Back in August, I gave a talk at the Pacific AAAS meeting explaining why research scientists need to blog. After a long delay to put my incomprehensible notes in to readable (but still somewhat fragmented) form, here is my argument for why scientists need to blog:

Expert Blogging in the Science Communication Ecosystem

My talk is about scientists writing science directly for the public. Specifically, I want to get at the question, "What can blogging by scientists bring to the science communication ecosystem of newspapers, TV, and magazines?"
Back in August, I gave a talk at the Pacific AAAS meeting explaining why research scientists need to blog. After a long delay to put my incomprehensible notes in to readable (but still somewhat fragmented) form, here is my argument for why scientists need to blog:

Expert Blogging in the Science Communication Ecosystem

My talk is about scientists writing science directly for the public. Specifically, I want to get at the question, "What can blogging by scientists bring to the science communication ecosystem of newspapers, TV, and magazines?"

Below is one of the more amusing headlines I've seen recently. It's for a for a report of a large survey conducted by Pew in collaboration with AAAS. It basically says, the public likes science, but scientists hate the public, and the media to boot.

Now why would scientists be so negative about the public? One reason is that most scientists think that the public is scientifically illiterate. When asked whether they think it's a problem that the "Public doesn't know very much about science" 85% percent of scientists think that it's a major problem. Well, they have good reason for thinking that science illiteracy is widespread: in a survey of 12 very easy questions (like 'Do lasers work by sound waves?', 'What's a stem cell?', 'Is an electron larger than an atom?') , the ~1000 adults surveyed averaged 65% - a D minus. And you can say "well, that's trivia about facts people forget, what counts is the method," but if you came up with an easy quiz about 'the' scientific method, or how science functions, I'd wager money the results would be the same. (I'll come back to this point later.)

Scientists often take these poor results, along with the frequently well-organized attacks on the teaching of evolution, stem cell research, climate science, etc. as an indicator that the public in general is hostile towards science.

So it's no wonder that many scientists don't like the idea of getting involved in communicating science to the public - they feel they'll be operating in hostile territory, and that dealing with the public is about as much fun as coercing your temperamental 5th grader into doing some really unpleasant homework - a thankless, messy task best left to journalists (who we slam from the sidelines when they get it wrong), to popularizers - scientists who've given up their research careers to write books&magazine columns or give lectures, or to some of the more combative members of the scientific community who relish engaging in culture war.

But are we really operating in hostile territory? Does the public hate science? No, I don't think so. Now it's true that there are well organized anti-science movements afoot. But going back to the Pew survey, the vast majority of the public thinks that science has a mostly positive effect on society - this holds across all demographics - even among those who express doubt of some of the major findings in areas like evolutionary biology and climate change. And when asked how much scientists contribute to society's well being, scientists are rated above physicians and even clergy!

I have to note that I really like that scientists beat out physicians in this survey. I went to graduate school at a medical school, so some of my buddies were med students. And, as is typically the case with anything involving medical students, there was a bit of a feeling of competitiveness between us. So I would harass my med student friends, saying that my degree program was much harder - they get out quickly, calling themselves doctor after 4 years, and us poor PhD students had to work for 6,7,8 years before having the same privilege of abusing our degree titles. And of course my friends replies were along the lines that if we actually got out of bed and went to work as early as med students did, we'd be out in 4 years too! But now I get the last laugh! The public likes us better. Barely.

My point in bringing up this survey is that we can't go into science communication with the mindset that we're engaging with a hostile and reluctant public. Science impacts all of our lives, and everyone knows it. We've all felt it first hand - boomers who grew up under the shadow of nuclear weapons, anyone who has been mesmerized by the amazing Hubble images of deep space, and especially anyone who, in a battle with cancer or some other equally frightening disease, has painfully bumped up against the limits of our knowledge and faced the uncertainties present at the frontier of biomedical science.

The public likes science, and we should approach science communication accordingly.

And now the barriers to communication are lower than ever. No longer do you have to try in vain to get space on the op-ed page, or wait for a journalist or magazine editor to call you. All you have to do to write science for the public is to get online, and become part of this phenomenon of expert blogging.

Blogging Gets Noticed

There are many models of blogging. Expert blogging is when people with special expertise, like scientists, blog on the subject they're trained in, and that's what I'm focusing on in this talk: scientists writing blogs about science.

The first thing you should know is that expert blogging is already successful, it has a proven track record of success. There are many examples of solid-well written blogs by heavy hitters - experts with big reputations in their fields, who write accessible blogs readable by the general public.

These blogs are successes - the are read, and they are influential; they get picked up by the media, and they have an impact on the discussion of important public issues. Unfortunately, scientists are behind the curve relative to other fields - in areas like politics, economics, and law, blogging plays a big role, and it is done by big names at big institutions - these people recognize the importance of writing openly for the public.

Blogging is Not Journalism

So you want to be an expert blogger. Let me note what blogging is not. There has been some angst over the fate of newspapers, and especially science sections of newspapers, in the new online environment, and sometimes it is suggested that blogs can replace science journalism. I don't think that is realistic - expert blogging is not journalism. Why? Well, basically for the same reasons that political reporting can't be completely replaced by blogging.

- Serious reporting is a full-time job, not something done on the fly. Reporting news well is expensive. News institutions have the money to pay reporters, cover their expenses when tracking down a story, pay for legal protection, etc. A researcher with a full-time job running a lab simply doesn't have the temporal or financial resources to do good reporting.

- Editors are also critical for good journalism. Editors, like coaches of a good sports team, make sure (ideally, anyway) that the reporting is thorough, clear and accessible for the public, and that, in cases of controversy, each side has a chance to rebut direct charges made against them. At the very least, a reporter has to be convincing to an editor before unleashing a story on the public. Bloggers have to learn how to hit their target audience, how to be clear, and how to be fair, on their own. This has advantages, but when it comes to reporting news, a good editor makes sure that it's done to high journalistic standards.

- Blogging doesn't provide systematic coverage. The science section of the NY Times has a responsibility to hit all major stories, and commits institutional resources and professionals to do that. A blog, especially written by someone who has a day job, simply can't do it all, and even if you take all top blogs in aggregate, the coverage is too fragmentary.

Blogging is not journalism.

Blogs Complement Professional Reporting

So what do expert bloggers offer? They don't do journalism, generally, but they can enhance science news coverage. They

- Put research in context - often discoveries are sensationalized, or even when they're not, how a discovery fits into the general intellectual puzzle of the field is not clear from a news story. Bloggers can spend more time than reporters explaining why a particular finding is important. This is one of the primary reasons I read other expert blogs, outside of science.

- Bloggers can be opinionated. In a science news story, the reporter will probably get the opinions of a handful of scientists, but now you can add yours, and without trying to get space on the op-ed page. A healthy expert blogging community offers a diverse set of opinions on a finding, and blog readers and get a good take on what people in the field really think.

- Talk radio is opinionated too - is expert blogging any better? Well, there is still a check on what you can say, if you value your reputation among your colleagues (which most scientists do). You may be able to snow the public with bluster, but if you make bogus claims on your blog, your colleagues will call you on it, usually with comments directly beneath your blog post, for all to read. So there is a built-in check.

- Bloggers can also highlight neglected research. Stories in newspapers are often chosen for their news impact, but expert bloggers can spot gems in the literature that busy science reporters have missed.

One important role for expert bloggers is to call foul when science is misused or distorted. And people listen. Two examples:

In February of this year, Washington Post columnist George Will made a factually wrong statement about research done by the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, in a column that disputed the notion that the global warming is happening. (And were not talking about causes here - just about existence of warming itself) Several bloggers, including Carl Zimmer who writes a blog called The Loom, called Will on his error. The Research Group at the U. of Illinois then got into the act and issued a statement on their website, and finally the Post ombudsman got involved, issuing a mushy half-hearted mea culpa on the part of the Post. However, the attention achieved its purpose - Will's claim did not go unrefuted, and the attention directed to the issue by blogs was picked up by other media.

In another instance, two authors from Inje University in Korea submitted a bizarre paper to the journal Proteomics, titled 'Mitochondria, the missing link between body and soul.' Lights, bells, and whistles should all have been going off in the editorial office of Proteomics when that title came in, - is oxidative phosphorylation really the link between body and soul? - but strangely the paper went out for review and was slated to be published. Fortunately, the piece was picked up by bloggers, who put pressure on the journal to take another look. And the bloggers went even further: they found that all of the non-bizarre stuff in the paper had been plagiarized, something completely missed by the editors and reviewers. The article was retracted, and the pair of creationists who pseudo-authored it were thwarted.

Blogging Benefits the Scientific Community

Expert blogging isn't just for the benefit of the public. It will benefit the scientific community itself. Blogging will put science communication on the radar screen. True, the vast majority of scientists will never write much directly for the public, in blogs or other publications, but as more scientists do take advantage of the low publication barrier, science culture will change, and blogging and popular article or book writing will no longer be viewed as an irrelevant hobby with no bearing on one's main job.

If we really are concerned about scientific literacy in this country, then what better step can we take than to create a culture in the scientific community where communicating with the public is viewed as a natural part of the job?

There is another advantage, that comes to scientists who blog: Every researcher who's published a technical paper knows that often your ideas about your research don't really cohere until you start writing the paper or the grant proposal - until you're forced to communicate your ideas in a way that will be convincing to an editor, a peer reviewer, and your colleagues.

The same is true when you write for the public - you'll learn new things, and better understand your own ideas. Richard Feynman's famous criterion for whether we understand something is whether it can be communicated at the Freshman level. His Lectures on Physics, readable by college students, but also interesting to fully-trained, professional physicists, are a testament to what you can lean by trying to reformulate your ideas to make them accessible to a general reader.

Blogging also fosters good online communities, where scientists can directly interact with readers. It's not only fun and educational to write for a general reader, it's also great to get feedback and interaction, especially in a more informal, non-classroom format, where nobody's coerced into being there and folks aren't shy about asking questions.

Science, like Art, Needs to be Shared

Finally, the biggest advantage of expert blogging: Science has always ranked as one of the great, imaginative human activities, right up there with pursuits like art, literature, and music. But unlike the arts, the sciences are often walled off from the public. The benefits of science are shared in the form of technology and medical cures, but the great, human, imaginative process of the scientific method is often kept hidden, so that science ends up only being appreciated for it's material benefits.

I'll illustrate this point another way. Earlier this year I was a judge for a couple of school science fairs. As I toured the displays, a common missing element in almost all of the projects was immediately obvious: the kids had no clue how science works. They did clever things for their projects, but what they did was more like a series of clever magic tricks, or gadget-building exercises. Very few of the students, even at the high school level posed a question, devised a way to answer it, carried out the experiment, and related their results to the original question.

These students had learned a lot of facts about science, but they completely missed the soul of science - the way of thinking that is central to its success, and that makes science such a fulfilling and compelling pursuit.

What I think expert bloggers can do best is open a window into the process of scientific thinking, into the minds of scientists. Take a page out of Feynman's playbook. Obviously he was working before the era of blogs, but he was justly famous as a great science communicator. What was his secret to success?

He took you into his world - he showed you how he thought about problems, and this is what made his talks so compelling.

This is what you can do best in your blog. You can be informal, you have no space constraints, and you can interact directly with your readers. One of the best ways to be compelling, to draw in readers, is to walk your readers through the scientific thought process, no matter what you write about. It's like letting the world into your lab meeting, where scientists informally work over problems. You can take the time to frame your questions, point out why certain results are more believable than others, pose alternate interpretations of the data and why you like or don't like them. Let people see what science looks like with its hair down.

If you write this way, you'll draw in readers, and you'll be giving them something more than just facts that they'll forget before the next Pew survey. I can think of no better way to promote science literacy and enthusiasm for science than help people learn to think about the world scientifically.

The public likes science. Science can be compelling; it's one of the great human imaginative endeavors, and like the arts, everyone should be able to appreciate first-hand some of the great works of scientific imagination, and we shouldn't wall ourselves off from the public, keeping the process of science hidden.

Science has always had the power to move people, but that can't happen when the scientific process walled off from society. I want to end in this spirit with a great quote from Richard Feynman, who really understood that science can exert a powerful effect on everyone's imagination, and that science should thus be shared:

It is true that if we look at a glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe. There are the things of physics: the twisting liquid which evaporates depending on the wind and weather, the reflections in the glass, and our imagination adds the atoms. The glass is a distillation of the earth’s rocks, and in its composition we see the secrets of the universe’s age, and the evolution of the stars. What strange array of chemicals are in the wine? How did the come to be? There are the ferments, the enzymes, the substrates, and the products. There in wine is found the great generalization: all life if fermentation. Nobody can discover the chemistry of wine without discovering, as did Louis Pasteur, the cause of much disease. How vivid is the claret, pressing its existence into the consciousness that watches it! If our small minds, for some convenience, divide this glass of wine, this universe, into parts - physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on - remember that nature does not know it! So let us put it all back together, not forgetting ultimately what it is for. Let it give us one more final pleasure: drink it and forget it all!

- Richard Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics, 3-10

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