Blogs, as we all know, are about what you had for breakfast, or the cuteness of your cat. But science blogs are something different, claimed Bora Zivkovic, who along with Anton Zuiker organized the North Carolina Science Blogging Conference, held at UNC Chapel Hill on January 20th. Most of the day was devoted to thrashing out just how different.
Everyone broadly agreed that science blogs allow experts to write about what they know best. In her excellent talk Janet Stemwedel listed some possibilities: scientists can post about their latest cool findings, translate a recently-published article into something understandable, unpack media coverage of their field and correct misconceptions, recommend books, share work in progress (an audible intake of breath here, as all the scientists in the room imagined someone stealing their precious ideas), and just write about what being a scientist involves and what they do all day. (Most of the latter, interestingly, seem to be anonymous blogs written by women in science lamenting their lot.) Science blogs in general share a voice of authority that most blogs lack, as long as scientists remember to stick to stuff they actually know about–this is probably easier in a blog posting than in front of a TV crew.
So science blogs are all well and good, but what do scientists get out of them, apart from the ego trip shared by all bloggers from seeing their very own words on the actual internet? Stemwedel pointed out that, unlike publication, blogging is a conversation; you can get feedback quickly, and the exchange is archived for all to see, so it can be a great forum to test ideas and see whether you’re making yourself understood. And it builds those valuable communication skills, which everyone going into science needs, whether they believe it or not. As Hunt Willard joked in his talk, “People go into science because they don’t like speaking plain English to normal people.” But most funding agencies want to see evidence of “outreach activities,” and blogs allow scientists to broaden their audience, even to the classroom.
To help with this, Adnaan Wasey from PBS’s The Online NewsHour ran a session on teaching science with blogs, where the goodwill of eager scientists wanting to know what they could do to help teachers ran smack into the brick wall of the US education system. Blogs are all very well, said the middle-school teachers in the audience, but we need lesson plans. And those lesson plans have to contain a section on North Carolina Curriculum Alignment (a section as long as the actual teaching material, it seems) setting out which part of the state science standards they conform to, because the students have to be prepped for the next standardized test. This was probably the most depressing moment of the whole day.
The conversation was derailed at this point by a gray-haired, somewhat smug gentleman in the audience who pooh-poohed the use of blogs in the classroom, because they weren’t “accurate”. (As opposed to, say, an out-of-date middle-school textbook? Or a teacher without an undergraduate degree in science? Both all too common, I suspect.) The gray-haired gentleman observed that there was no quality control for websites, and suggested a group of experts should give their stamp of approval to blogs deemed sufficiently accurate. I wonder who he had in mind? In fact, all the speakers agreed that blogging makes it easier for actual scientists to write directly for a popular audience than ever before; the problem is figuring out who on the internet is an actual scientist. Cue the interminable “information literacy” debate, and the accompanying wailing and gnashing of teeth.
So science blogging seems to open up a myriad of possibilities, or, as Stemwedel put it, “Ponies for everyone.” But there are at least three reasons why blogging could be bad for scientists. It takes time, of course, time that your peers are probably using to write papers; but then again, science always rewards those boring people who never leave the lab and have no lives, and who wants to be them? Helping the public understand science is an activity all scientists agree is a Good Thing, but they tend to be rather suspicious of scientists that actually do it; it smacks of self-promotion and slick marketing. And blogs in particular have a bad smell, looking far less reputable on your résumé than that nice dull article in Scientific American.
Surely the biggest danger with blogging, though, is that you could turn into a blogger. There were just a few at the conference; large men with loud voices and excessive self-esteem. They liked to point out, using needlessly technical language, that things were more complicated than anyone but them appreciated, and treated all discussion as if it was a conversation between themselves and everyone else. This led to the sublime moment when one loudly interrupted a discussion on lesson plans solely to say, “I don’t feel comfortable conversing here because I’m not a teacher,” followed by everyone in the audience making an unspoken but pointed mental suggestion to the blogger. Happily, this was the closest to consensus the whole day came, which bodes well for the future of science blogs.