Feb 27, 2012

Academics should be blogging? No.

"blogging is quite simply, one of the most important things that an academic should be doing right now" The London School of Economics and Political Science states in one of their, yes, Blogs.
It is wrong.
The arguments just seem so right: "faster communication of scientific results", "rapid interaction with colleagues" "responsibility to give back results to the public".
All nice, all cuddly and warm, all good.
But wrong.
It might be true for scientoid babble. But this is not how science works.  Scientists usually follow scientific methods to obtain results. They devise, for example, experiments to measure a quantity while keeping the boundary-conditions in a defined range. They do discuss their aims, problems, techniques, preliminary results with colleagues - they talk about deviations and errors, successes and failures. But they don't do that wikipedia-style by asking anybody for an opinion. Scientific discussion needs a set of non-negotiable attributes: there has to be competence, trust and reputation. That's one reason why scientists meet at conferences. You need to know whom you are talking to. You have to be sure you can talk freely about difficulties without spilling them out into the public. You need to know the competencies of your colleague - her strengths and weaknesses.
Science is not just opening the doors for input and flooding the public with data. Science simply does not work that way.
Patrick Dunleavy and Chris Gilson complain in that blog that scientific discussions happen "in language where you need to look up every second word in Wikipedia". Dear! You can not look up scientific language in Wikipedia. Look, the language of physics is in large parts: mathematics. And it is so not to exclude Justin Bieber fans from tweeting about it - science uses language-extensions to express things that can not be talked about in everyday language.

"Twitter is a huge supplementary help, in forcing academics to communicate key messages in 140 characters!" Between scientists? What a terrible idea! This does nothing more than reducing the complicated and complex findings of research to flashy, glittery nonsense. We have that all the time: a group of physicists does experiments with single atoms close to absolute temperature to check on a principal law of physics. What does the public-relations guy demand? At the end there has to be a sentence about the relevance of that research for the computers of tomorrow. The relevance is zero.
The public is not stupid. It is simply not true that they want to have *anything* back - as long as it is entertaining. Look at the nobel-prizes for physics of the last 100 years. All that basic research stuff on x-rays, electromagnetic waves, semiconductors.... Nobody would have tried to dumb that down to some catchy 140 character nonsense that 'the person on the street' understands or feels good about. It took decades - many decades - to be relevant to the public. But then it had the most impressive impact. What multi-billion dollar markets all that became! Again: x-rays, electromagnetic waves, semiconductors.
Ok, the authors of that 'five minutes with...' blogpost speak for social sciences. But I am certain social scientists disagree as well.
It is good policy, of course, to think about dissemination of scientific results to the broader public - and any media is good for that. But there certainly is no need for extreme speed or extreme brevity. The findings have to be translated for non-scientists, sure. But we all are aware that the amount of  truth and relevance that get's lost in that process has to be kept at a minimum.
Science-communication has to be done by professional science-communicators. They live at the interface between public and science. They are translators. In no way is blogging "one of the most important things that an academic should be doing right now".

8 comments:

Weeee said...

Scientist communicate just like teachers, journalists, social workers and nurses. There are certain conversations that cannot be made public and shouldn't be discussed on a blog. But that is true for everyone.
And then there are other issues that shouldn't remain secret. It's possible that some kid in India has something to say about physics. Not everyone is a complete idiot and needs to look things up on Wikipedia. And not everything can only be expressed in scientific wording.
That's why I disagree and think your arguments are not valid. Scientists don't need to spend most of their day writing witty blogposts. But they could post something interesting about their research every month or so. After all, they also explain to their children, parents and relatives what they do at work. Why not to the public?

Anonymous said...

1. Blogging isn't necessarily a conversation. It is one way communication more often.

2. One can verify identities online. Comments can be judged and rated based on their own merit.

3. 140 chars can be extremely insightful and factual without any glitter, flash, hyperbole.

Most importantly, the potential for cross-pollination of ideas with public due to ease of access and relevance is too ripe to pass up.

Juliette Hell said...

You know what?

1) Academics are very aware of what may be posted on a blog and what should be discussed directly with colleges. They do not need your advice for being critical about the feedback they get there.

2) scientific blogs are very inspiring for colleges, for the public and for whoever they are written or feels adressed to. It is a not too formal way to present the topics you are interested in, or to share enthousiasm with everybody. Why shouldn't scientifics be doing that?

3) Even more: scientific bloggers may more often than other scientists think about why they are doing this or that. Getting a certain distance from their every-day-research-routine is certainly very motivating.

4) you make a confusion between blogs and tweet. In a blog you have place to develop your point, even over several posts that are linked together...
It's just stupid to pretend that you have to write 140-signs catchy notes in order to communicate to the public...

I'm happy that a lot of scientists do not share your opinion.

Carsten Hucho said...

Thanks for all this input!
Juliette, let me address your points directly.
First of all: I am an academic, I am a scientist, I am blogging. I have reasons to do that.
One reason is: I strongly believe in science communication - as you can see, the SmARTS-Club is an institution very much concerned with transdisciplinary science- and culture-communication.
Having that in mind, the provocative catchyness of the post's title, I thought, would be obvious.
Maybe not.
Your points specifically
1) My post is a response to an article I linked to in the beginning. The authors there claim that the research paradigm would change by using blogs and twitter. They claim it would substitute (or amend) the conventional publishing-pathways. I disagree in all those points. The peer-review-system with all its flaws is still working. For some reasons.
2)I comletely agree! My post counters the claim "one of the most important thing an academic should do today is blogging". No. Those academics who feel the urge should do so. those who don't should not.
3) Complete agreement!
4)I don't think I am confusing blogs and tweets. Again: the article I am criticising praised the speed of tweets. The explicitly say "Twitter is a huge supplementary help, in forcing academics to communicate key messages in 140 characters!".
Much of what they write is about high speed, low cost and little effort. All these are parameters you should not look at when communicating complicated science to a broad public.
Yes, it might take only 10 minutes to put up your first blog-post (as they write). But I fear some carelessnes when this is the aim for using that media.

I believe we could agree on many more points than we disagree.
Thanks again for your input!

Josef Zens said...

Hi Carsten,

I also think that you mixed-up tweets and blog-posts. It looks as if this is done deliberately to stress the point that "posts" are too short and too general for scientific communication. Read your paragraph carefully and you will see that you are mentioning tweets and 140 characters and then suddenly you are talking about blog-posts.

I am not a scientist but I know many scientists that communicate via blog-posts and they can see by the content or by the address of the reply-post whether it is good or not. Basically blogging is an invitation to comment, sort of like open science. What's wrong with that? In a blog-post you can link to the original paper. Thus, you are using two languages instead of using one and excluding people in doing so. You should use everyday language for the public AND for other scientists. Both can be referred to the original paper in your scientific language.

I don't think it's smart to erect a communication-wall between scientists and non-scientists. ;-)

Kind regards
Josef

Carsten Hucho said...

Hi Josef,
you know that we agree widely in our view on science-communication.
Does it look like I want to erect a wall between scientists and the public?! That should never happen!
Again, I am refering to that blog-post that I quote in the very beginning of my rant.
First of all I don't believe that communication *between scientists* via blogs and tweets is 'the new paradigm of research'.
Secondly the authors press the point that speed of communication is of essence - and they are willing to sacrifice quality for that. I would never do that.
Third - those are my final two paragraphs - science-communication (to the untrained public) has to be done very carefully, engaged, skilled. This needs quite some effort. Giving the impression that it is enough to be an academic, to do research, to fire up a wordpress blog and to type some tweets is wrong.
The more skilled people we have who engage in meaningful, complex science-communication the better.
But don't you agree that we see more scientoid babble in blogs than virtuous science-'translation'?
I still believe that is a good idea to have science-journalists who are trained in communication and trained in getting scientists to talk ( :-) ).

Ron said...

I regard the blog as a means to complement academic communication, talking about certain things quicker, differently, more efficiently than I can do in most other academic forms of publication.

Especially for social sciences, the borders between research and reality (i.e. the social environment outside the academic life) are very fluid - and a blog (for some content) or Twitter (for other content) are perfect means to cross the border forth and back or to help to translate from one side of the border to the other.

Sean Rasmussen said...

I somewhat agree from the comment made by The London School of Economics and Political Science. Blogging does wonders on someones vocabulary and writing style. It would be great to read more blog posts from people who specialize or who studies at the London School.