Gene Expression

Why biology blogs?

This is more the territory of Cognitive Daily, but I think I want to offer a possibility as to why Science Blogs is bio-heavy, as RPM observed. I think it is because biology is a science which intersects with intuitive cognitive biases we naturally exhibit as humans. I am suggesting that perhaps a content specific element is at work so that our folk psychology and folk biology perks up when biology wanders into their input domains. Now, there is a folk physics, but cutting edge (ergo, bloggable) scientific physics is so advanced and abstractly removed from our intuitive understanding of the world around us that it is often difficult to relate back to something in the “real world.” String theory and cosmology can gain some traction because they sometimes pretend to address deep ontological questions,1 which I suspect is also an innate human tendency (well, at least for many humans). Additionally, astrophysics can be visually captivating. In regards to biology specifically, I have encountered many situations where I am talking about statistical epistasis in a general and abstract fashion and eyes are glazing over, but attention is obtained once I relate it to human disease and medical testing.

In short, biology is easy to make interesting because it stumbles into areas that we naturally find attention arresting. At least for now.

Addendum: Other reasons that I find plausible, a) biology people are more verbally fluent and socially adroit, leading to more bloggers, b) there are more biology people than physics people, so you see more biology bloggers than physics bloggers, and finally, related to b) is c) the possibility that more is happening in biology that warrants comment in public forums.

1 – I don’t think humans are smart enough to ever grapple ultimate ontological issues. Sorry folks, we ain’t as gods even though we bit the apple.

Comments

  1. #1 coturnix
    January 18, 2006

    I think you are onto something here. I was excited with physics and chemistry in school while they covered observable processes that appeared relevant to daily life, or at least cool. Once it got into the arcane areas, I lost interest. I never lost interest in biology. From evolution to diseases, from behavior to biochemistry, it is all exciting and relevant.

  2. #2 Corkscrew
    January 18, 2006

    I concur. There’s definitely a feeling that the “proper” science is the kind that can be used to give something two extra legs and then blow it up. String theory, sadly, fails to qualify.

  3. #3 Chad Orzel
    January 18, 2006

    I think the two biggest factors are probably the larger number of biologists than physicists, and the fact that biology is currently at the center of a number of hot cultural debates– creationism, stem cells, etc. This leads to a lot of people wanting to express politically charged opinions about biology, and blogging is a natural result.

    If the primary activity of large-scale physics was still seen as bomb-making, you’d have a lot more news stories about physics, and thus a lot more people looking to sound off about physics. And if we were overrun with people trying to make political gains by misrepresenting quantum mechanics, there’d be a lot more physics bloggers to working to fact-check them.

    The other big area of science that’s probably over-represented in blogdom, in terms of the number of people talking about it relative to the number of people doing it, is climate science. Which, again, has a strong political component, what with the whole global warming thing.

    There are some factors within physics that probably depress the number of physics bloggers, but I’ll post about those separately.

  4. #4 Derek Loweq
    January 18, 2006

    You want rarities – try chasing down the chemistry bloggers! I’m sure that one reason I’ve got so much material to work with, though, is that my side of chemistry impinges on medicine. If I were a physical or analytical chemist, things would surely be different. . .

  5. #5 razib
    January 18, 2006

    another proxy might be science popularizations. also, what sort of science do philosophers of science try to study? michael ruse once said in an anthology that a disproportionate amt. of philosophy of biology was evolutionary biology.

    chad brings up an interesting point: science be interesting to the public for second order or first order reasons. that is, climate science is relevant because of its political and public policy ramifications (i was a koppen classification nut as a kid and read a lot of stephen schneider, but it was no brief history of time). cosmology is relevant because it is relevant to humans (sagan’s “god shaped hole” in the brain).

  6. #6 Christopher Mims
    January 18, 2006

    So, as the guy who recruited all of you (and if I haven’t said it, I am beyond pleased with the work everyone has done so far) I can say there was no inherent bias in the blogs we approached, unless you count the bias of the intern, Adnaan Wasey, who initially screened our first round of bloggers (he has a background in biomedical engineering, so you never know). But I’ll say, as the success of Pharyngula demonstrates (and let’s not for a second underestimate the talents of PZ, but…) – biology *is* accessible. We wrestle with this every day over on seedmagazine.com – bio stories simply “sell” more (as measured by hits and links). This is why the biggest field of “science journalism,” besides tech, is medicine – there is something immediately relevant about biology. That said, we desperately need some astronomers, more physicists, and please, a chemist or three (not to mention some social scientists and a half dozen other disciplines) – but I promise we’re working on it!

  7. #7 Anthony Kendall
    January 18, 2006

    Another set of disciplines that is almost always immediately socially relevant are the geosciences: meteorology, climatology, geology, oceanography, and so on. These fields are a bit underrepresented here, which I suspect is primarily due to the smallish nature of the field. But never fear, there are blogs that deal with these issues out there, including my own (follow the link on my name).

    Biology is currently overrepresented in all of mass-market science, including Science and Nature. I do not dispute that biology as a discipline is more societally relevant than many others, the bar for something to get published in those journals is much lower for biology than for other sciences. I suspect bias, but that word has been thoroughly taken by the political folks, so I’ll just say that the journals are heavily weighted with biologists.

  8. #8 matoko kusanagi
    January 18, 2006

    razib, i found my self diverted into a study of nanotech while trying to study theory of consciousness–kurzweil says we will be able to reverse engineer the human brain with nanotech. but now i am hip deep in studying bionanotechnology!
    the paradigms of biology are the font from which all pragmatic knowledge flows–that is why is it so fascinating.

    lol, you know i have always believed that mathematics is the base model–but now i am beginning to doubt!
    Ain’t science grand?

  9. #9 Dan Dare
    January 19, 2006

    I think one area of physical sciences which is getting very political now is energy policy. Global warming, peak oil, nuclear vs renewables. I watch quite a few blogs specializing in these areas.

  10. #10 David Boxenhorn
    January 23, 2006

    Answer here.

    Quote:

    It’s also a large part of the reason why I don’t get all that worked up over the various “women in physics” threads that come around again and again. While the question of why our field is apparently unattractive to women is an important one, it’s a distant second to the question of why our field is so singularly unappealing to, well everybody.

  11. #11 True Flies
    January 18, 2008

    Comes in waves. In the era of NASA moon missions and atomic bombs, there would have been a lot more physics blogs. Space travel was accessible but now it just isn’t holding public interest as it did. For better or worse, this is the era of genomics and cloning. When a topic is hot, holds the public interest, naturally it’s more in the media, more people are interested to go into the field, so even more results and media and more public interest. As other commenters have suggested, global warming and awareness may be causing a new wave that will ramp up interest in geophysics. Doubtless with time, some other revolution will draw the world, the minds, the media, the public, the bloggers to chemistry or physics once again.