When scientist audience is from another field it is still "outreach"

Mar 09 2010 Published by under Blogging, Science Communication

A recent paper from I. Kouper entitled "Science blogs and public engagement with science: practices, challenges, and opportunities" has been receiving a fair bit of bloggy attention. Of the negative sort. Mostly because the paper purports to report on the state of all science blogging but then cherry picks a few blogs to generate data- which is not actually presented for the most part. Furthermore the paper ends up with a subjective review of blog tone, level and commentary that makes one wonder if the author actually reads blogs at all. It is just that detached from the experience of many of us.
Bora was particularly annoyed and held forth at some length. Additional thoughts were advanced at Cosmic Variance, Panda's Thumb andPharyngula.
Since this blog was included in the alleged dataset, narcissistically, I felt I had better point out some more flaws in this paper. Let's get the hilarious one out of the way first.


Kouper includes the following comment example from this very blog (awww...):

Insults, such as "Don't be an idiot.. rtfa" or "Could you possibly sound any more stupid with this comment?" were more common for some blogs than the others. Thus, Wired Science and Panda's Thumb were filled with insulting commentary. Offensive remarks regarding somebody's personality or intellectual abilities most often targeted other commenters and the characters of posts, but sometimes they were directed at blog authors as well, such as the following comment in DrugMonkey blog: "You are correct, I never read a post in which you claim not to be pompous and arrogant".

Now, of course, IMNSHO, that is pretty tepid stuff if it is supposed to be an example of rampant incivility. Which seemed to be the author's intent given the context within which the quote was placed. Nevertheless, the absolute context tone-deafness of the author is staggering. This was a comment from S. Rivlin! The comment, of course, was directed at Comrade PhysioProf who in that very thread gave all the evidence Kouper needed as to why a reader might direct rudeness toward the blog author. Now admittedly it would take a little more digging to figure out that S. Rivlin and Comrade PhysioProf maintain this cartoonish antagonism on the blog for reasons that are clear only to themselves (and possibly their therapists, if any). This exchange is by no means representative of anything. Not representative of comment exchanges on this blog and certainly not representative of the less....er, freely commented blogs.
In fact, looking at the list of blogs and blog aggregations/collectives listed in the Table 1, it is not clear why we were picked out for focus in the first place. This brings me to my main complaint about Kouper's take on "science blogs". One central thrust of the paper is that science blogs are directed at an audience of scientists, are not reaching non-scientists at all and therefore are doin it rongz. As the author concludes:

To become a tool for non-scientist participation, science blogs need to stabilize as a genre or as a set of subgenres where smaller conversations may facilitate more meaningful participation from members of the public

So if the goal was to review science blogs that were designed primarily to engage the nonscientist public, what in blazes is she doing selecting DrugMonkey, a blog which focuses in very large part on inside-science-baseball topics? When we're talking about how to succeed at the NIH grant game around here, we are most certainly not talking to nonscientists!
Now admittedly, I do post something on a more general interest topic now and again. Of course, if Kouper had focused her reviews on those posts, it would have been obvious that I reach greater number of nonscientists when talking about drugs. Let us back up and review the author's source of information on the demographics of blog readers:

Readers of science blogs also had some relationship with science, i.e., they were not exactly non-scientists
or lay persons. One author posted a message titled "Who are you?" and asked his readers for information about themselves and their background. The answers to this post as well as the overall analysis of readers' comments demonstrate that those readers who engage in commenting are almost always associated with science one way or another.

I'm not positive but I suspect, given the data were collected in "Summer of 2008" it was this post of mine, given my title. Unlikely that it was the related one at NERS that the author should have reviewed given that I linked it as my motivation! Or the similar threads from ScienceWoman, Coturnix and drdrA that I linked. Also see Janet Stemwedel's post. If the author had read with a close eye she would have seen that while scientists dominate the readership, they are by no means the only demographic. There are detectable numbers of non-scientist commenters. Kouper makes the further mistake of not understanding that comments are not equal to readers. In fact, many bloggers bandy around numbers that suggest reader comment numbers are only about 5% or less of the number of unique visits to a post. Perhaps the scientist/nonscientist ratio is similar between lurker and commenters but perhaps it is not. We simply do not know.
What we do know is that nonscientists are being reached, even if they are not the majority demographic. So the concluding tone in the article is a bit overdrawn.
There is one final, and critical, point that seems to have escaped the author's notice entirely. Scientists ARE the uninformed public. In my case, for example, I know very little about paleontology. So when I read Laelaps or Tetrapod Zoology, I learn a tremendous amount. Similarly, I go to the earth science folks to give me a little context for the latest earthquakes causing disasters around the world.
Now whether I inform them or not, it is indubitably the case that I have a lot of scientist readers that know very little about drug abuse. Beyond the typical user-level of knowledge that is. They are not working in substance abuse or related fields. Maybe, at best, we have an appreciable number of neuroscientists. And a lot of folks who work on biological systems in some way. We also have nonbiologists in the audience. When it comes to the topic domain of substance abuse, they are all more or less equivalently non-expert.
So just as I am in the "outreach" target demographic for the bone jockeys, my readers are most emphatically in the target demographic for any scientific education and outreach that might motivate my blogging.
Kouper seems to have missed this.

13 responses so far

  • leigh says:

    what, you didn't know that all science degrees are interchangeable? i can forward you the memo.

  • becca says:

    So according to a peer-reviewed journal publication Rivlin and CPP's battles of offensive insults are RUINING TEH INERNETS!

  • Dr. O says:

    I'm especially humored by the insinuation that science blogs should engage non-scientists. Why does Kouper get to make the rules for science blogging? If a non-scientist reads my blog and gets something from it - great. But that was certainly never meant to be my primary goal.

  • FSP says:

    To become a tool for non-scientist participation, science blogs need to stabilize as a genre
    I am already convinced that you have stabilized as a genre, so congrats on being a tool for non-scientists. Or whatever.

  • DSKS says:

    It's a good thing you brought this to the old "water cooler", DM, because otherwise me and about 99% of the scientific community would never have heard of this paper (or the journal it was communicated in, for that matter).
    Oh... wait... shucks! Did you see what happened there?! with the blogging and the "outreach" and stuff?! Bloggery just raised the communication factor of this communication with regard to bloggery by eleventy-fold over basal, not to mention testing the very limits of irony in the process.
    Now, unfortunately, as you highlighted the quality of the paper is quite comically atrocious. Besides a highly ambiguous methodology and scant presentation of actual data, neither the study nor its conclusions actually appear to address the hypothesis stated in the objectives (which is actually not so much a hypothesis as it is a presupposition). The whole thing reads like one of those screeds of pseudoprofundity and business jargon that are so popular in the corporate world.

  • yeah says:

    another win for that winningest of them all, physioprof! what a winner. rivlin should cry. call the wambulance. send some jamesons. yeah. go physioprof.

  • Isis the Scientist says:

    Ping, dude.

  • antipodean says:

    Oh good you got to use the toilet motif to bully non-American researchers on the internet again. How enlightened.

  • ginger says:

    Toilet? Non-American? Ms. Kouper's at Indiana-Bloomington. She might or might not be an American citizen, but research institutions just don't get any more American than that.

  • Isis the Scientist says:

    Everyone loves the toilet. What does it matter if she's American or not?

  • becca says:

    @ginger I object to the insinuation that anyone in Indiana is a RealAmerican(tm).

  • Dirk Hanson says:

    "that is pretty tepid stuff if it is supposed to be an example of rampant incivility."
    Compared to letters to the editor in newspapers and magazines, the comments on blogs can be pretty outlandish and often quite profane, made more so by the willingness of bloggers (including yours truly) to allow ad hominem attacks, insults and general incivility to occur anonymously. Print media will not accept anonymous letters to the editor. Anonymous sniping is sort of a way of life for many blog readers. This is a bit off-putting for print readers trying to get with the blog thing.

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