Why scientists (should) blog

scilogoLast weekend, the Triangle hosted ScienceOnline 2011, a lively annual conference spearheaded by the tireless bloggers Bora Zivkovik and Anton Zuiker. Now in its fifth year, the conference has become so popular that registration for 300 spaces sold out this year in less than a day. The participants, according to the conference website, are “scientists, students, educators, physicians, journalists, librarians, bloggers, programmers and others interested in the way the World Wide Web is changing the way science is communicated, taught and done.”

As a first-time attendee and representative of Science in the Triangle, I divided my time between chasing down interviewees and attending panels, which were organized by participants on an online wiki.

One of those interviewees, Katie Mosher of NC Sea Grant, told me that she’d observed a coming together of science blogging and science journalism in the three years since she’d started attending ScienceOnline. More journalists are using the blog form either to replace or to supplement their print or broadcast stories, she said, some of them writing in traditional journalistic objective form and some of them adopting a point of view. Some of those journalists were present at the conference, just as she sees bloggers now attending conferences hosted by organizations like the National Association of Science Writers.

But journalists appeared to be outnumbered at the conference by scientists who blog (or tweet, or both). As a professional writer who frequently covers science, I should perhaps see these scientist-bloggers as competition. Not at all. To me, they are representative of a welcome trend in academics to communicate with the public about scientific findings and (sometimes controversially) the public policy implications of these findings. A scientist-blogger who writes well (perhaps one who attended the panel by Carl Zimmer and Ed Yong on avoiding obfuscation in science writing) and who knows how to attract an audience can have an immediate impact on public understanding of breaking news, as has been the case with the scientists at Deep-Sea News who covered science surrounding the Gulf oil spill. (Bora Zivkovic explains why scientists are such good explainers.)

A scientist-blogger takes some professional risks. Although I was unable to attend “Perils of Blogging as a Woman under a Real Name,” panelist Kate Clancy provides a detailed writeup here, which alludes to the skepticism with which academic colleagues and tenure and promotion panels view blogging and similar “soft” activities.

A scientist-blogger has to deal with certain downsides of being an online presence, most notably “cranks . . . who come onto our sites and leave comments that foment dissension rather than productive commentary,” according to Rick MacPherson, interim executive director and conservation programs director at the Coral Reef Alliance. It happens wherever evolution or climate change are discussed, he said, and he is the target for negative comments every time he writes or is interviewed about the role of climate change in sea level rise and ocean acidification, both threats to coral reefs.

According to MacPherson, the negative commenters are evidence that the general public doesn’t understand the evidence-based nature of science. “People don’t understand how science works,” he said. “It’s not a democratic process. . . . not opinions.”

His sentiments were echoed in “Lessons from Climategate” by panelist Chris Mooney, coauthor of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future, who listed these depressing statistics:

  • only 18 percent of Americans know a scientist
  • just 13 percent follow science and technology news
  • 44 percent can’t name a scientific role model; those who can most frequently name Albert Einstein, Al Gore, and Bill Gates, two of whom are not scientists
  • in every five hours of cable news, just one minute is devoted to science and technology

According to Mooney, the situation “is ripe for climate skeptics; they are well-trained, skilled communicators who exploit lack of public knowledge and are willing to fight hard in ways climate scientists are not.” His co-panelist Josh Rosenau, who works to defend the teaching of evolution at the National Center for Science Education, said that the language of the attacks against climate science has an eerie parallel in the attacks against evolution. “For 90 years we’ve been fighting same battle,” he said. “Public opinion has not moved. If that happens to climate change we are doomed.”

Mooney and Rosenau were joined on the panel by Thomas C. Peterson, chief scientist at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville. Peterson was one of the climate scientists whose emails were hacked and published just a few weeks before the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit. Although his role in the affair was minor, he was excoriated in blogs (Peterson reminds us that some “science” blogs are unsound scientifically), subjected to harassing calls and emails, and asked by a congressman to produce all emails on the topic (which he did, and which vindicated him). Yet he was still subsequently elected by his peers to be president of the World Meteorological Association’s Commission for Climatology. Clearly, in his professional circles, he is a rock star even if some of the public doesn’t think so.

For Peterson and his co-panelists, the implication is clearly that the public doesn’t understand scientists the way scientists do. Mooney said that the climate emails were taken out of context by people who don’t understand science or scientists. His solution: train “deadly ninjas of science communication”–people who can frame the message and convey science clearly to different constituencies. He wants good communicators to claim the vacancies created when CNN dumped its entire science reporting unit and when daily newspapers gradually reduced their science coverage.

That’s a space that good scientist-bloggers can occupy alongside professional writers: reporting on science from the trenches, bringing scientific research alive, demystifying the scientific method, and unveiling the wealth of unsound science out there.

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