Blogs, Big Physics, And Breaking News
    By Tommaso Dorigo | July 5th 2009 06:58 AM | 15 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Tommaso

    I am an experimental particle physicist working with the CMS experiment at CERN. In my spare time I play chess, abuse the piano, and aim my dobson...

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    The 2009 World Conference on Science Journalism took place last week in heat-wave-struck London, at the convenient location of Westminster Central Hall (see below). More than 900 delegates got together from 90 countries to discuss the future of science journalism, understand the challenges the field is facing, and finding strategies to face them. An impressive event, excellently organized.

    For me it was a rather new experience to participate in such a crowded conference, where not science, but its reporting, was discussed. I did not know any of the participants beforehand, but got to meet and chat with a dozen or so. All of them were interesting people, but I will mention just two notable examples. They are Simon Singh, the British science writer who was recently caught in a nasty libel cause by the British Chiropractic Association, and Pamela Ronald (left), an eminent professor at the Department of Plant Pathology of UC Davies, who recently published a very successful book, "Tomorrow's Table". Quoting from the description of the book at the link above:

    Written as part memoir, part instruction, and part contemplation, Tomorrow's Table argues that a judicious blend of two important strands of agriculture--genetic engineering and organic farming--is key to helping feed the world's growing population in an ecologically balanced manner. Pamela Ronald, a geneticist, and her husband, Raoul Adamchak, an organic farmer, take the reader inside their lives for roughly a year, allowing us to look over their shoulders so that we can see what geneticists and organic farmers actually do.

    I got to spend some time chatting with Pam during the evening gala at the main hall of London's Natural History Museum (see right), and I made her promise a guest post here on her research and her book -so if you are interested in Prof. Ronald's research, hang around here -but be aware that she is now traveling around, and it might take a while...

    Speaking about venues, it was also quite amazing to have a chance to talk at the Great Hall in the central venue of Westminster Central Hall, during the session called "Blogs, Big Physics, and Breaking News", on July 2nd. The hall can seat up to 2160 people, but there were not more than maybe 120 at our session; nonetheless, it featured a quite interesting discussion between Matthew Chalmers (a freelance science writer), James Gillies (head of Communications at CERN), and myself. Our chair was Matin Durrani, editor at Physics World. Here is how the hall looks like (the picture is from another event -unfortunately I was not smart enough to take one myself):

    The theme of the sessionwas the following:
     "How are blogs changing the way science news develops and is reported? The commissioning of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN will offer a telling case study over the next few years. Who will be first with news of the fabled Higgs Boson, and how will we know if they're right?"

    The session, organized by science writer Jon Turney, included three short talks by the three of us, followed by a panel discussion with the audience.

    First up was Matthew (right), who focused on the process by means of which news appearing in blogs and blog discussions get picked up by science reporters. He made a few examples, pointing out that it is not always the case that what people discusses in the internet -specifically, physics blogs- is worth reporting on science popularization magazines. He seemed to blame the blogs for this, maybe not realizing (but I pointed it out to him and the audience when it was my turn to speak) that it is the journalists' responsibility to decide what is worth reporting on and what is not -the web is a free market where people talk about pretty much what they like to, and indeed not everything is worth headlines.

    After Matthew, it was my turn to talk. I made a few points on the raison d'etre of physics blogs, and on the diffusion of scientific information by particle physics experiments, focusing them on the issue of who will be first to report on the Higgs boson discovery (my bottomline ? It will be "discovered" several times, but the real news will appear first on anonymous comments in blogs!) I will post my own slides in the next post, with some commentary.

    Finally, James Gillies (left) discussed the point of view of CERN, who is actually very active and commendable in its outreach efforts. James made the point that CERN experiments have in certain occasions been disclosing maximally their science, without secrecy or hindrances. He made the example of the almost daily press releases in 2000, when events collected by the LEP II experiments which could represent the first hints of a Standard Model Higgs boson were discussed openly and promptly.

    There followed a lively discussion with many comments and questions from the audience. I cannot report here the details of the discussion, but one impression I got was the strong concern of science journalists with the loss of readers that their magazines are experiencing due to the increased availability of good to excellent information in the internet, free of charge and often broadcast by the very scientists who do the research. This concern is affecting their judgement, at times making them sour and not always objective. They have the tendency of concentrating on the weak points of blog articles, rather than trying to focus on what they could do to offer something which keeps them in the business. Of course, this is just an impression, and I have to say that while the discussion took place widely in many of the sessions of the whole conference, I did not have a chance to follow much of it, so my impression is probably biased by the turns our session took.

    Incidentally, I should also explain why I acted a bit like a tourist at the conference: I had brought with me to London my 10 year old son, Filippo, and the organizers prevented me from taking him with me at the various sessions -I only got permission for the one I was speaking in. I thought this was rather silly, but rather than ignoring their restrictions and sneaking him in I complied, and actually used the fact as an excuse to spend our time in London doing more entertaining things, like visiting Legoland in Windsor... A lot of fun, be advised not to miss it if you visit London with your kids!

    UPDATE: Matin Durrani (right), editor at Physics World , served as convener of our session at WCSJ, and he has a blog post on it here. Unsurprisingly, being a journalist his hunch is more professional than mine at reporting the event, but quite unconventionally, I have more pictures than him in my post :)


    People spend a lot of time believing that, as time goes on, they should make more money for what they do - journalists are no different, they assume they have gotten better at it and most have and have a sense of entitlement regarding future earnings.   American autoworkers recently discovered that complaining about nickels and dimes and competitors and consumers is not the worst thing that could happen to them; losing an entire industry is.   Journalists need to also think about how they can individually help make a better product and save their field.   

    The journalists with their heads in the sand about the quality of blogging are looking at it from a few years ago, when there were no popular technical blogs, just the cultural ones.  You and others have shown that there is a market for quality blogging with people who want to get smarter but won't spend four more years in college.

    I'm chairing a panel on science communication at the AAAS meeting in San Francisco in August - a different tone, since it is a science meeting and not a journalism one and communication is a tool to that audience - and I'll let you know how it goes.
    don't let sour journalists get you down!

    I won't anon, but when during the discussion Matthew came up questioning me with "Can I ask you why you blog ?" it made me feel like I was the source of all problems of science journalism. For God's sake, he knew why I blog -I had said it during my talk, but I had to repeat it. The hidden rhetorics was "please go back to your science, and leave this business to us professionals", or at least that is how I perceived it.

    Hank, thank you for your comment. Yes, it looks strange for science journalists to be caught off guard. The discussions I heard failed to be constructive.

    Sounds like a great event. It seems to me that blogs maintained by researchers themselves are a wonderful way to keep the public informed about current work in science and the implication of that work. Too often researchers have been at the mercy of professional journalists and now it is becoming more and more possible for them to be their own publicists and journalists. This does, however, require something of a new skill for many researchers who now are more expect to be able to make their work understandable to the public in general. There are some great interviews with major journalists about issues like these that influence the future of journalism at,com_sectionex/Itemid,200076/id,... which I have found useful.

    Hello Bill,

    thank you for the support and for the interesting link!
    Another dimension: what is the influence of physics blogs on *physicists*, especially younger ones? I was discussing this with some graduate students, who were talking about [of course] L. Motl's blog. One of them said that since what LM has written [again and again...] about Sean Carroll's work is not just wrong, but *obviuosly* wrong, he assumes that LM is completely untrustworthy on just about everything. That was a good sign: a physics blogger reveals himself to be incompetent, and people stop paying attention. But then another one said, yes, LM is silly and not particularly well-informed about many things, but *maybe* he reflects attitudes that are widespread in the community but which are kept out of sight by other bloggers who are sympathetic to his views but not overtly insane, eg J Distler. That was disturbing. I asked him if, for example, LM's rabid hatred of LQG might dissuade him from working on that topic [for this reason] and he said it might. Well, nobody here works on LQG, but still I would hate to think that a student might think twice about working on something just because physics blogs had given him the impression that the subject is regarded with contempt. We often forget that the physics blogging community is tiny and unrepresentative.

    Yes, but the same thing could happen _anywhere_. Discussing in university corridors, exchanging emails with friends, reading publications and interviews... Blogs is just one more means of influencing people, it's not a _new_ way of doing so.

    Well, true tulpoeid, but conversations in blogs and other internet forums also include anonymous commenters. This changes things significantly. I am not advocating them, of course -just observing the facts.

    As our ANOnymous commenter here says, the physics blogging community is tiny. However, I deny that it is really unrepresentative -if to it is added the pool of readers. There are very famous people who have been known to contribute frequently to internet discussions in blogs, anonymously or not.

    I prefer to comment anonymously. This warrants no prejudice for my opinion on a given topic due to previous comments, my position, my workplace or my name. I'd rather have a point that stands on its own than have one that is accepted (or rejected) just because of who I am. And the possibility of reading others' opinions without such a prejudice drives me to blogs; most of the discussion is anonymous, so the points are taken at face value. This excludes the bloggers themselves and a few people who insist on signing their comments, unfortunately.

    A 100% anonymous science discussion board would be, IMHO, invaluable to the community; and much more representative. A student would never want to contradict a tenured researcher if he has do sign his post, and would be wary of doing so even anonymously, and even when he found an error on the researcher's point. Have it all anonymously and such prejudices would go away.

    Imagine something like 4chan (sorry. If you don't know it, really, don't search for it. You have been warned), but without the trolls and dedicated only to science. I'm pretty sure that would work.

    Imagine something like 4chan (sorry. If you don't know it, really, don't search for it. You have been warned), but without the trolls and dedicated only to science. I'm pretty sure that would work.
    That's why it doesn't work for serious subjects; there is no way to have anonymity and open dialogue while censoring users and, if trolls aren't censored, serious people leave.  If you use moderators and someone is critical of a hypothesis/theory the moderator has money in the critic just gets labelled a troll and that is that - then it isn't really open.

    I've heard the anonymous argument for years and other science sites allow anonymous writers - usually with the claim that they are unleashing information so devastating it puts them at risk - but it ends up being people who want to be able to say things without any accountability.   Anonymity is what got science blogging a bad rap in the early days.
    What to say - the points you both raise make sense. I think being anonymous in the web is a useful resource at times, but it should be used with a lot of moderation and good sense. For instance, I do not see what on earth one is putting at risk by choosing to not being faceless here, in this thread. What biases could one blame you of ? It soon becomes an attitude, and gives a feeling of power -of being able to shoot and pass unharmed through enemy fire.
    So, yes, there are good reasons for being anonymous, but it is much too abused, and thus I do not feel I owe a lot of respect to those who choose this way.

    According to my experience in high-energy physics, scientific journalism has little to do with the real science: very often the scientific content gets distorted and lost when it is written by a journalist. Blogs written by scientists are more accurate (after filtering out some crazy guys). Furthermore blogs are more open, while scientific journalism often just reports the mainstream. For example the string bubble exploded thanks to blogs; without blogs today we would still have official scientific journalism writing how fantastic is string theory.

    Dear Tommaso: you have a point, but I still feel that a young student would get a very distorted view by thinking that the physics blogosphere is a faithful map of the world of physics. But I think that blogs like yours do really help. By that I mean: you talk in an authoritative way *only* about subjects in which you are obviously really expert. You have opinions about other things, but you don't pretend to be an expert when you aren't. Motl gets into trouble when he talks apodictically about things that are remote from his own expertise, ie, a small and now rather antiquated branch of string theory [matrix theory]. Unfortunately, that sort of thing constitutes 99% of his physics posts. But he is not alone: you can regularly see similar things on P. Woit's blog and also occasionally on J. Distler's.

    I think that the following would be a good rule for all physics bloggers to take to heart: "I will talk in an authoritative way *only* about those subjects in which I have actually published at least one paper." S. Hossenfelder is good in this way, and so are you.

    Hi Tommaso -
    Bloggers have very little to do with any problems facing science journalism. I think blogs written by scientists are a force for good – for journalists, the public and science. I wish more physicists would take it up, and hope that the blogosphere is alive with bumps and rumours when the LHC starts taking data.

    In some instances the buzz of the blogosphere does not quite match the 'reality' that emerges from more detailed investigation (I used the example of the string wars episode, echoing the anonymous comment above - that the physics blogging community is tiny and unrepresentative). So I make the obvious point that journalists need to be weary when picking up leads from blogs (as they would be with any single source). Clearly it's down to the journalist to make the right judgement, although bloggers also have responsibilities if they are to survive and be trusted.

    As a reader of your more technical posts, I was just curious about what motivates you to invest what must amount to a lot of time in writing them. I'd guess these posts are rather too specialized to be appreciated by a non particle physicist, for example.

    Best, Matthew

    Hello Matthew,

    as I did privately, I take the occasion to thank you publically as well, for being the engine behind the lively discussion at WCSJ, and for putting issues on the table rather than embarking on dull discussions.

    You are certainly right that most of my posts are unreadable by the general public. It is one of the hardest things to me to gauge the right height of the bar. If it is set too low, experts get quickly bored. If it is too high, I lose most of my readers. The thing is, I value both. The former, because I often get to learn things from them -by being corrected, or by the interesting discussions that at times arise in the threads. The latter, because this is what motivates me in the first place -being an outlet for "consumers" of physics results. There is too little around of this. And there is demand, as you yourself are aware.

    To be frank, my final motivation -the strongest one- is my personal pleasure. I enjoy immensely writing meaningful things and getting to be read. But I would never do it if I found it useless, because I do value my time, and in five years of blogging I could have published at least two or three interesting papers with the time I invested this way. So it boils down to really trying to do my little bit for science outreach. A recent poll shows that >80% of scientists believe in evolution in the US, and only <40% of non-scientists do (it's in a post somewhere in this site). I think scientists are responsible for this craziness as much as teachers are.