Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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If you’ve been following this blog for very long, you will recall that a colleague (and former SciBling), Kevin Zelnio, and I co-hosted a session at the recent ScienceOnline ’09 conference in North Carolina about Nature Blogging. I published a list of questions on my blog that were projected live onto a screen during our presentation (along with reader comments), to serve as a focal point to guide our discussion. I also asked the attendees to answer these questions on paper, which they then gave to me at the conclusion of the session. The participants’ written responses are all transcribed below for you to read and comment upon. As such, I think it is best to view these responses as raw data that will be used to help us refine our questions for future conferences. A copy has been sent to my co-host, Kevin, in the hope that we can stimulate dialogue between our readers as we work together on developing this theme for future publication.

The room was standing-room only, which means that at least 30 people were there (Bora can provide more precise numbers on this matter), but only 11 people shared their responses with us. Those responses appear here, and were all transcribed and some were lightly edited by GrrlScientist (just mentioning that so you know who to complain to if I’ve screwed something up). Both Kevin and I are most interested in our readers adding their thoughts and comments to those fo the respondents.

  1. What is a nature blog? What is the difference between nature and science blog writing? What is the difference between nature blog writing and other types of blog writing?
  2. Respondent 1: Nature blogs convey a sense of the majesty of the world around us. I almost expect to hear the sounds of the great outdoors. The sense of interconnectedness comes through more strongly than the reductionism.

    Respondent 2: No idea.

    Respondent 3: Blog focused on nature-related topics could overlap with science and other blogs, but emphasis on animals, outdoors, ecology and the like.

    Respondent 4: Any blog celebrating the outdoors, species, or some other aspect of nature. Nature blogs are adventurous, have lots of photos. Nature blogs are less structural, less rigorous. Nature blogging is more adventurous.

    Respondent 6: Nature blogs may have more observation? Science posts may have more explanation? I’d imagine Nature blogs may have more amateur (and excellent) photography.

    Respondent 7: Science blogging seems like an umbrella that includes nature blogging. Nature blogging is more descriptive, but connects observations and experiences from the field with scientific knowledge.

    Respondent 8: Blogs about organisms/ecosystems instead of research.

    Respondent 9: Nature versus Science = Natural history, conservation ..

    Respondent 10: I expect some may think a nature blog is less likely to convey the hard science and will be almost poetic (?). An appreciation for the natural environment BUT I would hope that nature blogging my attract folks who might shy away from a blog they believe is “hard science” but that once the reader is there the nature blog writer [can] convey some prnciples of ecology or some interesting fact that IS science! (versus pretty nature pics).

  3. What are (should be) the goals for nature blog writing? [This is the "why bother with nature blog writing at all?" question]
  4. Respondent 2: No idea, except that it covers all of the same reasons as the other blogs.

    Respondent 3: To educate, inform and inspire readers about nature.

    Respondent 4: Inspire people to go outside. Enchant people with the natural world.

    Respondent 5: “Nature” is so big and ranges from microscopic to grand trees and rock formations, [so] I believe there is so much to be fascinated [with]. There is something for everyone, but they may not know where to look or all the details that can be uncovered even in their own backyard. When something fascinates us, we are inspired to learn more, to discover, and with nature, an entire classroom is right outside our windows. The purpose of nature blogging is to inspire and teach.

    Respondent 7: [To] convey the joy of experiencing the natural world.

    Respondent 8: Whatever you want them to be.

  5. How important are blog carnivals for connecting nature-loving folks (e.g., I And The Bird, Circus of the Spineless, Carnival of the Blue, Oekologie…)?
  6. Respondent 2: Very.

    Respondent 3: Important to those who utilize carnivals, but not important to all.

    Respondent 4: Not qualified to answer this question.

    Respondent 5: I’m not sure how important they are, but I’ve found the tree carnival to be such a great source of fascinating posts.

    Respondent 6: Carnivals help new bloggers meet the community.

    Respondent 7: I haven’t messed around with blog carnivals lately.

    Respondent 8: No idea.

    Respondent 9: I don’t know.

  7. What do you think about collaborative global sites like: iNaturalist, Faunapolis, Scratchpads, The Internet Bird Collection, UKmoths, Identify a butterfly and Useum?
  8. Respondent 2: [I couldn't read this response, sorry!].

    Respondent 3: Haven’t utilized these [al]though [I] have looked at some. I think they are useful .. but hey, there’s only so much time in a day.

    Respondent 4: Not qualified to answer this question.

    Respondent 7: I like them in principle, but haven’t spent much time in practice.

    Respondent 8: Never used them.

  9. Who is the audience? What are they looking for, what are they finding?
  10. Respondent 2: No idea.

    Respondent 3: People interested in all nature topics [and] can pretty much find anything they might be interested in.

    Respondent 4: Audience tends to be other naturalists, hikers, conservationists, scientists, kids. They are looking for other nature fans, like people who are into comics seek out other comics fans.

    Respondent 5: I think anyone — all ages, all demographics can be an audience member to a nature blog — I don’t think we have to target every one in every post but I think one of the most important audience members would be younger students. Somewhere, someone may be just uncovering their lifelong passion via Google.

    Respondent 7: Dunno.

    Respondent 8: Naked people.

    Respondent 11: Your audience includes nonspecialists who are willing to tackle some technical information in order to satisfy their sense of wonder.

  11. How much science is (and should or should not be) associated with nature stories and pictures?
  12. Respondent 2: As much as people want.

    Respondent 3: Totally up to the blogger — could be full of science or have almost no science (just pics and stories).

    Respondent 4: This is up to the blogger and their writing style. Science is less crucial in nature blogging, it can be just a curious question, “What’s this mushroom I saw on the trail?”

    Respondent 7: I think it should be used as an excuse for talking about science.

    Respondent 8: As much as you want.

    Respondent 11: Your audience includes people who are willing to learn the science that goes with the stories. In fact, this is your opportunity to help people understand the nature of science, which in these days of pseudoscience is an important role [that] a nature blogger can play.

  13. What is the best nature essay you’ve read in the past year or so? Why did you like this essay so much?
  14. Respondent 2: Can’t name one! how embarassing! On second thought — does an essay/article on why the Chesapeake Bay has not been cleaned up and the political (state-centric) system of focus count?

    Respondent 3: Can’t think of one that stood out that much, but if there were one, it’s probably from Chet Raymo.

    Respondent 4: An essay about the ecology found in the [tree]tops of California (Really big trees). It was a new world, a unique adventure.

    Respondent 6: I really enjoyed a painting (this is what comes to mind instead of an essay) by the artist, Jacqueline Dillard, entitled “Yellow.” Inspired by yellow finches in her area, she painted numerous local yellow animals together. [NOTE: If anyone finds the link to this artist or this painting, I'd appreciate the information]

    Respondent 7: Dunno.

Other comments:

Respondent 1: It would have been great if we had covered:

  1. best nature blogs
  2. how nature blogs can be effective in making a political difference
  3. how to generate more traffic to a nature blog
  4. copyright/photo use permission issues
  5. optimal techniques for capturing and uploading nature audio/video
  6. clever use of nature blogs with GPS, geotagging, relationships with nature museums or clubs

Respondent 6: Fantastic session!

Respondent 9: Good site for schools/teachers, see Discover Life dot com [NOTE: if someone knows the correct URL, please let me know which site you are referring to and I'll add it here]

Respondent 10: Thanks! This was great, very thought-provoking.
PS. I am trying to encourage our scientists/researchers/engineers to blog on the agency’s site — would love to hear if you have thoughts on how I can relay the significance and impact of blogging — just starting out!
[NOTE: GrrlScientist has this respondent's email address if anyone would like direct contact]

This blog entry is getting long, so I will publish my reactions and thoughts to those presented by the participants of this session in a separate entry.

Comments

  1. #1 Coturnix
    January 22, 2009

    Very useful responses – gives you a good baseline to start from…

  2. #2 John
    January 22, 2009

    I’ll add my own responses, since I wasn’t there.

    1. I believe that science blogging and nature blogging overlap, but only partially. I think the term “science blog” implies a higher level of professional knowledge than is found on most nature blogs, including my own. Nature blogs can be many things, but it seems the most common subjects are encounters with the natural world.

    2. I think the goal depends on the individual blog.

    3. Blog carnivals are useful for drawing attention to one’s blog, especially for new bloggers. I think it also serves as a way to build blogger communities by making it easier to find other people writing about similar topics.

    4. I like the idea of sharing observations, and I think that will be more prevalent in the future. I use eBird more than any of those, though. (BirdStack deserves a shout-out too.)

    5. My primary audience is random Googlers. Beyond that, there are other nature bloggers, nonbloggers interested in similar topics, and some family and friends. Oh, and, what Respondent #8 said.

    6. It really depends on the skills and inclinations of the blogger. Most nature blogs that I read involve at the very least basic taxonomy (i.e., identifying sightings) and some behavioral observations (sometimes with explanations).

    7. I can’t think of one off the top of my head because I have read so much nature writing in the past year.

  3. #3 Vicky
    January 23, 2009

    Wow, I’m impressed you were able to read my handwriting! Thanks for a marvelous session!

    -Participant #5

  4. #4 Ken-ichi
    January 23, 2009

    Awesome! Thanks for posting these. Here are my (long-winded) responses to a subset:

    1. I would say a nature blog is a blog about nature, inheriting all the ambiguous semantic baggage those two words bring with them. Nature writing and science writing obviously overlap, but I’d say most nature writing concerns the author’s observation of natural phenomena and their response to them, while most science writing attempts to describe and explain such phenomena. So Annie Dillard may touch upon the breeding habits of insects, but then write on at length (beautiful, fascinating length) about the emotions such habits evoke. Stephen Jay Gould and EO Wilson would probably stick to the observation and then try to provide theories or describe experiments designed to explain such behavior. I think these divisions translate pretty well to the blogosphere.

    Bill McKibben actually makes an interesting distinction between environmental writing and nature writing in the intro to the recent anthology American Earth, basically saying that environmental writing is more about people and their response to nature, or “the collision between people and the rest of the world.” Interesting stuff.

    2. When I maintained an active blog, I used to write about my ramblings, plants and animals I saw, my reactions to them. It was largely just to keep a record for my own edification, so I could look back and remember what I’d seen, or look up details that I’d forgotten. I also hoped that some people might be learning about the outdoors through my posts, and maybe getting inspired to escape the computer and find cool things outside.

    4. I think they’re great :). I came up with iNaturalist because I saw lots of naturalists recording observations in different formats all across the Web (blogs, photos, mailing lists) and other who did so offline (notebooks, bird logs, conversation) and figured it would be cool if there was a place where people could record such data together, and where it could be shown off to a curious world!

    5. Our audience is anyone with an interest in nature. If you’re an avid naturalist who likes keeping track of what you see, then we have tools to help you do that. If you’re just interested in nature and want to peruse the dizzying array of life to be found on this planet, or if you want to find out what cool plants and animals might live in your neighborhood, then we want to help you do that too. (Naked people are welcome too!)

    That’s who we think we’re serving, but if others have different perceptions, let us know!

    In the big picture sense, I think the true potential of nature blogging and naturalism on the web is to make the appreciation of nature more participatory. Just as political blogging makes news media participatory, both showcasing alternate viewpoints to readers and motivating writers to learn about and analyze current events, nature blogging can reveal the mysteries of nature to everyone and provide an incentive to go out and explore (posting photos of cool stuff to Flickr is a serious incentive for me to get outside). I believe the more people participate in naturalism in this way, the more they will understand and value the natural world, not just as pretty scenery, but as our home, invaluable and indispensible.

  5. #5 Glendon Mellow
    January 25, 2009

    The link to Jacqueline’s painting, Yellow is here. Click to enlarge. I believe that’s in pencil crayon.

    I loved your session. You and Kevin were ideal moderators.

  6. #6 Rick Borchelt
    February 3, 2009

    In many ways, I think, the discussion of what is a science blog and what is a nature blog reflects the larger discussion of what is science writing and what is nature writing. It’s a topic that engages us all here in the science, health, and environment writing program at Johns Hopkins.

    We probably can all agree that there is a continuum of writing about natural history. What I believe distinguishes points on this spectrum is the relationship of the narrator to the natural world as expressed in the narrative. On one end of the continuum is what I would call *observational* writing, in the grand tradition of Gilbert White’s chronicles of the natural history of Selborne, and continued in most of what we would consider scientific or science writing today. The narrator is objective, views the natural world from an intellectual place outside of that world, and reports back her observations (with a minimum of interpretation beyond the mechanistic) to an audience or readership. At the other end of the spectrum is what I call *transformational* nature writing, where the narrator understands that he is part of the nature he is writing about, and whose writing expresses an element of being transformed by interaction with nature. Here I think of Pattiann Rogers and her mantra that nature writing is an act of reciprocal creation, and of Barry Lopez’ magical realism in River Notes and Desert Notes. In between I think of *translational* writing, where the narrator is clearly embedded in nature but retains a somewhat objective focus. Her narrative focus is to observe and then create context for (i.e., to translate) her experiences in the natural world and then reflect them back to an audience, not merely to report them.

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