I received an interesting question today from an Alex Ziller in the comments thread of a recent post. Here it is:

Do you think blogging actually improves Science? (I know, one should first define what "improving Science" actually means).

I think this matter has been debated elsewhere not too long ago -where by "elsewhere" I mean "some site I sometimes visit, can't recall where". Nevertheless, I consider it a crucial question to ask, and one with several facets. Here is my short answer to Alex -of the kind of depth a comments thread is worth:

I think blogging does not improve Science. Blogging is for scientists just another way of distributing ideas, but admittedly there are already enough such means, and blogging is marginal enough, that it provides no improvement of the situation.

Blogging improves the communication of Science to outsiders, however. It has the potential of bringing non-scientists closer to the understanding of why Science is really important. Blogging contains features that other avenues of Science communication totally lack.

I wish to add some detail to what I sketched above. In general, scientists have learnt long ago that a diffusion as broad as possible of the results of their work is crucial to make it count, and advance human knowledge. One could in fact go as far as to say that before the invention of the press, Science stood little chance to develop: early scientists had no organization to rely upon, no pope nor preachers. A few hundred years later, deep in the internet age, a researcher may use on Wednesday morning the result of an experiment carried out on the other side of the world on Tuesday evening; knowledge piles up rapidly but there is always somebody capable of distilling it into the essence. But a blog is not a critical instrument for that to happen: we have online journals, email, video conferencing. Blogs have a sociological value, but for Science this is not special not relevant.

Instead, the communication of Science does benefit from the diffusion of blogs by scientists. Not so much the amount or quality of the output, although these are both important assets,  but the fact that blogs ran by scientists show outsiders that scientists -and Science- are reachable. The blog owners can be taken on in a chat window, they do answer silly questions, and they actually do their best to explain things, when prompted or even when left alone.

Admittedly, it is a small contribution to a uphill fight. And the limitation is the fact that a scientific blog will only reach those who want to be reached. The huge problem that men of Science in our society face in the XXIst century is how to counter the increasingly anti-Science tendency one sees growing around, the lack of concern of the public for scientific advancement, the questioning of large expenses of money for experiments, and the scientific illiteracy that is spreading even among teachers, journalists, and politicians.

One way which has been considered by many potentially useful to try and change this situation is to try and put to work in a virtuous direction the enormous power of the internet to improve Science education. But the internet, as widespread as it is, will never work wonders in shaping minds, because in the internet people seek 95% evasion and entertainment, and just 5% culture. Try offering a discovery channel program in a TV network full of hard-core sex movies or sports events, and tell me what happens.

I think, and I said it elsewhere, that the action has to be directed at minds young and elastic enough to still manage to absorb the message. It is only by getting back to School that we can make a dent, and try to change the trend. I think every man of culture who is recognized by society as such should freely donate a part of his or her time by offering lessons in middle and high schools, to lecture on the importance of science, seen from their own perspective. We cannot put all our hopes on the good will and capabilities of school teachers, who are paid close to minimum wage in many countries, and who are evaluated on scales that have nothing to do with the message they really pass on to their students.

Maybe Universities should "adopt" a few schools, and offer to those schools their professors and researchers for a few hours every month, with the goal of conveying the meaning and importance of Science for the advancement of knowledge and for the collective good of the human race. For a University, this kind of evangelization would have a positive return, because it would constitute good, targeted advertisement. But the biggest benefit would be to our kids, and they, of course, are the men of tomorrow.

I would love to hear your opinion on this issue. Also, it would be nice to collect a few links to places where similar issues have been discussed in the recent past. Of course, there are whole institutes devoted to the matter, and discussions abound in the net; but one cannot read all, so here are my bids:

  • in the blog called NeuroLogica, Dr. Steven Novella wrote on "How To Improve Science Education" exactly one year ago, and the thread developed with 80 contributions. I think the discussion ended up focusing on the idea of creating a wiki of science text-books, which is just another example of how to try and use the internet for a problem unfortunately too big.

  • Carl Wieman discussed here 15 months ago (and took it on again later) the needs of the 2020 University for optimizing science education. Here the discussion focused on shaping University students, but as I said above I believe the real problem lies uphill.

  • Marla Meyer discussed the matter some time ago and came up with suggestions not too different from the one I offered above.

Any other sites recently discussing the matter that you wish to mention ?