Blogging can be a somewhat isolated activity. Sure, there's comments and linkages and fostering online conversations and such, but generally I just plug along, cranking out my two or three posts a week on whatever topic captures my whimsy that day. Honestly? Sometimes I forget that I'm not blogging in a void. Today was a nice reminder that I'm part of a large, vibrant community that is changing the face of science, science journalism, science education, and science communication in some very exciting ways. (And of course, it also changed my personal life in some very unexpected ways.)
I'm in snowy North Carolina, having spent the day schmoozing with all my fellow science bloggers at the Second NC Science Blogging Conference. It was tough to choose between all the excellent breakout sessions, but I was on hand for the discussion of science journalism (even though it meant missing my pal Janet Stemwedel's purportedly excellent session on science blogging ethics), and caught the tail end of "Teaching Science." Both discussions were lively, thought-provoking, and as one might expect from a roomful of bloggers, highly opinionated. A few of us got caught up in an animated discussion between sessions that ran far longer than the scheduled break -- always a sign of an excellent conference.
In addition to those I already knew (Tara, Bora!, Janet, Eric Roston...), I met Abel Pharmboy, Martin R. (who definitely traveled the farthest to attend, from Sweden), Evil Monkey (one of my Facebook buddies), James ("Buy a Vowel Already") Hrynyshyn, Tom Levenson (who has a great new blog called Inverse Square; check out this nifty post about John Locke's role as amateur meteorologist in the 17th century), Shelly Batts, Reed Cartwright, and a host of others. Those are just the folks I can recall off the top of my head as I type. Kudos to Anton and Bora! for putting together such a terrific event, and for the Sigma Xi Center for hosting it a second year (not to mention all the sponsors who donated goodies for the "swag bag"). Does anyone else think there should be a site called "Where's Bora!?", featuring photos of him taken wherever he appears in the world? Sort of combination of "Where's Waldo" and "Where in the World is Carmen Santiago?" It would require a very dedicated stalker outfitted with a camera and ultra-zoom lens. Volunteers? (Jen-Luc Piquant would do it, but she's too busy Cyber-stalking Phil Plait.)
There was also a panel discussion on framing science -- yes, the dreaded "F" word! -- featuring Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum of the Intersection and Jennifer Jacquet of Shifting Baselines. That one got very lively. This was the first time I've met my fellow Jennifer, and I really enjoyed her talk. (Jen-Luc urges Ms. Jacquet not to apologize in the future for being young and beautiful: these are fine qualities in a science blogger, and do not mean she isn't an exceptionally smart woman of substance, or doesn't have something valid to add to the discussion. Anyone who says otherwise can take it up with Jen-Luc. And mind you, Jen-Luc is ruthless.) My personal favorite moment was her unveiling of the true villain behind the almost non-existent coverage of science in the mainstream media:
Yeah, that's right: It's Britney, bitch! (Cue the opening strains of Brit's new single "Gimme More.") No, seriously. Jacquet's point, humorously made (I am totally stealing it for future use), was on target: a major announcement on global warming and climate change, at a press conference featuring Al Gore (almost-president, Oscar winner, Peace co-Nobelist), garnered almost zero media coverage because it had the misfortune to occur on the same day Britney lost custody of her kids to ex-hubby, Kevin Federline. This is what we're up against when we talk about bringing science to the attention of the general public. It's not necessarily the fault of reporters and producers, many of whom are just doing their jobs, and no doubt weep in private in frustration at the kinds of stories they're forced to cover. If you must assign fault somewhere, blame the media conglomerate owners, who are far more interested in profits than in substantive content. Britney boosts ratings, and that boosts bottom lines, advertising revenues, and so forth. And blame the public for boosting those ratings, thereby setting in motion a vicious cycle.
In the end, the Blame Game gets us nowhere. None of us condone this state of affairs, but when communicating science, there's definitely a need to balance idealism with pragmatism. The point Chris drove home is that, like it or not, you go about science communication with the media that you have, not some idealized media you would like to have. Our mainstream media is deeply flawed, but it's what we've got, and they're not going to turn into PBS or NPR overnight because they suddenly were hit with a spontaneous case of altruism. That's where framing comes in, although for people like me, packaging science stories in a user-friendly format is kinda what we do for a living (it's fun!). And you know what? I think we can totally make the media's/public's insatiable appetite for news of Brit's sad trainwreck of a life work to our advantage in communicating science. Even Britney doesn't exist in a vacuum.
For starters, one of the discussion participants (I didn't see who) pointed out that Britney wouldn't even have a career to trash were it not for, say, the invention of wireless microphones. There's a science and technology angle for you right there. How does wireless work? What are radio waves? Who invented the first wireless radio technology (a fine way to bring in the Tesla/Marconi debate)? It might even be fun to talk about microphone basics and how these two rather old technologies have been paired together and used in an exciting (and lucrative) new way -- I mean, there was a time when the Pepper's Ghost optical illusion wasn't feasible in the theater because the requisite mirrors blocked the sound waves of the unseen (apart from his reflection on Stage) actor speaking "behind the curtain." As for Brit's pancaked layers of makeup -- chemistry! (Also a certain degree of nanotechnology, since many high-end cosmetics now incorporate nanoparticles.)
For health/medicine: Nobody knows for sure what's ailing Britney, but rumors abound, and a few of them are even plausible. With the appropriate disclaimers, she certainly could serve as a useful jumping off point for a discussion of how to recognize classic bipolar behaviors, what causes it, how it's managed and/or treated, and so forth. There's probably some interesting materials physics involved in her hair extensions and skimpy outfits -- and how the heck does it all stay on during even moderately energetic gyrations? Plus, check out those spiky-heeled boots: there's some simple physics involved in how much pressure those kinds of shoes place on a woman's feet. How about the physics of how she and the other dancers manage not to slip and slide all over the stage? (Maybe they do, but it'd be an interesting side discussion, nonetheless.)
I'm sure there's other science-related aspects we can come up with. Should you doubt the power of celebrity to connect with "the masses," my post employing Paris Hilton to explicate particle-wave duality is easily the most viewed and most-linked item I've ever written. (Maybe it was because the fictional Paris' head exploded in frustration.) This probably smacks of pandering to some people, and certainly I'm not advocating that all science blogs start monitoring the antics of Lindsay Lohan for potential science tie-ins (we can't afford to take away precious time from stalking Bora!; that hypothetical blog won't update itself). It's just one example of ways we can make our science relevant to folks who would otherwise not be paying even passing attention to science.
The mainstream media trend towards integration -- coupling news outlets with relevant Websites, blogs, primary sources and other supplementary materials -- could play right into our hands on this. (Bwa-ha-ha-ha!) Representatives from Discovery News and PBS/Wired Science were on hand at the conference; these are media conglomerates that I think have the right idea about where the news and magazine media is going: a combination of print, TV, radio, original Web copy, and associated blogs, giving audiences access to a vast pool of collected relevant information to even a simple newswire story from AP or Reuters, in lots of different formats. Folks can choose just to skim the headlines, or, if they're intrigued, they can read a little "science behind the..." squib, or access the original data or federal report or scientific paper on which that story reports -- or head off to read the blog of whichever scientist is mentioned in the article. Personally, I'm tired of being spoon-fed my news; I want to see the raw footage or documentation and decide for myself. And I'm tired of being forced to endure endless hysterical stories about Britney and various manufactured political rivalries because without that, a presidential campaign is just so boring -- we might actually have to discuss the issues, and candidate qualifications. Quel horreur! I am not alone in my frustration.
In discussions of those "upstart bloggers," I occasionally hear laments from long-standing journalism professionals that their role as "gatekeepers" of news information is in jeopardy. Yes, it is. The difference in my viewpoint is that I think this might be a good thing in the long run -- painful, because change always hurts until things settle back into equilibrium. But a good thing, nonetheless. Modern journalism is a far cry from what it was in a revered heydey. The world has changed, and journalism has changed, too -- not always for the better (in both cases). People are cynical about media coverage, and rightly so; the enormous popularity of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are ample testament to that. We're sophisticated enough to know when the media is "selling" something (often!), and recognize that almost every outlet (save independent organizations not snapped up by huge conglomerates, i.e., public broadcasting) has some vested interest in sales of one kind or another -- even if they're just selling us sordid details about Ms. Spears. (Did anyone really need two full weeks of Anna Nicole Smith coverage after she died? It was painful enough hearing her described as "our Princess Diana.")
Inevitably, the naysayers bring up what I have dubbed "the Ostrich Effect": the tendency of people to choose only those blogs and online news sources that reflect their pre-existing biases and viewpoints. I certainly know people who get all their information from Fox News, the Drudge Report, 700 Club, Christianity Today, and Focus on the Family (just to name a few).
These are the same people who approve of Bill O'Reilly's tendency to cut the microphones of people who disagree with him on his show, because god forbid an opposing viewpoint (or, in Billo's case, an actual established fact) should seep into their consciousness. I also know liberals who won't read anything except The New York Times, The New Yorker, or The Atlantic. (TV news? Don't make them laugh!) But the Ostrich Effect is not unique to blogs and online media. It's always been there. People have always been able to choose which magazines and newspapers to subscribe to, which TV shows to watch, or radio stations to program their car radios. Avoiding the cognitive dissonance that accompanies hearing something contrary to our opinion or beliefs is a fundamental aspect of human nature. Bloggers did not create this problem.
Let me be clear: I do not advocate doing away with our current media, or all vestiges of editorial oversight. Peer review can be a beautiful thing, and as a writer, I benefit tremendously from feedback from friends/colleagues and/or commenters. There will always be a special place for careful, fact-checked reporting and finely nuanced, well-researched features. I hope. And I don't think science writing needs "saving" so much as augmentation.
I've never viewed blogs as a threat to mainstream media. The two feed off each other; for all the contentious antagonism, it's a pretty symbiotic relationship. Among other benefits, science bloggers can hold each other and the science media accountable in ways that are kind of unprecedented in recent history, because now everyone who wants one, has a platform to express their ideas. Sure, it's loud, crowded and occasionally confusing -- and the same freedoms extend to utter crackpots -- but people find ways to sift through the noise to latch onto what they like and/or need. I'd like to see that natural synergism enhanced and developed in the coming years. James H. mentioned during the journalism session that perhaps blogs associated with major media outlets could benefit from a layer of light oversight and quality control. He's right. The trick is giving just enough oversight not to kill the very qualities that people love about blogs in the first place: personal, subjective, highly opinionated, with the opportunity for an interactive free-for-all with readers in the comment threads. Traditional letters to the editor are such a yawn-fest in comparison.
As blogs become more professional, I don't think it's unreasonable to expect them to be paid a reasonable wage/fee, depending on whether they're full-time staff or freelancers. Media outlets are already doing this: journalism school graduates of the future are definitely going to be doing some blogging in their future positions, in addition to straight reporting or feature writing (which is why, when asked, I advise instructors to start up class blogs for their students, or encourage students to start their own).
I said something along these lines during my wrap-up presentation, and someone in the audience expressed concern that if blogging becomes profitable or (god forbid) lucrative, people would start blogging for the "wrong reasons." I didn't realize there were "right" or "wrong" reasons; the concept strikes me as absurd. Peoples' motivations for blogging are as varied as the individuals themselves. And frankly, the comment smacks of a bizarre elitism, even a high school clique-ishness: "If EVERYONE starts blogging, we won't be as cool and special!" I think that rather misses the point of the source of blogging's power to effect change: giving a voice to everyone who wants one.
There's also the inference that blogging is this pure, noble selfless endeavor that should only be done for pleasure. Um, okay, it can definitely be that, but since when is it antithetical to love what you do and also make a living wage? I say that as an idealist myself, who definitely blogs for free, and for pleasure. The whole point of my talk is that blogging is moving out of the quirky little hobby category and into the professional sphere, and if someone wants to take their blogging to a professional level -- which would mean doubling (at least) the degree of effort, editing, fact-checking, etc. one would normally do with a blog post -- there should be a mechanism in place to ensure they can be adequately compensated. In no way do I think that everyone should be a professional blogger; it will just become another job option. There will always be a place for the idealistic amateur in the blogosphere.
Blogging has come a long way, baby, and I think the future is particularly bright for science blogging. What can I say? I'm an optimist at heart. But science blogging has reached a critical threshold: no longer do we need to "prove" that we can be a useful, valuable supplement to the "news" in any format and a treasure trove of accurate factual information. We can also just use our blogs as our personal, ranting soapbox; as a personal diary; to connect with folks who share our peculiar hobbies or interests; to educate and train our students in the classroom; to have intense, technical discussions with other scientists; etc. The possibilities for future re-invention and innovation are endless. I closed my own talk with a question: What will your blog look like in the future?
We've found our voice, both individually and collectively. Now what are we going to do with our newfound speech?