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No cosmic law says that when you gaze into your navel, you have to like what you find.

My thesis is that it’s not yet possible to get a science education from reading science blogs, and a major reason for this is because bloggers don’t have the incentive to write the kinds of posts which are necessary. Furthermore, when we think in terms of incentive and motivation, the limitations upon the effects of online science writing become disquietingly clear. The problem, phrased without too much exaggeration, is that science blogs cannot teach science, nor can they change the world.

INTRODUCTION

Notice how short the “basic concepts in science” list is, compared to the “basic concepts” which we know are the foundation of our fields? It has eleven entries — count them — for all of physics. Translated into lectures, that might be a couple weeks of class time. Chemistry is even worse off, and while the biology section is big, it’s also remarkably scatter-shot. Such introductory lessons as get written don’t get catalogued, and thus become damnably difficult to find again.

And, the problem hardly stops there. As the magician Andrew Mayne recently pointed out,

People only know what they can understand. There’s a lot of great information out there, but not enough is being doing to make it widely accessible to the masses. Most science entries in Wikipedia read like they’re written by graduate students for other graduate students. Even the basic science stuff is written that way.

We need to put ourselves into the perspective of someone who hasn’t had the science exposure that we’ve had and find ways to help make this information more accessible.

Why is introductory material so poorly represented?

Well, what do we science bloggers write about, anyway? This is how I caricature what I see:

0. Fun posts about random non-science stuff — entertaining, humanizing, but not the subject I’m focusing on right now.

1. Reactions to creationists and other pseudo-scientists.

2. Reactions to stories in the mainstream media, often in the “My God, how did they screw up so badly” genre.

3. Reports on peer-reviewed research.

A PROBLEM OF INCENTIVE

It’s pretty easy to understand why a science blogger would write a post, long or short, in any of the above categories. Non-science posts — funny YouTube videos and the like — provide light relief, and we can even tell ourselves that we’re doing a public service, helping the public realize that scientists like to rock out, too. In the other categories, we’re talking about things which excite, enthrall and — where pseudoscience is concerned — anger us, and we can typically count on our readers to react in a corresponding way. We get audience feedback, confirming our perception that our chosen topics are salient, and giving us the feeling that we’re part of a tribe.

Posts in categories 1 through 3 may well explain introductory material (I mean, it’s the basic knowledge which creationists can’t get right), but whatever basics we explain are provoked by and limited to the story to which we’re reacting. There’s no incentive to sit down and write a freshman bio textbook in blog-sized chunks, so nobody tries. Instead of an interactive, distributed process of continuing education, we get stabs in the dark.

Maybe it’s not essential that the blogosphere contain complete introductions to the various sciences we blog about, but I’ve seen the same thing happen at Wikipedia: nobody has a reason to list every topic in a first-year physics curriculum, go through and write articles for them all. The result is all but inevitable: articles on narrow, abstrusely technical topics can be quite good, but introductory pages suffer slapdash organization, and you can hardly ever find a path into a technical subject. We should be providing more than refresher notes for people who’ve already seen the material.

The quality and comprehensiveness of the “OpenCourseWare” materials coming out of universities also varies quite a bit: some classes have elaborate notes and video lectures, while others are just a few homework problems and a list of textbook sections to read. What else could you expect, when the professors’ goal is to teach their classes, rather than to teach for the Internet?

On the philosophy that you herd cats using catnip and tuna, I’ve been trying to think of ways to change the incentive structure of online science writing. How can I even motivate myself to work through a semester of material, when bashing creationists is so much easier?

REQUISITE VARIETY

In 1956, the psychiatrist and cybernetics researcher W. Ross Ashby introduced a principle which is nowadays called his Law of Requisite Variety: given a system which can exhibit all sorts of behavior and which can exist in a variety of states, any regulator which hopes to govern that system will have to be as flexible as the system itself. Otherwise, the system will always be able to twist and turn until it provides a stimulus for which the regulator has no appropriate response. Building on Claude Shannon‘s theory of communication and information, Ashby pointed out in very general terms that such a regulator’s effectiveness is constrained by its capacity as a communication channel. To keep down the variety displayed by the system, the regulator must support variety of its own.

What happens when we treat the world in cybernetic terms? Ben Allen explains,

To illustrate this rule, suppose you are trying to manage a group of people; say, a family, business, class, or club. You might wish to control the actions of all of them, to make sure they don’t act against your wishes. However, the group is more complex than you are because there are more of them then there are of you. The only way to control them completely would be to reduce the complexity of the group; for example, you could chain them to a wall and thereby limit their potential actions.

If you wish to organize a group without such restrictive measures, your best option is to put incentives and disincentives in place to promote the actions you wish. Then step back and let the group evolve as a system. If you designed your incentives correctly, the group should evolve into a system with the properties you desire. If not, the incentives should be changed. But no matter how you set up the system, you will not be in control of it. The group and its members will be making their own decisions, and different groups will evolve differently under the same set of incentives. This is the nature of the game.

Nobody is acting as the central regulator of online science writing, though some would like to try. The interactions and evolutions we see are the result of the incentives at work, playing themselves out. If we want to change the way science blogging happens, or if we want our loose community to start generating something new, central decrees are no good: we have to make our desiderata the natural products of volunteer enthusiasm. Furthermore, science blogs are not a central authority for anybody else, so if we want to change their behavior, we have to find ways to put new “motivator units” in place.

BLOGGING BEYOND THE HEADLINES

The idea that popularized science has to be about “the news” is completely mistaken, even though it seems to drive the publication model of too many media outlets. Richard Feynman once observed,

People are always asking for the latest developments in the unification of this theory with that theory, and they don’t give us a chance to tell them anything about one of the theories that we know pretty well.

Not too much has changed since QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter (1985), although we should make a distinction between what people say they want — which is, in large part, driven by the science they’re exposed to — and what they don’t yet know they’ll enjoy.

Last Thanksgiving, I returned to the town where I grew up: Huntsville, Alabama. One evening, I visited the family who had been my next-door neighbors throughout my childhood. I sometimes wonder if they save up their science questions for my annual visits. This time, as we were eating the blueberry bread I had baked, I was asked about “that surfer guy’s theory of everything.” At that time, I was vaguer on the details than I am now (Sean Carroll basically explained why I wasn’t immediately eager to go haring off to investigate), and besides, my next-door neighbors aren’t fourth-year physics majors ready to lap up the story of [tex]SL(2,\mathbb{C}) \times SU(3) \times SU(2) \times U(1)[/tex] and the time it tried to embed itself in a noncompact real form of [tex]E_8[/tex].

So, I ended up spending a little while talking about what we hope a “theory of everything” might achieve (and why the “everything” in that moniker isn’t really a good description), about the symmetries of physical law, what a “group” is, that kind of thing. I realized a little while afterward that there’s so much fun stuff in the “background” material to all these wonder-of-the-week stories, and people like my next-door neighbors are just as happy to hear about stuff we already know.

Isn’t it ultimately rather, well, daft to expect pop-science coverage of string theory to be any good, when we physics boffins know that string theory starts with the quantization of relativistic one-dimensional objects, and neither relativity nor quantum mechanics have been explained at all well? And you can rant all you want about how string theory is bad science, or how the people who say string theory is bad science are misrepresenting the field, but when you’ve talked yourself blue in the face, you haven’t changed the way your listeners look at the world. It’s always good to puncture the fevered egos, but that’s only part of the job.

I’ve got a fair number of pens close at hand right now, and you might well have one nearby too. Take a pen, hold the cap in one hand and hold the pen itself in the other. They’ve clearly got different weights, but held vertically, their horizontal cross-sections have about the same area. Now let them fall from the same height. Which one hits the ground first?

How well do we, in our hearts, understand gravity?

And wouldn’t it be nicer to have people thinking about and playing with their surroundings, instead of pontificating on the perils of a science they can’t understand?

Here’s another experiment which might be less likely to lead to crawling around the floor: think back to a popularization of science, or a class you took in school, which enthralled you, which fired your imagination. Lots of people have stories about “when I decided to become an astronomer” or “when I fell in love with biology.” Carl Sagan is frequently invoked in these recollections; my first Sagans were, actually, Timothy Ferris in The Creation of the Universe (1984) and David Goodstein of The Mechanical Universe (1985). Now that you have your Sagan in mind, here’s the question: how much of the science involved in that story was discovered in the year the story happened? Within the previous five years? Within the previous fifty?

To pick a specific example: How much of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980) was about material which was speculative at the time, and how much covered territory which had been well and solidly established over the previous decades?

ISN’T THAT THE SCHOOLS’ JOB?

“But wait a minute,” one might say. “Isn’t it the schools’ job to impart this kind of basic knowledge? Even if we need to do more work opening up the university-level material, isn’t the school the proper environment for learning Newton’s laws and the parts of the cell? Let’s use the right system for the right job: the knowledge which everybody should have ought to be imparted in the environment through which everybody passes.

Yeah, you know, that makes a lot of sense. The problem is that it ain’t happening. Even when religious fundamentalists aren’t trying to drag the student generation into the Bronze Age, science education manages to fail in endlessly inventive ways.

In my eighth-grade “integrated science” class, it became a sport among the science fans to find mistakes in our textbooks. They weren’t hard to come across, even with our limited background. A Forbes story from 2000 gives some idea why:

Savoring a few quiet moments before 30 eighth graders surged into the classroom, [physics Ph.D. Leonard] Tramiel opened their astronomy textbook, Prentice Hall’s Exploring The Universe, to the lesson for the day. Tramiel was surprised to see that Prentice Hall had inadvertently reversed two photographic images, giving a misleading impression of how the moon looks as it passes through its phases. Tramiel turned back a page. The book said that the moon probably had been born when a giant asteroid had struck the earth, tearing a chunk of material from the planet, and that the Pacific Ocean may be the hole left behind. What was this doing in a science textbook? The asteroid theory hadn’t been taken seriously for over 30 years. Tramiel turned back another page and read that the far, or dark, side of the moon had been photographed for the first time by the Lunar Orbiter, a U.S. space probe. He knew for a fact that the Soviets had taken those first photographs.

Three errors in three pages. At home that night, Tramiel read the textbook cover to cover and found dozens of errors — of fact, of interpretation, of concept.

That was a few years after my time, but I remember using an earlier edition of that very book — even after all the intervening years of wild hedonism, that bit about the Moon and the Pacific Ocean still galls me.

A study by an American Association of Physics Teachers committee found that of the twelve most popular middle-school physical science textbooks, none met basic standards of acceptability. The mistakes would be comical in a different setting:

Mass and weight were often confused. The speed of light was first timed in 1926, according to one text. Isaac Newton’s first law was often incorrectly stated, and although the third law was correctly stated, the examples illustrating it were wrong. [...] The depictions of light passing through a prism were often incorrect. Electrical circuits were frequently drawn improperly, as were mirror and lens figures. [...] We found a photograph of pop diva Linda Ronstadt: In the caption she was labeled as a silicon crystal. She had been labeled as a vacuum triode in a previous edition of the book.

It’s easy to find people and causes to blame. Many of them fall together as examples of a system faithfully pursuing bad goals, usually in an absence of accountability — so, again, we’re talking about incentive structures. Publishers spend more effort rooting out “objectionable” content than fact-checking; books are made to please the big-market states like Florida, Texas and California; graphical glitz and glamor is a better selling point than clarity or factual accuracy. On that last point, I’m not so sure it’s the students who have to have everything done with pictures to please their MTV-addled brains (or is MySpace what’s doing the addling these days?). The students are, after all, not really making the decisions about which books to buy.

Textbooks are, of course, only part of the problem: much can go wrong thanks to the person standing in front of the classroom. (Remind me some day to relate my stories of the basketball coach who taught our ninth-grade biology class.) Then, too, we have to consider the physical environment — the state of laboratory equipment, and so forth. Still, bad books make it much easier to teach bad science. How can we fix even that aspect of the situation? Well, we’ll have to overhaul the way textbooks get chosen and approved, but at some point, we’ll have to get the right text written.

That’s not an easy task. Explanation is a hard business, and CITOKATE — Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote To Error. If only we had a laboratory of some kind, a place where texts could get criticized by scientists who know the material, where the reactions of people from different backgrounds and with different levels of education could be gauged. If only. . . .

BLOGGING FOR THE PRINTED PAGE

Electronic and printed text are starting to goosh together in rather interesting ways. This is an aspect of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (2006), for example, which I’m a little surprised hasn’t been discussed more. Dawkins shamelessly cites and quotes bloggers, including our very own evilutionary superscientist P-Zed, and he writes,

Nowadays, a book such as this is not complete until it becomes the nucleus of a living website, a forum for supplementary materials, reactions, discussions, questions and answers — who knows what the future may bring?

Historians of print and scholars who study the junction of paper and electronic media will doubtlessly see this as an important example worthy of study.

Here and there, we’re seeing “blooks” appear on the scene: books made by collecting blog posts. (If you ever doubted we could invent an uglier word than blog. . . .) These include technical works, such as Terry Tao’s forthcoming What’s New — 2007, as well as works by professionals aimed at a general audience, like Liberman and Pullum’s Far from the Madding Gerund (2006).

One might argue that a “blook” authored by one or two people is hardly tapping the collaborative power of the Network. In that direction, we’ve seen two anthologies of science blogging, showcasing the kinds of writing bloggers can produce on science, mathematics and technology. I was slightly involved in the second anthology; having been invited to be a judge, I read through and rated a sampling of the posts which had been nominated, but other people did the hard work.

OK, the sums we’re talking about here are a few orders of magnitude shy of the $300,000 reported to be Christian Lander’s advance for the dead-tree edition of Stuff White People Like, but notice what made Lander’s work appealing to Random House:

[Advisor Kurt] Andersen said what impressed him about White People’s prospects as a book is that it was already sort of unbloglike. The site is not chockablock with links to other material, but with what amounts to a series of daily essays. “It’s more like a book he’s putting out serially on the Web,” Mr. Andersen said.

Isn’t that the kind of material we pride ourselves on finding and making visible? While coherence among blog posts is often hard to find, individual “daily essays” of high caliber are easy to find.

BLOGGING FOR THE FUTURE

Blogs have the advantage over other types of website that they stimulate the formation of social groups, fomenting the change from audience to community. PZ Myers can pack a bar with the mere announcement that he is passing through town; Rebecca Watson’s readership keeps getting its parties broken up by security — and that in Las Vegas, mind. You don’t get that kind of social structure from static resources. Consider Michael Farabee’s online university biology textbook, or Walter Lewin’s physics lectures: useful as they are, they do not catalyse individuals to network into groups.

This advantage comes at a price. It requires a large throughput of text, not just from bloggers but also from commenters, and a rapid turnover of posts. Consequently, a blog which can change the reader’s daily routine — never mind the reader’s life — suffers the curse of perpetual novelty. The nature of the medium seems to demand planned obsolescence in exchange for saliency.

No matter how good my post is today, I’ll have to struggle to have it read a month from now, a pitter-patter of search-engine hits being my only dubious deliverance.

Again, it’s a matter of incentive structures and the kinds of text which volunteer labour can generate. Does this focus on the present distort the way science blogs get written? Would this dynamic change if there existed more opportunities for “golden oldies” and “greatest hits” than a smattering of carnivals — themselves on monthly timescales at the longest — and a single annual anthology? I wonder if we could accomplish something interesting if we entertained a fleeting notion of permanence.

CLOSING THE ACCOUNTABILITY LOOP

Occasionally, we see happy evidence that the machinations of the online community are having positive effects. It’s most exciting when we catch a wrongdoer. Hello, George Deutsch, who didn’t graduate from Texas A&M after all. Hello, Ben Domenech, the creationist plagiarist snared by the Amazon search-inside feature. And who didn’t have a blast stomping on Stuart Pivar and Michael Behe?

But we have to ask ourselves, “How much effect are we actually having?”

One suspects that if the effect were strong, evidence for it would be easier to find.

laughing_anon.pngLetters and e-mails did persuade the BBC to abandon its credulous pseudo-medicine website. In Australia, blogger pressure has managed to get a Parliamentary reaction to a fraudulent dyslexia cure. The Anonymous protests against Scientology would have been completely impossible just a few short years ago. I do not know for sure, but I suspect that concerted online activity helped to impugn the propaganda movie Expelled in mainstream reviewers’ eyes, in turn squelching the film’s box-office profits. Hopeful flickers in the night. . . .

Yet, we still do not know how and where people are finding their information, or their misinformation. We all have our preconceptions on this matter, but preconceptions do not scientific knowledge make.

We science bloggers like to moan about the state of non-bloggy media. Steve Novella points out that we have the advantage

that science blogs are generally written by scientists who have an interest in writing, and the occasional writer who has an interest in science. Meanwhile, increasingly, mainstream media is assigning science news reporting to generalists who don’t have a clue. There are still science journalists who try hard to get a story right, and some of their pieces are excellent — but they are shrinking as science blogging advances.

Yet, I was still surprised this past weekend at TAM when interviewing Sharon Begley, senior science editor for Newsweek. She told me, straight out, that science bloggers are doing a better job of covering science news and that traditional media can no longer cover science well. She exactly echoed my own opinions, but I was at least partly attributing my opinions to the fact that I am a science blogger, and so it was surprising to hear the same thing from a traditional media journalist.

If we’re so much better at the game, can we actually have a beneficial effect? The giants of pulp seem entirely disinterested in changing their methods as long as sensationalist, oversimplified and misrepresentative reporting is still profitable. (That’s certainly the impression which stuck with me after Greg Egan and I chatted with Graham Lawton, features editor of New Scientist, though a person with a more generous vision of human nature might think otherwise.) To make these hulking sauropods a beneficial part of our ecosystem instead of obsolete, counterproductive beasts of ignorance deserving a swift asteroid, we have to change the incentives which influence their behaviour.

Pounding a keyboard often seems like a spectacularly impotent way to effect change, particularly when the thing we’re trying to change is part of a system which should by rights be amenable to it. How broken does my heart have to be that I no longer even feel the sting when a magazine I loved as a child betrays me? Still worse is when the online science-writing community can’t provoke a response within science itself. Consider the Warda—Han Affair: bloggers caught a remarkably strange paper which had slipped through the review process of the journal Proteomics, and commenters at Pharyngula found that the paper was not only muddled and incorrect, but also, in substantial chunks, plagiarized. Proteomics retracted the paper but to date — half a year later — has issued only a vacuous non-explanation for how it survived peer review in the first place.

Incidentally, cleaning up science journalism might well have a beneficial effect upon science in return. Ben Goldacre writes,

But even academics are influenced by media coverage: Phillips et al. showed, in a seminal paper from the New England Journal of Medicine in 1991, that if a study was covered by The New York Times, it was significantly more likely to be cited by other academic papers. Was coverage in the NYT just a surrogate marker for the importance of the research? History provided the researchers with a control: for 3 months, large parts of the NYT went on strike, and while the journalists did produce an “edition of record”, this was never published. They wrote stories about academic research, using the same criteria of importance as ever: the research they wrote about, in articles which never saw the light of day, saw no increase in citations.

I wonder: as more scientists join the game and initiatives like ResearchBlogging find better ways to “let the cream rise to the top,” will science blogs take over this role, thereby eliminating deleterious steps in the chain?

SUMMARY

The incentives at work in the loose community of online science writers are not conducive to coordinated efforts, the dissemination of basic knowledge and other tasks necessary to make these online venues a true form of science education. Unless the members of this community succeed in providing new motivators for other entities, such as print and television media, science journalism in those arenas will continue to be dismal.

Further research on the relative impacts of different information sources on scientists and on the public would be highly desirable.

41 Comments

  1. OH YES!!!!!!!! :D More research (despite my questioning being called ‘hilarity’ and just too ‘academic’ for asking for such a thing)! People are just getting more and more scatter-gun and I really question what the impact is.

    More often than not, I am reminded of the ‘underpants gnomes’, who think that getting the underwear + something = world domination. That is what a lot of the strategies come across as, as more fire and gumption without a real consideration about what are some realistic goals under empirically-recognised circumstances. :(

  2. Admittedly, this is easier in mathematics than in the sciences, but these considerations were very present to me when I decided to start from the beginning. Can someone really learn from scratch by reading my blathering? Maybe not. But it’s a lot more accessible than most other research-level blaths out there.

  3. Thank you for a considered and useful contribution. I’m tempted to make it the first post in the Basics series.

    However, one task that science blogs can do is make potential scientists and general members of the public aware of the excitement, debate and dynamics of science, as well as countering the ignorance of woo and pseudoscience. The Basics post is not intended to be a curriculum, but a way to engage with the life of science.

    And of course, if you think there need to be more basics posts in physics, by all means write some. Just don’t mention Lie groups, or you’ll scare the horses.

  4. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’ve had this one vegetating on my drafts pile for months and finally decided to hack it into a form which could pass as finished. One more thorn out of the flesh!

    I agree with you that science blogs can make people “aware of the excitement,” and I certainly think that’s a good thing to do. However, I believe we’re shortchanging people if we do not help them acquire knowledge they can use — knowldege can’t change a life until it is brought into that life — and it’s awfully hard to think sensibly about science when one’s knowledge base is fragmented. I had hoped that efforts like “basic concepts” posts could be a little more than cheerleading. (I recall Coturnix and Afarensis, among others, billing it as such — as part of a continuing, albeit informal, educational process.) Yes, exhaustive details belong in textbooks and encyclopædias, but somewhere in the blogosphere, one should be able to find introductions to necessary subjects. I often find myself searching for a page to hyperlink, something which will define a term so I don’t have to, something written by a person I can identify and who can respond to a reader’s questions if necessary. Frequently, I come up empty: either the page I need doesn’t exist, or I can’t find it.

    I could, indeed, write more posts on basic physics; one is germinating now, and I hope to write others after that. What concerns me more is that the social conditions of this massive volunteer labor collective are not geared to producing such things naturally. The unevenness and paucity of the “basic concepts” collection was just the first datum which came to mind when I began to consider that problem; as I mentioned, I’ve seen the same issues in other venues, like the science articles of Wikipedia.

    Thanks again. Part of me knows I should be sleeping now. . . .

  5. This is a minor point I suppose, but as a resource for the would-be student the structure of blogs tends to be very flat and difficult to navigate. That’s fine for Googling to some single thing you wanted, but brute-force text search, and the usual blog’s own minimal topic/key-word structure are pretty uninviting to someone interested in long-term study, compared to the kind of annotated hierarchical structure that web sites in general can easily include and prominently display.

    I just had a look at John Armstrong’s blog, and the content looks stunning, but the blog structure seems like quite a barrier to someone coming in cold. Poseidon knows (deferring to Blake’s favourite deity) we should all be grateful for content like this — and indeed for Blake’s, and ditto for the n-Category Café, et al — and I know it would take a fair bit of work to keep a kind of enriched Table of Contents up to date in these places … but I think it would make quite a difference.

  6. Great stuff, again.

    In my eighth-grade “integrated science” class, it became a sport among the science fans to find mistakes in our textbooks.

    When science books give you lemons, make lemonade: how about using “find N errors in this crappy book and explain them” as a teaching tool?

  7. Blake: Great job! You really put your mind into this post. Wonderful work, friend!

  8. I haven’t actually read the post yet. But I just want to comment on the first sentence. I think there’s a cosmic law that says you won’t like what you see when you gaze into your navel — namely the second law of thermodynamics. This predicts the existence of lint from clothing, which then ends up stuck in belly buttons.

  9. Great coments, everyone.

    Tom:

    I like philosophy, and certainly a good teacher could make use of it. However, I don’t think it should be necessary. The way it stood for us, only a few students in the class really had a chance to spot errors; all the others had to accept what the book said because they’d never heard better. Red-penning a textbook sounds like an extra credit activity to me, one which students shouldn’t have to do with their own, primary book.

  10. One thing I’ve noticed with some Wikipedia topics is that there’s a “general rundown” type of entry, and then there’s a more technical entry. Perhaps this dichotomy should be encouraged, or even expanded upon, for subjects which can be very technical, but are nonetheless integral to a basic science education.

    If all else fails, the science blogging community could start its own science/math wiki.

  11. I think the situation is far worse than you think. For every RealClimate there’s a ClimateAudit. For every Panda’s Thumb, there’s an Uncommon Descent. People who rely on blogs for their information can, if they want, read only those that support their point of view.

    Now you’ll say that ClimateAudit and Uncommon Descent aren’t science blogs, but those who write them and read them don’t necessarily see it that way. The habit of (mainly US) newspaper journalists of quoting idiots like Senator Inhofe or Ken Ham to provide “balance” may be deplorable, but now thanks to blogging some people are getting undiluted idiocy from people like Schlafly and Milloy.

    Bottom line: for those who already believe in and have an interest in science, science blogs can be a useful source of information, or just entertainment. However, I’m not sure they are helping to do what really matters, which is to change people’s on minds on key issues such as the reality of climate change – quite the contrary. I hope I’m wrong.

  12. I think what you said is true, Michael, but it shouldn’t imply equality between the ‘competing’ sites. For instance, Conservapedia boasts 449,000 page edits. Wikipedia boasts over 233 million page edits. Wikipedia has more page edits than Conservapedia has views (which CP touts at about 44 million).

  13. I share Michael Le Page‘s concern, but Jon has a good point, I think. As I said, we need more quantitative research on this issue, or else we’ll just be talking our preconceptions at each other. Adding a gloomy prejudice to a hopeful one does not yield a sum of truth.

  14. Very nice post … I enjoyed reading it.

  15. You’re totally onto something here. I feel frustrated myself. I tried to offer up some writing, but feel it was wasted effort – due to lack of a forum that would offer it to the public.

    As a former academic researcher (micro/molecular bio) who’s been out of that loop for 3 years, I suddenly find myself wanting to explain things in basic terms – specifically for people who are NOT in the sciences.

    I want to do this mainly because I *enjoy* getting people to understand the basics. And I think it can be done in a completely non-textbook way. Heck, Dawkins and Zimmer are two excellent examples of getting enormous conceptual breadth across with nearly no technical jargon.

    I decided to exercise this a little myself by tossing up a few posts in a blog setting. But I quickly realized that it’s far, far too simplistic for science minded people (I mean, I don’t even use gene names or mention “thymine”) but it is also not something a non-scientist is going to search for on the web.

    And so, I feel I’ve lost motivation. There is no platform to perform this service – to help get basic scientific concepts out to people who don’t know about them – to which a person like me can contribute.

    Unless there is. If there is, I want to know about it.

  16. Re: Incentives – You should ask Matt from builtonfacts.com why he posts all those entries about actually doing the math behind interesting problems. His blog is the only one I read that, with a little organization, you could actually learn some workable physics from.

  17. Greg, you’re exactly right about a table of contents. However, I’ve got my hands full just staying employed, let alone compiling a ToC. I try to link back pretty thoroughly and I think the search bar works fairly well. Yes, a ToC page would be better, but I’m running the damn thing by myself and I just don’t have it in me to maintain my own index.

  18. The funny thing is that I think Phil Plait’s pre-blog site had a pretty good format for this sort of thing. You had a clear overview layout that lead to sections dedicated to categories of related pseudoscience, which drilled down into individual claims, but also had introductions at most of the levels to lay out some basic concepts that the individual articles would use. (The movie review section being an exception to this format.)

    Of course, that’s still under the category of responding to claims, rather than teaching essential material, but the format was the point of bringing it up. A more basics-oriented site could still use that format.

    I wonder if there isn’t some way to hybridise that sort of approach with a standard blog. Seems to me, you could build a robot that keys off of categories and tags to automatically sort blog posts and display a more traditional webpage that links to the categories and the blog posts underneath them. With tweaking, you could even restructure them into a particular order (assuming you didn’t just write them in order to begin with). Obviously, the hard part would be designing the categories and tags and laying out the pages that will display the categories and the links to the finished articles, and I think you’d have to reinvent the wheel on that account with every scientific field and probably even with every individual blogger. As well, you’d really have to design a new blog from the ground up to get full benefits of the method. However, the robot part that does the boring work of sorting would be trivial, at least…

  19. “And so, I feel I’ve lost motivation. There is no platform to perform this service – to help get basic scientific concepts out to people who don’t know about them – to which a person like me can contribute.

    Unless there is. If there is, I want to know about it.”

    Clear As Mud – I think the obvious solution is that you should be talking to teachers.

    As this blog entry shows, there’s more to education than just getting out blog entries, forum board posts, creating websites.

    There has to be an engaged community who are able to deliver the material in such a way to stakeholders (whether it be children, young adults, open-learning adults) that uses the strategies of educators. That so few people are interested in the nitty-gritty of what is facing educators astounds me at times.

    Thankfully at the last Amazing Meeting, after a friend and I rallied for nearly three years to get some attention to the issue of meeting educators on their terms and seeing it from their perspective, there was an informal and (sadly) unauthorised little get-together by several teachers. They included tertiary, secondary and primary teachers, who were interested in networking and sharing their experiences.

    If you’re interested in learning more and how they seek to fill the gap, my details are on my blog.

  20. So, Blake, I was thinking about the textbook problem. (Just thinking, mind, not really acting on my thoughts.)

    At least one glimmer of hope was seen in the Capetown Open Education Declration (which would be a good answer to clear as mud’s question.) I had intended to link to it here, but the links appear to be dead. I had written about it back in January. End Run Around Texas, as a way to improve classroom materials for science.

    Now, I hope the idea hasn’t disappeared for lack of money or interest.

  21. I reply here.

  22. TrackBack hasn’t worked right for years, so here’s a manual ping. Short version:

    “[I]t’s perfectly true that “science blogs cannot teach science,” in the same way that it’s perfectly true that I can’t configure my home network with a pipe wrench. They’re not the right tool for the job that they’re not doing.”

  23. Hmmm… Podblack, thanks for that comment. I hadn’t really considered the larger framework of educators, etc, yet. You’ve given me some food for thought.

  24. Chad Orzel:

    Thanks for your comments; I’ve replied to your post on your site.

    • Mike McRae
    • Posted Saturday, 28 June 2008 at 20:29 pm
    • Permalink

    One thing we tend to forget as internet-readers is that we are still somewhat in the minority as far as the global demographic goes. Even in post-industrial nations which have a high percentage of internet-connected individuals, few of them are consistent blog-readers, and even fewer yet with an interest in science. The fact is, most people don’t get their information directly from the internet.

    Often those who are science-illiterate are the same who have little to do with reading a variety of sites on the internet and therefore blogs will never reach them directly. Sadly, another reason for not regularly reading a variety of blogs (other than low education or low socioeconomic position) is little time, which is where most teachers are. Few educators actively inform themselves of the latest in science (or even pedagogy!).

    What this amounts to is that the world of the internet, and therefore blogs, is fairly distinct from a world which relies on television and print for their information. The only times information seeps from the ‘blogosphere’ to the traditional media is when internet-savvy journalists feel it is sensational enough to comment on.

    This doesn’t mean blogs are impotent, by any means. However success has to be regarded as limited in demographic. To reach beyond this field will take people capable of bridging the gap, which sadly are all too few right now.

    Athon

  25. True, sadly all too true.

  26. Gah!! Who let that lout Athon in here!! *smacks on the nose with rolled up newspaper* :)

    Anyway, here’s a link for those who are wanting to get into the educational aspect. Some lout created it… ;)
    http://groups.google.com/group/critical-teaching

  27. Interesting post. A few comments:

    There is definitely science education going on in my blog. However, there is much less than I would like there to be.

    I don’t think the science blogosphere is there to provide science education, nor is it science journalism, though there are science educators and journalists blogging. So I guess I want to express skepticism about your premise. Maybe you are flogging a bit of a straw man in that you want science blogging to be uniform, include the fundamentals, provide an educational framework and content, and be journalism. Perhaps it is none of these things (to any great extent) not because it is not working but because that is not what it is. Although, as I say above, I do want at least my own blog to have a greater role in education.

    Finally, the unevenness in coverage of different topics is very interesting. I’ll assume your stats are right, but you are poinging out the glass being half empty. One could say that science blogging has really powerfully addressed the life sciences and the evolution-creationism debate.

    Oh, and in these areas blogging makes a real impact.

  28. Poinging. Like an antelope jumping up and down….

  29. Uh-oh, I’ve been Pharyngulated. No peace for the wicked. . . . welcome, everybody.

    As I said to Tom Swansont, it’s a widespread belief among science bloggers that mainstream science journalism is broken. Many people in this community also think that science education in the public schools is falling hopelessly short; we hear a lot about the creationists screwing up biology class, so I figured I could take that as given and spend a little time talking about the disasters at the physical-science end. Hopefully the result is at least a little amusing. On top of that, I tried to point out that the same problems which beset science blogs also affect anything else which runs on the same basic incentives. We might rely on Wikipedia to complement our writing, for example, but it is also the cumulative accretion of small bits of volunteer labor, and likewise for subject-specific efforts like RationalWiki.

    I think it’s important to remember that the nature of the blogosphere is not carved in marble. A few years ago, it didn’t exist. It just is the way it ended up being. When we want something different, it’ll change. Right now, doing anything other than what we normally do might be like hammering nails with a screwdriver, but when every other tool in your toolbox is broken and getting rustier by the day, you start to wonder how you could modify that screwdriver. . . .

    Evolution, after all, has a long history of using old tools for new purposes.

  30. Great post, will continue reading your blog! :)

    I personally would never rely on a science blog…they make for great reads but I’m wary to trust anything on the internet that isn’t a link to a credited source.

    • Damian
    • Posted Monday, 30 June 2008 at 00:07 am
    • Permalink

    Hi Blake, it would seem that a number of people (elsewhere, mainly) have either not understood (or faithfully represented) the context of your post, have focused on a very narrow aspect, or haven’t even read it at all, and have simply commented based on the somewhat flawed context that they have been presented with, elsewhere.

    It’s a shame because this is a very well thought out post, and it could (and perhaps should) be a starting point for worthwhile discussion. In terms of missing the context, I haven’t understood you to be saying that the normal mode of blogging should be educational, particularly in the basics? As I have understood you, you are suggesting that there really is excellent science writing happening on a daily basis, but that much of it is being “lost” due to the format (among other things, obviously)?

    There are several things that would help me — a general layperson, interested in all aspects of science, depending on my rather changeable whims:

    (1) Google, specifically for science, regulated by scientists, with both expanded and refined search capabilities.

    (2) A site specifically dedicated to collating blog posts — again with an excellent search function. An improved and expanded version of Research Blogging.

    (3) Following on from (1)+(2): A better tagging system (which has been talked about) encouraging bloggers to be more specific and careful when tagging their posts.

    (4) A way to collect and organize URL’s for later reference. I don’t know how others do it, and it is something that I have been meaning to look into, but I use a firefox add-on at the moment which only permits you to drag a link in to a kind of holding area. I also use delicious, but even then I find the organizational capabilities to be almost non-existent.

    (5) A more refined method of aggregating sites. I use Google Reader, and while it does a basic job, it is far from perfect. There are just too many sites, and without a way to discriminate, I am certain that I miss out on some truly excellent writing, preferring instead to stick with sites that I am familiar and comfortable with — for the most part, anyway.

    (6) It would be nice if you could highlight words and a small box appeared that gave a simple definition, as well as giving the option to open up a separate tab, etc, that lead to a more detailed description. Currently I am using another firefox add-on called Hyperwords which does this kind of thing to a certain level of satisfaction, but it could be improved immeasurably.

    I realize that some of my recommendations aren’t specific to science bloggers, but I thought that I would mention them, anyway. As a relative layperson, there is no doubt that we are heading in the right direction, but if we leave improvements to people that are interested in all internet users — as opposed to specifically considering the needs of science enthusiasts — then we will always be on the cusp of having the correct tools for the job, but never quite reaching the point where the internet is as science friendly as it should be.

    One of the great things about firefox is that literally anyone can invent applications for it. If someone with a knowledge of how to create add-ons could work alongside science bloggers, we could start to see some really specific improvements, catering entirely for our needs.

    I genuinely believe that the only incentive that we can rely on is the passion for education that many bloggers have. If it could be shown that work is not simply lost down the plug hole after a few weeks, then that may be incentive enough for more people to create blog posts that they wouldn’t normally consider worthwhile.

    Sorry if any of what I have said is unintelligible. I should really be asleep. Thanks for the terrific blog and the effort that you put in to it. ;>)

    (Just one last thing: it would be useful if scienceblogs had the same kind of individual user page that the BBC utilizes. Every person that joins has their own user page that tells you which posts you have commented on, and updates (sending it to the top of the list) every time someone else comments on the same post. That really improves the ability to converse on the internet, and it would mean that people would be more willing to comment on older posts, as well. I learn as much from the comments as I do for the posts, so that would be useful)

  31. Damian:

    I like all of your proposals, and wish I had the time to implement a couple of them. Having already promised myself to too many tasks, I don’t know when that will happen.

    Yes, I think a great deal of good content is written, if you add all the science blogs together, but without some way of saying, “This post includes an idea you’ll have to understand in order to work with these other ideas,” that content gets lost. Like I was saying somewhere else, a “basic concepts” post doesn’t have to be a dictionary entry (“Kepler’s Second Law, noun: . . .”). What matters is that it conveys an idea which is a necessary prerequisite for understanding lots of other things. A basic concept could be explained in a historical overview, in a biographical sketch, in an essay on current research or even in debunking pseuodsicence — but in all those contexts, it’s likely to be forgotten and/or overlooked when we realize we have to write about it again.

  32. I’m going to be giving a go at showing you wrong. While I think you have good points and reasoning behind them, I’m hoping there are exceptions you didn’t think of, and that I’m one of them. We’ll see, over at my blog http://moregrumbinescience.blogspot.com/

    The reason for he name is part of the reason for my hope. grumbinescience is run by my sister — a jr. high science teacher. This is the age at which an awful lot of basic science could be explained, and tends not to be. I’m thinking in terms of kids of that age, their parents, and teachers … plus us adults who didn’t manage to catch it along the way.

    One thing I decided this means is, I’ll be spending little time on the usual (for science blogs) pseudoscience things (though some articles will be prompted by it — my area is climate). The political- and woo-wrangling doesn’t do much towards talking about the science.

  33. I’m happy to be proven wrong, since I find the current situation unsatisfactory! Best of luck to you. One blog, although it may get lost in the general noise, still has a shot at improving the discourse.

  34. Nice post, which I generally agree with. Ugh – that sounds like twitty comments I get at my blog from people who are just spamming for links. Nevertheless, I had to say it.

    FWIW, I try hard to avoid the first three types of place-holder posts you caricature at the beginning. (And I don’t write professional level commentary on peer-reviewed research, since I don’t have that level of expertise in most of the areas I write about.) Railing at IDers and climate change deniers is a waste of time – wrestling with pigs and all that – though I suppose someone has to do it.

    What I do attempt to write is commentary on science topics that seem important to me. I try to write at the level of Scientific American as it was 20 years ago, as far as I’m able to, and not at that length (attention spans today being what they are). I don’t write for experts, but neither do I want to insult the intelligence of people who are passionate about science by dumbing things down.

    I have, in addition to writing relatively brief articles on many topics, been writing tutorial articles in the field I actually have training in (mathematics), even though I suppose the most recent ones are of little interest to people who neither have a PhD in math nor aspire to earn one. I don’t have time to write a textbook on the subject, but I do hope to show people with a serious interest in math why the topics I choose are interesting and worth further study.

    The problem I see in the incentive department is that it is very hard for people who might be interested in what I write to actually find the kind of stuff I write or what others write at a similar level. Experts know where their peers hang out, and people who want mainly scientific infotainment can find that almost anywhere.

    So it seems like a key problem to focus on is how a person can find stuff at a serious but non-professional level.

    And I am wondering whether there is a semi-permanent forum somewhere, in which science bloggers can network and discuss exactly this topic you have raised. Perhaps a Wiki, a group at Facebook, or even an old-fashioned listserve of some sort. So far I have not discovered such a thing.

  35. OK, one more thought, perhaps the start of a more concerted effort to identify specific tools that can be used to build a community-generated guide to the best blog-like scientific writing available.

    Isn’t a community bookmarking site such as Ma.gnolia (which has topic groups) or a social search toolset like Eurekster or something similar exactly the sort of thing that’s purpose-built for this kind of function? Or perhaps a roll-yer-own social networking tool like Ning. There’s such a ferment of this kind of thing being offered now.

    I can see two essential features such a tool ought to have. First, for end users, an extensive hierarchical index for easy browsing and navigation to topics of current interest. (Although the capabilities of Digg for rating material are good, its index seems insufficiently detailed to me.) Second, good networking capabilities for active reviewers and creators to coordinate their work. (It ought to go without saying that the review-like content that gets created should readily be Google-indexed so it can be found from anywhere.)

    Surely some effort to employ such tools for the purpose being discussed here has been tried, no?

  36. Thanks Blake. Fingers crossed.

    The ‘get lost in the noise’ is the serious problem. I sometimes feel like a Who (as in ‘Horton hears a’).

    One route might be something like the ‘Blogging Peer Reviewed Research’ site/blog/index — http://www.bpr3.org/ — but aimed at the more fundamentally educational posts.

    • Sili
    • Posted Saturday, 19 July 2008 at 16:14 pm
    • Permalink

    Finally slugged my way through this … My head really isn’t in order yet <sighs>

    Anyhoo …

    I’m a failed Ph.D. student in Chem minoring in Maths with some Phys thrown in (Classical Lagrangian + Quantum, no solid state or Astro). And I sucked right royally – that certainly helped in my downfall.

    There’re tonnes of subjects where I’ve been too busy learning to sit down and understand, and by the time enlightenment struck (charactertables are linear algebra?!) I never came round to rereading.

    Point is that I now have all these books which I’ve nominally studied at some point and really would like to understand some day.

    But can I – from no position of authority – get away with reading them and trying to condense them section by section into blogposts? How would I, who knows nothing, go about doing that without pretty much retyping the books – to the point of breaking copyright?

    I might be able to learn Latex in the process, and perhaps I might even gain some of the understanding I desire. But am I likely to reach anyone else interested in learning the basics? Would anyone who does know this stuff take the time to correct misconceptions (and typoes) in the blog of a headcase who may never get an academic job? (Well, I’m hoping for industry these days, but I’d still consider that academic if it means using my M.Sc. – at the moment I’m working as assistent janitor four hours three days a week, and even just that tires me out.)

    </ramble>

  37. Good post. You cover a lot of ground here, so I’ll just focus on one aspect.

    Science bloggers would do well to learn problogging methods for attracting and keeping readers. Part of the process of making a “sticky” site involves ways of making sure your best material doesn’t get buried in the archives. This addresses your concern (a justifiable one) that blogging architecture focuses more on the production of individual posts than on the development of a cohesive site that organizes those posts in a way that is beneficial to readers.

    A good place to start is Problogger.net. On the surface, the site purports to be about making money. But bloggers can learn a great deal from Darren Rowse and his colleagues on ways to develop, build and market blogs that fulfill your particular goals.

    As a former journalist and current Ph.D. student in interdisciplinary ecology, I find a lot of value in cross-disciplinary methods. The blogosphere has a great deal of potential in that regard. In this respect, the A-list blog marketers and copywriters offer some valuable lessons.

  38. Thanks for the pointer. As you might have guessed, I’m not really in this gig to make money, but I don’t mind appropriating techniques to grab attention.


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