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2004-2005 Brown Bag Discussion of "Science's Audiences"
April 15, 2005

Laura Blankenship (Information Services)

Blogging Science: The Spin and What We Can Do About It

Powerpoint Presentation

Why Science Blogging Matters

Prepared by Anne Dalke (with assistance from Wil Franklin)
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum


Laura opened her presentation with a definition of a web log (="blog") and an example of a typical one; she also offered statistics about the audiences for blogs in general, and science blogs in particular. A typical science journal might have 500 readers a day, a typical science blog the same number of readers, and a popular one as many as 6,000 daily viewers. In contrast, Serendip (which is a "kind of group blog") gets as many 15,000 visitors a day.

Bloggers situate themselves in communities by means of their external links. If open web forums function somewhat like "democracies," with anyone free to speak, blogs operate more like "benevolent dictatorships," with the blogger monitoring what appears on, and is linked from, the site. Reading a blog involves determining whether the material presented can be trusted, including checking what other sites it is linked to. Science blogs, which re-focus political hot-button issues on "just the science," raise questions about the need for active reading, about authority and trust, and about how to handle the large volume of data (which may be undigestable or unverifiable).

Laura then turned the discussion from the reception to the production of science blogs. What role might blogging play in communicating science more effectively to the public? Is science blogging a service? How does it relate to scholarship? Can it count as service or research? Might it affect political discussion or research issues? Can it counterbalance "bad" science journalism?

Concern was expressed that there is "no way to verify the credentials" of a blogger. A counterclaim was made that blogs "just make transparent what should be obvious anyway": rather than rely on an "expert's credentials," we should learn (and teach our students) to be more responsible and critical in evaluating information ourselves. But how many people are willing to do this kind of work? How much do they really want to know? How complicated can the public presentation of science be? We trust more those sources which are willing to publically correct their errors. Bloggers are often open to questions, and give reasoned responses to them. The existence of frequently visited blogs might force newspapers to do a better job of correction. Journalists scan these now. The New York Times also has instituted a new feature called "public editor."

It was suggested that the blogs are like our reports on our lab visits: a means of communicating the "guts of science" to the public. It was further suggested that primary researchers might post a blog every day, recording their lab journals on-line where they could become immediate public resources. How would such a practice change science? How many scientists would do the initial research, and then drop it, if they weren't in competition with others who were (also) hiding their data? What would happen, in such a system, to the current process of peer review? Would we have blog ratings? Would the importance of our work be determined by the number of visits to our sites?

Is the goal to move science along faster? Or is it personal glory? (How compatible are the two ?) There is a certain element of chutzpah in all blogging--but then there is a certain amount of chutzpah in all scientific assertions.

Further discussion of such questions is invited to continue in the on-line forum.

The semester's series will continue next Friday, April 22, when Karen Greif of the Biology Department, will talk about "Science and Civic Policy." Science-related issues are pervasive in today's society. Science informs much of our lives, whether directly in health-related matters or more indirectly through effects on the environment, economic development or international relationships. Although scientific input is only one factor in policy-making, having accurate, timely and accessible information is valuable for developing appropriate responses. Given the range of policy challenges facing governments, how does scientific understanding and knowledge contribute to the decision-making process? This presentation will provide an overview of the ways in which scientific information may be used by the federal government to develop policy. We will then discuss the inherent conflict between science and politics, and how this conflict leads to apparent "politicization" of science.

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