The Loom

My blog, your microphone

I’m going to be part of two workshops in the space of a couple weeks that will deal with the intersection of blogging and science writing. The first will be this Saturday at the annual meeting of the National Association of Science Writers in Pittsburgh, and the second will be hosted Tuesday November 1 by the Science Writers of New York at the New York Academy of Sciences. (There’s no link yet to the New York event, but Link here.) The panel will include Sarah Tomlin from Nature and Sreenath Sreenivasan, Columbia’s resident tech journalism guru.

I’m glad that more science writers are starting to take blogs seriously (or at least seriously enough to talk about them). I’m sure that many of you have been reading blogs for quite a long time, but among science writers they are only now starting to hit with full force. I think many of my colleagues are curious about blogging, but they’re also not sure how it can fit in with their regular job, if at all. "On the one hand, blogs can provide a fun and informal look at the science; on the other hand, they present major issues of credibility," is how the NASW workshop description reads. "How can science reporters use blogs wisely to improve their coverage and what are the pitfalls to avoid?"

I have some thought on the question, but I suspect you do as well. And since a vocal readership is one of the things that makes blogs different from other sorts of media, I would like to invite you to post your thoughts on these questions in the comments below. At both of the upcoming meetings we’ll have Internet access, so I’ll be able to pull up this post and talk about some of your responses. I’ll also give people the address of this post so they can read more of the comments on their own.

What do you say?

Comments

  1. #1 Greg
    October 17, 2005

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but I find the give and take of a blog often makes it a more credible news source. If you make an erroneous or ambiguous statment, somebody will call you on it. A topic that’s debatable will generate a debate.

  2. #2 John Wilkins
    October 17, 2005

    Is Paul Myers going to be there? If not, why not?

  3. #3 Karmen
    October 18, 2005

    If you blog about a subject that you are researching, or planning to later publish, does that degrade the quality of the published work? Does it make publication itself more difficult? I’ve always been curious how the higher rungs of academia felt about information published on the web… and now that blogging has become as prolific as it has, these questions seem to be all the more pertinent.

    Certainly, plagiarism shouldn’t be a major issue, since papers have been re-published online for a number of years. There’s plenty of software available to investigate possible instances of plagiarism, as well.

    Personally, I think blogs are are the next generation of media, here to stay until we come across something more intensive. For instance, my husband, Alan, blogs for ProgressNow.org, a group changing the nature of local media and politics. Recently, their organization has become one of the most influential in the state of Colorado. Their success is possibly attributable to the grassroots nature of the blog itself.

    A blog is as active and informational (or disinformational) as watching news program or a documentary, as persuasive as a newspaper editorial, and provides nearly as instant feedback as a live conference. It also allows for active editing and archiving, providing another way to expand our ever-growing body of knowledge.

    By the way, thank you, Carl… your blog is quite informative and fascinating to read. :)

  4. #4 Joseph Poliakon
    October 18, 2005

    Web logs span most all subject matter with the decorum displayed by those who run them and those who choose to chime in on them covering the full spectrum from “DC to light.” The Loom is one of the first science blogs launched into cyberspace and is one of the best. For the most part, Carl Zimmer has done a fine job of subject selection and with keeping the Loom Blog “fair and balanced.”

    With a few exceptions, I find that those who visit The Loom and post their thoughts and beliefs exhibit a high level of civility and tolerance toward other Loom posters who may post opinions and beliefs that are contrary to theirs.

    The civility and decorum displayed and maintained on the site speaks well for the subject selection and moderating skills of blog owner-operator Zimmer as well as the personal qualities of the sci-tech blogging participants who visit and post on the Loom.

  5. #5 Carl Zimmer
    October 18, 2005

    In answer to John Wilkins’s question, Paul Myers is not to my knowledge going to be at these panels. I’d certainly love to hear what he has to say. In the case of the New York meeting, the panelists are just from around the city. In the case of the NASW meeting, the focus is on science writers considering starting blogs, rather than scientists who write very popular blogs. Obviously, this distinction is very blurry–which is something I’ll be sure to point out.

  6. #6 Aydin
    October 18, 2005

    “they present major issues of credibility,”

    If they are implying that newspapers are necessarily more credible, I can only laugh at them.

    If a writer wants to be credible, he/she will be credible regardless of what the medium is.

  7. #7 John Timmer
    October 18, 2005

    Hmm, thought i’d posted this already, but it’s not shown up – if i wind up double posting, my apologies.

    For starters, if the New York Academy of Sciences event gets a date/location attached to it, i hope you post it. It’d be good to attend.

    Overall, i think there’s two audiences for science blogs – practitioners and enthusiasts. I think the enthusiasts are great in helping identify which topics are of general interest, and which explanations might need greater clarification to be accessible to the general audience.

    The practitioners are good because they help filter the misinformation that sometimes appears in comments. There’s no way for a blog’s author to debunk every spurious claim that gets posted in the comment sections, so this can be a very important function. The other way they’re useful is that collectively, they have a broader base of knowledge than any individual can possibly hope to obtain, and so can provide useful information on just about any topic. I’m an active research biologist, but i’d never be able to comment intelligently on vole speciation, as someone else has here (http://www.corante.com/loom/archives/2005/10/15/of_zoos_and_polls.php#44856).

    The one thing i’m curious about is whether there’s a role for scientists in pointing science journalists at interesting articles. I know both journals and institutions have press offices that play up interesting results from their pages and researchers, respectively. But some very interesting and informative data doesn’t get that sort of press, although scientists wind up aware of it and its importance (if for no other reason than most of us get the TOC’s of major scientific journals emailed to us). The only way i see for scientists to point this information out to a broader audience is by running their own blog (as PZ Meyers and Sean Carrol do), but most of us just don’t have the time for that.

  8. #8 Judith Price
    October 18, 2005

    A voice from another perspective: I work in a natural history museum, and although my main task is care of the scientific collections, I often have cause to speak to the public about what we do.

    In that regard I work much like a science writer: digesting information aimed at a higher knowledge level into a form suitable for the audience at hand. Given that I have plenty to do in the collection each day(!), I really appeciate the work that people like Zimmer and Myers do on their blogs to bring really interesting stories to my level, so I can spread the information further.

    We are also planning a new gallery about the nature of humans, hoping to make it much more than just an anatomy lesson. Many of Carl’s writings have been very useful in leading us to fascinating topics which we are exploring for the gallery.

  9. #9 James McCormick
    October 18, 2005

    As someone who came for the “Soul Made Flesh” and stayed for the article links and general commentary, I feel blogs help science writers form a more engaged and supportive readership. If a writer is willing set high personal standards leavened with a bit of humility, blog readers can only have a positive impact on a writer’s craft and professional future. It is a public forum, however. Bring your “A” game and the “fans” will cheer. And drag along their buddies.

  10. #10 John A. Davison
    October 18, 2005

    Anonymity should not be permitted on any blog any more than it is in hard copy publication. It is often little more than license for verbal abuse. I speak from experience. It has led to all kinds of polarized groupthinks populated by fanatics and unfulfilled loonies. People would be far more careful about what they proclaim if they had to put their name and credentials to it. The establishment of anonymity was an historical error which has only diminished the internet as a medium for creative dialogue. At present it is often little more than a kind of intellectual pornography. For that reason I refuse to take seriously anything emanating from an anonymous source except perhaps to respond in kind. When in Rome don’t you know?

    Could anonymity be abolished?

    Just my thoughts.

  11. #11 Davi Bock
    October 18, 2005

    I’m a graduate student in neuroscience. These days my time and energy are almost exclusively dedicated to pushing my project forward. I read this blog to relax and to hear about what Carl Zimmer’s been thinking lately. I’ve grown to respect him over time. That’s the key: in blogging, credibility comes down to the author earning the respect of his readership. It’s a very direct relationship. Carl produces a steady stream of interesting, well thought-out posts, and I keep coming back for more. This has the effect of making me notice his byline more when I see it elsewhere — so I guess in that sense, blogging can also be about building a personal brand.

  12. #12 JW Tan
    October 18, 2005

    The wider the audience of the blog, the more credible it will be. The two are intertwined – if a blog doesn’t make the science accessible, it won’t be credible.

    If one makes the assumption that “fun and informal” equates to “accessible”, then a fun and informal blog ought not to have credibility issues.

  13. #13 Mr. Pink Silly String
    October 18, 2005

    Abolishing anonymity would require strong end-to-end encryption and authentication, well-written software that cannot be hijacked to post using a victim’s name, and strong physical control of the user terminals. This is possible but would be hideously expensive. So few people would bother that the value of the medium would be destroyed.

    Anonymity can also be good. You can start a revolution without getting your head chopped off first thing. You can toss a nice ripe tomato at a professor who desparately needs brought down a couple of notches. You can push a wacky idea without it haunting your career forever.

    Regarding the costs of anonymity, I find that the forum operator largely determines whether anonymity is good or bad. If they encourage insults and illogic, that’s what they get. If they are an idealogue and invite extremism, the forum collects political garbage. If they set a professional tone and delete particularly obnoxious postings, the idiots tend to get tired and go away, leaving mostly useful information.

    One must also consider that official name-attached writing includes rather a lot of crap, running to 99%+ in some fields. (I’m looking at you, Noam Chomsky and Dan Rather.) You already have to think hard to sort out the lies, errors, and unwarranted assumptions. My empirical evidence shows that taking off the name doesn’t make the job much harder.

  14. #14 Juke Moran
    October 19, 2005

    Blogs do “present major issues of credibility” because there’s no ready means of immediate peer review, and the publishing technology’s universally available.
    But when you’re talking about disseminating scientific information about controversial subjects to the public at large, the traditional media outlets are no more responsible or dependable than blogs are.
    And when there’s a concerted attempt by the powerful to stifle scientific information, as there will be from time to time, blogs, because they aren’t centralized, can do an end-run around it.
    I can’t speak from within their disciplines, but Real Climate (on global warming) and Deltoid (on DDT) both have as much evident integrity and scientific rigor as the popular science magazines do, and much more than mainstream media coverage does, on the topics they deal with.

  15. #15 John A. Davison
    October 19, 2005

    The perpetual evolutionary establishment (Neo-Darwinism) has not only stifled scientific information but, much worse, has pretended their many critics never existed, that there was never a body of information exposing Darwinism as a myth even when that exposure came from the writings of some of the finest minds of two centuries. I refer in particular to Leo Berg, undoubtedly the greatest Russian biologist of his generation and Pierre Grasse, his French counterpart, not to mention Otto Schindewolf, widely regarded as the most influential paleontologist of all time and our own Richard B. Goldschmidt. These scholars have been relegated to oblivion and one of my openly declared purposes is to restore them to the stature they deserve. When my papers are ridiculed and denigrated it should be remembered that they are nothing more than the logical extension of the work of a half dozen investigators who provided the foundation, a foundation without which I could never have been able to proceed. What we witness in the contemporary evolutionary literature was summarized by Thomas Carlyle:

    “No sadder proof can be given by a man of his own littleness than disbelief in great men.”

    These disbelievers, among whom are Richard Dawkins, Ernst Mayr, William Provine and Stephen J. Gould, have proved the wisdom of Carlyle when they omitted my sources from their many books. Don’t take my word for it. Examine the Indexes and Bibliographies of Gould’s “The Structure of Evolutionary Theory” and Mayr’s “The Growth of Biological Thought” and see who is missing. There are sins of omission as well as those of commission. Darwinian ideologues are guilty of both sorts all in order to preserve and protect a failed hypothesis. The Christian fundamentalists are no better. As near as I can tell both groups are victimized by their prescribed genetic fates. The truth lies elsewhere and I think I know where that is.

    “Both sides will continue to lie, cheat and steal in order to make their points.”
    David Raup, paleontologist.

  16. #16 Jinlong Ding
    October 19, 2005

    I’m a university student from china ,I love this blog,it gives us interesting ideas,and I think it can extend my brain,perhaps it is not always accepted by everyone ,but I like the exchange og differert ideas.

  17. #17 Jeff
    October 19, 2005

    “… they’re also not sure how it can fit in with their regular job, if at all.”

    I would argue that science blogging fits in with their regular job primarily in three ways:

    1. It allows them to build an audience for their voice specifically, rather than for the publications where their work might appear. When you write an article for Discover Magazine (for instance), you help build a loyal following for Discover. When you create and maintain a blog, you are creating an audience for YOU that is likely to follow your work wherever it might be published. The added clout can only help your prospects for freelance work.

    2. Your own blog will allow you to explore subjects your “regular job” will not. Let’s say your primary interest is astronomy but you keep getting biology assignments. Blogging about astronomy may lead to more assignments in that area as you become known to the internet audience with the same interests. The same people who read science blogs are likely to purchase science magazines.

    3. A little extra income never hurts. With appropriate use of GoogleAds or BlogAds and a wide enough audience, the articles you might have written that couldn’t get published now have the potential to monetize. It’s not something you can count on every month, and it might not amount to a treasure trove of cash, but over time the income can be a welcome boost when times are slow.

    Jeff

    P.S. I am writing from the perspective of a science layman. I read The Loom, Pharyngula, etc. as a way to supplement the science coverage I get from SciAm, Discover, and others.

    The company I work for produces web-based content designed specifically to rank well in organic searches, and to monetize through the use of Google Ads. I think there’s great value in subject-specific, expert-level commentary on virtually any subject. Science blogging for people who are already writing about science for their day jobs is, to me, a no-brainer. The question shouldn’t be “Why should I blog” but rather “Why SHOULDN’T I blog”.

    In my “side job” as the creator of HeroMachine, I’ve seen first-hand the power of viral marketing, the extra income a few lines of GoogleAd code can bring in (it basically pays all of my Internet hosting costs, plus a little extra each month), and the value in leveraging the Internet to pursue your “dream” interests.

    All this is just my opinion, your mileage may vary, do not remove this tag under penalty of prosecution, etc. etc. :-)

    P.P.S. Love the blog, Carl, you’re an exceptionally gifted writer. Keep it up!

  18. #18 Christopher Mims
    October 19, 2005

    Hi Carl- Here’s a direct link to the listing for the SWINY / NYAS event you’ll be speaking at in New York:

    http://nasw.org/users/swiny/events/11_01_05_blog_event.html

  19. #19 Grandma Lausch
    October 20, 2005

    I think that The Loom is a popular science blog par excellence; new ideas made clear for laymen in a language that is a pleasure to read.

    Among the pitfalls to avoid are politicization (thousands of bloggers do nothing else) and wasting time on intelligent design (arguing against it here seems like preaching to the converted)

  20. #20 Mungojelly
    October 21, 2005

    The main way that blogs present “issues of credibility” is by opening up the collective dialogue of the US in ways it hasn’t been open for many years. Plenty of people are saying things that aren’t true; other people are saying things which ARE true but aren’t reported in mainstream media. This presents not just “issues” of credibility but rather THE issue of credibility: What is, in fact, true?

    We’re not much closer to having any sort of solid answers to that question– the world is still full of all sorts of mystery & confusion– but we are asking it with more directness, fullness & skepticism than ever before in history. That’s why “blogs” (or new/electronic media, which goes deeper in its transformative powers than the buzzwords would suggest) are essential to the future of public knowledge.

    <3

  21. #21 John A. davison
    October 22, 2005

    I recommend as a minimum requirement for participation in any forum the following:

    The persons full name, age, sex, email address, snail mail address and affiliations including any professional credentials, if he has any, should all be pesented and documented before participation is allowed. This is the same standard that is applied for hard copy publication.

    If they are not presented it should be assumed that he has none and his contributions evaluated accordingly. This simple step would do wonders to increase the significance of internet communication. Without it the organ of the word wide web remains impotent as a meaningful device for intellectual progress and will continue as it has as little more than licence for uncontrolled vitriol. It is really a scandal that it was ever allowed to become what it so obviously is.

  22. #22 neurode
    October 23, 2005

    Hello, John. I’ve enjoyed some of your contributions to the various forums in which you’ve participated over the last couple of years or so. However, I’m a bit taken aback by this:

    “The person’s full name, age, sex, email address, snail mail address and affiliations including any professional credentials, if he has any, should all be pesented and documented before participation is allowed.”

    and this:

    “If they are not presented it should be assumed that he has none and his contributions evaluated accordingly.”

    With all due respect for your professional credentials, the Internet does not exist for the benefit of those who feel that their credentials entitle their contributions to special attention. If I had a nickel for every highly credentialed ignoramus I’ve ever had to suffer, I’d be able to afford a couple of extra degrees. I suspect that many others have made the same observation. Conversely, there are quite a few well-informed amateurs out there whose opinions are at least as insightful as those of the professionals.

    However, I do agree that real names should be used, if only for the reason that there are too many snide, libelous cowards out there who use their anonymity to viciously assassinate the characters of those with whom they disagree. The Internet has become infested with ideologically inbred packs of them. It’s the reason I now use a pseudonym in forums I don’t yet trust.

    I do agree, however, that anyone setting up a new blog should either exclude anonymous posters, or punctiliously but neutrally enforce a set of civility guidelines. Otherwise, it is increasingly likely that those with the most to offer will go elsewhere.

  23. #23 outeast
    October 24, 2005

    A few comments:

    Firstly, I wholly disagree that self-identification should be necessary for a blogger, and moreover would be almost impossible to safeguard (a moderately tech-literate blogger could easily create a convincing false identity). In some instances it will become necessary, in others may be preferable, but it need not be a precondition to credibility.

    Sourcing, however, is essential, as are comments: the former because it enables reader evaluation of the validity of cited third-party data, the latter because it enables some kind of peer review. Again, commenters need not be identified, though many commenters will want to identify themselves in order to convince others that their critiques are informed. Trolling is inevitable, but blog readers soon develop the facility to identify and ignore such so though an annoyance trolling is rarely crippling.

    I suspect that a concern for many scientists may prove to be that they do not have time to update regularly; in this case, group blogging efforts a la Corante, Panda’s Thumb are very worthwhile (a blog which is rarely updated, by contrast, is a waste of time).

    Science reporting in the mainstream media scarcely deserves the name, while journals are inaccessible (though essential). A good science blog can reach a very wide interested audience; it is also the scientist’s own, unmediated voice – surely a vast improvement on being filtered through a PR department, an ill-informed journalist, and a careless editor before reaching the public.

    All the above having been said, a science bloggers’ watchdog of some kind which could monitor the blogosphere and investigate bad practice by science bloggers (falsification of data or suchlike) might be worth considering. This could be an opt-in endorser scheme, perhaps?

  24. #24 John A. Davison
    October 24, 2005

    Why not have a poll. You know, democracy in action and all that implies. Should anonymity be abolished? Yes or no.

  25. #25 Anonymous
    October 24, 2005

    outeast: “Trolling is inevitable, but blog readers soon develop the facility to identify and ignore such so though an annoyance trolling is rarely crippling.”

    If only that were so. Blogs are true public-access affairs, and relatively few people have the ability to infallibly distinguish trolling from substantive argumentation … particularly when it is always immediately reinforced by a dozen or so other disingenuous trolls earnestly disguising their circumstantial or opinionative remarks as “substance”.

    This is why blogs are increasingly used as political instruments, particularly by those bent on creating the illusion that ideas other than their own are unworthy of consideration. It would be nice if the shaping of public opinion were always a matter of substance, but this has simply never been the case. Most people are too easily misled, especially when confronted by an unbroken wall of sophism aggressively defended by numerous true believers.

    It is interesting that you mention the Panda’s Thumb as an example of how “worthwhile” a blog can be. Anybody who visits the Panda’s Thumb and fails to detect a hint of organized bias, or the presence of large amounts of specious rhetoric, would buy the Brooklyn Bridge for five dollars and demand that tolls be sent to his private address, postage paid.

    Hence, I vote that on any list not evenhandedly enforcing strict civility guidelines, anonymity be abolished. (Of course, that doesn’t extend to any kind of credentials-driven pissing contest.)

  26. #26 neurode
    October 24, 2005

    (Sorry, but in an unintentional burst of irony, I forgot to type in my handle.)

  27. #27 John A. Davison
    October 24, 2005

    Anonymous

    Speaking as one who has been chronically identified as a troll, here and elsewhere, I am inclined not to accept your proposal. I hope you can understand.

  28. #28 John A. Davison
    October 25, 2005

    I take it that a “troll” is someone who does not support the perspectives represented by the membership of a particular forum. As an example, I see no evidence for a living “God” and I have also rejected any role for chance. Does that qualify me as a troll? I would like to think not, because there is obviously a third position, namely that there were one or more “Gods” in the past and they no longer exist. That is basically the position presented in the PEH.

    Personally I am inclined toward at least two “Gods,” one malevolent, the other benevolent, both now history. Does that qualify me for trolldom? Apparently it does.

  29. #29 G
    October 28, 2005

    I was brainwashed by a fundamentalist education. If not for excellent blogs such as those of Carl Zimmer, Pharyngula, and Panda’s Thumb, I would still be lost to hopeless ignorance. I do not have the capacity to read so much as a Scientific American article with full comprehension, but in the give and take of a blog conversation, I can begin to understand the most sophisticated of biological ideas. But just because my science understanding is not that of a professional scientist does not mean that I lack critical thinking skills. My BS detector is finely tuned, and I generally have little trouble telling when I’m being given useful facts and when I’m just having smoke blown up my skirt. And if I do get confused, I find blogs to be self-correcting–nonsense is called out and dealt with swiftly and decisively. It’s like being in a salon with the best minds in the country sometimes. If Darwin and Newton and Einstein had had such an advantage, how much more quickly would our understanding of the universe have bloomed?

  30. #30 mungojelly
    October 28, 2005

    There are of course many forums on the internet where participation of random public individuals is not invited, places where you can relate intimately to people you trust from long acquaintance. There are places where only people of certain credentials have a voice. There are places where anonymity is discouraged (sometimes even effectively). There are other places where anonymity is required, or you can only speak to strangers. The internet is a very large, woolly, interesting place.

    This particular forum, on which I’m speaking to you, seems to me to be moderated with a very light hand and yet to maintain a high degree of civility and a high level of discourse, perhaps just because of the sort of people who are attracted here. The civility of the discourse is of course itself an attractive force, which hopefully establishes a positive feedback loop that can keep the conversation healthy for a long time.

    It’s my experience that it is possible to create private forums with lots of energy & involvement, but it usually requires much more effort than creating a good public forum. Public forums have many more sources of possible energy input, so once properly established they maintain their homeostasis by continually drawing in new users.

    I feel like I should make some note in response to all the business about “real names,” since I’m posting under my handle. To me this is a cultural issue. BBSes and then the Internet were a large part of my childhood; to me my handle is as intimately “me” as is my given name. Indeed, in the context of the Internet it is much more directly connected to me, since almost all of the results for a google search on “mungojelly” are actually about me, while the first two results for my “real name” are a fashion photographer and an NFL player. I understand and respect that people of generations previous to mine have a different gut reaction to handles, but I believe that mine is legitimate within my own context.

    <3

  31. #31 Doug Mann
    October 30, 2005

    I am new to blogging and I have to say this site, thank you Carl Zimmer, has been my first positive experience. As I read through the comments on this topic each one was like a facet of a gemstone fitting together to make the whole. It’s not just that those who post here are civil, It’s postings that are thoughtful and intellegent. Most of the blogs I’ve seen so far are engaged in such compelling topics as “what I saw on tv last night” or here is a picture of my stuffed animal on the street corner.

    As an elementary school teacher I could relate to the comments of Judith Price. I appreciate current scientific topics put forth informally. I’m not sure how I feel about journalist writing science blogs but I do like blogs like this one!

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