Her first point was that there is science communication directed to scientists, which takes the form of journal articles (e.g., PLoS ONE), conferences (e.g., Cosyne), grants (e.g., NRSA Individual Postdoctoral Fellowships) or other stuff within a research institution (e.g., HHMI Bulletin). There is also science communication directed to everyone else, which traditionally takes the form of newspaper articles (e.g., The New York Times Science), magazines (e.g., National Geographic), TV/radio programs (e.g., Science Friday) and websites (e.g., Science Daily). Somewhere in the midst of these two clouds are blogs, which serve scientists and non-scientists alike.
One kind is The Niche Blog, which in Jeanne’s words is scientists writing for an interested crowd. They often unpack recent scientific papers. They typically keep to their topic. And their audience is likely to be familiar with relevant scientific terms (i.e., jargon-robust). Examples: Obesity Panacea; Neurophilosophy; and Research Blogging.
Another kind is The Lay Science Blog, which is scientists and/or science writers writing for the general public. They avoid technical jargon (is there non-technical jargon?), try to tackle seeming complex issues, and help get people interested in science. Examples: The Loom, by Carl Zimmer; Science Sushi, by Christie Wilcox; Cocktail Party Physics, by Jennifer Ouellete; and Not Exactly Rocket Science, by Ed Yong.
Another kind is The Science-Life Blog, which focusses on life in science, either in academia or industry. These are cool for discussing issues relevant to scientists lives as scientists. Examples: The Mother Geek, by Jeanne Garbarino (yes); The Tightrope, by Dr. O; and Athene Donald’s Blog, by Athene Donald.
At another level are Blog Networks. Examples: Scientific American Blog Network; Nature Blog Network; PLoS Blogs Network; Wired Science; Discover Blogs; ScienceBlogs; Scientopia; LabSpaces; Occam’s Typewriter; and Science 3.0.
So why are science blogs important? She answered this by example. In November of 2010, NASA put out this statement, which said they were going to hold a news conference on an astrobiology discovery (e.g., life on Europa). Needless to say, ‘wild speculation ensued’. kottke.org: ‘Has NASA discovered extraterrestrial life?’. Gawker: ‘Did NASA Discover Life on One of Saturn’s Moons?’.
I guess the impression one gets to that point is that blogs are quick to pick things up, meaning a good channel to catch what’s going on. And with the speed comes the ability to amplify and speculate, also useful things to sample from.
Anyway, not to disappoint, what followed was the arsenic life debacle. Sciencexpress: ‘A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus’. Wired Science: ‘NASA Unveils Arsenic Life Form’. The Huffington Post: ‘NASA Discovers New Life: Arsenic Bacteria With DNA Completely Alien To What We Know’ (notice the use of that A word). Guardian.co.uk: ‘Nasa reveals bacteria that can live on arsenic instead of phosphorus’.
The background and claims of the actual study: researchers headed to arsenic-laced Mono Lake in California; they isolated a strain of bacteria (dubbed GFAJ-1); when they cultured it in the presence of arsenic (low phosphorus), it incorporated arsenic into its DNA.
And then the purple-haired hero of this example emerged, Dr. Rosie Redfield of the University of British Columbia. By emerged, I mean started to blog about it: ‘Arsenic-associated bacteria (NASA’s claims)’. And in her post, the kind paragraph that every scientist that I know could only dream of getting in response to their work: ‘Bottom line: Lots of flim-flam, but very little reliable information. The mass spec measurements may be very well done (I lack expertise here), but their value is severely compromised by the poor quality of the inputs. If this data was presented by a PhD student at their committee meeting, I’d send them back to the bench to do more cleanup and controls’. I <3 that, and yet I do ask myself if she could have essentially summed up her reaction with another word that may be in the same family as flimflam, piffle.
Dr. Redfield wasn’t alone. Nature: ‘Will you take the ‘arsenic-life’ test?’. Science, Editor’s Note: ‘…the subject of extensive discussion and criticism following its online publication. Science received a wide range of correspondence that raised specific concerns about the Research Article’s methods and interpretations.’. The Loom: ‘Of arsenic and aliens: What the critics said’.
My take is that you’d have had to be online to catch most of that stuff. Certainly you’d need to be plugged in to the blogosphere to evaluate it for yourself. And while you can fault them for the early hype, you should also credit them for the rapid, crowdsourced, free, self-correction.
So what about Jeanne’s answers to why science blogs are important? They help keep journalists in check (is that to say the aid in self-correction?). They help keep scientists honest (is that to say they have a beneficial chilling effect, partly via the threat of self-correction?). They help to broadly disseminate scientific information.
I could also say they’re cool, fun, interesting, but I’m afraid of someone blogging about this blog post and using words like flimflam and that’ll go viral among people who go viral.
If you’re still not convinced, consider the personal development: it improves your writing skills, puts you in the habit of presenting your thoughts, and increases the breadth of your knowledge. It’s also good for professional development: it allows you to present your work to the greater scientific community, gets you to engage with fellow scientists, facilitates networking and collaborations, and can be like presenting at a conference - only it’s free. In terms of community engagement: it’s a good way to discuss science with the outside world, and getting more followers forces you to be creative.