Warning: mostly navel-gazing, albeit with some thoughts about SciComm and the openness of science.
I didn’t know much about the blogosphere before Scientist Sees Squirrel was born. Turns out maybe I still don’t, since I’m asking the rather obvious question in the title of this post.
So is Scientist Sees Squirrel a “science blog”? Well, it’s about science (inasmuch as it’s about anything), so in that sense, surely the answer should be “yes”. But I’ve just read Science Blogging: The Essential Guide, and according to that book, the answer is pretty clearly “no”. This surprised me a little, but it also crystallized something I’d been wondering rather vaguely about anyway: what is, and what should be, my audience here?
First, the book*. I was quite excited to discover it, as I very much enjoy writing Scientist Sees Squirrel but I’m also well aware that I still have a lot to learn about blogging. I’m not sure I got a lot out of Science Blogging, though. That’s not a dismissal of the book – not at all. In fact, I wish it had existed when I started blogging; it would have helped me greatly in conceptualizing and creating Scientist Sees Squirrel. The book’s subtitle is almost perfectly descriptive: it may not be an “essential guide” (nothing is), but it’s an excellent “guide to the essentials”. Its 26 chapters cover things like benefits (and costs) of blogging, mechanics of setting up a blog on the web, finding and using license-appropriate images, building an audience, and blogging about controversial topics. There are a few surprises, too; I didn’t expect chapters on the ethics of blogging, on personal storytelling, and on blogging as a tool to diversify science (these unexpected chapters were the ones I learned the most from). Most of the chapters are short and breezy, making the book an easy and very helpful read for someone deciding whether to start a blog, or what that blog should look like. The same brevity (which makes a few chapters seem a bit superficial), I think, makes the book less useful for an established blogger.
But back to my question. Is Scientist Sees Squirrel a “science blog”? Not according to Science Blogging. Oddly, the book never defines “science blog” explicitly, but the implicit definition is very clear: a science blog is one that communicates science to non-scientists (thereby doing “SciComm”). That’s not my primary goal for Scientist Sees Squirrel, although I do have two series of posts that fall into the SciComm category. The first is a series I write for the newsletter of my local Botanic Garden; I post them here incidentally, licensed for re-use by anyone who would like to do so. The second is my series on “Latin”, or scientific, names of organisms – especially my Wonderful Latin Names posts (which could be read, I think, equally well by scientists and non-scientists). These two series make up a small minority of posts on Scientist Sees Squirrel, and an even smaller minority of page views**. Most of what I write is intended to interest scientists, and has to do with the community and process of science: writing, publishing, speaking, statistics, teaching, the nature of the university, wrong turns, the thrill of discovery, and so on. So, I guess Scientist Sees Squirrel is a science-community blog, rather than a science blog, if it has to be one or the other***.
The science-blog/science-community-blog distinction raises an interesting question, to which I don’t have an easy answer. How much should our science-community discussion be open (written with the intent that it’s read by non-scientists too) – and how much can it be? On the one hand, I completely understand if some of my more technical posts aren’t of much interest to non-scientists. Maybe that just reflects how I chose to write them, but I don’t think that’s entirely so; instead, there are issues of interest to scientists that may just be intrinsically uninteresting to anyone not in the field. On the other hand, though, I worry about society thinking of science, and scientists, as somehow standing apart. The more we talk primarily to ourselves, the more we foster the impression that we’re secretive, or cabalist, or inaccessible. Is this unfair? Absolutely – nobody worries if lawyers have law blogs written for other lawyers, or theologians have theology blogs written for other theologians. And I don’t want to overstate the issue; only the rabid fringe of the paranoid right actually thinks global warming (for example) is a conspiracy****. Surely it’s entirely appropriate for some of our communication, as scientists, to be aimed at each other.
So most of the time, I picture other scientists as I write, and I’ll continue doing so. I’m pleased to have some non-scientists among my regular readers (Hi, Uncle Jim!), and I hope that more will stumble across my science-community posts as a result of visiting one of my SciComm posts. I’ve seen suggestions that writing deliberately for non-scientists, with less complexity and less technical vocabulary, is a mark of respect for that audience. I’m not convinced that’s always true. It seems to me that it could be just as much a mark of respect to welcome non-scientists while assuming that among them are those interested in and capable of following the kind of conversations scientists have. So if you’re not a scientist: please stick around; and if something isn’t clear, feel free to ask. If we erode the distinction between a “science blog” and a “science-community blog” just a little, that’s fine with me.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) October 27, 2016
*^Full disclosure: Yale University Press sent me a complimentary copy. I made no commitment to blog about it, or for that matter to like it (or to say so).
**^They are among my least popular posts – especially the more “pure outreach” Garden posts. So, of course, I’m going to stop writing them write whatever the heck I want to regardless. Actually, I’m doubling down on my Wonderful Latin Names posts: not only am I going to write more of them, I’m developing them into a book proposal. I’m convinced they have an audience, even if they haven’t entirely found it yet.
***^There are hundreds, doubtless thousands, of such science-community blogs. In my own field, for example, some excellent ones include Dynamic Ecology, Small Pond Science, and Ecology Bits. It’s odd to see such a vital portion of the blogosphere completely ignored by a book called “Science Blogging: The Essential Guide”.
****^Trust me. We’re just not that good at conspiracies.
That strikes me as a very narrow, and frankly weird, definition of “science blog”. Why call the book “Science Blogging” if it’s not about the breadth of what blogging about science can communicate to a range of audiences? I’m happy to have people with very different backgrounds (from no people with science experience at all to full professors) reading and commenting on my blog. I think diversity is healthy in this case.
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And some of my posts have not much to do with science at all…….. 😉 https://jeffollerton.wordpress.com/2016/10/25/poet-as-scientist-as-poet-from-dark-mountain-10/
As someone who blogs both ways, I think it’s important to have audience in mind for a specific blog. That doesn’t mean that a specific *scientist* can’t do both (we both do!) but that a blog that tries to do both is probably going to fail a bit on both fronts. That’s just because what scientists are interested in reading and non-scientists are interested in reading aren’t generally the same things (though, of course, overlap). Then there’s also a training bias. When I write for smart, interested non-scientists, I explain my graphs thoroughly, because I don’t assume that my readership sees scientific graphs every day. They may not even be familiar with the type of graph I’m using. That sort of writing would bore you. So if you try to hit both audiences, then for some posts, fellow scientists are going to say, “nah, pass,” and for some posts, non-scientists are going to say, “nah, pass.” And ideally, to make a good blog, you want most readers to say “hmmm, interesting” to most posts.
Yes, and I think this is exactly why my Botanic Garden outreach pieces don’t get an audience here. I don’t post them thinking my “scientists” audience will want to learn from them; rather, I thought people might be interested in reusing them. That doesn’t seem to happen, so maybe I should stop posting them? Although a couple get traffic – “How Plants Prepare for Winter” is getting ten or so hits a day at the moment (timely!). I did once consider doing two separate blogs but realized the outreach-y one wouldn’t get enough posts to be viable on its own.
Well, I think that your’s is definitely a science blog and I also think that it is accessible to non-scientists. I like to think that my blog is interesting to both non-scientists and scientists alike, and I certainly have non-scientists who subscribe to it. I am with Jeff and Margaret, I think we all have something to say to both communities.
I’m not surprised by the book’s focus. According to Paige Jarreau’s data, the large majority of science bloggers write to explain science to a non-scientist audience.
Heck, her survey didn’t really even include a category that precisely matches the sort of science blogging that goes on here, at Dynamic Ecology, at Ecology Bits, at The EEB and Flow, etc. (I say this not as a criticism of her survey; it just highlights that the sort of blogging that you do is a minority pursuit.)
Re: scientists blogging for other scientists potentially creating or reinforcing the impression that we’re somehow apart from or above the general public, nah. People want to write for, and read the writing of, others who share their interests. That scientists sometimes write blogs aimed at other scientists is no more of a problem than the existence of subreddits about [name of most obscure thing you can think of].
Depending on the field, there can be overlap between “science community blogging” and “science blogging”. It happens in fields where there’s more of a continuum from academics and other professionals, to semi-professionals, to keen amateurs, to other keenly-interested folks. Economics is a prime example–think Paul Krugman for instance. So is paleontology (Tetrapod Zoology, I’ve heard, is popular with both pros and amateurs) and I think astronomy as well. Also polisci in the form of The Monkey Cage blog, though I think that’s aiming less at pros and more at the general public these days. I don’t know but am curious what the audience mix is for leading conservation blogs like Conservation Bytes. In contrast, that continuum from pro to amateur doesn’t really exist as much for academic ecology, and so I agree that Jeff’s blog is probably an exception in drawing a mixed audience.
Vaguely relatedly, I find that this divide makes it slightly difficult for me to find popular science books and history of science books I’ll enjoy. Some books that I imagine would be great for many non-scientists I find either too basic/slow-moving, or else too wildly speculative. I think of some of the posts we write on Dynamic Ecology as “popular science for scientists”. I wish I could find more books that fit that description. Not in ecology–I get enough of ecology at work–but in other fields I’m interested in, like mathematics, statistics, evolution, and economics. The sort of books I like are out there–I’ve read some!–but I haven’t yet come up with a good way to identify them quickly and reliably. I just set up a Goodreads account, but I’m cautiously pessimistic about what it’s recommendation algorithm will give me, since presumably most of the ratings it has to go on are from non-scientists.
I believe Meg is thinking of writing a few popular science posts on Dynamic Ecology; she’s already done one, which seemed to draw normal traffic for us. It’ll be interesting to see how that goes.
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Perhaps it’s down to definitions and perceptions, but I would see ecology as a great example of a field where there’s “a continuum from academics and other professionals, to semi-professionals, to keen amateurs, to other keenly-interested folks.” The threads that run through that continuum are natural history and species monitoring (where hugely knowledgeable amateurs are absolutely key), conservation ecology (NGOs and local authorities), environmental awareness, wildlife gardening, etc.
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That strikes me as a very narrow, and frankly weird, definition of “science blog”.
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