Last weekend I attended Science Online 2010, which is a conference of science communicators with a heavy mix of bloggers, many journalists and others from the print industry, an increasingly large number of book authors, and OpenX (X=access, notebook, science, or whatever) advocates and practitioners.

Science Online is now reaching a tipping point. It is a fantastic conference partly because of its small size and its focus, but it is now becoming much more popular, and faces the possibility of growing over the next couple of years to become not what it is today. Perhaps it will evolve into a new also great thing, perhaps its organizers will somehow force it to remain small (which is considered by most to be a good feature). Or perhaps we who love it will love it to death and ruin it for everyone.

Well, we can’t do much about that now, but I thought you’d like a summary of the sessions I managed to attend. This is a totally biased and random set of thoughts not a uniform overview of the sessions I attended. I should mention that NOT attending several of the sessions was very painful because I wanted to go to them but it is hard to be in more than one place at the same time. Most of the sessions will be on line as videos and I’ll let you know what I know about that when I know it.

From Blog to Book: Using Blogs and Social Networks to Develop Your Professional Writing – Tom Levenson, Brian Switek and Rebecca Skloot (program link)

This session was crowded and hot and I was sleepy and hungover. So the fact that it was also an excellent session (for me) says much about the participants. The most interesting and useful information that came out of this session related to strategies for using a blog to develop and eventually promote a book. So, dear readers, keep this in mind. In case I write a book or something.

Science on Radio, TV and video – Darlene Cavalier and Kirsten ‘Dr.Kiki’ Sanford (program link)

This session began an ongoing two-day thought process on how science communication should work. Well, actually, the thought process started the night before when I found myself almost totally alone (because others were distracted or just looking away) with Chris Mooney, and we had a long talk about this issue prompted by my recent review of Unscientific America.

I guess the conversation appeared to be very animated because there were reports the next day that Chis and I had a big fight. But we didn’t. We had a respectful and productive conversation. We may, however go ahead and have a big fight here. We’ll see!

(Here’s my comment on that post which seems to be temporarily stuck in moderation:

Good to see you at the conference.

I have very mixed feelings about the idea of “certifying” blogs. However, there are two reasons to do so: 1) it will help in our efforts to develop the right message and to control the results of people’s internet “reserch” and 2) it is a form of self-policing that one could argue we are not doing enough of.

This does not obviate the potential problems it creates, and it may well be that those problems outweigh the benefits. I simply don’t know much.

While I agree that bloggers should be promoting the excellent institutional structures you mention, it simply is true that a certain number, and it is a growing number, of people do pay attention to blogs. Some of this number may be people who are somewhat distrustful of the mainstream institutions.


In any event, the session served as a touchstone to the current state and potential effectiveness of multimedia and other promotion of good science.

Citizen Science – Darlene Cavalier, Scott Baker and Ben MacNeill (program link)

I hope you get to see a web site or video related to this session. The point was quite simple: To bring us up to speed on citizen science projects, and a web site organized by Darlene to serve as a clearing house for this. One of the key issues that was brought up (by me, in this case) is the problem that will eventually emerge when non-real science projects show up and want to play with the real science projects. What do you do when the Anti Vaxers want to do a citizen science project? Or the creationists?

An Open History of Science – John McKay and Eric Michael Johnson (program link)

John McKay gave a great overview of the history of science publication to recent times, and Eric Michael Johnson gave an overview of more recent times and of OpenAccess publication.

We then discussed the evils of publishers and proprietary publication, the current status of some important legislation to stop OpenAccess publication, and the role of alternative models.

Trust and Critical Thinking – Stephanie Zvan, PZ Myers, Desiree Schell, Greg Laden, Kirsten Sanford (program link)

This was the session I was in. The session went rather well, with lots of discussion and numerous excellent ideas. I’m going to wait to point to the filmed version of it before going into details, but I’ll just mention now that one debate that is already arising from this is the following: How do we change the fact that when someone googles a few key terms to conduct their own scientific research … regarding something important in their own lives … they often end up with several pages of woo and garbage? How do we deal with the fact the fact that when something like a web blog award is organized, pseudo science sites have an equal or better chance of winning a “science blog award” as real sites? Can there be something like a “UL approved” feature for science blogs? Can this be done fairly and inclusively? As we speak, the blogosphere is diving itself up into the “No, we can’t do that it would ruin it for everyone” camp and the “We might not like this idea but it is going to have to happen” camp.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Session: Engaging underrepresented groups in online science media – David Kroll and Damond Nollan (program link)

This session started out with David Kroll and Damond Nollan giving an overview of social networking and other online media mainly at one traditionally black university, followed by an interesting discussion.

In a former life, I was asked to look into developing social media for a college advising program, so I have a special interest in this topic. One of the questions I have always felt to be very important is how do college or university representatives (faculty, advisors, admins) deal with the fact that if we encourage, develop, and facilitate social media we are going to encounter things like college students having conversations about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll right before our very eyes. So, I was interested to find both here and in later conversations with Nollan that the admins at at least one college were willing to live with what they created. This is rare.

I was also interested to hear an example from David wherein he observed something (on twitter) that should not really have been there (not in the student’s interest) and how he intervened. (I was disappointed that when I asked David about it, a member of the audience felt moved to answer on David’s behalf and shut down the conversation …. I really wanted to know why David followed the tact he chose, what his thought process was and what he considered, because it matters a lot to relationship building with students and has interesting legal implications, but alas, we must discuss that some other time.)

Getting the Science Right: The importance of fact checking mainstream science publications — an underappreciated and essential art — and the role scientists can and should (but often don’t) play in it. – Rebecca Skloot, Sheril Kirshenbaum, and David Dobbs (program link)

I expected this to be a good session, but it turned out to be a great session. I did not learn anything new about fact checking and how to do it and what it is, but the discussion covered much more than that and provided a set of real life examples that make the process more tangible. (As an aside, I’m afraid there is at least one attendant to the meeting that might think that I blog things that may or may not be “facts” then wait to see what happens in the comment section, but sometimes people don’t really listen at these discussions …)

All three authors had great examples and great advice. I wish we had another hour to talk. It would have been interesting to compare academic writing with writing-writing in relation to fact checking. (I had an interesting conversation later on with Henry Gee about that.)

That’s all for the session. There were also many wonderful hallway conversations. Finally, a statistic for you: Number of times a sentence started with “Don’t blog this but….” = 14.


  1. #1 lylebot
    January 18, 2010

    How do we change the fact that when someone googles a few key terms to conduct their own scientific research … regarding something important in their own lives … they often end up with several pages of woo and garbage?

    There are a lot of people in search engine research who want to be able to refine search models using user behavior and nothing else. To the extent that’s happening now, the more that people click on woo and link to woo, the higher the woo is going to be in the rankings.

    My personal view is that search engines have a role in educating, and therefore should not just fit to what people seem to want. The developers of search engines have some responsibility to make sure the engines can fulfill that role. And I note that the developers don’t necessarily need to know anything about how to distinguish woo from non-woo; they just need to find the right people to make those distinctions and put them to work.

    Anyway, in my view what you’re asking here is strongly tied to the models the search engines are using as well as what the masses of users are doing with them, and any solution you come up with is very susceptible to changes in those models or behavior patterns. I’m curious what people at the panel said about it though.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    January 18, 2010

    Well, they said what you said (and other things), and there are search engine experts (and marketing experts) very interested in and involved in this issue.