Wednesday, August 22, 2012

How do science blogs change the face of science?

The blogosphere is coming to age, and I’m doing my annual contemplation of its influence on science.

Science blogs of course have an educational mission, and many researchers use them to communicate the enthusiasm they have for their research, may that be by discussing their own work or that of colleagues. But blogs were also deemed useful to demonstrate that scientists are not all dusty academics, withdrawn professors or introverted nerds who sit all day in their office, shielded by piles of books and papers. Physics and engineering are fields where these stereotypes are quite common – or should I say “used to be quite common”?

Recently I’ve been wondering if not the perception of science that the blogosphere has created is replacing the old nerdy stereotype with a new stereotype. Because the scientists who blog are the ones who are most visible, yet not the ones who are actually very representative characters. This leads to the odd situation in which the avid reader of blogs, who otherwise doesn’t have much contact with academia, is left with the idea that scientists are generally interested in communicating their research. They also like to publicly dissect their colleagues’ work. And, judging from the photos they post, they seem to spend a huge amount of time travelling. Not to mention that, well, they all like to write. Don’t you also think they all look a little like Brian Cox?

I find this very ironic. Because the nerdy stereotype for all its inaccuracy still seems to fit better. Many of my colleagues do spend 12 hours a day in their office scribbling away equations on paper or looking for a bug in their code. They’d rather die than publicly comment on anything. Their Facebook accounts are deserted. They think a hashtag is a drug, and the only photo on their iPhone shows that instant when the sunlight fell through the curtains just so that it made a perfect diffraction pattern on the wall. They're neither interested nor able to communicate their research to anybody except their close colleagues. And, needless to say, very few of them have even a remote resemblance to Brian Cox.

So the funny situation is that my online friends and contacts think it’s odd if one of my colleagues is not available on any social networking platform. Do they even exist for real? And my colleagues still think I’m odd taking part in all this blogging stuff and so on. I’m not sure at all these worlds are going to converge any time soon.

13 comments:

Mikael said...

"Because the scientists who blog are the ones who are most visible, yet not the ones who are actually very representative characters."
I guess this can be solved with a "peer review" kind of process. Many PhD students have their own blogs, and they can recommend others (and recommend to avoid some). Some of them have the social responsibility to write, to inform, to educate.

This also is improved in twitter, where is easier to recommend good blogs.

I'll end up saying that I'll be tweeting and recommending today's blog.

Bye!

that guy said...

I prefer you to coxy. Keep hitting those keys.

Uncle Al said...

Flashy mediocrity holds a vast audience diligently converting glitter into a tyranny of immersive falsehoods. Obsessive-compulsive, socially aberrant, batcrap-crazy people shout "the greatest obstacle to understanding reality is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge." They keep to themselves, and are shunned. Intel (the "Traitorous Eight" re William Shockley), Xerox PARC (plundered by Apple), Bell Labs (death by management), JPL (because "Rocket" RPL was not credible); now NVIDIA (integer graphics cards for computation not imaging), and Google X Labs (the Web is cats, other stuff).

A rich diamond mine has one gem gram/10^6 gram waste. Near everything pursued by the bleeding edge of humanity crashes. DCF/ROI says "invest in flashy certainty." Civilization withers under social autocracy, and no spreadsheet knows why.

Phil Warnell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

I can observationally verify that as far as scientists are concerned you are not only represent one of a small subset , yet when all is considered truly one of a kind. That is when it comes to portraying scientists as people and as such science as a people business I’ve found you having no equal. Yes the Brian Cox’s of the world are out there and yet for most they are only identified as celebrities and as such both the science communication and it’s recruitment suffers as result being my opinion. That is from a general prospective, although many follow their idols, how many are informed as how it is they do what they do and what does it truly reveal about their character and motivations.

So to find a scientist as being a celebrity, as you have so often made evident, would be more of a consequence rather than an objective. That is the thing you may not realize, is that you speak better for those who are imagined as spending 12 hours a day in their office scribbling away equations on paper or looking for a bug in their code than anyone else I have ever encountered.


One of the strongest motives that lead men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one's own ever-shifting desires. A finely tempered nature longs to escape from the personal life into the world of objective perception and thought. With this negative motive goes a positive one. Man seeks to form for himself, in whatever manner is suitable for him, a simplified and lucid image of the world, and so to overcome the world of experience by striving to replace it to some extent by this image. This is what the painter does, and the poet, the speculative philosopher, the natural scientist, each in his own way. Into this image and its formation, he places the center of gravity of his emotional life, in order to attain the peace and serenity that he cannot find within the narrow confines of swirling personal experience.

-Albert Einstein, “Address at the Physical Society, Berlin, for Max Planck's 60th birthday” (1918)

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

I always try to avoid speaking for anybody but myself, and I find it hard to even remotely assess how successful I am. It is even hard for me to tell how much overlap I have with my colleagues in my opinions on academia or research in general. Roughly, it seems to me that many of my colleagues don't care very much about the topics I care about, esp science communication and the sociology of science. In that sense, I'm not very representative. My whole education and career path with all its problems, as well as my daily work life, seems to me quite typical. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Mikael:
Thanks :o)

Red C said...

What constitutes a science blog, in the first place -
any blog about science, or a blog written by an scientist?

I'd call only the latter a science blog. As for the former category, there are plenty of known examples of wannabee experts, who actually aren't ones, but to the public they appear on equal footing with actual scientists. Great a confusion can be created by those; their mission is not necessarily to further science, but rather to damage it.

Unfortunately there is no easy way to prevent this erosion of what constitutes an expert, as actually anybody can pose as one in the internet, and the boundary between real science and crackpotism is being blurred. This in particular applies to self-declared critics who manage to get attention they never would be able attract otherwise.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

I realize you don’t profess to speak for others, yet I would wager that if a poll were taken most scientists would relate more to your experience and motivations than any of the fallaciously projected stereotypes. Anyway even if found to be wrong my feeling is that the scientist that you project to be is the one that serves both humanity and themselves the best.

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

"I would wager that if a poll were taken most scientists would relate more to your experience and motivations than any of the fallaciously projected stereotypes"

I'm not at all sure about this. At the very least there is no reason to believe this to be the case, as I am hardly a representative sample. In fact, that you might have this impression is exactly what made me write this post :p Best,

B.

Hogg said...

It is funny that you mention Cox, because he thinks that blogging by scientists is irresponsible and wrong.

Bee said...

Hi Hogg,

Huh? In the article you link to Cox is quoted with saying that circumventing peer review is a recipe for disaster. I actually agree with him on that. How did you get from there to bloggers are irresponsible and wrong? Best,

B.

Phillip Helbig said...

You're both wrong. Hogg is wrong since according to the link Cox thinks blogging in order to circumvent peer review is wrong; I don't see any evidence that he thinks blogging itself is wrong (which would be strange coming from someone so eager to blow his own horn). Sabine is wrong since Cox's remark is a direct response to a question about blogging. Yes, the question is a false dichotomy, but his answer should have pointed this out rather than using it is a springboard to blast blogging in general.