The Atavism

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Talking about talking about science

I've been swamped by the requirements of my real work for the last couple of weeks which has meant I've more or less neglected The Atavism just when a set of new scientific posts might have impressed voters in the Research Blogging Awards with this blog's vitality. I do have a couple of substantive posts on the boil but for now I'm going to resort to flinging out a few links and half digested ideas on science communication

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Let's start at sciblogs where Ken Perrot has a review of Cornelia Dean's guide for scientists Am I making myself clear? It's particularly interesting to read that Dean urges scientists to write for newspapers in the same week that Grant Guilford publihsed some clear thinking in response to nonsense about climate science. The nonsense was in The Herald and no doubt read by thousands, the sensible reply is on some obscure piece of the University of Auckland's website...

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Dean suggests scientists shouldn't write books unless they really can't help themselves. Still, if you sufficiently helpless and want to go down that route there's been plenty of advice published recently. Nature has a a special 'web focus' on writing science books featuring, among others, the inimitable Carl Zimmer. In a similar vein, Brian Switek, the writer behind Laelaps, is about to have his first book Written in Stone appear on the shelves. He has already documented parts of that journey on Laelaps and now he's going to start a series of posts dedicated to the process

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I don't think I'll be writing a pop-sci book anytime soon but, obviousy, I do think science blogs have a place in getting science out to the public so I don't quite know what to make of this very odd paper on scientific blogging. The authors take a set of posts from 11 widely read science blogs and draw the following conclusions

Science blogs are a virtual water cooler for graduate students, postdoctoral associates, faculty, and researchers from a variety of disciplines and areas of inquiry. The conversations in science blogs are also of “water cooler” quality ...
To become a tool for non-scientist participation, science blogs need to stabilize as a genre or as a set of subgenres where smaller conversations may facilitate more meaningful participation from members of the public. Science bloggers need to become more aware of their audience, welcome non-scientists, and focus on explanatory, interpretative, and critical modes of communication rather than on reporting and opinionating.

Which is what happens when you presume 11 blogs is a representative sample of the thousands of people who are writing about science on the net. Of course there are blogs that are pitched at other experts and other blogs that deal mainly in links but presumably that's because that's what the authors want to do with their blogs!

If the authors of the paper wanted to see how blogging fits in to describing scientific ideas and news to non-scientists then they might have started, not with 11 blogs plucked from google, but by selecting blogs that are aimed at a lay audience . If you want interpretation and explanation of the day's science news there are superb writers like Carl Zimmer and Ed Yong to help you out. If you want a scientist to bring their expertise to bear on some topic then there's a whole mess of blogs (1, 2 3, 4, 5... and another thousand or so here) that do just that (and I like to think The Atavism fills one small niche in that sprawling ecosystem). A thoughtful review of those blogs would have served a real purpose, it's hard to see that the published paper does. One good thing came from that paper though, I now know there is a Journal of Science Communication, I trust some of the other papers will be more useful. (If you are interested The Panda's Thumb and Blog around the Clock have more detailed reviews of the paper)

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Finally, congratulations to Elizabeth Connor who has won the inaugural Prime Minster's Science Media Communication Prize (really, that's the flowing title given to a prize for communicating difficult ideas...) which gives her $150 000 to undertake a program that focuses on "the mystery intrigue and uncertainty of science."

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Posted by David Winter 12:32 PM

7 Comments:

Thanks for including us in your mess o' blogs! I have a post in draft form for about a week on being a science communicator or a scientist communicator. After I dust off this manuscript, I hope to revisit it.
Thank's Kevin, always glad to acknowledge someone fighting the good fight for molluscs in the phylum wars!

Good luck with the current MS, I've been thinking about where the scientist-communicator fits into the spectrum a little bit lately so i'll look forward to reading that post.
... oh sorry, I should say a blogthat fights the good fight for molluscs ;)
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Thanks for including us in your "mess o' blogs" too!

Great post. I (obviously) totally agree with your take on science blogs..Before I say more, I should probably read the paper you referenced.
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