Feb 282008
Anonymous Coward (self-designated) at Bayblab managed to stir up a pretty little storm in the science blogging community today with a little article about “The State of Science Blogging”. AC apparently believes that the science blogs at ScienceBlogs have too much blog and not enough science. Of course, several of the ScienceBlogs people are up in arms. Some well-reasoned responses can be found at Laelaps, Uncertain Principles, and Greg Laden’s Blog. Dave Munger also has an excellent piece on the subject. You can even read the comment thread at Bayblab if you want, but I wouldn’t advise it. It’s altogether too much effort to catch the gems out from the flying monkey poop. As sole proprietor of a blog that’s occasionally about science and almost never read by actual people, my opinion doesn’t matter to any of the parties involved. However, I like seeing my thoughts in print, so I will share with you that I think that Anonymous Coward’s argument is wrong-headed.

AC seems to think that blogs that self-identify as “Science Blogs” ought to focus primarily or exclusively on science as a topic. His stated reason for this is that people will get a false impression of what science is about, particularly with respect to PZ Myers’ blog. I think, that AC’s concern points to the opposite conclusion, however. Moreover, I believe that irrespective of true or false impressions of science, it is beneficial for those who blog about science on a regular basis to also post on topics that are of more general interest.

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.

So that justifies the occasional non-science post on a “science blog”. Still, what about blogs that are mostly about non-science topics? Again, I’m not troubled. The simple fact of life is that most people don’t come to the internet looking for good science. In fact, most people close off and actively avoid discussions of science. They visit blogs to hear about politics, or movies, or cookware, or diet tips, etc. and they won’t be reached by blogs that only cover cell biology or rock formations. But if they come to somebody’s blog because of a post about Rambo and there happen across a post that explains a scientific subject in an accessible way, then they might be drawn in. Blogs that cover a diverse set of subjects that includes scientific matters grow the audience for science and increase awareness of research in a way that exclusively scientific blogs won’t. Why? Because the only people who read blogs that are only about science are people who are already interested in science.

Look, if somebody who loves video games comes to this blog because of my Professor Layton review (no representation is made that anyone other than Wlad and myself read that post), and while here sees the appendix post, or some other science post, or my post about science about video games, and becomes interested in and motivated about science, even if only for a couple of hours, does science win or lose by that? The game is worth the candle in my view.

The truth of the matter is that the science blogging community is a very tiny corner of the blogosphere. That little teapot will never turn into anything bigger than what it is if we restrict ourselves to fitting the image that popular imagination tries to stuff us into. Rather than stirring up a wee storm over whether everyone who blogs about science deserves to be called a ‘science blogger’, shouldn’t we be encouraging as many people as possible to write good posts about science, whether that’s one science post a year or one hundred?

POSTSCRIPT: After I had written this, but before I was able to edit it or post, Bayblab “revealed” that their initial post was a puerile, uncontrolled “experiment”. Don’t know if that’s the truth or not. Maybe their second post is the experiment.

POSTPOSTSCRIPT: Coturnix has a really good post up as well. You might also re-check Greg’s Blog and Drugmonkey for some reaction to the “experiment” post. My own feeling is that AC was trolling and got what he wanted.

  6 Responses to “If this teapot’s a-rockin’…”

  1. Ah yes, the John Gabriel GIFT, still one of my favorite comics of all time. I agree that the pretense of authority is a problem, but I think the best response to that is more people in the science blogosphere, not less. You can never get rid of dishonesty, but each additional member of the community increases its capacity to detect and respond to lies and distortions.

  2. True, more people SHOULD = more correcter, but anything that has an even slight political tinge to it becomes nothing more than a flame-war. Visit any global warming or 9-11 thread, there are plenty of "experts" with "data" on both sides!

  3. Oh, what I wouldn't give for a flame war in one of my comment threads. Maybe I should gratuitously insult Myers and get him to sic his following on me.

    I agree with your point, though. Elevated discourse is difficult to achieve when you start talking about research on sensitive subjects. It's unlikely that science bloggers can ever convince anyone who is being willfully ignorant or indulging a confirmation bias. What we can do is take people to task when they lie about research or results. I think the response to Luskin's post about the Orgel paper was a good example. I certainly wasn't the only blog calling him out on his (mis)interpretation. Which is a good thing, because I think I've established that I have about 5 regular readers and everybody else comes here by accident.

  4. I'm going to have to eat more fiber if you want me to be a "regular" reader…..


  5. I will have to a about any rational discourse inevitably breaks down into a flame war.

    The problem usually arises when two sides keep going until one gets personal. Then it usually diverges into politics and religion. Then everyone jumps on their respective sides and an all out battle ensues.

    One of my favorite blog stories was actually discussing the Blade movies (don't judge me). The topic was predictions about the steaming pile of crap that was the third movie. Anyway…some one posted "I predict Blade will throw his sword and stab a vampire in the chest" Another post was "I predict Blade will slice someone in half". This was followed by "I predict that someone in this thread will bring up politics."

    While it was meant to be sarcastic…I went back and saw that the majority of arguments that I read eventually led to personal attacks which then led to debates involving politics and/or religion.

  6. I will have to *agree

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.