The Questionable Authority

Liveblogging From London

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I’m sitting in the Faraday Theatre at the Royal Institution right now, at the Nature Network’s Science Blogging 2008 conference. There are about 100 people in the room, 90% of whom I don’t recognize at all. 90% of the people I do recognize are people I’ve met for the first time somewhere in the last two days. There’s a list of the attendees and their blogs on the conference website. I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t had the chance to read all of those blogs yet.

At the same time, it’s also great (in a way) that I don’t know who most of the people are or where they blog. If nothing else, it shows just how large the science blogging community has become. It’s going to be interesting to see what comes out of our interaction and conversations.

As the day goes by, I’m going to try to update this post with bits about who is saying what at the conference. There’s good, free wifi here, so I’ll go on at least until the battery runs out. At that point, with 100 bloggers in the room, there may be a Darwinian struggle to see who gets a power outlet.

The updates will be below the fold.

10:00: Ben Goldacre (www.badscience.net) Kenote

One of he benefits of sciencebloggins is the ability to communicate on a small scale basis, and the ability to write for an audience that is interested in science.

Too much MSM science reporting is dumbed down to the point where there’s no science content.

(I just got excited because I saw a cord coming from someone’s computer, but it’s not a power cord. It looks like Cameron Neylon might be putting together a video podcast of the event.)

1030: More from Ben

Complete and utter failure of MSM in case of Dore’s “Dyslexia Miracle Cure” contrasted with same story on blogs. Gimpy Blog, Brain Duck, and others covered everything well. Gimpy broke news of company going broke. Brain Duck did a “full-on motherfuck journal club takedown” of the company’s claims.

Shows importance of blogs for rapid takedown. Antivaxers every claim, anywhere, is pounced on by an “army of nerds” immediately. Blogs as network, with interlinks, are very strong in this regard.

Finally:

Need more people to facilitate communication from scientists to the public in their own words. We need more editors, not writers. Blogs can and do do this well.

Panel discussion: The scientific life, exposed

Jenny Rohn, Grrl Scientist, Anna Kushnir. Moderated by Mo Costandi.

Grrl: Blogs show scientists as human beings.

Jennifer: It’s important to show science, warts and all. Most people haven’t met a scientist. They should see people as humans.

Mo: What’s wrong with the way scientists talk to each other?

Anna: Nobody else – including scientists in other fields – can understand. Jargon is a barrier.

Grrl: Jargon is necessary, but can push people away.

Anna: Blogging is a way we can support and relate to each other – support from people not in the same boat.

Jennifer: Yes, but can be hard if not anonymous.

(I’ve got more battery than Henry. He’s turning green with envy in the row behind me right now.)

11:00 Questions for panel.

Difference between blog and forum?

Grrl: Blog as journal club example. More directed communication.

Jennifer: No big difference if commenting is available on a blog. Slightly different community.

Anna: Blog is a personal space, with a backstory. Readers know your tone and where you’re coming from.

(Big group LOL as keynote speaker is revealed as not having turned off cell phone ringer.)

How do you view your audience?

Grrl: General public – can use background to tell story of science.

Jennifer: General public

Anna: Both scientists and public.

Talk about anonymity?

Jennifer: I like non-anonymous blogging, but don’t refer to colleagues by name. Nature Network is very friendly. Has heard that we have occasional flamewars here.

Grrl: I am anonymous. Started that way because I was told blogging a career-ender and not serious about science. Not sure anonymity allows people to say things they wouldn’t say under their own name. Introduces some in audience to term “sock puppet”.

Anna: Internet, not necessarily anonymity, allows people to say things they wouldn’t.

(In classic internet moment, Henry and I are exchanging comments on this post while sitting about 12 inches apart.)

Is there intrinsic value to exposing scientific life to public?

Jennifer: Public under impression that facts are facts, shocked that there’s debate and division and grey areas. Imparting that to public is valuable. Scientists debating makes people nervous, need to convince that this is normal.

Grrl: Blog shows evolution of scientific thought. Behind the scenes, and the way we bump into walls as part of the scientific process, very valuable.

Handling hostile commenters:

Grrl: Ignore. Rarely attack back. Let readers take care of it.

Jennifer: Animal behavior approach. Ignoring it is best way to handle it.

Ben (from peanut gallery): Benefits of people in comments as accidental example of why you are right.

Anna: Is saying something that sounds really intelligent, but I missed most of it while I was blogging the question.

Perception/Support from boss and institution?

Jennifer:
Boss reads and likes blog. Head of department has no clue (probably). Don’t know about funder. Stopped worrying about it.

Anna: No worry, surrounded by people who don’t read blogs at all. Nobody knew I was blogging.

Grrl: Unemployed, but blog helping as positive influence on me and because other scientists like blog.

Is exposing scientific life more willing to attract young people to science or chase them away.

Jennifer: Too many scientists. But can work to help bring people in.

Grrl: Way too many scientists. Bad situation. Not responsible to encourage kids to go into science, but irresponsible not to show them importance of science.

Anna: No pressing need for more scientists, but do need to replace ourselves at some point. Blogging can show people that science is something that you can do.

(Got to run and find power during break.)

12:00: Breakout 1: There’s a giraffe on my unicycle: Can blogging unlock your creativity?

Henry Gee, Brian Clegg, Clare Dudman.

(Yes. I’ve got power. I’m in a massively uncomfortable seat, and can’t see the screen worth a damn, but the battery is slowly charging.)

Clare: Theory of creativity.

Poincare and ideas. Ideas liked “hooked atoms”. Preparation lets the ideas fly. Impasse happens when bad links made – take a break. “Atoms” keep flying around and connecting. If lucky, right connection is made. Insight moment. Best ideas can come from linking widely different places – Wegener’s look at icebergs leading to ideas on continental drift.

Mark Jung-Beeman (Northern Illinois) linking experimentation to Poincare. How problems solved? Trial and error or insight/illumination? Half of subjects use each. FMRI, etc. Both sides of brain necessary.

Brian Clegg: We don’t have too many scientists, we have too many biologists. We need more physicists.

People don’t usually think of scientists as involved in a creative process.

Exercise: Jot down in 30 sec list of as many things that you can’t do with a coat hanger.

Make tea.

Tie your shoes.

Take a picture.

Fix a flat tire.

Prepare a talk on creativity.

Others:

Travel back in time

Remove anthrax from a federal building

Drink it.

Move a desert.

Make sense of Henry.

Impregnate a swan.

Nit picking over phrasing of the question – you can do most of the things on the list while holding a coat hanger. Yes, he meant using a coat hanger to do the things.

Can drink a coat hanger. Melt it, drink it. You die, but you did it.

Think about assumptions about coat hanger – how does picture of coat hanger in brain limit thinking. How does getting rid of assumptions change things.

Richard gets prize for coming up with “Make sense of Henry.” Can’t do impossible, even with coat hanger.

Clare:

Effect of multiculturalism in helping people see past unseen assumptions. Blogs as platform for broadening perspectives. Disability, different specialists, especially from outside science. Blogging about research promotes interaction, helps reinforce science as a community effort. Benefits of writing in character – “Dr. Grump”‘ perspective. Importance of play. Importance of competitions, dumb questions, and picture posts. Jokes and humor help.

(Along those lines, I just posted a picture quiz game on Pandas Thumb. And someone’s phone is ringing. It’s in one of the speakers’ bags. We may be developing a theme here. )

1230:

Henry: Blogging in an exercise in surrealism. Is a touch of Asperger’s necessary for science? Thinking in ways where you can put things together in new ways. “No unicycling giraffes beyond this point.”

Audience – we don’t know who we’re writing for until we find out.

Questions:

Jennifer: Does depression inhibit creativity. I think yes. So does Clare. Tests with non-depressed people indicate that happiness/humor can help creativity. No studies (probably) with clinically depressed subjects.

Is blogging more than a format?

Most creative post?

Henry: Unicycle.

Brian: Don’t think of myself as particularly creative when blogging.

Clare: Several odd questions posts – lots of interesting replies.

Richard: 1 am ideas can be eureka moments, but often complete crap.

How can we be creative where we are?

Heather: Creative in a vacuum? Is there blogging w/o comments.

Henry: Did blogging type paper columns.

Me: Can assumptions about what science blogging should be hurt us?

Brian: Yes. Sometimes it takes input from the outside, and stupid questions are needed to spark discovery.

Also, the more you do creative things, the better you get at it.

Henry: Getting into what you do is hard to do it from the beginning.

Lunch

There are three breakout sessions this afternoon. The one that Simon Frantz and I proposed (which stemmed from a conversation started at a point during the pub crawl when we were confidently solving global problems) was selected, so we spend most of lunch figuring out what we’re actually going to say and do. We’ll be talking in the Faraday Theatre in a little bit.

I’m sweating a bit.

1:45: Breakout 5: Science blogs and online forums as teaching tools

Martin Fenner, Oliver Obst, Jeff Marlow.

Jeff: Recognize both the benefits and barriers to blogging, Don’t be afraid to assign blogging.

Challenges:

Teaching students – and figuring out – when online is a legitimate source.

Good and bad examples;

Bad: Mandatory course “communities”

Good: Expedition blogs. Phoenix mission blogs one example

Questions: How do you get scientists to engage with students on blogs.

Jeff: Sell as an outreach activity. Every lab should have a blog. Update websites.

Oliver: Central Medical Library Munster.

Information cascade approach.

Weblog updated daily (podcast and rss also)

Weekly newsletter summarizes blogs

Print format journal format on 3 month basis

Knowledge Wiki

Teaching use:

Micro instructions from FAQ, but works better in Wiki Format.

Education cascade:

Questions and answers addressed ad hoc

Microinstruction on blog and wiki

Library Instruction Courses.

By the way, The Friendfeed room for the conference has some nice stuff.

Martin: Forum as journal club.

Benefits sort of obvious, I think.

More could be done, tools needed.

Better bookmarking integration,

more full text annotation.

Student participation:

If actual value added

If class credit given.

We’re off to a break after this, and I won’t be blogging the next session, as I’m running it. Hopefully someone in the Friendfeed room will put something up. I’ve got to learn how to use friendfeed (sadly, the session on that ran against one I wanted to go to more).

I’m back, and in the final session.

I talked more than I’d have liked at my own session, and if you want to know what I’ve said you’ll have to check friendfeed.

I think I’m going to wrap this up, though. It’s getting hard to both blog the talk and pay attention to it.

Comments

  1. #1 Henry
    August 30, 2008

    Hi Mike! I can see your blog from here.

  2. #2 Mike Dunford
    August 30, 2008

    Stop reading over my shoulder.

  3. #3 Coturnix
    August 30, 2008

    Say Hi to Henry!

  4. #4 Ginger Yellow
    August 30, 2008

    So, are you going to be taking a break from the Nature networking on Sunday? I’d be up for a pint if you are.

  5. #5 Lisa
    August 31, 2008

    Thanks for that- I didn’t get along to the Education breakout session and am glad I can get an overview of what went on. I’m on the lookout for some good science education blogs so please let me know if you know of any!

  6. #6 McDawg
    September 1, 2008

    Hey, as nice to meet you Mike. At one stage, I was sitting a couple of rows back from you and saw you in the process of writing the above. I much enjoyed your session and no, you didn’t talk too much.

  7. #7 iddaa
    September 2, 2008

    Say Hi to Henry!

  8. #8 nick
    September 3, 2008

    Support science blog.

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