Science Blogging: What Is It Good For?

I got some interesting comments on last week’s post about the science blogging bubble, and there were two in particular I wanted to highlight. Bee wrote (among other things):

But what I think are further obstacle to blogging is the inappropriateness of the medium to science. E.g. blogs put by format an emphasis on novelty, which occasionally disturbs me. There’s the option to label posts, but who ever looks at this? I’d vastly prefer to be able if interesting topics stay on top, such that it would be easier to spin longer discussions around a specific topic. Not sure I’m making that very clear, but one thing I find extremely annoying is how often I just repeat myself. I really like to write, but this upon all other things is what annoys me because it seems to me like an utter waste of time.

And then there are the points that I’ve raised several times: Blogging is a scientifically doubtful medium because it puts the author in a power-position by which he generally can skew discussions. I’m not saying I have the impression this happens very often, but it definitely is possible. Typically, the blogger can later edit posts to put him/herself in a better light, delete or even edit comments etc. That’s an unreliable basis for a scientific discussion. Besides this, there is the problem that I’ve also mentioned repeatedly that blogposts have no fixed time stamp, so you can’t even claim credits for having had an idea first. Gee, even Flickr can do fixed time-stamp, that wouldn’t be hard to incorporate. Just offer an option to time-stamp a post that will show a ‘last modified’ date which can’t be altered by the author.

A little while later, Rich Apodaca wrote:

The blogs I find least interesting try to appeal to the most general audience possible (an anit-pattern they might have learned from the publishing biz). For appealing to a mass audience, we have the popular press, which does it much better than any blogger ever will.

Science moves forward through an endless process of specialization. But the popular press has hard limits on what can be written about – limited funds, limited number of man-hours, and limitations on what sponsors will tolerate. Many things worth writing about in science will simply never be covered by this crowd.

A blogger has none of these limitations and so can cover science the way it actually advances – through an endless series of specializations.

These may seem like very different comments, but actually, they’re quite similar in that both of them see a different role for science blogging than I do.

Bee is mostly concerned with blogging as science, and I agree that the medium as currently constituted is not terribly well suited to it. As she notes, blogging is ephemeral by nature, with topics coming and going relatively rapidly. This makes it difficult to build a culture of sustained discussion– it can be done, as Making Light demonstrates, but it’s difficult to attain, and even more difficult to maintain.

This ephemerality, combined with the lack of formal time stamping, also makes blogs ill-suited to being used as a reference. I’m sure other bloggers have had the same experience I have, of typing up a long post on some topic, only to realize halfway through that you’re recapitulating an argument you made a couple of years earlier. Once posts vanish into the archives, they’re out of sight, out of mind, even when they’re good stuff.

It’s possible to build index pages for blogs, and to collect lots of reference entries together– see, for example, John Wilkins’s Basic Concepts collections– but that raises its own problems.

For those reasons, among others, I’m not sold on the utility of blogs as a medium for scientists to do science. They can be shoehorned into that role– see, for example, my extremely boring WordPress lab notebook– but there are other tools that are more naturally suited to that task.

Rich isn’t really asking for blogs to be used as a tool for science, but his call for greater specialization is somewhat similar in effect. It’s certainly true that blogdom offers a means for people interested in extremely specialized topics to share information and ideas– pick a topic, and you’ll find somebody blogging obsessively about it– in some ways that’s indistinguishable from scientists using blogs as a platform for highly technical discussion and collaboration. It puts information out there, but it’s not information that’s useful to the vast majority of people poking around on the Internet.

I’m not going to argue that putting hyperspecialized information on a blog is somehow illegitimate– you’re perfectly free to do whatever you want– but it seems to me that it’s sort of missing the real potential of the medium. This is the world wide web, after all– by definition, anything you put out there is potentially visible to everybody in the whole wide world. It seems a shame to me to not try to make use of that.

That’s why I think that the real outstanding potential use of science blogs is as a tool for outreach, for bringing the excitement of science to a wide audience. As I noted in my Science21 talk, my blog gets roughly 2,000 page views per day, while there are about 2,100 students at my entire college. When I write something about physics on the blog, it effortlessly reaches more people than I could possibly hope to see in any class I might teach.

This is the task that blogging is really suited for, and many of the things that are bugs when looking at blogs as a tool for science become features when looking at blogs as a tool for outreach. The ephemerality of blogs and the drive for novelty match nicely with the existing “news cycle” of mass culture– blogs readily lend themselves to commentary on the story-of-the-moment, and can be a tool to put solid scientific information in front of huge numbers of people who have had their interest piqued by some passing news story. The asynchronous nature of blogging lends itself to the scientific and academic work schedule– you can easily blog on a “hobby” basis, writing posts when it’s convenient, and publishing them at later times to spread things out. I’m writing this at 9pm Monday night, but it won’t appear on the blog until late Tuesday morning, because I get more impact by spreading the posts out.

Some of the points Bee and Rich raise still apply. The ephemeral nature of blogging does mean that there will be a certain amount of repetition– the same topics will come up over and over, and need to be addressed anew each time. I don’t understand how people like Orac manage to tirelessly respond to the same stupid quackery over and over and over.

And, done right, blogging does allow an opportunity for bringing more specialized information to a mass audience. In fact, I would quibble with Rich’s assertion that the popular press does mass appeal “much better than any blogger ever will.” The popular press has a larger built-in audience, but they only provide coverage of a limited range of topics. If you want to keep tabs on, say, particle physics, you can do all right by following stories in the popular press, but if you’d like to know about atomic physics, or condensed matter physics, forget it. They don’t have the time or the manpower to cover those fields effectively, and so we get endless stories about the LHC, because it’s an easy thing to sell.

Blogs, on the other hand, offer an opportunity to bring topics that aren’t covered by the popular press to a mass audience. It’s not trivial to get a real mass audience for this stuff, but I’d wager that the the Metastable Xenon Project brought more information about cold-collision physics to more people than anything the popular press has done. If I managed to get even a few of those people to say “Hey, that’s pretty cool…,” then that’s all to the good for AMO physics.

So, anyway, there’s yet another version of my evangelical case for blogs as a tool for science outreach. And that’s why I sometimes seem to be obsessed with traffic and audience size– one of my main goals in running this blog is to use it to bring information about my corner of science to a wider audience than would ever hear about it otherwise. That’s the power that I think blogs offer to scientists: the power to put your research out there in front of a world-wide audience, and help them appreciate what you do and why you do it.

(Feel free, by the way, to put a big Edwin Starr “Hunh!” in place of the colon when you read the post title… Maybe a “Good God, y’all!” too.)

Comments

  1. #1 Eric Lund
    October 7, 2008

    I think you have the right idea: that the best use of blogs for science purposes is for outreach. You can teach people a little bit about physics, and especially the kind of physics you do. As a practicing physicist in another field (space plasmas), I don’t have much contact with the world of AMO physics apart from the occasional colloquium, so I find it useful to read posts on the subject by somebody who knows something about it and can write in an entertaining style.

    This goes for other technical fields as well. I have no formal training in economics, so (especially in these days of financial turmoil) I find it useful to read the opinions of people who do, and I’ve learned quite a bit that way. (Calculated Risk has been an excellent resource, although lately the comment threads there have gotten too big for me to read them.)

    There is one type of research for which blogs are well-suited: data mining in documents. The most famous example is Talking Points Memo during the US Attorney firing hearings, when Josh Marshall would post a link to the documents in each dump and invite his readers to look for anything of interest, of which there was quite a bit. There was an example on ScienceBlogs in February when PZ’s readers looked at a creationist manuscript which somehow slipped through the refereeing process, and they found that much of the biologically correct material in that paper had been plagiarized.

  2. #2 Jacques Distler
    October 7, 2008

    I’m sure other bloggers have had the same experience I have, of typing up a long post on some topic, only to realize halfway through that you’re recapitulating an argument you made a couple of years earlier. Once posts vanish into the archives, they’re out of sight, out of mind, even when they’re good stuff.

    And that differs from the scientific literature (even from your own papers), how exactly?

    I’m not going to argue that putting hyperspecialized information on a blog is somehow illegitimate– you’re perfectly free to do whatever you want– but it seems to me that it’s sort of missing the real potential of the medium.

    The Web neither created, nor particularly advanced, mass communication. The Long Tail, however, is something that could not even have been contemplated, much less catered to, before the Web.

    … but there are other tools that are more naturally suited to that task.

    Such as …

  3. #3 Markk
    October 7, 2008

    Specialization and outreach aren’t contradictory. Science blogs as they exist now are to me about 30% news, 40% learning about things and 30% community, by which I mean just getting a feel for what people who actively think about science have on their minds. What will appeal to me will not make a mass audience however. I like the obscure articles, even the ones I don’t fully understand. They help my mind stretch. As long as they are in the mix I’m ok.

    I do agree with Bee on the shortness of view. There could be technical fixes for some things. It would be interesting to have a separate feed with the most recently commented entries, similar to the sidebar. Also some kind of chaining mechanism more than a link in an article so the old article shows up. Blog comments are kind of like conversation though, so I don’t feel that it is bad to keep pounding a horse (still very much alive unfortunately) like anti-vaccine nonsense.

    A Wiki like structure where there is an article that is changed based on comments which would be linked but visible, would be more useful in terms of open science I think. Somewhat blog like.

  4. #4 Bee
    October 7, 2008

    Hi Chad,

    Yes, my comment about the inappropriateness of the medium was mostly concerned about scientists-for-scientists blogging. I agree that blogs are useful how they are for public outreach. In fact, that’s what I do with my blog (well, mostly). I just meant to say blogs could have a larger potential for other means with only slight modifications, and as such generally attract more scientists to blogging – and wasn’t that what your earlier post was about? It could very well have the ‘sideeffect’ of improving public outreach if the medium was better suited for scientist’s needs altogether. Best,

    B.

  5. #5 Bee
    October 7, 2008

    Hi Chad,

    Yes, my comment about the inappropriateness of the medium was mostly concerned about scientists for scientists blogging. I agree that blogs are useful how they are for public outreach. In fact, that’s what I do with my blog (well, mostly). I just meant to say blogs could have a larger potential for other means with only slight modifications, and as such generally attract more scientists to blogging – and wasn’t that what your earlier post was about? It could very well have the ‘sideeffect’ of improving public outreach if the medium was better suited for scientist’s needs altogether. Best,

    B.

  6. #6 Bee
    October 7, 2008

    Sorry for the duplicate. My connection broke down while submitting but apparently it went through already first time. Feel free to delete.

  7. #7 Moshe
    October 7, 2008

    I’d say false dichotomy, except there are more than two things you can do with a blog (e.g., how about a blog as a teaching tool, targeted by set of topics and discussion level).

    (I don’t envy the cleanup job you have this morning with the comments, sorry for my part of the pollution).

  8. #8 Kjerstin
    October 7, 2008

    I must confess I don’t read science blogs for the science. If I need information about science, I prefer to search more systematically elsewhere. I read science blogs to learn how scientists think about science – I guess it’s what Markk above refers to as “getting a feel for what people who actively think about science have on their minds”. This, to me, is the big appeal of blogs written by scientists, because if I have no idea how scientists feel about science, how am I supposed to fully appreciate scientific information? I can’t really think of any other outlet that will give me this kind of knowledge. The mass media certainly don’t. If I were a scientist myself, doubtless there would be lots of meta discussions in my immediate surroundings, but since I’m not, blogs have turned out to be a goldmine for my interest in scientist’s take on science.

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