Adventures in Ethics and Science

All the cool kids were doing this particular round of navel-gazing yesterday and the day before, while I was either dreadfully ill and out of commission or somewhat better and working. (Today was also quite full of work stuff.) However, it’s not an unimportant set of questions, and possibly you’re curious about the answers, so let’s give it a go:

1. Why do you consider this blog a science blog?


You know, initially I’m not sure I would have claimed that designation. This started as a blog about what’s involved in being a responsible scientist — so to that extent, the activity of science has always been a significant part of my subject matter. That’s a different kind of thing from blogging about the results of a scientific experiment or study, and I understand that such results might be what a lot of people would expect to find in a piece of writing that’s about science.

Still, you don’t get the results without the activity. Why do we attach the “science content” label to one but not the other?

2. So if you yourself wouldn’t necessarily call your blog a blog about science content, why are you blogging at ScienceBlogs?

They asked me to — before the project was anything but an idea. I was intrigued, and I couldn’t see a downside. (I will admit, though, to a moment of panic when I faxed in my signed contract with my Social Security number. Maybe it was some elaborate scam…)

There were 14 blogs at that point, and at least a few of them were written by folks who weren’t writing as working scientists. So I figured that the virtual conversation about science was always intended to include a wider swath of voices than just scientists blogging about peer reviewed research or lecture content.

3. Why do so many bloggers at ScienceBlogs write about stuff besides science?

We’re allowed to write about whatever we want to on our blogs. Most of us wrote about a number of different things when we joined up, and we’ve been allowed to keep going in that direction or to let our focus change as part of our development as bloggers.

If something we wrote was so abhorrent to our corporate overlords at Seed Media Group that they could not abide more of it on their server, they could show us the door. But I haven’t felt constrained by the possibility of being booted. There are more constraints on me by virtue of the fact that I’m writing a blog I’d like my students to be able to read (and that my mom is a regular reader and will email if I blog too blue).

4. You get paid to blog? Does that mean that you make all your blogging decisions on the basis of what will drive traffic?

I get paid a little. The pay is based on traffic. But I’m not going to stop writing about the stuff I care about just to attract more readers.

I quite like the readers I have. They leave smart, insightful, witty comments and questions. I don’t want their voices to get drowned out.

On an hourly rate, I think I made more babysitting than I do blogging. When I was 14. For two bucks an hour.

I don’t do it for the money, but because working my thoughts out here, with the kind of fast feedback I get, makes them better.

5. Do the bloggers at ScienceBlogs think they’re better than all the other people who blog about science? Do they think their traffic or incoming links make them the best?

With 71 blogs on ScienceBlogs right now, I suppose some of the bloggers might think that way, but my best guess is that it’s a minority view. I know that there are many excellent science blogs that are not at science blogs (including, but not limited to, the ones in my blogroll). Some are wildly popular, some small but still wonderful.

Of course, I’m pretty suspicious of the idea that measures like traffic, or who hired you, or how much you’re being paid are objective indicators of merit. Far from thinking I’m one of the best, I think I’m extraordinarily lucky to have been noticed in the first place.

6. Why so many blogs about biology at ScienceBlogs? Why aren’t there more blogs about chemistry, or astronomy, or lepidoptery, or gastroenterology, or …?

The folks who decide what blogs to invite to try to achieve a measure of diversity in terms of the scientific fields people are blogging about here, but they’re drawing from a larger pool that’s really heavy on biosciences. Also, not every great blog that is out there wants to be part of ScienceBlogs. (Invites to join have been declined.) It’s also the case that a diversity of blogging “voices” is valued here — which is to say, many people who are in the same field have radically different blogging styles.

7. Why don’t ScienceBlogs bloggers ever link to blogs outside ScienceBlogs.

We do. But if there’s something good going on your blog (or a blog you read) that you think deserves more attention, email a link.

It does seem like there’s a lot of ScienceBlogs intra-linkage, but a lot of the people who I link to here are people I used to link to before they were a part of ScienceBlogs. I’m not going to stop reading them just because they joined the network!

It’s a big blogosphere. No one can read it all (especially in light of the need not to get fired from our day jobs), but we can surely help each other not to miss the nuggets of brilliance we’ve stumbled upon.

8. Are all the ScienceBlogs bloggers BFFs?

Some of us have met in real life, others online, and still others not even online. Some of us have become very close friends, and others … not so much.

Have I mentioned that there are currently 71 blogs on ScienceBlogs? Many of them are written by teams of bloggers, too. That’s enough people that there would be little chance of avoiding some interpersonal friction (or worse) — just like in real life.

It’s true that, sharing an involvement in the ScienceBlogs experiment, we have some things in common. It’s not totally different from going to math camp together, or being war buddies, or being the children of the same set of parents.

It doesn’t mean we don’t have lots of important things in common with other people blogging about science (or blogging about other things, or communicating about science in other media). We do — and we’re just as much BFFs with some of those other people in our lives, too.

Any other questions? Ask them.

Comments

  1. #1 John Lynch
    February 29, 2008

    Some of us have met in real life, others online, and still others not even online. Some of us have become very close friends, and others … not so much.

    I laughed.

  2. #2 DrugMonkey
    February 29, 2008

    see, now according to your interview on A Blog Around the Clock, maybe this all got out of hand because you were AWOL….

    nevermind you mom, how about the Sprogs? Do they read the blog? Will they ask you to take down old SprogBlogging once they reach the dating age?

  3. #3 sharon
    February 29, 2008

    There is a tendency that seems to afflict some readers of science blogs: the expectation that a ‘science blog’ should be narrowly devoted to science and research, and none of that personal or political stuff. A while back, I remember reading someone’s reviews of several Sb blogs in which complaints about non-science content figured prominently (Janet was criticised for writing too much about her kids, for example). It comes up regularly at Cosmic Variance as well. Yet I don’t see the same kind of attitude in my history and literary blogging haunts.

  4. #4 Matt Penfold
    February 29, 2008

    Janet,

    I would consider your blog to be a scienceblog because a lot of what you blog about impinges on science. The author of the original posts at BaBlab, and another of the owners of that blog, seem to think that those who blog at ScienceBlogs should be scientists blogging about scientific research. My understanding of what ScienceBlogs is about is that it is intended to be a conversation about science, yes, but also about how science and other spheres interact.

    In your case your emphasis on ethical considerations in science is important, especially at a time when genetic research is offering the possibility of treatments that could not be imagined even a few years ago and when scientists involved in such research increasingly have a financial interest in a positive result from that research.

    With regards the accusation that ScienceBlogs is rather incestuous, one aim of those who run ScienceBlogs is to attract the best science bloggers around to join. Not all do agree to join of course, but a fair number do. Given that the best science blogs are likely to be linked to more often then it is hardly surprising if ScienceBloggers do tend to link to each other. Of course the criticism ignores the fact that many bloggers here also like to encourage other bloggers and go out of their way to link to them, and point people towards a blogger they like regardless of where they are.

    I would like to ask one question. As an ethicist do you have any concerns with the way BaBlab went about all this ?

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    February 29, 2008

    What’s a BFF?

  6. #6 Abel Pharmboy
    February 29, 2008

    Ill, or just partying too much for your birthday?

    But seriously, thank you for writing in your inimitable and well-measured Stemwedelian manner your answers to the many questions out there about this ScienceBlogs experiment. I was honored to be a member of your tribe before Sb even existed.

    I also echo your point to readers: if there are any blogs or posts out there that I should know about in chemistry, herbal medicines, natural products, dietary supplements, or cancer pharmacology, please fire me an e-mail or comment.

  7. #7 bsci
    February 29, 2008

    Question #2 got me thinking about one of my biggest complaints about this network. While many bloggers talk about their expertise and interests beyond SCIENCE (TM), there is a subset who do talk about topics where they don’t have expertise.

    Some of these bloggers are news article link dumpers, but they often promote low quality science and try to hype the meaning. I usually read this site through the “last 24hours” feature, but there’s at least one blog I avoid because I got sick of the number of times I had to correct this non-scientists’ science. It does bother me that scienceblogs gives people a larger platform more on the quality of writing and following rather than the accuracy of content. (These are the exceptions, but with such a small network, it could probably be zero)

  8. #8 J-Dog
    February 29, 2008

    All I know, is that I MUST HAVE SPROG BLOGS!!!

    BTW – Your Friday Sprog Blogs SHOULD be in a book. Do this soon, at least in time for XMas.

    I think that most of the SciBlog readers like to have the option of reading the Science, but also the real-life non-sciencey stuff too, or at least seeing how the two impact on each other.

    My $.02 and worth every penny.

  9. #9 Laelaps
    February 29, 2008

    I can only echo what Abel & others have said above; thanks for writing this. In fact, I liked it so much that I felt compelled to steal it…

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    February 29, 2008

    Hey, stealing it was MY idea!!!!

  11. #11 Zuska
    February 29, 2008

    And why should talking to children about science not qualify as appropriate content for a science blog? Wanting to limit the science conversation to ONLY scientists talking ONLY about peer-reviewed research is itself elitist.

    Janet, your post rocks.

  12. #12 matt
    March 2, 2008

    Damn right, Zuska. Although I most often get exercised by ignorant/fundamentalist commenters, there’s also an exasperating subset who do the “I’m never coming here again because this isn’t SCIENCE” schtick. What do they imagine science to be? Something entirely separate from human existence?

    Bollocks to that.

    Science is a fundamental part of sentient life, it’s just curiosity with a bit of discipline. We hunger to understand stuff, where “stuff” includes any number of things that are not “scientific” in the most autistic definition. We value the intellect, and can’t help but apply that to other aspects of life than just the minutiæ of our current experiments. Hell, has there ever been a lab in which a day passed without conversations ranging beyond the raw matters at hand? I cannot believe so.

    The notion that there is some abstract domain of science that is betrayed by venturing into the realms of culture or politics is blinkered hogwash of the most imbecilic kind. Any person arguing that is an automaton and should get a clue. (Take two, they’re small.)