Monday, January 28, 2008

Blogger ethics: responsibilities to readers I

The Science Blogging Ethics Wiki asks the question: what is the responsibility of a science blogger to his or her readers? This gets back to the question "what makes a science blogger a science blogger?" Sarah Boxer's article about blogs makes me realise that I have spent too much time in overly genteel company. Most bloggers probably aren't overly concerned about their reliability or reputation. Most science bloggers probably are.

So what is the mission of a science blogger? Why does a person blog about science? Without a shred of data, I am going to hypothesise that:
  1. Science bloggers blog about science because they find it interesting
  2. Science bloggers are interested in communicating their field of interest to people outside of their immediate field
  3. Science bloggers are frequently motivated by a desire to defend science against pseudoscience and denialism
While the first point doesn't necessarily require you to be committed to reliability, for the latter two it's extremely important. Nonetheless, having come across many a defender of pseudoscience who insists that they are pro-science, I have to wonder whether there aren't "creation science" bloggers out there, or "homeopathy science" bloggers out there. I'm sure the latter exist, but they are probably hard to distinguish from snake-oil salesmen. While you find the defenders of creationism out there, it's probably hard to be a "creation science" blogger - you'd probably realise that there's no science to blog about. Of course the intelligent design crowd actively quote mine science in their blogs, I've never come across anything like an interest in science.

Getting back to the questions raised by the Science Blogging Ethics Wiki, is the science blogger's responsibility to his or her readers more like that of a journalist, a professional scientist or a professional educator?

A journalist's responsibility is to report in a fair and impartial manner. While a professional scientist should also summarise the literature fairly, they are expected to analyse and synthesise the data, and generally use that to make a case in support of (or against) some interpretation of the data. The role of professional educators is somewhere in between - it's more important for them to report on the dominant understandings and less important for them to advance their own ideas (depending, of course, on whether you are talking to an introductory course or a graduate student seminar). So where does the science blogger fall? Sometimes you're a reporter, telling people about an interesting new discovery that you don't really understand. Sometimes you're a scientist, advancing the case for one interpretation of the data over another, or pointing out flaws in a published work. But a lot of the time, you're an educator, a person with some expertise trying to explain things to a group of interested novices.

If I am right, we're in a new place: not the place that Tim O'Reilly wrote from, trying to get bloggers to impose order on their Wild West, not in the place of the Cyberjournalists, trying to set standards of behaviour for reporters. But there are also huge swathes of educator ethics that don't apply either.

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