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.