The Sciences

Just a Frog on the Dissection Table

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollMar 8, 2010 1:51 PM

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We've been studied. Bora points to a new paper by Inna Kouper in the Journal of Science Communication. The title is "Science blogs and public engagement with science: Practices, challenges, and opportunities," which pretty much explains what it's about. The author picks out a collection of eleven blogs -- Pure Pedantry, Synthesis, MicrobiologyBytes, Bioethics, Wired Science, DrugMonkey, Scientific Activist, Pharyngula, Panda's Thumb, and our own humble offering -- and analyzes posts and comments to judge how effective these sites are at promoting science communication. The list of blogs chosen is -- okay, I guess. I have no idea how it was constructed, and the paper doesn't seem to provide much guidance. Bora has a critique of the methodology that wonders about that, and about exactly how objective the study is. It's very hard to assign numbers to things like "ratio of informative posts vs. rants," or "degree to which the cause of collegial communication was harmed by use of intemperate language." The paper reads like someone read a bunch of blogs and typed up their personal impressions. For the most part I don't disagree too strongly with the impressions, with the obvious caveat that it's almost completely useless to study "science blogs" as a group. People don't read randomly chosen collections of blogs; they read very intentionally chosen subsets that appeal to their own interests, and different reading lists will lead to wildly divergent impressions about what blogs are really like. More significantly, though, I can't really agree with the moral that the author draws from these experiences. Here is the telling quote from the paper:

The blogs employ a variety of writing and authoring models, and no signs of emerging or stabilizing genre conventions could be observed. Even though all blogs mentioned science or a particular scientific discipline in their descriptions, they differed in their voice representations, points of view, and content orientation.

It's hard to disagree with that, but I think it's a good thing, and the author clearly does not. Blogs differ in many ways, and happily avoid the encroachment of stabilizing genre conventions. That's one of the biggest benefits of opening up communication channels to a tremendous variety of content providers, rather than restricting things to just a few mainstream outlets; writers can have their voices, and readers can choose who to read, and everyone is happy. It's clear that a lot of people want blogs to be just like some pre-existing communication medium, just with comments and occasional expertise. And there are blogs like that, if that's what you're into. And there are blogs that aren't, likewise. I hope it stays that way.

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