TwitterI can’t recall who was speaking when the #GingerNinja struck last night, but I felt sorry as I joined half the room in coughing and laughing at the same time.

#Talkfest was an evening for science bloggers to get together and talk about their blogging.  It was fun, funny and interesting. We had discussions on the Twitterwall about whether scientists had a duty to engage with the public. Discussions in the room about whether bloggers (in particular science bloggers) should be paid to blog – yeah, why not, worrying trend is those paying to blog without due disclosure. Credit to @alicebell, @beck_smith and the Biochemistry Society for putting it together and hosting it. (And kudos to the cake maker.  I’m an expert on cakes and I have to say the ones last night were very good.)

However I came away slightly disappointed, and that feeling hasn’t gone away this morning. I felt that despite the eloquence of the community, their wit, their intellect, they were not being very ambitious with what could be achieved with the medium. There was a focus of being heard: by more people, more clearly and in different ways that couldn’t be achieved on paper.  Perhaps that was the design of the event or the limitations of the community.

My background is with govt and civil society bloggers. We’ve seen some incredibly innovative uses of the internet to improve our democracy, to change the way it has been reported on, to hold our politicians and governments to account.

So where in the science world are the equivalents of Guido Fawkes questioning the clsoed shop academic hierarchies.  Where are new uses of twitter? The science equivalents of #uksnow or EyeSpyMP. Who is shining Sunlight on how funding operates or making the data available in an easy to use way? I’m sure there are some examples, but I wasn’t hearing them last night. Let’s not just think about the web and blogs as a new medium with which to communicate about science, let’s think about it as a medium to communicate in radically new ways about science.  Let’s use it to make things better.  Unless of course they are already perfect.


Andrew Maynard · 16th July 2010 at 12:55 pm

Very interesting reflections Shane – thanks. I wonder whether #talkfest just touched a small and rather narrowly focused slice of the blogosphere that intersects with science, or whether this is representative of science blogging at the moment. I must confess, I’ve had the a similar reaction to some of the higher profile science blogs – almost a sense of people talking out loud than having any greater ambitions to instigate change. Of course, this isn’t in any way a criticism – what people do with their blogs is their business. And on top of this, the science-related blogging community is nothing if not heterogeneous.
But it does make you think what could be achieved if people used the medium to engage with clear purpose. To some extent, this is some of my thinking behind 2020 Science. Of course, there’s a lot of self-indulgent fluff there. But I always think about who I am trying to touch, what I want to get across and how I would like that information used. Probably an occupational hazard from working too long in DC!
That said, evaluating impact is difficult – really difficult. But occasionally I’ll bump into someone who comments on how useful they found a particular piece. And that’s the sort of exchange that makes me think it’s worth persevering with trying to use the medium to connect with people in a way that does make a difference.

Shane McCracken · 16th July 2010 at 1:24 pm

Hi Andrew, Thanks for the comment. I know I’ve opened myself to being proved ignorant about the sector and those within it who are making things change, but if I hear about them through being proved ignorant then it is a price worth paying 🙂
About 6 years ago I hosted a dinner for some people who were interested in getting MP blogging and the consensus was that the many of the politician bloggers were blogging because they knew how, not necessarily why.
And it’s not meant as a criticism, as you say, your blog, your rules and reasons. My only thought is so much more could be done by a very eloquent and talented community if only they realised what was possible.

Ruth Seeley · 16th July 2010 at 7:21 pm

You’re my hero for this post, Shane. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how many ‘literacies’ we require from our citizens: actual literacy, numeracy, financial literacy, computer literacy, and now, according to many science bloggers, science literacy. Is it too much, I wonder? Do we have the right to sneer at folks who’ve decided to eschew one of these literacies?
I think your background in civic engagement via politics gives you a perspective we all need. Politicians have constituents and stakeholders, and for the most part they have to accept these people for who and what they are, rather than try to change them. The creative ways politicians approach getting folks on board, however, are innovative in a way merely lecturing folks to get informed and get themselves up to speed will never be. In order to ask a question, people have to feel they’re in a safe environment to expose their own ignorance and not be laughed at for it – and to know that if they have a question, dozens of others probably want to know the same thing but aren’t brave enough to ask.
Sorry – rather rambling comment – I think I had a point when I started out.

Kristin Alford · 17th July 2010 at 10:48 am

This also touches on work we are doing, which is why we are wanting to engage the public with science anyway, and then once we’ve ascertained the ‘why’, asking the next questions, which is ‘how’ best to do this. Writing about science to educate or explain via a blog (or a press release, or a news article) is only one form of engagement for one purpose. We really do need to be much smarter.

Michael Nielsen · 17th July 2010 at 1:02 pm

Some examples of innovative uses of science blogs:
* The Polymath Project (a project in massively collaborative mathematics, run using blogs and wikis), account at
* Galaxy Zoo (more than 200,000 participants, 16 published papers so far), at Blogging and forums are only a part of this, but a very important part.
* Terry Tao’s blog: My pick for the most interesting science blog in the world. You can get some idea of the quality of the material from the fact that the American Mathematical Society is anthologizing it (I think they’re up to volume 4).
* Open notebook science, where people share their data in real time, makes heavy use of blogs:
There’s loads more, of course, but that’s a nice start, and will lead to others.

Ed Yong · 17th July 2010 at 1:45 pm

I was a bit torn after reading this, given that my blog pretty much adheres to as standard a model as you could imagine – to steal a phrase, “If you write it, they will come”. I applaud the call for more ambitious approaches but I also wanted to defend the corner of those of us who are taking simpler ones. When it comes down to it, this *is* a hobby – it’s something done in the wee hours of the evening amid all the other challenges of the day. I have neither the energy nor the right background to change the way science is conducted or funded. I can only hope to do what I do best – talk about science in a way that encourages people to listen. It’s an understated ambition perhaps, but it reflects the stimuli that drew me to science in the first place.
Regarding Andrew’s point on impact, this is how I measure mine, which I mentioned in the session: Qualitative and anecdotal obviously, but you can get some interesting nuggets from it.

Stephen Curry · 17th July 2010 at 5:14 pm

This is a very stimulating post – and has engendered an interesting conversation here and on Twitter.
I think there are many different constituencies in science-blog land, including popularising science writers, scientists themselves and those with a more activist bent. Although the #talkfest was — quite deliberately and for very good reasons — a chance for science bloggers to talk about science blogging, the event was not as introspective as I had feared.
I think it is certainly important that we aim to speak to a wide audience. The impression gained from twitter sometimes is that much of the dialogue is within the broadly defined science communicator community, but that doesn’t reflect the audience currently reached by blogs. Ed Yong’s tales from his readers on the night were a testament to that (though maybe he’s the exception rather than the rule?).
That said, I agree with Shane that communicating through blogging is only one part of the landscape of potential for science bloggers. He’s right to touch on an area that wasn’t discussed much on Thursday night, even though it’s an interesting and important topic. But I think the general conversation is likely to lead in that direction. I came away with the sense that this is still an activity, a facet of the scientific culture that is very much in its infancy. I for one am still finding my feet and, provided I can hang on to my job in science through the recession, look forward to the future with some hope.
Oh, and apologies for distracting proceedings with the coughing thing! 😉

Paula · 17th July 2010 at 7:21 pm

Great post, Shane. I often think about how much of our on-line activities is self-addressed… and wonder what can be done differently, how can we be more effective and, as you say, use in more radically different ways.
Your post can be great start to a joint reflection by this so-called “science blogging community”, I hope!

Neuroskeptic · 18th July 2010 at 9:12 am

“So where in the science world are the equivalents of Guido Fawkes”
I sincerely hope none of us hold him as a role model. I mean I get your point, but we shouldn’t be aspiring to be “sensational” for its own sake or to “shake things up” despite having no better ideas of our own. I think communicating science and critiquing it is, itself, pretty important.

Shane McCracken · 18th July 2010 at 1:12 pm

I’m glad to see that I’m not alone in thinking there could be more done. And I’m glad that Ed feels like defending his position. Damn right. It is worth defending.
@Ed – my post isn’t intended as a criticism of anyone blogging in this area, although I appreciate it may seem it. The likes of the Guido Fawkes blog started as a hobby, and because he’s an excellent writer it has taken off. People are right to concentrate on their strengths. My challenge is not so much to change what is being done but to explore what more could be done. High profile bloggers like yourself will, I hope, encourage and promote others who follow with different objectives.
@ruth – you make me blush. The question of how much science literacy your average citizen needs in order to be able to make decisions (like can I believe this person/scientist/politician) is interesting. Has anyone written about it?
@kristin – Dead on.
@Michael – thank you for those. GalaxyZoo looks interesting.
@stephen – Agreed. In the political blogging world it is mostly very introspective within a bubble, but some smart, ingenious folk burst out. I expect within the science community there are more smart & ingenious folk than in political circles and I hope to encourage them to think about what could be achieved. And I hope those of you who have the most influence at the moment might encourage those who follow.
@paula – I hope so. Perhaps we can arrange another get together and get some of those people I mention in the post along to talk about what they have achieved, but perhaps more importantly for science bloggers to talk about what they want to achieve.

Shane McCracken · 18th July 2010 at 1:20 pm

@neuroskeptic – thank you for your comment. I think you take Guido at face value too much. Yes he is sensationalist, and that is what gets him his readers, but he clearly wants to shine a light on our parliamentarians and press by ridiculing many of them. His site has been an influence on some very major changes to Parliament already made and I expect still to come.
The important lesson he gives to me is that he has a clear objective and he is trying to achieve that objective through a means now available to him that wasn’t there 10 years ago.
Finally, I agree that “communicating science and critiquing it is, itself, pretty important.” I’m not trying to change what is already happening, simply trying to encourage more innovation.

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