The Intersection

i-6f754b172bcf722415ad5918810a978a-Uncle Sam.jpgOn May 9, 2008, I’m going to be speaking at the 33rd Annual AAAS Forum On Science And Technology Policy in Washington, DC. I am part of the last plenary session alongside Seed’s Editor-in-Chief Adam Bly and Dr. Anthony Crider, co-founder of the SciLands, a science continent in the Second Life world. Our discussion will be about Science and the New Media, so I’ve decided to bring our readers with me.

That’s right, the conversation begins here at The IntersectionReaders, I Want You!

I invite readers to comment with thoughts on the topic and I will be showing this post at the Forum. For ideas, consider these questions from the program:

* New media addressing S&T issues – what/where/who are they?
* Who do they see as their primary audiences?
* What do they try to convey (or try not to convey)?
* What do they see as missing from the current dialogues on S&T and policy?
* How are they addressing those elements?
* What are the new media missing?

So, don’t let me down! Let’s get a good discussion going about these questions and I encourage you to contribute your own ideas as well. Together we’ll build a constructive dialogue and I’ll write about the reaction afterward.


  1. #1 revere
    April 23, 2008

    One element I don’t see discussed is the use of scienceblogs as a source of information by scientists. Our education is organized by Department but academic departments are ossified disciplinary structures. Science is moving very quickly beyond disciplinary boundaries requiring most of us to learn new ideas and disciplines quickly, if only to understand the latest paper, talk with collaborators or generate new ideas. In navigating through new scientific territories we are often not much more adept than educated laypersons.

    A little noticed feature of perhaps the most popular and used site in the “new media” is Wikipedia. Questions of accuracy and authority have taken up much of the discussion, but in real world terms many of us turn to wikipedia for a quick overview of technical terms or ideas, and links to more material, when we are reading papers out of our field or interdisciplinary work using science that is new to us. Specialized blogs can serve the same purpose, translating and interpreting unfamiliar science for scientists.

    I make this comment because so much of the discussion has centered on the new media as sources of scientific information for the non scientific lay public without acknowledging that scientists can also be considered laypersons in some areas of genuine interest to them as practicing scientists.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    April 23, 2008

    My question is in reference to the problem of effecting good science policy in a democracy.

    Science is a process that involves, and even demands, intensive training and specialization. Science policy decisions are ultimately the responsibility of elected official. These decisions require the transfer of knowledge and recommendations, from the expert realm to the policy makers.

    Democracy welcomes participation from everyone, but very few individuals are versed in the expertise needed to evaluate alternative recommendations, or the science behind those recommendations.

    Are there ways in which “new media” can facilitate closing this gap between expertise and policy?

  3. #3 Sandra Porter
    April 23, 2008

    For people in industry, a really valuable form of new media is the webinar. I wrote a little about it here.

  4. #4 SLC
    April 23, 2008

    Please do the audience a favor. Don’t bring up the subject of framing.

  5. #5 Wes Rolley
    April 23, 2008

    With all of the attention on New Media, and I have lived through more than one version of this, I would point out that it never delivers what the original hype says was it’s intent.

    I am not a Luddite. I use the media a lot. But it has it’s limitations. I find myself frequently agreeing with Stephen W. Smoliar as he tries out new ideas at The Rehearsal Studio.

    I chose to link to a thread on the impact / use of social software as that is appropriate to this discussion. Smoliar has a PhD in Applied Math. from MIT. He is something of a Rennaisance Geek, having worked and published extensively in such diverse areas as Artificial Intelligence, video / audio content indexing, computer composition in music (he was also a composer and frequently writes lucid musical performance criticism).

    Smoliar opines that, in the face of globalization and the myriad images, impressions, that it brings at speeds faster than an MTV quick cut, we are feeding a narcissistic impulse with all of these personal publishing efforts. The terms “pathological”, “identity pathology” and “cultural death” show up in Smoliar’s comments. Is there something inherent in the manner by which we use these tools of communication that they can come to replace real involvement?

  6. #6 MartinM
    April 23, 2008

    Given that the new media allow scientists to reach a diverse international audience, I’m interested in how differing national priorities affect the message. Creationism gets a lot of play in the US, but here in the UK, and in most parts of Western Europe, it’s largely a non-issue. On the other hand, global warming is…well, global. How can we best work together on the issues we share, and ensure that we don’t come into conflict where our priorities diverge?

    Oh, incidentally, you know you have a post stuck in the tubes, yes? The post between this and your ‘Earth Day’ post is in hiding.

  7. #7 J-Dog
    April 23, 2008

    I beg to differ SLC – framing IS important – just look at the HUGE uproar and number of posts about Expelled and the Lying Liers that filmed it.

    I think that what should be discussed is what are the best ways to combat the obvious lies and distortions of ID Creationists and other fundamentalists, such as in Expelled.

  8. #8 kevin z
    April 23, 2008

    Sheril, great topic as it is something I’m contemplating as I am attempting to launch a career in writing in the “new media”. I haven’t been around long enough to go several “new media” like Mr. Rolley, so to me the whole idea is fresh and exciting as I am sure it is to people coming up nowadays.

    I think the audience (of which I participate in!) is partially composed of people that are not getting the news and information they want from traditional outlets. This audience also seems to appreciate the human side of information needs. By that I mean they enjoy getting to know a bit about the person reporting the information. Even in traditional outlets, reporting and writing seems to be a bit about the reporter, whether the audience wants to know or not. With writing online, the audience seems to take a genuine interest in that persons life and feels more connected to the writer as they learn of their personal accomplishments and pitfalls. It makes the interaction a human one.

    Another thing about “new media” that I love is interactivity. Stories can lavishly illustrated with photos, videos, music. Commenting allows q&a, keeps the writer honest, and allows for other individuals with an interest or other knowledge to fill in details the writer may not be aware of, or left out.

    My questions are, when will it become the norm for scientists to interact with the public in this way? Will this be encouraged by funding agencies or university departments as an outreach activity? Should it? I think so! It will be very interesting to watch as our generation ascends the tenure ladder to see if attitudes shift.

  9. #9 Caledonian
    April 23, 2008

    That is $184 million that could be alleviating a global hunger crisis, providing affordable housing to the victims of predatory lending practices, or doing anything to make sure that ten years from now our environment will still be life-supporting.

    I fail to see how someone so disconnected from reality is capable of speaking cogently about “cultural death”.

  10. #10 Jennifer L. Jacquet
    April 23, 2008

    One of the best features of new media is the frequent ability to track users/readership. Once editors were saying, “There is no interest in science.” Today, using analytics, we can show that’s untrue.

  11. #11 bsci
    April 24, 2008

    *What do they see as missing from the current dialogues on S&T and policy?
    * What are the new media missing?

    I think one of the biggest flaws in current dialogues is the fallibility of science. Most traditional science journalism focuses on a conclusion. The conclusion is often written as truth with a few caveats or alliterate hypotheses buried at the end of the article. This is bad for policy and bad for science education.

    If the public is more comfortable seeing real hypotheses and better understands their place in science, then the strongest tool of the anti-science crowd (“But X is only a hypothesis”) disappears. On this platform, better and more productive science-related discussions can occur.

    The new media fits into this because the traditional space and time limits of newspapers and TV news don’t apply. One can write a piece with links or digressions that better explain the intellectual place of new discoveries. Internet posts are also more able to publish critiques of mediocre or bad science. A newspaper isn’t going to publish a full length article saying there are flaws in a peer reviewed publication, but a blogger can. This type of writing better teaches the scientific mindset and hopefully some of the excitement and challenges of scientific discoveries more than a front page newspaper article saying “big thing X is now discovered. In addition to things like scienceblogs, I was in awe of series such as The authors presented both the challenges and excitement of migraine research along with the aspects of everyday life with migraine. The comments are filled with additional anecdotes along with doubter and people asking questions and learning new things.

    Sorry that this is only a half-formed thought, but hopefully it’s useful.

    As for wanting to communicate ideas, $125-$500 entrance fees for a 2 day conference is a lousy way to bring new people in the door.

  12. #12 Stuart Pimm
    April 24, 2008

    A scientist asks: What has the New Media done for me?

    The “old media” — the main way I communicate my ideas and results has served me very well, thank you very much. With colleagues, I write my papers, they are reviewed, modified, submitted again, and published — typically a couple of years after we first obtained the key results. It’s a complicated game. For some, there’s an urgent need to see their results in print quickly. Frankly, most science can wait a bit.

    The main issue is fame. Getting cited is important — in fact, it can be everything, a life-or-death issue as far as a career is concerned. Here’s the problem: most papers are never cited or cited only by their authors. Their authors totally fail to communicate. Read journals and you’d understand why. There are thousands of papers published each month in my field, I can’t read them all, and for many that I do, I wish I’d done something else, like watching paint dry. Finding the signal amid the noise is hard work.

    Now, papers published in some journals — Science, Nature, PNAS, can become real citation stars. It’s not that these journals publish quickly (though that’s an appeal for many) but they are so brutally critical that 90% of the papers submitted there are rejected, most quickly. I did that job for Science for 11 years and may have rejected more people in my field than any other living person. (I never go down dark, quiet corridors at meetings on my own.) I read these journals regularly exactly because they do a reasonably good job of filtering out the riffraff. They’re a good investment of my time.

    I’ve done well with these journals, but most of what my group publishes are in other places — journals that take a long time to publish, are not so widely read, and, worse are often not immediately accessible to readers online when they are published especially those in developing countries. I’ve several options. I can pay for our papers to be open access — $850 each at PNAS. (Ouch!). I can (and do) put my papers on my website whenever possible. These solutions make our papers accessible, which gives an edge, but they doesn’t solve the problem of distinguishing what we do from all the other papers coming out each month.

    So, what the New Media can do for me? First, I want someone to be sorting through the noise for me, just as the editorial processes at the prestigious journals do for me. Any blogger who consistently has great taste and picks up important stories from the mass of material is quickly going to become important. News and Views, in Nature, for example, have exactly that characteristic. They’re “Old Media,” but a model the New Media could emulate.

    Coversely, if and when such New Media knowledge brokers show outstanding taste, I’ll know to whom to pitch our own stuff. Andy Revkin is already there, of course, but is lonely.

    Finally, are there completely new ways of communicating results? Yes! — much to my surprise. A couple years ago, one of my group, Kyle van Houtan, discovered an interesting satellite image that clearly showed how extensive were the mud trails caused by shrimp trawlers. In quick time, he found a depressing set of images from around the world in places where we expect fishing impacts to be devastating — even where the countries involved deny such things. No journal would have published those images in a way they would have had impact and the images alone told the story. We simply placed them on the web, The Intersection blogged them, and Nature covered them as a short news story. No peer review, no citable credit and not something early career scientists could do every day. In avoiding the peer review process, of course there’s a risk that one might add yet more unfiltered noise to obfuscate the rare signals. We thought the decision was the right one — the satellite images are the real stars. Without the New Media, we wouldn’t have had the choice.

  13. #13 Andrew
    April 24, 2008

    Now this is the future of science and technology

  14. #14 Karl Leif Bates
    April 24, 2008

    I’ll echo most of what Kevin Z and bsci said.

    We have some fabulous tools at our disposal now to bring science and scientists to the public who need them most (ie policy makers and school-age kids). I can write about the results of somebody’s research in the finest storytelling prose available, but I guarantee you 90 seconds of web-quality video of that person talking about how she does her work and a link to a discussion of some of her data are more valuable.

    As for attracting citations, funding and talent? General-audience publicity is proven to help. Talking solely to your colleagues just won’t cut it anymore, and is a disservice to a scientist’s career and to society.

    Fortunately scientists, led by Dr. Pimm’s example and others, are starting to get it. Researchers and their allied communicators need to be very aggressive and innovative to educate and inform the public, and to combat decades of stereotyping in which the scientist is invariably an evil, conniving, white guy in a lab coat who has bad hair.

    “New media” means putting a human face on science and scientists by engaging the public in Web 2.0 interaction and discussion, and sharing the process as well as the results.

    You can see Duke University’s attempt to get some of this going at

  15. #15 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 24, 2008

    The fundamental challenge in reaching audiences via new media is what I have called “the problem of choice.” Simply put, the availability of really good science content online–no matter how cutting edge or entertaining–does not mean people will use it. There needs to be specific strategies for facilitating what I call “incidental exposure.”

    In other words, you have to reach audiences with science content at places on the Web where they are otherwise not looking for it.

    And in order to get it into these nontraditional zones online, you have to frame the scientific topic in a way that connects both to the style and routines of that medium and to the interests and core values of that audience.

    See this post that I did on the topic:

  16. #16 Pascal Lapointe
    April 26, 2008

    One interrogation, coming from a journalist. And a journalist who is, I want to assure you, very enthusiastic about scientists who are blogging. I am the editor of the French-speaking media who created the first science blogs in French, in 2005, and the author of a book on the subject. But nevertheless:

    – knowing that journalism is downsizing since 30 to 40 years (less newspapers, less pages, shorter articles)
    – knowing that science journalism is downsizing (less Science pages in daily newspapers since the 1980s, less regular science journalists as employees and more freelancers, which mean less follow-up, less opportunities to do lenghty reports, etc.)

    Although we must all be thrilled to see so much scientists beginning to blog, is there are not, at the same time, a danger: almost none of those scientists can replace a reporter who have a regular job of covering science, since almost all of those scientists bloggers have already other jobs. Who will do the follow-ups? Who will have the opportunities to do the longer stories? And how many of those bloggers will still have the time (or the energy) in 3 or 4 years to continue blogging, when they will have there diplomas or will have families or other obligations, or will simply be less interested to continue to do a not-paid job?

  17. #17 Kate
    April 30, 2008


    My two colleagues and I held a huge panel discussion (120+ attendees) on a very similar topic in January, through the Science Communication Consortium based out of NYC. In fact, your very own SciBling and my co-blogger Jake Young helped sponsor the event 🙂

    John Timmer at Ars Technica wrote a very nice summary of the topics that our panelists touched on; take a peek for the gist of the event:

    As moderator, the largest and most recurrent issues that I saw – and that I wish we’d had time to discuss further – were:

    1. With the emergence of new media formats, including blogging, podcasting, YouTube, and other forms of rapid self-publication, who has scientific authority? Who retains it, and how can it be protected?

    2. Emerging media outlets particularly reflect the more generalized shift that mainstream media is making toward more “flash-bang” reporting and information communication. While this flashiness readily attracts people to science, what are the long-term effects (if any…I personally think that there are) that this type of “soundbite science” will have on overall scientific literacy? That is, are we shortchanging deeper literacy and understanding by making science about the flashy soundbite results and not about the process?

    Can’t make it to AAAS this year, but good luck with the panel 🙂

  18. #18 Wes Rolley
    May 2, 2008

    I just want to add one additional observation that I came across this AM. The Boston Globe has published a list of the 30 occupations that are in the fastest decline. One of them is that of radio and television reporter. The consolidation of media sources, to go along with what Pascal Lapointe wrote above about downsizing in print journalism, makes it problematic that the coverage you get will come from informed reporting. Meanwhile the most forwarded story from one paper today was Miley Cyrus.

  19. #19 Jeffrey Beall
    May 2, 2008

    I think the biggest issue with new media is the concept of digital preservation. Who will archive all the content that is created in new media? What about re-formatting this content into new, emerging formats? Or is all new media content ephemeral and not meant to be preserved? I am a librarian, and we are working on these issues with traditional media, like books and periodicals, both print and electronic, all the time. Digital preservation is a new challenge, and one for which we do not have all the answers. I think any comprehensive discussion of new media ought to consider digital sustainability / digital preservation as an issue.

  20. Where I think the new media can have a real impact is in the use of alternative narratives. For most science stories, traditional media have a limited number of narratives that science stories are plugged into: 1) we’re all going to die; 2) icky and gross; 3) men want to have sex, women babies; 4) controversy; 5) the best, newest technology EVAH! (this list doesn’t even attempt to be inclusive).

    I think, in at least some, if not many, cases, these narratives are forced, not by reporters (although a fair number start with them), but editors. New media with a less expensive ‘access point’ can bypass editors, and spin stories in a new light. (ScienceBlogling Ed Yong does a good job of this on his blog).

  21. #21 clear as mud
    May 6, 2008

    Two things come to mind for me…

    1) Alternate/non-standard approaches:

    Following on Mike’s comment, I think the ability to use a different narrative voice is one of the prime benefits blog-based tools (or other “new media” methods). By different voice, by the way, I don’t mean using a sock-puppet. I mean that a person can tell the story in a way that seems comfortable to them – a way that may diverge greatly from the standard form of science communication.

    My hope, for instance, is not to say anything that hasn’t been said before, though it’d be nice if I could add something new to the discussion, but just to try telling a scientific story in a way that maybe I would do for my friends or family. Not “dumbing down” (in my opinion) but just starting from somewhere simple and hopefully building up accurate awareness over time.

    Of course, this has already been done by many great science authors. With far greater credentials for speaking. But, as with politics, etc, this newer way is just the quick and direct mode that jumps over the constrictions of a press editor or the need to acquire a book deal and needing a PR campaign. (I also realize all the dangers of this open-endedness are in play as well. It’s simply the nature of it that we have to take the bad with the good, I suppose)

    2) Adaptability and ability to apply corrections on the fly:

    The ability to get rapid feedback – and change your approach depending on what you learn from it – is another major plus of this method of communication.

    You might find that your commenters are sincerely confused or are misinterpreting a post you make, for instance. By seeing that, you can both quickly clarify your statements and also experiment with improving the next round of writing.

    Alternatively, people can offer corrections on matters of fact or interpretation. (I’m actually curious – how many scientists or doctors have had their quotes warped, usually innocently, by a press person?) By someone in the comments (or email) saying “hey, actually if you look here you’ll see that statement you made isn’t accurate, etc.” you’re allowed the opportunity to refine the story appropriately, should it be necessary.

  22. #22 Wes Rolley
    May 6, 2008

    The Republican War of Science Continues.

    The state Legislature is looking to hire a few good polar bear scientists. The conclusions have already been agreed upon — researchers just have to fill in the science part.

    A $2 million program funded with little debate by the Legislature last month calls for using state money to fund an “academic based” conference that highlights contrarian scientific research on global warming. Legislators hope to undermine the public perception of a widespread consensus among polar bear researchers that warming global temperatures and melting Arctic ice threaten the polar bears’ survival.

    Keep your ammo dry.

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