Scientists & Science Journalism in the age of Blogging

This is hard. A few days before Xmass, I have HOT results comming out of the lab, and a major snafu is comming out of that endless reservoir of angst, scientists complaining about science journalists ... and now those science journalists are lashing back.

I have to say that I really like George Johnson, but over the weekend, he attacked Abbie (who blogs at ERV here at scienceblogs) for complaining about the current state of science journalism.

Now George has made it clear that he didn't mean to be so nasty. But is there something that can be learned from all of this?

I don't have the time to delve into it. I'll just give you my two cents and then link to every freaking blog post out there so that you can collect everyone else's two cents and perhaps then end with a fist full of wisdom dollars.

So here goes, Alex's 2 pennies:

1) To Science Journalists: In fact I don't even need to write anything here. Instead I will quote daedalus who commented on Bora's fine post:

It is the essence of professionalism to know the limits of your expertise. If a journalist feels they can write about something they do not understand they are exceeding the limits of their expertise. It is not that only "scientists" are qualified to write about science, but that only people who understand the science are qualified to write about that science. The same is true for everything. If you don't understand something, all you can do is BS about it.

What erks scientists the most is when journalist are wrong, or dare I say it, not even wrong. However that does not mean that we scientists wished that you science journalists disapear, but that you did your homework. And don't be shocked if you come up with some trite essay on the meaning of epigenetics, or junk DNA and half of scienceblogs erupts at the banality of your work!

2) To Scientists: Communicate your ideas to the masses!!! As George and Jennifer plainly state, journalism writing is an art. To be able to simplify scientific ideas so that they can be accessible to the lay person is hard and requires some skill. Now I don't want to claim that I am good at it (quite frankly I must admit that I'm no Jared Diamond) but I am trying. Sure my posts here at The Daily Transcript are mostly aimed for people in the know, as George writes:

Down-in-the-trench laboratory blogs are a valuable source of raw material for journalists. But for an outsider trying to understand science, they can be like music from the perspective of a phonograph needle.

Agreed, it is hard work to skillfully compose an essay on histone modifications that will make sense to a reader with a high school degree. And this takes time, honestly too much time for my over-packed sleep-deprived work schedule. So yes I concede, writing about science for the masses is a full time job. So we all need to work together.

So what is the end result? Both sides need to become a little better at what they do. But I do think that both scientists and science journalists can benefit from the new arrangement. We just need to keep the criticism constructive.

OK, time for links:
- The relevant clip from George Johnson & John Horgan's Science Saturday
- Abbie and Ed Yong on Science Saturday
- my comment to George Johnson, his reply
- Abbie blogs about the Seed article on epigenetics at ERV
- Abbie responds to Johnson
- Ed Yong responds
- Bora on The Shock Value of Science Blogs
- Jennifer Ouellette comments on Bora's post
- Brian at Laelaps: Science bloggers vs. journalists, again
- Gregg Laden: Blogging and Journalism
- Dr. Isis: Who are the Science Journalists?
- Larry Moran (my future colleague, gulp): Who the Heck Is George Johnson?

UPDATE - more links:

- Chris Mooney: Missing the Point on Science Journalism
- Chad Orzel: Bloggers vs. Journalists, Aleph-Nought in a Series

More like this

my future colleague, gulp
You let it slip! Congrats!!! Maybe, I guess (is this real?). No really, congrats!

I have to say, as a scientist who is currently writing an invited article for a very popular mainstream science magazine, communicating your work (and that of others) for an everyday audience is really tough work. Thank goodness for editors.

I know nothing about this controversy and don't have time to read all of your links, however, if this is a controversy over a popular article about epigenetics its a bit difficult to lay blame on the journalist. Scientists don't seem to be able to make up there minds about what epigenetics means. At the most recent SfN meeting I must have seen 30 posters with the word "epigenetics" based purely on the use of an HDAC inhibitor. This is clearly becoming the new hot thing and it appears that many are desperate to get on the bandwagon but not so sure which bandwagon they are actually getting on.

In my opinion, communicating the substantive content of scientific discoveries to the general public is a red herring. What needs to be communicated to members of the general public is the *importance* of science to their daily lives. Everybody understands that engineering is really, really important for making sure, e.g., that bridges and buildings don't fall down, that planes don't routinely plummet from the sky, etc. But they don't give a flying fuck about the actual content of civil or aeronautical engineering principles.

Yes, there are enthusiasts who are interested in the details, but trying to explain the details to non-enthusiast members of the public is a fool's errand. What scientists do need to do is convincingly explain what practical outcomes that hugely influence people's daily lives would never have occurred without a robust scientific enterprise.

At the most recent SfN meeting I must have seen 30 posters with the word "epigenetics" based purely on the use of an HDAC inhibitor.

That is very, very sloppy reasoning, as it is becoming very clear that "HDAC"s deacetylate a lot of other proteins besides histones. It is likely that HDAC as a term to refer to these deacetylases will turn out to be only marginally more functionally descriptive than "casein kinase".

What needs to be communicated to members of the general public is the *importance* of science to their daily lives.

You and I have had this conversation before. There are two ways of convincing the public to hand over tax dollars to fund science:
1) We tell the public, that through the magic of biomedical research we will cure all their medical problems and give them eternal life. Both you and I know that this is BS. Sure, some of what comes out of the life sciences will indeed benefit human health, but I don't see utopia. The biggest improvement to human health in the 20th century was probably a widespread increase in sanitation. So sure, we can tell the average joe, "give us money and you'll live a better life" but that can't be it. The big (misguided IMHO)push for translational science is a product of this mentality.
2) We tell the public that we are discovering how the fabric of life works. Quite a few decades back physicists realized that their research did not have that much relevance to the day-to-day life of most people and thus they were forced to take this second approach. Out came popularizers such as Sagan and Hawking. Today, you can read thousands of articles on string theory, black holes and every extra-solar system planet. These ideas permeate culture, and although the typical guy on the street may not be that interested, there are quite a few that are. They send robots to Mars, and PBS has a orgy producing a gadzillion NOVA specials on the topic. But the average person has probably never heard of the freakin' ribosome, and the typical science journalist has apparently never heard of histones. Sad. So very sad.

All I'm saying is that if we want to be relevant to people's live we should follow BOTH approaches.

And in any case I find that writing these sciency posts, helps me become not only a better writer, but helps me to think about complicated science ideas in a simple clear way.


I've been converted to the idea that the loose usage of science lingo like "epigenetics" and "genes" is dangerous when discussing science with the public and/or science journalists (not withstanding the improper usage of the term between scientists, as CPP points out).

Take that same term, epigenetics. For anyone in molecular biology it has a very precise meaning, the inheritance of histone modifications and DNA methylation. Sometimes we also include the inheritance of protein factors, miRNAs and other RNA transcripts, although we tend to use more explicit terms for this secondary type of "epigenetics". In contrast, developmental biologists tend to include proteins and RNA in epigenetics. And then in classical genetics, epigenetics has a totally different connotation, the inheritance of absolutely anything non-DNA between parent and offspring, such as culture, STDs and language.

So the answer is when talking to science journalists and the lay public, BE PRESICE. Or else you end up with the jumbled mess of an article that Seed produced.

Excellent points, Alex. Just one reason why I'm making a point of spending more time when I can (and when they have the patience to put up with me) in a team's lab.

Thanks for your attention, Alex. I meant to say last time that this was a great post, and I offered the correction only as a contribution to the effort.

Published on:

Historically, information sources provided to American citizens were limited due to the few methods available to the public, such as radio, TV, or news print. And also this information was subject to being filtered and, in some cases, delayed. This occurred for a number of reasons, which included political ones.
Now, and with arguably great elation, there is the internet, which can be rather beneficial for the average citizen.
Soon after the advent of the internet well over a decade ago, web logs were created, that are now termed blogs. At that time the blogs were referred to as personal journals or diaries visible on line. As time passed, blogs became a media medium, and blog communities evolved into addressing topics that often were not often addressed in mainstream media, as they crossed previously existing political and social lines. In addition, blogs provide immediate contributions by others, the readers of the posts of the blog authors, instead of the cumbersomeness of opinion and editorial pieces historically and not always presented in such media forms as newspapers or magazines.
The authors of blogs vary as far as their backgrounds and intent of what they choose to address on their blogs exactly, just as with other media forms. Some are employed by the very media sources that existed before them. Furthermore, they are not exonerated from the legalities of what is written, such as cases of libel. While we can presume that bloggers like to write, they may not be quality writers, yet several are in fact journalists, as well as doctors and lawyers, for example. But to write is to think, which I believe is a good quality one should have. Regardless, a type of Socratic learning seems to be occurring due to the advent of blogs.
Yet presently, blogs have become quite a driving force for those with objectives and issues often opposed by others, and therefore have become a serious threat to others. These others may be politicians, our government, or corporations- all of which have been known to monitor the content of certain blogs of concern to them for their potential to negatively affect their image or their activities previously undisclosed. This is why blogs, on occasion, have become a media medium for whistleblowers, which will be addressed further in a moment.
While one disadvantage of blogs is the potential lack of reliability, blogs however do allow in addition to the comments of its readers the posting of authentic internal or confidential documents that typically are not created to be viewed by the public, yet are acquired by certain bloggers. For example, blogger Dr. Peter Rost, a whistleblower himself, not long ago posted a newsletter published by pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca on his blog site, and this newsletter was given to him by AstraZeneca's employees who called themselves the AZ Group of Seven- with the intent of this group being to bring to the attention of others the illegal activity of off-label promotion of one of AZs cancer drugs promoted by their employer. Yet this particular concern by AZ seven, by surprise, is not what caught the attention of so many who viewed the posted newsletter by Dr. Rost and was read with great interest by others. It was instead a comment included in this newsletter that was stated by former regional AZ manager Mike Zubalagga, who was being interviewed by a district manager in this newsletter. Mr. Zubalagga, who in this newsletter posted on Dr Rost's blog site, referred to doctors offices as buckets of money, which caught the attention of several readers. This and other statements by this man were in fact published in this newsletter clearly not reviewed before its publication. . Again, the statement and the newsletter created by AZ was indeed authentic and further validated due to the content being in the written word, which added credibility.
Mr. Zubalagga was fired the next day due to this buckets of money comment due to the effect it had on the image of his employer. His manager resigned soon afterwards from AZ.
Blogs, one can safely conclude, reveal secrets.
And there have been other whistleblower cases on various blogs in addition to this one described a moment ago, which illustrates the power of blogs as being a very powerful and threatening media medium of valid information disclosure that others cannot prevent from occurring.
This, in my opinion, is true freedom of information- largely free of embellishments or selective omissions. Its a step towards communication utopia, perhaps, yet a force that has the ability to both harm and protect many others.
Yet again, the information on these blogs should not be taken as absolute truth without proof to verify claims that may be made, as with other media sources. Of course, documents that are authentic is an example of a good validation source. And this, in my opinion, is the blogs greatest value, combined with the comments on blogs from the growing number of readers who are allowed to contribute to the subject matter so quickly, which fuels the objectives of the blogs, which may be a type of Socratic learning.
Like other written statements, some on such internet sites are composed with respect of the written word. Others are not. It's the freedom that may be most appealing of this new medium which has the ability to convert citizens into journalists who want to contribute to an issue of their concern they share with the blogger often with great conviction and accuracy.
Because we, the public, have a right to know what we are entitled to know and what we want to know. This is especially true if the information disclosed on blogs could potentially be adverse to our well-being.
Ignorance is bliss, but knowledge is power.
Information is the seed of an idea, and only grows when its watered. --- Heinz V. Berger
Dan Abshear

By Dan Abshear (not verified) on 26 Dec 2008 #permalink