Of writers and activists – are science bloggers being ambitious enough?

By Ed Yong | September 8, 2010 9:00 pm

ShoutingAt the moment, the question that I most often get asked is, “Do you ever sleep?” Until recently, “Why aren’t you doing more?” has always been fairly low on the list, but I seem to be hearing this sentiment more frequently, or perhaps a slight variant of it: “Why aren’t you doing things differently?”

Over the last week, several people have independently raised the idea that writers should also be activists, and that bloggers aren’t being ambitious enough in not canvassing for social change. When Sheril Kirshenbaum started a thread to discuss the “science writing renaissance”, Roger Harris quickly shifted the topic to talk of “support for science funding among politicians”, “higher enrollment in science [university courses]”. He went on to say “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.”

This isn’t new. A few months back, following an evening debate among UK science bloggers, Shane McCracken wrote, “I felt that despite the eloquence of the community, their wit, their intellect, they were not being very ambitious with what could be achieved with the medium.” McCracken, whose “background is with govt and civil society bloggers”, called for people to use the web and blogs “to make things better.”

These certainly are questions worth asking. Stephen Curry said that while “advocacy [is] not for everyone”, there is “some introversion in [the] blogosphere, so [it’s] good for people to be challenged”. I’d agree, but there is something about these provocative challenges that leaves me uneasy: they feel patronising. Hidden among these words, there seems to be an implication that we should all be activists and perhaps even that compared to advocacy, the practice of ‘pure’ writing sits on a lower rung on the ladder of worth. As Harris says, these are “the questions science writers should be addressing if they are to aspire to be more than mere hacks”.

In a comment on an earlier post, Darlene Cavalier (Science Cheerleader) wondered if “there’s a real opportunity here for bloggers to move beyond theoretical chit-chat (though there is a place for that) over to the world of the “doers.” Or, move from being problem identifiers to problem solvers.” Cavalier clarified that she’s not referring to all bloggers and I think that there is validity in her challenge.

But as I said in response, we have to be very careful about mapping our priorities onto those of others. Put it another way: if it looks as if people aren’t solving problems, is that because they genuinely aren’t, or because we have not considered which problems they had set out to solve?

The ever-eloquent Alice Bell wrote (in less than 140 characters, no less), “Sci blogging isn’t a benign social entity. Bloggers should be aware of this. Most are. It doesn’t mean social change is their job.” Indeed so. There are already many bloggers and science communicators who tackle big issues of advocacy and social change – the aforementioned Sheril Kirshenbaum, Andrew Maynard, Evan Harris, Martin Robbins, everyone behind the SciVote movement, most members of the skeptic community, and so on.

My goals are different – they are not to change the way research gets done or they way policies are set. I lack the experience, background, energy and time. I can only hope to do what I do best – talk about science in a way that encourages people to listen. My goals are: to inspire people about science by providing good writing (well, communication, but primarily writing); and to improve the quality of science journalism by providing an example and by engaging with the science writing community, at conferences and on social media.

Is blogging the most productive way I could be doing this? Sarah Kendrew asked me this question at Science Online London 2010 (15:00 in the third video), and I thought it a fair one. I can only answer: it is for me (leaving aside the fact that I also try to be active on social media, speak at events, and so on). It’s the best way I can make use of my abilities. If people had infinite time, skills and opportunities, I’d probably tell them to be science teachers; Alom Shaha makes an able case for why our need for science educators surpasses our need for science communicators.  But I am not a teacher; I’m a writer and I’m a journalist.

As a journalist, being an advocate can be detrimental to my job. Dan Vergano from USA Today says, “Science reporting ain’t advocacy. That takes the field in the wrong direction, back to the 1950′s.” Nobody would benefit from journalists who cheerlead for science without holding it to account when necessary.

As a writer, (quoting Frank Swain from his recent talk), “the most powerful thing I can do is change someone’s mind.” I absolutely agree, as do many others. Whether changing minds involves converting someone from creationism to less wrong ways of thinking, or simply convincing someone that science is interesting, there is power in inspiring people (who, after all, include students, teachers, politicians and voters among their ranks). To some, this might look like an understated ambition, but it reflects the ways that I and many others came into science in the first place: through the words and voices of people like David Attenborough and Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins.

There’s also the issue of time. Blogging is something I do outside of a full-time job, and any time I devote to it is time when I’m not sleeping, getting to unwind, or enjoying the company of friends and family. There are now hundreds or thousands of people contributing their passion in this way, not in big sweeping gestures, but in small bursts of minutes or hours. The great strength of new media lies in allowing those small bursts to count for something. It allows people to seize those few precious minutes of free time, to make use of the cognitive surplus that Clay Shirky so elegantly describes. It gives them more opportunities to change minds.

Indeed, new media makes passion the foremost criterion for success, as opposed to experience or qualifications or any of the other factors that matter more in the mainstream. Those who do well for themselves tend to be those who persevere, who make the most effort, who speak most engagingly to readers. And who better to showcase the wonder of science to a broad audience?

So to return to the question of solving problems versus identifying them, I feel that I am trying to solve problems. If people feel that I need to solve a different problem, then I am amenable to this. To be clear, I am not casting aspersions on the motivations of Harris, McCracken, Cavalier or any of the other people who have raised this issue and I’m aware that I may be reading too much into what they’ve said. I’m probably being too defensive about all of this. It is right that we should talk about these things and it is right that I have felt challenged enough to write this post.

My unease does not stem from a feeling that everything’s already perfect, or that bloggers have no role in advocacy; it stems from some of the language that’s being bandied around in challenges. When people blog or do anything out of passion, it is a bit galling to be told that they “could be doing more” without any accompanying suggestions of how to achieve that. That approach risks alienating people while simultaneously calling for them to be less insular! This was exactly the problem behind the Framing Wars of a few years back, and I’m keen to see that history doesn’t repeat itself.

This is why of all the comments I’ve read on this issue over the last two days, one actually made me smile: a post by Shane’s excellent colleague Sophia Collins announcing a “Beyond Blogging” workshop. The goal is to “bring together people from the worlds of science, science communication and engagement, with some of the hackers and doers involved in civil society online engagement, to see what interesting ideas and projects could be sparked off by it.” Their motivation: “We decided that instead of just whinging, we should put our money where our mouth is, and do something to help!”

Bravo! This approach is more than welcome. If you believe that bloggers are being too insular, that they aren’t making the full use of their cognitive surplus to achieve something truly society-changing, that they aren’t having an impact, then please feel free to make suggestions as to how this could be improved. In the meantime, I’m going to continue doing my best at what I do best: analysing, telling stories, writing.

// Image from theparadigmshifter

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Comments (45)

  1. I think part of the problem is the perception that writing online isn’t ‘doing anything’ whereas holding a protest or running a petition is. A popular science blog will pull in at least 100,000 active readers a month. Most ‘actually doing something’ campaigners would chain themselves to railings for that level of interest. The difference is that a blog is more like a maintaining a family home than throwing a garden party, so it needs time and effort to grow from a very small beginning.

  2. & bravo to you sir! i agree with pretty much 100% of what you’re saying in the generalities (in the specifics my own aims & methods differ in minor details). two points i’d like to reiterate

    1) this is a diverse ecology. why the need to demand conformity to some specific template? let a thousand flowers bloom!

    2) in this distributed social media universe a lot of the change is going to happen implicitly, from below, and without coordination. jaw-jawing from on high will only get you so far.

    on a personal note, i take umbrage at people who tell me what i have to do (excepting amos zeeberg of course!). like ed i have a marginal number of labor hours, and i devote it to topics i’ve got a lot of passion for. to be implicitly chided that i need to redirect my passion elsewhere for the “greater good” when i’m a normal human with a lot of other things going on would have peeved me off too (i get this crap from readers fairly often. or should i say, ex-readers). it’s not my labor for anyone to expropriate! :-)

  3. “analysing, telling stories, writing” and you left out educating/informing… all very valuable contributions that you perform well… different talents/motives/goals for different people…(diff strokes for diff. folks.)
    Other bloggers can certainly engage in more advocacy, social change, passion, but need to realize that, rightly or wrongly, their writing will then be perceived as less objective and more agenda-driven (that’s the trade-off).

  4. It’s past 2:30am and I’m awake. Blogging. I was about to switch of the computer and go to sleep but I’ll comment.

    The post I’ve been writing is the the Guardian. It’s a bit campaign-y, and it’s about campaigners. But then I’m doing two for the Guardian and the other is more along the lines of a this is awesome* style of writing. I have no particular agenda to push in that piece. Yeah, it reflects my own prejudices and social position, it says things about society (its a history of sci piece, it’s about people), but it’s not aiming to change your mind about much other than, as Frank says, that you could be interested by this new thing.

    Both are valid forms of science communication.

    Science can be a material from which we making fun. In fact Jon Turney wrote a great paper once about how popular science is all about aesthetics (and that’s not to trivialize it in the slightest). Science can be part of our entertainment. Some people add a normative dimension to this sort of science communication too by saying its Very Important to MAKE THE PUBLIC REALISE that science can be FUN.

    Huh, maybe it is.

    (though I doubt people will listen to you if you keep going on about how good it is for them).

    Personally, I think science communication has way more hang ups about doing good works than is entirely healthy. Not that doing good works is a bad thing, I would stress. I got into this sci com lark via a campaigning organisation afterall. Or that it shouldn’t be aware of it’s potential impacts. It’s just that it doesn’t have to be constrained by the former. Just like I can be ethical in my choice of what type of clothes I wear (e.g. recycled and/or fair trade) without always having to wear a Save the Wale t-shirt.

    * Incidentally, have an idea for a blog essay (i.e. 2000 words ish) on the history of awesome I think I’ll do next month. Maybe it’ll help unpick some of the background to this hang up. Might not, might just be about mountains. Haven’t decided yet.

  5. Blogging certainly has its place, as all communication does. It is a source of information for the random seeker, as well as the core of tiny internet community bubbles which effervesce through the online universe. Both are good things, and can inspire, inform and educate. But it has its limits and suffers – as others have said – from the threat of introversion. Big waves in one bubble have close to zero impact on others, let alone the so-called ‘real world’. Hence there is a magnification effect, where key messages and epiphanies in the realm of online communities feel significant on the inside yet are barely noticed when it comes to other forms of media.

    There are notable exceptions and frequent cross-overs that make this a poor generalisation, yet they are notable because they aren’t common. Some people claim to focus so much energy on blogging because they feel that is all they can really contribute to. I find that to be rather unfortunate, especially given I’ve been involved with all manner of other social outreach activities and forms of communication that threaten to disappear for want of passionate volunteers. Sure, an afternoon with kids at a science camp or helping to promoting local talks, or even volunteering for the library or running a science club at a local school…none of those things feel as important given they don’t have the illusion of success provided by big numbers of website hits. But the impact could be far greater.

    I became a science writer because I enjoy it, so I understand the attraction. Yet I do fear we place too much focus on shouting loud in a blog, rather than speaking smart in the community.

  6. Scientists who use blogs to exchange information & argue with each other also educate the public (who of course can join in) about how science works. This is neither activism nor advocacy, it’s scientists being scientists out in public, it might even risk being productive.

    Or, there are more ways to change things than being an advocate/activist. Some might be as good, or better, or whatever. Different people have different skills.

    Re “the most powerful thing I can do is change someone’s mind”… I don’t know about “powerful” but the best thing I can do is get really, really good criticism. I have no problem getting this from (non-blogging) colleagues who helpfully rip apart my (non-blogging) work all the time. Wish I could get nearly that quality of criticism re the science-based contents of my blog (…and there should be a *lot* more scientists in the area of autism who blog/tweet). My question isn’t “how can I change someone’s mind” it’s “how can I get better criticism?”

  7. Dale Sheldon-Hess

    By just doing the great work that you do, I think you’re a better advocate for, for instance, the superiority of evolutionary biology over intelligent design, than any blog that explicitly advocates for and against those ideas.

    Reporting on the awesome, unexpected, exciting, and controversial results of the scientific process is a better argument for its power than any advocacy.

  8. You mentioned Darlene Cavalier’s comments that bloggers need to move beyond chit-chat and get out and do, suggesting visiting classrooms and volunteering for example. I would never argue with the value of that kind of action (because it is a wonderful thing) but I want to advocate for the other side a bit. Visiting a classroom, for example, can give around 30 students a great experience for the day, maybe something they’ll talk about for a couple of classes later. But what about the value of creating spaces for science teachers to deepen their passions in science, to follow the newest research in their areas of interest or provide accessible ways to develop their understanding of contemporary issues in areas where their background isn’t as strong. What about the possibility to engage (through twitter, blog comments, etc.) with online science communicators?
    I see it fitting the old ‘give a man a fish vs. teaching him to fish’ cliche. Blogs can ideally be another resource for helping science teachers do what they do, supporting them in continually expanding and deepening their understanding of science – potentially influencing hundreds of students a year. Written science communication is action.

  9. Ed, this is one of my favourite posts you’ve ever written.

    I’m not a journalist, I’m an artist/illustrator and it’s the same: cramming painting and blogging into the wee hours between my (wonderful) family life and full-time job. Sometimes the paintings are about an issue worth fighting for, and sometimes they are just made for a community who loves science the way I do.

    It’s impossible for any of us to take it all on, yet I feel guilty when an important issue arises and a sketch I’ve made languishes into irrelevance because painting and blogging don’t fit into my week. I suspect others feel the same. It’s why when someone says something well (as you so often do) it gets forwarded and shared and tweeted.

    “I can only hope to do what I do best” + taking chances = Razib’s excellent comment.

  10. Ed – Might I add that I meant my comment to stand in agreement with what you were saying (in case that didn’t really come across…). I really appreciate your thoughtful reasoning on this.

  11. Well put, Ed. Advocacy is not merely a skill but practically a vocation. You can’t shame people into it, and you sure as heck can’t expect them to jump on *your* bandwagon. These criticisms are off base.

  12. Thanks, Ed. All valid points. I weighed in on a post related to some of the challenges of engaging the public in science. Some suggested ideas, made by bloggers, were in fact initiatives well under way. My original point was, and is, that there seems to be a disconnect between the bloggers writing about public engagement, and the producers of programs and initiatives created specifically to engage the public. Some folks were pontificating and writing while others were getting their hands dirty, working on solutions.
    Certainly not mandating that you or any of the other bloggers change your M.O. however, for those interested in engaging a much broader audience, opportunities await. May need to move beyond comfort zones/traditional networks to find or create such opportunities. I listed some suggestions on sheril’s blog. If you want more, say the word.
     Again, this message is for folks who want to become more involved in this work. It’s not for everyone. And it’s not something one does in addition to blogging..it becomes part of your writing.  (Incidentally, becoming an advocate certainly shouldn’t make one a less credible writer. I doubt anyone fluffs off Revkin because he’s a strong advocate for the environment. Discover doesn’t diss me as a writer either.)
     Lastly, again, before we criticize scientists for not doing more to engage the public (and plenty of bloggers, including myself, have done so) we should continue to have these types of conversations to better understand our own dynamics, motivations, and goals. 

  13. Benoit Bruneau

    Nice. I think you guys are doing the best service to science than could be done by anyone in the science profession. Your post on one of our thingamabobs (aka discoveries) was spot on, and just what an educated public would need to read. BUT (there’s always that buggered but…Henry Gee, please don’t pitch in here), as Stephen Curry points out, the blogosphere is very introverted, and as far as I can tell from the outside, especially on Twitter, all the bloggers are just talking to each other, which is really neat to keep a bunch of buddies, but not so cool if you want to spread the word to the outside dimension. Now some of you have buckets of followers, but that’s the exception. You guys have a tremendous opportunity to influence the world beyond, and somehow the science blogs need to explode out more to the mainstream. Will the Guardian blogs do that? Meh. Plus, that’s just on your little island. Come on science bloggers, rise up and take over the corporate media! Be the next frikkin Dr. frikkin Oz! And please be much better….

  14. Awesome post, well said. We do what we do because we love it, and to be told that we should be doing something else is more than a little bit off-putting. There is no one way to affect social change, and (as you’ve said) we should be working together synergistically with advocacy-types such that everyone can bring their own unique skills to the table, instead of urging everyone into *becoming* advocacy-types.

  15. Also given the comments here and on Sheril’s post, it seems as if a session at SciO11 on developing new metrics for success and getting beyond google analytics might be in order.

  16. I wonder if this is a good topic for Science Online? I for one would love to hear how views on this differ between UK and US views.

  17. There is no one way to affect social change,

    tell that to mao and stalin :-) j/k

  18. When I read the title of this article, I thought “Geez, not another piece on blogging and the like. Let’s talk real science!”. But after reading it I can only say: well said!

  19. Ed – I totally agree with you, and I meant for my question to be thrown into the crowd rather than addressed directly at you. Maybe we should stop referring to ourselves as “bloggers” – a term that really only defines the medium rather than the goal – and say: “I’m a science writer”, “I’m an activist”, “I keep an online research notebook”, “I teach kids about science” etc.

  20. To amplify my tweet, I am very much of the view that there should be a mixed economy on this. No, not every science blogger should be an advocate for science, though most are implicitly since by writing enthusiastically about science, they celebrate it as a valuable part of our culture. I see calls for advocacy simply as a appeal for some (some!) to reflect further and see if there are additional ways in which they might do this.

    And even advocacy covers a spectrum. As a working scientist I have a direct, vested interest in continued government support for scientific research, something that is currently under serious threat in the UK and elsewhere. I would certainly like to see more scientists and science bloggers standing up for this cause (very much in line with what Dr Evan Harris was saying at #solo10). Too many scientists just want to be left alone to get on with lab-work — I’ve been guilty of this too — and not all are suited for a more public role; but some are and I feel more of us should be shouting about it. But that is *not* — emphatically not — to say that everyone should do the same or that other forms of online writing aren’t extremely valuable.

    I have heard one or two voices dissing those who, in their view, just write about science but I would recommend not being over-sensitive to such views. It is the blogosphere after all and people are going to be opinionated!

    But, as I said, a little provocation is sometimes good for the blood-flow to the brain.

    One last thing on the impact of going into schools to talk about science. This is an extremely valuable activity and, more importantly, it impacts you just as much as the kids. As someone who participated in I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here (an event I can’t praise highly enough), this was the real lesson for me. It was inspirational to feed of the energy and enthusiasm that the kids had for science; and it made me think anew both about my science and my role in society as a scientist.

  21. Thanks for the great comments so far folks.

    On a diversity of approaches, as raised by, well, most of you:  I want to explicitly clarify that the intention of this post is not to start a writers vs advocates debate. That would be just as tedious as bloggers vs journalists. Kittens would probably die. I wrote this to outline the merits of the former approach, in the fact of what I perceive to be a (unconscious?) tendency to devalue it on the part of some commentators. I have no issue with the fact that challenges are being put forward and I see them as a productive thing. If anything, this is a gentle nudge about the tone of those challenges, and a call for provocateurs to understand the mindset of those they’re provoking. It’s about the difference between saying “Here is another bandwagon and you’re welcome to jump aboard if you’re interested,” and, “Your car is shit.” ;-)

    On “getting your hands dirty”, as raised by Darlene (#13) and Vaughan (#1): I fiercely challenge the idea that writing is separate to “getting [your] hands dirty” or “engaging a… broader audience”. I certainly agree that there is little use in complaining about a lack of public engagement and that some people should essentially put up or shut up, but I would count writing a blog that reaches hundreds and thousands of people as putting up!  As Vaughan notes, some people appear to be operating under the perception that “actions” are things that happen on a physical face-to-face scale, and that’s a very narrow definition. Online writing counts as getting your hands dirty (literally – my keyboard is *filthy*) and has benefits including scalability (I’m making slightly more effort than I was a few years back and reaching a disproportionately higher number of people) and long-term value (as in Vaughan’s family home analogy; the Attenboroughs and Sagans of this world built their reputations by small increments until they had enough clout to really start influencing minds).

    On the introverted nature of blogs, as raised by Darlene (#13) Benoit (#14) and others:  I’d agree that we can do more to foster links between bloggers and people working on public engagement initiatives. I’m not sure what the situation is in the States but those links seem (to me at least) to be already quite strong in the UK. I perceive very strong ties – online and in the flesh – between those two groups.  

    On the insularity of Twitter, as raised by Benoit (#14): I don’t really think of Twitter as a principal route for public engagement. It’s many things: it’s a journalistic tool, it’s a personal newswire, it’s a way for me to chat to my chums. It’s not a way of directly engaging with my audience. It *is* perhaps a way of indirectly doing so, as tweets cascade outwards. But I would be cautious about judging the insularity of a community by looking at Twitter. It’s a very different medium to blogs and people use it for different reasons.

    On “speaking smart in the community” and interacting with kids in a classroom, as raised by Mike (#5), McShanahan (#9), Darlene (#13) and Stephen (#21): I’d agree that there is great value in interacting with your audience face-to-face. I love the fact that people do this and I have gone on record many times in describing I’m a Scientist Get Me Out of Here as one of the most inspiring and innovative science outreach programmes I have ever seen. It’s also worth mentioning, as Mcshanahan does that there are other ways of affecting what goes on in a classroom beyond being in one. My readers include students too, as well as teachers who go on to use the posts in their classes.

    On ScienceOnline 2011, as raised by Alice (#17), Jason (#16) and Bora (on Twitter, natch): This should definitely be a topic. I’ve already suggested just such a session! See this page, and search for “Anyone? Bueller? Bueller”. Maybe we could do a panel with some US and UK reps to compare and contrast.

    On the term “bloggers”, as raised by Sarah (#20): “Maybe we should stop referring to ourselves as “bloggers” – a term that really only defines the medium rather than the goal.” I love this, and you’re absolutely right. It does have a tendency to lead to unproductive debates. I prefer to call myself as science writer, anyway. Or a science never-sleeper.  

  22. Well-spoken, Ed. It’s always been my opinion that science blogging in itself is a form of activism — that it contributes to the betterment of society by educating the previously uninformed. Please keep doing what you’re doing!

  23. Oh goodness me yes THINK OF THE KITTENS.

    It’s all about broad ecology people.

    I sometimes worry about individual sci comm projects being too ambitious. This was something I wasn’t sure about Shane’s post. Not that he was wrong, it just jarred a bit with the oversimplification of audiences (and range of agendas in sci com) that can come with “right, let’s sort it out now”.

    Ed, I thought you’d suggested a SciOnline 11 session on how to make/ measure impact not whether that’s a problem! (worth combing, or different issues?).

  24. Funny to read this post after reading an article about HIV research in Africa http://gu.com/p/x388j/tw

    The article discussed an ethical issue (and plenty of science) – prostitutes who are immune to HIV have been used for HIV research. While millions of dollars is poured into research and scientists become famous, the people involved in these studies are still sex workers twenty years later.

    It was a great science communication piece, and I think it could have used the story to point people to a donation or charity where they could give money or training to the prostitutes. Maybe that would have turned the story into an ad though. Hard call.

  25. It’s interesting this idea that people see nothing wrong with telling bloggers they should do more for the good of society/science/etc with their blogs.

    No one tells me to do that with any of my other hobbies, even when they could help. For example no one has ever exhorted me to go play the flute for charity, or use yoga to sent spiritual messages to the world.

    Also the day I put more effort into my blog than into my labwork is the day someone actually pays me to write the damn blog. That day has not yet arrived (unfortunately)…

    Great post!

  26. Calum

    I’m new here, but I find a refreshing sense of fascination, a reminder of why science can be wonderful. Advocacy for that alone is a good thing.

  27. Fun read, Ed.

    Aside from the arguments against people telling us what we should or shouldn’t be … I think that Harris’ challenge sends a great message to science bloggers (“science writers” “naturally curious folks” “educators” “advocates”). It means that your message is getting across. It means that people actually care. It means that your audience is more than “insular”. It means people care about science because of you. While the some of the tweets and retweets seem to ping pong between the same folks, others in the science/policy/journalism/curious parties are paying attention.

    The real next step is to try to figure out if there is a better or more constructive way to do this. I really hope that Sophia’s Beyond Blogging discussion can ferret something out. Ed and others, I wouldn’t dare ask anyone to change what you do (especially when you do it so well!). But, I think that this is a really exciting time in that your voices are being heard.

    So, to all of you out there, keep up the good work! I think that we’re moving to a point where serious scientists, journalists, “bloggers”, advocates and policy makers will have a much more functional engagement. (Web 2.0!! hehe) What seems to be of key importance now is how these interactions develop.

  28. Ed – Thanks for this reflection on science writing, science blogging, science journalism, and the many other ways new media strew science achievements, failures, methods (sometimes), and surprises across the web. The potential for this inchoate mass of amateur and professional scriveners being harnessed, or sublimated, to the higher plane of social activism and direct, conscious, and overt improvement of society seems to me to have rather slim prospect for redirecting civilization. A few more of us should do that, I suppose. Can’t hurt. But most of the crowd? We’d probably just get lost among the surfeit of people on the web already screaming at each other about why people aren’t as smart as we want them to be, and arguing over what “smart” means.

    So, I salute your determination to go on doing what you’re good at and is a valuable service: the objective-as-possible and generally cheerful reporting on what’s up in the world of science. That’s journalism of the kind that runs on the front page. There’s a reason that opinion writing and preaching goes way inside a traditional newspaper on the op-ed pages: it’s oblique to the core service of news writing. And high-quality, professional news reporting is in short enough supply as it is, in science and generally. It’s part of the foundation of fairly reliable information on which society relies for collective decisions. Keep on keepin’ on. And try to get some sleep.

  29. As somebody who writes for a blog that most definately on the “advocacy for social change” end of the spectrum I have to say that I see a role for all kinds of science communication projects, indeed I’d go so far as to say that blogs such as Ed’s which focus on the science itself rather than advocacy are an important resource for those of us who are engaged in advocacy.

    Mike McRae (#5) makes a good point about transferring the enthusiasm seen in the scientific blogosphere into the real world, we need to do more to achieve this, and in the end a lot of this will involve working with more traditional forms of media that can reach a much wider, and less self-selecting, audience.

  30. Peter Beattie

    Hidden among these words, there seems to be an implication that we should all be activists and perhaps even that compared to advocacy, the practice of ‘pure’ writing sits on a lower rung on the ladder of worth.

    Like the Dan Vergano analogy, this would be seriously myopic. Of course there is no hierarchy, because there is no one single straight and narrow path. We don’t all have to share the same number of goals, much less a single goal. Aesthetics, wonder, knowledge, curiosity, creativity, technology—science writing can be about all that, and much more. But surely not all at the same time, every single time.

    Apart from that, in a sense we are being advocates (just not in the narrow and misleading sense of ‘cheerleaders’) for science, no matter what we do. If the subject and whatever angle we put on a story weren’t of some wider importance, we wouldn’t be writing about it. In certain circumstances, e.g. when writing about intelligence and heridity, to some of us it will make sense to recommend that school curricula should more accurately reflect the accumulated wisdom (to use a phrase by C.S.) of our species. This, what is otherwise called science, is what connects every human being on the planet. How can we not be advocates for that?

  31. Ed, thank you for your contribution to this discussion. It’s an important one.

    My contention throughout, beginning with Sheril’s Facebook thread, is not about individual choice, either on the part of non-scientists’ choice to remain ignorant or science communicators’ choice to channel their energies into one medium or another. I totally agree that we should each take our own path, our own skills and interests and put them to good use, but that was not my point. My contention is that WE as a community could be doing more collectively to further the improvement of science knowledge and enhance support for science funding.

    That goal is not contingent on any one individual’s “experience, background, energy and time.” It is contingent on our collective ambition and energy as a community.

    It was Sheril’s thought that we are experiencing a renaissance and the idea that this is a golden age that got me thinking. Ed, you are closer to the reality with your metaphor of a Cambrian explosion. To my mind, a golden age would not see cuts in science and conservation funding by the UK government, given the ROI of such expenditures (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-11225197). Here in the US we have lackluster public and government support for science, at best, if not outright hostility, as suggested by the recent judicial ruling against stem cell research (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-09-07/stem-cell-funding-ban-upheld-during-u-s-government-s-appeal-judge-rules.html). The exodus of writers from Seed’s Scienceblogs, initiated with a poorly thought-out deal with Pepsi, shows that even Seed, who are pretty media-savvy, did not understand their own writers as a community. So this is a sector that is growing and maturing. It’s too soon to call it a golden age.

    Yes, there is a surge of science communication. We might even consider it a renaissance, but it is not translating to benefit broader society. Instead, there is a malaise. The symptoms are poor science literacy, weak support for science funding and generally crappy science education in schools (again, not a criticism of individual efforts).

    We believe the scientific enterprise works for the betterment of society. And science communicators are part of that process. But taken collectively the efforts of science communicators are dissipated and uncoordinated. There is a multitude of goals, scopes and methods (as pointed out by Razib Khan, #38 in Sheril’s article). People individually are doing a fantastic job, absolutely. I applaud and celebrate individual efforts — people have assumed that I was criticizing individual practioners. No. I count many of them as my friends and colleagues. The shortcoming is of science communicators as a community. I assert that the community must be more ambitious, to answer your question. We excel at our craft, but who on the outside listens to us?

  32. Gammidgy

    What is the point of funding more science research if we can’t learn about the results?

    There is no doubt we need more practising scientists, more science educators, more science undergrads, more people lobbying government for more funding. It strikes me the best way of achieving this is to get as broad a section of the population as possible enthused about science. Blogs like this, that every day celebrate scientific discovery, go a long way to doing that.

    Ed, you’re doing a damn fine job.

  33. I like this post and the comments it inspired. I see the validity in asking “Why do I have to do more?” and also in saying “If you want to inspire change, you have to do and not just talk.”

    It is important for people to think about their own “bigger picture”….as in, what are your goals, and is your method helping you achieve those goals?

  34. It’s all about getting yourself out of the echo chamber by taking the first scary step of engaging with those who don’t have a similar background to your own. You’re one of the science bloggers and tweeters who does. I worry about the ones who don’t, who follow only other science tweeps and read only science blogs. When I see you or @skyponderer share the plays you’re attending on Twitter, I have a way to connect with you that levels the playing field for me. Similarly, the fact that you put up with my tweets re esoteric Canadian authors gives me the warm fuzzies. But as I said to someone in a DM on the subject of ALL scientists being spokespeople or advocates: give up on that notion – it’s a terrible idea, truly. Perhaps 1/150 folks on a large senior management team have the kind of temperament, innate aptitude and willingness to learn how to be really effective spokespeople. Perhaps 1/1000 are naturals who need almost no training. Those are folks who tend to have a sales or acting background. Play to your strengths rather than advertising your weaknesses.

  35. I think science blogging is still in it’s pioneer stage. Grassroots organization is already happening at scienceblogging, scienceblogs, science 2.o, etc, and magazines are snatching up talent (like Ed Yong here.) It’s only a matter of time before the big players (non-profits, museums, institutions) corral bloggers talents into interesting structures that aim at specific advocacy goals like increasing public science literacy and science education.

  36. @casey “It’s only a matter of time” You are right of course. I have been accused of impatience. But as I said (in the thread to Sheril’s article), time is a luxury we can ill afford. Science blogging is still maturing as a profession, as I think some of us agree. It needs to grow up fast. Society is facing great challenges. Science has a critical role to play in addressing those challenges. And science needs its communicators (not just bloggers BTW) to articulate the needs of science as well as its accomplishments. My observation is that the needs of science are not being met, while science communicators are doing a great job of talking about the accomplishments of science. Biodiversity, climate change, evolution, stem cell research are all hot button topics on which the majority of science writers agree. Why don’t the public? Can we afford waiting for the public to catch up? By then it might be too late.

  37. Ed and gang – In my own comment, #29, I lost track of what I was talking about in one sentence. It now suggests opinion (and overt advocacy) writing is closer to the core of journalism than is straight news reporting. I meant to have it the other way around. Keep up the good work.

  38. @Charlie Opinionating and advocacy are not journalism according to the conventional definition. But to be realistic, the internet is changing the nature of what we think of as journalism. IMO there is still a place for objective reporting of the facts — that is, or should be, journalism. Opinionating is punditry. There is a place for it, but such discourse should not be confused with journalism. (Perhaps my views on this are old-fashioned or at least outdated.) Science communicators can engage in either punditry or journalism or both of course, but should not confuse the two.

  39. And (shameless plug alert), if anyone wants to hear what I have to say on that, come to the debate I’m doing at the Royal Institution: “Should Science Journalists Take Sides?”

    23rd September, 7.00 – 8.30pm. Fiona Fox will chair. Mark Henderson will be on the panel. It’ll be good.

  40. Sorry I can’t attend the debate. But sensu stricto, a journalist who takes sides is no longer in the role of “journalist” as such. Yes, he or she can wear the hat of both a pundit and a journalist, but not at the same time, and the two roles shouldn’t be confused. Feel free to air my opinion at the debate! :)

  41. Re

    You personally should do what you are passionate about, but I really wish more science writers would smack down Satoshi Kanazawa and the social harm he is doing. More important than “making evolutionary psychology look bad,” is the fact that he is using science to advocate social bad stuff, while the progressive science bloggers/writers try to remain “neutral” by not addressing that stuff. In the end, the public perceives science as sexist, racist eugenics nonsense, and that scientists are elitist white men in labcoats and ivory towers with infinite money scheming behind the scenes to oppress the common folk.

  42. Barbara

    Caring about the environment and doing something about it are two separate, necessary components of environmental activism. To the activist who already deeply cares, it may seem that everyone should work hard at getting others to do more. However, getting people to care, and nourishing the concern of the many of us who already do care is also necessary.

    Unfortunately, encouraging caring about the natural world isn’t fully compatible with encouraging activism. Calls for activism awaken people’s already established political, social, and religious views. Activism can repel people who, with gentler approach, might be allies.

    “Not Exactly Rocket Science” is one of my favorite blogs because I feel such wonder, such awe when I learn about the many strange organisms out there, or learn new strange things about seemingly familiar ones. This blog has the potential to help people care about the natural world for itself. “Not Exactly Rocket Science” can be subversive, undermining humans-only, short-term thinking. Later, people converted to concern about the greater world may become activists.

    Political activism is essential to preserving the wonderful world we inhabit. So is education, in its many diverse forms – including blogging. So is the research (basic or management-driven) that I do. Personal life-style choices also matter. What we choose to do depends on our personalities, our training, our life situations, and we aren’t all suited to do the same things. If we all do our parts well, we can accomplish great things.

    “Not Exactly Rocket Science” is doing its part well, and I hope it continues to do so for a long time.

  43. Mik eMcRae Says,

    “I find that to be rather unfortunate, especially given I’ve been involved with all manner of other social outreach activities and forms of communication that threaten to disappear for want of passionate volunteers. Sure, an afternoon with kids at a science camp or helping to promoting local talks, or even volunteering for the library or running a science club at a local school…none of those things feel as important given they don’t have the illusion of success provided by big numbers of website hits. But the impact could be far greater.

    I became a science writer because I enjoy it, so I understand the attraction. Yet I do fear we place too much focus on shouting loud in a blog, rather than speaking smart in the community.”

    I said something similar to what you said here on this sitem but earlier this year – it was about getting people to go into schools to get kids interested in science. It may not be glamourous but it might work.



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