The Science Writing Renaissance

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | September 7, 2010 5:49 pm

I’m interested in highlighting the positive aspects of new media on science writing, so this morning I began exploring the topic on the popular social networking site Facebook (to reach beyond the science blogosphere) before moving the discussion here. Read the insightful thread that has emerged and please join the conversation in comments:

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Comments (45)

  1. Thank you Sheril, for this opportunity to discuss this topic. I agree entirely that the new media has had wonderfully positive effects on science writing. More science writers are reaching a wider audience than ever before. But as I alluded to in the Facebook thread, isn’t the corollary to that discussion, “Yes, and…” So there have been positive effects on science writing, but do we see improvements in science discourse among non-scientists? More support for science funding among politicians? Higher enrollment in science majors at higher ed institutions? Those are the key questions IMO. And those are the questions science writers should be addressing if they are to aspire to be more than mere hacks. Otherwise, what are we doing, except hiring ourselves out to the highest bidder, whether it is a science blog, science communications department or drug company copy writer. Not that those aren’t valid or worthy ways of making a living (we all have to!), but that we shouldn’t kid ourselves about what we’re doing and why.

  2. Nice. I covered a lot of this ground in a panel session at Science Online London 2010 just last weekend:

    In these discussions, people almost always raise the same points:

    1) Science blogging is an echo-chamber; you’re only reaching the same people. But as Bora said, we’re in an age where people push stuff they like to their friends and connections. We’re not reliant on people subscribing to an RSS feed or clicking on the Science section of a newspaper website.

    2) Science blogging will never replace science journalism. Straw man argument. No one actually thinks this. They complement. Next.

    3) There’s a lot of crap out there. Yes, but there’s a lot of crap everywhere. People who keep on going on about editorial control filters might like to reflect on how far those filters have taken us in mainstream media.

    And balanced against those objections, you have people doing all sorts of cool experimentation online. More space means more experiments with narrative and structure. Permanent archives let you provide context to news stories – topic pages, updated reposts, living stories, curating other people’s work. Interactivity with readers gives us a greater understanding of our audiences than ever before.

    What we have to do is to avoid sleepwalking into the same traps that plague legacy media. Churnalism, for exmaple, is much much easier online. And we need to remember that any renaissance that takes place on new media will exclude a large chunk of the population, creating an information inequality.

    Nonetheless, I think the future’s bright. Martin Robbins has described this as a golden age of science writing; I liken it to the Cambrian explosion. Anyway, we go into this a lot more in the video I linked to above.

  3. DITTO, everything Ed just said (he’s nailed it again…). …And the inherent nature of the rapidly-changing Web I think will make ‘sleepwalking’ almost impossible.

  4. @Roger

    You’re looking at things on incompatible scales. There are a multitude of factors that affect the things you mentioned – educational standards, economic health, the relative importance of other school subjects of financial burdens, and so on. providing a higher calibre of science writing can only possibly have a small impact on this bigger picture. That’s not because science writing is unimportant – ANY individual factor would only be expected to have a small effect on the bigger picture.

    So judging the success or failure of science writing on the basis of science subject enrollment or science funding seems unfair. In the same way, I wouldn’t expect to run a stop-smoking campaign and see lung cancer rates plummet. I would expect the latter to happen only after years of sustained campaigning and legislation, of which any single piece of activity forms an important part of.

    What matters is that science writers are at least considering or trying to measure the impact of the work they do. I try to. I know that I have personally managed to influence people to take up scientific education and to draw in people who didn’t care about science. It’s a small contribution, but a contribution nonetheless.

    Measuring impact is something I very much want to discuss at ScienceOnline 2011.

  5. MT-LA

    I personally would love to see more of the “living story” aspect that Ed Yong mentioned. It would allow the reader to catch up on any new developments, and I think it would also foster a kind of ownership for the author. I could imagine that if Ms. Kirshenbaum emerged as the leading blog-author on developments of stem cell research*, then the powers that be might actually seek her input when pursuing new avenues of research.

    To address the point that Mr. Harris puts forth, I think improvements in science education funding, discourse, etc, would be classified more as lagging indicators. I’m optimistic that eventually the changes that Mr. Harris desires will come about. Improved science journalism certainly wouldn’t harm the public’s attitude of sciencey things (how much worse could it get?!).

    *I realize that SK may not actually blog about stem cell research very much at all…I was just picking a topic off the top of my head.

  6. @Ed Indeed, you are correct. It would be inappropriate to expect science writing alone to impact indicators of the scientific health of society. That said, is it not incumbent upon science communicators to grasp the bigger picture, and to appreciate that their value is their impact on the relationship between science and society? Of course, it is unfair to judge the success of failure of science writing on societal measures. That’s not my point. My point is that science communicators have insularized themselves, creating a community that while vibrant and expressive, rarely advocates for societal change. A shame, IMO, when such smart, articulate and well-informed people should abdicate their higher purpose to society as a whole.

  7. I agree with Ed – this is very impatient. Things like this take decades, generations, to really change.

    While we have had the Web for 20 years, it is not the correct measure. We’ve had blogs for 12 years and even that is not a correct measure. Five years ago, there were less than 200 science blogs in the world. Five years ago, Facebook was .edu-only, there were no Twitter, FriendFeed, or YouTube. You cannot expect a few thousand people – a drop in the bucket – to change the world in five years.

    But the fact that the number of us is growing at a fast pace, that the outlets are multiplying almost daily, that new science blogging networks (or big group blogs) are sprouting at a rate of 1-2 per week, that more and more scientists and science writers are taking their work to their non-sciencey friends on social networking sites (instead of “what I had for breakfast” chatter that was usually seen at the beginning of those services), means that we can expect some results in about 20 years.

    And this will never be measured by trivia questionnaires. It is about trust (as I explained here) and about interest (and Ed Yong can provide links to his own posts about the distinctions between ‘cool’, ‘relevant’ and ‘fishy’ stories).

    And we have discussed at ScienceOnline2010 at length the distinction between ‘push’ and ‘pull’ strategies as well. Social networks are one of the ‘push’ strategies. Improving science coverage in MSM (via constructive criticism, and sometimes shaming) is another – this is where scienctist-bloggers and journalists are starting to work together. Affecting action toward improving science education is yet another. These push strategies, combined with the pull strategies (often more detailed stories, for aficionados, and for people becoming aficionados by being pushed first) work together in the new ecosystem, replacing the bland (and often full of errors) ecosystem containing MSM only.

  8. I’m afraid I find arguments about science literacy a little shallow because they tend to be based on assessing knowledge of a rather disparate set of dull facts.

    I was involved in a science outreach project some years ago, and we did a talk in a community centre in St Paul’s in Bristol, a part of the UK known for both its Afro-Caribbean population and its social deprivation. The talk was a typical public communication affair with accessible descriptions and fun examples but afterwards, this old Jamaican gent came up to me and just wanted to talk about EEG. He was fascinated by the technology and the ideas behind it and we spoke until closing about how it works and what it can tell us and he refused to be fobbed off with gloss or over-generalisations.

    I really related to this because I wasn’t that interested in science in school. It was all about the boiling point of water, time taken for the earth to orbit the sun, relation between mass and weight and other such forgettable irrelevancies for my life at the time. Later, when I heard about the effects of brain injury on the mind, I was completely compelled, and this was a springboard for my career.

    One of the advantages of the current science writing ecosystem is that it is both incredibly diverse and interconnected. That old Jamaican gent can read about EEG. He can even find a blog dedicated to it, that will take his enthusiasm and broaden it and show how it connects to other fields and where it appears in mainstream media and how it affects our lives until he discovers the next thing which just makes him want to grab a scientist by the lapels and shout ‘tell me everything you know about behavioural genetics!’

    There are loads of people, like that gent, who have an interest in a certain area and enjoy their passion: finding an article and setting time aside to enjoy it in a comfy chair, taking a minute every now and again to make their recent discoveries come alive for their grandchildren, being the pub expert on some small, obscure but fascinating area that occasionally pops up in the news. That knowing smile from the family when ‘your area’ comes up in Trivial Pursuit can be a massive motivator.

    New media serves these people very well because it brings a diversity to an area which traditionally has tried to ‘engage the causal reader’, rather than fuel people’s enthusiasms. Some of those readers later become writers, of course, and the fact that the new wave of science writing is partly staffed by people who started out with nothing but love and persistence is a testament to its energy.

    Science writing is indeed having a renaissance but I don’t think we should judge it by ‘science literacy’. No-one talks about art literacy, or geographical literacy, or music literacy – just inspiring passion is enough. If you fuel people’s passions they will build rockets to the moon and the dull facts will just become useful tools to assist in the journey.

  9. @Roger – I think you’re on the verge of trivialising the efforts of people who are more focused on reaching individuals. It irks me to see people elevating broad social advocacy over and above other smaller, more personal victories. Society, after all, is made up of individuals. Influencing even a single mind is a very powerful thing and and broad social change is almost always achieved one mind at a time. The value of someone who campaigns for science funding is great but so is the value of someone who writes something that an audience of thousands will simply think is cool. That audience, after all, includes voters.

    And to be honest, I know plenty of science writers, bloggers and communicators who are active in advocacy, education and so on. Does the fact that you don’t know about them show that they’re part of an insular community, or that you aren’t looking hard enough?

  10. Also Vaughan’s comment is fantastic.

    In the Facebook thread, it was mentioned that 53% of adults don’t know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun. Well 100% of adults who are me don’t care. I care a lot more about people recognising the value of evidence, bringing critical thinking into their lives, asking questions about the world around them, and so on. I care that people understand the processes of science, rather than the details. As Vaughan alludes to at the end of his comment, the fact that I can’t tell you when a world event took place tells you nothing about the value I place on history, and the fact that I can’t tell you who painted a painting doesn’t stop my heart from soaring in front of it.

    New media feeds all of that, because the main criterion for success in new media isn’t work experience, or qualifications, or any of the other factors that rule so mightly in the mainstream – the main criterion is passion. People who carry on, who make the most effort, who speak most engagingly to readers, they are the ones who are most passionate about what they do. And who better to showcase the wonder of science to a broad audience?

    I suspect that the Carl Sagans and David Attenboroughs of the future are already out there blogging or podcasting or tweeting as we speak.

  11. Ed wrote (@10): “I think you’re on the verge of trivialising the efforts of people who are more focused on reaching individuals. It irks me to see people elevating broad social advocacy over and above other smaller, more personal victories. Society, after all, is made up of individuals. ”

    I agree with this.

    My goal is to reach individuals. Most of the people who actually comment on a post aren’t necessarily the people for whom I write – they’re people who already have some familiarity or expertise, have scienceblogs bookmarked, or subscribe to the feed…and are confident enough to comment. And bloggers love our comments. But most of the traffic coming into my blog is from google. People who are searching (for example) “guinea pigs” likely aren’t looking for a blog post about their navigation abilities, but if some of them stick around and learn something, and have a “wow” or “aha” or “they can DO that?!?” moment, then I’ve succeeded.

    And, then, there’s the part where science writers/bloggers *have* affected some change. For example, I’m sure I don’t have to remind the readers of this particular blog about Science Debate 2008; five of the six co-founders were science writers/bloggers!

  12. So evidently, I am in the minority here. I am impatient for progress. I call for science writers to take a more proactive role in advocacy of science literacy. Are these aspirations misplaced? Personal victories are wonderful, and I am in no way diminishing the role of those whose sterling efforts advance the scientific discourse. Nonetheless, is it not premature to declare a golden age when the facts speak against us? If no-one cares how many people know whether or not the earth revolves around the sun, does anyone care how many people know the impact of climate change, or biodiversity loss, or whether evolution is responsible for life’s diversity? If 53% of people don’t know whether or not Earth orbits the sun, how can we reasonable expect people to understand the processes of science? I hardly see such a basic fact as a “detail.” I see no point in defending my position. I simply state the facts. If those are not palatable, I regret that.

  13. @Ed I have been actively part of the science communicator community for two or more decades. I have written and edited articles for American Scientist, participated in science communication panels, and been part of numerous initiatives to promote the public understanding of science. To say “the fact that you don’t know about them show that they’re part of an insular community, or that you aren’t looking hard enough?” belittles my opinion and observations and verges on a personal attack. I was hoping not to descend to that.

  14. In that light, I’d appreciate comments and perspectives on the findings of this peer-reviewed paper which concludes “empirical research is needed to improve the practice of communicating science.” Thank you.

  15. I suspect that the Carl Sagans and David Attenboroughs of the future are already out there blogging or podcasting or tweeting as we speak.

    let’s hope!

    there are many scientists out there blogging about their research. that’s a sort of public interface which simply wasn’t imaginable when i was a little tyke. i feel that it’s a great time to be alive!

  16. Sheril,

    Sorry I missed this thread on Facebook. I think science writing is booming. I’m not sure whether it’s better to compare it to the California gold rush or the Homestead Act, which gave 160 acres to anybody who would go out and grab it. There seem to be opportunities to write, blog, and report everywhere. Before the Internet era, people used to sneer that freedom of the press belonged to him who owned one. A press, that is–an expensive piece of equipment, virtually always owned by white males. Now, we all own a printing press, and we have a much larger potential audience than even William Randolph Hearst had at his peak. If you borrow a computer and use the free wireless at Starbuck’s, the cost of a press is zero. The only thing that stops any science journalist from producing solid reporting for an audience of 10 million people is his or her own ingenuity.

    It’s also true that salaries are not booming the way opportunities are. But long before the Internet, journalists always started by working for years for next to nothing, until they could claw their way into a job that actually paid a wage, but involved working lousy hours on a beat that no one cared about. It took a lot more clawing to get a job on the city staff.

    And it’s no different now. Write. Find a way to cover your rent. And if you’re good, and passionate, and persistent, you can drop the other job and make a living at this. If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t be starting a new graduate science-writing program at Florida Atlantic University. We want to graduate people who are going to get jobs–and I think we can do it.

    Paul Raeburn

  17. Even those who may not realize they are engaged in education are. One of the things that I do is teach science courses for elementary teacher candidates. Some are already interested in science, many are not but I try my best to encourage them to find areas that interest them. From my perspective there is definitely a renaissance going on – the access and variety of topics and writing styles has provided me with a new and valuable resource for engaging my students. As Vaughn said, they can follow their passions and find writing to bring in to illustrating scientific reasoning and evidence that captures them. As Coturnix said, it can inspire a culture of sharing and forwarding. My students often look for things that they can share with the class and they end up sending them to other friends and family too. And the accessibility of both high and low quality supports opportunities to develop skills in telling the difference. And I personally find students more willing to question the quality of science blogs than something printed in a newspaper. The discussion of quality and trustworthiness moves beyond “Well, the NYT published it so it must be good” to really thinking about what it means to be a trustworthy source or an example of great science writing.
    For the type of scientific literacy that Ed Yong describes (“I care a lot more about people recognising the value of evidence, bringing critical thinking into their lives, asking questions about the world around them, and so on. I care that people understand the processes of science, rather than the details.”) I think that the current state of science writing provides education opportunities that did not exist before.

  18. roger, i read the paper (everyone, sage has a free, if mildly laborious, registration process which allows you to access all their contents until oct 15th). seemed mostly qualitative. reading through the comments here, i’m a bit confused, do we all really have the same aim? or, should we all have the same aim? i ain’t one to spend much time reflecting on this issue as some of you do rather deeply and with nuance, but it seems to me that the great thing about the bogs is that they proliferate the space in the span between the science section of a mass market newspaper, and what you’ll find in the literature. basically, the kind of stuff you’d see in scientific american back in the day is found on a lot of blogs now. and now you’d got hundreds of sciams, discovers, etc.

    now, my audience isn’t run-of-the-mill. 40% have graduate degrees or are in graduate school. 8% dropped out of grad school. only ~1% of the readership ended their education in secondary/high school. i doubt i’m adding to the “bottom line” of broad-based public awareness of science, because my blog isn’t broad-based. but i’m evangelizing the awesomeness of human genetics to a lot of people who are well educated, but not necessarily up to date on what’s going on in that area. ed’s done the same on a range of topics, sheril and chris in their own ways, etc. there’s just so much remedial education that we need to do it seems a little hubristic to think that we could so quickly make a dent into the major long term trends of science apathy in modern societies….

  19. Fantastic topic. I see a couple of separate issues – one, its hard for budding science communicators to get their words out. Proper writing is a wonderful thing in science communication, look at Sagan or Dawkins to name a couple. But how do you get out there and do it? There are many people who can write well in science (not that many, but you know…) and we need to get to them. I’d like to do it, I’d love to do some science journalism and I enjoy writing, but apart from my never-visited blog, I don’t get much of a chance. I work as a scientist, and I am studying science communication, maybe it will just happen? I think social media is actually a barrier – its such a broad network of people that it seems impossible to penetrate.

    As for “getting science out there” I think we need to focus on understanding the scientific process. Lets do more of the how, and less of the results. We want people to think scientifically; a bunch of facts known is not the victory of communication some people seem to think it is. If people could grasp method (and its not that hard) then they could really appreciate the results.

    Its just a thought.

    Oh, and a small plug for my woefully unvisited blog. Please give me hell in the comments! I hope you don’t mind.

  20. Eric the Leaf

    Wow. “science apathy in modern societies.” That’s pretty heavy. Is science blogging really making a difference here? Really? Is Sheril’s Facebook page going “beyond the science blogosphere?” Really?

    So, here are a couple of points, unrelated maybe to anything, to ponder. First, for all the wonderful advances in technology and internet access, etc., the quality of science education has not improved in the United States in more than 50 years. It’s not a Republican (or a Democrat) problem. The National Standards promulgated by the NSTA and the AAAS have done more to thwart good science education, at least on the secondary school level, than they have to improve it. The immediate post-Sputnik creativity in secondary school science curricula have been unsurpassed to the present day.

    Dependence on electronic-based instruction–the current wave–is unfortunate. Technology frequently fails, networks go down, programs develop glitches, new hardware proves problematic, etc., etc. Furthermore, in my opinion, we are now seeing the zenith in electronic-based media. Access to reliable electricity is problematic world-wide and, in my opinion, the inevitability of grid-based electricity is not a given even in the most successful industrial nations. Energy scarcity, and all that that may entail, is the future.

    I’m all for books. They live off the grid.

  21. @Roger

    I call for science writers to take a more proactive role in advocacy of science literacy. Are these aspirations misplaced?

    Perhaps. On the subject of “science literacy” and to expand on what Vaughan said, I invoke Alice Bell

    Nonetheless, is it not premature to declare a golden age when the facts speak against us?

    Which facts exactly? All of the ones you presented are about the state of science funding/education etc, not about the quality of science writing, which is what Sheril was talking about. Apples and oranges.

    I have been actively part of the science communicator community for two or more decades. I have written and edited articles for American Scientist, participated in science communication panels, and been part of numerous initiatives to promote the public understanding of science. To say “the fact that you don’t know about them show that they’re part of an insular community, or that you aren’t looking hard enough?” belittles my opinion and observations and verges on a personal attack.

    Uh huh. I would argue that to boldly assert that “science communicators have insularized themselves”, that they “rarely advocates for societal change”, and that they “abdicate their higher purpose to society as a whole” belittles the efforts of people like Sheril, anyone involved in the UK scivote movement, the entire skeptic community, and the many, many other examples of advocacy in sci-comms. Your CV notwithstanding, I reiterate my suggestion to look harder.

  22. Loved the comments from Paul, Razib and Mcshanahan.

    @Mike R – are you on Twitter? I know of no better way of penetrating the impenetrable science-comms behemoth. When I started blogging, I had a pathetically slow climb into the triple-digit daily page views. I know people who have been doing it now for months and are on much higher than that, because they’re part of the community on Twitter and other social media.

  23. There are some killer comments in this thread, esp Ed and Vaughn.

    @Roger: I don’t think that that “reaching out to individuals” via blogging is really exclusive from attempting a more widespread public engagement. Most of us can’t just say we’re going to take a more proactive role in science literacy and appear the next day on the Discovery Channel. I know I couldn’t just start implementing a national education program in neuroscience. People would be quickly asking for my credentials, both as a scientist and as an educator. We often have to work our way up, and learn how to educate via the education of small groups. Reaching out to relatively few individuals has allowed me to pursue opportunities to educate wider audiences. So I think we can pursue both individual education and general science literacy at the same time, and that progress in one can greatly affect progress in the other. And while I may in general only reach a small audience with my blog, many of my readers send my articles to their friends and family, and I thus end up reaching a much wider audience. I may reach individuals, but I reach a lot more individuals than I would if I was just telling my friends and family about the latest paper I read.

    And I have to say that I feel science literacy is a lot more than just being able to state facts about the boiling point of water or the movement of objects on an inclined plane. I think that people who reach out to individuals can do a lot for science literacy by simply generating the interest that will make people look closer, to ask why things work the way they do. They don’t often get that interest in learning about basic physics, they get it when they feel it applies to them, and that often requires a relatively individual approach.

  24. @Ed and others Let me be clear. I am not saying there is not a renaissance, nor a golden age, nor am I in any way belittling efforts of my science communicator friends. I truly apologize if my comments could have been misconstrued thus.

    I am privileged and honored to count a number of outstanding science communicators among my personal friends and would not intentionally offend them or diminish their accomplishments. This debate, to my mind, is not about individual efforts to reach out, as laudable as those are. It is about the overall impact of new communications technologies on the advancement of science in society.

    So my question remains, what has the impact of science blogging (and other social media) been on the advancement of science in society? It’s a question, not a criticism.

    I asked the question because my perception is that (1) the science communicator community tends toward insularity (Ed, you called it the ” impenetrable science-comms behemoth”), (2) that there is little challenge to the prevailing antiscience trends of society (or at least such challenge is ineffectual), and (3) we can’t even agree on whether we care about science literacy, whatever that means.

    Is my perception wrong? From the narrative in this thread, it seems that way. If everyone in this thread disagrees with my three points, I suppose my perception must be wrong.

    So, is there a need for smart, conscientious people such as those participating in this thread to discuss the role of the science communicator community in the scientific enterprise and the public understanding of science? Or shall we just declare victory and go home?

    (@Ed, you say to look harder, could you clarify?))

  25. Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    @Roger: I agree that new-media sci-comm isn’t by itself bringing huge, society-wide changes to people’s view of science, slaying the dragon of creationism, etc. Disagree that there’s little challenge to anti-science, though — tons of activists, teachers, old-school journalists, bloggers, museums, public intellectuals, etc.

    As @Ed @Razib and @Boraz point out, new-media sci-comm, much of it extremely good, is making science more accessible to and fun for many thousands, even millions, of readers, and that is certainly “advancing the cause” of science. Yay us! And @Sci is right that new-media sci-comm can lead to/bolster broader efforts to get the scientific mindset out into the world.

    @Ed: One peripheral thing I have to disagree with you on: Some facts are utterly important, and if you don’t know them, you basically don’t know anything about science. If it’s true that 53% of people (Americans?) don’t know how long it takes the Earth to revolve around the Sun, that’s really bad. Doesn’t mean we should wring our hands or quit blogging or stop any of the cool new-media stuff we’re doing, but it is unfortunate.

  26. @Amos You are right. From where we sit, there does seem to be “tons” of activity trying to counter anti-science. And I am part of that, and proud of it, as I am of all my friends and colleagues who are part of that endeavor.

    We might see our efforts as important and worthy. Indeed they are, but why aren’t we seeing an impact? Where is it leading? Is this activity achieving its stated goals? Are we rising above the noise of competing calls for our attention: Facebook friends, celebrities, sports, disasters de jour, etc.? The best efforts combine these competing interests with science communication, as exemplified by Darlene Cavalier’s scicheer project in which “The National Football League, National Science Foundation and NBC have teamed up to show how pro football is full of cool science principles.”

    This to me is the way forward. Simply putting a flag in the ground and declaring victory isn’t good enough. When we assert our position, is it possible we are helping polarize, and alienating the genuinely curious non-scientists, or at least provided grist to the mill of opponents? (The debate over the so-called New Atheists exemplifies that problem.) Again, these are not criticisms or accusations. They are questions I believe our community has to address if it is to be more than a conveyor belt of information from lab to blog (or tweet, etc.), with a bit of processing to make research more digestible. Are they questions not worth asking, let alone worth answering?

    Others have said I am impatient. Absolutely I am. Isn’t 10 years (of social media) and 20 years of internet long enough? What are our expectations here?

    Perhaps by 2050 a *significant* majority of Americans will know how long it takes Earth to orbit the sun, or understand that evolution accounts for biological diversity. But I’ll be dead by then most likely. I’d sure like to see more progress before I shuffle off this mortal coil. So forgive my impatience, but I believe that to cultivate a scientifically literate public, time is a luxury this country can little afford.

  27. We are not declaring victory. We are stating that we are at a start. After decades of stagnation, we are finally starting to do something. There is nothing to measure yet – too soon for that – but we should come up with metrics so we can start measuring progress over the future years and decades (and see the link to my long post I linked above – long but speaks to this issue).

  28. Okay, so is a renaissance and a golden age a start? Sorry I just got muddled somewhere along the line. Not to disagree with Sheril or you Bora that something good is happening. It is. It’s wonderful. But where are we? At the start? In a golden age? A renaissance? Please help me understand here.

  29. We are not declaring victory. We are stating that we are at a start. After decades of stagnation, we are finally starting to do something.

    gotta say bora, that does sound a touch triumphalist. though i guess the term “renaissance” does imply a “medieval” period prior i guess.

  30. Thanks for the plug, Roger.

    Sounds like we agree that there is a science writing renaissance of sorts for all the reasons others have already mentioned.
    What’s not clear is the level of impact being made.
    Bora: it’s true that it may be too soon to measure the impact. But I’m inclined to learn towards Roger’s comments. More can be done.

    We criticize scientists for not doing more to engage the public. We sometimes cut them a break because they “aren’t good communicators.” Then what is our excuse?

    Some science writers are satisfied with writing a piece and calling it a day. If you commented on this blog post, you’re likely not among them.

    If you want to make a difference and move from problem identifier to problem solver, consider moving out of your comfort zone, beyond your friends and family on facebook and twitter, and mingling with the masses.
    Want to inspire the next generation of scientists, now? Volunteer to speak at your local school. The science teacher will welcome you with open arms if you offer to tell a science story and let the kids know what turned you onto science…and write about your experience.
    Want to improve the environment, now? Get your hands dirty like the 500,000 nonscientist volunteers who are helping researchers monitor the quality of our nation’s rivers, lakes, and streams….and write about your experience.
    Want to really affect change? Go to where the people are, beyond your social network. Local pubs, cafes and sporting events. Volunteer to speak at a science cafe (and write about it), set up a regular round of science quizzo at your favorite pub; or, hell, just start talking to the bartender about your last story….and write about it.
    I’ve got the sports angle covered 😉 Tomorrow morning, the Today Show will announce @scicheer project: NSF, NFL, NBC partnership: The Science of NFL Football to be aired on Sunday football, NBC, Sports Illustrated, and other popular venues.

    This approach isn’t for everyone but if what I just wrote strikes something within you, don’t be afraid to get started. You will not be disappointed.

  31. We criticize scientists for not doing more to engage the public.

    so many scientists barely respond to emails from their students and even grad students. why? they’re busy writing grants, etc. some of them are busy publishing before their perish to secure tenure. it’s a hard out there for a prof. there are major structural issues out there which prevent scientists from doing the communication and evangelization, and outreach, that they might want to do (not all, but some). if we address the structural issues scientists will respond i believe, because they’re human, and want to engage with their fellow man. they too want to be famous!

  32. I agree with you (for the most part), Razib, but this goes back to the following point: what is our excuse, as science communicators? btw, nice to (virtually) meet a fellow Discover-ite.

  33. @Darlene Yes! This is the way forward. We need to find new ways of communicating. Thank you for sharing.

  34. Science communicators in the UK will be disappointed in their government’s latest plans…

  35. Does anyone know how many people out of a newspaper’s total circulation actually read a science story from start to finish? As opposed to a blog post, that is. And I am thinking broadsheet newspaper here not tabloid, as their stories are so short. Are there any studies on this? If we are talking about impact then that is useful to know.

    Also, how many science journalists quit their jobs to blog instead? And how well have they brought audiences with them in the move? If we are talking about the future that that would be interesting to track.

  36. I read Alice Bell’s essay. What a surprise: a sociologist of science thinks that science literacy should mean Sociology of Science literacy.

    Sure, you can survive without knowing how long it takes the earth to go around the sun. But you’d still be science illiterate. If you find such details “dull”, tough cookies. You can survive just as easily as a science illiterate just as you can survive as a reading/writing illiterate. I’ve known both.

  37. what is our excuse, as science communicators

    darlene, the excuse, or necessity, is contingent on goals, scopes, and methods. different bloggers and writers have different audiences. as analogy, there are major issues with secondary and elementary education in the USA. but that doesn’t mean that everyone who wants to improve education need *only* focus on secondary and elementary education. some people will focus on tertiary, some on technical/vocational, etc.

  38. Bora says “There is nothing to measure yet – too soon for that – but we should come up with metrics so we can start measuring progress over the future years and decades”

    I completely agree that some sort of metric is needed, although I also think it’s never too soon to measure something. One wants a baseline, a pre-test, you know?

    So what thoughts do people have on what, exactly, ought to be measured? We could all collect anecdotes of how somebody emailed or clicked on our stories, and that’s individually very satisfying, but not that compelling as evidence for the impact of the increased quality and quantity of science writing. Which is a thing that I think we would all be happy to see measured.

    At the same time, I agree that testing the population on a rote set of facts is not a good measure. Because (1) as others have noted, the more interesting thing is understanding process: HOW do we know that earth orbits the sun, and why was it so hard to accept when it came to light? The story there is way more interesting than the fact, and yet peoples’ awareness of that TYPE of story/process is harder to measure. (I guess you could argue that if they don’t know that fact, they’re unlikely to have also grasped the scientific process overall, but still…)

    And (2) we’re not usually writing about those kinds of basic facts anyway. We’re sharing science stories taking place at a higher level, and giving people the opportunity to get excited about the discovery, the process, and the implications.

  39. @Alex Good point! You can of course survive being science illiterate, but what is the quality of your life? Maybe some people are happy being ignorant. To each their own. But what are the consequences for society? Lower science literacy is correlated with lower quality of life (at least by conventional measures). And a nation’s competitiveness depends on its ability to innovate, to take science research and transfer it to industrial products.

    Isn’t that why “China will double its number of science communicators to four million by 2020, according to the Chinese Association for Science and Technology” ?

    The writing is on the wall!

  40. Razib: you missed my point. Now we’re talking apples and oranges again. Too complicated to clarify in a comment. happy to chat anytime, tho:

  41. What’s frequently missing in this comparisons betweeen science writing, let’s say, “before and after new media”, is the general audience. Not us, the people really interested in science, but the larger, much, much large audience. Because the majority of them do not have the time to separate good from bad, for them, Real Climate and What’s Up With that are equals: both bloggers (both “science bloggers”, from the point of view of a lot of readers), speak about climate and both seems to know what they’re talking about.

    So let’s be very careful: it would be easy to believe that bloggers who are doing a good, serious and rigorous job, will become a reference, because they are doing a good, honest and rigorous job. But unfortunately, in some cases, bloggers who speak louder or are more marketing-efficient, will take a larger place.

    This is not to say that blogs (and, why not, Facebook) are not wonderful opportunities to enlarge the freedom of expression and enlarge the number of science writers. Yes, of course they are. But they are also bringing with them huge problems, that we, science bloggers or science-blog-lovers, are sometimes very reluctant to see.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry.Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.comFor more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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