Ever since it was made available last month I have been anxiously awaiting the first formal reviews of the new edition of The Open Laboratory: The best science writing on blogs 2008. Today the first appeared over at the New Scientist, but much of it had little to do with The Open Laboratory itself. Although I was happy to see that my contribution about what Joseph Hooker’s kids did to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species manuscript merited a mention, the rest of the review left me somewhat perplexed.
According to the author, Michael Le Page, the review was heavily influenced by the ongoing debate about the place of science blogging vis-a-vis traditional forms of science writing (primarily journalism). (For one of the best essays on this whole fracas see this piece by Carl Zimmer.) A major part of this ongoing argument is about whether bloggers communicate science more accurately and effectively than their mainstream counterparts, with many bloggers answering in the affirmative and journalists in the negative. Le Page falls into the latter camp and writes;
Take the most important scientific issue of our time, climate change. For the last two years, the “Best Science Blog” in the Weblogs Awards, which are based on readers’ votes, has gone to blogs by climate change deniers. Such blogs may be having an influence: polls show more and more Americans now think the threat posed by climate change is exaggerated even though denialism has become rarer in the mainstream media, with even Fox News finally embracing the truth.
Apparently Le Page has not been keeping up with XKCD as his statement is a rather flimsy attempt to turn correlation into causation. There is nothing in the paragraph that demonstrates how a blog that peddles pseudoscience is directly causing the trend he identifies in the polls. Instead we are merely asked to believe that because a pseudoscience blog is popular it therefore places a black mark on all science blogs. As baseless as this attempted connection is, though, Le Page uses it to jump into a head-on attack of science blogging;
While newspapers may indeed have an abysmal track record when it comes to reporting on science, many blogs out there are far worse. And people are generally drawn to blogs that reinforce their own views, not ones that challenge them. Overall, I suspect that the rise of blogging, far from improving people’s knowledge and understanding of science, has made matters worse.
Which science blogs have a track record more abysmal than newspapers? Le Page doesn’t say, and he uses his soapbox to state that blogs have made things worse because… erm… because… well because he says so, that’s why! If Le Page doesn’t particularly like science blogs, that’s one thing, but I fail to see how his claim that science blogs have “made matters worse” in science popularization can be substantiated. If he has evidence to support his claim I would love to see it.
This sort of treatment makes Le Page’s compliment in the next paragraph, that his criticisms of science blogs are “not true of the blog posts selected for [the Open Laboratory 2008]”, cold comfort. One would think that if the compliments were genuine they might have caused him to reevaluate what he said in the first half of the review!
Is every science blog post written a masterpiece of science communication? Of course not! Different writers have different styles and attract different audiences. There are blogs that require some technical knowledge as well as some that are accessible to nearly everyone, and the quality and style of the output of a particular blogger varies over time. Little else could be expected of a public forum open to anyone who wishes to speak up. We are still learning about what science blogs can and cannot do when it comes to science communication, but I cannot imagine what has led Le Page to assert that they are generally harmful.
Much of this overworn debate about science bloggers and journalists deals in false alternatives. It would be profoundly ignorant to say that all science journalists are talentless recyclers of press releases or that all science blogging is too technical for popular consumption. Nor is it true, as Zimmer pointed out in his essay, that science blogging will be able to (or ought to) replace “traditional” science journalism. Unfortunately, however, the realities of the situation are often overlooked so that firm boundary lines can be drawn. It is more fun to generate heat than light, so to speak. Science blogs are continuing to grow and change during a time when mainstream science journalism is suffering, and whatever relationship the two methods of science communication have to each other is likely to continue to change.
Update: Blake and Scicurious have also jumped in on this one. (I think Sci’s post wins teh interwebz for today, though, for figuring out how to include Little Bunny Foo Foo into the discussion as well as providing another excellent take on the subject.) Check them both out, as well as the comments below!