ScienceOnline’09 – Interview with Greg Laden

The series of interviews with some of the participants of the 2008 Science Blogging Conference was quite popular, so I decided to do the same thing again this year, posting interviews with some of the people who attended ScienceOnline’09 back in January. Today, I asked one of my SciBlings, Greg Laden of the eponymous blog, to answer a few questions.
Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Who are you? What is your (scientific) background?
When I was young, I intended to become a priest. Since I was being raised among Jesuits and Franciscans, that would mean that I would likely be trained as an Inquisitor, and Inquisitors were learned. So I searched for books to read, and in my household there was one bible written in Ancient German, an Encyclopedia, and a collection of Biology Textbooks. I read all of them except the Bible because I could not read Ancient German.
I believe that there is a direct line from my youthful training as an Inquisitor to my present job as a Blogger.
What do you want to do/be when (and if ever) you grow up?
I plan on being a retired Inquisitor.
GregLaden.jpgWhat is your Real Life job?
I don’t talk about my real life job these days I like to think of myself as an independent scholar and a writer, and a part time blogger. I have a lot of jobs, a lot of stuff I have to do. But writing, at this moment, is the only thing I want to acknowledge. Everything else can bite me.
What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?
Good question. There is absolutely nothing related to science or communication about the web that is interesting. There is only interesting content. But there is a lot of interest from a technology point of view related to how Web 2.0/the blogosphere/etc works.
My interest is mainly in that content. I assume we can do anything with the web, anything related to communication, eventually. Web 2.0 is baby web. This will all look so silly even in just a few years. But the need for excellent, accurate, challenging and engaging content is paramount.
The web allows for communication of the form that has not happened before, but I see the current technology as doing almost as much to interfere with technology as to enhance it. On the user side of things, people in academics tend to be Luddites, wearing their ludditosity as a badge. These two things — baby technology and cultural resistance to novelty — need to change over the short term.
The Luddites will be left in the dust and Open Source technology will save us all.
With respect to the latter, I am very interested in promoting Open Source approaches as the technology of science communication, and Open Access as the structural or editorial milieu for dissemination. The proprietary models have had their chance and they have stifled rather than enhanced communication. The party is over, proprietary models! Over!
This does not mean that there is no room for commercial enterprise and even profit making, but the model that links consumer dollars to production via marketing has got to go.
How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social
networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook?

OK, now we are getting to the serious questions, I see. Blogging does not relate to my work. It IS my work. Blogging is where my voice lives these days. I’ve got writing projects that the blogging supports, in terms of my thought process and production stream. I’m a blogger, not a person who blogs. Social networks such as, for me mainly, Twitter and Facebook support, point to, enhance, underscore the blogging I do, and provide me with streams of information for my blog. Facebook in particular is also a social network that serves as a social network (as opposed to something called a social network that serves as a tool for disseminating information).
By the way, Twitter explicitly denies that it is a social network. This is in writing somewhere.
When and how did you discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any new cool science blogs while at the Conference?
I was at a Minnesota Citizens for Science Education conference and someone mentioned PZ Myers’ blog, Pharyngula, as a good thing for life science teachers to read. I mostly ignored it for a while, because I was not really into reading blogs. Then I read through a few days worth and thought “Hey, this is a good way to write. Nice bite size bits, instant feedback, etc” (I don’t remember if I actually said “etc” but I might have.) So I started a blog, and it ran for about 10 months, when I was asked by Scienceblogs Dot Com to join them.
I don’t think I discovered any new science blogs at the conference because a) I knew about most of them already and b) before the conference I used the conference wiki to find out about more.
What I did discover is that these blogs are actually written by PEOPLE!!! Who would have thought!?!?!? One of the great pleasures, for me, which I expected to happen, was to meet some of the bloggers in person. I was especially looking forward to meeting Coturnix, and I was not disappointed. There were many others.
Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?
Many things. Enough that I have to say that this was a very important conference. Much of what I learned came from the inter-session and extra-session conversations, as well as the sessions themselves. It was also great to meet in person people with whom I’ve collaborated on line. The organizers and participants in the Transitions session, Gender in Science, Race in Science, and Anonymity sessions produced a sort of Big Giant Stream of Conversation about all of these issues, which are largely related. There is positive movement here, and a lot of good is happening. I happen to also think that much of the social theory and political method being used by many of my fellow bloggers is rather mid 20th century and not as effective as it could be, and I would like to see this part of the blogosphere … well, grow up a bit, to be honest. But that is not true of everyone involved in these important political movements. And everyone, to a person, is well meaning and is contributing one way or another to the progress that is being made.
I look forward to the day when I can put up 15 blog postings in a row that have to do with gender and race and have the following two things NOT happen: 1) One or more commenters say “I thought this was a science blog, I’m leaving forever!!!” and 2) One or more fellow bloggers make a side long nasty remark about how my voice is different from theirs, and therefore, wrong. When those two things happen, or more exactly, don’t happen, I’ll know we’ll have made some advancement in this area.
At the ScienceOnline09 conference, because people were meeting face to face, we all were moving more quickly in this direction than we have on the intertubes before or since. That is important. The web is wonderful but it is not real life in this very important way. We need significant cultural evolution to happen in this regard.
Related, the ScienceOnline09 conference also demonstrated the overlap between science (= fieldwork and test tubes and stuff), politics and society. That is important.
There were a lot of pragmatic aspects of communication covered by the conference, most of which I missed because of the stream of sessions I chose. They looked good and I heard good things about them.
I also very much appreciated the conversations I had with James Hrynyshyn, Karen James, Tom Levinson, Rick McPherson, Mark Powell, Rebecca Skloot, Blake Stacey and Karen Venti, and others at Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Beer Hour and so on. I flew out with my Quiche Moraine Co-blogger, Stephanie Zvan and her husband Ben , and we were very happy to use this as an opportunity to let people know about Quiche. Also, I was thrilled that Lou FCD came up from the coast for big chunks of the conference, so I could meet my on line buddy in real life.
The one thing that surprised me the most, if I may say, is how many people at the conference had been reading the Congo Memoirs, and went out of their way to tell me that they liked them! That was nice.
It was so nice to meet you and thank you for the interview. I hope
to see you again next January.

The pleasure was all mine, and I’ll see you in January!
See the 2008 interview series and 2009 series for more.


5 responses to “ScienceOnline’09 – Interview with Greg Laden

  1. I happen to also think that much of the social theory and political method being used by many of my fellow bloggers is rather mid 20th century and not as effective as it could be, and I would like to see this part of the blogosphere … well, grow up a bit, to be honest.
    That might be because, with regard to gender, race, class, sexual orientation, disability, and other social issues, as they pertain to science and engineering – one has to meet the inhabitants of Science and Engineering Land where they reside. And in this arena, many scientists and engineers remain mired stubbornly in the mid 20th century, minds and hearts untouched by the wealth of theoretical and practical information that feminists and others advocating for social justice have developed over the past 50 years. I don’t know what’s more frustrating – to try and engage with someone who is completely unaware of any of this stuff and doesn’t really want to know what they don’t know, and just sort of refuses to engage with the information at all. Or to have to work with a Nice Guy who thinks they have it all figured out, meanwhile completely oblivious to the ways in which they insult and hurt those around them, and who stalks off in high dudgeon if you dare point it out to them, again oblivious to the concept that true allies don’t carry on that way. It’s all enough to make one envy the types of problems our sisters in the humanities have to deal with.

  2. Zuska, I think you are absolutely correct, and your blogging is an excellent example of how to make the necessary effort. You are probably making a real difference. Having said that, I’m not sure I would draw as strong and clear of a distinction between the humanities on one hand and science and engineering on the other, or paint the latter two disciplines with the broad brush. Within the sciences, there is a lot of variation. For instance, I work with a lot of people in geography, sustainability studies, and various life science areas who are very enlightened feminists and against whom (to whom?) no one in the humanities can hold a candle. The only time I’ve ever heard a person on a grant committee say, and I quote, “Wait a second. We gave an [reference to a particular ethnic group] one of these grants two years ago and it did not go well. Maybe we should not give this one [again the ethnic reference] a grant either” that person was from the Humanities.
    To some extent, I think we need to deal more with individuals, or at least individual lines of thought, rather than so called disciplines.
    However, yes, there certainly are discipline wide trends, and there certainly are statistical differences in access, encouragement, mentorship, and just plain survival (of, say, women) by discipline. The difference between engineering and primatology is like night and day.
    We also need more diversity in the nature of the conversation. People who are trying to move all this forward should spend less time trying to stamp out each other’s voices. We should be pointing to each other’s perspectives and saying “Have a look at that” to our readers and audiences, rather than finding ways to disagree that are entirely off topic and counter productive.
    I think the best examples of that come from some of the race and racism related discussions where scholars are excessively interested in things like whether or not modern American racism is primarily a function of the transition from the 17th to the 18th century politics of slavery, or if this is more of an innate human thing, or a general European thing. Yes, those are interesting questions, and important, but there are scholars banging each other over the head regarding this issue and forgoing opportunities to move forward.
    I think the sniping and cross bludgeoning should stop. What a waste of time.

  3. What I’d love to see in the conversation is just some respect from members of privileged groups when members of underrepresented groups point out something they’ve done that is hurtful, even if – especially when – what’s been done was unintentional. Taking responsibility for the consequences of unintentional acts is a big thing, and one of the hardest things in the world to get privileged folk to do.

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