Not Exactly Rocket Science

i-987ba310ac4e0365155fcc11b12e4a98-Mytwocents.jpgIn which, having largely stayed out of it, I wade into the ongoing rivalry between bloggers and more mainstream forms of science writing…

The latest round in this seemingly endless debate was a review by New Scientist of Open Lab 2008, an anthology of the best science blogging from the last year. Others, including Brian Switek and SciCurious, have touched on the specific criticisms levied by the review, but I wanted to pick up on the more general issue it raised – namely the relative merits and pitfalls of science blogs compared to mainstream science writing.

I am increasingly uneasy with the entire nature of the journalists vs. bloggers “debate” and not least because I vaguely straddle both worlds. Pitching the sides against each other, as others have argued, is too contrived and it brings out the unfortunate tendency of everyone concerned to rely on mass generalities. We launch our attacks on straw-man caricatures of each other, with bloggers being portrayed as scatter-brained loudmouths while journalists are labelled as lazy or incompetent. In defence, both sides tend to highlight the best of their field as exemplars, while causally ignoring the worst elements. The effect is like trying to argue whether plays are better than novels by comparing Shakespeare to Dan Brown or Dickens to Lloyd Webber.

Take for example this quote by blogger John Hawks, cited by the New Scientist review: “If we’re going to compare the entire blogosphere with The New York Times, in terms of how much is worth reading for the average non-professional interested in science, the blogosphere is worse by an order of magnitude.” It’s a false and uninformative comparison, in that it pitches the entire blogosphere against the NYT, one of the top echelons of newspaper journalism. The blogosphere also has a variety of different audiences from the “general public” to more specialist readers. 

Often, shared weaknesses are portrayed as being singular to one or the other. Both sides have dark corners. For every Carl Zimmer or Mark Henderson, there are plenty of hacks churning out one inaccuracy after another, and for every Laelaps, Neurotopia or Mind Hacks, there are plenty of blogs that lack interesting content, decent writing skills or both.

Both channels attract readers who want to reinforce rather than challenge their views – it’s not a problem unique to blogs. As a middle-class liberal, I am unlikely to be abandoning the Guardian for the Daily Mail or the News of the World any time soon. Good scientists like controls – where is the appropriate one here? It’s no shock that people gravitate towards media that fits with their own biases and likes, but that’s true online and offline.

Both sides practice churnalism from time to time. Journalists are often accused of cutting and pasting press releases, but many bloggers do the same by highlighting posts with a copied paragraph and not much besides a link (and often the paragraph comes from a mainstream story, a press release or an aggregator like ScienceDaily).

To me, both blogging and traditional science writing have much to offer anyone interested in science communication and I would personally recommend people to have a shot at both. In many cases, their strengths complement each other and in ways that are often ignored amidst the mutual entrenched sniping.  

For instance, writers from both channels receive tremendously useful forms of feedback that are largely denied to the other. Bloggers get theirs from reader comments and retorts from other bloggers. Critiques can be brutal and unrestrained, but they can help you to write more accurately, and pick topics more selectively. Feedback on my blog has taught me to be wary about certain kinds of studies (evolutionary psychology and overuse of fMRI as examples). It teaches you about balance between finding a good story and critiquing the science behind it. Hopefully, it means that I will end up selecting fewer duds to cover. You get a better sense of the detail that your audience requires. If you paint your story too broad a brushstroke, people notice and they’re keen to point out missing details and flaws in reasoning. This level of bespoke, on-the-fly feedback is invaluable.

In more traditional science writing, the feedback comes from editors and focuses more on delivery rather than content. Editors can mangle a piece but at their best, they can help budding writers to hone their skills, draw out important narrative threads in their work, correct clumsy phrases, and mould a lumpy, rambling article into a svelte, streamlined one. It’s a service that I’ve only ever received through freelance mainstream work. While blogging gives me tips on content, mainstream writing helps to hone the delivery.

Writing for a mainstream outlet is a great crash course in tailoring your stuff for a general audience and it offers the challenges of working within a word count and to a tight deadline. Blogging, with its more freeform nature, allows people to be a bit more creative, to let their individual voices shine out a bit more. It would be a mistake to believe that writing a feature-length article for a publication like New Scientist, in a way that would be truly accessible to a non-specialist, is at all easy. Equally, it would be foolish of mainstream writers to write off more informal styles or the abilities of those who use them. Abbie Smith at ERV epitomises chatty LOLspeak writing but she also wrote this incredible piece on endogenous retroviruses.

To summarise, I believe we need to accept the mutual limitations of both formats and to recognise the ways in which their strengths can work together. Dabbling in both blogging and mainstream writing allows you to soak up their strengths and gives you firsthand experience of their weaknesses. It’s not surprising to me to find that a lot of the best writing happens at the intersection (no pun intended) of the two disciplines, from the hands of writers who have experience of both worlds.

I personally hope that each of my experiences in blogging, mainstream writing, and media work (limited though they are) is making me better at the others. My blog gives me continual practice at describing complex science with precision and more critical savvy, which I can hopefully bring to freelance pieces for traditional media in an attempt to avoid many of the mistakes that I myself cringe at. My freelance work teaches me the power of brevity, fluidity of language and tight narratives, which I hope I can bring to my blogging. Interviewing people for said piece tells me about how people react to being questioned and what makes a good response – knowledge that I can use when I do interviews myself. At Cancer Research UK, I interact with journalists on a regular basis to give interviews, talk about new research and provide a wider context for the most recent findings. That helps me to remember what journalism actually entails and how to work within the system to get my message across.

Shun any one of these experiences and you risk becoming unaware of the full breadth of science communication. I don’t actually think that’s a problem, unless you claim that any of them are pointless or inferior, in which case, you are unaware of the full breadth of science communication. My two cents…

Comments

  1. #1 Laelaps
    April 8, 2009

    Right said, Ed! (sorry, couldn’t resist the joke)

    Seriously, though, I am glad you decided to tackle this one. I am a bit weary of this issue (I almost decided not to post my response to the New Scientist review) but your response provided a proverbial breath of fresh air. I think we are going to see increasingly interplay between traditional science journalism and science blogs but I seriously hope that neither is going anywhere. Unfortunately that means we will be stuck with people on both sides tossing around false equivalencies but I am glad to see other bloggers, like yourself, who recognize that too many folks are agonizing over false choices.

  2. #2 MattK
    April 8, 2009

    This all seems very sensible. Nice post.

    I’m certainly suspicious of bloggers’ dismissal of people’s tendency to gravitate towards sources that confirm their own biases. Well not their dismissal of the idea, but rather dismissal of the suggestion that it is not worse on the blogosphere than in other media. I don’t have any objective reasons for my suspicions, by my subjective experiences of late suggest that the world is getting to be a pretty polarized place, more so on blogs in many instances where there is less emphasis on objectivity and balance than in print media. And then there is Fox News… maybe this polarization is increasing but it is a broader phenomenon. Or maybe Internet style ‘debates’ are spreading into the mainstream media.

  3. #3 Ed Yong
    April 9, 2009

    I think this is a really hard issue to address without any hard data. However, while I get that the issue of polarisation might be a broad problem, I’m not convinced that it strongly affects people’s consumption of *science* in particular. As an example, I’m hardly going to be seeking out creationist or alternative medicine writing any time soon, be it online or in print. And at least blogs tend to link to other points of view, if only to dismiss them.

  4. #4 Jason
    April 9, 2009

    Newspapers and magazines are looking for more ways to stay relevant in today’s world. It seems that the science magazine is the latest. In a world where news is instant, it is hard to justify a subscription to a magazine that gives you 3 month old news. Computer game and computer programming magazines encountered this problem years ago. The shakeout is still happening.

    If you are reporting something that is 3 months old, or even 24 hours old, it’s too late. Everyone out there has Google Reader, and has already read it. So, they pick up the magazine, have a flip through and go, “seen it, seen it, seen it”. The only articles they haven’t read? The opinion pieces – hard copy blog posts.

    The way a magazine will survive is by providing something that can’t be found online. Game magazines provide a disk containing demos – saving their customers time. The only computer programming magazines I get now (Dr Dobbs is gone), are the ones that come free with my ACM and IEEE memberships.

  5. #5 Andrew Maynard
    April 9, 2009

    Thanks Ed. I agree with you wholeheartedly – when done right, science blogging and mainstream science writing are complimentary, and shouldn’t be seen as competing with each other. I’ve written before about my fears over the demise of science journalism (http://2020science.org/2009/03/20/blogging-the-demise-of-science-journalism/), but blogs fill a space that is rarely reached by the mainstream press.

    The big problems of course are accuracy and trust. Poor as some mainstream science reporting is, there are at least a modicum of checks and balances in place. But it gets harder to know when to trust a blogger.

    Not sure what the answer is here. Maybe success equates to good science blogging in the long run – I’m not entirely convinced on this. Maybe more scientists (and science-savvy readers) need to get in on the act of writing, and evaluating the output of others – real-time peer review for science bloggers.

  6. #6 Scicurious
    April 9, 2009

    Truly awesome post, Ed! I love your regular science stuff, and your opinion stuff is just as good! I’m so glad to see someone address this from a calm, middle ground perspective. I admit that calm and middle ground can get lost a lot on blogs, but that’s part of what makes them fun. :)

  7. #7 Ed Yong
    April 9, 2009

    A hyperactive spam filter has meant that most of these have been languishing in limbo for today. They’re now restored. Email me if this happens again folks.

    Jason – you’re forgetting about features, which are some of the key selling points of science mags. Features don’t have to be up-to-the-minute news, and it’s there that the skills of a traditional journalist really come to the fore – writing a 2,400-word piece on a topic that grabs the attention of a reader throughout is a very challenging task.

    Andrew – While it’s theoretically true that mainstream science reporting has checks and balances in place, there are many examples where this fails. As Carl Zimmer has been blogging about recently, fact-checking is an endangered enterprise. I think the idea posited by Bora and others is that a shift to science blogging will lead to fact-checking after the point of publication rather than before. So in an ideal world, you’d know when to trust a blogger by looking at their comments and seeing if they’re shredded or lauded. I totally agree with you that the more we can get scientists (and science-savvy readers) involved in this process, the better a tool it’ll be. But I believe it’s already in good shape – the readers of ScienceBlogs are an excellent example of this. Hence, all the stuff I wrote about reader comments improving accuracy. Great comment yourself, mate.

    Brian/Sci – thanks guys. I think I may do more of these.

  8. #8 Jason
    April 9, 2009

    On the magazines I mentioned – Game and Programmer, they also had features. However, their features were frequently of lower quality than the information (and features) available online. There is always someone interested in writing a feature to get traffic from slashdot and digg.

    The same will happen with Science magazines (and newspapers), it’s just taking longer. Heck even Game magazine’s disk bundles are only a delaying tactic.

    This has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of reporting and who does a better job. It has everything to do with consumer choice, price, timeliness and filtering.

    The edited, filtered stories that appear in magazines can just as easily appear on a web site. Also, there will always be people who prefer to read hard copy to a computer screen.

    The question is, are there enough of them to build a business around? I’d say there are fewer and fewer of them.

    Let’s check
    New Scientist 2003: 143k 2006: 170k 2009: 173k
    Popular Science: 2004: 1.4m 2006: 1.3m 2009: ?
    Popular Mechanics: 2003: 1.2m 2009: 1.2m

    This information is all available online. They’ve got a lot of subscribers, but I expect it’s a generational thing. Popular Science’s readership in the 25-34 bracket is <20%, with a median age of 43.6!

    They don’t seem to be getting any more of them. Still, 1 million subscribers is a lot of money that will take a while to turn into a loss.

  9. #9 Rick MacPherson
    April 9, 2009

    well written, as usual, and thanks for taking on the false dichotomy of “blogger” or “journalist”…

    by the way, using today’s conversion rate, 2 cents (USD) comes to 0.014 (GBP), so smart move on your part to go with US currency! more words (and ideas) to the dollar!

  10. #10 Ed Yong
    April 9, 2009

    Heh. That made me chuckle.

  11. #11 Zach Miller
    April 9, 2009

    Like I said on Brian’s blog, it’s unfair to say that there aren’t “enough” good science bloggers. Just check out the blogrolls of this one, then click around on the blogrolls of linked science bloggers. That’s a lot of good, responsible science writing. By comparison, I’d say that the number of good “print” or “journalism” writers is proportionatelly lower. For every one newspaper that does not call pterosaurs “dinosaurs,” there are one hundred that do. For every magazine that doesn’t mention Jurassic Park in an article about paleontology, there are a hundred more that do.

    And isn’t profit one of the deciding factors here? Print journalism is struggling, and the drive is to sell newspapers (and magazines). Getting the information right is secondary to drawing the reader in at all. Blogs, which are largely voluntary affairs, don’t have that problem.

  12. #12 Jason
    April 10, 2009

    The HTML filter ate my comment!

    This information is all available online. They’ve got a lot of subscribers, but I expect it’s a generational thing. Popular Science’s readership in the 25-34 bracket is less than 20% and the median age is 43.6. Very little overlap between that and university students online.

  13. #13 Horacio Salazar
    April 19, 2009

    Nice post! I’d add a couple of small but perhaps relevant (I think) points to this issue.

    For instance, Jason writes that “Everyone out there has Google Reader, and has already read it”. This is exactly the mind frame of every blogger: to assume the whole universe is connected and reading all the time. Will that happen in the future? Maybe the connected part, and it’ll take some time.

    As for the reading, I think the opposite is true, and the future will bring less readers, but that’s another story.

    Back to my comment, one of the things that newspapers still have is that they point to the still-not-connected public out there. And believe me, the world is much bigger than the developed world, and in many places the ones with access to Google Reader or with time to read kilometric posts are still very few.

    But I’ll agree with you: in order to be relevant in a shallow world, science communication needs to be more than just blogs and more than just newspapers. Thanks!

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