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Nathan L. Walls

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Recapping the NC Science Blogging convention [Jan. 28th, 2008|12:22 am]
Nathan L. Walls
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[music |Feist, _The Reminder_]

Corrupt Tree/RTP

Corrupt Tree/RTP f/8 @ 1/160 sec

f_4_t and I hit the second NC Science Blogging conference at Sigma Xi in RTP on Jan. 19. Divided into three breakout sessions, ample social/networking time and then two whole conference sessions.

I've posted a photoset from the day and an earlier lab tour at the EPA.


  1. Science and Ethics Blogging
  2. Blogging the Social Sciences/Humanities
  3. Public Science Data
  4. Changing Minds through Science Communication

Overarching subtext: In which the long knives are brought out for The MSM [1]

There was a lot of teeth gnashing and rending of garments over the Media's [2] role in covering science poorly. Being misquoted, having quotes taken out of context, the fall of the population believing in evolution, etc. was largely laid at the feet of mass media in general and corporate media specifically. I wasn't expecting this, but perhaps should have been.

And if the mass media took hits for general vapidness, science journals also took a hit for keeping research results from the public due to exorbitantly priced subscriptions, paywalls and closed research data. Also troubling is when science bloggers are quoted for publication but cannot see the quotes because they are behind these paywalls.

It seems a common element of passionate online communities that they don't feel they are being represented as well as they feel they should, particularly if they're not doing the representing. I suspect there will be a perpetual dissatisfaction from members of a niche with the depth to which a mass medium covers said niche if there's an expectation that the mass medium demonstrates the same interest toward a community of interest as the community focuses on itself.

Ethics of science blogging

Janet D. Stemwedel, philosophy professor at San Jose State University and blogger led a session, centered around the questions of "What are my responsibilities as a blogger?" and "To whom am I responsible?"

The themes and questions weren't specific to science blogging.

One of the first questions, from Wired's Aaron Rowe was if stories should be vetted with sources. I disagree(d). I'm not a currently practicing journalist [3] but the criteria I learned earning my journalism degree and agree with is being willing to verify quotes, positions and paraphrasing. There's a large swath of territory between ensuring that sources verify they are being quoted and represented accurately and quote another to allow them to see a piece. I do not want to allow a source to see a piece prior to publication since it gives the source reason to believe you are seeking approval or feedback on the tone of a piece. That's not the role of a source, it's the role of an editor.

It is misleading to the source and it also creates problems for the audience. Is damaging material being massaged for PR purposes? Really, the audience can't tell, but if they think it might be going on, that's problematic too.

Journalists and politicians sometimes run into similar difficulty. It's not the actuality of an ethical breach/crime/prior restraint in fact, it's the appearance that also has to be defended against.

Other interesting discussion came out about blogging or commenting under a pseudonym. I was predisposed to be against pseudonyms, but as Abel Farmboy demonstrates, there might not be another way to blogging when working for an employer that disagree the principle of blogging.

Is there a need for blog certification? There is a medical/health blogging certification. That blossomed into a discussion about critical thinking. Essentially, does a badge or membership in a blog roll become a substitute for critical thinking about what you're reading?

Blogging the Social Sciences/Humanities

The bulk of Martin Rundkvist's presentation started with listings the social sciences and humanities from Wikipedia and asking the audience for examples of each.

Language and linguistics brought up a couple of examples:

  1. Metaxucafe
  2. bigthink


  1. Groklaw
  2. Lawyers, Guns and Money
  3. Is That Legal?
  4. Scotus Blog

Geography: Rundkvist opened the topic by noting the European assumption that American high school students don't know geography. The response, shouted from the audience, "The world is flat!"

Confluence: Crowd sourcing reports of intersections of lat and long. take a photo, write a report. Noted was local people aren't always the reporters. There's also the benefit of multiple people coming into the same place and presenting their own experiences.

I brought up a concept of a highway history, say Route 66 or old U.S. 99 that could be a mix of cultural anthropology and geography. Turns out, someone else in the audience had an example, covering Highway 11 in Canada. Seeing that I love the Great Lakes, Highway 11 looks like a future road trip.

Geocaching sites and Google Earth layers were also brought up, but I didn't catch specific links.

Political science was skipped over on the pretext that polisci sciences are really just about politics.


  1. Mixing Memory
  2. Developing Intelligence

The discussion led off with an introduction to a blog carnival. I was unfamiliar with the concept. Four Stone Hearth was mentioned as an example carnival.

All in all, a lot of interesting resources mentioned that I hope to get to, at some point.


Shared floorspace with f_4_t, badger, a researcher from Charlotte and Tom Linden, medical journalism professor at UNC.

Public Scientific Data

Co-presented by Xan Gregg and Jean-Claude Bradley had a great two part presentation. The presentation is available as a podcast. There are also the links from Gregg's portion of the session. The session wiki page also fills in the general structure and examples.

The basic premise is that making raw scientific data public is A Good Thing. Key reasons mentioned were knowledge sharing (obvious), reproducibility of the analysis and the experiment and archiving. With archiving, it's one thing to have a researcher hold the data. it's quite another to have that data "in the cloud," as the termite eaten data of Ram B. Singh demonstrates.

It sounded as if data sharing is a popular concept, but in practice, hardly anyone does. The American Economic Review is a notable exception, requiring data be made available prior to publication.

But taking it another step, is the transparency and collaborative nature of having data publicly available. Using Flickr to share lab or experiment photos in open notebooks. I was interested in hearing about some of the cultural shifts going on. The thought people are bumping up against about giving away the research online and not being able to be the first to publish. Or, more negatively, let the other guy run into the same problem to slow down their research.

But, and this audience knew this, there is value in sharing information about what failed and why. There's an incredible amount to learn from what doesn't work and why it doesn't. Why not share that information for wider understanding?

Still, there's a sea change that has to happen in what was termed "funding culture." The Internet seems to have this effect in every industry it touches. Keep the old, restrictive status quo or, take a risk and open into a more collaborative ecosystem?

I suspect openness will win in the end.

Changing Minds through Science Communication

Jennifer Jacquet, Sheril Kirshenbaum and Chris Mooney presented, in two parts, a presentation alternately knocking the Media for a decline in the amount, quality and placement of science reporting and talking about leveraging Science Debate 2008 into changing the approach for science discussion in public [4].

In my notes, I initially wrote that down as "discussing science with the public," but thinking about it later, that phrasing reinforces a tone I picked up throughout the presentation and ensuing discussion, that being Scientists have to swoop to the rescue of the Public from the Media. Corporate Media.

There are valid concerns. There's no way the percentage of Americans who believe in evolution should have dropped. There is clearly some misunderstanding of the meaning of the word theory.

Mooney talked about Science Debate 2008 and the general state of media coverage. On one hand, he said it was a good thing that the blogging community had gotten the issue taken serious, a grassroots movement built around it and the mainstream media picked it up. That sounds like a success. But then, Mooney indicated disappointment, that the community shouldn't have had to and it was nearly dumb luck and circumstances with the WGA strike that the issue had any attention at all, because the Media wasn't going to do it for them.

I'm confused on this point. On one hand, there's a community of enthusiasts who are trying to drive change and are getting some attention for that drive. But there's a converse lambasting of the Media for not leading the charge or, at least, being late to the party.

That really seems like trying to having one's cake and eat it to. Wanting to improve the level of science coverage in general and in politics specifically, then complaining when met with success at having to do the work at all. Isn't this exactly why people want participatory media and are building out communities of interest, to raise their own voices and find common cause, articulate some vision and get the word out? People get upset when the Media presumes what their interests are, but I get the sense they're sometimes unhappy about the effort that goes into being articulate and speaking themselves. In my mind, it weakens the argument when, after taking ownership of something, you bitch about the having to take ownership. If it was that important to you, stop bitching about it being less important to someone else and just get on with it.

Putting it another way, why is it considered a failing if the media picks up a story after it gains some traction in the blogosphere? Is it because there's a fear the media outlet won't acknowledge where the material is coming from? It's possible, yes, but it would be carelessness and I don't believe a good reporter would fall into that trap. Is it a concern over the Media not being the pioneer?

I am unclear on exactly who I'm supposed to be upset at, as a subset of the Media, since the Media is not a cabal. What works for television is not what works for newspapers or websites. National and local TV stations approach their news differently, on air and online. Newspapers vary their coverage based on their perceived audience. National, regional and strictly local sites all handle things very differently. Newspaper vs. television sites while dealing with the same material, approach websites differently. So, it really paints with very broad strokes to put us all in the same camp. It's as if one started referring to canine and feline families as The Carnivores and suggested they were acting in concert.

So, when Jacquet said Britney Spears losing custody of her kids pushed the Arctic ice survey showing a faster and broader than expected summer melt, "off the front page," suggesting no one covered the story and I can, in the session, find a New York Times story from the day after via Google, the actual nuanced facts are being glossed over. Out of emotion? Ignorance? The facts getting in the way of the truth? I don't know.

There's a fear that Mike Huckabee is going to be the nominee for the Republican party and, as Mooney put, a debate with Huckabee may not be so much about scientific topics, but science vs. anti-science. But Huckabee's base are a group the science blogging community needs to find a better way of explaining science to and engaging. Instead, I again get the general sense that potential Huckabee voters are seen as the great unwashed. What's unfortunate about that is the attitude carries and clouds any hope of understanding, particularly when one of the questions I wrote down from the session (Unsure if it was spoken or not) is, "What is your recommendation for addressing an arrogance, even among ourselves?" and the statement, "[Science is] divorced from society as a whole."

People get defensive if they feel they are being looked down upon. In the complaining I heard about what's wrong with what's going on with other people, there was a definite defiant and righteous tone I found a bit off-putting. I won't deny there's a great argument to be made that science isn't getting its due. But the point needs basis in fact, not appeals to emotion or cherry picking.

The biggest thing I can suggest is to stop thinking of ourselves with a victim mentality. Stop blaming Creationists and pundits and corporate boardrooms for where science coverage or discussion is at. Instead, let's have a realistic examination and consideration for why Science is where it finds itself, particularly when the subtext is how to create better understanding of science in the public mind. Build a community of science bloggers but understand that the community needs outreach to establish ties with other communities. Cooperate and collaborate with media outlets. Invite them to participate in the community. It's a tedious process to change the communication style, but slowly, as the market changes, so does journalism. That does not have to be the negative that it could be seen as, with the focus on lambasting corporate media.

Be passionate. Be interesting. Be honest. State your case articulately. Share and listen. As Ghandi put it, "You must be the change you want to see in the world."

  1. Since a lot of my analysis and opinion covers media matters, please see my disclosure notice.
  2. I use the term "the Media" to illustrate what came across, to me, as the presumed monolithic nature of various outlets like newspapers (national or local), newspaper-owned websites, television news and magazines. AKA MSM. When I hear someone talking about "the Media," I generally perceive their description as overly broad and generally negative.
  3. Setting aside, for the moment, if writing about a blogging conference is journalism. Also setting aside that my degree is in journalism.
  4. My notes from the afternoon didn't have quite this what I'll term harshness in my impression of what the talk was about. Instead, thinking about it over the course of a week shaped my impression of the session's material.

[User Picture]From: xertheevil
2008-01-29 12:03 am (UTC)
"In my mind, it weakens the argument when, after taking ownership of something, you bitch about the having to take ownership. If it was that important to you, stop bitching about it being less important to someone else and just get on with it."

In my job I am regularly put into positions of having to take ownership of issues that I technically should not be responsible for, but for which I have some downtream dependancy. Each and every time I am seriously pissed off because I shouldn't have to take ownership - the owners of the object/design/issue should.

If a newspaper has a science reporter or a science section, I don't think it's unreasonable to ask that they report on science correctly and completly. By billing themselves as being science reporters, they implicitly take ownership of reporting science.

If "mainstream" science reporting is so flawed as to necessitate bloggers to take up the mantle, I don't think it's unreasonable for them to complain about that necessity. Even if you like science blogging, that doesn't make it easy. I am sure that many bloggers would be happy to sit back and watch the resources of a news organization accuratly report science news instead. It's not like you can make a lot of (or any?) money as a science blogger.
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[User Picture]From: base10
2008-01-29 03:56 am (UTC)
I see your point. It would be fantastic if the media was covering science such that everyone was happy with said coverage. But, I'm skeptical everyone would be perpetually pleased.

There's a key distinction though, between your job, where you're assigned ownership of issues you'd rather not have vs. an avocation where you choose to take responsibility. It is cases of _choice_ that I'm talking about, not assignment.

The Media does not own exclusivity on a particular subject. There are few stories that anyone else could not cover in their own way if they so chose to devote the time and energy to. Some will, most folks will be happy with what they read in the paper about most topics.

It isn't a matter of flaws so much as depth. A general-interest news site or publication is generally not going to cover a subject to depth that someone who is incredibly passionate about the subject. Take politics: as deep as the NY Times gets on politics, they probably don't appear as deep and as passionate as someone who blogs for Daily Kos, MoveOn.org, Little Green Footballs, or whathaveyou or someone who reads said sites wants. It's comparatively much easier to reach a mass audience and build a community of interest than ever in human history and people are doing so. But why is that community building and interest and activism cast against some favor the Media isn't doing for you?

Obviously, fairness and accuracy in reporting are critical. I'm not trying to excuse poor science coverage. But there's far more news of varying levels of interest than there are reporters to cover it and no organization can cover every subject to a depth pleasing every reader.

Here's the crux of my argument: People wanted a science debate. They organized themselves, spread the word, built community, got mainstream coverage and, hopefully, have whichever candidates that remain after Super Tuesday interested in participating. That's fantastic. But, if I understand Mooney correctly, he's undercutting that achievement by suggesting someone else should have done it. Given how much people like to complain about how the media doesn't represent them or their interests as completely as they'd like, it seems disingenuous to say they'd prefer to have not had to have said anything and all and acted in their own self-interest.

Do you listen seriously to someone who talks about improving whatever mess they think some level of government is in, but then complains they had to go vote to make things better?
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[User Picture]From: xertheevil
2008-01-29 05:59 am (UTC)
I see what you're saying here. Frankly, I don't know exactly what Mooney is saying since I have not followed the issue closely enough.

I guess, though, that I just don't see the contradiction, or a subversion of their goal. Sure, they achieved it, but I think that everyone agrees that it would have been nice if they (the bloggers) didn't need to - that there was an organized group "in the media" who was willing to do it. If there is sufficient interest, as these bloggers seem to have demonstrated, then it really is a failing on the part of the Media to have identified and capitalized on it.

Here is what I suspect the reaction is to: for years we have been assured by The Media that they are giving us all the information we need and everything that is important. They have asserted ownership and repeatedly stated that you don't need any other source. When it becomes increasingly clear that, lo and behold, they are not giving us full and unbiased coverage that they promised, to a degree where we have to do it ourselves to get it right . . . backlash becomes inevitable.

In the sense that, now that the bloggers have gotten what they want, sure, it does seem to undermine the point to complain about the media now. My sense is that their reaction is not to what is happening now, but what hadn't happened before and/or what they believe SHOULD have happened, rather than needing to do it themselves. The fact is that no matter how widely read a blogger becomes, they are hard pressed to match the reach that The Media still command.

In some ways the Media is in the same position as the recording industry. Their past sins and refusal to change with the times have undermined whatever steps they are now, finally, taking to get with the program. Although in fairness to print media, they seem to have understood and begun exploiting the internet far faster than the MPAA has. Your current employment is evidence of that.
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