Our session organizer, Jon Turney (science writer and lecturer), asked us to bounce back and forth a few ideas among us in order to coordinate our contributions. I thought it was a good move: because of that, quite uncharacteristically I have already a pretty good idea of what I will be discussing in my talk. I decided that the summary I prepared can be shared with you -actually, the idea is that you might contribute to my presentation if a discussion arises in the comments thread below. So here it is:
Blogs, big physics and breaking news
Summary: 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 communication flow of scientific results to the public suffers from a gap which is hard to fill. The gap is due to several reasons: the publication system, which relies too much on dry scientific magazines, whose real use is now mostly just to certify the scientific output of researchers; the absence of a culture of science in newspapers; the interference of superstition and religion; the need for qualified writers which are hard to find; the fact that science does not sell as well as less intellectually demanding topics.So, the ball is in your court now. Express your own thoughts on the matter and let's start a discussion here!
Things have been changing very quickly due to the onset of serious blogging activities. Scientists have started to realize that part of their job is to fill this gap. This is especially true in disciplines which rely on a uninterrupted flow of funds to be practiced, like physics or astronomy: scientists have realized it is up to them to convince the public of the importance of basic research.
In particle physics blogs are still perceived as a threat by large scientific collaborations, because their publishing inertia exposes them to the risk of getting their results mis-interpreted, manipulated, and mis-reported. In 2007 the CDF collaboration, operating a particle physics experiment at the Fermilab Tevatron collider, produced a 2-standard deviations signal of a supersymmetric Higgs boson signal. Blogs ran by scientists belonging to the collaboration discussed the matter in a bit more detail than some of their collegues would have felt comfortable with, and got media attention. There followed mis-reported pieces on New Scientist and The Economist. Some in CDF resented that, feeling disowned of a direct communication channel with their funding agencies.
The advent of the LHC era, with 2000+ members per experiment, will make the situation harder to deal with. In recent times, experiments have been taking steps to hinder their collaborators' blogging about their business. This is not a wise decision, nor a reaction in the right direction. In another recent instance, a potentially groundbreaking particle physics result was shown to have leaked out prematurely not by means of bloggers, but by the natural attitude of scientists to discuss with their peer and distribute reserved material. While bloggers may be considered a threat, they put their face behind their writings, while there are much more harmful ways by which information is distributed, which scientific collaborations should worry about.
The Higgs boson will be announced many times before being actually discovered -this has already started happening. Whether the first correct announcement will come from an official or unofficial source depends on the ability of the collaborations to take a positive attitude toward the diffusion of scientific news. A few shy steps in the right direction have been made in some cases, but ultimately, large collaborations will need to get equipped with their own approved blogs.