Archive for the 'Science Outreach' category

A respectable scienceblogger has been seduced to the dark side

One of the more salient issues to me in the wake of Scienceblogs.org's PepsiBlog fiasco was the moderate schism it revealed between science bloggers (lower case) who self-identify as journalists and those who self-identify as scientists.

The uproar was driven in large part by the journalist types screaming about traditional journalist ethics and the supposed hard line that is drawn between the editorial and business sides of a media property.

My response to this was that as a profession and job sector this is nothing more than a convenient fiction. Recent history is rife with cases in which financial considerations clearly shaded, moved, biased or otherwise influenced content. Look, I get it. There are many cases in which the alleged Chinese wall works. Cases in which newsmedia entities published stories clearly against their own financial interest. And yes, there is a lot of print and J-school professor hot air wasted on devoted to the ethical line.

But at best, these forces for ethical hard lines are losing. Better bet is that the profession is just irretrievably conflicted and we are just going to have to muddle along.

But what really disturbed me was the eagerness of some otherwise respectable scientist-bloggers to start claiming that they (meaning "we) are quasi journalists. Claiming that they (and let's be honest, "we") actually should lean toward and adopt the supposed professional ethics of journalism.

An exchange I've been having on the Twitts today illustrates precisely why science bloggers should not only not adopt a journalist stance but should continue to disparage, correct and otherwise dissect journalistic "coverage" of a science-related story.

The news of the day is the judicial decision to block an executive order issued by President Obama to expand the number of stem cell lines which could be used in federally funded research. The NYT bit does a good job of summarizing the context.

For years, private financing has been used to create embryonic stem cell lines, mostly from discarded embryos from fertility clinics. The process destroys the embryos. President Bush agreed to finance embryonic stem cell research, but limited federally financed research to 21 cell lines already in existence by 2001.

Under the Obama administration, private money was still needed to obtain the embryonic stem cells, but federal money could be used to conduct research on hundreds more stem cell lines, as long as donors of embryos signed consent forms and complied with other rules.

See? This is by no means a complicated story. The grand hoopla over the original decision by President G. W. Bush to permit federal funding of research on a limited set of stem cell lines was a HUGE media storm. Really, even most lay people should be up to speed on the issues and rapidly appreciate the scope of the current judicial ruling.

And yet some respectable science blogger went ahead and Twitted this:

Yikes! Judge halts stem cell research http://is.gd/eAPR4

The link goes to the NYT piece, btw. Nice headline from @davemunger, right? A journalistic headline. The kind of headline that the typical author/journalist, when called on it's inaccuracy, tends to (wink, wink) blame on the editor. "Not my headline (shrug)" they will say in faux apology.

Irritated by this inaccurate sensationalism which clearly implies to the naive reader that this judicial act actually blocked all stem cell research, I responded to Dave with:

halts Obma's *expansion* of permitted use of *federal funds* RT: @davemunger: Yikes! Judge halts stem cell research http://is.gd/eAPR4

He came back with:

@drugmonkeyblog Sure, but not quite as exciting when you put it that way. The implications of the move are still drastic

Quite a tell, isn't it? Typical journalistic approach and why we need scientist-bloggers to oppose this sort of inaccurate communication. Sensationalism that draws the eye is "exciting". That is the justification. So what if the viewer/reader who just glances at headlines walks away with a totally inaccurate perception? He gave the link to the story, right? No fault of his if people don't read it and immediately grasp the nuance...

Yeah, well I object to this journalist tradition/ethic.

This is what I absolutely detest about journalism, dude. Just say no to inaccurate hypage RT: @davemunger: not quite as exciting..

What I object to is this notion that the closest approximation of the truth is optional. Inconvenient. That the business exists to get attention and readers, no matter the cost to the accurate transfer of the best possible information. It is, quite simply, offensive to my professional sensibilities. Yes, we have some movements toward hype in scientific publication but this doesn't mean I agree with it. In point of fact I draw parallels between journalism and GlamourMag science...and Dave Munger stepped right into the steaming pile of why this is so.
@davemunger:

@drugmonkeyblog What is inaccurate about my statement?

@drugmonkeyblog:

the judge did not "halt stem cell research" dude. He reversed the *expansion* of what could happen with fed funds.

@drugmonkeyblog:

.@davemunger return to the Bush scenario in which fed funds could be used for *some* stem cell res. private/state funds used despite fed

@davemunger:

@drugmonkeyblog TFA says It's actually unclear whether the ruling reverses back to Bush's compromise, or even rolls that back as well

Ahh, the typical journalist dodge-and-weave when called out on inaccurate reporting. No, this is not some discussion of he said / she said and what might possibly be the downstream implication. I might buy it if you'd started your comments with this or refined them. It is intellectually dishonest to claim you intended your initial Twitt to lead to this particular nuance. Bullshit. Sure, when backed into a corner you can find some loophole to try to weasel out of. Just like the next one...

@davemunger:

@drugmonkeyblog And he did "halt stem cell research." He may not have halted *all* stem cell research, but I didn't say that.

HAHAHAHA! Classic journalism. Use an unmodified and bold statement. When called out for the inaccuracy of what you know damn well was going to be the overwhelmingly frequent perception of the statement, retrench to Clintonian parsing of syntax. "I didn't say 'all', dude, not my fault if people inferred that from my unmodified statement. It could have easily meant 'judge halts one experiment involving stem cells in one obscure lab'! HAHA!"

Bullshit. You should be ashamed of yourself when you find yourself in this ridiculous attempt at a defense.

Unless you want to, you know, be a journalist. Then I guess it is totes okay to create whatever inaccurate impression you want via selective quoting, selective phrasing and other tricks.

Pfah. I spit on this journalist tradition. This is why it is an absolute mistake for people who identify as science bloggers to move toward being "more like journalists".

Their crappy practices are the very reason that we bother to blog about science!

How can you have forgotten this?

29 responses so far

New Media Basics for Academic Societies: The Audience

Aug 16 2010 Published by under Science Communication, Science Outreach

Pursuant to my recent post (and that of scicurious) about the Society for Neuroscience's nascent attempts to use the tools of Web 2.0, social media, etc (e.g., Twitter, science blogs and Facebook) to promote the Annual Meeting, I have a couple of thoughts.

It starts with a comment made ages ago by Abel Pharmboy, although I can't find the exact link. His essential point is to observe that for a typical professor teaching her subject matter, the general audience available for outreach / education purposes is the University class. This amounts to scores or a few hundred students per academic year in most cases. A professor teaching huge Intro sections with a big load might just bat into a thousand or two. maybe.

Per year.

Scientific blogging beats this audience six ways to Sunday.

Authoring a science-related blog can reach numbers similar to this with minimal effort. A privateer blog launched on a popular hosting system such as WordPress.com or Blogger.com will start with no audience but by a few simple promotion steps can rapidly get a few dozen people reading each new post. That's the baseline. If one happens to be associated with a blog collective (such as ScienceBlogs.com, Scientopia.org, LabSpaces.net, Nature Network, etc) then these audience numbers increase substantially. The DM blog at ScienceBlogs.com over the past year was running several hundred viewers per day on a slow weekend day when we didn't post anything new. A weekday with a new post would hit around 1,000 unique viewers. Each day.

And we were by no means unusual. I would estimate that this size audience is readily attainable with reasonable effort on a decent sized network of blogs.

Some specific entries can have a very long tail indeed, thanks to the boost provided by search engine links. Abel Pharmboy and I have both remarked on the special place that our posts on JWH-018, synthetic marijuana, Spice, K2, etc have in the hearts of the Google searchers, for example. My old post pulls in a couple of hundred search hits on most days. Still.

The casual reader of a scientific blog does not see this, of course. Reader comments added to posts, which are visible, only represent perhaps 2-5% of the viewers of that post. Viewer numbers are not typically pushed in front of the reader so it is not readily apparent what scope of reach is enjoyed by a given blog.

Turning my attention to the portion of my audience which blogs on scientific topics and/or has an interest in using new media tools to promote their scientific subdisciplines, it is our responsibility to answer the "why" questions. Why should our academic societies deploy Twitter, Facebook or blog technologies? What is in it for them? How does it advance their agenda?

It is my view that the size of the potential audience to be reached is a good place to start the discussion.

2 responses so far

SfN the meh

The Society for Neuroscience dipped its toe into the new / social media waters last year during the Annual Meeting. The Society picked a group of volunteer bloggers to highlight on a webpage associated with the meeting. This was a great initiative but it is too bad that it was done so tentatively. There was insufficient communication about it to the members, poor wifi (and AT&T for all the iPhoners) coverage and ultimately the effort fell far short of what it should have accomplished. There were maybe a couple of dozen people that I saw on Twitter talking about the meeting, which is pathetic in contrast to the ~30,000 registrants.

We can do better for this year.

As a backgrounder, we should note that SfN has always had an interest in the teaching and communication of science. Presentations at the Annual Meeting are categorized topically by Theme and Theme H is "History, Teaching, Public Awareness, and Societal Impacts in Neuroscience". Blogging and other social media coverage of the meeting fits well within this mission of the Society. The subtext here is that you should view these activities as being just as much an official part of being a member of the Society for Neuroscience as you do the front-line science part. (This is why I say "we". This is not just about what the SfN does, but also about your behavior, DearReader. More on this in a subsequent post.)

Action items for the Society for Neuroscience for this year's Annual Meeting in San Diego (Nov 13-17, 2010):

1) Get adequate wifi coverage everywhere, including the poster session floor. This is absolutely the biggest roadblock to advance. People need to be able to quickly glance at their Twitter feed as they are walking to the next poster on their schedule, hustling upstairs for an oral presentation or standing in the coffee line. If they are constantly fighting to get a signal from the Convention Center wifi or badly overloaded local AT&T towers then Twitter is much less valuable. Those who want to quickly note an awesome poster that they ran across cannot easily do so (after all, they are there primarily to see the posters and only secondarily to Twitter about them!) without speedy wifi access. And, of course, for those of us that use the online scheduler for navigating the meeting, this is a high demand item even without social media coverage goals.

2) Establish Twitter accounts by official SfN entities. The current President should be tapped, if willing. The SfN press office for sure.

3) Promote the selected bloggers a little better, no need to act embarrassed about it. Other societies such as the Biophysical Society and the American Physiological Society are onboard with social media promotion at their Annual Meetings. Don't pull the links after the meeting! This page used to be the one linking the highlighted bloggers- they took the links off after the meeting concluded. Bad idea.

4) Twitterwall! This means put up a large display that just shows a Twitter search for key hashtags such as #SFN, #SFN10 and #SFNthemeH. Most of the SfN attendees probably have no idea there is an online part of the meeting going in real time. This would be a fantastic promotion strategy*.

5) Consider an official meeting blog established at a high-profile blogging site such as ScienceBlogs.com**. The APS Life Lines podcast has been extended into a resident blog at ScienceBlogs. They also have a set of blogs from research institutions such as the Weizmann Institute of Science or Brookhaven National Labs and a blog for the 2010 World Science Festival. SfN should be all over this. If you need someone to populate it, you might start with the list of bloggers that you chose as the officially-recognized ones last year.

6) Get some help. Here I am talking to whomever it was that managed to ramrod the initiative through last year and is setting up to do it again. (Oh yes, the rumor mill suggests they are getting ready to start soliciting applications for the bloggers to be listed on the Meeting page somewhere.) While I'm sure you have the best of intentions, it is clear from last year that either you don't know what you are doing or ran up against a lot of static from SfN officialdom. I'd suggest freeing up about 40 hrs worth of consultant pay and hire Bora Zivkovic to give you suggestions. Take at least 30% of what he comes up with and this whole effort is going to be much more successful than last year.
__
*Admittedly this one has the potential for mischief. Twitter hashtags are not controlled and of course Twitter itself is essentially open to all. SfN runs the risk of having protesters (such as those who objected to the Dalai Lama presence a few years ago, or the animal rights extremist nutjobs) hijacking the feed. I think it is worth the risk however, we should be unafraid of controversy and in any case, hijackers will probably end up being drowned out by the real content.

**Disclosure for any new readers.

13 responses so far

On Google, Second Life and blog collectives

Jul 25 2010 Published by under Science Outreach, ScienceBlogging

Rob Knop has a series of observations up on Galactic Interactions that struck a chord with me. He's talking about Linden Labs and the Second Life dealio, about which I know next to nothing. I barely understand all that stuff. However, he starts with this observation:

I think often the way to kill a business is to over-monetize it. I remember the 1990’s, and Web search engines. The pattern was repeated over and over again. There’d be one that was the best. They’d realize they were the best, and they’d either get sold or they’d try to monetize their business. The page would go from being relatively clean, to being a cluttered mess of ads… and the search results, being increasingly paid, would become less and less useful. So we’d all move on to another engine. That ended with Google, who had the vision not to try too soon to over-monetize their search, and who recognized when they did monetize it that they had to do it in a way that didn’t completely undermine what brought people there in the first place.

Emphasis added. Now I'm not so much afeeerd of monetizing but it appears an axiomatic truth to me that you cannot kill the function that brings people to your online site or business. That is really the key to Google's world dominance as a search engine. I had the exact same frustration expressed by Rob with Web engines in the 1990s and I bet most of you did too. It still boggles my mind that you go to the root Google page and you get what you need- a search box and an entry button. Sans extra crap.

It really is sad that Twitter is trying as hard as they can to miss the point of Google. but I digress..

Rob has another observation about Linden that sounds hauntingly familiar:

Alas, the company as a whole didn’t realize this. What they should have been focusing on was promoting virtual worlds. Instead, they… well, to be honest, I’m not really sure what they were focusing on, but they didn’t direct substantial effort towards promoting virtual worlds in general.

I return to the Google example. I mean sure, the Internet was going to explode anyway. I get this. But by making the internet useful for people (some of us do remember the Web before search engines were so ubiquitous, fast and so damn good, you know), all people-even our grandparents- Google made themselves indispensible. This is what Rob is getting at I think. If you want to be an online entity that relies on low fractional payment from a vast audience, you need to concentrate your efforts on the audience. And when an audience doesn't exactly exist yet, you are not trying to steal marketshare, you are trying to build up the whole dang market.

This is where I personally think that ScienceBlogs.com has gone a bit astray and where I routinely criticize the approach of Nature Networks. I look at it this way. I've been blogging for over three years now and experienced both negligible-audience privateer blogging and the heady heights of the Pharyngula driven Scienceblogs.com traffic. Comments and personal communications to PhysioProf and I suggest that our focus on academic careerism for grant funded scientists is of interest even beyond biomedical disciplines. Our traffic is quite pleasing and the commentariat of decent size. But here's the thing. If I look at the IP numbers coming in from the domains of easily identified research Universities and research institutes we still only draw one or maybe 5 repeat viewers from a given institute. That spells one heck of a lot of untapped audience to me.

The funny thing is that Sb says all the right things about engaging the broader audience. And Nature Publishing Group routinely tries to tell all scientists reading their flagship publications (and this is a good fraction of all scientists) to go online, to comment on papers and, gasp, to blog.

Their hearts are in the right place but their execution could use some re-thinking.

5 responses so far

Science Fest!!!

Apr 05 2009 Published by under Science Outreach

All about the science. One park chock full of geeks.

Mmmmm...braaayynnns!

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