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Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Friday, February 29, 2008

The Truest Science Blog

Recently, Bayblab bloggers raised some controversy in the science'o sphere with their article about the current state of science blogging.

Anonymous Coward noted that:

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. Just take a look at the top 5 science blogs (according to postgenomic):

1 Pharyngula (mostly about creationism)
2 Cognitive Daily (psychology research)
3 Living the Scientific Life (personal journal)
4 Sandwalk (some evolutionary genetics, and creationism)
5 Aetiology (pop science)

Of those only Cognitive daily is consistantly talking about peer-reviewed research. Why is that? Perhaps there is less appeal in discussing recent papers than bashing creationists. But bashing creationists is almost too easy, and not very constructive...

A.C. then added that:

... If you examine the elephant in the room, ScienceBlogs, the trend is maintained: politics, religion books, technology, education and music are tagged more often than biology or genetics. This suggests that their primary motives are entertainment rather than discussing science. Why? Because it pays. Seed Magazine and the bloggers themselves profit from the traffic. That's right, Seed actually pays these bloggers for their posts. And the whole ScienceBlogs thing is a little incestuous, they really like linking to each other, but not so much to the little blogs. I'm afraid gone is the amateur blogger, and in is the professional gonzo science journalist. Might as well read Seed magazine.

They immediately got a massive and largely negative response from science bloggers both inside and outside the ScienceBlogs community. Even heavyweights like PZ Myers and Larry Moran addressed the points in the post.

I think that many of the main points have already been discussed in these blogs and in the Bayblab comments section, so I won't add to those.

However, A.C.'s post has brought two interesting side issues to my attention, and I think it's worthwhile examining these further.

1. Peer-reviewed research papers = Science?

Other bloggers have already debated the suggestion that science blogging should be mainly about peer-reviewed research, akin to a journal club in academia. The consensus view is that science blogging need not be restricted to this - other resources are just as relevant to the main topic of science.

There is another implication - is science really just about discussing research articles? Papers are definitely important, but publishing is on the tail end of a long, long journey.

No matter how boring that paper already looks, the actual process of getting all that data is even less glamorous.

It seems to me that to be a True Science Blog, one should not only write about the highly-polished end product, but should also include the laborious process at the heart of the practice of science.

Often omitted from most science blogs are the arguments, disagreements, tedious experiments, inconclusive results, blind alleys, endless troubleshooting, health hazards, frustrations, self-doubts, mental and physical exhaustion that is the inescapable reality of research.

Will it make for compelling reading?

Difficult to say.

Is it "science"?


2. Not blogging for money = Noble?

Another curious point is the negative sentiment that some bloggers have about money. A.C. is certainly not the only one to feel this way, and this view is not limited to science bloggers.

Somehow, if the primary motivation for blogging is not some sort of ideal (such as educating the public on good science), then it MUST be for the money.

This is a strange false dichotomy because people can blog for all sorts of non-idealistic reasons that have nothing to do with money.

Here are some common possibilities:

a. fame
b. vanity
c. to relieve stress
d. to practice writing
e. to hone debating skills
f. for social interaction
g. for self-expression
h. for self-education
i. for hot babes (dream on buddy...)

As you can see, none of these are particularly noble reasons to blog.

Yet blogging for money is regarded more negatively than blogging for popularity, for example.

Does it mean that it's OK to be a vain, selfish and rude blogger - as long as you're not rich?



cactaur said...

Eh, I'd say I disagree with the purists on this one. In the end, a blog is a personal thing, and the bloggers can choose whatever they want to post about. Just because a blog is considered a Science Blog doesn't mean that it has to deal with entirely 100% science. If that was the case, there would be very few science blogs out there. At the ScienceBlogs I go to, there may not be many purely scientific posts, but when they're made, those posts are REALLY good.

But, in the end, it all comes down to choice. A science blogger still has a right to choose what to post about on his/her blog as much as a reader has a right to ignore posts he/she doesn't like. If there are people only want the science, that's what FreshBrainz and Research Blogging is for, to sift through the blogs and pick out the best scientific posts. Well, that's my $.02.

Bayman said...

Nice commments Lim. I certainly am with you that there's lots to blog about science that's not just peer-reviewed literature. But I still find I come across surprisingly little when surfing blogs of scientists. Although maybe I just haven't been looking hard enough. Over the last few days, a lot of new stuff has definitely been brought to my attention, which is great.

Re the money thing, I totally agree that any reason for blogging is valid. I agree with the comment that blogs should be individualized. The science blogs I personally tend to enjoy most are those that are an honest reflection of scientists and the things that are important to them. Bloggers like yourself and Larry Moran I think are exemplify this style, for example.

The idea of blogging for money I think turns me off blogs personally because I think money has such a loud voice in Western society. It's so hard to get away from mind-contaminating advertising and corporate nonsense that I turn to the internet to listen to independent voices dealing with content of my own choosing. Of course no one is without bias, but I prefer honest and diverse bias over the uniform language of $$$$$.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

To Cactaur:

Thanks for stopping by. Yes, I agree with you - it is ultimately up to the individual style of the blogger and the interests of the readers.

I believe most bloggers would prefer to invest their time writing posts that appeals to a wide readership, rather than get ignored. Since reader interest is often difficult to predict, it is inevitable that the blogger would try something off-topic or bizarre from time to time, just to see what happens.

Thus, unless the blogger is a machine, it's very very hard to consistently stick to a particular protocol of science blogging (imagine the drudgery of such a routine).

Highly successful science blogs are far more nimble than that. It's informative to learn how they become successful, so that we can apply some of their ideas to our own blogs.

To me it doesn't matter proportionally how much or how deep the science content is, as long as it's fairly accurate, clearly written and more importantly, thought-provoking and entertaining.

Of course, if a blogger is trying to pass off woo as legit science I would immediately oppose it, but that hasn't happened yet in the blogs that I frequent at Scienceblogs.

Aside from such an extreme transgression, science bloggers should have a chance to explore their adaptive space and find their own niche.

To Bayman:

Not all scientists are interested in blogging about science (indeed the vast majority are not interested in blogging at all), so it's not surprising to me that the proportion of science content is not high. Many people would like to keep their work and hobby completely separate. Only select tortured souls like myself (perhaps you too?) find that compartmentalization utterly impossible.

I doubt science bloggers can be compelled to blog more about serious science topics. More likely that sort of pressure will just encourage them to quit altogether and switch to more relaxing hobbies like photography :)

I'm glad that you enjoy the posts at Fresh Brainz, thanks! This blog was originally intended to be about science fluff, but has drifted towards more serious science topics over time.

I will try to devote about one-third of the posts to science, however, this is a hobby and I cannot force myself to write on some areas that doesn't interest me.

As for money - it has a loud voice in any society.

Ultimately, readers will assess blogs based on their content. To me, whether a blogger gets paid or not is usually irrelevant.

Of course, there are some blogs that are little more than real estate for multiple columns of flashing ads, anchored by posts that pass off glorified advertorials as content.

I haven't found a single science blog like that yet. If you find one, I'll be happy to join you to kick that blogger's ass.

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The Flying Trilobite said...

I find myself agreeing with your points Lim - and not just because I was commissioned to make a banner for the ScienceBlog Of Two Minds!

It sounds likt eht money Seed media pays them is very small, the blogs are not part of a career. I describe my own blog as a scientific one, but do not practice science, nor do I have a formal scientific education.

Science is the lense through which I see the world. I htnk that counts for something.

As always, your post was intelligent and looked at the issue from a different angle. I knew I'd see something interesting from Fresh Brainz on this one.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Indeed Glendon, for most people blogging is just an enjoyable hobby, and imposing strict standards for what constitutes a true science blog is a bit excessive.

Still, I would strongly object to a blog that advocates alternative medicine, astrology, feng shui, or other forms of woo knowledge and tries to call itself a science blog.

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