Science Blogging Benefits Everyone

My colleague David Crotty has a rant at Bench Marks wherein he suggests that Nature’s blogging advocacy is just a shallow attempt to get more content for Nature Blogs, and that scientists blogging is just a fad that can’t replace mainstream media coverage of science and won’t amount to much otherwise. He’s certainly entitled to his opinion, but I think there’s another way to see things and I’d like to present a counterpoint to his Nicholas Carr-ying on.

When I hear people complaining about blogger bias or twitter banality, my response is that they’re reading/following the wrong people, so let me help him out here:
Steve Koch is pioneering the field of Single-molecule genetics and has interesting stuff to say about the life of a young assistant professor.
Cosma Shalizi has been blogging since before the term was coined about complex systems.
Mark Chu-Carroll makes math and programming fascinating, and he works for Google.
Ben Goldacre certainly fills a niche that mainstream journalists either can’t or wont fill – that of debunking pseudoscience.
Michael Nielsen‘s post on Statistical Machine Translation was written as he’s learning, making it a perfect intro for someone else wanting to learn about the area.
Though certainly not free of opinion, Bart Laws has one of the best and most accessible explanations of sensitivity and specificity I’ve ever read, and lots more about health policy.
Blake Stacey writes entertainingly about string theory (no mean feat) in his blag.
Sean Carroll got 241 comments on his short post about Garrett Lisi’s Theory of Everything, including active participation from the author of the paper under discussion, and also wrote this post about why scientists should blog back in 2006.
Just about everything Ian York writes (not including the pictures of his kids) is not only accessible, but fascinating and relevant to my own work, as well.
Then there’s the Bayblab, who may be just a bunch of degenerate graduate students, but cover science news better and more in depth than all of the mainstream media science writers put together.

I’m going to have to stop here before I repost my whole blogroll, but I think you get the point. Stop whining, start reading.

Now, I can’t speak towards Nature’s motivations for encouraging blogging, but I do think they have something to gain from a more efficient peer-review process, and are sufficiently incentivized to encourage anything that looks like it might help. I made a comment on one of the Nature blogs regarding peer-review reform and someone found it and emailed me to ask if they could put it in the print issue as a correspondence, which is suggestive, at least, that someone there agrees with that sentiment. At any rate, Sean Carroll’s post had plenty of company when he wrote it back in 2006, so I trust he’s clear of the aspersions Mr. Crotty is casting.

Dispassionate and accurate journalism from people who studied journalism is all well and good, but as they’ve mostly abdicated their responsibility to educate the public on scientific issues (vaccines, evolution, and global warming are but recent examples), someone needs to step up, and if actual scientists can’t fill that gap, I don’t know who will.

13 thoughts on “Science Blogging Benefits Everyone

  1. Please don’t put words in my mouth (or my blog for that matter). I’ve never suggested that scientists blogging is a “fad”, and I’ve gone out of my way to note that it’s an excellent avenue of outreach for scientists to interact with the general public. I do think that blogging is of limited appeal to most scientists, and that very few scientists actually read science blogs.

    The question is whether blogging is an appropriate substitute for the kind of professional science journalism that is disappearing if not totally missing from the scene these days. The problem isn’t that the writers have abdicated their responsibility at all. The problem is that the large corporations that own the newspapers and television networks are not interested in producing quality journalism. It doesn’t fit with their economic imperative. They’d rather appeal to the lowest common denominator, to the most people possible, to sensationalism, because that’s what brings in readers/viewers. One of the biggest problems is the ever-creeping dominance of opinion over fact, of columnists over news reporters. It’s less important to be accurate these days than it is to take a position (preferably one that appeals to the demographic of your readers). The other issue is the lack of original reporting, which costs money, and instead the regurgitation of press releases.

    And to me, those same phenomena are present in most, if not all blogs. I want to replace the failing journalism system with something better, not more of the same. What’s the difference between a news article that quotes a press release and a link blog that does the same? Not much. What’s the difference between a newspaper columnist declaring their opinions and a blogger doing the same?

    Blogging is generally a very personal affair. A blog with no personality, with no individual style, is a boring blog. That’s why they’re more akin to the editorial pages of a newspaper than they are the front page. Editorial pages are very valuable things. But they’re complementary to news reporting, not a substitute for it.

    As for Nature’s motivations, they may truly believe what they’re saying, but they still have a financial horse in the race. If a scientist from Roche wants to publish a study on their latest wonder drug, they have to declare such interests. It doesn’t mean the study is inaccurate, but it alerts the reader to potential bias. All I’m asking is that Nature hold themselves to the same standards as their authors.

  2. The argument you make regarding the economic incentives is exactly why this is a niche for science bogging to fill. The production costs for a scientist to write about where his subject intersects with the world at large is practically zero compared to the cost of a TV program, so they don’t feel the popularizing pressure you correctly decry.

    Re: DrugMonkey – Yes, and I also want it to include tips on writing a successful R01, from someone who’ve seen a few. That’s exactly what I want. If a blog containing pictures of the bloggers kids is too much noise for you, you need better filters. Also, you’ll probably want to avoid twitter.

    As far as Carl Zimmer goes, he’s kinda making the same point as me. Blogging and journalism are going to merge, because blogging is a fantastic medium. It’s just the channel that’s going to change. There’s nothing about the format of the blog that makes dedicated, impassioned, well-researched journalism impossible, as he proves by example and the example of Ben Goldacre I cited above.

    One simply can’t assume that blogs will never be professional and will never make money, because all those journalists getting laid off aren’t simply vanishing or retiring. Maybe some are, and maybe some should, but others are, believe it or not, starting their own business, distributing real journalism, through a different channel.

  3. “What’s the difference between a news article that quotes a press release and a link blog that does the same? Not much. What’s the difference between a newspaper columnist declaring their opinions and a blogger doing the same?”

    I think there are substantial differences. One of the persistently annoying things about traditional science journalism is that articles are static reports allowing no feedback by, crucially, those who may know better than the journalist. Blogs allow community input. That there are a league of crazies out there matters less than that there are also genuine experts.

    Example: read In the Pipeline ( I have never had access to a community of medicinal chemists with such a wide range of experience in the field. It would be very challenging to find a journalist with that level of training and experience, who could pick out exactly the right people to talk to before posting their article. Derek Lowe’s articles are usually excellent – what makes the blog superior to traditional journalism is that his posts then harvest the knowledge of the community.

    [Obviously newspaper letters columns allow community feedback, but not in a timely, unedited, iterative manner]

  4. William, I do see a role for blogging, but I see it as complementary to professional journalism, of the type with Zimmer cites in his article, the one on George Divoky. As Zimmer notes:

    You can’t write a story like this with a bit of embedded code. You can’t write it after spending half an hour reading over a paper in Geophysical Research Letters. You have to go to Cooper Island and stay there, you have to read and talk, you have to write and rewrite.

    Frey couldn’t have written the story without back-up: an organization that paid for his plane tickets, that employed editors who helped him make the story better and fact-checkers to search for errors and photographers to add arresting images. The story benefited from being printed in ink on paper–a medium that lets you read several thousand words without feeling as if your eyes are going to fall out of your head. To get the ink on millions of pages, Frey also depended on people running massive printing presses. He depended on the people who sold subscriptions to the paper and wooed advertisers into buying ads. An army stood behind him.

    So while the lack of financial constraints does free bloggers from some chains, the lack of support also imposes limits on the types of articles that can be written. I’d rather have both available.

    I’d also argue that despite not having the financial pressures of a newspaper or television network, science blogging is heavily laden with agendas and biases. There’s a strong contingent of science bloggers who are actively promoting open science and open access publication as one example. That’s pure advocacy, and no less an agenda than something like Fox News promoting conservative causes. I also see a lot of hucksterism in the blogging world, people looking to either promote themselves or products that they produce. There’s very rarely the purity you describe.

    Re: Drugmonkey–a blog containing pictures of someone’s kid (or cat) is fine with me. As I’ve said, blogs are personal spaces, and the personalities that drive them are often what make them interesting. But that’s not what I want from journalism. Personality-driven journalism is what has gotten us into the mess we’re already in. I want reporters, not columnists, facts, not editorial opinions.

    And I would say that Zimmer is suggesting that we need new models, particularly new economic models for professional writers, not that bloggers will replace those professionals. This is much akin to what Clay Shirky suggest in the article I cited, that we’ll see new models rather than immediately replacing journalism with something that’s already in place.

  5. Mat–most newspapers and science magazines these days have commenting features on articles. I’d be willing to bet that more people learned that George Will was wrong in his recent article from reading the comments in the Washington Post than learned about his errors from any particular science blog.

    But I’m less interested in mechanisms to correct bad and incorrect articles after the fact. I’m more interested in ways to promote better writing from the get-go. Yes, it’s nice that blogs and newspaper/magazine articles allow for such input, but wouldn’t we be happier if it wasn’t so necessary?

  6. It’s fundamentally a question of definitions, isn’t it? If someone is paid to do their own research and come up with their own stories, but their content is featured on a blog instead of a a newspaper, what do you call them?

    Remember, all these same questions came up last time the internet raised these questions, around 1999 or so. No decisions were made then either, but people have gone on and continued to do whatever it’s called anyways.

    There’s a niche for nonprofessionals who just happen to be in the right place at the right time. There’s a niche for people who do it as a hobby, and don’t discount the energy or resources of these people. There’s also a niche for people who get paid to do this full-time, whether or not they’ve gone to journalism school. Categorically dismissing any one of these groups is a mistake. If you want to see the value of twitter, install the greasemonkey script that puts twitter search results on a google search page. Just live with it for a little while, you might be surprised how well it solves the well-known problem of finding timely and up-to-date search results for something.

  7. William,
    Put that way, sure, it’s just an argument of semantics. If someone is being paid for their work and receiving financial backing to get that quality work done, then it doesn’t really matter where the work is published, whether in a newspaper or in a blog. But that’s a far cry from asking scientists to volunteer to take on the hard work done by those professionals as a non-paid labor in their voluminous spare time.

    And I agree, there’s a great synergy to be had between the professionals and the non-professional writers. Our world is better off with a complementary combination of both.

  8. The whole Lisi affair was an embarrassing demonstration of Smolin’s irresponsible hyping of a non-theory to the popular press. Smolin was backed by his well-funded entourage throughout, but to date, not one single paper has been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

    Smolin pushed to have Lisi listed as the “Next Einstein” and hyped him throughout the popular press, ranging from Fox News to Discover Magazine to The New Yorker.

    Smolin demonstrated that he lacks knowledge in group theory and fundamantal physics.

    Sean Carroll writes, “Saying there are still some issues to be ironed out is a cop-out. In addition to the mentioned problem with mixing gravity and internal symmetries, the original theory was not unified, not quantized, and somewhat ad hoc. Jacques pointed out in his first post that you couldnt embed all three fermion generations in E_8, which Lisi admitted was true, and in a new post he shows that you cant even embed one generation. If anyone does not agree, it would make sense to point out why over there. And new proposals sometimes dont fully work at first doesnt count; if the Standard Model cant be fit inside E_8, there is nothing even conjecturally interesting about the proposal.

    This is a sad case where media attention gave an utterly incorrect view of the scientific process.”

    Just googled this:“Is Lisi’s paper so elegant and simple?

    It seems it is filled with holes:

  9. Thanks, George, for that set of links. Physics isn’t my primary field of study, so I think it’s great that we’ve got such interesting and accessible writers like Carroll for the rest of us to learn from.

  10. I was just browsing and came upon this post. I am a neophyte academician but with all due respect to all esteemed authors, I personally think that blogging is a potentially potent medium for information dissemination – it could be research results in natural science or social science. The aim is to disseminate widely as possible. I understand the importance of the peer-review process. I think blog sites provide space where this could be done. The medium for the distribution of this scientifically derived information is evolving. It is a force that’s difficult to stop.

    Just my thoughts…
    Sam Villahermosa of

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