[ weird things ] | science blogs go under the microscope

science blogs go under the microscope

According to a new paper, science blogs are a cesspool of toxic snark. Unfortunately for the paper, the criteria used to decide that were highly subjective and context-free.
kid in monster's closet
Illustration by Simon Varisto

As science blogs become more and more popular, communication experts are asking questions about their role in the world of science. To do that, one would think that the authors of the research papers on the subject would contact a wide swath of science bloggers, ask them about their efforts, where those efforts fit into their research projects if they do at all, and do a thorough analysis of the blogs’ posts and comments.

But that’s not what usually happens and the new paper by Inna Kouper isn’t rushing to break the mold. Instead, it focuses on a small convenience sample of science blogs, coming up with conclusions based on her opinions of how those science blogs should work. So how does the science blogging world fare in her analysis? Not well. It’s described like a rowdy group of snarky, unruly kids who aren’t nearly as polite or scholarly as they should be.

Aside from puzzling references to blogging tools and social media interaction being novel apps despite being around for about seven years by now, the paper tries to pigeonhole science blogging into the realm of making the scientific process accessible to the world at large and seeking collaborators for original research. But the problem with this approach is that science blogs aren’t designed to do that. They’re sources for expert reviews of new studies, science headlines in the mass media, and uncensored opinions on matters that interest the authors. The communities they build, the kind of discussions they foster, and ultimately, the tones of the blogs are side-effects of their growth.

Treating a blog as an entity which just disseminates scientific content it sees fit instead of a dynamic ecosystem driven by traffic patterns and reader feedback, misjudges what’s going on behind the scenes and why it results in a grab bag of many different blogs under the same umbrella. There’s a reason why Pharyngula, Cosmic Variance and Bad Astronomy are very different sites and that reason is not the authors’ neglect for the proper standards for a science blog. In fact, those standards don’t even exist.

Still, after picking out eleven blogs from a quick web search, Kouper veers off into analyzing their use of snark, sarcasm and other “undesirable means of communication” with a level of detail that seems unnecessary and beside the point. Lost in her bureaucratic dissections of science blogs is the fact that science bloggers often deal with manufactroversies and anti-scientific rhetoric, so all our negative reactions to it come from repeated exposure to conspiracy-speak, cranks, quacks and insults after speaking our minds or that after you get your share of experience with those who don’t let little things like reality or the scientific method to get in the way of their arguments, you learn that being nice to everyone simply doesn’t work.

Instead of being given a genuine exploration of the science blogosphere, we’re treated to snippets and tut-tutting about our use of sarcasm or lack of patience with creationists and conspiracy theorists. I assume this is what it’s like to read the diary of a newly minted anthropologist who spent a few years on a distant island only to learn the proper ways to curse someone in the native language, ignoring the religious traditions, home life and the usual social interactions along the way. It’s a classic example of missing the forest for the trees.

This lack of required perspective plaguing the paper could be explained by the small content sample. Kouper only chose posts over a month from her small clutch of blogs and limited her analysis of comments to fifteen replies per post. Even worse, she based her demographic information on only one blog and concluded that a small number of replies from scientists, grad students and research assistants meant that science blogs are read primarily by academia and researchers who have “water cooler discussions about the latest papers.” So the goal of science blogging, she continues, should be making science more accessible to laypeople.

Um, I’d like to ask where all the comments from non-scientists, vocal critics of science and cranks went. How does a normal palette of posts about atheism and religious follies on Pharyngula fit into her idealized picture? What about Phil Plait’s explanations of astronomy for those who aren’t experts? Oh, right. She didn’t include his blog in her sample. Neither did she include Respectful Insolence or many other skeptical sites. What we’re left with at the end are sweeping recommendations based on very limited research, a tiny sample that doesn’t cover the full scope of the science blogosphere, very skewed idea of the blogs’ demographics, as well as faulty assumptions about the nature and goal of science blogging in general.

We do popularize many scientific fields, but we’re not specifically looking for research collaborators. We’re concerned with correcting, analyzing and discussing scientific topics important to us, but we’re looking to start debates and discussions instead of disseminating edicts from on high. Our blogs are fluid entities driven by traffic patterns and readers who comment on our work. We deal with a wide variety of opinions from scientists and curious non-experts. It seems that all this was either lost on Kouper, or more probably, she didn’t really try to understand her subject in the first place and ended up with a paper that reads as if it’s appalled at their sheer variety, but tries to jam them all into a neat little box anyway with little regard for the social world they inhabit.

# science // blog / blogging / science education

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