The annual ScienceOnline conference can’t generally be considered as a stand-alone event. Because it brings together a few hundred people who are constantly interacting with each other online, it acts more of a snapshot of the current status of discussions that have been going on long before before the conference started, and will continue in the months to come. With that in mind, my summary of the 2011 conference, which occurred last weekend, attempts to highlight not just the things that were said, but the things that were not said; or, more broadly, the undercurrents and unresolved issues that I feel are going to be an important component of these conversations in the next 12 months.
Scientists can refine their message, but how effective is this when the media fixes the rules of the game?
Chris Mooney told us that we need ‘Deadly Ninjas of Science Communication’, Tom Peterson of the National Climatic Data Center said that he had been told by a Congressman that the debate over climate change was a ‘knife fight’, and Josh Rosenau drew some compelling parallels between the tactics and rhetoric employed by denialists and the creationist playbook. And yet, there was still a rather odd focus on the communication skills – or the implied lack thereof – of scientists as the reason that so many seem to think that the basic fact of anthropogenic climate change is still up for discussion. Sure, we can refine our message. But how effective is this in a media landscape, particularly in the US, where manufactured controversy abounds, and people who knowingly distort and misrepresent the science are happily given a megaphone? Our ninjas are going to need more than better framing in their toolkit of rhetorical jujitsu moves.
(this has all hit rather close to home in the aftermath of the session: it seems that, to my chagrin, one of my tweets from the session was seized upon by Anthony Watts and twisted into an attack on Tom Peterson. Beyond conveying my apologies to Dr. Peterson, I’m still not sure what to think about this, although the fact that we’re hand-wringing over the lack of context of Twitter when talking about someone who routinely repatriates quotes out of any context that they might be living in says…something.)
Blogs and social media enhance the MSM science narratives – but how do we drive them?
The session on blog coverage of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was extremely thought-provoking, and highlighted the sterling efforts of the likes of the Deep Sea News crew in enhancing and even correcting the media coverage of that disaster. But towards the end of the session, we discussed the thorny problem of covering the aftermath of events such as this, and earthquakes and floods and other natural disasters, which have continuing and significant impacts months and years after the media has moved on to the next big story. Science blogs are an ideal medium to provide continuous, low-level coverage, but keeping a broader audience in the loop requires at least some wider media engagement. Yet outside of the political world, what is written on blogs doesn’t currently end up exerting much control on what stories media outlets decide to cover. Can we change that?
Not all bloggers want to be journalists
The endless debate over whether blogging counts as journalism does, thank goodness, seem to have finally faded into the background this year, but the dominance of professional science writers on panels about the interface between science and the media, such as ‘Keepers of the Bulls**t Filter’, has me wondering if there isn’t still a certain imbalance here. Whilst advice on clearer writing and reaching a wider audience can be valuable, underneath it all seems to be the almost unconscious assumption that everyone is in this game because they want to be a journalist or a popular science writer. But some of us are scientists first, and science writers second. There is a fundamental difference between writing for your day job and writing about your day job, and this uniquely guides and limits our choices about what we write about and how we write it. I think that perspective needs to be better articulated in these discussions, lest we lose sight of the fact that science blogging is most valuable when it spans the entire continuum between scientific journals and popular exposition. Good writing can sometimes be technical, and aimed at a narrow audience.
We can aggregate science blogs, but how do we curate them?
Saturday morning saw the unveiling of ScienceSeeker, a new aggregator for the entire science blogosphere. This is a clear step forward from the first iteration, scienceblogging.org: rather than a page full of feeds, all the posts are filtered by subject, in a manner akin to the ResearchBlogging site (although without subcategories at the moment). Their geoscience category is rather sparsely populated at the time of writing, but should hopefully soon be populated by most of the blogs on the allgeo feed.
Pulling in content from all corners of the blogosphere into one portal is nice idea, but the sheer number of science blogs nowadays means that the number of posts being aggregators is going to totally overwhelm anyone except perhaps Bora. I believe that the success of these aggregators is completely dependent on how we deal with this firehose effect. How to we make the best posts stand out on these aggregators? Who decides on what is ‘best’? Should we use like buttons? Can we tie these aggregators into the Twitter link recommendation ecosystem? I think hitting on an effective and fair system may take a lot of time and experimentation.
Defence and offence when blogging on the academic career track
There were a couple of sessions that addressed the question of how scientist bloggers – particularly those on the tenure track – should sell their online activities to their senior colleagues within academia. Unsurprisingly, opinion and experience both indicated that your scientific output and ability to get your research funded will always be the most important considerations in hiring decisions. But it seems that we may – may – have got the stage that with the right emphasis, your online activities will not automatically count against you. This is definitely an improvement, but there is still a certain amount of defensiveness in these discussions. Of course, in a system where teaching is often not considered as a good use of an academic’s time (forgetting that universities exist to share knowledge as well as generate it), it is no surprise that we have to go out of our way to justify spending time explaining our science to the public that (mostly) pays for it. I’m not arguing that people about to submit their tenure folders should have a section entitled ‘I blog. Deal with it.’ But I do think there should be some strategic thinking about how we can shift attitudes to a place where blogging is considered akin to sitting on committees, peer review, even teaching: a duty that needs to be balanced with writing papers and grants.
These musings aside, my weekend held many more interesting discussions: the ‘Technology and the Wilderness’ session was a great exploration of the promise and pitfalls of using tools like the web and smartphones to report from and teach in the field . I also had a nice discussion with Dr. Holly Bik about the fuzzy area between being able to talk knowledgeably to the media about science in fields related to, but not specifically in, your area of research (for me, earthquakes; for her, oil spills), and being an ‘expert’ (as the media is fond of referring to you). I got the yearly chat in person with old internet friends, and met some for the first time outside of the web. Once again, this was one of the more fun, and intellectually stimulating, weekends I’m likely to have this year, full credit for which goes to the organisational energy of Bora Zivkovic and Anton Zuiker. Now all that remains is to see where all these conversations have progressed to next January.