ScienceOnline'09: Interview with Stephanie Zvan

The series of interviews with some of the participants of the 2008 Science Blogging Conference was quite popular, so I decided to do the same thing again this year, posting interviews with some of the people who attended ScienceOnline'09 back in January.

Today, I asked Stephanie Zvan of the Almost Diamonds and Quiche Moraine blogs and co-moderator of the session on Science Fiction on Science Blogs, to answer a few questions.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Who are you? What is your (scientific) background?

I have one of the least scientific backgrounds of the people attending SO'09. What background I do have is in the social sciences, which makes me even more of an outlier. I have a degree in psychology that taught me a remarkable amount about research design, however, and I've never really gotten over that. In fact, it kept me from following my intended path of becoming certified for counseling. It turned out there just wasn't any good evidence that most counseling had any lasting effect (which has since changed).

Aside from that, well, I'm terrible at describing myself and make no guarantees of consistency anyway.

What do you want to do/be when (and if ever) you grow up?

I don't think I'll ever be content to do just one thing, but I want to write more than I do. Writing brings in no income at this point, so it's relegated to the sidelines more than I like. Ideally, my young adult science fiction novel will find a publisher and sell well to a bunch of kids who scream for more. We'll see how that goes.

What is your Real Life job?


Aside from saying that I'm an analyst who works for a large corporation, I don't talk about my job. The information I deal with is interesting enough that I see my work in the news sometimes, but ultimately, none of it is mine, and the clients I work with shouldn't ever stumble across me online and worry that some of it might become public.

And apropos of the panel on blogging and employers, that was made clear to me when I started with my company. It's a general policy, but it doesn't take much imagination to apply it to blogging.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

I'm a communication geek, so it all interests me. It's fascinating to watch the tower walls fall and see people collaborating, commiserating and debating simply because the informality of most blogs

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook?

For a fiction writer, some kind of dynamic online presence is a requirement these days. Well, that's not true if your books debut on the NYT bestsellers list, but it is the standard advice. Blogging started as self-promotion for me, but I'm terrible at self-promotion. The blog didn't really gel until I started talking about the social, political and economic topics I'm actually interested in. Discussion of contentious topics online may not be the best way to attract an audience for young adult fiction, but I'm not sure I can do anything else and still blog with any frequency or interest for others.

I've been on Facebook for over a year and Twitter for a couple of months. Both have ended up as a combination of news feed and free-ranging silly conversation. That suits me perfectly, but I have no idea how or whether that connects to my work beyond keeping me informed and entertained.

What are your thoughts on the never-ending debates between groups of people who are generally on the same side, but differ in one tiny detail, usually of strategy? For example, in the evolution/creation debate, silent vs. vocal atheists, or different strands of feminism (including the question of women in STEM), people who are on the same page 99% of the time, spend a lot of time aggressively arguing the remaining 1%?

This question is your revenge for me asking you about science journalism on the radio without giving you time to prep, isn't it?

I think there's a certain inevitability to this. There are lots of ways to talk about what's going on, but being me, I'll talk about it in terms of voice.

The places where I see these 1% arguments are in groups of people whose voices have traditionally been suppressed or marginalized. Feminists', immigrants', poor peoples' and racial and sexual minorities' voices have been ignored, cut off and dismissed. Atheists have been drowned out by the hue and cry the religious raise every time we've reminded them we exist.

Being heard has become easier and is becoming easier, but it is still not easy. Blogs, etc. give us a great place to speak, but speaking doesn't guarantee that anyone will listen. Even the people who do read us won't necessarily work very hard to understand us. In fact, since we're saying unfamiliar and uncomfortable things, they have a vested interest in misreading us. We've all had a reader who comes along and leaves a comment that makes us say, "You thought I said what?"

99% of the time, those are the people who want to continue to suppress all our voices. The other 1%, they're us. (Actually, considering how internet audiences self-select, it's significantly more than 1%.) In the middle of an ongoing fight, it's very difficult to remember that disagreeing about 1% means that we are in the same place on the fundamentals. We're even in the same place on a great many of the details.

1% is noise. It's nuances and connotations of words. It's different cultural definitions of politeness. It's varying priorities on a common to do list. It's not restating all the things we have in common every time we want to speak. It's shaping messages for different groups of people who still aren't at 75%, much less 99%. It's hauling one argument out of the common pile on any given day instead of another.

1% is not an attack, not even in the middle of a battle. In fact, it's a sign that we're winning and that we're doing something very important as we win. We are, after all, trying to build a world in which it's okay for people to disagree.

So what do we do about all the drama? Oh, hell, why ask me? Oh, right. Because I'll answer.

Honestly, I don't know what we do. I think the answer lies in spending some time picturing what a world in which everyone gets a voice really looks like. It's a scary place in some ways. There aren't any guarantees that it will make life better for any of us as individuals, although I have to uncomfortably admit that those of us with strong or persuasive voices will likely be disproportionally privileged.

One of the things that those of us who have those voices are going to have to figure out is how to balance being forceful (or charming or cutting) enough to overcome society's dominant messages with creating an atmosphere in which the quieter and more awkward voices aren't shouted down. I think some of the arguments that are happening are steps in the direction of figuring this out, but I don't think anyone has the answers right now.

When and how did you discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any new cool science blogs while at the Conference?

I was hanging out in the science fiction and fantasy blogosphere, I don't remember where, when someone posted a link to something cool at Cognitive Daily. My degree is in psychology, and I'm fascinated by the test required to tease out effects in cognitive psych. I was hooked.

Then I discovered there was more to ScienceBlogs and much more to the science blogosphere, and I was doomed. I didn't really discover much new through the conference, but I did get a sense of just how widely I was already reading. One thing I did get to do at the conference was tell Greta and Dave Munger this story, which it had never occurred to me I'd be able to do.

Is there anything that happened at this Conference - a session, something someone said or did or wrote - that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?

Aside from meeting so many very cool people, two events stand out for me. One was having dinner with Tom Levenson and discussing one of your journalism/new media posts, The Shock Value of Science Blogs. We both started off by saying there were parts of the post we disagreed with. Each of us was talking about a different part of the post, but as we went into more depth on the topic, neither of us really disagreed with the other. That really emphasized for me the level of detail at which some of these disagreements between allies happen.

The other thing that is imprinted on my memory is standing in the hallway as sessions were in progress. The door to one session opened, a session on impact factor or open access or one of the related issues on that topic, and a young woman came out. She said she needed more coffee to deal with the discussion. She walked that direction, stopped, and turned back toward me. She wasn't quite crying.

"I want to support open access. I think it's important, and I want to submit to open access journals. But if I don't submit to the big journals with high impact factors, how will I end up with a job and funding to keep researching and submitting? My adviser is young and new. How will she get tenure if we do this?"

The young always fight our revolutions, and we always lose some to the cause.

It was so nice to meet you and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again next January.

It was lovely and invigorating and exhausting to meet you too. I hope to be there.


See the 2008 interview series and 2009 series for more.

More like this