Saturday, March 06, 2010

Why science blogs matter

Over at The Intersection Sheril has a blogpost on the value of science blogs, and more specifically if the positive aspects of science blogs and science blogging out-weight the negative.

Without going into the detail's of Sheril's blogpost, which will just lead to a detour into the behavior of specific bloggers, I think it's an interesting question, but also a question which has a clear and simple answer: yes.

Why do I think so? Well, to explain that, I think it's worthwhile to consider what a science blog is. In Sheril's post, science blogs seems narrowed down to blogs by scientists and science writers. This seems like a common, but narrow, view of what a science blog is, and I think a case could be made for a broader definition (and I'll try to expand on this later).

First of all, let me look at the narrow definition. Here there focus seems to be on the blogger, rather than the blog subject. This seem wrong to me, and I am sure that Sheril didn't mean to ignore the subject matter of the blog.

There are some very great blogs run by scientists blogging on their field of expertise and subjects related to this (e.g. RealClimate and Science-Based Medicine). This is the sort of blog which back in the Koufax Award days were called expert blogs - blogs where someone blogs (at least to a large part) on their area of expertise, be that evolutionary biology, international criminal law, or climate science.

Expert blogs are excellent resources, I'd love if there were more of them out there.

Expert blogs are also somewhat narrow, and while the comments sections seems to attract people with similar expertise, they also seem to attract people diametrically opposed to the mainstream view (as can see in the comment sections of both RealClimate and Science-Based Medicine).

Then there are blogs run by scientists who also writes about stuff outside their official area of expertise. These blogs can be really excellent (e.g. Deltoid, where Tim Lambert often writes about stuff like anthropogenic climate change, though he is a computer scientist).

Are such blogs science blogs? I would say so, even by Sheril's standard, but they are not expert blogs like the ones I mentioned before, and their comment sections often tend to be the home of people who doesn't necessarily have the same level of expertise as the commenters over at the expert blogs, since such blogs often covers many different subjects.

Even if such blogs are not expert blogs, they are great resources for adding additional information on, often politicized, scientific subjects.

Blogs run by science writers, is another category covered by Sheril's definition, and there is no doubt that blogs like Carl Zimmer's The Loom are great sources for information about science. The writers there doesn't necessarily have a science background, but they make a living of communicating science to a broader audience. Such work is invaluable.

And now we come to the wider definition that I think is justified. The blogs that promote scientific thinking - here I am talking about blogs by rank amateurs (like mine) writing about scientific issues, and about blogs which promotes such healthy attitudes as skepticism, critical thinking, and understanding of the scientific method.

In other words, the multitude of blogs which are not dedicated to science as such, but which often serve as a gateway blog to more scientific blogs. Or which just make people stop up and think a little about science.

These are a much part of the science blogsphere as big blogs like Pharyngula (something I am sure PZ Myers would be the first person to agree with).

If just one person in one thousand gets convinced that vaccinations are a good thing, that anthropogenic climate change is real, that evolution happens, that homeopathy is expensive placebo, or that chiropractors can be dangerous for your health, then it's worth it.

This is something we forget in our endless navel-glazing and in-fighting. We are talking about real life issues, affecting real people.

When Phil Plait fights the anti-vaccinationists, it's not just because he dislikes their abuse of science and medicine, it's because their dangerous demagoguery cost lives. When Orac denounces another quack in one of his many tome-length posts, it's not just for the fun of it, but because their actions have real life consequences on people. When the crowd at The Panda's Thumb yet again rises to defense of teaching evolution in yet another school district, they are not in it for the women and the money, they do it to make sure that future generations of US schoolchildren learn proper science.

Yes, the big blogs (and the small blogs for that matter) often disagree on specific issues and strategies, and yes the comment sections of certain blogs might have the appearance of an echo-chamber, but in the big picture, this is irrelevant. What's important is that there are people out there trying to promote science and critical thinking, and stop the anti-scientists from winning more ground.

Science blogs, no matter if we use the narrow or broad definition, cannot stand alone, but they can offer another communication channel, and they can even sometime act as checks on more traditional science communication channels, such as newspapers and science journals. For an example of the later, think about the case of the paper in Proteomics by Warda and Han which was retracted due to the work of science blogs and their commenters.

Science and skeptic blogs can also work to check the harm done by anti-science and pseudo-science people outside science community. The most stunning example of this, is in the UK where the British Chiropractic Association's libel case against Simon Singh has resulted in a backlash (commonly called a "quacklash") from the skeptic community, causing one in four chiropractors to be investigated for allegedly making misleading claims in advertisements. This was made possible through the information broadcast through blogs,

So, to sum it up, science blogs and the many skeptical and critical thinking blogs out there are great resources in communicating science, but just as importantly, they are great resources in stopping anti-science both within and outside the science community. Is there room for improvement? Yes. But worthwhile? Definitely

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a great resource!

March 07, 2010 5:36 PM  
Anonymous Dumbass said...

I agree that fighting pseudoscience often matters a great deal. But I would add that countering pseudoscience is worthwhile even when the outcomes aren't as important as saving lives and the like.

Just having opposing information out there is invaluable to people who are researching a subject. I have a critical thinking blog of my own, and I'm easily able to find issues where I can't find anybody else making an effort to fully analyze and explain the situation critically.

I think that presenting a critical alternative is very important in those cases.

March 07, 2010 6:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was refreshing.

Just the other day a particularly nasty (and highly educated) list troll gave me a public dressing down for having the audacity to blog about subjects outside the area where I was formally educated.

I was confused by her venom because I believe that at some level all sciences have the same basis in methods, logic and creativity -- so exploring the odd places where ideas intersect in a blog post should be well within the capability of any curious scientist.

March 08, 2010 5:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm that's interessting but frankly i have a hard time visualizing it... wonder what others have to say..

March 09, 2010 11:18 PM  

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