Part II: Why Science Blogs are Neat

Returning to the shameless term paper recycling extravaganza, this post will cover the recent success of science bloggers. This discussion is based pretty much entirely on the blogs I read, which are mostly vert paleo-related. I can only assume that molecular biologists, physicists and those poor, brave souls in paleobotany have similar online communities. Once again, thanks to Matt Wedel and Brian Switek for their thoughts, experience and quotability.

Of the 112 million blogs on the internet, science blogs represent a small but growing subset of some 1,200 active contributors. Describing his reasons for co-founding the paleontology blog Sauropod Vertebrae Picture of the Week, Mathew Wedel admits, “if we had a goal at first, it was just to talk about how cool sauropod vertebrae are” (Wedel 2011). However, science blogs have since evolved into a valuable resource for both scientists and laypeople. First, science blogs have the advantage of being written by practicing scientists and other experts in their fields, and therefore remove the distortive barrier typically imposed by the media. As such, they provide a unique opportunity for scientists to communicate directly to interested lay people, and to hear what their audience has to say. Blogs can create public awareness of research or scientific concepts deemed irrelevant by the media, and can rapidly provide commentary or corrections to more widely dispersed reports. Science blogs have also proved invaluable for fostering networks of academic peers, but my concern here is with popularization.

Science blogs also embrace a pluralistic conception of academia that is typically obscured by mainstream media. Whereas the media presents scientists as an invariably unified professional entity, blogs reveal the specific positions and interests of individual scientists, humanizing the discipline in the process. SV-POW is once again a prime example. Posts like this one  reveal the little-publicized controversy over for-profit versus open-access academic journals. The comments generated indicate disagreement, or at least varying levels of apathy, within the scientific community. Similarly, Brian Switek’s recent post on Hell Creek ceratopsian diversity emphasizes the normalcy of scientific debate, combating the widespread assumption that any published paper is definitive truth. The public benefits from these conversations because it provides exposure to important issues in knowledge making that are normally not accessible.

Most importantly, by providing audiences with a direct link to working scientists and accounts of their everyday activities, science blogs demythologize the process of creating knowledge. As Wedel explains, blogs are well positioned to integrate the public into the scientific process:

“If we have one overriding goal now, it’s to break down the artificial walls between interested people, regardless of training or background. And by that I mean the scientific process, what we call making science, and the communication of science in both academic and popular settings. A century ago most science was citizen science. The rise of national funding agencies like NSF and NIH has allowed a lot more professional scientists to do science, but along the way we lost something, which is the idea that any curious, disciplined person can contribute to human knowledge. We firmly believe in that, and we’re doing what we can to bring it back.” (Wedel 2011)

This is a critical point because, as discussed in the previous post, the current standards for science communication do not encourage public participation. Information about science is fed to audiences in a one-way exchange. Science blogs break this mold by encouraging a productive dialogue between scientists and laypeople. They encourage the public to actively contribute to the scientific process, and provide a forum for this knowledge to be shared.

Science blogs are still a young media form, and their potential for communication remains largely untested. Nevertheless, the field is growing rapidly, and scientists who blog are gaining much more respect in the academic community (Switek 2011). While there was once skepticism about quality control in the blog medium, increasing numbers of scientists are entering the fray, and it is now reasonable to foresee most labs including somebody blogging about their work by default. Currently, the majority of the public, even those with strong interest in science, are unaware that this forum exists. Science bloggers, however, are encouraged by their increasing visibility, and some are optimistic that blogs will change the way science is communicated to the public.

Selected References

Batts, Shelly A., Nicholas J. Anthis and Tara C. Smith. “Advancing Science through Conversations: Bridging the Gap between Blogs and the Academy.” PLoS Biology. 6.9 (2008): 1837-1841.

Switek, Brian. Email Interview. 19 Oct 2011.

Wilkins, John S. “The Roles, Reasons and Restrictions of Science Blogs.” Trends in Ecology and Evolution. 23.8 (2008): 411-413.

Wedel, Mathew. Email Interview. 24 Oct 2011.

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