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    Science Blogs And Shock Value
    By Hank Campbell | December 22nd 2008 06:00 PM | 2 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    I'm the founder of Science 2.0®.

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    Coturnix at ScienceBlogs.com had an interesting post yesterday on part of the reason they (Science Blogs)  do things the way they do them and the way he says more science writers should - shock value and, at the end of it all, maybe a shot at a greater science democracy.  

    To set that up he makes an outstanding comparison to a Kabuki dance in the science establishment and how that is reflected in journal papers, where the form is part of the function.  The shock value science blogging brings, he says,  is violating the form, and rattling the people who want to put the form ahead of the function; the entrenched scientists (and science journalists) who want to keep the barbarians on the other side of the gate.   Barbarians being science bloggers.

    To barbarians, gates are not a great thing.   The barbarians who sacked Rome were interested in the trappings of civility.   It is the rare person, even the one who makes fun of mainstream science writing, who does not want to be legitimized by the mainstream science writing establishment.     Science Blogs has its own way of breaking down gates and it's with audience numbers that command respect.  Controversy sells, it will get you links on Technorati and that will get you on Science Blogs.    But that has a price, namely in that the audience is not there to get smarter, they are there to have their beliefs (and in some cases prejudices) reaffirmed.    That is going to be a lightning rod for criticism among journalists who think they are there to inform and not advocate.   And opponents will use the Scienceblogs audience comments as affirmation of their own prejudices against writing done by non-journalists.  He makes a comparison to Nature Networks and their more polite community and says the comments there will be more respectful because they are mostly internal people.
    We here at Sb are often accused of being cliquish and insular. But if you look at our 70+ blogs and dig through the archives, you will see that we rarely comment on each other's blogs - most (99%?) of the comments come from outside readers. Also, most of our links point to outside of Sb. On the other hand, NN [Nature Network] is specifically designed to be a community (not a platform for independent players) and almost all of the comments there are from each other.
    Certainly he's correct.   Nature blogs are not the same tone as Scienceblogs.    They both are by invitation only (last time I checked, anyway) - you can't sign up and just write good stuff and get accepted like you can here - but they have different metrics for being invited.     Nature has invited almost all of our writers here at one time or another but Scienceblogs not so much.    Nature has an academic requirement and Science Blogs has a popularity one.   There will be some overlap but for the most part they remain pretty distinct.  

    Coturnix makes a good example of that, and it speaks to all of us:
    The Web evaluates you directly, by what you write. The academia uses "tags" - your name and degree - to evaluate you. The academia is in the business of issuing credentials, the stand-ins for quality. 
    I can't think of a better way to put it.  The Web is about democracy.    I couldn't get an invite from Nature, I lack the academic credentials, though I also couldn't get an invite from Science Blogs - I lacked the individual readership.   So I am completely qualified to start a science site that now has 1,000,000 readers a month but I would not have been qualified to even be a contributor on one site that has more traffic than us or even on one that has less.  Thus, the Web is the perfect breeding ground for democracy in another way - it allows people from outside either of those insular places, and their barbarian-preventing gates, to establish a large kingdom of their own if the content is good.  

    Back to insular; well, everyone is insular.   Science Blogs wants to recruit people who can already carry their own weight traffic wise and Nature is owned by a much larger media company than Science Blogs is, so they need to justify their presence in user generated content by not having anything too embarrassing.   Those methods lead to an insular mentality.    However, he doesn't do them any favors by adapting the siege mentality they are known for:
    The problem is, the professional science journalists also love to put down the blogs and use the paternalistic "tone it down" argument. But, unlike the political journalists who are incapable of seeing the obvious (stuck too far inside Cheney's rectum to see what we all could see?)
    I've never had anyone put down on our writers.  Heck, we are the only ones who are syndicated by Yahoo  so I think the quality is pretty good but we have writers just doing this on the side rather than bloggers doing this every day.    And you don't get on Good Morning America or Stephen Colbert without having something going for you.   

    I do think some of their perception is paranoia though some is spot on.   Like a certain outgoing President, they tend to see enemies everywhere, and calling themselves "The Borg" is a manifestation of that, but Coturnix makes another good point when he notes that they are the lightning rod for criticism about science blogging because they are the biggest - 70 writers - many more than we have.    So in a way Science Blogs shields the rest of us from  criticism and for that they have to be thanked.     Certainly some of their bloggers like the attacks they get, even seek it,  but some of the resentment from mainstream media that gets heaped on them is done without cause.   If you read them, 50 of their blogs there are straight up, serious, quality stuff.    

    It's a little self serving when he says that the science blogging community defends their position but the links he puts to prove that are all from his  fellow writers on Science Blogs.   Surely someone outside their group can find a way to defend them?   Or maybe they really do think they are the only science bloggers that count.   We'll never know and I am not in touch with the other science blogging communities enough to really have a way to find out.

    What was interesting at the end was a call to put an end to hype:
    Perhaps if we remove those middle-men and have scientists and the public start talking to each other directly, then we will have the two groups start talking to each other openly, honestly and in an informal language that is non-threatening (and understood as such) by all. The two sides can engage and learn from each other. The people who write ignorant, over-hyping articles, the kinds we bloggers love to debunk (by being able to compare to the actual papers because we have the background) are just making the entire business of science communication muddled and wrong. Please step aside.
    Well that was always the knock on Science Blogs from serious scientists, right?   Hyperbole, exaggeration, partisanship, patronization, condescension.  "Flat Earth" and "Holocaust denier" could practically be trademarked by Seed Media Group.   So it's nice to read they are going to make greater efforts to keep it civilized but there are already plenty of people doing that.   The American Revolution needed a Sam Adams and there is definitely a revolution going on so they can continue to be the 'firebrand' of science blogging and the rest of us can take a quieter road.   Numbers and time are on our side.

    My thoughts are that most science journalists are not the enemy he seems to think they are.  Carl Zimmer and Greg Critser, for example, are terrific science journalists who have no problem blogging as well.   Some journalists clearly hate blogging but that's because it can be a time drain if you are not one of the people with a million page views making $5-6000 a month doing it.

    Kabuki dance by the mainstream or barbarians at the gate?   I can't decide.   I know most scientists would rather be mentioned in a print copy of Nature than a blog and until that changes everyone will just have to get along.   Blogging isn't going away but neither are journalists.

    Comments

    adaptivecomplexity
    I don't really understand the business about the Kabuki Dance - scientific conferences and seminars are intentionally formal venues: when you give a seminar, you can't quite present things with the same rigor as you do in a formal paper, but it should be close. That's not something scientists just do out of academic habit; it makes scientific talks much more effective than they would be otherwise.

    Outside of formal talks and papers, there is a lot of informal discussion that goes on, over coffee or beers, in the hallway, on the ski slopes. That stuff has never involved a Kabuki Dance. I don't see why blogging can't be an extension of that kind of thing, and thus I don't see why some people are resistant to it.

    What can be a problem is the viciousness you sometimes get with internet culture. Shock value wins you readers - we can all see that on our traffic stats. I'm not sure that those are the readers I really care about. 

    Contributing to the nastiness is the lame habit of anonymous blogging and commenting. I can understand the occasional anonymous comment (nobody wants to complete the full registration process for every site they want to comment on?). But regular anonymous commenting and blogging is what people do when they don't want to be accountable for what they say on the net.
    Hyperbole, exaggeration, partisanship, patronization, condescension
    That's what turns the typical science reader off - the type of person who picks up the Tuesday NY Times or Scientific American, buys the 2008 Best Science Writing or who reads Space.com. Sure, shock value will always bring you readers on the net and large numbers of hits, but I'm not sure that it's reaching the right people.
    Mike
    Stellare
    Scientific articles in a scientific rigid system true to scientific methods is an integrated part of knowledge production. We need that. It is not in conflict with outreach material such as more or less popular blogs.

    As a scientist I certainly know the time constraints when it comes to meet the needs of both the scientific community and the public. Sometimes, perhaps even often, it is really difficult to formulate an understandable text about your latest scientific findings. And you can bet your colleagues will generously provide deep criticism of your popular articles as there will always be ambiguity when you try to simplify.

    Just for personal fun I have maintained an extremely simple science blog at one of the social media sites. I mainly post science related images with more or less meaningful and informative comments, if any. The reactions from my surprisingly large readership is that people with practically no interest in science find my blog unpretentious, non-condescending etc and they keep on revisiting. In other words, I seem to have reached an audience scientists normally do not communicate with.


    An example of a simple image post - just a couple of images of The Blue Planet.


    The truth is that I would never even had experimented with this outreach format in a professional capacity. Now I know that I should have, and I think the scientific community ought to follow the Web 2.0 (or whatever numbers you choose), and adapt their communication formats accordingly. While still maintaining the scientific language of the professional science community, of course.
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth