As usual, I’m late to this particular party. Over at BayBlab, a blogger calling himself “Anonymous Coward” offers up some choice words for the all-powerful, all-consuming, resistance-is-futile ScienceBlogs combine:
If you examine the elephant in the room, ScienceBlogs, the trend is maintained: politics, religion books, technology, education and music are tagged more often than biology or genetics. This suggests that their primary motives are entertainment rather than discussing science. Why? Because it pays. Seed Magazine and the bloggers themselves profit from the traffic. That’s right, Seed actually pays these bloggers for their posts. And the whole ScienceBlogs thing is a little incestuous, they really like linking to each other, but not so much to the little blogs. I’m afraid gone is the amateur blogger, and in is the professional gonzo science journalist. Might as well read Seed magazine.
I’m afraid this is mostly nonsense. More on that in a moment.
Many of my fellow Science Bloggers have already replied to the BayBlab post. I especially liked Janet Stemwedel’s response here. I agree with everything she says. Nonetheless, since I am one of those bloggers who frequently writes about politics and religion, permit me a few words of my own.
BayBlab suggests a rather stringent standard for what constitutes a science blog:
Of those only Cognitive daily is consistantly talking about peer-reviewed research. Why is that? Perhaps there is less appeal in discussing recent papers than bashing creationists.
Now, I almost never write about peer-reviewed research at this blog. The reason is simple. The sort of peer-reviewed research with which I am most familiar typically involves certain obscure questions in algebraic graph theory, and I just don’t think that makes for very interesting blog fodder. To be honest, I typically don’t read such posts when they appear at other blogs. Not because I object to them for some reason, but simply because I find such reading a bit too taxing to be enjoyable. For me blog reading is a break from the more technical reading I do as part of my daily routine.
That leads to my next point. In my view, a science blog is simply a blog the majority of whose posts relate to science in some way. Bashing creationists or discussing the relationship of science to religion certainly qualify. Seed‘s slogan, after all, is “Science is Culture.” Focusing solely on peer-reviewed research is far too narrow.
We turn now to some of BayBlab’s flashier points. Apparently a desire to write about things like politics and religion indicates that it is entertainment, and not a discussion to discuss science, that is my primary motivation. It’s the corrupting influence of all that money Seed sends me, apparently.
It is certainly true that the posts about creationists and religion are very popular. Posts on those topics typically attract far more comments than posts on more sedate topics. But that is not why I write them.
I was blogging for close to two years before making the jump to ScienceBlogs. The primary reason, then as now, was therapeutic. I find that when I read something to which I have a strong reaction, it is difficult for me to concentrate until I write things down somewhere. Otherwise I just mutter to myself about all the insipid things I just read, and start staging a little debate in my head. Writing it down is like unloading all that pent up vexation, thereby allowing me to move on to other things.
Blogging, after all, is a bit like acting. If you go into it hoping for fame and glory you are almost certainly going to be disappointed. For my first year of blogging it almost never happened that I received more than 100 hits in a day. I did it anyway. I joked to a friend of mine that I wrote the bog to keep my parents and brother informed as to what I was thinking about. Frankly, it never occurred to me that I would ever have any substantial body of readers, let alone that someone would pay me to do it.
The content of my posts is based solely on what I feel fired up about that day. I know that certain topics attract more interest than others, but that is neither here nor there. My chess posts are unlikely to appeal to more than a small fraction of my readership, but I enjoy writing them so up they go. My math posts lately have focussed primarily on the Monty Hall problem, not because I think that’s a keen subject for attracting readers, but because I am about two hundred pages into a first draft of a book on the subject and therefore have been thinking about it quite a lot. And I have been writing a lot about evolution and religion lately because there is a lot about those topics in the media these days, and that keeps me fired up.
And that brings us to the question of what a blog actually is. I view a blog as a very personal endeavor. The sort of staid, careful writing that is appropriate in a scholarly paper is less appropriate for a blog. Blog writing should have a strong voice and a distinct personality. It is not a betrayal of your blog’s mission to write about topics other than your main focus.
I feel compelled to mention this because periodically I get lectured by people who think I have wronged them in some way by writing about politics and religion. In the comments to BayBlab’s post, “rob” stopped by to offer the following:
You mentioned Sandwalk, which for me is a classic example. I love the science content on the blog, however Larry is constantly trying to pick fights with creationists which for me is tiring to read. The scientists who read your blog already agree with you Larry. Also the other mentioned blogs often have good content but there so much of it is not science related. I want science on my science blogs! I’ll go elsewhere for politics and religion.
I also find it strange that so many scientists post about politics when their specialty is science not politics. It is true that science and politics often cross paths and it is important to blog about those issues perhaps, but most political issues can be explored on political blogs.
Why is it strange to write about something that is not your academic specialty? If Larry Moran were frequently trying to publish in political science journals, that might seem a bit weird. But to be fired up about some bit of current events and unload about it at your blog? Nothing strange there.
Rob finds it tiring when Larry writes about creationism? Then the solution is to not read those posts. Even the bloggers I read most frequently often write about topics about which I have no interest, but I don’t take it as some personal affront when that happens. I don’t act as if they have failed in their duties as a blogger for writing about a topic I personally find tedious. I find it tiring when commenters stop by to let me know that I have blogged about something about which they are uninterested.
As for his line that, “The scientists who read your blog already agree with you Larry,” this is really wide of the mark. First of all, why is it a bad thing to express views with which the majority of your readers agree? As a reader there is satisfaction to be found in finding views you agree with expressed in a creative way. And secondly, while I can’t speak for Larry’s audience, I know that around here my readers are hardly monolithic. I know that any time I write about a topic that is at all interesting, I can expect quite a few contrary opinions to show up in the comments. I like that sort of thing, as do most bloggers.
A similar sentiment was expressed in the main post over at BayBlab:
But bashing creationists is almost too easy, and not very constructive. It’s been said before, you can’t reason somebody out of a position in which they didn’t reason themselves into.
Another common sentiment that is woefully misguided. The idea here seems to be that before you post on a topic you should ask yourself whether your argument is likely to convince someone on the other side. That is a bad attitude. You don’t challenge creationists because you’re hoping that some fundamentalist will stop by, read your cogent argument, and immediately deconvert. Aside from the personal satisfactions that come from confronting nonsense, you do it because it is important to provide cogent counter-arguments against pseudoscience. You do it because you do not know who is reading, and you just might give some one information they find useful. I receive e-mails all the time from people thanking me for writing the blog and for providing some pushback against the creationists. And when I read those e-mails, I spend the next hour or so feeling really, really good.
For myself, when I first got interested in this subject I knew next to nothing about evolution and creationism. I was suspicious of much that I was reading in the creationist literature, but I did not have good answers at my fingertips. So I was certainly grateful that some high-powered scholars like Douglas Futuyma, Niles Eldredge and Phillip Kitcher had gone to the trouble of writing book-length discussions of the subject. I’m sure a lot of their colleague taunted them with BayBlab’s sentiment. “Why are you bothering, guys? Scientists already agree wtih you and you won’t persuade the creationists!”
And that brings me, finally, to the one genuinely interesting point in BayBlab’s post. How is a blogger just starting out supposed to get noticed in a noisy blogosphere? I think there are only two ways to do it. One way is to catch the eye of some big shot bloggers and get them to link to you. The other is to have something going for you outside of the blogosphere. Many journalists, for example, already have a base of readers from their printed articles that then transfer over to their blog.
In my case what happened was that Paul Gross saw an essay I had written for The Mathematical Intelligencer about evolution and creationism. This led him to my blog, which he mentioned in Creationism’s Torjan Horse. Around the same time I was writing frequently for Skeptic magazine on the subject, and that also attracted readers. Somehow this led to some bigger bloggers linking to me on a regular basis, which also increased my readership. Eventually the folks from Seed found out about me somehow, seemed to like what I was doing, and invited me to do it for them.
If you decide you want to start a blog, you have to go into it with your eyes wide open. Be aware that blogging is just about the biggest time sink since Tetris. Expect to devote enormous chunks of time to it, and expect to be doing it in obscurity for quite some time. Expect to have your friends question your mental health, and be prepared for bouts of self-doubt as to whether your time can be better spent. If it still seems attractive, then go for it!
Well, that’s it for now. It’s taken me two hours to get this far, and I feel a sudden urge to go think about the Monty Hall problem!