True Science Blogging, or "Hey, Check Out This Navel!"

The kerfuffle over the Bayblab incident has produced no end of discussion here and elsewhere. Hilariously, this included a lengthy discussion of why they see ScienceBlogs as cliquish, conducted entirely in the private back-channel forum that nobody else can read. Irony: it's like gold-y and bronze-y, but made of iron.

I realize that there's nothing you'd rather read than noodly explorations of the true essence of science blogging, except maybe copies of the Federal income tax code. But since I'm sitting here in the lab waiting for the turbo pump to spin down so I can break vacuum (because I are a geeenyus, I forgot to turn it off yesterday), with no other inspiration, that's what I'm going to write about. I'll at least put the bulk of it below the fold, to spare those who would rather not have to deal with this stuff.

Probably the best take on the whole thing that I've seen was from MWC at Discount Thoughts:

One of the problems that scientists face--in America, at least--is an anti-intellectual culture that stereotypes them as socially inept "eggheads" who ramble endlessly about esoteric subjects and cannot relate to normal people. While this may be true of me a few scientists, it's not true of that group as large. The "false impression" that scientists should be concerned about is the widespread belief that they are some weird breed of alterna-human that lives on tax dollars and has no experience of the "real world". Scientists who blog on politics, or their personal lives, or that great ham sandwich they had last night perform a valuable service for all of us by making it clear that scientists are just as (ab?)normal as everybody else.

I strongly agree with this. The blogs I like best, by scientists or otherwise, are the ones where there's some personality to go along with the main content. I read Kevin Drum and Matthew Yglesias as much for the cat blogging and indie rock commentary as for any deep insight they provide into politics. Cosmic Variance and Cocktail Party Physics are great reads precisely because they mix other things in with the physics discussion. That's what keeps me coming back. You can take this a little too far (*cough* CliffordJohnson *cough*), but I think it's valuable for scientists to show an interest in something beyond science.

Returning to the current kerfuffle, I find myself somewhat mystified by this frequently cited John Hawks post. In it, he boldly asserts that people do too want to read about science:

It seems a little silly, but I want to correct that misconception. Blogging about actual science is not a turn-off for readers. If it were, people like me or Carl Zimmer, or Cognitive Daily wouldn't have many readers. In fact, I get vastly more traffic for science-related posts than for anything else.

But in the next paragraph, he turns around and admits that he hasn't actually done the relevant experiment:

Now, it is fair to say that there is an ascertainment bias at work: I really don't do cat posts, or Dawkins-worship, I never write about politics, and I keep creationist-bashing to a minimum. I used to do a share of white supremacist-bashing, but I can't say that it really drove much traffic. No, I pretty much do science, and, well, science. In fact, my front page right now has nothing except science -- except this post, of course.

All I can say to this is, "Huh?"

I mean, look, I get vastly more traffic for science posts than I do for posts about farmer's markets in the greater Los Angeles area. Of course, I've never actually posted about farmer's markets in the greater Los Angeles area, but why let that get in the way of a good assertion?

I've done the experiment, and I posted the results:

Five of the top ten [most visited posts of 2007] are about politics or "culture wars" issues, and one of those is just blatant atheist-baiting. Only four of the top ten are really about science, and one of those is about string theory, which is the physics equivalent of the culture wars. If you want to consistently generate lots of blog traffic, you can't go wrong with articles denouncing somebody as an idiot.

When I say that I get more traffic with less effort by blogging about things other than science, I'm not pulling that out of my ass. I don't watch the traffic figures as obsessively as some of my colleagues, but I keep an eye on this stuff, and I know what ends up bringing in the comments and page views.

I never claimed that it was impossible to get blog traffic from science posts, just that it was more difficult to drive lots of traffic that way than by posting about other things. If you look at the paragraph before the one everybody latched onto (see, for example, Arunn's post agreeing with Hawks), you'll find this stated explicitly:

Does the drive for traffic lead to the sort of warping of subject matter that the Bayblog people are complaining about? Probably. Nothing generates more traffic for less effort than public controversy, except maybe cat blogging. You can build a good high-traffic blog built entirely around high-quality science blogging-- Cognitive Daily is consistently in the top four or five blogs on the network-- but it's hard goddamn work. Dave and Greta have earned every nickel they get for being the best science blog on ScienceBlogs.

Lest this post end up as nothing but bitching about people who are down on non-science posts, let me throw in some disagreement with someone who approves of them. In his lengthy post on the kerfuffle, Bora writes:

What we do is draw people in with things they are interested in, then deliver them to science posts and show them it is exciting, interesting and fun - and they did not even know it before. They came by googling for "Britney Spears" or "naked Harry Potter" or something about creationism or atheism, and they stay to read posts about science. That is one of the services we as science bloggers provide. And once we draw those readers in, we also send them, via links, to other people - both inside and outside our network - to read about even more science, perhaps to bloggers who do not like to blog about LOLcats or politics, but do a good job covering latest research. There is a role for every style.

It's a nice idea, but I don't think it really works that way. People who show up via a Google search for "Britney Spears" are looking for Britney Spears. They stick around just long enough to make a "cha-ching!" noise over at Jake's place, and then they go away.

Again, I have the numbers-- if you look at my traffic from last year (in semi-log format), you can see the effect of being Digged. There's a great big spike in May when Many Worlds, Many Treats hit the front pages of Boing Boing and Digg and 50,000 people came to read it. And you can see that, a couple of weeks later, the traffic was right back to where it was before the Digg-ing.

Those are people who came to the site specifically to read a post about physics, and they didn't stick around after that (for the most part). If you think people coming to read about Britney Spears are going to be lured into staying by the promise of Science!!!, well, that's just not going to happen. The Digg crowd is a short-attention-span, instant-gratification bunch, and very few of them hang around after the initial burst of interest.

Doesn't this contradict what I said above about the importance of personality, though? Not really. I think that non-science posts help build and keep an audience, but it's not through the quick, huge spikes you get from Digg and the like. Having a distinctive voice helps build an audience not through big links, but through lots and lots of little ones. Bashing religious people is PZ Myers's bread and butter, but he wouldn't have the following he does without the dorky squid jokes-- that sort of quirky stuff builds a sense of community, and that's what really takes a blog over the top.

Anyway, I can tell by the sound of the pumps that the spin-down is finished, so that's about enough of this. Time to get my hands dirty in the name of science.


More like this

Hilariously, this included a lengthy discussion of why they see ScienceBlogs as cliquish, conducted entirely in the private back-channel forum that nobody else can read.

Dude, you seem to have a thing for back-handed references to the "back-channel forum". What's up with that?

I wouldn't say I have a "thing" for it. It's been what, two references in three weeks? Three? Months will pass without any mention-- this is just a statistical fluctuation.

I do think it's a bit silly how many conversations take place in the forums that would make more sense out on the blogs, and I think it's completely absurd to try to pretend that the forums don't exist. As a result, I don't feel any real qualms about using forum-inspired post topics and crediting them appropriately.

Chad, I comment more when I vehemently disagree with you. There is a trainwreck of an NBA game on ABC right now desperately craving your attention. Why is Luol Deng still allowed to shoot a jumper? Is Duke simply unable to produce a player not named Boozer who can shoot a jumper? How is it that the best players on the court never even went to college? These are the types of questions that may help distract your attention from pedantic navel gazing into realms of true import.

Thanks for the kind words, Chad. Interestingly, despite the fact that I blog about a lot of other stuff, it's the science posts that really bring me the most traffic. My results here are biased, however, because I typically submit my science posts to BPR3, while I don't do similar traffic-building for say, the video game posts. Also, Technorati does a really bad job of picking up my feed, which may be true for other generalized services, too.