Sciencebloggers and SIWOTI – A Science Communication Research Project

A couple of days ago, Paige Brown Jarreau, my Scilogs co-blogger (“From the Lab Bench“) and our intrepid, supportive, Scilogs-Community Manager, launched her own crowdfunding project on experiment.com to fund her research work on science communication. It is a worthy effort, and her results will be Open Access, which is an awesome plus. Please do visit her blog as well as the project page to support her endeavor if possible.

In her survey (duly approved by the IRB of her institution), Paige has sought (and still seeks) input from people associated with various aspects of science communication: scientists, science journalists, professional and amateur science communicators, as well as readers generally interested in science blogs. During her interviews, Paige put a series of interesting questions, such as:

  • How would you describe your overall approach to science blogging?
  • What do you consider “worth” writing about on your blog? In other words, what do you consider “blogworthy”?
  • How do you decide what to write about, or what not to write about?
  • Can you talk to me about whether or not you try to provide impartial information or interpretation of science on your blog?
  • Do you have a strategy for attracting readers or keeping their attention on your blog posts once they get there?
  • Can you talk to me about any interaction you have with your readers on social media or elsewhere? Do these interactions impact what you blog about?

At some point or other, every science communicator faces these crucial questions in one form or other. Kudos to Paige for having brought them together. In her blog post, endearingly and accurately titled “Something is wrong on the Internet! What does the Science Blogger do?”, she asks:

The role of science blogging and science bloggers is expanding and diversifying today. More Americans get their science news online and via social media than ever, and much of that is now coming from science blogs. And yet, relatively little research has targeted the practices, routines and values of science bloggers. Traditionally, science bloggers have been the champions of fighting bad science on the internet. But today, they are so much more. Who are science bloggers? What do they do? How do they decide what to blog about?

I say ‘endearingly’, because I remember my SIWOTI (“Something Is Wrong On The Internet”) syndrome is how I had started blogging in general. Even now, for blogging about science and scientific research, I am either very interested and taken with some particular topic (for example, the Infectious Disease modeling post I wrote the other day) or rather irritated by the deluge of pseudoscience and superstitious, nonsensical kookery that seems to flood the internet at regular intervals (for example, see my post on Drinking Urine(!) to cure Ebola). It occurs to me that this makes my ‘overall approach to science blogging’ rather reactionary – yikes! However, I do believe that those of us who are trained in the scientific disciplines have an ethical duty to educate others and participate in the seemingly never-ending battle against ignorance and callow gullibility.

What is “blogworthy” to me? Really, anything that catches my fancy. And trust me, there is a lot of that. However, since Scilogs is sort of my ‘professional’ blog, I try to stay away from the inherently contentious issues of religion and politics for this blog, UNLESS, of course, they happen to impinge upon science, scientific literacy, research and education somehow. I am also concerned about personal lives and well-beings of scientists and researchers, because I don’t believe that “scientist” is a mode that can be toggled at the flick of a switch (yes, ‘cognitive dissonance’ notwithstanding). Therefore, what I decide to write about has quite a bit to do with what topic interests me, and most importantly, how much time I can eke out from my day job. Scienceblogging is my passion, but ultimately, a personal pursuit – not professional, and doesn’t offer me any financial remuneration.

Paige raises the question whether or not I (as a blogger) try to provide impartial information or interpretation of science on my blog. Personally, I’d think that ‘try’, that attempt or endeavor to be a given; so the answer is a resounding ‘Yes’. I think it is incredibly important to avoid (and to keep an eye out for) bias, which is a common enough phenomenon amongst professionals – and I don’t mean that as a pejorative. Professional scientists trained and working in different fields get immersed into the minute nitty-gritties of their disciplines so much that it is not uncommon to find them losing a bit of perspective. A part of that is exemplified by the occurrence of the dreaded Nobel Disease, in which an accomplished scientist, having received the Nobel Prize in their chosen field, suddenly feels empowered to speak authoritatively about areas of science where they have no experience/expertise, and expect people to defer to them because they are Nobel Laureates.

But the good thing about science is that it is ultimately self-correcting. The scientific method thrives on falsifiability of hypotheses, bolstered by prior plausibility and empirical evidence. Many hypotheses may crumble upon challenge; scientists are trained to move on towards a better hypotheses gleaning pointers from prior results. For a scienceblogger, it is important to maintain that same sentiment: the impartiality, and the ability and willingness to be guided by evidence.

Paige next probes the strategy for attracting readers or keeping their attention on the blog posts. There she has me: I have no clue. Blogging is almost cathartic for me, and so I write. But I do know that my writing suffers from several lacunae. Brevity is not my strong suit. I often take recourse to jargons when I consider those technical terms best-suited to identify the content/meaning in the context; as a workaround, I try to explain every such jargon in lay terms, which often ends up making my posts voluble and ‘tldr;’-inducingly long. I write as I speak, which means I am entirely too fond of run-on sentences with complex clauses, conjunctions, prepositions, and modifiers – which sound just fine in my head, but may become difficult to read on print for someone else. I look at my scienceblogging/science communicating heroes (such as Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, Maryn McKenna, Deborah Blum, Tara Haelle, and a few others), copiously sigh, and wish to become them when I grow up. That is sort of the sum-total of my strategy.

Interaction with the readers (Paige’s final question) is what makes me feel most alive. I’d gladly try to answer any question to the best of my ability and knowledge, on any platform, be it social media, blog comments, comments now enabled at more distinguished venues (such as PubMed Commons and Open Access journal websites), wherever possible. I feel it is a part of my duty as a science communicator. Relatedly, I also strongly think that active scientists and researchers should make time to participate in social media, especially Twitter, to educate and promote their research. In the contemporary society (and the US is no exception, sadly), anti-science beliefs, superstitions, and ignorance are rife, fueled by many different reasons and situations, but the neat effects of such anti-science beliefs are always detrimental to the society. Engagement of the general populace by people who actually do the work can be extremely beneficial in turning around this attitude for the better.

Let me conclude by wishing Paige the best for her fascinating graduate dissertation work which intersects science communication and media, both traditional and new. I shall be eagerly waiting for the results to be published.

2 Comments

  1. Paige Brown Jarreau

    October 27, 2014 at 8:30 pm

    Kausik, your responses here are GREAT! Many of the things you say jive with the things that other science bloggers communicate, including their motivations to begin blogging, the struggles with the evolution of their writing style, and their hesitance to cover certain controversial topics – unless that is, they feel like they can’t NOT write about certain issues that come up. More soon, I hope!

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