Blogging Is Not Mandatory

I mentioned on Twitter that I was thinking of proposing a Science Online program item about the professionalization of blogging, throwing in a link to post from a couple months ago. That included a link to this SlideShare:

And that was re-tweeted by Chris Chabris, kicking off a gigantic conversation about the whole idea of scientists communicating directly with the public (most of which took place after I went to bed last night, so I only saw it in my Twitter interactions this morning…). One of the things that came up in the course of that was the idea that I was advocating forcing scientists to talk to a broad public. That, of course, was never my intent, but this comes up a lot, so I might as well do a post about it.

The talk whose slides are embedded above lifts a framing device from Robert Krulwich of WNYC’s RadioLab, distorting the history of science a little to use Newton and Galileo as two models of how to write about science. Newton, of course, wrote the Principia Mathematica in famously opaque Latin, readable only by experts. This was, he later claimed, so that he wouldn’t be “baited by little Smatterers in Mathematicks. Isaac could be kind of a dick.

Galileo, on the other hand, wrote his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in the vernacular, as a dialogue between three characters. It’s very accessible, and even funny in a 1632 kind of way, and was widely read and influential despite being banned. It also landed him in trouble with the Inquisition and he died under house arrest.

This is a little unfair to both sides– Galileo was known to use Latin cryptograms to hide results, and Newton’s Opticks is in English and was very widely read– but they serve as rough exemplars of styles of communication that are still common today. Newton wrote technical publications aimed at experts, and Galileo wrote for a broader public. But while there are examples of both around today, the Newtonian mode of publication absolutely dominates academic science. Professional advancement is almost exclusively linked to the publication of technical articles readable only by other experts in the field.

I don’t think this is really a healthy situation, for anyone. I think we need more people working in a more Galileian mode– taking the science that they’re doing, and communicating it in terms that are more broadly understandable. There are people who do this, but they’re either outside the structure of academic science– writers, etc.– or maintaining a parallel career in these kind of “outreach” activities, with little support or compensation from within academia.

What we need is not to force everybody in science to take up broader communication– that would be ridiculous, like saying that everybody in science needs to learn Riemannian geometry. Just as there are biologists who would gain absolutely no benefit from learning the mathematics of curved surfaces, there are scientists who would provide no benefit if they tried to communicate their results to a general public. It requires a specific set of skills and interests, and there’s nothing wrong with people choosing not to work in that particular mode– Ben Lillie’s post about Nima Arkani-Hamed is a great example.

What we need is to recognize that broader communication is a legitimate part of science, and something that should be recognized and rewarded. We don’t need everybody in science to write blogs and pop-science articles, but we need to acknowledge that writing blogs and pop-science books is a legitimate part of scientific activity, and not some weird and disreputable extracurricular activity. Those with the skills and inclination to do broader communication should be encouraged, not written off as “media whores.”

What I would like to see, and honestly, had hoped in 2002 that we might see by now, is a larger number of professional scientists blogging on the side. Not on the obsessive basis of full-time bloggers, but now and then, as events warrant, to provide some additional insight into life in science. There aren’t a huge number of people in science with the necessary skills and attitudes, but there are more than you currently find in blogdom.

Circling back around to the original comment that kicked this off, I think this model of blogging has been somewhat undercut by the professionalization of the hobby. That is, running a blog about science has evolved into less of a sideline activity for people with day jobs doing science and more of a stepping stone for people who want a career as science writers. That change has both good and bad aspects– on the good side, it’s raised the bar for the level of communication skill required to make a mark in blogging, producing a ton of high-quality material. On the bad side, though, it’s made it harder for people who don’t necessarily want to write for a living to get into it– starting a blog seems more like a decision to go in a different career direction than a standard career in science, making it a much weightier decision than it really ought to be.

As I said, I thought about throwing that out as a program topic for Science Online, but I’m not sure it would really work, due to audience mismatch. I think the people who are committed enough to go to that meeting skew more toward seeing the professionalization as a good thing, while the scientists who might be wavering about the idea of blogging and need encouragement wouldn’t go to that conference in the first place. So it might not be all that useful, in the end.

Comments

  1. #1 Kelly
    United States
    May 31, 2013

    Actually, I think this is precisely why it should be a topic at Science Online – and why I think Science Online needs to expand it’s audience in 2014. I noticed that the 2013 Science Online was quite a bit what you mentioned, professionals getting together to talk – and I also had the impression that this wasn’t what Science Online was supposed to be about. (That is, it’s not supposed to be a professionals meeting about professionals doing professional science writing.) The content does need to skew a little bit more towards the academic or scientist who blogs, rather than being about breaking into or maintaining in a field of science writers/journalists.

  2. #2 damigiana
    May 31, 2013

    I find your example pretty sad, since biology and pure mathematics are pretty much at opposite ends of the spectrum of divulgation.I think most human beings with a college level education would benefit for having a superficial knowledge of mathematics to match the other sciences: if you say gene, or electron, or hydrocarbur, everybody nods their head acknoweldging they’ve heard the concept before. Now try to the same with manifold.

  3. #3 Alex
    May 31, 2013

    Since you noted that it would make little sense for every scientist to devote a substantial effort to outreach (since not every science is suited for it), what’s your opinion of Broader Impact?

  4. #4 Eric Lund
    May 31, 2013

    Speaking for myself and not on Chad’s behalf: My experience has been that “broader impact” is synonymous with “trainees involved” (usually students, although you might be able to get away with a postdoc). It’s received wisdom among my peers that an NSF proposal that doesn’t involve students or postdocs has no chance of being funded. Obviously that rule would not apply directly to things like major equipment or early faculty career grants, but even in those cases there is an undercurrent of getting students involved.

    Of course, I’m sure this is strongly field-dependent, and does not necessarily apply to Chad’s research area, but that’s the view from my corner of the research world.

  5. #5 Matt Leifer
    http://mattleifer.info
    May 31, 2013

    I think that part of the problem is that people tend to view blogs as a particular genre of writing rather than as a tool. When I used to blog regularly, I was often asked, “Should I start a blog?”. My answer was, “Do you have a need for a website where you can easily display items in a reverse chronological order and possibly allow outside comments?”. It was not, “Do you want to improve your public communications skills?” or “Are you interested in outreach?” or “Can you commit several hours a week to it?”. The latter are relevant to a particular type of blog writing that happens to be popular, but the blog itself is just a piece of software that makes no particular demands. It is much easier to persuade people to jump in once they realise this.

    When you look into it, many academics do have a need for such a site, as they often have a “news” section on their website where they post information about new publications, talks they are giving, etc. These days, much of this is done on social media, but I think it makes sense to have this stuff on your own website as well. Once such a thing is set up, it is very easy to post longer content on an informal basis as and when the need or urge arises, e.g. perhaps your research area gets mentioned in the news and you want to provide some commentary on the issue or perhaps you have a burning desire to clear up a common misconception that is not original enough to write a paper about. It does not have to be a regular commitment and it does not have to drive a lot of traffic to be worthwhile. After all, if we are happy to write technical articles that only three people will ever read then we should be happy to write shorter things that few people will read, but that might get picked up if we happen to do it well and at the right time.

    The increasing professionalization of blogging only reinforces the problem as most people will only encounter blog posts that become sufficiently popular, and that is by and large going to be the professional and traditional science communication type of blog. I don’t know the best way to counter this view, but that is what we need to do if we want to encourage the activity.

  6. #6 Chad Orzel
    May 31, 2013

    I think the Broader Impact is a nice idea, because it’s worthwhile to force people to think at least a little bit about communication of their work. It’s not really much more than that, though, at least judging from the handful of proposals I get sent by the NSF every year. Most of the Broader Impact statements I see are pretty half-assed– “Oh, yeah, we’ll train some graduate students, and publish in journals…”– which does not suggest to me that there’s any feeling that a slapdash Broader Impact statement will negatively affect the chances of funding.

    Of course, the ideal situation would be for a good Broader Impact statement to provide enough of a boost that a proposal that was good-but-not-great on Intellectual Merit would be funded nonetheless. I’ve seen so few really good Broader Impact statements, though, that I have no way to judge whether that occurs.

  7. #7 Chad Orzel
    May 31, 2013

    Hit “Submit” too soon– I also wanted to endorse Matt’s comment, more or less in its entirety. I like the framing of blog as software, and will remember that for future use.

  8. #8 G
    California USA
    May 31, 2013

    Yes and yes, “what you said.”

    Though, why not include blogging in grad student education? Each professor sets up a blog, and then each student publishes at least one post each year and replies to comments for a few days. That should be sufficient to keep the blogs reasonably up-to-date, and get the students in the habit of blogging.

    Having independent blogging platforms such as this one, is important. 6/7 of the world is _not_ on Facebook, and a hefty plurality of the more-educated part of that 6/7 is not on Facebook because we detest Facebook for its obnoxious anti-privacy policies. Contrast to ScienceBlogs: being able to sign in here more-or-less anonymously is a great advantage to facilitating open communication with the public, plus or minus the occasional troll that can be vanquished easily enough. Independent sites vary in their policies, but at least they aren’t part of the Facebook/Google Borg.

    Blogs that are attached to universities might also attract comments from secondary school students interested in particular subject matter and considering their choices for undergrad education. If I was in highschool and interested in specific universities, I’d be on their blogs testing the waters: what’s the local culture like, are people nice or nasty, what are the strengths & weaknesses of various departments, research interests, etc. And this kind of stuff is inherently G-rated so it would be always-OK for persons under 18 to participate.

    Here’s a potentially interesting side-effect: Secondary school students who hang out on university science blogs for reasons of self-interest (checking out options for college) may get enthused about their online conversations and tell their friends. This will attract more kids to the science blogs, and tend to spread a higher degree of science literacy into the secondary schools, where it’s desperately needed.

    What do you think?

  9. #9 hildabast
    statistically-funny.blogspot.com
    June 1, 2013

    Great post – the Newtonian/Galileo example is really useful. I’d be interested in seeing more for those of whose full-time gig is science, not writing or PR. Not that I didn’t find it interesting, but sessions that meant you could see who are the others with whom you might have more in common would be great. If you’re looking for someone to throw their lot in with you to come up with something that would bring attendees like us out of the woodwork and maybe interest others too, I’d be happy to.