Why Blog About Science?

This week's "Ask a Science Blogger" question is, "What makes a good science teacher?" I don't know how to answer that. I've had many science teachers, some of whom were very good, some of whom were very bad, and most of whom fell somewhere in between. And they were all different. The only thing I can think of that the good ones had was a knowledge of the material and the ability to communicate it effectively, but that's pretty much the definition of a good science teacher (or a good teacher in general), so giving that as an answer for what makes a good science teacher would be pretty pointless. So fuck it, 'm going to answer my own "Ask a Science Blogger" question. But first, I have to ask a Science Blogger. So...

Chris, what purposes do science blogs serve?

That's an excellent question, anonymous reader. What purposes do science blogs serve? And by science blogs, I don't mean ScienceBlogsTM. We know the purpose of ScienceBlogs: "To create the world's largest conversation about science" (if you put that statement through an Enigma Machine, it always comes out "To make Seed Media Group money," for some strange reason). I mean... err, the anonymous reader means science blogs in general. Now, as a science blogger, I ask myself this question very often (I've asked it twice in this post already!), because just about every time I sit down to write a post, I get the feeling that the Apartment Food Hobos aptly expressed thusly:

[B]logs just re-affirm your sincere commitment to becoming a generational cliché. We deal with the self-loathing every time we post.

I don't want to be a generational cliché, and I'm not too fond of self-loathing, either, so I try hard to convince myself that there are reasons for blogging about science that go beyond that. So far, I've come up with four purposes that I think are of value, and that science blogs can serve well. They are:

  1. Communication between scientists.

    I think I may have said this before, but cognitive psychologists don't really need this. It's a relatively small science, and to date, we don't seem to have any trouble communicating without blogs (though I can't imagine what the old-timers did before email). Larger sciences, like say biology or chemistry, might benefit greatly from the medium, though.

  2. Sorting out new ideas.

    One of the best ways to sort out new ideas is to write them down, and blogs offer a place to write ideas down. On top of that, you can get rapid feedback on those ideas through blogs. So, I think they can serve this purpose pretty well too.

  3. Correcting the errors of mainstream science reporting.

    As I said in a previous post, I think this is one of the best reasons for science blogs to exist. Right now, I don't think they've had much of an impact on science journalism, or the use of science by pundits and politicians, but as the readership of science blogs grows, they will be able to make journalists think twice before they write about science that they haven't researched thoroughly, and make politicians and pundits think twice before they misuse or misrepresent science to justify their positions. Because if they don't, a well-read science blogger may just embarass them publically

  4. Educating the public about science.

    Don't tell anyone, but the reason I wrote this post was to get to this one. You see, I think this is the most important purpose that science blogs can serve, and I don't think they've been serving it well. Oh sure, science blogs are educating people, but think about who they're educating. If I were a betting man, I'd wager that most people who read science blogs are of above-average intelligence and science-literate. They are people who were already interested in science in general, or in the specific sciences about which they read on blogs. It's a good thing that we're educating these people, but it's not necessary that we do so. If we don't write about cognitive psychology or evolutionary biology, these people will probably read about it outside of the blogosophere. These are not the people that we need to be educating.

    If you're reading this (hi Mom!), chances are you fit into the group I just describe (above-average intelligence, high science-literacy), and therefore you're probably well aware that over the last few years, survey after survey has shown that the bulk of the U.S. population is anything but science-literate. We live in a country full of evolution-deniers, global warming skeptics, and people who use scientifically-invalid arguments against abortion, contraception, and the "morning after pill," to name just a few politically and socially relevant issues. These are the people we need to be educating, because god knows the mainstream media ain't gonna do it, and for those who've already finished their formal education, it's too late for the education system to do it. It's up to alternative media, like blogs, to do the job, or at least to do part of it. And I don't think it's a stretch to say that we're not.

    Why aren't we doing it? Now that's a tough "Ask a Science Blogger" question. I'm going to offer one answer, which is really several answers, but I doubt it is (or they are) the only one(s). My answer starts with the fact that, in my opinion, too many science bloggers tend to adopt what I call the Leiter approach to blogging when addressing people who aren't very science-literate. What the Leiter approach iinvolves is sinking to your opponent's level, and thus reacting to him with insults and recriminations, instead of reasons and arguments. The justification for this usually goes something like this. As the political dialogue in this country over the last several years has shown, people aren't convinced by civility, reason, and evidence; they're convinced by the side who beats its opponents into the ground rhetorically. So, if we're going to convince people, we have to get our our rhetorical baseball bats and start swinging them. This might work in politics, but does it work in education? I don't think it does.

    Sure, reason and evidence alone won't convince most people, especially when reason and evidence contradict their highly valued beliefs. Yet, every time a scientist uses labels like "stupid," "misogynistic," or "immoral" to describe a creationist, a person who believes that the morning-after pill kills embryos every time it's used, or a person who doens't believe that global warming is a result of human behavior, many of the people we should be educating, who also hold these factually incorrect views, rightly feel like they're also being called stupid, misogynistic, or immoral. And the best way to get someone to stop listening to you make people believe you're calling them something like that. It may be that the people who are publically arguing for those mistaken views are stupid, misogynistic, immoral, or whathaveyou, but that's beside the point. The point is, those are not the people we should be talking to.

    We should be talking to the Average Jane's and Joe's who also believe those things -- the people who vote for the politicians who can use those mistaken views to set policy. If we are to be educators, then those people should be our students, and we should talk to them, and about them, like we would talk to and about students in our actual classes. That mean respecting them, and respecting them entails giving them reason and evidence, along with addressing the perceived conflict between reason and evidence and their cherished beliefs. And we have to do it at a level that they can understand, recognizing that they're not all college graduates who've read Hawking, Dawkins, or Dennett, or who even understand the basics of how science works.

    That ain't easy. It's definitely much more difficult than talking to you folks. Most science bloggers know this, or course, because we teach in classrooms. We know how much hard work has to go into it; how difficult it can be to distill what are often very complex ideas into a language that just about everybody can understand. But if science blogs are to be genuinely useful, and to have any impact on our society, we have to start rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty, and we have to start now, so that we can keep the current generation of science-illiterates from raising another one.

    UPDATE: Razib makes a very good point over at Gene Expression. He points out that science blogs can add "a layer of intellectual granularity to the understanding of educated and science savvy folk of specific fields." I agree 100%. That's one of the things that I've tried to do (as Razib notes). In this post, I didn't mean to imply that it's not important to talk to the educated folk who currently read science blogs. It is, but I wanted to emphasise how we're neglecting the most important audience. I'm glad that the people who read this blog are highly intelligent and science-literate; it makes for some great discussions. I just think that I, and other science bloggers, should work harder to get a broader audience, if we're to serve the role of educators well.


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But why is an Average Jane or Joe going to choose to read a science blog? Not insulting them is nice, but I don't think it'll be enough to draw them in on its own. The basic problem is the flip-side of the problem with science-literate blog readers. People who read science blogs would probably learn about science elsewhere, and people who don't learn about science elsewhere probably won't read science blogs. So how do you break open this dilemma? Here are some thoughts:

- There are some people, at the margins, who read about science on blogs but wouldn't learn much science elsewhere. These could be 1) people who are avid blog readers but not avid book readers, 2) people whose interest in science is enough to get them to read a bite-size blog post but not a whole book, or 3) people who like the style of blog posts and the personal touch.

- Science blogs (and ScienceBlogs TM) encourage science-literate people to pay attention to a broader range of sciences.

- By improving media coverage, science blogs indirectly help people become more science literate.

- Science blogs can train their readers to spread science literacy to people that they know, by making them better at talking about science in an interesting, informative, informal way.

Blar, as blogs become more and more widely-read, which I think they are, especially during election years, I think the way to reach the average Jane and Joe to read science blogs is to get the blogs that the average Jane and Joe reads to link to science blogs. However, those are the blogs that are written by evolution deniers, global warming skeptics, and people who know shit about the science of birth control and abortion, and end up being the targets of the public scorn of science bloggers. That might get you a link, but one that highlights how uncivil you're being towards the views shared average Jane and Joe.

So, in order to start educating a broader audience, you have to engage the blogs they read with respect and civility. Granted, it will take a while, but I think you can get them to read science blogs at least occasionally, and to begin to plant seeds of knowledge in their heads, by doing so.

"At twenty years of age, the will reigns; at thirty, the wit; and at forty, the judgment" (Benjamin Franklin).
Logic sustains where all else fails, keep up the good work.

I think this does not fairly represent Leiter's approach at all. He gave detailed arguments against for example VanDyke on Intelligent Design. His polemical style just makes his blog entertaining to read.

Sure, Leiter does give arguments on occasion, but for the most part, it's just a bunch of huffing and puffing. That's not to say that he couldn't present arguments, he just doesn't.