Thursday, 15 July 2010

Science on teh internets: an interview with Drs Mendel & Riesch

Having run a series of short interviews with UK-based science bloggers, I've also talked to a couple of colleagues who are developing research on the 'bad science' blogging community.

Jon Mendel is a geographer at Dundee with a background in studying networks, virtual war and security. Interested in how new media are functioning or not functioning in the case of science blogs and in the role and efficacy of networked forms here.

Hauke Riesch researches public understanding/engagement/involvement/awareness/whatever of science and risk at Cambridge, having previously written a PhD on philosophy in popular science books. Among other things. Next to everything social to do with risk and new technologies, he is interested in how scientists think about science, how they communicate it, and how they think about communicating it.

Firstly, can you give us some idea of the methodology you applied to your study?

We drew on our participation in and observation of the development of this community, from its establishment through to some of the interesting activism episodes in which the community participated.

We used an e-mail qualitative survey: we emailed a list of questions to established members of the community on their blogging activities and their thoughts about science blogging in general and this community in particular.

The paper you presented at the Science and Public conference started by noting there is a lot of hope surrounding science blogging - what do you think those hopes are?

Blogging in general has attracted a lot of hope about how it can democratise the public sphere: anyone can in principle get themselves and their ideas heard and the small army of potential fact-checkers and arguers can shed light on issues where we would previously have relied on a small and overworked group of professional journalists. However there may be barriers inherent within the very concept of blogging that prevent this - there is just so much out there that important contributions can easily be drowned out. These goals are quite neatly summarised and evaluated by Sunstein who concludes that they have not been realised at least to the extent that had been hoped.

In the context of blogging about science, similar hopes are often expressed: some argue that blogging can give individual scientists a voice for their views and opinions and therefore enable them to contribute directly to the national conversations about science and science policy. Related to that, science blogging is often seen as a way for scientists to free themselves from demands of publishers or journalists and others who usually control the flow of information between science and public, so that they can communicate their science directly to the public and allow the public to engage more easily with them. These ideas are also often linked to the free-access movement: Scientists are encouraged to blog directly about their science because ultimately the public pays for it and has a right to know about what science finds. Science blogging does give more people an outlet to write about science - allowing lots of good material to be placed online, though also lots which is less good.

The science bloggers with whom we have discussed our research are also interested in science blogging as offering opportunities for activism, engagement and the development of communities. Bloggers are seeking to use science blogging to engage with and challenge the main-stream media and various other actors.

What do you think are the limitations of these hopes?

As has been noted by some of the bloggers in this community, blogs have relatively small audiences compared to many mainstream media outlets. Blogs can also be left communicating with a relatively narrow audience, such as those already highly interested in science (although whether this is a problem is debatable: Racing Post isn't seen as a failure because of its relatively narrow audience). As things stand, we do not see convincing evidence that science blogs offer a replacement for the mainstream media - although they can be a useful supplement, partner and challenge to it (and some of the bloggers in this community would challenge the distinction between blogs and the mainstream media). Talk of the 'dead tree press' etc. seems, in this context, highly premature.

The efficacy of science blogs' activism is also unclear. Bloggers have been involved in some notable successes - for example, the Singh-BCA libel case - and have been able to organise effectively in order to offer strong challenges to much better-resourced opponents. On the other hand, some have questioned whether initiatives such as #scivote have been effective (and there are interesting links here between 'science activism' and people's broader political goals - some people are less than happy about having the Conservatives in government). We tried to intervene ourselves with regards to aspects of BIS's Science: So What? So Everything initiative (see e.g. coverage in Times Higher and a piece on the Times' science blog) but we now have FOIA responses which show how little impact academics and bloggers had with regards to some problematic aspects of the campaign. We are not sure what solutions there might be here.

We should emphasise that there is a fairly high degree of self-reflection in the community we studied and that bloggers are often quite critical themselves about the limitations of certain practices. We would want to avoid judging the successes/failures of this community in relation to overly-utopian hopes largely generated from outside of the community: there have been some notable achievements, although a small community of science bloggers seems unlikely to turn the science media into a 'dead tree press' in the immediate future.

Can you tell us a bit about who the sorts of people who blog about science are, or at least what the backgrounds and motivations of the bloggers you studied are?

We lack the knowledge to answer about people who blog about science generally: this is a large area that we haven't studied in enough depth, and many prominent bloggers are also anonymous. There is generally something of a lack of research on science blogs.

The community we studied has established norms on writing about science which emphasise accuracy, reliance on evidence and 'letting the facts speak for themselves'. In addition, there is a focus on getting things done: science blogging within the community is not just about writing, but also about campaigning on related causes - this activist element may be a distinguishing feature of this community of science bloggers. There is also an interesting approach to ideas of authority here: ideas of individual authority are largely rejected, but writing instead takes on a
kind of authority through being embedded in a network of blogs, comments, links and research.

Sneaky extra question I asked all the bloggers I interviewed: do you have a favourite blog? If so, what is it? (doesn't have to be a science one).

Mindhacks is excellent for its discussion of a broad range of mind/brain/society-related issues, while Jack of Kent's blog has been a very interesting piece of activism and is an excellent explanation of complex legal issues for laypersons. David Campbell's blog has some good, detailed discussion of issues around politics, geography and multimedia (including some excellent essays on new media/social media). It has also been great to see the development of the 'bad science' blogging community and of the blogs associated with it.

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