Science with soul sells

By Razib Khan | August 31, 2010 1:51 am

Vivienne Raper who analyzed the Wikio Top 100 Science Blogs left a comment below:

I’m now curious to find out why there are no ‘popular’ blogs in certain subjects. Do working condensed matter physicists who want to engage with the public write about astrophysics? Or are astrophysicists the only physicists who want to blog for the public? Or does the public only read astrophysics blogs?

675px-CrabNebulaHubbleThe contrast between astrophysics and solid state physics is a clue to what’s going on I think. Solid-state physics is very important work. Like agricultural science solid-state physics may not have all the public glamor, but it puts bread on the table of our civilization. So why all the love for astrophysics? I think part of the issue is real straightforward. Astrophysics lends itself easily to a visual “hook,” such as the false-color image of the Crab Nebulae to the left. This isn’t necessarily the heart of astrophysics of course, but it’s a way to connect with the broader public in a literally eye-catching manner. Compare the image search results for “solid state physics” vs. “astrophysics. Not a good sign if the first page is overloaded with head-shots of old nerdy white, Middle Eastern, and brown guys. But that’s not the only issue here. I think there’s a “soul factor” at work. To understand what I’m getting at, let’s look at Vivienne’s breakdown by the umbrella categories:


blogabout

Neuroscience, evolution, and astrophysics speak to normative concerns of our species. That is, they grapple with values. The brain is the seat of our self in a material sense, and neuroscience emerges out of a deep tradition of philosophy of mind which goes back 2,500 years. Evolution has had a fraught relationship with teleology, and some philosophers of biology have quipped that their field to a first approximation can be reduced to philosophy of evolution. Molecular biology is more fundamental in a concrete proximate sense, but evolutionary biology is more fundamental in the ultimate abstract sense. And finally, astrophysics when it bleeds into cosmology rather obviously treads on the ground which was once the domain of mythology, of cosmogony. In a very broad sense these disciplines push against our conceptions of ontology. Astrophysics in the most general sense, neuroscience in a very anthropocentric sense, and evolutionary biology spanning the two extremes.

I think the anti-alternative medicine category also emerges from the same dynamic, but mainly not to appeal to it, but to battle it. Modern scientific medicine does not jive with the deep intuitions of many people of how bodily processes work, They wish for a more “holistic” and “natural” model. I use the quotations because these sorts of terms are more figures of speech in this context than anything substantive. If there was a “holistic” and “natural” alternative engineering discipline then engineering weblogs would no doubt sprout up to battle intuitive pseudo-science.

Mathematics is a strange discipline because I think it too falls into the category of a soulful science. But as Keith Devlin observed in The Millennium Problems translating deep cutting edge mathematics to the general public can be very difficult, because there is less room to use metaphor and analogy than in the natural sciences. Technical hurdles are not barrier if analogy and visuals can substitute, but this does not seem so easy for many deep mathematical questions.

I believe therefore the issue here is to a large extent demand side. People get worked up over controversy, and emotionally invested in topics which cross the threshold of deep emotional commitment. Whether we are simply another primate, or sui generis and a Special Creation, fits that bill. More practical, and very important in an economic sense, endeavors may not fit the bill.

Note: I think other factors are at work as well. Climate science is popular because of its high profile in public policy right now and the potential existential implications. There are probably other hidden factors too. Why is neuroscience blogging more well developed than psychology blogging (or at least so a psych blogger has complained to me)? Neuroscience is a young field which is maturing right now, and perhaps it simply has the right demographic profile which allowed it to bloom very quickly in the next technological context. And I also think fMRI images are preferable to another stock photo of rats in a maze!

Image Credit: NASA

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  • bioIgnoramus

    It’s also the yarns they can spin. Studying faults in crystalline materials doesn’t really compete, tall tales-wise, with stuff about Dark Matter, Black Holes, and so forth. Apart from anything else, a tall tale in Solid State Physics would probably be brought crashing to earth by one well designed experiment. Astrology, oops Astrophysics, is essentially observational and so leaves much more room for, ahem, speculation. There may well be plenty of Marc Hausers uncaught in Astrophysics.

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  • http://blogboogie.com/ psychicjim

    This is well written and explained.
    After reading your blog , and your work on the Wikio top 100 science
    blogs, I have the following to say:

    Our society is conditioned to go on “‘Show”and less on “Go”‘
    Whatever looks good, and sounds good, people want.

    Yes, superficial, but this is the way it is, and your stats prove it.

    Maybe one day There will be a more even match, and we will see the
    Chemistry blog right up there with Astronomy,
    it would be nice, but I am not holding my breath.

    Peace.

  • Åse

    One thing about neuro psychology is that there seems to be this idea that if you can see the brain doing it – the biology – it is more real and wonderful and true than if you infer it from having people push buttons, move levers etc in response to pictures on a screen. It is a bit difficult to explain that the brain images are only as good as the behavioral paradigm allows. (In some instances I resort to a derisive Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha, when someone suggests that the brain image will make psychology real).

    There are some good psychology blogs around (Citation needed, The hardest science, also some compilation ones – but those are the two main ones I read in my RSS).

    Some of the behavioral economy would also fall within the psych realm, and I see those.

    but, I do think you are right in the main aim of your post, and I have read that before (god, I cannot for my life remember the name of the writer)

  • Sandgroper

    Engineering is a conservative profession. Engineering projects require large financial investment. Failures can have big human and material consequences, and questions that go to cause are often deliberated at great length in coronial inquests (which often attract public interest), and in lawsuits for very large sums of money (which rarely do). Adherence to established standards and codes of practice is vital, and often the engineer’s only defence in the event of a failure.

    Which is kind of weird, because there are some very big human interest stories that have a major engineering dimension – but then New Orleans has no doubt received plenty of public attention in the US.

    I attended a lecture 25 years ago given by a member of the US Army Corps of Engineers who predicted that the Hurricane Katrina scenario would happen in New Orleans. He described it pretty much as it happened, 25 years before the event.

    That is not unusual, and it speaks directly to the way that western-style democratic politics work, and the way that capitalistic economies work – politicians are working to an election time horizon of 3-5 years, and no one will listen before the event if you are talking time scales of decades or hundreds of years. After the event, everyone wants to know why you didn’t tell them. It’s a blame-shift thing, and a great human failing, and a major systemic weakness.

    Think about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami – people can scoff, but that was an entirely predictable event, not precisely, but in terms of approximate timing and approximate magnitude. Entirely predictable. Whether it was preventable is another question. Whether its future recurrence (because it will recur, with absolute certainty, some hundreds of years in the future) will be planned for is another question again, but my feeling is that it’s doubtful – who can or will prepare a community for an event that will happen hundreds of years in the future?

    The Japanese know how. They build town monuments and take the children to them annually to tell them the story, and write it into primary school text books, and hope that the story will continue to be told down the generations. But then, tsunami is a Japanese word for a reason – they’ve been hurt before.

  • Åse

    Discovery channel is big on engineering programs, though. (Yes, I know, not blogs – are there engineering blogs?). Like mammoth building projects, moving of gargantuan things. Even programs like dirty jobs (where you kind of learn how you do them), and Myth Busters would fit, and those seem very popular.

  • John Emerson

    Astrophysics and particle physics offer a hook for metaphysics (bad sense), science fiction, and fantasy in ways that condensed state physics and chemistry don’t. It can be utter crap; many things that are true at the level of quarks have no application at the level even of molecules, much less organisms or civilizations. But that doesn’t stop people from trying to interpret human history in a framework of reversible time derived from quantum physics.

    Astro-and-particle physics also are highly formal and are irresistibly tempting to philosophers who need desperately to do abstruse formal work that laymen can’t understand. They do neuroscience too.

    As for non-neuroscience psychology blogging, I think that “Psychology Today” has poisoned that well.

  • Sandgroper

    #4 Åse – Here’s a blog on landslide occurrence globally, which is a huge endeavour, and I have nothing but respect for Dave Petley for doing this, but note that he is a geographer, not an engineer. I don’t say that disparagingly, I am a strong advocate of inter-disciplinary synergy in the field of geophysical hazards. More power to him.

    http://daveslandslideblog.blogspot.com/

    Engineers have a vested interest collectively in talking big about their mammoth projects and not so much about hazards and risks to communities. And when they do, they get talked down by politicians and bureaucrats. Everywhere. They talk to each other about hazards and risks, but public outreach on these issues is notoriously difficult, and trying to talk to pollies about them is impossible – they are not listening,

    And when the shit hits the fan, you don’t go debating it on blogs, you are under siege for months or years. You are lucky if you survive.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/principles/ Chad Orzel

    I have a half-serious structural theory about the fields that dominate physical science blogging, which is basically that they’re the fields where people spend most of their time at or near a computer. I think this probably also helps explain the oft-lamented relative lack of ecological blogs that people used to talk about when suggesting new blogs to be invited to ScienceBlogs (as I’m sure Razib will remember)– areas of study where people spend a substantial amount of time in the field collecting and observing aren’t going to produce as many bloggers as areas involving experiments in labs with Internet access.

    But then, I am very much not a biologist, or a reader of many bio blogs, so I could be wrong.

  • http://blog.joerg.heber.name Joerg Heber

    There are quite a few condensed matter physics blogs out there (including my own humble attempts), although maybe many of them might not be that visible. A problem with the field is that often it is simply not very accessible if you want to reach a deeper understanding beyond some phenomenology. The specifics of topological insulators for example. Even to explain something seemingly mundane like magnetic properties is difficult. In addition, often we would be talking about concepts that are not familiar (like in astronomy) or intrinsically of fundamental relevance (where does the universe come from).

    Having said that, condensed-matter physics to me is a very exciting topic. It touches upon our life in so many different ways, electronics, telecommunications, advanced materials… well, there are quite a few interesting blogs out there, well worth looking up. Also, you found only one blog about chemistry? Certainly there are more!

    (last but not least, the results from the bing image search are really poor. Try doing a google image search for “condensed matter physics” and it looks rather different)

  • aki

    To be fair there were a number of nerdy looking women on that image search.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    chad’s model seems a plausible part of the answer.

  • Ari

    NOTE: I posted this comment on the previous post, but thought it worthwhile to leave it here too.

    Razib touched on values, but I believe the thread is more general:

    A connection to humanity.

    While geology might be as accessible as climate science, I have a pretty good hunch that the public is less interested in how the Maldives were created than how the Maldives are being destroyed. On top of that, the people who go into climate science are involved in their work because they want to promulgate a human narrative, not just do the science.

    You might say that the opposite is true for chemists. Chemistry and physics are more selfish sciences, where truth is the goal and objective validation is the reward (or at least validation by one’s peers). On the other hand, for example, objective truth is a consequence of good medical research, not the goal, and the value of the reward is predicated on the approval by others or the greater community’s benefit, not simply that your research was true.

    Here at GNXP, the pieces are about humans, culture, and history, and not genetics. Genetics is simply a medium Razib uses in his evaluation. I do not remember when he last discussed genetics to no end other than more genetics.

    As long as humanity is a facet of the field, then a group of scientists who want to convey that message will develop, and then the public will see themselves in the science and listen.

    Some sciences have to try a lot harder to weave this narrative. Sagan’s genius was his ability to do this with a subject matter seemingly as far as possible from the human touch.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    ari, don’t use markdown. i fixed your previous comment.

    I do not remember when he last discussed genetics to no end other than more genetics.

    4 days ago
    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2010/08/not-the-origin-of-genome-complexity/

    though the fact you didn’t notice, and that those don’t gather much comment, says something (though they are often retweeted) :-)

  • Ari

    Razib,

    [Thanks, I noticed my markup issues right after I posted.]

    Your post is full of connections to humanity, albeit not explicitly. Your first bolded point (sorry, I didn’t read the full post) says: “there is an inverse relationship between long term effective population size and genome complexity”. I can instantly think of how that relates to us. It’s not very direct, and you note how interest wanes, but I would think that interest would generally be correlated with the amount of human connection.

    It would be difficult for you to write about genetics in a manner totally disconnected from humans. [Totally pulling this out of nowhere but] You might write about how geneticists found how they could manipulate how amoeba move through changing their genes. You’d get some interest, but if you continued to write on those topics, your readership would most likely fall.

    I searched for the first article of the most recent edition of Phys Rev Letters and I get “We present a measurement of the electric charge of the top quark using pp̅ collisions corresponding to an integrated luminosity of 2.7fb^-1 at the CDF II detector. We reconstruct tt̅ events in the lepton+jets…”

    Now, if I search Nature Genetics and the first article is “Evan Eichler and colleagues identify a large, complex structural polymorphism at 16p12.1 in a region previously associated with neurocognitive disease. They further show that the region has experienced dynamic structural evolution in primates and that disease-associated microdeletions arise on the more common human haplotype.”

    It’s dense, but I’d come out with something about humanity. People like you, Razib, take this material and, with your knowledge, present it to us in a digestible and relevant manner. It might be possible to do the same with the Phys Rev article, but I bet it would be significantly harder.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    ari, i think you’re general point is correct. i have a sense of which posts people engage with, and the concrete human-centered ones are it. though it depends, scientists often like the non-human ones.

  • Ari

    Ah! You do have that data!

    So Razib, which is more popular, the posts on non-human matters or the meta-blogging analysis? ;-)

    More importantly… We always hear about how media and journalists shape us, but now, with blogging and all the feedback, there is another question: Do you think that we, the readership, shape you? Not just in what you write here, but in your outlook on your journey through science and what your pursuits mean to you.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    So Razib, which is more popular, the posts on non-human matters or the meta-blogging analysis?

    the latter :-) though it depends on the metric. the ratio skew on comments is on the orders of magnitude, while the ratio skew in traffic is in percentages (50% more page views).

    Do you think that we, the readership, shape you?

    yes. though it’s a power law effect. a few readers have done most of the shaping.

  • Ari

    Huh, so it’s less “the readership” then. If it’s just a few individuals, then they aren’t a faceless body. You can probably name them and know who they are as individuals, so they are more like friends, cohorts, or mentors than “readers”; so it sounds.

    And to think, naive me, that I could mold Razib to my liking [not to say there's anything to dislike...] :)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    You can probably name them and know who they are as individuals, so they are more like friends, cohorts, or mentors than “readers”; so it sounds.

    this is probably correct.

    And to think, naive me, that I could mold Razib to my liking [not to say there's anything to dislike...]

    i’m pretty open to comments, questions, etc. but yeah, a passive reader has a small impact on me. i guess you could say in the aggregate traffic matters, but honestly i haven’t ever been blogging for traffic, though it is nice to see people reading. if i was, all i would do is post on jewish genetics and how alcohol makes you smart :-)

  • John Emerson

    For the record, outside science lawyers and economists seem to blog the most. And journalists, I suppose, except that blogging is almost part of their job.

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  • http://sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/2010/09/01/who-blogs-on-what-and-why/ Grant

    I’ve put my own thoughts up as a blog post yesterday:

    http://sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/2010/09/01/who-blogs-on-what-and-why/

    I think the “human” connection will be part of it, but I wonder if there is an element that the better blogs are what they are simply because readers like that they can explain complex things well (this resonates with the results of that NYT survey of what articles were most emailed to others).

  • http://neuroskeptic.blogspot.com Neuroskeptic

    I think you’re basically right about why people blog about what they do. I also think Chad Orzel’s point is excellent.

    But I think some fields of science face a fundamental problem which is that they require a mathematical background in order to understand anything. With most of biology, and even much of chemistry, an “intelligent layman” can grasp what you’re doing if you explain it well.

    With theoretical physics, I just don’t think someone without a certain level of mathematics can understand it. and blogs that require a degree in maths to read, don’t make it into Top 100s.

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  • diana

    Murray Gell-Mann used to call solid-state physics, “squalid-state physics.”

    Snob.

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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