There's No 'Cosmos' in Science Blogging

By Chris Mooney | May 11, 2009 12:08 pm

So: I found another report on the AAAS panel from a week ago on science and the media. This one allows me to further quote myself, and thus do less actual work to explain what I think:

Chris Mooney — a widely published freelance science journalist who writes a blog — lamented the Internet’s fragmented nature and many Web writers’ cavalier attitude toward accuracy.

“If you care about science being part of the common culture in America, the kinds of trends were talking about are pretty disastrous,” Mooney said. “There’s no ‘Cosmos’ in science blogging,” he added, referring to the PBS science series that drew millions of viewers.

While many Web sites deal with science well, Mooney said, “polemicism” is more common than accuracy online, “especially in the blogosphere. The Web empowers good and bad alike. Misinformation not only competes with, but often defeats, good information.”

I wonder if it is studying history, and reading so many dead tree books this semester at Princeton, that has made me so crotchety? Hmmm.

But I stand by the point–I blog every day, and I’ll probably never quit. But I’m not convinced that science blogging reaches much beyond the already converted, the people who really least need to read it. And give that this is so, do ten science bloggers really serve as any replacement for one laid off major newspaper science reporter–or is it just impossible to even make the comparison?

And speaking of misinformation defeating good information on the web–well, just see this post about vaccines, and try to read all the comments…after which, I expect that if you’re anything like me, you’ll just shake your head.


Comments (13)

  1. Dark Tent

    do ten science bloggers really serve as any replacement for one laid off major newspaper science reporter–or is it just impossible to even make the comparison?

    I think they serve different purposes.

    Theye are not interchangeable parts.

    I see the blogger’s main job as keeping journalists honest.

    And the journalist’s main job is keeping bloggers irrelevant. Just kidding (sort of).

  2. Erasmussimo

    My own experience is that science blogging is much more informative than newspaper stories. However, I’m already a scientist by training, so I’m not representative of the general public. It’s true that the science reporters have a bigger audience, but that constrains them as well. Newspapers don’t support long stories. Bloggers can take as much time as necessary, and by cross-linking they can extend the utility of any information they provide.

    In terms of information potential, there is absolutely no question in my mind that the web is more powerful than any form of print media — even books. The ability to freely mix images with text and the ability to link directly to additional information or references is a huge advantage.

    However, the web is a mess. It’s difficult for people to differentiate the authoritative information from the dreck. What we need is a pyramid system similar to Hollywood’s system for making movies. It’s a very efficient pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid are the millions of Americans who would like to write a novel. The next layer up is the few hundred thousand who actually write something every year. Next comes the people who actually submit their work to a publisher. The publishers really whittle it down from there, narrowing it down to a few thousand titles actually published per year. Then the public comes in, filtering out all but a few dozen best sellers each year. At this point, Hollywood steps in, selecting a handful of those best sellers to make into movies. Some of these movies receive the A-treatment and are made into expensive blockbusters that millions of people see.

    Right now the science blogosphere has nothing approaching this. Until a broadly accepted pecking order is established, it will remain that way.

  3. Gaythia Weis

    It does seem to me that the vaccine posts do prove that your statement about “reaching the already converted” is untrue. You’ve been quite effective in reaching some who are definitively non-convertable. Sadly. (I’m hoping you’re not shoving me into that camp, but I could be wrong). But on the bright side, these people did exist before the web. And they did have their mechanisms to propagate information. If one believes in the advancement of human civilization one needs to believe that it is possible to educate, and that by exposure to valid science, progress will be made.

    But the overall point is valid. The public in general is not being reached well by scientists. I’m not sure it was reached well by newspaper science reporters either however. I think that there was an era when decent science programming was more likely to be seen on TV than it is now. My guess is that while many excellent programs exist, they probably tend to be drowned out by the multiplicity of mundane choices available to the average cable TV viewer.

    Also, I think that children have much less opportunity for unstructured play. Too many carefully constructed, lawsuit mindful, playgrounds and too few trees to climb or holes in the mud to dig. It has been generations since most families had personal contact with the reproductive lives of household and farm animals. Even simple things like learning fractions by way of recipes and measuring spoons and cups is not as common as it once was.

    So I do hope you continue blogging. There’s much work to be done.

  4. Michael D.

    Gaythia, have you read “Last Child in the Woods”? I was thinking about that book and about playgrounds, etc. as my wife and I returned Sunday afternoon from camping with three dirty, happy little kids who had enjoyed 24+ hours of unstructured play in the woods.

    As far as the point of this post, I have often thought as well that the opinions you see in science blogging are from those sorts of people who, if there were no internet, would tend to sit down and have conversations about science. Those people would include the highly trained, but would also include the highly interested. So, in a sense, you are not just preaching to the choir, but I imagine you are missing the uninterested and those who SHOULD be interested…

    It is also incredibly easy to find loads of information on the internet that supports any pre-conceived notion one may have (unfounded or otherwise). That info is often just “sciencey” enough to be dangerous.

  5. Gina Mel

    And give that this is so, do ten science bloggers really serve as any replacement for one laid off major newspaper science reporter–or is it just impossible to even make the comparison?

    The question still remains how much did the newspaper science reporter achieve. We don’t know, do we? It seems there are a lot of people 40 to 60 years old who are scientifically illiterate. Weren’t they the generation who read newspapers in your “Golden Age” of scientific reporting to general audiences? Were the newspapers also preaching to the converted?

  6. mk

    If the current trends are as you say “disastrous” then what do you suppose a Science Blogging ‘Cosmos’ would or should look like?

  7. Science blogs will never beat newspapers. I am going to cover the 2009 Lindau Nobel Prize winners meeting in Germany with 22 Nobel laureates this year for Scienceblogs and I doubt if the coverage would reach a substantial audience.

  8. Mason

    Oh great, another typical modern day guy named Chris Mooney, I don’t know what his problem is but science have been around here very long before he was even born, he seems to have so much problems with everything, if that is the case then I suggest he should research over 100 years of works that great scientists like Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking.
    The science dated back to old greek times, being a skeptic isn’t about taking a side and go against another, look at it at both sides, he also seems to be against self-learning, what’s wrong with that? How can we even discovered anything if we don’t think of ourselves? We are blessed with everything we make so far and yet someone just spit on it, not very thankful for evolution, I think he should give up his job and try being a scientist for a change if he going to keep annoyingly debunk others all the time no matters what so ever.

  9. Curious Wavefunction.
    While I applaud your efforts, I would hope that you turn around and send your comment to Senator Kerry. On May 6, he chaired a hearing of The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation’s Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet on The Future of Journalism. It is in the transcript of this hearing that I find the self-serving quotation from Ariana Huffington.

    Despite all the current hand wringing about the dire state of the newspaper industry — well-warranted hand wringing, I might add — we are actually in the midst of a Golden Age for news consumers. Can anyone seriously argue that this isn’t a magnificent time for readers who can surf the net, use search engines, and go to news aggregators to access the best stories from countless sources around the world — stories that are up-to-the-minute, not rolled out once a day?

    It is also from the pages of her Huffington Post that I found the repetition of a Belfast News story on the mass suicide of 1500 farmers in India. The only problem is that the event never happened. Still that story was picked up, referenced and made argued about throughout progressive sites in the US. My own comments were here.

    What are missing are those who can do first generation reporting, who have some degree of institutional knowledge and who have the integrity to remain free of the false neutrality of “he-said, she-said” reportage. Even when I do find such first generation journalism, it is not often in main stream media or even on the major blog sites. If comes from dedicated individuals with small audiences who want to get the truth in front of a few people who just might be able to use it, like Lloyd G. Carter – a 20-year career UPI reporter who now has a different day job but who has continued to write and speak about water and agriculture issues in Fresno, CA for another 15 years. He doesn’t have a big audience.

    Hell, I would research more and write more if there were a way for me to monetize that effort. Instead, I end up finding the Lloyd G. Carter’s and trust them.

  10. Jon

    I agree that blogs don’t replace real journalism, supported by real news organizations, but they have created something new with some upsides:

  11. But I stand by the point–I blog every day, and I’ll probably never quit. But I’m not convinced that science blogging reaches much beyond the already converted, the people who really least need to read it. And give that this is so, do ten science bloggers really serve as any replacement for one laid off major newspaper science reporter–or is it just impossible to even make the comparison?

    I haven’t really seen anyone make the case that science bloggers should replace a major newspaper science reporter. If newspapers are having trouble, surely it’s their fault, not the fault of the bloggers.

    Heck, one can easily argue that the media nowadays is nothing but a bunch of sycophants (pandering to one side or another), so I don’t really know how much of a loss it actually is to see newspapers go by the wayside.

    The times have changed … newspapers must adapt. Fancy that.

  12. Orson

    The larger point of bloggers stuck preaching to the (already) converted may well remain true – but the example of vaccine alarmists isn’t the one you want.

    The vaccine’s story is motivated by the ‘it’s to protect the children” appeal, which is not really and argument at all – yet extremely vulnerable to hysteria – right, center, AND left. The right appeals to kids on abortion and teaching about sex in the schools; MADD appeals to both sides (although, increasingly to thee Left), in clamping down on demon rum – er, alcohol; and childhood vaccines, seem to move those on especially on the Left.

    IT is too easy to ‘prove’ any argument involving excess a by citing issues that depend on “protecting the children.” Remember the Alar scare involving apples, with actress Meryl Streep (a Fenton Com’s con), chemophobia and bogus claims of cancer threat? And the child sex abuse hysteria of the 1980s, capturing well-intentioned professionals on thee Left as well as Puritan anti-sex cretins on the Right? Just too easy….

    You need a better illustrative example to support your argument. Offhand, I don’t know what it might be, just that is ain’t this one.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs.For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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