The Scientific Activist

Last Thursday, the Royal Institution (in conjunction with Nature Network London) sponsored a panel on science blogging at the London Apple Store. The panel was a pretty good cross section of the science blogosphere, featuring three bloggers who have followed differing career paths and write quite different blogs. Ben Goldacre is a physician and journalist, and his blog Bad Science is devoted to taking down pseudoscience. Jennifer Rohn is a postdoc, and on her blog Mind the Gap she mostly writes about life as a scientist. And, finally, Ed Yong is an information officer for Cancer UK. On his blog Not Exactly Rocket Science (which just recently moved to ScienceBlogs), he exclusively writes about peer-reviewed research.

I arrived at the event about 20 minutes late, and although I’d like to blame it on the rush hour traffic encountered on the bus ride from Oxford to London, it was really my fault for trying to cram in one last experiment before I took off. This wasn’t a huge problem, thanks to the setup at the Apple Store, where the back of the lecture theater opens up directly into the store (although this meant fairly frequent interruptions from shoplifting alarms and speakers turned up too loudly in the store). Unfortunately, I missed all of Ed Yong’s opening statement, and some of Jennifer Rohn’s.

When I arrived, Jennifer was discussing her career path–which took her from science, into publishing, and back again–and how that related to her blogging. She ended by positing that she thought science bloggers should be even more narcissistic–meaning that they should blog more about their lives as scientists. Narcissism seemed to be one of the main themes of the night, as Ben Goldacre, also gave it as one of his primary reasons for blogging: the ability to write about what he likes. In general, Ben said that he blogs for control. As someone who’s written quite a bit for major papers, he knows just how much editors can screw up stories. He said that while he can’t stop the media from saying stupid things, he can contribute to the dialogue on science positively. He sees the value of science blogs as giving “unmitigated science straight from the experts.”

XKCDThe majority of the event was devoted to Q&A, and the first question was about how bloggers find the time to blog. Ben advocated getting a nice hand-held device like the one he was currently holding up (and he humorously noted that he wasn’t getting paid to promote the product, because it wasn’t an iPhone and he didn’t actually know what it was called anyway). He added “I feel like my life is already kind of a really chaotic tabbed browsing session in Firefox,” so blogging comes pretty naturally. Ed advocated being an insomniac, and Jennifer noted that if you write about your own life, “no research is required.” Ben also emphasized the need to keep everything in perspective and remain in control of your life. Referencing the XKCD comic above, he said that instead of answering every aggressive commenter, you have to be able to say “somebody’s wrong on the internet, and that’s OK.”

After a question about money (short answer: blogging isn’t profitable), I got to ask a question of my own. Since narcissism was one of the themes of the day, I asked a question about science bloggers blogging about politics. Particularly, I noted that a common complaint I heard was that many science bloggers (certainly myself included) spend an inordinate amount of time blogging about politics or railing against creationism. So, I asked whether there was value in this, or whether these bloggers were just wasting their time. The unanimous response (somewhat surprisingly, I have to admit) was that this is, in fact, a very valuable and important activity. Jennifer said that she wasn’t sure “why there is this idea that scientists can only blog about science.” Ed agreed, and noted that this is why many of the science blogs focusing on political issues are so popular.

Later, someone asked a question about blogging as part of the research process, particularly the blogging of research findings. Unanimously, all three panelists thought that blogging unpublished research was a bad idea–mostly because scientists need to protect their work. Ben took the discussion a step further, noting that journals don’t accept previously-published work. “There’s a good reason for this,” he said. “Scientific findings should be presented in full, with the complete methods” so that they can be fully evaluated by experts. Following up on this, Ed mentioned that he tries to include as much about the methods of the studies he’s blogging as he can–and that this is what usually gets the ax first in mainstream journalism. Ben pointed out that the most important thing is that the original paper is linked to. In fact, linking was another major theme of the evening, and it was brought up several times that one of the values of blogs is the compulsive linking, which plays two important but disparate roles. On one hand, linking allows readers to readily evaluate the source of the information being blogged about. Additionally, linking to other blogs is the primary way of building community in the blogosphere–allowing for the rapid spread of information and the ability of a relatively new blog to find a readership quite quickly.

The event was over before I knew it. Although I didn’t necessarily learn any new fundamental facts about science blogs, I did gain some new insight into the various forces that shape the way in which different bloggers blog. Best of all, though, we had the obligatory trip to the pub after the panel. Ben didn’t join us, which was unfortunate since he seemed like quite a character, but I did get to hang out a bit with Jennifer and Ed. I also got to meet Mo from Neurophilosphy, who was a delight and was very enthusiastic about the science he’s currently studying. There was quite a crowd at the pub, which also included a few people from Nature, an editor from Seed, and several other interesting people. I had such a good time, in fact, that after a few pints I eventually I realized it was past 11 pm, I hadn’t eaten dinner yet, and I had less than an hour to catch my bus back to Oxford.

I did manage to catch my bus on time, and although I was a little tired in the lab the next day, it was certainly worth the trip down to London.

Comments

  1. #1 Martin Robbins
    March 4, 2008

    Thanks for the review. I’m based in Cambridge and I was sorely tempted to come down, but had other commitments. Sounds like a great night though!

    Regarding some of the topics… My answer to your question would be to point out that good policy depends on science (and science depends on good policy). As a result, the scientific (and therefore science blogging) community can’t afford to stay out of politics, or behave as though it is somehow separate. We need to put evidence out there, and rigorously argue our case.

    Having said that, I’m far from convinced that bloggers are having any real impact on the public debate on these issues, which frustrates me a little (Excuse the plug, but I wrote a post about this recently here – http://layscience.net/?q=node/20). Science bloggers seem to interact mostly with either themselves or their enemies on the internet, but seem less inclined to seek to interact with the neutrals online or in real life (which is where a lot of battles of the teaching of evolution in schools, safety of vaccines or validity of climate change theory will be won or lost).

    Anyway, I’m enjoying your blog, keep up the good work,
    Martin

  2. #2 Nick Anthis
    March 4, 2008

    You should have made it down–it was a lot of fun. Also, while there, I heard murmurs about an upcoming London science blogging conference, possibly in the fall. I can’t really say much more about it right now, though.

    Anyway, it looks like you’re doing good work on your blog, and I added a link in my blogroll.

  3. #3 Martin Robbins
    March 4, 2008

    Cheers, compliment returned. It’s very new so nice to get some encouragement!

  4. #4 Mo
    March 6, 2008

    Good to meet you too Nick.