Just a Frog on the Dissection Table

By Sean Carroll | March 8, 2010 8:51 am

We’ve been studied. Bora points to a new paper by Inna Kouper in the Journal of Science Communication. The title is “Science blogs and public engagement with science: Practices, challenges, and opportunities,” which pretty much explains what it’s about. The author picks out a collection of eleven blogs — Pure Pedantry, Synthesis, MicrobiologyBytes, Bioethics, Wired Science, DrugMonkey, Scientific Activist, Pharyngula, Panda’s Thumb, and our own humble offering — and analyzes posts and comments to judge how effective these sites are at promoting science communication.

The list of blogs chosen is — okay, I guess. I have no idea how it was constructed, and the paper doesn’t seem to provide much guidance. Bora has a critique of the methodology that wonders about that, and about exactly how objective the study is. It’s very hard to assign numbers to things like “ratio of informative posts vs. rants,” or “degree to which the cause of collegial communication was harmed by use of intemperate language.” The paper reads like someone read a bunch of blogs and typed up their personal impressions.

For the most part I don’t disagree too strongly with the impressions, with the obvious caveat that it’s almost completely useless to study “science blogs” as a group. People don’t read randomly chosen collections of blogs; they read very intentionally chosen subsets that appeal to their own interests, and different reading lists will lead to wildly divergent impressions about what blogs are really like.

More significantly, though, I can’t really agree with the moral that the author draws from these experiences. Here is the telling quote from the paper:

The blogs employ a variety of writing and authoring models, and no signs of emerging or stabilizing genre conventions could be observed. Even though all blogs mentioned science or a particular scientific discipline in their descriptions, they differed in their voice representations, points of view, and content orientation.

It’s hard to disagree with that, but I think it’s a good thing, and the author clearly does not. Blogs differ in many ways, and happily avoid the encroachment of stabilizing genre conventions. That’s one of the biggest benefits of opening up communication channels to a tremendous variety of content providers, rather than restricting things to just a few mainstream outlets; writers can have their voices, and readers can choose who to read, and everyone is happy.

It’s clear that a lot of people want blogs to be just like some pre-existing communication medium, just with comments and occasional expertise. And there are blogs like that, if that’s what you’re into. And there are blogs that aren’t, likewise. I hope it stays that way.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Internet, Science and the Media
  • George

    I think the issue is that “blogs” are sometimes expected to replace old main stream reporting – which they do not and I hope will not. There is a void for fact based reporting on national and world news. Once was that you lived or died based on gettin the facts right. Now its the opposite – see Fox News.

  • Baby Bones

    You bloggers provide me with a lot more insight than writers in other means of print.
    For instance, I got As in university Astronomy and Astrophysics and a B in General Relativity (damn those Christoffel symbols!) so I tend not to watch TV programs about the universe or read blurbs in magazines that oversimplify things. However, despite all the physics and math I took in university, there’s no way that I can keep up with peer reviewed work. It’s too obscurely written for me to understand its context.

    Thank you so much for lending your time and please keep up the blogging.

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    11? I count only 10 in the list (including CV).

  • sharky

    What would be most fascinating is actually a breakdown of who visits which blogs, and why–I graduated with a degree in the humanities, but I spent three years working towards a more scientific one first.

    So how many other educated laymen visit what blogs? How often do they come back, what do they read the most? What motivates them–is it curiosity only, or do they feel challenged? Are they coming by for political reasons? Do they come for the big words or the pretty pictures? The article’s supposed to be about “public engagement of science,” so how do they see the public engaging just by looking at blogs and reading all the comments (god help them?)

    I can see why the authors chose the approach they did, a large-scale poll would be murder to organize and still wouldn’t get everyone. But to me this all comes across a bit like trying to describe the effect of flowers on bees only by looking at flowers.

    (…this is the third blog I’ve commented on about this. Am I cross-pollinating? I can’t help but feel I’m slacking by not making honey. I should cook brownies tonight or something.)

  • Pingback: When scientist audience is from another field it is still "outreach" [DrugMonkey] ­ Share My Live()

  • Pingback: Stop using the lens of your preconceptions | The Skeptics Resource()


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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