Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Should science bloggers just blog about science?

Anonymous Coward (his/her chosen name, not a descriptor) at Bayblab has complained about the state of modern science blogging. S/he wrote
Why do we blog about science? For us at the bayblab, it was just an extension to our conversations about science that tended to take place in the "cool" bay of the lab, the only place with a decent sound system. It wasn't initially intended to be public, it was just an efficient way to share stories among us so that we could have some conversation fodder. In fact, back when we started, blogging in general was mostly about personal journals and pictures of pets, and the science blogs were few and far between.

Now there are thousands of blogs dedicated to science, yet only a few are popular. And strangely the popular ones are only loosely related to science.
I don't find it all that strange. Putting aside, for the moment, the issue of how they define "about science", it seems absolutely predictable that the most popular blogs are going to be the ones that have the broadest appeal. While the blogosphere is swarming with graduate students and junior faculty, the truth is that most blog readers aren't going to have advanced degrees in science. The more narrow your focus, the more narrow your appeal.

AC characterises the top 5 science blogs as follows
Pharyngula (mostly about creationism)
Cognitive Daily (psychology research)
Living the Scientific Life (personal journal)
Sandwalk (some evolutionary genetics, and creationism)
Aetiology (pop science)
Setting aside a few quibbles (about methods and definitions) for the moment, what does this say about science bloggers? AC laments the fact that, of the top five, only Cognitive Daily consistently talks about peer-reviewed science and asks
Why is that? Perhaps there is less appeal in discussing recent papers than bashing creationists.
It's an interesting question, but I believe it's the wrong question. The question isn't why do the top science bloggers not blog more about peer reviewed research, the question is why are these people the most popular? Now, here's the methodological complaint. The ranking is based on Postgenomic's list of the top science blogs.
Rankings are based on the number of incoming links from other indexed science blogs and some secret Postgenomic sauce.
While this may be a good proxy for "most popular", it's really a measure of "linked to by other science bloggers".

Unfortunately, this makes it really difficult for me to make the point I wanted to make. So setting aside the facts, let me wander off into my own diatribe...

What makes a popular blog? Quite frankly, if there was a blog dedicated to dry forest ecology, I would be reading it every day. But me and how many other people? Not an awful lot, I suspect. A really good, carefully focussed science blog which only discussed the peer-reviewed literature on a certain topic probably wouldn't get a lot of traffic. And it would take a lot of effort to write. It would, of course, make a nice experiment.

Most science bloggers have other commitment apart from blogging. As one person said, the only way the justify blogging is by calling it outreach. And outreach should go beyond the people who would normally read peer reviewed science. Outreach involves reaching out to the people with a casual interest in science. Outreach involves producing content that would be of interest to people who don't normally read about science.

Outreach is also about public education. While AC laments
It's been said before, you can't reason somebody out of a position in which they didn't reason themselves into. And it worries me because to the lay audience listening to PZ Myers (the 800lb gorilla), it would seem that science's purpose is to attack religion.
writing about creationists and kooks is important - when scientists say "intelligent design isn't science", the public needs an explanation. And debunking the latest nonsense is valuable. There was a time when people could wait for books to be published or for talk.origins to be updated. But blogging has become the medium of choice. This is even more important for a blogger like Orac - the amount of quackery in medical fields is overwhelming. A site like Translating Autism is great in that it bridges a gap from technical journals to the public, it only gets things halfway there. Orac is another step, but we need more to reach the Oprah crowd.

1 comment:

Hank said...

I've said this in a few places now but those guys lodged a complaint without doing much homework.

We have 51,000 links in Technorati, for example (though, since they are not all big bloggers, not much 'authority') yet using that postgenomic tool created by the kid from Nature (which is featured on the front page of scienceblogs.com, so he's no dummy about who to highlight and who to ignore in his site) results for scientificblogging 'blogs' shows:

0 - http://postgenomic.com/search.php?search=scientificblogging.com&type=any

:)

So if the frustrated science bloggers/readers don't like the results they get using one small incomplete service, use a different one and get to know science writers who aren't focused on culture.