Why Write About Science on a Blog?

A reader of mine posed a series of questions to an earlier blog entry that I unfortunately neglected to respond to at the time. I am researching an article that I am freelance writing for a journal (deadline TODAY, YIKES!!) and ran across her original comment, which I reposted below the fold, and I am really interested to read your thoughts about this.

A couple months ago, Chardyspal asked;

I have a few questions for those who consider blogging to not be a good thing for scientists to do...hopefully the connections to blogging will not be difficult to make -
What do they think of teaching (in particular, since they were postdoc advisors)?
Of seminars?
Of conferences?
Of committees and advisory groups?
Of consultations?
Of talking to colleagues, other scientists or other interested people about their subject?
Of interpreting their subject(s) for the public?
Of interpreting their subject(s) for grants and fundraising?
Of interpreting their subject(s) for developing a curriculum or to a college/university for employment or development of a research or academic program?
Of collaborating?
Of writing, editing or reviewing papers, articles and books?
Of writing letters, making telephone calls or other personal communications about their subject(s) to colleagues or other interested persons?
Isn't it a joy to be working on research, a project or out in the field, to report on the progress of your work, perhaps your life's dream, and find that others are interested in it, people you never would have thought of perhaps, and that you are not alone in your interest? Your work in the dusty libraries, museum specimen drawers or itchy, lonely outback is exciting to many, many other people?
That you may inspire others?
And isn't it a joy when students, colleagues and other interested persons or groups show their interest in measurable ways such as by visiting - site meters - (and presumably reading and contemplating) what has been written and offer thoughts or ask questions? Participating in seeking, questioning, learning, understanding, and sharing? Is that not what science is about?
The point, basically, is that blogging is communication. It is a relatively new form/forum/format, but is communication, just like the above. It is the content of the communication, just like the above, that determines whether or not it is of benefit to scientists (from a scientific point of view).

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This may be lame, but... I'm a high school science teacher, and this is exactly what I've been trying to do with my students. We have had a class blog since last January and have had the pleasure of several "guest bloggers" from the real world of research, but we're always looking for more. (Last year's posts are still visible there; I had to delete the students' posts and comments due to their graduation and the next crop of students entering.) If anyone would like to try out blogging on a short-term basis, I've got 90 high school kids who'd be a great audience... :)

The question is something of a straw man and therefore kind of unanswerable. It's a straw man because it predisposes that science blogging is of questionable utility but all other kinds of blogging are perfectly OK, including blogs about random stuff from an individual's life to sports blogs to blogs about ostensible sasquatch sightings. Obviously, people blog about things that they (the bloggers) think other people ought to know, and they blog in order to provide a conduit to that information. Most scientists with whom I've had the pleasure to interact love to talk about science (and the science of their specialty in particular)! They also tend to feel, to varying degrees, that a lack of comprehension of their science by others is a serious deficit that needs to be rectified.

That the public needs to understand science is more or less tautological -- one could hypothetically make the argument that blogging about sports, for example, is of dubious importance because 500 years from know, will whomever wins the Superbowl or World Cup this year have done anything to advance human civilization? (Someone could make that argument...I'm not!!!) I think everyone, scientist or no, basically understands that a huge component of where humanity ends up in the future in terms of knowledge, understanding, technological advancement, etc. is all dependent on the science of today. People that do not understand science end up supporting viewpoints and policies that slow down scientific progress (e.g., pushing intelligent design in education, pulling money for scientific funding), which is ultimately detrimental to everyone. Thus, trying to get people to understand science is, as I said, tautological. They may not need to understand every aspect of every science, to be sure, so not every science-based blog entry (or theme-based blog) is going to be of interest to everyone -- that's too much information for anyone to assimilate! But whatever tidbit of science does catch an individual's interest, and thereby educates them, is a good thing.

I'm not saying that Chardyspal is wholly barking up the wrong tree, because I think it's clear that she is leaning toward a perception that science blogging is basically in the same category as all the other teaching-based things that scientists have to do (and, in my experience, most of them like to do!), which basically supports the "any exposure to science is good" hypothesis.

These days there is more blogging about science blogging than actual science blogging (especially from women and disproportionately rabid atheists).

well sara, it sounds like you need to start writing your own blog since you obviously are so much better at it than we are.

Regarding sara's comment (#2), isn't it curious how there seems to be a much lower threshold for applying words like 'rabid' to atheists relative to theists?

Take 'militant' for example, for a theist to earn such an epithet they'd almost have to go so far as actually raising a militia, whereas as an atheist you can be called militant for merely expressing your disbelief and daring to point out how the belief of others may not be a particularly positive force in the world.

Similarly there are many theist bloggers out there who no-doubt only get called 'passionate' for expressing views far more extreme than those of the 'rabid' atheist science-bloggers sara feels so let down by.

Quite a revealing discrepancy wouldn't you say?

The point is that if science blogging is intended to build a bridge between the scientists and the others, creating another sub-culture of science bloggers within in the already disconnected culture of scientists introduces another order of separation. When science bloggers start linking and commenting only to each other (I am not accusing you, GrrlScientist of this), I fail to understand how they are committed to some goal of bringing science to the people. And when those bloggers further specify themselves as "women scientists" (again, you do not do this in your blog, contrary to what might be guessed from the name) or atheists, or "lefties," then they are not writing for "the people." Birds or topology, for example, are politically neutral special interests. The others are rather too special.

Seeing this list would put some things into perspective for many people, I think. Many of the scientists I know are VERY against science blogging, and consider it nothing more than a waste of time. They also tend to play lipservice to things like teaching and outreach, because those don't bring any direct benefits to them and take away from time they could spend becoming the next big thing. I think that even if science blogging could be considered as on a par with teaching, many scientists (particularly in biomedicine) would probably just pay it lip service and then try their hardest to get out of doing it.

Regarding the comment by Horwood Beer-Master (No. 4), I would expect science bloggers to be rational and constructive rather than hateful and as intolerant and cultish as the enemy. The "let down" is that those whom people would expect to be armed with argument resort to the same spurning tactics. Rabid is an appropriate qualifier for those cases, and I would think that this would be a concern of the Seed.

This topic is not really relevant here, as that part of my comment was not to be attributed to the author of this blog.

As a non-scientist "civilian," I personally have gotten a great deal of value out of Science Blogs. I feel I learn a lot - not just about science itself, but about how different scientists think and view the world. It has put a very human face on science for me and made it much more accessible.

Some of the blogs here range the gamut from being almost purely scientific content to being almost none at all, instead about the culture of science and scientists, about political issues that effect science and scientists, or just about things that a blogger is thinking about totally unrelated to science. All of it is good because it opens up the world of science and scientists to us who are outside the world of science but are deeply interested in it.

I read PZ's blog on a daily basis because I find great resonance with his perspective. I read Dispatches from the Culture Wars because he covers that area of politics I am very interested in. I read Respectful Insolence because his views on "alternative medicine" very much agree with mine - especially his coverage of autism issues because I am mildly autistic myself. I read this blog because I find kinship with you and your personal struggles with depression as well as I love your pictures of birds and other natural wonders (and the subway tile art). I read articles from quite a few of the other blogs that catch my attention in the "Last 24 Hours" section.

So, yes, at least for me, I feel that science blogging is successfully communicating the world of science and scientists very well.