect other people to learn about the importance of science by reading their blogs.

If scientists want other people to understand the importance of science, they need to go to them and talk with them wherever they are. And when that doesn't work, they need to go to them again. And again. And again. Never stop trying.

Social media tools give scientists a direct line of communication with other people. Science bloggers don't need to change anything about their blogs, because that's not what they're for anyway. What's needed is a new dialogue, in a new place.

This can be done, people.


Psi Wavefunction said...

This is an interesting question -- I do agree that there are several niches for science blogging, and we don't necessarily have to write for the public. You need specialist blogs to host informal discussions within a field (without the lag and hassle of using formal media); you need blogs directed at nearby fields, such as a molecular biologist writing for biologists in general; and you need blogs targetted at the public, of course, and even there we have several types of audiences. I doubt one blog can take care of all of the above, or even several points simultaneously.

Curiously, it's the last genre that's the most difficult to write for -- explaining your fields of interest to the general public in a captivating manner while sacrificing as little as possible of the factual correctness. It is seriously hard to do that especially when your terminology becomes so limited, and you're trying to carefully convey specific concepts in common words.

I initially intended to aim my blog at the general public, thinking that it would be most appropriate for me as a lowly undergrad. However, for some reason most of my readers are biologists, and most far more educated than I am. So I have to adjust my writing style accordingly, so I don't oversimplify things. Of course, this makes the blog even less accessible to the general public, and I'm at a loss of what to do there. Mixing writing styles/posts of varying depths is also kind of awkward, since one generally expects a single style from a place, not a hodgepodge of poorly related posts. And running two blogs seems counterproductive, especially given the time restrictions most of us have due to those annoying "real life" obligations ;-)

Another issue with science blogging for the public is with popularity -- specialists of related fields are more likely to browse and respond to obscure blogs related to their subject; laypeople have a much wider selection to choose from, so your fledgeling blog is unlikely to attract much attention in that area. That is, popular science writing requires a much more sophisticated and aggresive advertising scheme than academic writing. You have to actively pursue your audience, and we're not very good at that -- it's a very different world from the one we work in.

Thus, there seems to be three main issues:
- targetting the right audience and inability to target several audiences with one site
- time constraints on the author (blogging doesn't pay our rent&food!)
- advertising/getting noticed becomes a much bigger problem outside academic circles.

I guess websites would be a better medium for the very basic material; and we are working on such a project for our field, although given the limited time of everyone involved, this may take A WHILE, even by academic standards... so perhaps, introduce the subject by a more static website, and then pursue further interesting developments via science blogging?

Sorry for long comment, but public outreach of science (and the rest of academia) is a worrisome topic these days!

Eric said...

More than one blog seems best to me. That would allow a writer to create articles for other members of their field, as well as communicate with the public. Psi Wavefunction mentioned that this can take up a lot of time, but there's no reason why a scientist has to make twice as many posts. Just update each blog half as often.