The elephants in the room at ScienceOnline 2011

A post by Chris RowanThe 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.

Categories: antiscience, bloggery, conferences, public science, science education

Comments (20)

  1. Ruth Seeley says:

    What a great, thoughtful, and thought-provoking topline roundup of #scio11.

    Absolutely, not all scientists want to be science journalists. That more scientists are taking advantage of an opportunity to engage with the public can only be a good thing. I do think some – some! – scientists who blog have fallen into a very competitive blogging stance that mimics mainstream media’s approach – the notion that they must blog about an issue because ‘everyone else’ is doing so, and in order to drive up their blog rankings (this falls into the ‘no thought left unuttered’ blogging category as far as I’m concerned). I’d say, if you’re not getting paid (as part of your day job’s mandate or by the aggregator site for which you blog) to blog; if you’re not blogging because you want to lay the foundation and build a platform for yourself as an author, don’t fall into the trap of feeling you have to blog about an issue – just leave a comment on someone else who’s covered the topic’s blog. That will still drive traffic to your own blog site. Not all blogs need to end up in the Technorati Top 100 in order to be successful.

    The issue you raise about ‘after-reporting’ is a huge one – something the nuclear industry has had to deal with after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and something that needs to be done re the anti-vaxxer movement. When I worked in the nuclear industry, it was clear to me from the outset that the very different reasons for the incidents at Three Mile Island (failure to believe equipment could fail) and Chernobyl (refusal to follow correct safety procedures) had not filtered through to the general public.

    It’s occurred to me recently that one of the benefits of looking back on the reasons why the anti-vaxxer movement gained ground in a communications post-mortem sense would be helpful going forward. I’m convinced that if the initial key message when the MMR vaccine was developed had been communicating the need to build herd immunity (not save your own child from the perils of measles, mumps and rubella), the anti-vaxxer movement would have had the wind taken out of its sails as more people would have considered it part of their civic duty to have their children vaccinated. I could be wrong – but unless MMR vaccination rates start to rise dramatically, this is something that has to be re-examined.

    Anyway, raving a bit now so will stop. But thanks very much for this.

  2. Michelle says:

    Sometime the senior colleagues are the bloggers! Yet another elephant in various rooms, social media is not just the purview of the young.

    Thanks for an interesting post to share with my writing/science students.

  3. Brian Romans says:

    Chris says: “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”

    Ding, ding, ding! Thank you for articulating a feeling or thought that has been growing and evolving in my head for some months now. I haven’t been able to communicate it well and now you’ve done it for me.

    I also have this feeling that as writers/journalists embrace the blogging medium more and more it will become more ‘professionalized’ for lack of a better term. The assumption that the underlying purpose of science blogging is to communicate science to the broadest audience possible is robust and growing stronger. (And now when this comes up, you see disclaimers in the form of ‘if you don’t want to reach a larger audience, well that’s your choice’.)

    It really seems that a division, even if the line is still blurred and fuzzy, is developing between science bloggers who are writers/journalists and science bloggers who are scientists. I realize this topic has been discussed ad nauseum since the appearance of science blogs, but something is crystallizing that is difficult to pin down.

    The ‘prominent’ science bloggers out there are, for the most part, pro writers/journalists (or those that are trying to break into the field). They are talented communicators and writers and, therefore, attract a lot of hits and attention, which, in turn, makes them more prominent. I think this leads to what you describe as the ‘unconscious assumption’ about the trajectory of the medium.

    I absolutely love seeing writers/journalists writing in the blog style and discussing meta-science writing on Twitter. And I am learning tons by interacting with them now that I’m a bit closer to it all with my colleagues at Wired. But where does this leave the scientist that wants to blog about their research? Writers/journalists say they want more and more scientists blogging about their research, but then there’s this feeling that if they do blog, it better not be too narrow in scope or contain too much technical terminology. Because, after all, the purpose of the blog is to communicate the importance of science to the masses.

    I know no one is *explicitly* saying this. People will respond with ‘you can do whatever you want, there’s enough room for everyone, blah blah blah’. But I think your ‘unconscious assumption’ phrase describes the situation accurately. I suppose I’ve said enough about this for now … but my main point is that I think you’ve hit on something very important.

  4. David Orr says:

    Re: not all bloggers want to be journalists…

    Reading this has made given me a new wrinkle to think about as I guide my blog’s evolution. I’m not a scientist, but I have a personal stake in the wider acceptance of science. I write about some of the same things as a dedicated science writer might – take Brian Switek for example. But our individual goals are different, and I do not consider mine to be straight journalism. And it’s alright to be a graphic designer who cares about science and writes about that. Certainly better than being a science writer whose time limitations don’t allow me to rise above mediocrity. But science does not belong to an elite group – it’s all of ours, and public understanding benefits from (perhaps depends upon) a diversity of perspectives. This doesn’t allow me to be any less accountable for the information I share or the quality of my writing. but it lets me set my expectations properly.

    Back to your opening paragraph, folks who have complained of cliquishness as they watched SciO11 from afar would do well to remember your point that this is less a convention than a “state of the union” event, and its true value is in the conversation continuing. I second Ruth’s thanks for this post.

  5. Ruth Seeley says:

    I’d just add that when I first started trying to get ‘up to speed’ on nanotechnology, I subscribed to the RSS feed of every blog that had nanotech as its subject. You can imagine how that worked. A far better approach for me was to keep the folks writing on nanotech for the general public in my RSS feed, and maintain the nanotech Google Alert I’d set up so I’d know when the most science-y of scientists were posting too, without driving myself crazy trying to understand the more narrowly focused blogs (which, trust me, is never going to happen). ;)

  6. Kim says:

    On the subject of blogging about the aftermath of natural disasters:

    I’ve got an upper-level, interdisciplinary class that deals with natural disasters (including how humans prepare for them and deal with the afterwards). I’ve found blogs (especially Dave’s Landslide Blog, Eruptions, and Anne’s blogging about flooding) useful because they cover things that don’t make the media (with the exception of Andy Revkin’s writing at the NY Times). Blogs have made it possible to talk about recent disasters (before there’s time for someone to write a book), and to talk about them after the news coverage has moved to something else. That’s not broad (it’s a 30-student class every other year), but blogs make it possible for a few more people to discuss the longterm issues.

  7. Lab Lemming says:

    Ditto what Brian said.
    Another further confounding issue, however, are blogs by scientists who are transitioning to popular science writers/ educators- e.g. Brian Switek, or the Bad Astronomer. While it is great that such a career path exists and can be facilitated by blogging, those of us who have no intention on doing such a thing need to make sure that the existence of our blogs is not taken as a signal that we’re thinking about jumping ship (especially by our bosses).

    A further issue, which I don’t think anyone handles well, is that science popularization rarely does a good job at explaining how science works, or what distinguishes good science from bad. And given the ability of the internet to breed disinformation, that is something that would be handy to achieve.

  8. Ed Yong says:

    This is a great post. I find this topic quite difficult. I make no secret about my desire to reach a broader audience and I like to talk about how people can do that. It’s hard to do so without inadvertently pissing off people who don’t share the same agenda because (judging from Brian’s comment) even the disclaimers are coming off as patronising.

    This question about bloggers/journalists actually ties into the following bit about curating blog posts. Chris says, “How to we make the best posts stand out on these aggregators? Who decides on what is ‘best’?” Well that depends entirely on your intended audience. For those of us trying to go broad, other members of the blogging community would be the worst people to judge which posts were “best”. Likewise, for those who are fostering communications within their own field, the general public would be unsuitable for the role. So… ?

  9. Blake Stacey says:

    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.

    This, most emphatically. As I said in the math-on-blogs-and-wikis session I co-moderated with Maria Droujkova, while I think outreach to wide and general audiences is a good thing, right now it’s not my own highest priority. I want to communicate with my colleagues and to help educate the next round of undergraduates, and the demands those tasks place on style, content and technological infrastructure are not always the same as the needs of general outreach efforts. (To pick a rather mundane but surprisingly important example: being able to write equations in blog posts is bloody important for my getting serious writing done.)

  10. John Hawks says:

    I get Brian’s comment. Sometimes it seems like there is too much of a “one strategy fits all” emphasis. The blog is a medium, but can carry messages to very different audiences. Speaking as a scientist, I don’t target the broadest audience. I write for my community, which includes people with a lot of background, as well as those willing to come a bit further by way of preparation.

    A lesson we learned in the early days of blogs — they are not only broadcast tools, they also enable effective narrowcasting. If you are hitting the right readers for your message, the number of hits is irrelevant. That’s part of why the alternative metrics discussion is important, because everyone understands traffic, but the more targeted strategies become difficult to quantify.

  11. Brian Romans says:

    @Ed I wouldn’t say ‘pissed off’, more like ‘agitated’. And like a washing machine, this agitation hopefully leads to something productive :)

    @John Hawks Narrowcasting … yes, I like that. I don’t care too much about getting a lot of hits either. I’d rather get high-quality discussion/interaction going from a handful of very interested readers.

    I was saying on Ed’s post the other day — and he agreed — there is a continuum of targeted audience. The scholarly papers I write are clearly the most narrow, they are for other experts on very specific topics with technical stuff. By comparison, my blog posts are much broader. But they are still targeted for Earth scientists (and Earth science enthusiasts) and, thus, fall quite short of the general audience (that person on the London subway) Ed is writing for.

    As for deciding what’s “best” within the context of the target-audience spectrum? I don’t know, but that is a key question at this moment of the medium.

  12. DeLene says:

    These are wonderful points Chris. (And I’m sorry I did not get to say hello in person at Science Online this year; working during it consumed 90 percent of my socializing time.) I too wondered about the balance of professional writers on many of the panels versus scientist bloggers, and how that was coloring the conversations. There does seem to be an implicit assumption that if a scientist is blogging, they must be trying to reach a “general audience” — and with that assumption comes a cadre of writing tips and styles for popular media. In future years, I’d like to see a wider conversation on narrowcasting, it’s usefulness/effectiveness, when it’s utilized and for what purposes. (Maybe these conversations have already taken place, and I missed it.) But I agree, this was totally an elephant in the room, just as a discussion of the economics of science writing was missing two years ago when people were lauding the inclusion of blogging into MSM journalism.

    • Ed Yong says:

      Ha! I remember having that discussion with you (and others) afterwards. So this year, I was delighted when Steve Silberman brought up the money issue in our panel and we talked about it. And then John Rennie said to me afterwards: “We talked a lot about the money; maybe we should have focused more on things like content…”

      Can’t please everyone ;-)

      • DeLene says:

        … which was talked about the year before — right; funny! Speaks to the evolving and continuous conversation these conferences spark.

  13. KBHC says:

    Just re-reading your post again today. I love this — I feel like you’ve exposed a lot of the undercurrents of #scio11. I think these are what should carry us forward in suggesting panels for #scio12.

  14. Chris Rowan says:

    Thanks everyone for your thoughtful responses. I like ‘narrowcasting’ – I have in the past used the term ‘one to not-so-many’ to try and convey the same idea. One of the problems, of course, is that by virtue of being on the internet, your intended audience is not your only audience. There you can be, narrowcasting away, and suddenly your audience – temporarily – morphs and widens before your eyes (this has happened to me with respect to things like the Haiti earthquake).

  15. Chris Rowan says:

    In the context of this discussion, I like this part of an interview with Bora just published this morning:

    But bloggers have all different talents. Some are great at explaining things to a little kid, others are great at explaining to other Post-docs, and everything in between. They’re at various levels, and they can link to each other. Once you have a little bit of background from reading the first one, you can read the second one which is a little harder, then you can read a third one with a little more understanding, and then follow a link to the actual papers – dig through the data if you can! I see this as layered reading, which is especially good for the people who for the first time encounter a topic.

    This is exactly how I see it – blogging is starting to provide a bridge between the mainstream media and the published literature that did not exist before. The key issue is to strengthen this developing structure, and make it clear to those writing at the higher/narrower levels that they are just as valuable as those writing at the lower/broader levels (it would help if we could find some less loaded adjectives!) .

  16. David Orr says:

    That diversity is our strength as a community, and I think that for the most part, we all get it. The generalist/specialist issue should definitely be discussed at SciO12.

    Agree with your posterous post, Ed. Generalists are really needed. An reason for this struck me as I thought about the Science-Art panel I did with John and Glendon. A lot of people don’t necessarily “like science” but are lovers of nature (an example I chose were those people who love wolves enough to wear their airbrushed likenesses on t-shirts). People dig nature. They dig history. They dig chasing tornados and coral reefs and outer space. There are many ways to use these interests to sell the scientific worldview, without beating people over the head with it. The best generalists do this well.

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