Tag Archives: blogging

ScienceOnline – crossing a river with Anton Zuiker

I have been conducting these ScienceOnline interviews for years now, and somehow I never got to interviewing you – one of the founders! It’s high time, don’t you think? So, without further ado, welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your background? How did you get into medical journalism?

Thank you, Bora. Like you, my last name starts with a Z, so I’m used to waiting for everyone to be called to the front of the classroom to speak. I think that that was one of the early experiences that taught me to pay attention to others. So, it’s been a pleasure to read your interviews through the years and to admire all the unique individuals who have been drawn to ScienceOnline. You’ve done an amazing thing in asking them to share a bit about their lives. The Web — the world — is a better place when we can stop to listen to each person’s story.

I live in Carrboro, North Carolina. I came here 12 years ago, and before that the longest I’d lived in one place was five years as a boy in Idaho. I’ve also lived in Ohio, the South Pacific, Hawaii, Illinois, U.S. Virgin Islands, Arizona, Minnesota and California. I’m the oldest of five sons. My father was a Peace Corps Volunteer (1965-67, Dominican Republic) and coordinator for the VISTA program, then became an attorney. My mother was a parochial-school teacher and principal. In 1981, my parents were watching the nightly news when the television sparked and died. They put it in the closet and never got another, probably the most important parenting decision in my life. I’m a voracious reader because of them. On St. Croix, the house we rented had stacks and stacks of National Geographic, and I set my mind to becoming editor of that journal. Inspired by the photos, I joined the eighth-grade photography club to learn to develop my own pictures.

My high school years were spent in DeKalb, Illinois, my mother’s hometown. I played varsity soccer, was elected student body president, edited an award-winning literary journal, worked summers detasseling hybrid seed corn and walking soybean fields, and with a couple of friends formed a juggling troupe named for the 18th-century Swiss scientist Daniel Bernoulli (our terrific physics teacher suggested that). My dad regularly took me and my brothers into Chicago to visit the Museum of Science and Industry and to see the Blackhawks and White Sox and Cubs (he taught me how to keep the box score, and always have hope), and his stories about being a hard-working vendor — ‘Beer, here!’ — were often more interesting than the games we’d come to see. Dad also taught me to think about the consequences of my actions, and to keep a record of my activities. My mother encouraged me to make new friends and to persevere when my math homework brought me to tears.

When I entered college at John Carroll University in suburban Cleveland, I knew I wanted to be a journalist and to live a life of service, including following in my father’s footsteps and joining the Peace Corps. I also thought long and hard about becoming a Franciscan friar, but decided to become a different kind of father. I fell in love, but moved to Hawaii, where I got to interview astronomer Jerry Nelson in the Keck Observatory. Eventually, I returned to Cleveland, married Erin, and worked as an arts magazine editor. Together we joined the Peace Corps and went to the Republic of Vanuatu, later returning to the U.S. via Australia, Asia and Europe.

So, geographically, I’ve been around. Around the world, quite literally. And philosophically, I’ve learned to be open to that world and its possibilities. My parents taught me to make the best of each and every situation, and how to talk with people to find our similarities and marvel in our differences.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present? And future?

You’re probably still wondering how I got into medical journalism. That came out of my time in Vanuatu. Erin and I both got giardiasis and dengue, and she also got vivax malaria. We saw Hansen’s disease and filariasis and malnutrition and ciguatera poisoning. In the heat of the tropical days, I swayed in the hammock reading the Control of Communicable Diseases manual. When later we moved to North Carolina for Erin to get her masters of public health, I learned about the science and medical journalism program at the UNC j-school, and studied under Tom Linden. I was taking Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases when SARS broke out, and one of the class instructors happened to be Ralph Baric, a coronavirus expert. By now, I knew I was never going to be editor of National Geographic, so instead I was aiming for the New Yorker: my masters thesis project was a 12,000-word narrative feature about acute HIV among college students.

An important thrust to my career trajectory, though, also came from my time in the Peace Corps. That was in the late 90s, and I recognized that when I was done on my island with no running water and no electricity, my childhood dream of being in print would have to change with the World Wide Web. I got a job at an Internet startup company in January 2000, just in time to watch the tech bubble burst from the inside. But I created my first website, became a blogger, and never looked back.

Over the last decade, you and so many other friends and colleagues have helped me combine my passions for journalism, community development and connecting on the Web. We call this the BlogTogether spirit — supporting individuals as they connect through social networks, and then creating ways for them to come together for face-to-face conversations. Those conversations, we’ve seen, promote the golden rule: blog about others as you’d have others blog about you. (I didn’t become a priest, but I’ve found my mission, you could say — or sing, as David Kroll did in Minister of Ether.)

I’m not going to be editor of National Geographic. I may never get into the pages of the New Yorker. But I do hope my career keeps me involved in supporting thoughtful observations about our world.

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

I have a great job, as communications director for the Duke University Department of Medicine. It’s in a vibrant academic medical center, and we use a blog to reflect the activities of our faculty and trainees, such as Nobel laureate Robert Lefkowitz. I was in his office a while back, and loved hearing him talk about how science and humor are alike in helping us see connections.

I recently figured out an important connection in my own life. My paternal grandfather, Louis Sisco, organized the annual Sisco Picnic, and I often helped him set up for that. His devotion to gathering the extended family, and his attention to the details in planning the event, rubbed off on me. I’m pretty sure that’s one of the reasons I’ve spent the last 10 years organizing events and meetups, from the Narratives of HIV series to BlogTogether Backyard Barbecues to our shared ScienceOnline conferences. This year, though, I’m taking a break from organizing events. ScienceOnline has become an official organization, and Karyn Traphagen is charging ahead with great momentum and ideas – hers is a detail-oriented mind that my grandfather would admire. I now serve ScienceOnline, Karyn and the rest of our community as chairman of the board, and I will focus on that role. I’m excited to see where this all goes.

Not having to sweat the details of the conference means I have more time to write, and so I’m more actively writing on my blog. I’ve learned that the more I write on my blog and in my personal journal, the more balanced I am. That’s helping me to spend more time with my daughters, who need me to encourage them through their math homework, and two-year-old Oliver, who needs me to explore in the woods with him just like my dad did when I was young.

I’m in my forties now, and spending this decade learning to be a better storyteller. I love to hear great stories at the Monti, and Jeff Polish inspired me to convene the Talk Story narrative variety show. Karyn showed us postcards she wrote to her mother, and my friend Carter Kersh has gone on to tell two stories at The Monti, for which he’s been nominated for the Hippo Awards. I’ve stumbled through a few of my own stories. I may never be a great storyteller, but I do know that I’m becoming an even better listener. If my gift in life is to facilitate conversations and help other people share their stories, then I’ll continue to do that as humbly as I can.

Through my writing, my listening, my living, I’m trying to be ever more thoughtful, kind, patient and passionate.

You once described your life philosophy as crossing-a-river. What does that mean and how does it work?

I’ve spent a lot of time at the edge of the water – watching contemplatively as mountain rivers cascade, or expectantly as ponds begin to freeze over, or contentedly as the sun sets over oceans and seas in which I’ve just surfed or snorkeled or paddled. As my family moved around, and my parents taught me to find opportunity in each new place, I came to see my life as a journey across a wide river strewn with stepping stones, each stone offering new possibilities for forward or lateral movement toward that other river bank. Some steps are shorter and seemingly less memorable, others further and riskier. I’m certain I’ve fallen in a few times – the story I’ve told my daughters the most is the one about rafting on the New River, tumbling over and losing my favorite Greek fisherman’s cap – but I’m also sure that each moment has strengthened and deepened.

(As I’m writing this, sitting in 3CUPS sipping keemun hao ya, there’s a young guy at the next table over, strumming an ukulele. That makes me remember meeting the gentle giant Israel Kamakawiwoole and Big Island lutier David Gomes. Part of the allure of my crossing-a-river metaphor is the joy in looking back at the steps I’ve taken and the people I’ve met along the way.)

When I graduated from college and decided to move to Hawaii — away from the woman I dearly loved — a mentor told me something simple and profound. “Anton, if it doesn’t work out, you can always come back.” I took it to mean that I need never feel trapped, or choiceless. After two great years in Honolulu, I did return to Cleveland as Erin was finishing college. Ever since, she’s been my companion on that river crossing.

You have been blogging for a very long time, you are one of the pioneers of the form, and you have helped many other people start their own blogs. How do you see the evolution of the blogging form in the near future, both regarding your own blog, science blogs, and blogging in general?

As I used to explain in our Bloggging 101 tutorials, blogging developed in some of the same ways as the early Internet, from What’s New pages to filtering lists to personal-perspective journals. After all these years, blogs can be any or all of these types of online writing.

Social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and Flickr and Instagram have given us tools to share short messages and photos and videos. It feels to me that blogs posts have lengthened (you’re the outlier, of course!), and are more essay like. Last fall, we held the Back to the Blog meeting at Duke University to discuss some of the trends in blogging, including minimal styling, responsive design and using social media to alert your networks to your new posts.

I’m still gung-ho about blogs. I still know more people who don’t have blogs than I know people who do blog. That’s a lot of people to recruit to the blogging life.

That includes scientists, of course. One of the early foundations of the ScienceOnline community was the colorful tapestry of science blog networks, and now in ScienceSeeker we have a fantastic tool for mining the rich daily output from science blogs. But even in my own institution, Duke University, there aren’t that many scientists actively blogging. You remember the keynote speaker at our first ScienceOnline conference back in 2007: Dr. Hunt Willard suggested it would have to be the postdocs and fellows who would need to be trained to use online tools. At Duke, Dr. Zubin Eapen and the cardiology fellows are a shining example of that; Dr. Matt Sparks is another. It’s going to be fun to see others take up online science just as avidly and successfully.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my own blog recently, both in terms of the design and my writing style. I started my blog in 2000 to honor my grandfathers and relatives, and to share my own life and work and travels. I think of my style as storyblogging, in which I start with a current happening, relate it to a story in my or my family’s past, and make an observation. After 13 years of writing, I’d begun to doubt whether I had anything else to record. And, yet, when I search my archives for an anecdote or reference I’m sure I’ve blogged before, I don’t find it. I’m only halfway across my river, so I guess I’ve got a lot more to share. But I also know that Narcissus sat along the water and reflected on himself to unhappy consequence, so I want to challenge myself to add other layers to my blogging, such as deeper exploration of one of my areas of interest. You’ve written much about niche blogging, so maybe I’ll finally develop a niche other than myself.

You have been involved, for a long time, in different nodes of the blogosphere: science blogs, medical blogs, technology blogs, food blogs, local North Carolina blogs — what have you learned from these different communities? What’s on your blogroll of blogs to read daily?

I’ve learned that no matter the subject or node, when interesting people are given the tools — pencil, press, microphone or weblog — to delve deeply into their interests and reflect their areas of specialty, we end up with an awesome deluge of information, insight and inquiry. Niche blogs are great for the ways they focus on a topic or industry, and I understand your argument for writing only about one’s area of expertise. But I’m also convinced that when a writer steps out of his or her niche to provide glimpses of other interests or fragments of experience, we learn more about the person. And knowing more about each other helps us relate to each other better. I believed that at the beginning of the BlogTogether experiment, and over the last seven years, the ScienceOnline community has simply astounded me with its respect and friendship and inclusiveness and camaraderie.

I’ve been reading Dave Winer for a decade, learning from him and using his new World Outline tools, and I cherished the chance to go for a bike ride with him last summer. Michael Ruhlman and Ilina Ewen and Dean McCord are my food and beverage inspirations. 33 Charts, by Dr. Bryan Vartabedian, is quite relevant to my medical communications job. I read design blogs, web technology blogs, blogs by business leaders and venture capitalists, and personal organization blogs. I use Reeder to scan RSS feeds, and I’m rebuilding my river here. On Sunday evenings, I iron my shirts for the week, listening to podcasts by The Monti, Story Collider, StoryCorps and Joel Dueck.

Family looms large in your life and in your writing. Your personal blog is essentially a chronicle of several generations of your family, with you as an acute observer and eloquent archivist. Tell me what family means to you. Are you hoping that your children will continue preserving the family’s stories?

When I was in the fifth grade in Idaho, my mother was my teacher. One day, her assignment to the class was to write a story about the first snowflake to fall in winter. Around that same time, my father would gather me and my brothers in the kitchen, where he used the bare white wall to show his Peace Corps slides. In the mailbox each week, we’d get typewritten letters from my grandfathers: Zuiker Chronicles, from Frank the Beachcomber, were travelogues and camporee reports, while the two-page ‘peek into grandpa’s diary’ detailed the daily routines of Grandpa Sisco. The narrative lives of my ancestors were a daily presence in my youth. I’m a writer because of them.

In middle school, one of my favorite authors was James Michener. I read Caravans and Space, and when I read The Source, I became enamored with archaeology. Years later, on a holiday break during college, I visited my father on the island of St. Thomas. He hooked me up with a friend working on a dig in the hills where construction for a mall had uncovered a pre-Columbian Arawak village. I spent just a day there as a volunteer, carefully brushing dirt and picking out charcoal from a fire pit. Even the tiniest of details of the past, I learned, are important for understanding human history.

The Zuiker Chronicles Online and The Coconut Wireless weblog at mistersugar.com – in many ways, these are my ways of sifting through the little details in the lives of me and my family, and trying to find meaning in the connections.

Erin, my wife, has taught me so much about communication, about being honest and open and always aware of circumstances and contributing factors. While she can gab on the phone for hours, I get twitchy after 60 seconds on the phone, so we make time each week to just sit and talk, and we make sure to listen to the other, looking for the small details about each other that we didn’t know or recall. When we started our family, Erin helped me understand the importance of communicating with our children, reviewing the days activities and reciting bedtime routines. That’s a concept — the small just, just ahead — that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately as I try to incorporate a river of news into my work and blogging.

My children lovingly joke about my blogging, and they know I’m trying to be a better storyteller. But what I hope they take with them into their adulthood is the appreciation that I was present in their lives, much as my father was present in mine, and his father and grandfather before. I hope they feel the connections to those who have come before. I hope they extend those connections into the future.

Even more than medicine and science, your writing revolves around community, storytelling and food. You have been a force in gathering and growing the local online (and offline) community around stories and food. Tell me more about some of the projects and events you organized over time, and what looms in the future?

My mother has no sense of smell or sense of taste. She made a delicious Crock-pot Swiss steak, and tasty chocolate chip cookies, but I didn’t really know what garlic was until I got to college. Our dinners weren’t gourmet, but I do remember them as family meals, all of us sitting down together (no books allowed).

Erin’s mother happens to be an amazing cook, and I quickly figured out that my culinary ignorance offered me a perfect way to hang out in the kitchen, learn how to cook, help out with the dishes, and generally show Erin’s parents that I was going to be a good companion for their daughter. It worked. Now, I love to cook for Erin and our children, and of course I chronicle our meals at home and out on my blog. Most Sundays, I roast a chicken according to the instructions of Michael Ruhlman, whom I’ve hosted three times for food blogging events. I enjoy the process of reading recipes, gathering ingredients and putting them together for something tasty, such as the slivovitz that we enjoyed last week. One lesson I learned: don’t make kimchee, with its fermented shrimp paste, when your wife is six months pregnant.

Good food, good wine, good friends, good conversation — I crave these, and The Long Table has been one way I try bring them all together. Our first dinner was quite fun, with a bunch of people standing up to tell their own food-related stories. With ScienceOnline in good hands, I hope to do more of these dinners in the next few years. I still want to organize a food blogging conference, and maybe someday we can do a conference on food-science blogging.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most? What platforms and what types of online activity have you found most useful, or most gratifying to use? What new platforms or method of online communication, if any, are you excited about?

Well, the intersection of story and science is what got me into medical journalism, and it’s what still drives me today. The ScienceOnline community is filled with great examples of science stories told well. I’m watching #scio13 and ScienceSeeker daily to keep up. And the blitz demonstration sessions at ScienceOnline2013 will surely introduce me to new platforms and approaches.

I mentioned my high school physics teacher above. He assigned our class to work in teams on an experiment. My buddies and I wanted to study the Doppler effect, so I borrowed a tape recorder from my Grandpa Sisco, and met Kevin and Craig on a quiet country road late one night. We drove our cars past each other at different speeds, Craig in his Camaro with horn blaring, me in my Catalina with the tape recorder on. Just now I had to look up Doppler on Wikipedia to refresh my knowledge, but that experience of learning together with friends never dissipated.

Collaboration, clearly, is key these days in science. At Duke, a lot of my communications plan aims to help our investigators connect with their faculty colleagues to explore new multidisciplinary and team-science collaborations. On the Web, I’m interested in exploring how we can build personal network publications, something beyond multi-author blogs and something that can feature contributions from those who aren’t already writing on the Web. Many of my friends and relatives still do not have blogs of their own, and I’m interested creating some sort of online publication with them. Marco Arment’s new app/pub, The Magazine, and the writing platform Medium are helping me think about the possibilities.

You’ve been at every ScienceOnline conference, of course. What’s most memorable of any or all of them? How do you hope ScienceOnline2013 is similar or different?

Actually, ScienceOnline2013 is going to be my first. Learn why in my blog post on The Coconut Wireless.

What I’ve most enjoyed about ScienceOnline is watching the interactions, seeing the passions, witnessing the partnerships. You and I started with a conversation in a cafe, and we’ve gained a friendship and a community. I sincerely hope that all who attend ScienceOnline2013 and the many other events to follow will similarly be better persons because they openly engaged in the conversation.

Please share three descriptive words you hope people would use when talking about you.

Passionate. Pleasant. Present.

The other kinds of expertise

If you read my old and new posts about the media, science journalism, etc., you know I come down strongly on the side of specialists and against generalists. But it is a caricature, a simplification I have to use to make my posts clearer, and to cut my posts down to a semi-manageable length 😉

Yes, people are hungry for information. They are asking to be educated, not served content. And education requires expertise.

If people were not hungry to be educated, and if there was no inherent trust in experts, there would be no interest in either editing or using Wikipedia, there would be no interest in TED talks, and there would be no interest in either producing or using MOOCs and other forms of online education. I am far from being the only one who sees an article in a newspaper and, before sharing the link anywhere, first double-checks it with an expert blogger. Which is why expert bloggers are so popular.

We used to read a newspaper, nodding along, assuming they got it all right, until we get to an article that covers a topic on which we actually know something, an article within the domain of our own expertise. Then we scream bloody murder: “Why can’t they ever cover X correctly, idiots!”. The assumption everyone had was that media covered everything well except the domain of our expertise.

The emergence of the Web, especially the expert blogs (and expert commenters), opened our eyes. We saw that every expert is complaining about (and skillfully dissecting) the coverage of their own area of expertise, leading to the conclusion that the traditional media covers everything poorly. We started losing trust in the media and consuming it less. The way media reacted to economic consequences of lost trust was to fire experts and hire generalists who were asked to cover seven different topics per day, not covering anything well. Audience asked for expertise and for education that could only be provided by specialists, yet the media responded by offering more and shorter articles all written by diluted generalists.

But these are extremes I needed to use in my past writing in order to make a point clearly and strongly. So, here is the missing piece, about varieties of expertise that exist between the two extremes of super-expertise of hyper-specialists and the super-diluted non-expertise of hyper-generalists.

Temporary Expertise

If you work for one of those media mills, expected to churn out several articles per day, good luck with that. The work will, inevitably, be shallow, superficial, formulaic and sprinkled with inaccuracies.

But if you have the luxury of having time to write something longer, perhaps a feature, or a series of articles or blog posts on the same topic, then you have time to become a temporary expert. You have time to read books and articles on the topic, to study, to interview many experts, to take a class, to go to a meeting or conference or a series of public lectures, to think about it, process it, digest it, internalize all of that knowledge. You have time to learn enough to be able to write a piece that is accurate.

Expanding into new Expertise

Every one of us is an expert on something, at least one thing, probably several things.

This also means that each one of us is completely non-expert on many other things.

One can argue that each one of us is the expert on our own personal experiences. And if one writes about that, this can certainly be wonderful, riveting reading. But it’s fiction, and entertainment, even if it hints at some bigger generalities about human condition. It is not expertise, and it does not educate or inform.

And then there are topics we all think we are experts on and like to pontificate about. For example: politics. But even there, there are people who know the arcane rules of the Senate, or details of how Electoral College works, or actually sit down and read through thousands of pages of the bill going through the House. Such people have a much more deserved reputation of being experts than the rest of us cheering for our side.

My personal rule: never write about topics I am not at least somewhat expert on. And if I write about politics, to make it clear it is personal opinion, colored by my own background – from comparing USA to ex-Yugoslavia, to having studied some psychology of voter behavior.

There is no money you can pay me to write about exoplanets (or baseball!!!). I find the topic fascinating, but I have zero background. It would take me months of intense, focused, time-consuming study to even reach the level of “temporary expert” (and several years to become a real expert). Thus, I’d run my draft of the article by real experts…who should have written the piece themselves anyway, right?

My narrowest expertise is in “role of gonadal steroid hormones in the development of individual, strain, age and sex differences in circadian and photoperiodic time-measurement in Japanese quail”. While doing my own research on this, I also read a lot and thought a lot about related topics. I know quite a lot about sex hormones, brain and behavior, about circadian rhythms, and about bird physiology and behavior. Even more broadly, I studied quite a lot about animal physiology, animal behavior, and evolution. I took several graduate courses in history and philosophy of science. I have written blog posts about biological clocks in non-bird organisms, from bacteria, protists, fungi and plants, to arthropods, mammals and even humans (although I systematically avoided the literature on humans throughout grad school). I have written blog posts about other aspects of bird behavior. I have written about evolution and ecology and hormones.

So, a few weeks ago, when a bunch of people started asking if NYC subway rats would drown or survive Sandy, I decided I had enough background to be able to extend my area of expertise to rats. This is not my area of expertise, but I knew enough to know where to look, how to evaluate information, and how to quickly get up to speed. So I wrote a blog post about it (and a follow-up) and ended up linked and quoted all over the media. I was a ‘temporary expert’ on rat behavior during floods, but this expertise was not isolated from my other expertise – it is tangential to it, quite closely related.

When I write about human clocks, that is expanding my expertise. When I write about sleep, that is expanding my expertise. Those are not the cores of my expertise, but they are related enough, close enough that I can figure it out pretty fast.

The worst situation is when one is not even aware that a topic requires expertise and pontificates anyway. Remember a few years ago when old-skool, curmudgeon journalists wrote op-eds making fun of blogs (and later Twitter), each one of them instantly revealing they have never actually seen a blog?

Or today’s example – this one – which appears totally ignorant of a decade of writing, studies, companies, software and other stuff related to Open Access publishing (and scientific publishing in general, and alternative methods of peer-review). How does one even start critiquing such a piece? Where does one start, when so much has happened in the decades since the last time those arguments may have appeared valid? With the definition of “publishing”? Or “what is publishing for?”. Or “at what point in the timeline of scientific process does publication fall (hint: not at the end)?” Or “when did pre-publication, publisher-driven peer-review become accepted (hint: around 1960 or so, before which science worked perfectly fine for a few centuries)?”

So, better to stick to one’s own expertise, and then slowly expand to neighboring topics. Don’t jump head first into a topic you know nothing about. People will know. And they will point and laugh.

Technical Expertise

There are many more ways to tell a story than just a block of text. There is art and illustration. There are comic strips and cartoons. There is data journalism and infographics. There are talk podcasts and non-talk sound files. There are photography and slide-shows. There are animations and videos. And there is interactive stuff – “move the sliders!” – where users can change inputs to see how it changes the output.

Just like long articles (and blog posts) have a much longer staying power than short ones, good multimedia packages also are treated differently by users, regarded as valuable resources, something to save, bookmark and share with friends.

People who make that stuff are not topical experts. They have other kinds of expertise. They have technical skills needed to make that. They may have heightened sense of visual aesthetics. A really good ear for rhythm and timing. They may be really good at math. And as this kind of work usually takes more time, they may become ‘temporary experts’ on the topic as well.

Just like we, as users, run to topical experts, our “Go To” people to learn about the topics that are in the news, so producers of media run to their own “Go To” people when they want to produce videos, or infographics, or multimedia packages.

Many people produce videos, but not all have the same appeal. There are many good cartoonists out there, but there is a reason why we all flock to XKCD, PhD Comics and The Oatmeal – they are really, really good. For data journalism, infographics and interactive stuff, some big old organizations are really good at that, e.g., The Guardian and The New York Times, but we also check out ProPublica which really specializes in that format and sets the standard for everyone else.

For a multimedia package to work both short-term and long-term, it has to be appealing, inviting, intuituve to explore, entertaining, informational, educational, beautifully and clearly written (the text parts of it), and 100% factually accurate. Thus such a package is usually done by a team, at least two people: a topical expert, and a multimedia expert. Both are experts, both are specialists, both are journalists, and both can become hot commodities in the media market.

Amazing Writing

Let’s go back to the wild days of those silly “bloggers vs. journalists” op-eds a few years ago. It is interesting how they all had the same pattern, using some of the same arguments.

“But who will report the news as it happens, from the scene?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples of bloggers who did exactly that.

“But who will do in-depth, investigative reporting?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples of bloggers who do that every week.

“But who will cover local town councils and school boards?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples of bloggers who are doing an amazing job with that.

“But who will speak truth to the power?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples of bloggers who did just that.

“But who will effect positive change, affect legislation, diplomatic efforts?” BOOM. Here are twenty examples when bloggers did exactly that.

“But the word Blog is funny!”

Eh? That’s an argument? Well, “nut graf” is funny, too. And so is “lede”. And “word limit” is a funny concept.

“B-b-b-but at least we can write! So there!”

To which the only appropriate response is a throaty laughter.

I don’t think you mean what we mean when you say “writing”….

Writing is not just the ability to compose grammatically correct sentences. Writing is not the ability to put together sentences really fast in order to turn in the copy on deadline. Writing is not the ability to follow the formula of the 500-word inverted pyramid news piece that is just like all such pieces everywhere, including all the tired old metaphors, topped by over-hyped headlines. Though all of those skills can be useful sometimes. And writing is not keeping readers’ attention because they cannot avert their eyes from the train-wreck of an op-ed you just wrote.

Writing is the ability to get the reader who finished your first sentence to decide to read your second sentence. And third. And then fourth. And all the way to the end. And then say “Wow, this was good, let me share with all my friends”. Topic, length, form, format – those do not matter. It can be a tweet, it can be a book. It can be about duck penises, it can be about cancer. A good writer writes riveting, beautiful prose. Not convoluted, Victorian-style prose, but clear, exciting prose imbued with one’s personality.

Writing is also the ability to write riveting, can’t-put-down prose without giving up one inch of factual accuracy.

People who write riveting prose but what they say is BS are not good writers, they are what I like to call ‘seductive’ writers. I already mentioned David Brooks last week as a good example of a ‘seductive’ writer.

The way he invented stuff out of thin air about neuroscience and psychology was much worse error by Jonah Lehrer, another ‘seductive’ writer, than any plagiarism, “self” or “non-self” (non-responsiveness to expert criticisms in comments was his #2 error, and complete lack of interest in being a part of the science blogging community from which he could have learned both neuroscience and ethics was his #3).

There is a reason why we all stop whatever we are doing and go read long new pieces by the likes of Deborah Blum, Steve Silberman or David Dobbs. They do beautiful writing, their writing is assuredly 100% factually accurate, it is always interesting, and we always learn something new.

What I am trying to say is that good writing is a form of expertise. Many can quickly put together a formulaic news piece. Relatively few are really good writers in the sense I am trying to convey here. Media organizations that want to be successful have to try to lure in and hire some of those good writers, no matter what their area of topical expertise, or how much they explore neighboring topics to extend their expertise, or how much they tend to hit new topics and become temporary experts on those (and how much time they need for this). Some topical experts are also good writers. Some technical experts are also good writers. Mix and match, combine the different types, give them freedom and incentives to collaborate with each other, and you can have an awesome newsroom.

Expertise: the next generation

You are probably aware that one of the things I most like to do is “scouting” for talent, discovering new, up-and-coming science writers, bloggers and journalists, giving them opportunities, mentoring them, promoting their work, helping them become visible and successful.

Several science writing programs in the USA are churning out small armies of such amazing new writers each year (unfortunately, most other US schools and all the rest of the world are yet to catch up).

Many of them have background in science, thus have real scientific expertise to draw from. Others have always been fascinated by a topic and explored it in great detail over the years. So they are topical experts, always working on expanding their expertise, but being careful not to jump into something they don’t know anything about.

Many of them are skillful with a variety of modern tools, can troubleshoot them, modify them, and generally get them to work the way they want. Many experiment with a variety of other, non-textual forms of communication. Many can code and thus make their own tools if needed. Thus many of them are also technical experts.

They tend to be sticklers for accuracy. They do triple fact-checks on every word, number, symbol and punctuation point before turning in the piece. This also makes them good temporary experts whenever the assignments calls for it.

And many of them are beautiful writers as well, keeping my attention all the way to the end.

So, the new generation seems to combine all kinds of expertise. And working with them is a pleasure. They are so…professional!

Working with one of them, e.g., for a Guest Blog post, is so easy! We do not exchange 500 emails, half of which are irrelevant, half of which are CCd to irrelevant other people, half of which contain bits and pieces of the assignment (and I am the one who needs to track the most recent versions and patch them all together?), half of which contain images in wrong formats I cannot use, etc. No, the usual exchange is about six emails:

Email #1: Hey Bora, here is my pitch.
Email #2: That sounds great. Do it. When do you think you can have it done?
Email #3: How about April 15th?
Email #4: Deal. April 15th at 12 noon EDT it is.
Email #5 (on April 15th at noon): Here it is (attached), let me know if you want any changes.
Email #6: Perfect. Published. Thank you so much. The URL is: http…. ”

What I get is perfectly formatted text (not for Word, for WordPress), perfectly sized images with links and credits, author bios, and perfect embed codes that render multimedia exactly the way they should look. Publish-ready.

I sit down ready to edit and realize, fifteen minutes later, that I have come to the end without having to make a single change, not even to fix any typos as there were none. And I really enjoyed reading it. And that is not easy – I am a jaded, old blogger with ADHD, so keeping my attention all the way to the end is hard, and making me enjoy it even harder.

Yet these new generations keep doing this to me! Over and over again (sure, some of the veterans are also extremely good, but there the experience varies). Just the latest example – this post was due at 1:00pm. I received it (including images, embed code, etc) at 1:00pm. It was published at 1:16pm. It came in perfect. All I needed to do was read, copy, paste and click “Publish”, then spend a couple of minutes promoting it on social media and my work for the day was done. Easy. How nice for me. More time for me to read something else, or write a post of my own. Or take a long weekend.

They are really good, which makes me hopeful for the future. Now go ahead and hire them (you can find many of them in the archives here)! If you don’t, they’ll start their own media empires and vanquish the competition that still hires generalists 😉

Related:

Nate Silver and the Ascendance of Expertise
Beats vs obsessions, columns vs. blogs, and other angels dancing on pins
#sci4hels – ‘Killer’ science journalists of the future ready to take over the world!
The SA Incubator, or, why promote young science writers?
Science Blogs – definition, and a history
#scio12: Multitudes of Sciences, Multitudes of Journalisms, and the Disappearance of the Quote.
Blogs: face the conversation
Is education what journalists do?
Telling science stories…wait, what’s a “story”?
The line between science and journalism is getting blurry….again

Nate Silver and the Ascendance of Expertise

Nate Silver is now a meme (also source of the image on the left).

I usually pepper my posts with links, but today I feel lazy, so I listed a bunch of links at the bottom – hours of fascinating reading you can have after you read my post!

Who is Nate Silver?

Nate Silver likes to play with numbers. He started out with sports, then burritos, then politics. He, using statistics, correctly predicted most (not all, but almost all) presidential and congressional races in 2008, 2010 and 2012. Back in 2010, he came to ScienceOnline and moderated a session (together with Arikia Millikan) on using math to study human behavior online – the Web Science.

What does Nate Silver do?

Twenty years ago, there were only a few pollsters out there and they did relatively few polls. Today, there are many polling organizations and they, especially in the home stretch of an election, poll incessantly, every day. They do national polls, state-wide polls, even local polls. Over the years, they refine their methodology. Some predict outcomes better than others, for a variety of reasons.

Nate Silver averages all the polls, weights each poll according to the statistics of past performances, and produces a daily-changing set of numbers predicting outcomes of various electoral races. For the Presidental elections, unlike pundits focusing on national polls, he rightly focuses on state polls, especially in swing states, in order to predict the winner of the Electoral College – the only thing that really counts (we can discuss if that is right or wrong, but that is how the game is played now, so that it what he measures).

What did Nate Silver not do?

As a couple of bloggers (see links at the bottom) pointed out, Nate Silver did not do Big Data. These are pretty small and limited data-sets he has at his disposal. In aggregate, they are powerfully predictive, but that is not Big Data, though the motivations and methodologies are similar.

As Silver started in sports statistics, being a part of the Moneyball movement in baseball, people assume that what he is doing now is the same thing. But it is not. It is also not the same as what he did with burritos, though that comes closer.

In baseball (and later in basketball, though horse racing and betting industry has been doing this for a century at least), there are hard data. Player hit the ball or did not. Caught the ball or did not. The ball ended in a spot X or did not. It was a home-run or it wasn’t. Empirical data. Are two players good buddies or not does not matter that much at that level – they are both professionals and will do their best regardless of interpersonal relationships, body language and other subjective parameters. Thus, stats in sports work well, as they are based on clearly measurable things. From such stats, one can rank players and teams, and predict with quite a high degree of accuraccy which teams will win and which will lose. Or which horses have which odds for winning a race.

So again, What did Nate Silver do?

People focus on numbers, imagining they are hard data. But remember that the numbers come from polls. Polls are questionnaires. What Nate Silver did was social science.

Polls ask questions. People answer them differently. They may have conscious or unconscious biases. They will have different backgrounds and different levels of being informed. Some will lie on purpose, to skew the polls, as part of their activism. Some will lie unconsciously because they are afraid to tell what they really think. People respond differently if they are polled over their land-line phones (public) and differently if called on their cell-phones (private), and differently in online polls versus being asked in person, face to face (e.g., in exit polls). Some people put a lot of thought into their answers. Others want to do it as fast as possible and go with gut feeling, or even almost-random responses.

Different pollsters will ask similar questions, but with slightly different wording. And we know that wording affects the responses. The order of questions also affects responses.

Each pollster can only reach a limited number of people, so the small sample size results in a pretty large error.

But when Nate (and others) averages the polls, he increases the sample size, thus reducing the error. When he takes into account the past accuracy of pollsters and weights them accordingly, he further reduces the error. People who lie in opposite directions cancel each other. Pollsters who are biased in opposite directions cancel each other. A well-balanced, weighted average can take care of all of that, and produce a much more accurate prediction.

But importantly, it is still not numbers from physical measurements. It is statistics (and yes, Statistics is a sub-discipline of Mathematics) applied to messy human minds and brains and emotions and moods.

It’s people!

Why Nate Silver now?

A lot of it has to do with the current political climate. I wrote my thoughts about it on my Tumblr as I did not think it was appropriate to post it here, but go take a look.

In short, it is a backlash to alternative reality, alternative facts, alternative science, alternative math. It is a backlash to the self-perpetuating cycles of mutual lying between rightwing media, rightwing politicians, rightwing donors and rightwing voters, each preventing the others from straying one millimeter away from this alternative fantasy world. It is a backlash against anti-empiricism, anti-science, anti-facts, head-in-the-sand, “we make reality now” mindset. Practical solutions require dealing with the world as it is, not the world one imagines to be or wants it to be.

And when postmodernism in public life reaches a point of saturation, and when people have had enough of it, and when there is a backlash, people will go for as extreme opposite as they can find. In this case: math. Numbers. Hard, cold numbers. Unbiased analysis. No “gut feelings”. Which is why they go for Nate. Which is why they tend to ignore that Silver’s numbers are people.

Why Nate Silver and not other numbers guys?

Because Nate is a blogger. Really. Others put data out there as well (see links at the bottom). Nice graphs and charts and tables. Great numbers, essentially the same as Nate’s. But they don’t tell a story about the data. He does. He’s been doing it for years. He has regular readership. He has a recognizable voice. He has earned trust not just by the strength of his predictions, but also by the strength of his writing, his personality that shines in his blog posts, his transparency about his thinking and about his methodology.

People focus on Nate and trust Nate because he is an expert, but more importantly because he is an expert who can tell the story. An expert who can explain stuff in ways that people understand. He narrates his work and his numbers.

Why Nate Silver’s blog?

A number of people, some unhappy that other number-crunchers did not reach Nate’s fame (or rightwing wreath), explain his prominence by the fact that his blog is hosted by New York Times (see links at the bottom). Even the NYTimes public editor suggested that his fame is due to the association with the NYTimes brand.

This is upside down. And she got instant and strong backlash. It is Nate who is the brand. NYTimes profits more from having Nate on their site (the traffic to his blog just before and during the election day dwarfed all the traffic to everything else on their site) than he does from being associated with them. He is strengthening their brand, by being an expert on site, rather than the other way round.

NYTimes reported on Nate’s traffic in a pretty vague way – number of site visits that included visits to Nate Silver’s blog. But we know that very few people go to sites via homepages. Older people and people within the news business may still have that habit. But most people do not. I bet that at least 90% (and more likely 99.99%) of the traffic to Silver’s blog on the election day did not come from the NYTimes homepage, or any other page on the site. It came from direct links, social media, “dark social”, emails, bookmarks, RSS feed readers, searches, etc.

Nate Silver and the Ascendance of Expertise

What New York Times does smartly, to enhance its brand, is to hire people with real expertise, people like Nate Silver (and Paul Krugman etc.) and give them a prominent spot on the site (and even sometimes in the paper version). Washington Post does the same with Ezra Klein. Many media outlets, including the one you are on right now, have set up blogging networks specifically in order to attract and host writers with real expertise.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago:

Landing on the New York Times page after you followed a link tells you something about it, to a certain extent. You still have to figure out if you trust the article you are about to read. Your expectations are higher than if it was Daily Mail, but you are still on guard. How do you decide in advance? By the name in the byline. If it is Maureen Dowd, you expect entertainment, but not much depth. If it’s David Brooks, you expect seductively beautiful writing that is based on pseudo-sociology he picked out of thin air to conform to his ideology. But if it’s Paul Krugman, you know you will get a better understanding of some aspect of economics because the guy knows his stuff – he is an expert.

And you know exactly what you’ll get if you see the byline of Nate Silver.

Expertise engenders trust. When I write about biology, my readers trust me as I am an expert. When I write about media, people trust me a little bit less because my expertise in this came later, was not “official” (i.e., no graduate school degrees), and is mostly based on my own impressions and experience, though my track record so far has been pretty good. When I write about politics…why would anyone trust me? Everyone has a political opinion, right?

What is important to note is that there is hunger out there for expertise. I started as a political blogger. Back in 2003/2004 there was a bunch of us starting political blogging. We each tried to add a particular angle, or bring in our other expertise (I focused on psychology of ideology, a nascent field now called ‘political psychology’), but mainly we pontificated about politics and performed acts of media criticism and of political activism. After the 2004 election, many of us specialized. Ezra Klein focused on health care and became a “Go To” person for it, resulting in his hire by the Washington Post. Many others did something like that and got hired as campaign managers, or writers, or consultants, etc.

I focused on science and ended up at Scientific American. In January 2005 I started a science blog, separate from my political blog. And instantly, with my very first post, the new blog reached the same traffic levels as the old blog. There were comments, questions. In science, I was an expert, and people trusted me and were hungry for information.

I said and wrote this many times, but long posts that do not shy away from nitty-gritty details (including numbers, formulae, technical terms if explained first, even Latin names for animals – see super-successful Tetrapod Zoology blog right here on the network) do extremely well. They may not get an instand surge of low-quality traffic from Slashdot, Digg, Reddit, Stumbleupon or Fark, but they accrue tons of traffic over time. Such pieces are not seen as entertainment, but as resources – something to be saved, bookmarked and shared with friends. Such pieces keep getting re-discovered and re-shared for years after initial publication. They provide value that a one-hit wonder, entertaining piece does not. They provide value that standard, short, news pieces do not – they provide context and detail and quality of explanation that comes from expertise, something that a 400-word piece cannot possibly contain, as there is not enough space for it. Longform writing works.

What is expertise?

How does one become an expert?

There are two ways. There is the 20th century method (yes, 20th century is an outlier on everything), in which one does hands-on research on a very narrow project while, hopefully, reading a little bit more broadly, resulting in an official badge of expertise – an MS or PhD or MD or some such degree.

And then there is the historically traditional method that is making a big come-back now – having a deep interest in the topic and doing it yourself, reading, discussing with others, doing own research, blogging about it, writing and reporting on it for years, establishing oneself as an expert on the topic. This is how the most respected journalists became most respected – by becoming the Go To experts on a particular topic.

The generalists and pundits – or, if you want, foxes as opposed to hedgehogs – are the reason why the audience is losing trust in the traditional media. They have seen expertise, and they are not going back.

There is something importantly different about l’affaire Silver, though. Most of the cases in the past were impressionistic. We used our own ‘gut feelings’ to say that a particular blog post by an expert X was better than a traditional news article by a journalist Y. But now we can back up our gut feelings with numbers. This case is empirical. Expert blogger Nate Silver was correct, while pundits and traditional bloviators were not…and here are the numbers.

How does expertise fit inside the new media ecosystem?

It is easy here at Scientific American. We are an expert publication almost by definition. When news breaks, and there is a science component to it, others come to our site to get the reliable scoop on it. Generalist news organizations link to our articles on the scientific aspects of news stories. All our editors are experts on the topics they write about (and some even have the 20th century badges of expertise, i.e., PhDs and such). And then we have the blog network, where we have about 50 additional experts in other fields.

Being on, or regularly reading, Scienceblogs.com over several years, where science bloggers were treated as ‘media’, taught us a lot. We learned from one another, learned from our own mistakes, and learned by analyzing mistakes of traditional media. We encountered and studied the traditional journalistic ethics and best practices and incorporated the best of it into our blogging. The Pepsigate scandal was a particularly useful teaching moment for all of us. We became better writers, better journalists, and better bloggers. The distinctions between these blurred.

But we remained experts in our domains. And we resisted some of the traditional media trappings. Being Web natives, we vehemently resist the alien concept of “word count”. No blogger I know ever counts words in their posts (if they do, they are too ashamed to say it publicly). The post is done when it’s done, when all the historical, philosophical, social and methodological context is included, all details hashed out, all conclusions finalized. And we know that #longform works best. And we resist detached “objectivity”. We know we gain rapport and trust with our readers if we insert ourselves into our stories, explain what is the personal connection, where does our expertise on the topic come from, what are our potential biases on the topic, why are we particularly excited about this topic and decided to write about that and not about something else.

As I said yesterday, the traditional and new forms are fusing, learning from each other, getting better as a result, and we are all better off because of it. The line between blogs and columns, and between beats and obsessions is getting fuzzy, and that’s a good thing. Many traditional journalists are now also blogging, experimenting with forms and formats, and then transferring those into their more traditional writing.

This is why forward-looking media organizations are hiring experts. And why the pundits and bloviators, once their contracts expire or they retire, will gradually disappear from the media ecosystem (this will take many years, especially on TV which is the most resistant to change). This is why journalism schools are training experts. This is why media organizations are hiring bloggers. And then some of those bloggers get desks in the office, salaries equal to staff, benefits, etc. One day, that will be the norm. Let’s hope.

Links:

Nate Silver: the verdict.
Under Attack, Nate Silver Picks the Wrong Defense
The Times’s Washington Bureau Chief, and Legions of Others, in Defense of Nate Silver
New York Times wants to hold Nate Silver to newsroom standards
Sorry, Margaret, You Need to Get Out More
Your Employee Is an Online Celebrity. Now What Do You Do?
Nate Silver probability map vs. Actual map
Three Lessons From The Nate Silver Controversy
Here’s What the New York Times’ Nate Silver Traffic Boom Looks Like
In defense of Nate Silver: Pundits bare their misunderstanding.
‘How Can That Be?’ More on the ‘They Can’t Both Be Right’ Saga
Wrath of the Math: Obama Wins Nerdiest Election Ever
Silver Medal
In Defense of Nate Silver, Election Pollsters, and Statistical Predictions
The Nate Silver backlash
Data, uncertainty, and specialization: What journalism can learn from FiveThirtyEight’s election coverage
Nate Silver gets a big boost from the election
Why Math is Like the Honey Badger: Nate Silver Ascendant
Nate Silver of 538.com and his critics in the press corps. Get your literacy up.
Nate Silver’s Braying Idiot Detractors Show That Being Ignorant About Politics Is Like Being Ignorant About Sports
In defense of Nate Silver — and basic math
Today’s War on Nate SIlver: Quiet Flows the Don Edition
The Passion of Nate Silver (Sort Of)
Pundits versus probabilities
What’s FiveThirtyEight Good For?: The Inevitable Nate Silver Backlash
How did Nate Silver Get the Election Odds so Wrong?
Math and Discipline — Why Nate Silver’s Accuracy Isn’t About “Big Data”
Nate Silver the Real Winner of Election 2012
How did Nate Silver predict the US election?
Among the top election quants, Nate Silver reigns supreme
Drew Linzer: The stats man who predicted Obama’s win
Was Nate Silver the Most Accurate 2012 Election Pundit?
Climate science is Nate Silver and U.S. politics is Karl Rove
Debunking Two Nate Silver Myths
Whatever Nate Silver Does, Isn’t Science
How a nerd named Nate Silver changed political reporting forever.
Nate Silver: Why I Started FiveThirtyEight
Pundit Forecasts All Wrong, Silver Perfectly Right. Is Punditry Dead?
Can Nate Silver’s example save political journalism?
Gallup is very upset at Nate Silver
Nate Silver on the Election, Pundits, and His Drunk Alter Ego
Foxy Nate Silver and why old-media hedgehogs could soon be old news

Beats vs obsessions, columns vs. blogs, and other angels dancing on pins

It seems we like dichotomies when discussing changes in the media. We pick two words, and then fight over them.

I have no intention to revisit the stale old debate about journalists vs. bloggers, as it was silly to begin with, and was resolved back in 2005, oh wait, in 2008, or was it in 2009, or, oh, OK, in 2010…ah, well.

That old debate was just un-serious. People who used to write anti-blog screeds did a dereliction of journalistic duty, writing pieces about phenomena they knew nothing about, and did not bother to get informed and educated about. All the scorn that was heaped upon them at the time was fully deserved.

I am more interested in some more recent discussions, where two words are compared by people who put some thought into it and wrote interesting pieces about it, not just knee-jerk emotional reactions. Perhaps there is nothing to it, in the end, but I’d like to know at least WHY is it so important to so many people in the media to have these discussions in the first place.

Beats vs obsessions

Recent launch of Quartz, an innovative online magazine, incited a round of articles and blog posts discussing the distinction between traditional media ‘beats’ and the new concept, inaugurated by Quartz, of ‘obsessions’.

The distinction is fuzzy, to say the least, and not everyone can figure out the difference yet. The ‘obsessions’ are just another effort at replacing ‘beats’, now seen as an archaic concept originating in the necessities of internal organization of media outlets printing on paper.

I guess the main difference people are noting is that obsessions are narrower – in scope of the topic, or (geographic) space, or in time. A crime beat is a broad category. Obsessively following every detail of a particular crime for a while until it’s solved (or there is nothing more to say), is an obsession. Once the story is over, obsession is closed, and the reporter moves to a new topic.

But another way the difference is explained is that an obsession is actually broader, not narrower, by being multidisciplinary. Instead of looking at many stories from one angle, it focuses on a single story from many angles. This may be a way to solve some Wicked Problems. So, looking at the Big Picture of crime, e.g., causes of crime and what measures potentially reduce crime in various parts of the globe, cultures, past eras, etc, from every angle possible, is also an obsession.

Finally, the third difference I saw in these articles, is the question of institutional organization. A beat is organized to cover a particular institution. Crime beat is coverage of cops and courts and prisons, not sociological causes of crime, or lives of criminals. You don’t cover war, you cover the military. You don’t cover policy, you cover Congress. You don’t cover education, you cover schools and school boards. You don’t cover health and medicine, you cover hospitals.

You learn the jargon, you learn their rules and laws, you learn who’s’who in that institution, and you make nice with your sources in institutions you cover. An obsession breaks out of those boundaries and covers a phenomenon or topic or theme from a perspective of people interested in that topic, different angles your audience brings to it. You need to be much more responsive, do more listening and less preaching. Notice how SciAm categories are not disciplinary (e.g., Astronomy, Physics, Chemistry, Biology…), but broader themes as people are interested in them (Evolution, Space, Energy & Environment, Mind & Brain, Technology…).

Columnists vs. bloggers

At about the same time, another distinction arose, that between columnists and bloggers (see the Storify of tweets of this discussion as well).

Here, the distinction IS essentially zero.

But let’s not confuse IS with OUGHT.

Obviously some people see a difference and are trying to put their finger on where exactly it is. Is column edited, blog not? Mostly yes, but there are edited blogs and un-edited columns.

Are blogs online, columns on paper? Everything is online these days (and everything can and sometimes is re-purposed for the print edition as well, or vice versa in old-skool organizations that are not digital-first yet but are still somehow surviving).

Columns have word-limits, blogs don’t (thus blog posts tend to be longer than columns)? Online, there is no need for word-limits no matter what the format.

Columns are paid, blogs are not? Ask all the professional bloggers about it, heh, though this may still somewhat persist quantitatively rather than qualitatively, with columnists being paid at a higher rate than bloggers for purely historically contingent reasons, not tied to quantity or quality of writing. There is also a balance of control in play, i.e., more you pay someone, more editorial control you can exert over that person’s work, but can reciprocate by giving the dignified title of “columnist”.

This blog network has three bloggers who consider themselves to be columnists. They started out as columnists in traditional media, and feel insecure without the safety net of copy-editors. Those three bloggers’ posts do get copy-edited (and if necessary edited, though not by me – I only edit Guest Blog and Expeditions with its outside authors). Other bloggers know they can use our copy-editing services, but it never occurs to them to ask – they are used to doing everything themselves without a safety net. I did the kindest, gentlest arm-twisting to persuade the three columnists to use the word “blogger” when they refer to themselves, for a number of reasons. First, everyone is equal, and I do not want to have perceptions that some people are more equal than others. If you use blogging software, you are a blogger. But more importantly, the word “blogger” gives you more freedom. Let me explain…

Column is an old term, and we all have a pretty good idea what it is, what to expect when we read one. There are traditions in length, form, format, language, tone, style, etc. Those traditions are now overly restrictive. On the other hand, word ‘blog’ is new and still being defined. It is about regular posting online, with experimentation being an important aspect of it – all kinds of lengths, forms, voices, styles etc can be used and nobody will find it unusual if the site is called a “blog”. Photoblogs, podcasts, videoblogs, are just as unsurprising as purely textual ones. Humor, funny photoshops, or profanity are just as “normal” on blogs as are long treatises, deep expertise and long lists of references. Heck, just look around our network: huge diversity of styles and forms, even though you can argue that the range of “acceptable” is narrower here than in the blogosphere as a whole.

Emotional effect of words

A few days ago, I discussed the distinction between beats and obsessions with a veteran journalist who’s been doing this for decades. We discovered that we have very different, essentially opposite, emotional reactions to those two words.

For him, the word ‘beat’ denotes something regular, steady, reliable and predictable, like a beat of a metronome, or heartbeat. Something that is comfortable and comforting. On the other hand, ‘obsession’ seemed dangerous to him, unpredictable, almost pathological. Obsessed people are not reliable, one never knows what crazy thing they will do next.

For me, the word ‘beat’ has a negative connotation. It is something aggressive, implying violence, as in ‘beating the dead horse’, or self-satisfactory, as in ‘beating off’. On the other hand, for me ‘obsession’ is a sister-word to ‘passion’. Without obsession, work is not worth doing. Without obsession, love is not worth loving. Without obsession, or passion, nobody will do anything risky and innovative, which is what we need in times of disruption of the entire system. During ten years in research, I was obsessed with it, thinking, dreaming, doing and breathing my science 24/7. I am just as obsessed with science communication, building the new media ecosystem, and discovering/promoting new writing talent now.

I was stunned by this difference in our reactions. Perhaps this is because English is second language to me, so my impressions of the words are colored by the context in which I first encountered them years ago when I was learning English? Or is it due to our temperamental (or even age) differences, me being always anti-authoritarian and kinda revolutionary, always proselytizing the new thing, the new order? Am I the one being crazy here?

So (and thanks to K.R. for giving me this idea in the first place), I checked the original etymologies of the two words. Apparently, we are both half-right. Both words are aggressive. The etymology of ‘beat’ indeed has something to do with physical violence. But etymology of ‘obsession’ is just as bad – implying near-possession by demons! But words evolve…

As someone who entered the media horizontally (from science to blogging to newsroom) as opposed to vertically (through j-school, or starting in the mailroom and working my way up), I am not emotionally wed to terms like ‘beat’, or ‘column’. For me, they have the patina of the old days of constraining tradition, not the comfort of ‘good old days’ I don’t remember (or don’t remember as “good”).

On the other hand, whenever one encounters a new word (or a word new to the person), it always looks strange. One way to deal with strangeness is to find it funny and laugh. This was the commonly voiced reaction by curmudgeon journalists to the new words like ‘blog’ and ‘twitter’. If they find the word funny, then the phenomena those words denote are not worth studying or taking seriously, but are perfectly OK to make fun of in public. They thought they were savvy, but they quickly discovered they looked stupid, in public. They fell for their own emotional reactions.

Oh, did I mention I hate the word “verticals”? How uni-dimensional (and hierarchical) for a network that is the Web!

Other subtle effects of words

There is another subtle difference in the way I subconsciously (well, consciously as of today) respond to the words “beat” and “obsession”.

Beat is repeated action. Obsession is a continuous action.

Oh, wait! Column writing is a repeated action. Blogging is a continuous action.

Or rather, beat (and column) is a repeated action, it’s work. Obsession and blogging are constant emotions that spur one into action all the time, out of love.

This is something related to a theme I often talk about (and write about, e.g,. here and here).

Blogging, unlike writing a column (or writing news pieces, or features, etc.), rarely produces stand-alone pieces that can be read in a vacuum. Blogging at its best is a series of posts, each building on what was previously written, and each connected to what other people have written (or what one has written elsewhere).

I have a beat here at my blog. Animal physiology and behavior, especially in respect to time (daily and seasonal rhythms), and especially when studied out in the field, within ecological and evolutionary contexts. Most of my blog posts on those topics are more or less stand-alone pieces. They link to scientific papers, or media coverage, but rarely link to my older posts.

I also have an obsession – studying the way the media ecosystem is changing. My blog posts on this topic are all connected. Which is why, just like the one you are reading right now, my posts on this obsession are chock-full of links, both to my older posts (so you can see where I am coming from, how my thinking evolved, etc) and to other people’s writing (to see the context within which I am thinking, who are the other people who are influencing me, etc).

A number of our other editors also do both. They produce perfectly traditional self-contained news pieces for the Observations blog (and elsewhere on the site, or in the print magazine), and fantastically gripping, innovative and experimental blog posts on their own personal blogs here (see their blogs on the pull-down menu above: Brainwaves, Streams of Consciousness, Talking Back, Octopus Chronicles, Budding Scientist, Critical Opalescence, Degrees of Freedom).

Our network bloggers are all over the spectrum here – most have some topics that are beats, some topics that are obsessions. For example, John Platt has a beat – endangered species (though he does obsess about a couple of species he writes about over and over again). Cassie Rodenberg has an obsession – addiction, from every possible angle: chemical, medical, societal, historical, ethical, legal, political, psychological, journalistic, artistic, and even personal. One can read most of Platt’s posts in isolation. One has to read many of Rodenberg’s posts before becoming acquainted with her enough to be able to, for example, post an appropriate comment.

So, most of us here on the network are sometimes columnists, sometimes bloggers, sometimes just wonderful storytellers, and sometimes something in-between. And that is probably the best. It is up to readers to recognize where they have just landed after following a link to a blog post. Is it a traditional piece that stands alone? Or is it a post that is one of many in a series, and digging through the archives and following for a few weeks or months are needed to really start understanding what is going on – at which point you will be richly rewarded because you have discovered a person with unique expertise and unique voice?

And this brings us to the next pair of words journos love to discuss: generalists vs. specialists.

Generalists vs. specialists

The Web has allowed many angles, many points of view, and yes, many truths to be available to everyone. Some of those angles and truths are more legitimate than others, but who’s the referee any more? It used to be the gatekeepers of the traditional media, but with so many voices out there now, and the trust in traditional media at a historic low, the MSM is not a referee of truth any more. It cannot do that as an institution, but it can regain some of it by hiring people who are referees of truth by virtue of having the relevant expertise.

Landing on the New York Times page after you followed a link tells you something about it, to a certain extent. You still have to figure out if you trust the article you are about to read. Your expectations are higher than if it was Daily Mail, but you are still on guard. How do you decide in advance? By the name in the byline. If it is Maureen Dowd, you expect entertainment, but not much depth. If it’s David Brooks, you expect seductively beautiful writing that is based on pseudo-sociology he picked out of thin air to conform to his ideology. But if it’s Paul Krugman, you know you will get a better understanding of some aspect of economics because the guy knows his stuff – he is an expert.

Every expert will have naysayers. There is always some fringe group that for emotional, political or financial reasons has an interest in promoting an alternative, illegitimate “truth” (see: global warming denialists, creationists, anti-vaxxers, anti-GMOs, animal rightists, etc). But for most people, expertise matters. Most people rightfully believe what Krugman says about economics. I hope people believe me when I write something about circadian rhythms. Expertise counts.

Expertise does not require a PhD in the topic. There are several bloggers on this science blogs network that came originally from English degrees, or journalism. But they developed obsessions for some areas of science, and over the years they became experts. And you know they are experts because they keep writing about it over and over again, they back up their claims with copious links to trustworthy sources, and they get general agreement from other experts in the same field in the comments or in responses on their own blogs. Over time, they earned respect and reputation for being experts on the topics they usually write about (and nothing wrong with occasionally using the blog to test new ideas in a new field, as a learning tool, perhaps as a test for moving from the old obsession to a new one).

A generalist who covers a different topic each time will never become known for expertise in any group of readers passionate about any of those topics. The articles and posts may be OK, but they will never be as inspiring or awesome as articles written by experts. A generalist may gain reputation among editors as a reliable freelancer who does good work, meets deadlines, is easy to work with and does not require too much time and effort to edit. But that reputation is inside baseball, it does not turn the writer into a personal brand, but one dependent on (usually declining, and often disappearing) institutional brands. In the world of “Friends in Low Places“, that is probably not the best strategy.

Thus, it is not surprising that j-schools are now trying to train experts, though that may be misguidedly turned into training computer programmers instead of journalists. Furthermore, some places are now taking existing experts and turning them into journalists.

When an expert keeps writing, that is more likely to be an obsession than a beat. It is more likely to look like a blog than a column. It will be continuous, rather than repeatable. It will be a constantly developing corpus of work, rather than a collection of unrelated articles. It will be an opportunity to gain regular audience and to build reputation, respect and a personal brand that is easy to move from one institution to another (or to freelancing). A person with a brand is attractive to hire by media organizations that understand that their institutional brand depends on the quality and reputation of the expert writers they hired – as bloggers, treated and paid as if they were columnists of yore.

“Bloggers vs. journalists” really makes no sense any more, does it?

ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Maryn McKenna

Every year I ask some of the attendees of the ScienceOnline conferences to tell me (and my readers) more about themselves, their careers, current projects and their views on the use of the Web in science, science education or science communication. So now we continue with the participants of ScienceOnline2012. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today my guest is Maryn McKenna (blog, Twitter).

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your background? Any scientific education?

I’m a journalist working in several different channels: I blog (for Wired), write medium-length pieces (as a columnist for Scientific American), write long-form pieces (for a variety of magazines) and write books: so far, Superbug, about antibiotic resistance, and Beating Back the Devil, about the CDC’s disease detectives.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

I fell into science-writing sideways — in my case, through studying theatre, becoming a dramaturg, realizing I was about to starve, going to journalism school and coming out as a finance reporter. My first newspaper job involved doing analyses of sleazy savings and loan deals. That made me into an investigative reporter, and my next two newspaper jobs involved investigations into public health issues: in Cincinnati, cancer clusters near a closed nuclear-weapons plant, and in Boston, the earliest cases of Gulf War Syndrome. On the basis of those I ended up working in Atlanta as the only reporter assigned to full-time coverage of the CDC, which basically meant wheedling my way into (many) outbreak investigations.

This is a good place to answer the education question. I didn’t study science as an undergraduate; I studied science writing for my masters’. But once it was clear I was going to be a public health reporter, I used journalism fellowships to do post-graduate work, including a year at University of Michigan studying the social history of epidemics and a year with the Kaiser Family Foundation studying emergency rooms.

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

I am in the proposal stage for a book that will look at the intertwined histories of antibiotic development and modern agriculture. My goal is to figure out how to free up enough time from the rest of my life to work on it!

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

I’m fascinated by how communities self-assemble on Twitter, and I’m increasingly interested in how social media can be used to support public health, for instance through crowd-sourced surveillance.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, Google Plus and Facebook? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

Blogging (first at Blogger starting in 2007, then Scienceblogs, then Wired) has been essential to my re-invention: from a newspaper reporter to a freelance journalist, and from writing only about public and global health to venturing into food policy as well. Blogging gave me a publication space, gave me an identity, gave me an audience and community. My professional life now could not exist without it. In addition, I’m on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, LinkedIn, Flickr, Pinterest and some semi-closed networks such as GoodReads, and I feel as though all of those support and extend what I (try to) do. Twitter in particular is essential to me — not just for community but also for identifying and researching stories.

When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any cool science blogs by the participants at the Conference?

I think I “discovered” science blogs around the time I stumbled into blogging myself, and I don’t think I could say at this point who first caught my eye. “Favorites” is a very hard question to answer, both because I read so many — my RSS reader has, literally, hundreds of subscriptions in it — and also because I fear to accidentally leave out people whose work I really do like. But if I only have time to read a few, I will always go first to my Wired colleagues and friends Deborah Blum and David Dobbs; to Ed Yong, of course; to Tara Smith for her insights and Mike the Mad Biologist for his outrage; and to Maggie Koerth-Baker not just for her choices but for her pitch-perfect voice. For deep dives in diseases I love Contagions, Body Horrors and the mysterious Puff the Mutant Dragon. And for knowing what’s up on the food-policy side of my life I rely on Mark Bittman at the New York Times, Tom Philpott at Mother Jones and Helena Bottemiller at Food Safety News.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2012 for you? Any suggestions for next year? 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?

For me it’s the face-to-face meetings above all. Writing is a lonely business, especially for freelancers, and most especially for people like me who live in parts of the country where there are not dense artistic cultures. (I live mostly in Atlanta: great for public health, not great for random creative interaction.) To have so many people rejoicing in each others’ obsessions is fantastic. Even more, though, I love ScienceOnline because it brings me gently face-to-face with my unknown unknowns; that is, the conference and community introduce me every year to so many people who know more about my subjects than I do. I always come away not only with fresh ideas but also with the knowledge that I have met people whom I can trust to educate me, with enthusiasm and without judgment, when I need them.

ScienceOnline2012 – interview with David Ng

Every year I ask some of the attendees of the ScienceOnline conferences to tell me (and my readers) more about themselves, their careers, current projects and their views on the use of the Web in science, science education or science communication. So now we continue with the participants of ScienceOnline2012. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today my guest is David Ng (blog, The Science Creative Quarterly, Twitter).

Hi Dave, and welcome to A Blog Around The Clock!

Hi Bora, thanks for having me. You know, I just read your about section and I totally forgot that you are a chronobiologist. I also just realized that I’ve never actually been interviewed by a chronobiologist before. Which is very cool – being interviewed and also the word “chronobiologist” generally. I wish I could call myself a chronobiologist…

Well thank you… chronobiology is a very interesting field… Anyway, would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself?

You mean apart from the fact that I wish I was a chronobiologist?

Yes, apart from that. For instance, my readers would like to know where…

…Because having the word “chronobiologist” on my business card would be awesome. In fact, if it were me, I would have it in a huge font size, just over the bit where it says I’m from Vancouver, Canada, University of British Columbia. Is the word “chronobiologist” on your business card?

Well, no…

Oh man! You should totally put it on your business card!

Well… I’ll take that into consideration. But anyway… my readers… my readers would like to know where you are coming from, that is to say your background and how you feel about science generally?

Well, sometimes, how I feel about science is kind of complicated. Although I suppose that is the point. Science – what it is, why it’s important, and how we can share it – is, as you know, a pretty nuanced thing. That’s what makes it great and wonderful, yet challenging and occasionally scary. The problem is that not everyone appreciates this diversity in perspective. In other words, not everyone considers the idea that science is a kind of culture all to itself – they tend to think of science as a collection of facts, homework even, or maybe even something that only works within defined stereotypes. Makes them tune out and… Sorry, what was the question?

I was asking about how you feel about science… which I think you kind of answered…

Oh yeah, right… Did I answer it? Ummm, maybe this picture can clarify things a bit…

I suppose that also works. So then, what about your background? Any scientific education?

Look Bora, we’ve already established the fact that I’m not a chronobiologist – there’s no need to rub it in…

No, no… I didn’t mean to rub anything in. I just mean, er, tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

Oh right… Well, my training was in molecular genetics, and cancer research specifically, but the last decade or so, I’ve been mostly considered an academic in science literacy – working on projects related to science education and science literacy.

You mean projects that use genetics as a subject matter?

Well, yes, there’s a bit of that – but it’s more about my faculty position being administratively (shall we say) “interesting,” meaning that I’m in the fortunate position to be involved in all sorts of different kinds of science communication projects, and all sorts of different types of science education projects, and OMG! WE SHOULD TOTALLY START A PROJECT ON CHRONOBIOLOGY!

Ummm… Sure… But first tell me what do you mean by administratively “interesting?”

Well, in a nutshell, I’m a Faculty member without a faculty. How this came to be, appears to be a bit of a mystery at my institution, but I suspect it had something to do with my old boss being smart enough to realize that a faculty position that deals with science literacy needs to have as much room as possible to explore. Put another way, what this means is that I have the usual academic perks, but without most of the usual academic ties that can often lead to bureaucratic limits. In other words, there’s a lot of freedom to explore different projects. Add to that, the fact that I have a lab that is quite well equipped from an infrastructure point of view, amazing colleagues (Joanne Fox – also not a chronobiologist – in particular), and a pretty decent track record in acquiring funding, culminating in ideal circumstances to try lots of different things.

Such as?

Well, conventional things might be hosting genetics fieldtrips for high school students, or providing professional workshops for working scientists, or simply being involved in our university’s undergraduate/graduate community through an advocacy role or by being directly involved in various courses. But I have to admit – it’s the unconventional stuff that is really fun and interesting.

Like what?

Well, lots of different things actually. Examples might include the launching of an elementary school fieldtrip program that was designed by the collaborative efforts of Science Graduate Students and Creative Writing Masters of Fine Arts students. That was pretty interesting, and wonderful too, at least from the feedback from teachers and students involved. Another strange one, which has been getting attention on and off, is this crowdsourcing initiative we have called Phylo or Phylomon. It’s basically a game project that revolved around biodiversity education and Pokemon culture. AND DID YOU NOT HEAR MY SUGGESTION FOR A CHRONOBIOLOGY RELATED PROJECT?

Ahem… Are any of these things taking up the most of your time and passion these days?

Actually, the Phylomon project has taken off in all sorts of interesting directions. Lots of activity there, and there’s movement now for all manner of different decks to be produced in collaboration with specific organizations or groups (like museum decks or we could even have a ScienceOnline deck for example). Because of its fluid crowdsourcing nature, the direction it goes is super open in principle. I’m currently recruiting folks to work on a new game mechanic that could highlight some evolutionary biology concepts for instance.

Anything else?

Yes, I’ve been really thinking a lot these days about grand things like “What exactly is science?” and “What does it mean to be scientifically literate?” In doing so, I’m thinking that it would be fun to focus on a project that tries to address these fundamental questions at a level where younger children can contribute. Maybe produce some well crafted resources for teachers, that could first exist as a “scientific method field trip” or “scientific method camp.” I like the idea of starting off with field trips and camps, because here we could actually see things in action with the kids and assess how effective they are. Basically, something that gets kids to value “questioning everything” but to also do this by using that thing we call the scientific method, the good and the bad. Just banging around some ideas here, but wouldn’t that be lovely?

Yes!

Although, I imagine really really tricky to do well.

Yes…

…But worth a go, I think. This is why I’m hoping to talk to a lot of very clever people over the next couple of months. Actually, I’m going to want to talk to you Bora, maybe even include you in a roster of sorts. Every roster needs a chronobiologist. You probably know this already, but it looks very impressive.

Well, I’m not sure about that, and plus, I’d have to check my schedule…

Yes, of course, of course – but that is why ScienceOnline and social networks and all of this web stuff – well, it’s just so wonderful! Because, now, more than ever, it’s easier to connect with other folks, and there must be other chronobiologists out there!

Oh yes, I’m definitely not the only one… There are many of us out there. Related to that, what type of social networks do you use?

…I mean, how amazing would it be, to have TWO chronobiologists on the project’s committee. Doesn’t that all but practically guarantee any funding requests? I think I saw that written somewhere once.

Well, I don’t know about that. Anyway, what networks do you use? And do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

I guess I’m most fond of twitter. I find twitter to be both useful and fun. #Ihuggedachronobiologist

So a net positive?

Yes, although maybe not a necessity, but certainly very very helpful.

And do you blog?

Not as much as I’d like. Years ago, I started a web publication called The Science Creative Quarterly, but that was more about showcasing creative science writing. Then, for a while, I wrote a blog with Ben Cohen called the World’s Fair. We initially came together because we were both interested in science humor (Editor’s Note: Here are links to some humor from Ben and Dave), or at least exploring different ways of science writing. In other words, we didn’t take things seriously all of the time, which made for an interesting experience. We had good time with all sorts of silly things, like hosting puzzles (as a vehicle to look at hypothesis formation, and paradigm shifts) or creating basketball tournaments between different science concepts (as a general run down of some fundamentals of science).

Oh yes, I remember that. The basketball tournament was pretty epic. But what you’re telling me is that you don’t blog anymore?

Well… these days, I sort of blog. I have a site called Popperfont, but that is mainly a repository of funny, pretty, or surreal science things I find daily on the net. You know, the kind of stuff that might be good to include in a slide as a transitional break – in case your science talk gets a little too unwieldy, and here’s an amusing image which gives the audience a teeny tiny lift before you segues to this and that. I also, on occasion, contribute to Boing Boing, which is always fun – usually a humor angle is involved with these posts which sometimes works well and sometimes not so much.

So you sort of blog?

Maybe curate is a better word? In many ways, I’m more of a consumer of the web science writing, usually by checking links via twitter, and perusing the usual excellent suspects of science blogging (although I should note that I consider the writings of Maggie Koerth-Baker, Marie-Claire Shanahan and Alice Bell required reading, especially with the scientific method stuff in mind). Anyway, I don’t write as much as I would like: part of it is a time thing, but another part is that I secretly don’t have the confidence to self identify as a writer – still a muscle that needs some major practicing I think.

Yes, practice does makes perfect as they say. Although, if I may say, that’s probably a good reason to do more.

Yes, too true… And, ironically, I am working on a book right now, so there is that. Maybe you can read it when I’m finished and give me a quote or something.

Well, I can see what I can do.

Yeah, something like, “I enjoyed the book so much, that time just flew by – TIME JUST FLEW BY – get it?” And make sure you sign off with “Bora Zivkovic, Chronobiologist.” My agent would totally dig that.

Er, sure… Now onto the conference. What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2012 for you?

(O.K. being serious here) I think for me – and especially because my lab tackles so many divergent ways of science communication – ScienceOnline was just about the perfect place to survey and discover all of the many different ways you can talk about and interact with science culture. It was, frankly, awesome. Add to that, the idea that when all is said and done, everybody at the conference is working towards more or less the same thing – expanding the notions of science literacy, and sharing that knowledge with the world – plus the conference had a truly friendly vibe and a refreshing lack of egos. It is basically one of the best conferences I’ve been to, and the whole package definitely made for a very productive experience overall.

Any suggestions for next year?

YES! I think it would be great to somehow formalize and capture all of the great content that was being discussed. But more in a formal “this works as an excellent resource to be shared” way. And I say this as a potential moderator begrudgingly giving myself more work. Still, I don’t think it’s a stretch to ask moderators to contribute a proper write up after the session when all is said and done. It doesn’t seem like a bad trade for getting a guaranteed spot in the conference, and wouldn’t that collection of resources be something else?

O.K. Well, Dave, I think we’re about done here. Thanks for taking the time to do this, and hopefully, we’ll see you at the next conference. Any last words?

You know, it just occurred to me that I don’t actually know what the heck a chronobiologist is – does it have something to do with time travel?

I’ll explain it to you at the hotel bar in January, but you’ll have to get to that date the usual way, day by day…

The Scienceblogging Weekly (August 26th, 2012)

The week was too busy to finish this on Friday. Then on Saturday the news broke that Neil Armstrong died – something I wanted to highlight as a special topic – so I decided to wait another day and give people a chance to wrote posts and articles about Neil. So, with a delay, the weekly linkfest is here!

 

Blog of the Week:

We are all in the gutter is a an astronomy and astrophysics group blog. The title of the blog comes from the quote “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” from Lady Windermere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde. Emma, Niall, Rita and Stuart are astronomers, astrophysicists, star-gazers and space geeks at various career stages, having fun with their blog, exploring the universe from every angle they can possibly think of.

 

Top 10:

Unless They’re Zombies, Fossils Don’t Live by Brian Switek:

I hate the phrase “living fossil.” The term should be eradicated from the vocabulary of science writers, and anyone who employs it should be promptly encased in Carbonite. “Missing link” is the only slogan that pisses me off more. My acute allergic reaction to the idiom may be a little overwrought, I admit. But, to me, “living fossil” is nonsense that obscures more than it elucidates. Take the coelacanth, for example….

Hyenas Eschew Lent, Chew Donkeys Instead by Anne-Marie Hodge:

Anyone who has ever attended a holiday parade or gone on a summer vacation knows that cultures tend to create their own seasonal patterns. In much of Western culture, December is a time of much celebrating and feasting, while similarly wintry January is relatively dreary and dull (after New Year’s celebrations subside). This raises a question: how do the behaviors and culture of a society affect the animals that depend upon that society’s garbage for their food? The progressive encroachment of human settlements into the habitats of wild animals has opened opportunities for animals to avail themselves of human refuse. A raccoon in North America is likely to find a juicy watermelon rind in July and leftover turkey remains in November. Perhaps equally enticing for a roving dumpster-diver, but by no means nutritionally equivalent….

Why Is the Night Sky Turning Red? by Amy Shira Teitel:

The idea of a red sky at night used to invoke beautiful images of vibrant sunsets, the product of warm sunlight bathing the sky near the horizon. The adage of “red sky at night, sailor’s delight” refers to a calm night ahead; a red sunset suggests a high-pressure system in the west is bringing calm weather. But red skies at night have taken on a new meaning in recent decades. As outdoor lighting become increasingly prominent, our night skies are gradually turning from black to red….

When will we find life in space? by Phil Plait:

One of the reasons I love astronomy is that it doesn’t flinch from the big questions. And one of the biggest is: are we alone? Another reason I love astronomy: it has a good shot at answering this question…

Paleo-politics: The really long view by Will Femia:

…..The other explanation is that the Cretaceous ended when, 65 million years ago, an asteroid (or asteroids) slammed into the earth, right across the future-Gulf of Mexico at the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. Not only did the impact and resulting fallout from that asteroid kill the dinosaurs, it also wiped out huge quantities of marine life, including many of the “tiny marine plankton with carbonate skeletons” (I’m guessing some version of Coccolithophore? Anyone?) that would become the rich soil that slaves would farm on land their ancestors would inhabit in voting districts that would favor Democratic candidates around the turn of the second millennium of the Common Era……

What the Dark Knight knows about holding our urban lives together by Scott Huler:

There’s a lot not to love about The Dark Knight Rises, the crazyish new chapter in the latest Batman cycle: a series of actions and explosions so unconnected that they make a Rorschach test look like a syllogism by comparison; Marion Cotillard’s death scene, which lacked only her eyes rolling up and her tongue lolling sideways from her mouth to equal those put on by toddlers on playgrounds; and Christian Bale’s Batman growl — close your eyes and you think Cookie Monster is saving Gotham City….One thing the movie got right, though, is its focus on the infrastructure systems that serve as the beating and vulnerable heart of our urban existence. Every major plot point directly relates to the built environment and the networks that make every element of our lives possible….

Science For Princesses by Janet Stemwedel:

I have always known that I loved science, that delicious alliance of imagination and methodical testing that could help you figure out something about how a piece of the world worked. However, being born at the tail-end of the 1960s, I grew up in a culture that wanted me to know that girls were not supposed to like science. In fact, between toy commercials and TV shows, teachers and peers, I got the message pretty quickly that science is not something for girls. Rather, girls should turn their attention to more important matters . . . like being properly feminine. There was a way that girls were supposed to be—neat and tidy and pretty and pink and quiet and well-behaved. I was not any of those things. I didn’t want to be any of those things. I didn’t know how to be any of those things. And, as far as I could tell, trying to be those things was not going to help me get my hands on the science-y stuff that I wanted. So what was the point?….

How to Annoy E.O. Wilson by Michelle Nijhuis:

…….During a panel at the Aspen Environment Forum in Colorado, as she describes here, Emma piqued Wilson with her talk of making more nature — of expanding our definition of the natural world to include places humans have invaded, altered, and restored. Spending billions trying to return coastal areas like the Everglades to pre-Columbian “purity,” she added, is a lost cause. Better to invest in upslope reserves, and perhaps even learn to admire the tenacity of invasive species…..

Father’s age dictates rate of new mutations by Virginia Hughes:

With every passing year, men are increasingly likely to transmit new mutations to their children, according to the largest study yet of the so-called paternal age effect, published yesterday in Nature. The findings could help explain why older men are more likely to have a child with autism or schizophrenia than are younger men, the researchers say….

I Am Science…and a Nerd by Craig McClain:

I am a nerd. I was a nerd. I will be a nerd. Perhaps in kindergarten I wasn’t, where nerdom had difficulty establishing itself among the simple lessons of the alphabet, counting, and colors. In kindergarten, we are more or less the same in deficiencies and achievements. But after that, I am pretty confident my geek flag flew. I cannot remember ever being a bad student. Repeated straight A’s and the honor role defined me….

 

Special topic 1: Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong’s message to the future by Amy Shira Teitel

Neil Armstrong: Ace Engineer and Hotshot Test Pilot by Amy Shira Teitel

Neil Armstrong’s legacy went to waste but a new space race is on the cards by Alok Jha

Neil Armstrong: 1930 – 2012 by Phil Plait

Pow! ZOOM! To the Moon! by Phil Plait

Debunking myths about Neil Armstrong by James Oberg

Rocks remember, and so do we by Ethan Siegel

What Neil Armstrong Knew Is What We Never Will by Charles P. Pierce

Keep in mind as you put together your Neil Armstrong packages tonight… by Charles Apple

The Man and the Moon by Anthony Lane

As We Say Goodbye to Neil Armstrong, Should We Also Let Go of Our Space Fantasies? by John Horgan

For Neil Armstrong, the First Moon Walker, It Was All about Landing the Eagle by Andrew Chaikin

Neil Armstrong by Babbage

Neil Armstrong Talks About The First Moon Walk by Robert Krulwich

Neil Armstrong by Neil Gaiman

Neil Armstrong’s Last Interview by Jeff Marlow

RIP Neil Armstrong, star of the first big story of my news career by Steve Buttry

The Cold War Push Behind Neil Armstrong’s ‘One Small Step’ by Andrew C. Revkin

Rest in Peace, Neil Armstrong by Matthew Francis

 

Special topic 2: rape and pregnancy

Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) serves on House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology by David Kroll

Here is Some Legitimate Science on Pregnancy and Rape and What Do You Do When There is No Best Dataset? A follow-up on pregnancy and rape statistics by Kate Clancy

The sperm don’t care how they got there, Rep. Akin by Emily Willingham

Sure, women cannot get pregnant from rape. Also, all mean people are ugly and puppies are immortal. by Melanie Tannenbaum

Legitimate rape, seminal priming, and preeclampsia by Jon Wilkins

Unfamiliar sperm, Tibetans, and cheese: Why evolutionary biology doesn’t excuse Todd Akin by Jeremy Yoder

What people who talk about “legitimate rape” really mean by Naomi McAuliffe

Todd Akin and the Anti-Science House Science Committee by Brandon Keim

‘Legitimate rape’ – a medieval medical concept by Vanessa Heggie

Backstory: the reporter who interviewed Akin by Mike Hoyt

A letter to Paul Ryan about forcible rape by Dr. Jen Gunter

Pregnancy Flowchart by Adam Weinstein

Hard words: Do we know what we’re talking about when we talk about rape? by Kathryn Blaze Carlson

The Crackpot Caucus by Timothy Egan

Why Sex Education Helps End Rape by Erica Grigg

Akin breakin’ science by Phil Plait

It’s trigger warning week by Laurie Penny

Rape exceptions aren’t legitimate by Irin Carmon

Where Akin got the idea that rape victims rarely get pregnant by Tim Townsend and Blythe Bernhard

An Open Letter to Rep. Akin From a Woman Who Got Pregnant From Rape by Shauna Prewitt

Todd Akin’s Abortion Position Reflects GOP Platform by Laura Bassett

Conservative Media Dismiss Akin “Rape” Comments As “Dumb,” But Rhetoric Is Reflected In GOP Policies by MIKE BURNS & SOLANGE UWIMANA

The Problem With Men Explaining Things by Rebecca Solnit

Todd Akin and the Right’s False Fact Machine by Josh Barro

Words and deeds by David Wescott

Rep. Todd Akin’s statements have a familiar ring to them… by Sassquach

Legitimate takedown: Todd Akin meets the women of the Internet by Virginia Heffernan

A Canard That Will Not Die: ‘Legitimate Rape’ Doesn’t Cause Pregnancy by Garance Franke-Ruta

The Official Guide to Legitimate Rape by Katie J.M. Baker

Todd Akin’s “Legitimate Rape” Comment Was Not a Misstatement. It Was a Worldview. by Laura Helmuth

Rep. Todd Akin’s Rape Remark At Odds With Science Of Pregnancy by Jeanna Bryner

What Does Todd Akin Think “Legitimate Rape” Is? by Amy Davidson

 

Special topic 3: superbug at NIH

The “NIH Superbug”: This Is Happening Every Day by Maryn McKenna

Genome detectives unravel spread of stealthy bacteria in a hospital by Ed Yong

Not a failure, a lesson. The NIH Clinical Center KPC Outbreak by Eli Perencevich

The NIH Superbug Story—a Missing Piece by Judy Stone

Hunting a Superbug by Deborah Blum

‘Superbug’ stalked NIH hospital last year, killing six by Brian Vastag

NIH should have notified it of superbug outbreak, Montgomery County official says by Brian Vastag

Like a Game of Clue, Genomics Tracks Outbreak, Revealing Evolution in Action by Ricki Lewis

Genome Detectives Solve a Hospital’s Deadly Outbreak by Gina Kolata

Govt. Gene Sleuths Stop Superbug That Killed 6 by The Associated Press

 

Best Images:

Drake equation: How many alien civilizations exist? by IIBStudio

Sunday Morning Anole Cartoon: When Lizard Biologists Compete by Rich Glor

If you were to summarise the world into 100 people, how would the population turn out? by Charlie Hilton

Conventional Wisdom by Randy Yeip

Are those pictures of Mars from the Curiosity rover? by Is Twitter Wrong?

Miss Insomnia Tulip’s Anatomical Macaroons by AnatomyUK

Votive Ear by Jai Virdi

Glow-in-the-dark cockroaches look like Jawas by Jess Zimmerman

London Zoo animal audit – in pictures by The Guardian

Animals in the News by Alan Taylor

 

Best Videos:

How Did Apollo-era Astronauts Sleep in Space? and Learning to Land on the Moon by Amy Shira Teitel

Amazing Color Differences In Lizard Populations Separated By Little Distance by Jonathan Losos

Can dinosaurs still be badass with feathers? by Charlie Jane Anders

Camera shutter speed synchronized with helicopter blade frequency by whataboutlarry1

Why Insect Wings Don’t Fracture by Sid Perkins

The High-Resolution Life of a Neuron by Brandon Keim

Curiosity Drops in on Mars in High-Res by JPLnews

Doodling in Math Class: Connecting Dots by Vi Hart

Jessica Wise: How fiction can change reality by TEDEducation

Learning By Play by Nadja Popovich

 

Science:

Three Ways of Looking at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by Miriam Goldstein

Thomas Kuhn: the man who changed the way the world looked at science by John Naughton

Kuhn the Irrationalist by Peter Coles

A brief history on how I became an Animal Behaviourist… by Kate Mornement

How Domed Dinosaurs Grew Up by Brian Switek

Microbes manipulate your mind by Mo Costandi

Kissing bug – the real vampire of Latin America by Samantha Price

Is solidarity a thing of the past? by Kurt Cobb

No, immunology should get the same scrutiny as psychiatry. And vice versa. by Tim Skellet

So, you’ve dropped a vial or lost a sample box in your liquid nitrogen container…now what? by Brian Krueger

Breeder by Melissa Wilson-Sayres

‘Beam Us Up, Mr. Scott!’: Why Misquotations Catch On by Maria Konnikova

Superbug Summer Books: EXPERIMENT ELEVEN by Maryn McKenna

Chemical Free Dirt (for the Fairytale Garden) and Smoked Out and No, no. Not Nicholas Kristof on Chemicals Again by Deborah Blum

Why are languages so different—and disorderly? by Philip Ball

Aphids, carotenoids and photosynthesis by Ian Le Guillou

Do Be a Dick (sometimes): Emotions and Skeptics by Ashley F. Miller

Tesla’s Revenge: Filmmakers Kickstart Electrifying Docudrama About Cult Genius by Hugh Hart

The neurology of Psalm 137 by Vaughan Bell

Book review: Connectome by Sebastian Seung by Moheb Costandi

TGIPF: Penis in My Head by Christie Aschwanden

First US stem cell trial for autistic children launches today by Kathleen Raven

Stem cell clinical trial for autism: proceed with caution by Emily Willingham

Is a trial of stem cell therapy in autism scientifically and ethically justified? by Orac

Would Rachel Carson Embrace ‘Frankenfoods’? – This Scientist Believes ‘Yes’ by Pamela Ronald

Debunking the Hunter-Gatherer Workout by Herman Pontzer

Morality and Basketball by Sean Carroll

Republican spending plan casts shadow on science by Amy Maxmen

Making Liquor Recommendations by Dr24hours

Richard Dawkins in Playboy by Faye Flam

Amateur Scientists Discover Asian Needle Ant Has Expanded its Range by Thousands of Miles, Unnoticed by Rob Dunn

Dogs Chasing Their Tails Are Akin to Humans With OCD and Celebrating 1,447 Years of the Loch Ness Monster and Go to Sleep, All-Nighter Cram Fests Don’t Work and Want to Avoid a Mid-Life Crisis? Get Friends and Crafty Bonobo Shows Humans Aren’t the Only Stone Tool-Makers by Rachel Nuwer

Asperger’s Doesn’t Make You an Asshole by Heina

Bodies in art, art in bodies by John Hawks

NASA’s Amazing Gliding Gemini Capsules by Amy Shira Teitel

Can Identical Twins Get Away With Murder? by Brian Palmer

What can survive on Mars? by Steven A. Edwards

How to Learn a Language Nobody Speaks and Lance Armstrong Surrenders Against Doping Charges and Will be Banned for Life by Rose Eveleth

Rockstars, Ethograms and Behavior (Problems) by Julie Hecht

Planetary alignment pyramid scheme by Phil Plait

We Can Save the World by Eating Bugs and Drinking Urine by Erin Biba

Clothes Make the Man—Literally and The Neuroscience of Optimism by Jordan Gaines

Wasps Follow Order of Succession When Queen Dies and The Shambulance: Zero-Calorie Noodles? by Elizabeth Preston

Friday Weird Science: This quail has a cloth fetish by Scicurious

Vowel Movement: How Americans near the Great Lakes are radically changing the sound of English. by Rob Mifsud

How to Teach a Horse the Rules of the Road by Miriam Kramer

Remnants of a stellar suicide pact and The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Scientific Talk by Matthew Francis

Helium-Breathing Gibbons Sing Like Human Sopranos by Tanya Lewis

Siberian Princess reveals her 2,500 year old tattoos by The Siberian Times reporter

The birthplace of English? by Tim De Chant

Anti-Terrorism Campaigns and the Criminalization of Public Non-Conformity by Gwen Sharp

Hormones Explain Why Girls Like Dolls & Boys Like Trucks by Natalie Wolchover

The Nature of Consciousness: How the Internet Could Learn to Feel by Steve Paulson

New Morbid Terminology: Coffin Birth by Katy Meyers

Are You a Hero or a Bystander? by Sue Shellenbarger

Invasive species provide important lessons for surviving climate change and New species of barbet discovered in Peru by GrrlScientist

Just how big were dinosaurs? by Dave Hone

How Plantain Trees Could Become an Energy Source by Rhitu Chatterjee

Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist by Ann Finkbeiner

WWWTP? Time’s Aspirin Structure Causes Headache by See Arr Oh

Candidates clam up on climate by Curtis Brainard

Overlooked and Underfoot: Sidewalk Cleaning in New York City by Ashley Taylor

Spawning coral monitored for effects of climate change by Melissa Gaskill

10 Myths About Space Travel That Make Science Fiction Better by Charlie Jane Anders

Goo-eating snakes and the eggs that evade them by Andrew Durso

Bonobo Stone Tales: The Making Of A Story by Charles Choi

Replacement Parts and Newly discovered rat that can’t gnaw or chew by Ed Yong

Artist Patricia Olynyk inspired by light pollution by Casey Rentz

Scoop: A preview of Romney’s energy plan by Philip Bump

Neuroscience: Solving The Hard-On Problem by Neuroskeptic

Every Step You Take by Wendy Lovelady

Fighting the stereotype that math is only for boys by Patricia Valoy

The Wall Street Journal Does It Again: Another Whopper Of A Lie On Climate Science by Dana Nucitelli

It’s all about objective multiples… by Mia Cobb

Medieval Women as Physicians by Tracy Barrett

Was Vincent van Gogh Color Blind? It Sure Looks Like It by Colin Schultz

Ego v. Efficiency at the U.S. National Science Board by Jeffrey Mervis

The Science of Bad Neuroscience by Neurobonkers

Social Position Drives Gene Regulation of the Immune System by Daniel Lende

Q&A: Alexandra Cousteau by Emily Fisher

The evolutionary history of dragons, illustrated by a scientist by Annalee Newitz

Egg-ceptionally Bad by Cassandra Willyard

The Free Will Confusion (1): On “My Brain Made Me Do It!” by Stephan Schleim

Should we teach algebra? by Paul Raeburn

The Rats of War: Konrad Lorenz and the Anthropic Shift by Liam Heneghan

Why College Binge Drinkers Are Happier, Have High Status by Maia Szalavitz

How many species are there? by Zen Faulkes

 

Media, Publishing, Technology and Society:

How to Succeed in Journalism when You Can’t Afford an Internship by Alexandra Kimball

Who are the offline-academics? by Katie Wheat

Sick of Impact Factors: Coda by Stephen Curry

Taking the Impact Factor seriously is similar to taking creationism, homeopathy or divining seriously by Bjoern Brembs

There are cons to open acces? Really? by Bjoern Brembs

“You’re not entitled to your own facts” vs. That’s your opinion. Kiss my ad. by Jay Rosen

Twitter rewrites the script for political conventions by Martha T. Moore

Barbara Mack: best media lawyer I ever worked with by Steve Buttry

Ask A Writer: “How Do I Write What The Audience Wants To Read?” by Chuck Wendig

The End of My Writing Career / Author Sharon Potts by Clay Stafford

Research As You Go by Steven Johnson

The ridiculous SVP embargo is back again by Ross Mounce

Intellectual power and responsibility in an age of superstars by Daniel W. Drezner

Coming in the side door: The value of homepages is shifting from traffic-driver to brand by Adrienne LaFrance

Google Hiring Data Reveals Two Things Women Can Do To Get Hired And Promoted More by Nicholas Carlson

A Day In My Life As A Freelance Science Writer by Charles Choi

Turn Off the Phone (and the Tension) by Jenna Wortham

Adulthood, Delayed: What Has the Recession Done to Millennials? by Derek Thompson

Why Are Young People Ditching Cars for Smartphones? by Jordan Weissmann

The Cheapest Generation by Derek Thompson and Jordan Weissmann

How Wikipedia Manages Sources for Breaking News by Heather Ford

Ex-NPR Hill reporter: Lied to daily by Patrick Gavin

Report: Social network demographics in 2012 by Pingdom

6 questions journalists should be able to answer before pitching a story by Tom Huang

Plagiarism, defamation and the power of hyperlinks and The billion-dollar question: What is journalism for? and Why it’s better for fact-checking to be done in public by Mathew Ingram

Rutgers Professor’s Research Shows Social Network Sites Foster Close and Diverse Connections by Lisa Intrabartola

Don’t blame Twitter when journos tweet stupid things; blame stupidity by Steve Buttry

How long-form journalism is getting ‘a new lease of life’ in the digital world by Rachel McAthy

Why fact-checking matters by Emily Willingham

Rotary Dial by Ftrain

The closing of American academia by Sarah Kendzior

Be More Productive. Take Time Off. by Jason Fried

Journalist Of The Day: SciAm’s Bora Zivkovic talks about the evolution of social by Chao Li

 

Blogs of the Week so far:

May 11, 2012: Academic Panhandling
May 18, 2012: Anole Annals
May 25th, 2012: Better Posters
June 1st, 2012: Vintage Space
June 8th, 2012: Tanya Khovanova’s Math Blog
June 15th, 2012: Russlings
June 22nd, 2012: Parasite of the Day
June 29th, 2012: March of the Fossil Penguins
July 6th, 2012: Musings of a Dinosaur
July 13th, 2012: Contagions
July 21th, 2012: Life is short, but snakes are long
July 27th, 2012: Science Decoded
August 11th, 2012: Powered By Osteons
August 18th, 2012: Do you believe in dog?

The Scienceblogging Weekly (August 18th, 2012)

Blog of the Week:

Do you believe in dog? is a brand new blog. It is written by two dog researchers, one in New York City, the other in Yarra Valley just outside of Melbourne, Australia. Julie Hecht you may already know from her wonderful blog Dog Spies, her writing in The Bark, or her research which we covered here at SciAm. She studies (and teaches about) dog cognition. Mia Cobb, the Australian, did her research in animal behavior on birds and ants, but now works on issues of dog shelters, welfare and performance science of working dogs. What is the coolest thing about the blog is that the two of them write for each other, addressing each other in each post, thus teaching and learning from each other in a dialogue to which we are all invited to participate in and contribute.

 

Top 10:

Tales from the OR by Summer Ash:

WARNING: This post contains my blood and guts, literally. If you’re squeamish, I recommend skipping this one. What follows is my journey through the operating room at Columbia-Presbyterian on July 18, 2012. Apologies, but I couldn’t help starting off with yet another pop culture reference (this time from Wes Anderson’s Rushmore)….

An example of why it is important to distinguish evolution as fact, theory, and path. by T. Ryan Gregory:

I, and others, have pointed out that there are three aspects of evolution: evolution as fact, evolution as theory, and evolution as path. Evolution as fact refers to the historical reality that species are related through common ancestry. This is supported by a massive amount of evidence from a wide array of independent sources. Evolution as theory refers to the proposed explanations for how “descent with modification” occurs — mutation, natural selection, genetic drift, etc. Evolution as path refers to the actual patterns that have occurred during the history of life, such as when certain events (e.g., branching points, extinctions, etc.) took place, how lineages are related, when and how many times certain traits evolved, and such. The important point is that these three components are largely independent…

The Childhood Aquatic by John Romano:

There is a structurally integral part of my psyche that is the keystone to my existence. I am not sure how it was placed in such a vital position, but it seems this part of me is embedded in my DNA. Something that I can never remember being without. The absolute and total fascination with the natural world….

Abraham Lincoln and The Embalmer by Romeo Vitelli:

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 15, 1865 shocked a nation still recovering from four years of bloody civil war. Along with the hunt for his killers and the uncovering of the assassination plot against the President and several other members of his administration, there was also the logistic nightmare of his funeral and the need to transport the President’s body by train from Washington D.C. to his final resting place in Springfield, Illinois. Since the funeral train would retrace the route that Lincoln had traveled to Washington following his election, the body would be viewed by millions of mourners along the way during the numerous planned stops. All of which raised the question of how to keep the body preserved long enough to reach its destination. Considering the fact that funeral embalming was a relatively new development at that time, some very special arrangements needed to be made…

Inspiration from bassist Victor Wooten shows me a new way to deal with my “child-as-scientist” frustrations by Marie-Claire Shanahan:

I have a confession to make: I cringe a little every time I see a school science or science outreach program justified by saying something like, “Young children are natural scientists, truly curious about the world” (That particular quote is from the Delaware Museum of Natural History). I feel like a curmudgeon about it because it often comes with really good intentions to get students actively involved in doing science (something I definitely support)….

How a Tick Bite Made Me Allergic to Meat by Helen Chappell:

The last time I ate a hamburger, I spent the night in the emergency room. There wasn’t anything wrong with the hamburger itself—aside from being a bit overdone—but it sent me into anaphylactic shock. It wasn’t always this way…

Are wolves really all that? by DeLene Beeland:

Have conservation scientists become carried away, touting the ecological benefits of wolves where there are perhaps — dare I say it? — not as many as we believe there to be? Perhaps some people in the media, and even some in science, have gotten carried away with the ecological changes that wolves are actually capable of mediating, says globally-renowned wolf biologist L. David Mech in his most recent paper “Is science in danger of sanctifying the wolf?” …

Losing One’s Head: A Frustrating Search for the ‘Truth’ about Decapitation by Lindsey Fitzharris:

If you ever find yourself in a pub with me, chances are that at some point, the conversation will turn to death. Not just death, but the terrifying and horrible ways people have succumbed to it in the past. I have often heard a story retold about a man who attended the execution of his friend during the French Revolution. Seconds after the guillotine fell, the man retrieved the severed head and asked it a series of questions in order to determine whether or not it was possible to retain consciousness after decapitation. Through a system of blinking, the victim allegedly communicated his message back to his friend. The ending to this story changes according to the whims of the narrator… or perhaps the number of drinks he or she has consumed by that time. I wondered: was this the 18th-century equivalent to an urban legend? Or could there, in fact, be a degree of truth in this ghastly tale?….

A Dirty, Deadly Bite by Brian Switek:

Dragons aren’t real. At least, the fire-breathing wyverns and coiling wyrms of medieval lore aren’t. Those reptilian menaces were products of superstition and pre-scientific ideas about prehistoric creatures. They were ugly amalgamations inspired by our fears and actual fossil remains of long-extinct mammals and dinosaurs. But in the early 20th century, reporters excitedly relayed the discovery of what quickly became known as the Komodo dragon – ten foot long lizards that had coexisted with humans on South Pacific islands for thousands of years, but had only just been recognized by western science….

The Itsy Bitsy Drummer by Helen Shen:

Rrrr… RRR… Thack! Thack! Thrusting his front legs skyward, the male jumping spider shakes his rear end to send thumps, scrapes, and buzzes through the ground. He’s playing for a female’s attention, dazzling her eight eyes with semaphore while drumming out seductive seismic signals. A few missteps could turn the spider’s performance into a dinner show—with the star as the main dish. The ferocious female demands precise choreography, set to a groovy beat that UC Berkeley behavioral ecologist Damian Elias is working to decipher….


Best Images:

On Cephalopods and Science Fiction by Jen Richards

Beautiful periodic table from LIFE magazine’s 1949 special on the atom by Frank Swain

Curiosity’s photos (cartoon) by Viktor Poór

A bacterium on a diatom on an amphipod on a frog on a bump on the log in the hole in the bottom of the sea!<!–

The Spider Wars by bonybones

UNDERCOVER by Jun Takahashi

The Olympics Are Over and Here Are the Best Infographics by Rose Eveleth

They fell out of the sky! by Bill Harding

Elgar’s Explosion by Eva Amsen

Teaching history by Zach Weinersmith

Old Friends by Beatrice the Biologist

Tasting the rainbow: The ants whose multi-coloured abdomens show exactly what they’ve been eating by Mohamed Babu

Anole Raids A Hummingbird Feeder by Karen Morris

Unicorn Blood Parasite by The-Episiarch

Cures of all Kinds by Jai Virdi

 

Best Videos:

The GMO Song: “OMG GMOs!” by Andrew Bean, David Holmes, Sharon Shattuck, and Krishnan Vasudevan

Do watch this – probably the best ever debris flow video, from Austria last week by Dave Petley

Tricky Mister! Indirect Sperm Transfer in Primitive Hexapods by The Bug Chicks

Helmet Cam Strapped to Hunting Falcon Captures “Birds-Eye-View” Footage by Michael Zhang

Seat vibration test: oscillate the human by Marc Abrahams

Lice on a Bird: Convergent Evolution in action! by Bug Girl

 

Science:

Where Fire Meets the Sea by Tanya Lewis

Curiosity Landing: What’s With All the Peanuts? and Apollo’s Youthful Glow and The Soviets’ First Space ‘Rendezvous’ by Amy Shira Teitel

The benefits of seeing a “challenge” where others see a “threat.” and Why do swimmers hate Lane 8? and The psychology of doping accusations: Which athletes raise the most suspicion? by Melanie Tannenbaum

Could you be an Olympic athlete? by Catherine de Lange

Mysterious Tides: Toxic blooms of marine algae are getting worse, and some think we’re to blame. by Marissa Fessenden

Astrobiology: Worth It? by GunnarDW

Olympics Physics: The Long Jump and Linear Regression by Rhett Allain

Diseases That Just Won’t Quit by Tim Wall

Think Like a Doctor: A Peculiar Heartbeat Solved! by Lisa Sanders

The Bullying Culture of Medical School by Pauline Chen

Two Tales of Symbiosis by Elio Schaechter

Where the Minutes Are Longer: The Weird Science of Telling Time on Mars by Rebecca J. Rosen

Stop Calling Sherlock a Sociopath! Thanks, a Psychologist. by Maria Konnikova

Why cocaine users should learn Bayes’ Theorem by Precocity

Science on crack, 2: Walter White & cooking crystal meth by Puff the Mutant Dragon

We live in a geocentric world! by Thony C.

Murder by Physics by Matthew Francis

In Vietnamese community, treating taboos on cancer by Erin Loury

Years After Slash and Burn, Brazil Haunted by ‘Black Carbon’ and Science Takes Fat Out Of Chocolate, Replaces It With Fruit and Defending a Sanctuary With Paint and Song by Rachel Nuwer

Why We Need Ecological Medicine by Rob Dunn

Is PTSD A Product of War, or Of Our Times? by David Dobbs

A very modern trauma by Vaughan Bell

Curious about Curiosity: the Science Lab on Mars (Part I) and Search for Water (Part II) and Life on Mars (Part III) by Claire.W

Popping up trouble with butter and Alzheimer’s by biochembelle

A New Species Discovered … On Flickr by Adam Cole

Cells = drugs = government regulation? by Ada Ao

On the loss of a mentor: Al Malkinson, lung cancer researcher, scholar, gentleman by David Kroll

The Hidden Power of Whale Poop by Brandon Keim

What do you do when you’re sick? by Jai Virdi

Choice of Wood in Cremation Pyres by Katy Meyers

Food and trust of science and Does a Ph.D. train you to head a lab? by Zen Faulkes

Africa Grows Too Hot to Grow Chocolate by Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato

Community health workers help HIV patient change attitude, life by Helen Shen

Hyenas Show It’s Better to Be Creative than Try, Try Again and Close Look at Bison DNA Reveals Our Dirty Fingerprints by Elizabeth Preston

CDC: Pretty Much Everyone Is Fat by Maryn McKenna

Why did people start mummifying their dead in the driest place on Earth? by Ed Yong

Found in translation: where do cures come from? by Jenny Rohn

Mouse Eyes Come With Built-In Bird Detectors by Sophie Bushwick

Atop Everest, two Sherpas and a watchmaker forged a friendship that changed their lives by Samantha Larson

Here’s an Omical Tale: Scientists Discover Spreading Suffix by Robert Lee Hotz

Flavors of Uncertainty: The Difference between Denial and Debate by Wendee Holtcamp

Tracks of an Oak Killer by Erin Loury

What is fair in the Olympics? Is sex a special case? and What is DNA? by Genegeek

That Eternal Question by Nicholas Suntzeff

Choosing the Paths Less Traveled? There’s an App for That by Henry Grabar

“Canopy” Meg Lowman (forest ecologist) – podcast by Samantha Larson

Scientific reproducibility, for fun and profit by John Timmer

Good Scientist! You Get a Badge. by Carl Zimmer

Reproducing Scientific Results – On Purpose by Derek Lowe

Common Lab Dye Found to Interrupt Formation of Huntington’s Disease Proteins by Kathleen Raven

No, that’s not a picture of a double sunset on Mars and An unreal Mars skyline by Phil Plait

How to Patch the PhD Problem by Alison McCook

Lead’s Everlasting Legacy by Meghan D. Rosen

Tweeting my genome #twenome and “Run away!”: a one-size-fits-all solution by Alex Brown

The Rise of the Three-Parent Family by Annalee Newitz

The Political Benefits of Taking a Pro-Climate Stand in 2012 by Connie Roser-Renouf, Anthony Leiserowitz, Edward Maibach

The Circadian Advantage: How Sleep Patterns Benefit Certain NFL Teams by David K. Randall

Book Review: Newjack Guarding Sing Sing by Erin Podolak

Dear HigherEd Communicators: John Tesh is Kicking Our Asses by Elizabeth Monier-Williams

When Yellow Fever Came to the Americas by Michelle Ziegler

The Mind of a Flip-Flopper and Cow Week: Angry cows vs. angry mothers by Maggie Koerth-Baker

PhD2.0 and anecdotes from the trenches by Jeanne Garbarino

The Sea Longs for Red Devils by Daniela Hernandez

Cooperating For Selfish Reasons by Miss Behavior

The Mix-Up that Ended the World by Erik Vance

Intimate Life of Mosquitoes by Lowell Goldsmith

What Anti-Trafficking Advocates Can Learn from Sex Workers: The Dynamics of Choice, Circumstance, and Coercion by danah boyd

Confessions of a Fake Scientist by Phil Edwards

Baby, You Light Up My World Like Nobody Else by Rachel Wang

Nothing Says Baby-Makin’ Like Desiccated Bacon and Scientists create a “Dow Jones” for ocean health by Allie Wilkinson

The Evolution of Shark Week, Pop-Culture Leviathan by Ashley Fetters

The Smell of Fear (No Tweets Necessary) by Natalie Angier

Post-Antipsychiatry by The Neurocritic

Where Have All The Cults Gone? and Is Poker A Game of Skill or Luck? by Neuroskeptic

Brain’s Drain: Neuroscientists Discover Cranial Cleansing System by Daisy Yuhas

This Woman Wants You to Buy Her, Piece by Piece by Rose Eveleth

My Brain Made Me Do It: Psychopaths and Free Will and How PTSD and Addiction Can Be Safely Treated Together and Couples Therapy Can Help PTSD and Improve Relationships by Maia Szalavitz

On quack cancer cures, and “alternative medicine” as religion by Xeni Jardin

Scientists can block heroin addiction now? and Offbeat tales: The summer heat takes its toll and Morning wrap-up by Paul Raeburn

How to Put a Curator in a Box: Part 1 and Ask an Exhibitionist #1: What’s the fake water? by Helen Chappell

Sharks and lasers, not just for entertainment! by Craig McClain

Giant cluster phenomenally fertile by Nadia Drake

Emma Marris: In Defense of Everglades Pythons and A Song Tries to Go Beyond the ‘OMG’ Reaction to GMOs by Andrew Revkin

The Emerging Revolution in Game Theory by The Physics arXiv Blog

“A simple feat… only expensive”: The Oatmeal tries saving Tesla’s lab by Casey Johnston

How many colors are really in a rainbow? by Ethan Siegel

Spiders Weave Better on LSD-25 by Clyde

Are Drug Companies Faking an Innovation Crisis? Uh, No. by Derek Lowe

Gorilla Joy Without a Doubt by Marc Bekoff

Turning Trauma Into Story: the Benefits of Journaling by Jordan Gaines

A Lesson in Rocketry by Marie-Claire Shanahan

PhD what is it good for? #leavingacademia by Jerry Nguyen

Contraception, healthcare and the costs women will leave behind by Katie Rogers and Ruth Spencer

The problem with poker by Pete Etchells

Rare Discovery: Hook-Legged Spider Found in Oregon Cave by Douglas Main

Why I’m Working Toward my Ph.D. at a Museum by Alejandro Grajales

How not to criticize psychiatry, part 1 by Tim Skellet

Book Review: The Wolverine Way, by Douglas Chadwick by DeLene Beeland

On Sciences and Humanities: Reflections on Coyne and Konnikova by German Dziebel

Citizen scientists may beat the pros in identifying at-risk species by Kate Shaw

The Long-Lived Legacy of the Cambrian’s “Wonderful Life” by Brian Switek

Bigger and Smaller by Lucy E. Hornstein

Scissor Sisters by Sally Adee

Brain network: social media and the cognitive scientist (pdf) by Tom Stafford and Vaughan Bell

 

Media, Publishing, Technology and Society:

Sick of Impact Factors by Stephen Curry

A smear campaign against Impact Factors…and the Sheep of Science by Drugmonkey

Deep impact: Our manuscript on the consequences of journal rank by Bjoern Brembs

Chess ratings and Impact Factor and Self archiving science is not the solution by Zen Faulkes

On publishing in PLoS One, and what’s the matter with ecology? by C. Titus Brown

Should supreme court justices use Google? by Paul Raeburn

Geneticists eye the potential of arXiv and Neanderthal sex debate highlights benefits of pre-publication by Ewen Callaway

9 ways to find helpful people and organizations to follow on Twitter by Steve Buttry

Instead of a press release: Options to add to your press release diet by Denise Graveline

Jonah Lehrer and the Problems with “Pithy” Science Writing by Karthika Muthukumaraswamy

Using Links as Citations Helps Gizmodo Defeat a Defamation Claim–Redmond v. Gawker Media by Eric Goldman

Discover magazine moving to Wisconsin and Discover magazine update by Paul Raeburn

New! New! New! (not yet) and If I were making a Twitter clone… and Making a Twitter clone, day II by Dave Winer

Magazines Don’t Have a Digital Problem, They Have a Bundling Problem by Hamish McKenzie

Should journalists specialize? by Kallen Dewey Kentner

Science Outreach in North Carolina by Russ Campbell

Stop Publishing Web Pages by Anil Dash

Author Platform Lessons from #1 New York Times Bestseller Rebecca Skloot by Dan Blank

To Think, To Write, To Publish by Maria Delaney

Do We Need Another Information Sharing Platform? by Jalees Rehman

How The American University was Killed, in Five Easy Steps by Debra Leigh Scott

13 ways of looking at Medium, the new blogging/sharing/discovery platform from @ev and Obvious by Joshua Benton

How To Lose Twitter Followers by Neuroskeptic

What to Do With Political Lies by Garance Franke-Ruta

Science Communication in the PhD process by Heather Doran

Science News staffers complain about misappropriation of their copy by UPI and UPI’s second response on misuse of copy by Paul Raeburn

UPI shirks responsibility by Curtis Brainard

News stories that aren’t news by John L. Robinson

Student Paper Editors Quit at University of Georgia by RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA

Letter from the Editor in Chief by Polina Marinova

Students walk out on University of Georgia newspaper by Andrew Beaujon

UGA Red & Black staff walks out today in protest. Is it now Red & Dead? by Maureen Downey

Witness describes confrontation between Grady NewSource Reporter and Red & Black Publisher by Grady Newsource

Study: Journalists’ lousy understanding of fair use leads to self-censorship by Andrew Beaujon

Five types of problem writer by Ann Friedman

Jonah Lehrer’s Mistake — And Ours by Peter Sims

Making Studies Out of Nothing at All by Taylor Kubota

On being a journalist, getting quotes by Razib Khan

Mendeley Acquires SciLife, a Social Network for Scientists and Researchers by Darrell Etherington

Nikola Tesla museum campaign earns $500,000 online in two days by Adam Gabbatt

Lessons on the Internet for LAMs from The Oatmeal: Or, Crowdfunding and the Long Geeky Tail by Trevor Owens

Further Decline in Credibility Ratings for Most News Organizations by Pew

The Update by Matt Thompson

Metrics, metrics everywhere: How do we measure the impact of journalism? by Jonathan Stray

Why we are poles apart on climate change and Doing science is different from communicating it — even when the science is the science of science communication by Dan Kahan

Hey, Twitter — shouldn’t it be about the users? by Mathew Ingram

The first steps towards a modern system of scientific publication by Joe Pickrell

Reflections on science blogging by Puff the Mutant Dragon

 

Blogs of the Week so far:

May 11, 2012: Academic Panhandling
May 18, 2012: Anole Annals
May 25th, 2012: Better Posters
June 1st, 2012: Vintage Space
June 8th, 2012: Tanya Khovanova’s Math Blog
June 15th, 2012: Russlings
June 22nd, 2012: Parasite of the Day
June 29th, 2012: March of the Fossil Penguins
July 6th, 2012: Musings of a Dinosaur
July 13th, 2012: Contagions
July 21th, 2012: Life is short, but snakes are long
July 27th, 2012: Science Decoded
August 11th, 2012: Powered By Osteons

The Scienceblogging Weekly (August 4th, 2012)

Blog of the Week:

Beatrice the Biologist says this about itself: it is “part science blog, part comic, and part incoherent rambling: science edutainment at its finest.” Written – or rather drawn – by Katie McKissick, each post is a visual delight and will make you chuckle…and learn.

 

Top 10:

Gavin’s Story: Whole Exome Sequencing Finds Mystery Mutation by Ricki Lewis:

In a hotel ballroom on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania on a midsummer Saturday in 2010, an unusual roll call was under way at the Family Conference for the Foundation for Retinal Research. Betsy Brint, co-head of organization, was calling out what sounded like code words – CEP290, GUCY20, LRAT – and for each one, a few people would stand up, excited, then form little groups. After all 18 abbreviations had been called, representing the genes known to cause Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA), a few sets of parents were left standing. Troy and Jennifer Stevens, of Chino, California, were among those whose childrens’ genes and mutations were still a mystery….

Alain de Botton Tries Hand at Sex, Fails by AV Flox:

…..The next sections jump into “evolutionary-biological interpretation,” which we took to mean science, and which gave us the distinct impression that the author’s research of sex stopped at the work of William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson instead of starting there. That’s not surprising, though. ….

Even Deadly Snakes and Monkey Shit Couldn’t Stop Me From Excavating Maya Ruins in the Jungle by Charles Choi:

Snakes. In the ancient Maya ruins where I’m working at with archaeologists, the creatures we fear most are probably the snakes. That fact might sound like the punchline to an Indiana Jones joke, until you hear about the most dreaded serpent here in the jungles of Belize. The fer-de-lance is likely the deadliest snake in Latin America, packing an amputate-if-you’re-lucky bite if it goes untreated. Its long fangs can go right through a boot, and it’s aggressive – unlike many snakes that seem more afraid of us than we are of them, the fer-de-lance won’t hesitate to strike. ….

The importance of being Aquaman, or how to save the Atlantean from his briny fate by Andrew Thaler:

….There’s no way around it. Even with the huge amounts of heat Aquaman would produce as he burned through his daily 48,000 Calories, he is going to get cold. With little body fat and no fur to speak of, his heat retention potential is pitiful. Fortunately, there are plenty of simple solutions to the thermal problem. Unfortunately, almost all of them involve visible changes to his physique….

Moths, Memory, and Motivation by James Hathaway:

….We quickly found out that something that seemed simple – catching a bunch of pretty colored insects and putting them in boxes – was actually demanding and nearly endlessly complex and mysterious. A lot of the butterflies that were the coolest, the rarest, the most beautiful, lived in strange places – treetops, the edges of swamps and streams, sunlit clearings in deep woods – and only flew in certain seasons and specific times of the day – early spring, late afternoon. We learned why – mating rituals, foodplant availability, lifecycle requirements. We didn’t just read, we observed. We learned that the books were not always right – insects are really variable and behave differently in different locales. We developed hypotheses, collected information that supported or contradicted them. We learned, at least concerning a couple dozen species of butterflies in the part of upstate New York where we lived, how nature worked. Nature taught us the science we needed to use, and science taught us what there was to know. (Not that we knew enough to call it “science, “ of course.) It was like the world had opened up. ….

Pain Control by Shara Yurkiewicz:

She had only been in the hospital twice in her life: once when she was nine and now, 60 years later. She had gotten tonsils out then. She was getting tumors out now. Her abdomen hurt when she was awake. Her abdomen would also hurt during exploratory surgery, although she wouldn’t be able to feel it under general anesthesia. Her body would feel it, though, and could respond by dangerously spiking or plunging her vitals. She needed an epidural before surgery to keep the pain under control…..

Bad Chemistry by Deborah Blum:

The start of the story is this: In December 2008, a 23-year-old research assistant named Sheri Sangji accidentally set herself on fire while working in a chemistry laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles. She died 18 days later in a hospital burn unit….

Is Childhood Pertussis Vaccine Less Effective Than We Thought? by Maryn McKenna:

Delicately and cautiously, health authorities in the United States and other countries are beginning to open up a difficult topic: Whether the extraordinary ongoing epidemic of whooping cough, the worst in more than 50 years, may be due in part to unexpected poor performance by the vaccine meant to prevent the disease….

Meet the people who keep your lights on and Blackout: What’s wrong with the American grid by Maggie Koerth-Baker:

Power was restored today in India, where more than 600 million people had been living without electricity for two days. That’s good news, but it’s left many Americans wondering whether our own electric grid is vulnerable. Here’s the good news: The North American electric grid is not likely to crash in the kind of catastrophic way we’ve just seen in India. I’m currently interviewing scientists about the weaknesses in our system and what’s being done to fix them and will have more on that for you tomorrow or Friday….

New OCD Symptom: Tail Chasing by Elizabeth Preston:

…Dogs with compulsion may pace, chase imaginary flies, or lick their flanks until they get sores, despite their owners’ best efforts to make them stop. Certain breeds are especially vulnerable. A staple of canine compulsion is tail chasing, which frequently strikes bull terriers and German shepherds. On one forum, user MatrixsDad complains that his German shepherd “is constantly chasing and barking at her tail…She comes up and puts her backside against anyone who’s standing around so she can get a better view of her tail before she starts chasing it.”…

 

Special topic 1: Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer’s Deceptions by Michael C. Moynihan

Jonah Lehrer Resigns From The New Yorker After Making Up Dylan Quotes for His Book by JULIE BOSMAN

The deception ratchet by Bradley Voytek

Jonah Lehrer, Bob Dylan, and journalistic unquotations and More unquotations from the New Yorker by Mark Liberman

Neuroscience author resigns from The New Yorker after admitting to fabricating Dylan quotes. by Paul Raeburn

Jonah Lehrer’s Grievous Oraculism by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Jonah Lehrer throws it all away by Roxane Gay

How we decide (to falsify). by Janet D. Stemwedel

Original thoughts? by Eva Amsen

Can cheaters repent? by Christie Aschwanden

Jonah Lehrer debacle lesson: Do your homework by Randy Lewis

‘It’s hard to start at the top,’ says Sharon Waxman of Jonah Lehrer by Steve Myers

What Jonah Lehrer reveals about popular science writing by Daniel Bor

Jonah Lehrer Turned His Back On Science by Khalil A. Cassimally

15 Minutes of Meaning for Jonah Lehrer by Alexis Madrigal

Why I Still Really Like Jonah Lehrer by J.S. Adams

On Bob Dylan And Jonah Lehrer, Two Fabulists by Ann Powers

Jonah Lehrer’s missing compass by Seth Mnookin

 

Special topic 2: Algebra

Abandoning Algebra Is Not the Answer by Evelyn Lamb

Does mathematics have a place in higher education? by Cathy O’Neil

When Andrew Hacker asks “Is Algebra Necessary?”, why doesn’t he just ask “Is High School Necessary?” by Rob Knop

Yes, algebra is necessary by Daniel Willingham

Why Algebra Matters (and Why Andrew Hacker is Off-Target) by RiShawn Biddle

“Is Algebra Necessary?” Are You High? by Blake Stacey

A modest proposal by PZ Myers

Algebra Is Necessary, But What About How It’s Taught? by Melanie Tannenbaum

It’s Not the Algebra, It’s the Arithmetic by Mike the Mad Biologist

On Algebra, High Expectations, and the Common Core by Dana Goldstein

The end of algebra by Alexandra Petri

Mathematical Illiteracy in the NYT by Mark C. Chu-Carroll

In Defense of Algebra by Evelyn Lamb

Scientific American Math Doc Defends Algebra Ed by Steve Mirsky

Why We Need m(x)+b: A Response to “Is Algebra Necessary?” by Erik Kimel

 

Best Images:

Macro photographs of snails and insects in the rain by Vadim Trunov

An ant that protects herself with… um… butt foam and More hanging larvae by Alex Wild

URI Sci Comms Day with Bora Zivkovic by Katie, PhD

Teaching Molecular Biology with Watercolors by Rachel Nuwer

Could a Whale-Powered Bus Be the Future of Transportation? by Rachel Nuwer

Hypogean Wildstyle: Dominik Strzelec’s Byzantine Geology by Paul Prudence

Quite Possibly the Cutest (Accurate) Dinosaur Illustration Ever by Annalee Newitz

 

Best Videos:

Watch 131 Years of Global Warming in 26 Seconds by Climate Central

Women in science … on television?!? Evidently not by Emily Willingham

Is There Life On Mars? by KPCC

Ben Goldacre at TEDMED 2012 by TEDMED

London Plague of 1665 by Michelle Ziegler

Field Biology: setting and baiting traps by DNLee

Twitter Algorithm Predicts When You’ll Get Sick (8 Days In Advance, With 90% Accuracy) [STUDY] by Shea Bennett

Curiosity (the New Mars Rover) Explained by phdcomics

100 Gallons: Reflections From A Nation Powered By Water by Powering A Nation

Best Anole Documentary Ever by Jonathan Losos

Sight by Eran May-raz and Daniel Lazo

How Did Apollo Astronauts Learn to Land on the Moon? by Amy Shira Teitel

 

Science:

Antibodies found in Peruvians suggest natural resistance to rabies in local vampire bats and NIH emerges with new emergency medicine research hub by Kathleen Raven

What’s next for scientific teaching? by Zen Faulkes

Deep-sea squid can break off all its arms onto an enemy by Ed Yong

Catching Fraud: Simonsohn Says and Why Don’t Social Scientists Want To Be Read? and Social Science and Language, Again and DSM-5 R.I.P? by Neuroskeptic

If You Compare Yourself With Michael Phelps, Will You Become A Better Swimmer? and We Won. They Lost. by Melanie Tannenbaum

A trustworthy guide to black hole astronomy by Matthew Francis

Velcro Hairs Allow Ants to Hang Their Larvae by Alex Wild

I, For One, Welcome Our New Fishy Overlords by Ian O’Neill

Is this study the bane of crypto-zoologists? by Esther Inglis-Arkell

Vacation Adventure: The La Brea Tar Pits by Erin Podolak

Are climate sceptics more likely to be conspiracy theorists? by Adam Corner

Michael Phelps, Losing the 400IM, and His Taper by Daniel Lende

What Is the Nocebo Effect? by Joseph Stromberg

Why do women leave science? by Zinemin

Muller is still rubbish by William M. Connolley

Breakthrough: The First Complete Computer Model of a Living Organism by George Dvorsky

How The Fukushima Exclusion Zone Shows Us What Comes After The Anthropocene by Colin Schultz

Interdisciplinarity, Heritability, and Public Policy by Kris Hardies

Why Dogs Chase Laser Beams (and Why It Can Drive Them Nuts) by Natalie Wolchover

The Hunter Hunted: Searching for the Body of an Anatomist by Lindsey Fitzharris

The Devil’s Technology by Ross Chapman

Lives of the Deaf by Jaipreet Virdi

Clouding the Olympic issue, China style by Claire

I want to ration your health care by PalMD

Galápagos Redux: When Is It OK to Kill Goats? by Virginia Hughes, Michelle Nijhuis and Jason G. Goldman

Broken heartland: The looming collapse of agriculture on the Great Plains by Wil S. Hylton

Why Experts are Almost Always Wrong by Rose Eveleth

Work-Life Balance for Whom? by Athene Donald

Stiletto snakes by Andrew Durso

New Lights to Help ISS Astronauts Stay Alert by Liat Clark

The Vomit-Inducing Gemini 8 Mission and NASA’s Manned Grand Tour of the Inner Planets by Amy Shira Teitel

Artificial Beginnings: Understanding the Origin of Life by Recreating It by Eric Sawyer

To know a tiger is at least to start tolerating them, study shows and Tigers, people, and finding ways for both to thrive by Sue Nichols

Higgs Discovery: Personal Reflections by Matt Strassler

Did Gymnast Jordyn Wieber Perform Too Soon? In Olympic scoring, the last shall be first. by Karla Starr

Chop Like A Girl by Michelle Nijhuis

Curiosity readies for dramatic entrance and Mission control before the party and Curiosity to look for habitable environs by Nadia Drake

Why is Pluto not a planet? by Tristan Avella

Once upon a time: The possible story of viruses by Audrey Richard

How to pronounce “Muller’s Ratchet” by Jon Wilkins

The evolution of music by James Gaines

Sex testing and the Olympics: myths, rumours and confirmation bias by Vanessa Heggie

Light Pollution’s Potentially Harmful Effects Highlighted In New Film by Lynne Peoples

Taking the scenic route by Kelly Slivka

wesome Harry Potter Fan Decodes Wizarding Genetics: It’s All About Trinucleotide Repeats by Susana Polo

How the Elephant Makes Its Rumble by Veronique Greenwood

Swiss sheep to be outfitted to cry ‘wolf’ by text message by Agence France-Presse

TGIPF: Sex When You Can’t Hang On by Erik Vance

Human cycles: History as science by Laura Spinney

A HOT topic in transit by Taylor Kubota

Stiletto snakes by Andrew Durso

 

Media, Publishing, Technology and Society:

Imagining a ‘World Without Patents’… by Mark Summerfield

Five years as a science blogger – my experiences and how it began by Stephan Schleim

9 Reasons Why Running A Science Blog Is Good For You by Julio Peironcely

Top ten tips for blogging for scientists by Paul Knoepfler

The art and craft of science blogging by Daniel Blustein

Science Reporting Gone Wrong by Paige Brown

Reddit as a Science Outreach Tool by Brian Kahn

Setting Sail Toward a Science Communications Career by Liz Neeley

Journalists slow the environmental debate by Mari Kildahl

The journalistic method: Making the jump from science to journalism by Jessica Morrison

Does journalistic ‘balance’ hurt America? by Trudy Lieberman

The missing millions of Kibera and Kidnapped at birth and Grandma Obama’s support for domestic violence by Martin Robbins

#riscweet! How to Effectively Communicate Science on the Web by Viet Le

A New Age for Truth by Craig Silverman

Big data is our generation’s civil rights issue, and we don’t know it by Alistair Croll

 

Blogs of the Week so far:

May 11, 2012: Academic Panhandling
May 18, 2012: Anole Annals
May 25th, 2012: Better Posters
June 1st, 2012: Vintage Space
June 8th, 2012: Tanya Khovanova’s Math Blog
June 15th, 2012: Russlings
June 22nd, 2012: Parasite of the Day
June 29th, 2012: March of the Fossil Penguins
July 6th, 2012: Musings of a Dinosaur
July 13th, 2012: Contagions
July 21th, 2012: Life is short, but snakes are long
July 27th, 2012: Science Decoded

Best of July at A Blog Around The Clock

I posted 14 times in July. That is, on A Blog Around The Clock only (not counting the posts on The Network Central, The SA Incubator, Video of the Week, Image of the Week, or editing Guest Blog and Expeditions).

Brand new posts:

Science Blogs – definition, and a history
New research center in Madagascar opens today

Updates, News and Announcements:

Who is here around the clock?
Some upcoming events.

ScienceOnline interviews:

ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Trevor Owens
ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Emily Buehler
ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Kaitlin Vandemark
ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Michelle Sipics
ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Bug Girl

Best-of-the-Web linkfests:

The Scienceblogging Weekly (July 6th, 2012)
The Scienceblogging Weekly (July 13th, 2012)
The Scienceblogging Weekly (July 21th, 2012)
The Scienceblogging Weekly (July 27th, 2012)

Previously in the “Best of…” series:

2012

June
May
April
March
February
January

2011

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2010

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

2009

December
November
October
September
August
July
June
May
April
March
February
January

Science Blogs – definition, and a history

I have been asked recently to write an article, somewhat along the lines of this one but longer, and with a somewhat different angle, asking a little bit different questions: What makes a science blog? Who were the first science bloggers and how long ago? How many science blogs are there? How does one differentiate between science blogs and pseudo-science, non-science and nonsense blogs? The goal of the article is to try to delineate what is and what isn’t a science blog, what are the overlaps between the Venn diagram of science blogging and some other circles, and what out of all that material should be archived and preserved forever under the heading of “Science Blogging”.

We’ve had these kinds of discussions for years now… but I’ll give it my best shot. And I need your help – let’s crowdsource this a little bit. I was active on Usenet in mid-90s, started political blogging in 2003, but only joined the science blogosphere somewhere around late 2004 or early 2005. I am much more familiar with biology and neuroscience corners of the blogosphere than, for example, math, space or psychology circles (thought I increased my breadth as I was assembling this network). There were several science bloggers before me, posting their stuff for several years before I discovered them. They will know stuff I don’t. I hope bloggers, old and new, join me in this project, fix my errors, add missing information, and more, in the comments (and perhaps someone can put the final result on Wikipedia later on).

Defining a science blog

Defining a science blog – heck, just defining a blog – is difficult. After all, a blog is just a piece of software that can be used in many different ways.

What is considered a science blog varies, and has changed over the years. Usually it is meant to be a blog that satisfies one or more of these criteria: blog written by a scientist, blog written by a professional science writer/journalist, blog that predominantly covers science topics, blog used in a science classroom as a teaching tool, blog used for more-or-less official news and press releases by scientific societies, institutes, centers, universities, publishers, companies and other organizations. But is a blog written by a scientist that never covers science really a science blog? Is a blog by a PhD in dentistry who spews climate denialism in every post a science blog?

What is considered a science blog also changes with the advances in technology. There is now a fine-grained division of blogging into macro-, meso- and microblogging. Initially, this distinction was made by technology. Macroblogging happened on platforms like WordPress or Blogger, mesoblogging on sites like Posterous or Tumblr, and microblogging on social media like Twitter and Facebook. But technology moves, and now it is possible to do all three “sizes” (or is it “speeds”?) on any of those platforms – and some people do.

Is a one-liner posted on a blog the same as a one-liner posted on Twitter? Some posts on Facebook and Google Plus are longer and more thorough than some others that use the more traditional blogging platforms like WordPress, Blogger or Drupal. Yet G+ is very new and Facebook, until recently, had quite a short word-limit. Many people used blogging software to do very brief updates back when that was the only game in town. Today, quick updates, links etc. are done mainly on social media and many bloggers use the traditional blogging software only for longer, more thorough, one could even say more “professional” writing.

Finally, blogging is not just about text. There is photoblogging, videoblogging, podcasting etc. And for each of these specialized types of blogging, one can potentially use a traditional blog software, or instead choose to do it on social networks, or on specialized sites, e.g., Flickr, Picassa, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, YouTube, DeviantArt etc. Does all of that count?

The beginnings of science blogging

Pin-pointing the exact date when the first science blog started is a fool’s errand. Blogs did not spring out of nowhere overnight. The first bloggers were software developers who experimented with existing software, then made some new software, fiddling around until they gradually hit on the format that we now think of a ‘blog’ today. The evolution was gradual in the world of blogging, and it was also gradual in the more specific world of science blogging.

The earliest science bloggers were those who started out doing something else online – updating their websites frequently, or participating in Usenet groups – then moving their stuff to blogging software once it became available in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

As much of the early online activity focused on countering anti-science claims, e.g., the groups battling against Creationism on Usenet, it is not surprising that many of the early science bloggers came out of this fora and were hardly distinguishable in form, topics and style from political bloggers. They brought a degree of Usenet style into their blogs as well: combative and critical of various anti-science forces in the society. And certainly, their online activity had real-world consequences and successes, for example the Dover trial for which a decade of resources accumulated by the bloggers and their community, in some cases presented at the trial itself by those same bloggers, helped defeat a Creationism bill in a resounding manner that, in effect, makes all future efforts to introduce such bill relatively easy to defeat.

Phil Plait, Chad Orzel, Razib Khan, Derek Lowe, David Appell, Sean Carroll, P.Z.Myers (whose blog started as a classroom teaching tool), Tim Lambert, Chris Mooney, and Carl Zimmer were some of those early science bloggers. Panda’s Thumb blog and Larry Moran’s Sandwalk are for all practical purposes direct descendants of the old Usenet groups. Real Climate has, I believe, similar origins. Among early adopters of blogging software, rare are the exceptions of people who instantly started using it entirely for non-political (and non-policy) purposes, just to comment on cool science, or life in the lab etc., e.g., Jacqueline Floyd, Eva Amsen, Jennifer Ouellette, Zen Faulkes and Grrrlscientist.

In those early days, we pretty much all knew, read, linked, blogrolled and responded to each other, despite a wide range of interests, backgrounds, topics, etc. As the blogosphere grew, the nodes appeared in it, concentrating people with shared interests. Those nodes then grew into their own blogospheres. Medical blogosphere, skeptical blogosphere, atheist blogosphere and nature (mostly birding) blogosphere used to be all part of the early science blogosphere, but as it all grew, these circles became separate with only a few connecting nodes. Those connecting nodes tend to be veteran, popular bloggers with large readerships, as well as bloggers on networks like this one which tend to want to have representatives from many areas, e.g., medical bloggers mixed in with paleontology bloggers mixed in with space bloggers, etc.

Some key moments in the evolution of science blogging

I will now try to identify some of the events and developments in the history of science blogging that, in my opinion (and please disagree in the comments), were especially important in the direction science blogging evolved: the changes in styles, the growth in size, and the rise in respectability.

Tangled Bank, and other science blog carnivals

What is a blog carnival?

It is a crowd-sourced online magazine, occurring at a regular interval, usually rotating hosting blogs for each edition. Bloggers submit their best posts from a particular period or on a particular topic to the next editions’ host who accepts (or rejects) the entries, and edits a blog post that contains nicely arranged and introduced links to all the entered posts. Thus, it is a well-defined, well-archived, regular, rotating linkfest. Usually all the included bloggers link back to the carnival from their blogs (as well as other online sites, e.g., social networks) thus bringing attention and traffic to the host, as well as to all the bloggers whose work is included in that edition.

The very first such “rotating blog magazine” was started in 2005 under the name “Carnival of Vanities” (from which the phenomenon got its name) and the concept quickly spread like wildfire.

One of the very first carnivals was started by by P.Z. Myers. This was Tangled Bank (unfortunately, the archive appears to be gone). This weekly rotating linkfest helped science bloggers discover each other, promote themselves and each other, encourage new people to start blogging, and start building a community. Several spin-offs showed up later, e.g., Grand Rounds (medicine), Skeptics’ Circle (countering pseudoscience), I and the Bird (birds), Circus of the Spineless (invertebrates), Berry Go Round (plants), Change of Shift (nursing), Friday Ark (animals, mostly photos), Encephalon (neuroscience), The Accretionary Wedge (earth science), Carnival of the Blue (marine science), The Giant’s Shoulders (history of science), Festival of the Trees, Carnival of Mathematics, Carnival of Space, and a few dozen others. Some of those are still around, but most have closed after a good multi-year run.

I have written quite a lot about blog carnivals before, what they are, why people should participate, and how carnivals affect journalism and science.

With the more recent development of social media, the carnivals are not seen as important for community building as they once were. First came the feed readers, and feed aggregators (especially FriendFeed) that made it easier for one to track and filter blog posts and other content by topic or some other criteria. The primary function of the carnivals – to build community – could easily be done in these new spaces. Then Twitter came along, though it took some time for people to figure out how to use it, to invent various Twitter norms (e.g., RT, hashtags, @reply), and to build apps that make Twitter more useful (though this is now endangered).

A little bit later, Facebook bought FriendFeed and imported all of its good functionalities (e.g., “Like” button, “Share” button, “Friend of Friend”, “Pages”, video embed, toggling between “Top stories” and “Most recent” on the homepage feed, etc.), lifted the word-limit on status updates, made importing other feeds easy, and made long-form blogging easy as well. Finally, a year ago, Google Plus was launched – essentially FriendFeed on steroids, linked more and more intimately to all the other Google stuff, from your Gmail to Google Docs to YouTube to Picassa. Give them another year, and G+ will become what FriendFeed would have been if it was not sold and continued to be developed.

All of those platforms make community-building easier than traditional carnivals. It is easier to do. It is easier for newbies to join in and get noticed. It is easier for one to individualize a degree of engagement with that community. But easier the community-building gets, harder it is to perform the second key role of carnivals – as archives. Each edition of a carnival is a magazine, a snapshot of the moment, and a repository of pieces that both their authors (by submitting) and hosts (by accepting) thought were good and important. And when a carnival dies, and the archives’ host subscription expires, all those historically important links are gone!

In place of carnivals, what people tend to like these days are linkfests done by individuals who serve as trusted filters. I started doing it myself a couple of months ago, picking perhaps a third of the links I tweet over a period of a week and organizing those links in a single blog post.

In the very first installment of my Scienceblogging Weekly, I wrote:

Ed Yong’s weekly linkfests (like this one) and monthly Top 10 choices he’d pay for (see this for an example) are must-bookmark resources.

Some other bloggers are occasional or regular sources of links I pay attention to, e.g., John Dupuis on academia, publishing, libraries and books, Chad Orzel on academia and science – especially physics, Mike the Mad Biologist on science and politics, and the crew at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker for the media coverage of science. And at the NASW site, Tabitha Powledge has a must-read On science blogs this week summary every Friday.

These one-editor carnivals seem to be the fashion of today. But old-style carnivals were, in my opinion, better both at community building and as historical archives.

Research Blogging

Second important moment was the start of a new blog, Cognitive Daily, written by Dave and Greta Munger. They pioneered the form of blogging that was later dubbed ‘researchblogging’ – discussing a particular scientific paper (which is referenced at the bottom), usually in a way that lay audiences can understand.

At the time, science blogging was developing its own norms, as there is no such thing as “word limit” online (blog posts tend to be much longer than traditional news articles, not cutting out any relevant context out of the article), bloggers instinctively understand the value of links (which forces them to research much more thoroughly than the usual daily news article), blogs tend to have a more chatty and personal style, yet most science bloggers are either experts in their fields (thus no need to interview other experts just to get the quotes) or have acquired expertise by covering a topic for decades (e.g,. Carl Zimmer on evolution), thus can speak with authority.

Even today, but especially in the early days, bloggers usually did not care to cover brand new papers the moment the embargo lifts. In the early days, coverage of papers was quite rare. Apart from debunking pseudoscience, much of early blogging was more educational than journalistic – covering decades of research on a topic, or explaining the basics. If they covered a paper, bloggers were just as likely to cover an old, historical paper as a new one.

But when Dave and Greta started their blog, others took note. With the researchblogging style, not only can the blogger report on a paper, but there is also a way to embed videos, polls, animations, etc, to make the readers engage much more actively – which their readers did. In many a post they did a sort of quick-and-dirty replication of studies online, with readers as volunteer subjects.

This format of blogging rapidly took off – many bloggers started emulating it, and especially new bloggers immediately started doing this style of blogging, probably vastly outnumbering the anti-pseudoscience bloggers today. Formation of the ResearchBlogging.org site (more about it below), with its icon, code and aggregator, also made this type of blogging attractive to newcomers. Probably the best example is Ed Yong, who instantly took to the format, blogging about at least one paper per day, often covering nifty papers that the rest of the media missed. And Ed covered new papers. The moment embargo lifted. This was obviously journalism even to the most traditional eyes. This was something that other journalists, or people hoping to get into journalism, could also do. So they did. In droves.

Blog Networks

Third important moment in the history of science blogging was the start of science blogging networks. The first one was NPG’s Nature Network. It was essentially an accident – the site was supposed to do something else, but ended inviting people to write blogs instead. Unfortunately, due to technical architecture, it is not well connected to the rest of the world (for example: posts, if they show up on Google Blogsearch at all, show up with several days of delay). One had to remember to go there instead of having the links thrown in one’s face wherever one may be online. Also, the initial strategy of the network was to ask researchers to blog, but very few of them took to the format very well – most of their blogs had one post and then died. Those few who did start blogging well, found themselves isolated, not knowing who is reading them, or even how many did. After a decade, the network has undergone some changes, the bloggers have rotated in and out with some excellent writers there now, and it appears to be more visible now than it used to be when it first started.

The second network (launched in January 2006), Seed Media Group’s Scienceblogs.com was what really made a difference. Here was a media organization vouching for the quality of bloggers they hired to write on their site. And they picked bloggers who already had large readership and traffic, as well as clout online, the likes of P.Z.Myers, Orac, Grrrlscientist, Tara Smith, the Mungers, Revere, David Kroll, Tim Lambert, Ed Brayton, Razib, etc. This gave the network’s bloggers respectability, and the rest of the mainstream media got into a habit of checking Scienceblogs.com as their source of science news online.

A couple of other networks started relatively early in the history (Scientificblogging.org which was later renamed Science2.0, Discover, Discovery News, Psychology Today, Smithsonian…), but mainly dwelled in the shadow of Scienceblogs.com until the infamous #Pepsigate (more about that below). I wrote quite a lot about the role of networks at the time of Pepsigate, in my farewell post at Scienceblogs.com and a couple of more subsequent posts immediately after.

Open Laboratory

The fourth important moment was the first edition of the Open Laboratory, annual crowdsourced anthology of the best writing on science blogs. After five years of getting published at Lulu.com, the sixth edition is about to get published by FSG, imprint of Scientific American at MacMillan. Here was, as early as January 2007, a collection of some amazing blog writing about science, in traditional book format, built by the community itself. It really helped the community define itself. Gaining an entry into the anthology became a big deal. The Open Laboratory was a project designed to go together with the first ScienceOnline conference, and although the publication date is now completely different from the date of the meeting, the books are still a project of the ScienceOnline organization. The conference itself added to the feeling and spirit of the community in a way that gatherings of techie, skeptical, atheist or political bloggers could never accomplish.

For many people, seeing words printed on paper still carries a certain dose of respectability. After all, the real estate of the paper is expensive. A book is a result of a large investment of time, money and effort – either bottom-up, by the author (sometimes perceived as a result of a big ego), or top-down, with an editor choosing what material is worth the investment.

Open Laboratory turned that on its head. Authors submit what they think is their best work, trusting that a jury of peers will fairly assess them, choose the best pieces, perhaps improve them a little bit (more this year than in previous years), and that the entire community will help promote the final product. Inclusion of a blog post in #openlab is not just a result of the whim of an editor, but a result of two or three rounds of judging by multiple people all of whom are also science bloggers and writers. This mutual trust matters.

Awards

Early on there were Koufaxes, later Webbies, and all sorts of other blogging awards. Some of those had awards for science blogging. But if the managers of the award allow bloggers who only pretend to be scientists and use seemingly-scientific language to push pseudoscience (e.g,. global warming) into the Science section of the awards, then real science bloggers react with disdain, then ignore that particular award in the future. When the award is set up essentially as a popularity contest, and when such anti-science bloggers, due to hordes of followers, win such contests, then there is no real reputation linked to that victory, thus there is no need for science bloggers to expend their energies or in any way promote such awards.

Fortunately, over the last few years, a reputable award for science blogging emerged (the fifth important moment in the evolution of science blogging), the 3 Quarks Daily Award, with three rounds, one with reader voting, one with jury voting, and final judgement by the prominent judge who declares the final winners out of ten or so finalists. The winners get money, and proudly sport the 3QD buttons on the sidebars of their blogs.

The aftermath of #Pepsigate

The sixth important moment was #Pepsigate, when Scienceblogs.com broke up and about a quarter of the bloggers left. The time was ripe for it – there were too many science bloggers around, yet only blogs at Scienceblogs.com got any traffic or respect. That was an unstable situation. So many good bloggers were out there, writing wonderfully, but were essentially invisible under the shadow of “The Borg”.

In the wake of #Pepsigate, existing networks (e.g., Discover, Nature Network) redesigned their sites and brought in some of the bloggers fleeing Scienceblogs.com. New networks sprung up almost instantly to lure in more of these blogging veterans. There were new networks started by organizations like Wired, The Guardian, PLoS, NatGeo, AGU, ACH as well as self-organized science blogging collectives like Scientopia, Field Of Science, Science3point0 and Lab Spaces. The last one to launch was Scientific American network which just celebrated its first anniversary last week.

Being on one of these networks became a stamp of approval for the bloggers, and we quickly built Scienceblogging.org site (which is about to undergo a thorough rebuild and redesign, also a project of ScienceOnline organization) to help people find all of the networks, collectives and key group blogs all in one place. While the inclusion there is not as stringent a process as it is on ScienceSeeker.org, this site is also a proxy for quality in some ways, as most of the blogs appearing there wear the imprimatur of traditional organizations, be it the media, publishers, or scientific societies, or the warranty by their colleagues who invited them to join their collectives. This site has, to many in the mainstream media as well as bloggers and readers, replaced scienceblogs.com as the “homepage” where they start their day.

Aggregators

I have already mentioned above that an important moment in the history of science blogging was the start, by Dave Munger, of the website ResearchBlogging.org which aggregates blog posts from science blogs but only if the posts contain the code indicating that the post is covering a paper. The code also renders the citation correctly in the post itself. As the site has editors who decide which applicants can be accepted (or rejected), this became an unofficial stamp of approval, the first method of distinguishing who is and who is not a science blogger.

A couple of years later, when PLoS started accepting bloggers onto their press list, being a member of ResearchBlogging.org was the criterion used for acceptance to the press list (I should know – as I was the one doing the approval at the time as their blog/online manager). A little later, PLoS introduced its Alt-metrics on all of their papers. One of those metrics counts the number of blog posts written about the paper. Going through Google Blogsearch and Technorati bring in all sorts of spamblogs, or people who use blogging software to post copies of press releases, instead of genuine science bloggers. Thus PLoS used ResearchBlogging.org as a filter on their papers.

As ResearchBlogging.org is owned by Seed Media Group, now controlled by NatGeo, and as there seems to be no technical support, financial support, or development of the site any more, people who are using it are advised to switch instead to the successor site, ScienceSeeker.org – another project of the ScienceOnline organization, a much better site that serves the same purpose but also does much more, has some funding (and is asking for more) and is in constant development. Dave Munger is, again, one of the key people involved in the development of this site. At ScienceSeeker.org, one can filter by discipline, or only show posts that have the ResearchBlogging.org code in them, or only show posts that ScienceSeeker editors have flagged as especially good. Both ResearchBlogging.org and ScienceSeeker.org now count (as far as I know) around 1200 blogs on their listings (with much, but not total, overlap). More blogs need to be added for the site to become a more comprehensive collection, but blogs that are on there are a pretty good snapshot of the core of the scientific blogosphere today.

Size of the science blogosphere

It is relatively easy to count science blogs in “smaller” languages, e.g., German, Italian, French, Spanish or Portuguese, with several dozen each at most. It is much more difficult to count science blogs written in English, Russian, Chinese or Japanese – those most likely count in multiples of thousands. But it is impossible to make a good estimate as it depends on one’s definition.

Searching Google or Technorati brings up many blogs with a “science” tag that have nothing to do with science – or worse (spam blogs, anti-science blogs, etc). Researchblogging.org and ScienceSeeker.org are still too small to be useful for counting the total size of the blogosphere.

How does one count blogs that have not been updated in six months – on hiatus or dead? How does one count multiple blogs by the same person, perhaps not even updated simultaneously but successive editions of the blog (e.g., as the person moves from one network to another)? One blog or many? Does one count classroom blogs, at least those that are not set on ‘private’? How about institutional news blogs? Are they “real blogs” or just an easy software to use to push press releases? And do press releases count? We can fight over this forever, I guess, so I’d rather concede that blogs are uncountable and to leave it at that.

Rising power and respect

I have written recently, much more briefly than here, about the history of science blogging and the problem of delineation of who is in and who is out. In that article I also mentioned some events that added to the respect of science blogs, e.g., Tripoli 6 affair, George Deutch affair, the PRISM affair, and #arseniclife affair (finally concluded last night!), though there have been many other cases in which science bloggers uncovered wrongoing, or forced media to pay attention to something, or forced action on something important. Some of those cases involved clearing the record within science, others had effect on broader society or policy.

Each one of these cases strengthened the respect for science bloggers. In some cases they did a much better job reporting than the mainstream media did. In others, they tenaciously persisted on a story until they finally forced the mass media to pick up the story and broadcast it to bigger audiences that, in turn, could effect a change (e.g,. by calling their representatives in Washington). In many ways, science bloggers shocked the old system and built a new system in its place.

Increased reputation also came from cases in which bloggers solved scientific problems online, in public, for everyone to see. The most famous case is, of course, the Polymath Project, in which Tim Gowers and his readers solved an old mathematical problem in the long comment section of his blog post. The details of the project, as well as why it was so important for open science, were wonderfully detailed in Michael Nielsen’s book Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science.

The best such example to date is the #Arseniclife affair because it did two things simultaneously. First, the scientists with relevant expertise took to their blogs to critique, criticize and debunk the infamous paper about the uptake of arsenic instead of phosphorus by the DNA of a strange bacterium living in a Californian lake. That is not so new – bloggers criticize studies all the time, with expertise and diligence and thoroughness.

But importantly, the second thing also happened – the attempt at replication of the experiment was live-blogged by Rosie Redfield, describing in painstaking detail day-to-day lab work, getting technical feedback from the commenters, resulting in the Science paper demonstrating that experiment could not be replicated. This was a powerful demonstration of the process of Open Notebook Science as one of the things that scientists these days can do with their blogging software.

Professionalization of science bloggers

You may have noticed a few weeks ago the so-called Lehrer affair (scroll all the way down here for several representative links). In the aftermath, Seth Mnookin used his blog to further explore the professionalization of blogs and the blurring of the lines between blogging and mainstream journalism: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

One of the most interesting reactions by some of the Scienceblogs.com bloggers during #Pepsigate was “we are not journalists, I am not the media”. But they were. If your blog is indexed by Google News, hosted by a media company, you are the media. New media perhaps, but still media. More personal, more conversational, but still media.

The issue with Jonah Lehrer was something people called “self-plagiarism”, i.e., re-using one’s own old words in a new article. This is the clash between old media (“our content is exclusive!”) and new media (“my blog is my writing lab where I develop my ideas over time”). Judging from all the discussions, journalists, bloggers and readers are all over the place regarding this issue. Is it OK to re-use one’s old words if one is not paid? Is it OK if one is transparent (perhaps using links to old posts, or quotes – I am all for it and do it myself a lot)? Is it OK on a blog but not in an article (and how does a reader know what is what)? Is it OK to reuse one’s own tweet or Facebook update (because it is not always thought of as “blogging”, attitude which I find silly), but not OK to reuse words that occurred on a WordPress platform? What is the real difference here?

Obviously, the times are in flux. Some science bloggers would rather not be considered media, and not asked to write the way journalists write. Some prefer to use their blogs as writing labs, often repeating and reiterating ideas and words and sometimes entire passages in new contexts, with a new angle or twist, gradually adding and changing their own thinking over the years, introducing new readers to old ideas (after all, who digs through the years of archives?), with no intention of ever turning that material into commercial fare, e.g., a magazine article or a book.

If your beat is debunking anti-vaccination misinformation, how many ways can you do that if you post every day? And getting a couple of hundred dollars per month for editor-free posting on someone else’s site is not really “professional writing” in a traditional sense. Writing under the banner of a well known media organization, while it confers respectability by virtue of being chosen to be there, does not automatically means that blogging is the same as reporting news or writing professional op-eds. There is much more freedom guaranteed. More editorial control would require much more money in exchange.

On the other hand, some science bloggers see their blogs as potential marketing tools for themselves as writers. Their blogs are a different kind of a “writing lab” – a place to write more fine-tuned kinds of pieces, more ‘journalistic’, in hope of being seen and then getting gigs and jobs in the media. They tend to cover new papers, rather than write broader educational pieces. They try to proofread and polish their posts better. And why not? Nothing wrong with that. Just like there is nothing wrong with NOT wanting to do that either. Many scientist-bloggers really have no journalistic ambitions. Others do. Each has different goals, thus different writing styles and forms, slightly different ethics (neither one of them wrong, just different), and different understanding what their blogs are all about.

During one of those debates about professionalization of science bloggers, I sometimes heard a sentiment that bloggers with no journalistic ambitions should not confuse everyone by being on networks hosted by media organizations. As an editor of one of those networks, I beg to differ. I want all kinds of bloggers, all styles and formats, because I want to diversify our offering, I want to have something for every kind of reader – from kids to postdocs, from teachers to researchers and more. I want to blurry the line between old and new media, make it so new, more Web-native forms of stories become a norm, not just the old tired inverted pyramid.

The world of media is rapidly changing and, in many ways, returning to the many-to-many communication that we are used to, the 20th century broadcast model being the only weird exception in history. Mixing and matching various styles of communication in one place, especially a highly visible place, is a good thing for science, as each piece will be interesting to a different subset of the potential audience, which will keep coming back for more, looking around, learning how to appreciate other styles as well.

I want cool science to be everywhere in the media ecosystem – from movies and television, to theater and music, to newspapers and magazines, to books and blogs and tweets. I want the science communicators to practice the new journalistic workflow which assumes, almost by definition, that a lot one says will be repeated over and over again in various places in various contexts. Self-plagiarism does not make sense as a concept in this model. Self-plagiarism IS the new model – that is how good ideas get pushed (as opposed to pulled) to as many audiences, in as many places, over as many years as possible.

On one hand, bloggers need to adjust. Moving from indy blogs to Scientific American put a lot of our bloggers into a phase of self-reflection. They sometimes try to write perfect posts (and sometimes need encouragement to just throw things up on their blogs even if they are not entirely perfect). But blog posts are not supposed to be, with occasional exceptions, polished, self-contained pieces. A blog post is usually one of many in that person’s series of posts on the same topic, reflecting personal learning and growth over the years. Or a post on something new to the person, a way to organize one’s own thoughts about a very new topic. That post is also a part of an ongoing conversation the blogger has with regular readers and commenters. That post is also part of a broader online (and sometimes also offline) conversation.

A blog post is just a ginormous tweet in a series of other ginormous tweets, usually, but an occasional polished diamond is certainly welcome as well. It is a writing lab, after all, so occasionally a perfect article may appear. But focusing on that goal is misguided – a blog is a place to think in public. And if the media host understands that, then there is no question or problem of “self-plagiarism”.

On the other hand, readers also need to adjust. When they arrive at a media site, they should learn not to expect a self-contained inverted pyramid every time. Blogs have been around for fifteen years, they are not so novel any more, it’s easy to see if a place is a blog, if it reads like a blog, and one should know what one should expect on a blog. I think that most complaints in the comments are really trolling – people who dislike what scientific research concluded complain about typos, or format, or length, in order to divert the discussion that makes them personally uncomfortable. Our bloggers have full moderation powers to deal with such comments in any way they see fit.

Saving science blogs forever

A couple of weeks ago I was at a meeting at the Library of Congress about archiving and preserving all the science that is happening online – from data to journal papers to discussions. This includes blogs and social media as well. Here are is my own personal summary of what I learned there.

Capacity. Apparently, this is not a problem. LoC has as much space as needed to save everything forever.

Technical difficulties and link rot. Saving plain text is easy. But many formats, and especially concerning multimedia, will require some tough technical gymnastics. There are so many formats out there, it will be hard to make a repository that is easily searchable, browsable, complete, and usable. But it is not impossible.

I am a total technological Luddite – apart from HTML (and heavy use of the Web) I do not know anything about computers, code, internet and how it all works. But I know that if Dave Winer puts a lot of effort and time into a project and thinks it is important, one is wise not to ignore it. It may not work, or it may, but his track record suggests one should pay attention. After all, he picked up an abandoned old project and from it developed RSS (no, not RSS readers, the actual RSS infrastructure underneath it) – yes, the stuff that all of the Web runs on right now, how do you think you get all those articles brought to you, listed, automatically tweeted, etc.? Via RSS, of course. Dave also developed the first blogging software, promoted it, blogging took off, and now blogs are ubiquitous. Dave invented podcasting, and now it’s all the rage.

So I am watching carefully what he is doing with Radio2 and River2. I still have to play with it, see if I can figure out how to do it myself, but my first impression is that RSS, a super-simple blogging platform and something like open source Twitter had a wild orgy and this is their offspring. This looks like an easy, simple and open way for anyone to put any kind of content anywhere online, to curate one’s own and others’ content, and to easily move stuff from one place to another. And this last piece is, I think, the key. One can move a blog post, or entire blog, from one place to another and that does not change the URL and does not break the links. If something like this takes off and everyone uses it, the problem of link rot will become very minor.

And link rot is a big problem. After #Pepsigate, many bloggers feel the freedom to move from one network to another, or on and off networks, with considerable ease and speed. What happens to the archives? A couple of weeks ago, someone at National Geographic flipped the wrong switch and years of archives from almost a 100 science blogs were gone. Completely gone, even blocked from viewing at Wayback Machine and Internet Archive and Google Cache and what not. It took a dozen of tweets to get the attention of some of their bloggers who contacted the relevant person who flipped the switch back on Monday morning, making all those historically very important archives accessible again. See how easy it is to erase history? Perhaps with Radio2+River2, if it is universally used, this would not be a problem. Wait and see.

Curation. For a huge archive to be useful to users – and that’s what such an archive is for – it has to be organized in a meaningful way. Should it be by topic? Or by person? By narrow area, or by a whole discipline (human genome or entire genetics)? Or by technological platform (tweets to the left, datasets to the right, blog posts straight ahead)? Or separate independent blogs from network and institutional blogs? If all of the stuff all of the science bloggers in the world have ever posted on all of their blogs is to be archived and preserved, how should that material be organized? Chronologically, minute by minute? Or in chunks akin to blog carnivals? Or sorted by topic? Should papers be connected to blog posts that discuss those papers? Should #arseniclife be its own “unit”?

Another problem is privacy. Facebook has many privacy settings. Tweets, and some blogs, occasionally switch from private to public to private – what is a repository to do with stuff that is uncertain if it is private or public at any given time? Should the archiving be opt-in? In that case, how does one ensure that most of the people opt in so the repository is of decent completeness?

Also, many blog posts are reactions to other sites. A blog post may debunk a claim from a creationist, or anti-vax or GW-denialist blog, linking to it and quoting from it. If science blogs are preserved, but anti-science blogs are not, there will be link rot right there, preserving reactions without the context of the reactions. So perhaps all those antiscience and pseudoscience blogs should also be preserved – they may be bad science, but they are an important aspect of today’s society and will be interesting to future historians. In which case, how does one label them? They are clearly not science blogs (although some of them pretend to be), so they should not be just thrown into the same bag. Which is why this delineation between “real” science blogs and other stuff has to be made.

And how will this decision be made and by whom? Should something like ScienceSeeker be used as an edited, peer-reviewed collection of respected science bloggers? If so, how does one get more bloggers to know about this and apply to it?

BIO101 – Organisms In Time and Space: Ecology

This post was originally written in 2006 and re-posted a few times, including in 2010.

As you may know, I have been teaching BIO101 (and also the BIO102 Lab) to non-traditional students in an adult education program for about twelve years now. Every now and then I muse about it publicly on the blog (see this, this, this, this, this, this and this for a few short posts about various aspects of it – from the use of videos, to the use of a classroom blog, to the importance of Open Access so students can read primary literature). The quality of students in this program has steadily risen over the years, but I am still highly constrained with time: I have eight 4-hour meetings with the students over eight weeks. In this period I have to teach them all of biology they need for their non-science majors, plus leave enough time for each student to give a presentation (on the science of their favourite plant and animal) and for two exams. Thus I have to strip the lectures to the bare bones, and hope that those bare bones are what non-science majors really need to know: concepts rather than factoids, relationship with the rest of their lives rather than relationship with the other sciences. Thus I follow my lectures with videos and classroom discussions, and their homework consists of finding cool biology videos or articles and posting the links on the classroom blog for all to see. A couple of times I used malaria as a thread that connected all the topics – from cell biology to ecology to physiology to evolution. I think that worked well but it is hard to do. They also write a final paper on some aspect of physiology.

Another new development is that the administration has realized that most of the faculty have been with the school for many years. We are experienced, and apparently we know what we are doing. Thus they recently gave us much more freedom to design our own syllabus instead of following a pre-defined one, as long as the ultimate goals of the class remain the same. I am not exactly sure when am I teaching the BIO101 lectures again (late Fall, Spring?) but I want to start rethinking my class early. I am also worried that, since I am not actively doing research in the lab and thus not following the literature as closely, that some of the things I teach are now out-dated. Not that anyone can possibly keep up with all the advances in all the areas of Biology which is so huge, but at least big updates that affect teaching of introductory courses are stuff I need to know.

I need to catch up and upgrade my lecture notes. And what better way than crowdsource! So, over the new few weeks, I will re-post my old lecture notes (note that they are just intros – discussions and videos etc. follow them in the classroom) and will ask you to fact-check me. If I got something wrong or something is out of date, let me know (but don’t push just your own preferred hypothesis if a question is not yet settled – give me the entire controversy explanation instead). If something is glaringly missing, let me know. If something can be said in a nicer language – edit my sentences. If you are aware of cool images, articles, blog-posts, videos, podcasts, visualizations, animations, games, etc. that can be used to explain these basic concepts, let me know. And at the end, once we do this with all the lectures, let’s discuss the overall syllabus – is there a better way to organize all this material for such a fast-paced class.

Ecology

 

Ecology is the study of relationships of organisms with one another and their environment. Organisms are organized in populations, communities, ecosystems, biomes and the biosphere.

A population of organisms is a sum of all individuals of a single species living in one area at one time.

Individuals in a population can occupy space in three basic patterns: clumped spacing, random spacing and uniform spacing.

Metapopulations are collections of populations of the same species spread over a greater geographic area. There is some migration (ths gene-flow) between populations. Larger populations are sources and smaller populations are sinks of individuals within a metapopulation.

Population size is determined by four general factors: natality, mortality, immigration and emigration.

Natality depends on a number of factors: the proportion of the population that are at a reproductive age (as opposed to pre-reproductive and post-reproductive), proportion of the reproductively mature individuals that get to reproduce, sex-ratio of the reproductives, the mating system, the fertility of individuals (sometimes affected by parasites), the fecundity (number of offspring per female), the maturation rate (the amount of time needed for an individual to attaint sexual maturity), and longevity (amount of time an individual can live after reproducing).

Mortality is affected by bad weather, predation, parasitism and infectious diseases. It depends on the mortality of pre-reproductive stages (from eggs and embryos, through larva and juveniles), mortality of reproductive stages, and mortality of post-reproductive stages (often from disease or aging).

A population can, theoretically, grow exponentially indefinitely. However, in the real world, the growth is limited by the amount of space, food (energy) and predators. Thus, the population size often plateaus at an optimal number – the carrying capacity of that population.

Some organisms produce a large number of progeny, most of which do not make it to maturity. This is r-strategy. The population size of such species often fluctuates in boom-and-bust patterns.

Other organisms produce a small number of progeny and make a heavy investment into parenting and protecting each offspring, This is K-strategy. The population size of such species grows more slowly and tends to stabilize around the carrying capacity.

All populations show small year-to-year fluctuations of population sizes around the optimum number. Some species, however, exhibit regular oscillations in population sizes. Such oscillations often involve populations of two different species, usually a predator and its prey, the most famous example being that of the snowshoe hare and the lynx.

Correct prediction of future changes in a population size is essential for the assessment of the populations viability and for its protection.

A biological community is a collection of all individuals of all species in a particular area. Those species interact with each other in various ways, and have evolved adaptations to life in each others’ presence.

Niche is a term that describes a life-role, or job-description, or one species’ position in the community. An example may be a large herbivore, a nocturnal burrowing seed-eater, a seasonal fruit-eater, etc.

Within one community only one species can occupy any particular niche. If two species share some of their niche, they are in competition with each other. If two species occupy an identical niche, they cannot coexist – one of the species will be forced to move out or go extinct.

If two species compete for the same resource (food, territory, etc.), one will utilize the resource better than the other. Competitive exclusion is a process in which one species drives another species out of the community.

Complete exclusion is not inevitable. The competition between two species can be reduced by natural selection, i.e., one of the species will be forced to assume a slightly different niche. For instant, two species can geographically partition the territory, e.g., one living at higher altitude than the other on the same mountain-side. Two species can also temporally partition the niches, for instance one remaining active at night and the other becoming active during the day.

Predation is one of the most important interaction between species in a community. Predation often causes evolutionary arms-races between predators and prey. For instance, by killing the slowest zebras, lions select for greater speed in zebras. Greater speed in zebras selects for greater speed in lions.

The most interesting examples of evolutionary arms-races between pairs of enemies are those in which the prey is dangerous to the predator, often by being toxic or venomous. For example, garter snakes and tiger salamanders on the West coast are involved in one such arms-race. Prey – the salamander – secrete tetrodotoxin from its skin. This toxin paralyzes the snake. Locally, some snakes have evolved an ability to tolerate the toxin, but the side-effect of such evolution is that these snakes are slow and sluggish – themselves more vulnerable to predation by birds.

Ground squirrels (prey) in the Western deserts have evolved immunity to rattlesnake venom, so the rattlesnakes (predators) are becoming more venomous. Similarly, and in the same area, desert mice have evolved immunity to the toxin of their prey – the scorpions, resulting in increasing toxicity of the scorpion venom in that region (but not in areas where these two species do not overlap). A Death’s-head sphynx moth steals honey from beehives and has evolved partial immunity to honey-bee venom.

Many plants have evolved thorns or toxic chemicals to ward off their enemies – the herbivores. Monarch butterflies are capable of feeding on milkweed despite this plant’s toxic content. Moreover, the Monarchs store the noxious chemical they extracted from milkweed and that chemical makes the butterflies distasteful to their own predators.

The shape and color of the prey often evolves to protect from predation. Warning coloration, usually in very bright colors, informs the predators that the prey is dangerous. Aposomatic coloration is one commonly found kind of warning coloration – the black and yellow stripes on the bodies of many bees and wasps are almost a universal code for dangerous venomous stings.

Cryptic coloration, or camouflage, on the other hand, allows an animal to blend in with its surroundings. Many insect look like twigs, leaves or flowers, effectively hiding them from the eyes of predators. Some animals have evolved behavioral color-change, e.g., chameleons, some species of cuttlefish and the flounder.

Batesian mimicry is a phenomenon in which non-toxic species evolve to resemble a toxic species. Thus, some butterflies look very similar to Monarch butterflies and some defenseless flies and ants have aposomatic coloration.

Mullerian mimicry is a phenomenon in which two or more dangerous species evolve to look alike. This is “safety in numbers” strategy as a predator who tastes and spits out one of them, will learn to avoid all of them in the future.

Co-evolution does not occur only between enemies. It can also occur between species that positively affect each other. The best example is co-evolution of flowers and insect pollinators.

Symbiosis is a relationship between organisms that are not direct enemies (e.g,. predator and prey) to each other. Commensalism, mutualism and parasitism are forms of symbiosis.

In commensalism, one partner benefits, while the other one is not affected at all. For instance, birds building nests in a tree do not in any way affect the fitness of the tree.

Mutualism benefits both partners. The best known examples are lichens, mycorrhizae, and legumes. Birds that clean the skin or teeth of crocodiles, hippos or rhinos are protected by their hosts.

Parasitism is detrimental to one of the partners. Parasites that are too dangerous, i.e., those that kill their host, are not successful since they also die without leaving offspring. Thus, parasites evolve to be minimally harmful to their hosts. The same logic goes for infectious agents – the disease should help propagate the microorganism (e.g, by causing sneezing, diarrhea, etc.) without killing the host.

The organisms that make up ecosystems change over time as the physical and biological structure of the ecosystem changes. Right now, one of the effects of global warming is that some species migrate and others do not. Thus, old ecosystems break down and new ones are formed. The ecosystems are in a process of remodeling. During that process, many species are expected to go extinct.

When an ecosystem is disturbed to some extent, but not completely eradicated, the remodeling process that follows is called primary succession.

When an ecosystem is completely wiped out (e.g,. a volcanic eruption on an island), secondary succession occurs, with a predictable order in which species can recolonize the space. One species prepares the ground (quite literally) for the next one. The process may start with bacteria, lichens and molds, continuing with mosses, fungi, ferns and some insects, etc, finally ending with trees, birds and large mammals. The final structure of the ecosystem is quite stable over time – this is a mature ecosystem.

Previously in this series:

BIO101 – Biology and the Scientific Method
BIO101 – Cell Structure
BIO101 – Protein Synthesis: Transcription and Translation
BIO101: Cell-Cell Interactions
BIO101 – From One Cell To Two: Cell Division and DNA Replication
BIO101 – From Two Cells To Many: Cell Differentiation and Embryonic Development
BIO101 – From Genes To Traits: How Genotype Affects Phenotype
BIO101 – From Genes To Species: A Primer on Evolution
BIO101 – What Creatures Do: Animal Behavior

Blogs: face the conversation

The 20th century was highly unusual when it comes to the media and to the way people receive and exchange information. Telephone, telegraph, telegram, telex and telefax changed the way we communicated with each other. Inventions of radio and television, in addition to the final maturation of newspapers and magazines, changed the way people got informed (and subsequently educated after graduation).

Taking a long historical view, the 20th century was an exception, an anomaly.

But several generations grew up during that anomaly. And while the return to the older communication modes ushered and modernized by the Web, presumably more “natural” to us, may make it more pleasant to receive and exchange information today than it was in the last century, for most people there is also a sense of un-ease. There are habits that need to be broken. There are conventions that need to be re-standardized. There are mental abilities that need to be re-learned.

I have touched on some of these before. For example, in this older post I argued that abilities to assign trust to sources and to employ critical thinking need to be re-learned after a century on “automatic pilot”. I am not saying that our ancestors over the millennia were perfect, but at least they tried – these abilities were part of one’s everyday mental tool-kit.

In a more recent post, I argued that people will need to re-learn to discriminate between purely information-imparting texts from narrative and explanatory texts (and non-textual media) at a glance, without making automatic assumptions like they could do in the last century, i.e., just based on the “vessel’ in which the articles were held.

Now I am going to turn to yet another change in a habit of mind that has the 20th century media as a source and that Web is trying to revert: the continuity of the story.

And for that, the best approach, I think, is to start by looking at blogs and how they are changing the type of discourse on the Web. So, what is a blog?

Blog is software

Blog is primarily a platform. It is a piece of software that makes publishing cheap, fast and easy.

What one does with that platform is up to each individual person or organization.

Some media organizations publish their daily fare – the usual stuff you expect, e.g., news articles – on a blogging platform.

Others use it for PR and marketing. Or corporate news and announcements.

Some use it to engender political action, while others use it as a personal diary. Some use it to share kids’ photos with extended family, while some use it to post travelogues.

Remember that the first blogs were collections of links, without much additional input or commentary from the blogger. The tradition continues, and many bloggers still use their platform to filter the online content, to reach out to and support each other via links, or entire linkfests and blog carnivals. Other bloggers have moved that kind of community building efforts to social networks, like Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook and Google Plus.

Some use blogs to post images, be it original art, or photography, or photoshopped humor and satire, or LOLcats. Though many have since moved to image-specific online communities and platforms, like Flickr, Picassa, DeviantArt and even Tumblr (the latter still has not fixed the problem of losing proper credit and attribution to the original artist, often leading to breach of copyright or loss of livelihood to the artists, but I will let my colleagues discuss that on appropriate blogs on the network, e.g., Symbiartic and Compound Eye.)

Some use it to document their day-to-day scientific research, in what is now known as Open Notebook Science (see Rosie Redfield for an example, though many practitioners have moved to wikis as more suitable platforms for this).

Some use it as a classroom tool (either as a place for students to easily access the lecture notes, like I do with my BIO101 adult students, or as a place where students are supposed to publish their own work, e.g., see archives of Extreme Biology).

Some scientists use blogs to talk to each other. The level of detail is so great that nobody but experts in their field can understand (e.g., some math and chemistry blogs) or with the level of expertise that lay audience does not have but can understand and appreciate anyway (e.g., some paleontology blogs, like Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week). But that is OK – we are not the target audience, their peers are.

Others science bloggers write for educated lay audiences interested in science, including scientists in other fields. Yet others are trying to reach out to completely broad and lay audiences, including children, and including audiences that do not even know yet that science is cool.

Some science bloggers focus on the latest research (the Maestro of this form is Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science blog, but many others do this and their posts are aggregated at ResearchBlogging.org).

Others avoid discussing latest research and rather try to organize and systematically explain decades of research on a particular topic (see Tetrapod Zoology for a good example).

And yet others combine the two – using a recent paper to write “explainers” that provide historical context for it (I sometimes like to do that, e.g., see this post for an example).

I am sure I forgot another million ways blogging software can be used, and is used by other people. But these examples are illustrative – one can do whatever one wants with this software (see a good presentation about science blogs here).

Just here, at the Scientific American blog network, we have the “official” blog for corporate news and updates (@ScientificAmerican), a blog for editors to write in a standard journalistic form (Observations), a blog that is all about linking and filtering and networking and community building (The SA Incubator), a blog that combines updates/announcements with linking and community building (The Network Central), several blogs that are personal writings by our editors (though they are aware that they are always going to be seen as public faces of the organization), blogs by our network bloggers who write in various styles on a variety of topics at a broad range of “reading levels”, including those who focus on art, photography, video or music, and blogs where people outside of our organization can get published, though their work is chosen and approved by us, and lightly edited (The Guest Blog and Expeditions).

So even on a single blogging network, you can see a whole plethora of ways that the blogging platform can be used. You can find many more examples if you explore ScienceBlogging.org and ScienceSeeker.org. Blog. It’s just a piece of software.

Does it mean that the medium does not affect the message? Of course not…

Blog is writing with a voice

Let’s for now ignore organizational and corporate blogs and focus only on the blogs written by individuals as themselves and for themselves.

As many have written about before (including myself, focusing on the ‘phatic’ language usually missing from 20th century-style media), individuals’ blogs are inbued with personality. This does not mean they need to reveal anything about their personal life, not even who they are, what they do, and where they live. But their personality shines from each sentence. It seeps in-between the lines. You quickly get to know “where they are coming from”.

Here you are reading a person, not a conglomerate. And our brains are attuned to listening to other people, and to evaluate how trustworthy they are by listening to their voice, their personality. The 20th century media style forces the writers to assume the impersonal form, which in the age of the Web is disconcerting – where is the voice, where is the personality, how can I possibly trust the writing of a person I cannot quite figure out? So in such cases we have to fall back on trusting the brand, the banner up on top.

Personality breeds trust (yes – honesty, transparency, generosity with links, willingness to admit errors and other signs of humanness also contribute to trust, and they are also a part of the blogger’s personality – those things tell you something important about the person). And the personality makes you come back for more, over and over again, every day, or every time your RSS feed reader tells you there is a new post. You get to know the blogger over time, and with time your trust grows (or is diminished, in which case you abandon reading it and move on). And your repeated return to the same blog over time is an important aspect of what I am talking about – the importance of understanding the continuity of conversation online.

Blogging is writing without a safety net

This is the formulation that came from Dave Winer, one of the first bloggers. The earliest mention of the phrase I could find is here.

What does that mean: Blogging is writing without a safety net?

This means that you are on your own. Your work is all yours, and it rises or falls on its own merits. Nobody is fact-checking you before you hit “Publish” (though many commenters will afterwards), and nobody is having your back after your publish – you are alone to defend your work against the critics. If you are good and trusted, you may have a community of bloggers or commenters who will support you, but there is no guarantee.

You can see, from the above paragraph, that there are two senses of “blogging is writing without a safety net”. One concerns pre-publication – there is no editor to check your work. The other concerns post-publication – nobody protects you.

How does it work on our network?

Since I got this job, I try to come up to the office once a month to participate in the editorial meetings. I find the process fascinating! It takes months for an article to go from the initial idea to proposal through several drafts to the final product that gets published in our magazine in print, on the Web, or both. Every word is parsed, every fact checked – the pre-publication safety net is big and strong.

And once the article is published, the safety net is there as well – we stand by our articles, and will defend and support the authors. They have our institutional backing (I am not sure about all the legalese and details for extreme cases, so treat this as a general statement). If an error squeezes through, we try to be honest and transparent, correct the errors, publish Letters to the Editor about it, let someone write a rebuttal on the Guest Blog, etc.

How about our blogs?

Blogging is much faster. Things get written and immediatelly posted. This is part of the definition of a blog: “software that allows frequent, fast and easy updates”. Posts written by our editors and writers on the Observations blog (as well as on their personal blogs) may get a quick check by another editor, and by copy-editor. We trust each other we’ll get stuff right. And, if there is an error, we trust each other to correct errors with transparency. Very little pre-publication safety net, but the post-publication safety net is all there, in full force.

Guest Blog and Explorations have a little bit more of a pre-publication safety net. We actively ask for submissions, and we often get proposals. Thus, we have the ability to choose whose work goes there. Quackery, pseudo-scientific rants, or angry personal attacks will not show up there (or anywhere else on our site, for that matter). Some posts get more scrutiny than others (and on a rare occasion I may ask our copy-editors to proofread a post, or even send one out for “peer review” if it is outside of my area of expertise), but there is generally not much time for fact-checking and proof-reading – most of the posts get published in more or less the same form as they arrive. The editorial decision really comes in the choice of the authors – who we trust to write a good article. Then we let them do it. If an error sneaks in – the same principle applies as always: a transparent correction, offer of a rebuttal by a decent critic, etc., but we stand by our authors and will not pull down posts just because someone says so.

How about the bloggers on our network? Again, the editorial decision was primarily mine: who to choose. Once chosen (out of thousands of possibilities – see the bottom part, the very end of my introductory post for how I made choices), the bloggers are trusted to do their best and are left on their own. Nobody tells them what to write about and how to write it (this is the #1 Rule Of Blogging: never tell a blogger what to write about and how to do it).

There is zero pre-publication safety net: nobody ever sees their posts to edit, fact-check or proofread before they post (though they have the open option to ask us to do it if they want – the network is young, three weeks only, so we don’t yet know how often that will happen). But, just as if they were our own editors, we stand by them. It is up to them to correct errors if needed, etc., but we will not ask them to take posts down or exert any strong editorial influence on them (unless it is as bad as a Kanazawa-size blunder, but I don’t think I hired an equivalent of Kanazawa). That is how blogging works.

What is interesting to watch are comments and letters we sometimes get. Some people, arriving to our site via links from who knows where, do not yet have the developed ability to instantly distinguish between heavily edited finalized articles, editorial blogs posts, guest posts and posts by our network bloggers. Their expectations are often different from what they see. And they are not yet able to quickly figure it out (which is one of the reasons for writing this post you are reading right now, and why we take care to clearly label everything on the site, e.g., look up: it says “Blog” there).

Especially if they are unhappy with an article, they may use their misunderstanding of the form as an excuse for angry calls for lynching (or deletion of the article). If they are activists for something, they do not appreciate the very existence of articles that do not 100% toe their line. So they often misread the form on purpose, as they think they can intimidate us that way.

So, yes, our network bloggers are SciAm bloggers. And yes, their posts are SciAm publications (yes, “real” publications: they can put those posts in their portfolios, or use them as ‘clips’ when applying for jobs or memberships in journalistic organizations). But saying “I can’t believe SciAm would publish this” or “How can SciAm possibly let this author publish this”, shows basic misunderstanding of how the modern media works and what the media blogs are – we don’t “let” them publish. They are free to do so on their own. And we back them up afterwards. No pre-publication safety net. Full post-publication safety net.

Critics are free to post comments (and bloggers are free to moderate their comments – those are their personal spaces after all), free to write their own posts on their own blogs, and if a rebuttal article is offered we will carefully vet it before publishing (we are not a priori going to refuse any offer for a rebuttal – we actually like vigorous debate, but all actors in it have to stick to the highest scientific and journalistic standards if they expect their work to appear on our site).

And of course, there is an old truism: a commenter complaining about a typo is, in reality, unhappy about the content and the complaint is there as a way to derail the real conversation. This is a typical opening gambit in the comments by various denialists (we tend to get swarms of Global Warming denialists who are well organized and some of them paid to post comments, but other kinds occasionally show up as well).

Finally, one of the frequent complaints is “why did you write about A when I really want you to write about B”. Apart from breaking the #1 Rule Of Blogging (see above), this also comes from another misunderstanding – that blog posts are NOT meant to be a final word on anything.

For examples of all such types of comments (and you can use Google Blogsearch to find blog posts written in the same vein), just wade through the comment section of this blog post by Christie Wilcox, already one of the biggest hits (at least as measured by traffic, incoming links and comments) on the new network. And read the comments while keeping this post in mind. See?

Which brings us to an essential aspect of blogging…and I would argue of all of media as it slowly grapples with the Web and the realities of the 21st century.

Blog is conversation

Many people linked to and discussed this excellent article by Paul Ford last week. It is about what he calls The Epiphanator. It is about the way the traditional media ends its articles (or radio/TV segments) with a big, black period. Full stop. Resolution.

Contrasted to that are online social networks, where everything is in constant flow, there are no sharp endings, no resolutions.

Blogs are both.

A blog post is supposed to cover a topic reasonably well. Some blog posts – the best (and usually the longest) ones, may even put a big, black period at the end. Such posts may not get much in the way of comments (there is not much to add – it is all in the post already), but are likely to have a lot of traffic, especially accumulated over time, as such posts are viewed as useful resources. They are “Explainers” of sorts.

But good bloggers know that, if they want to get comments and a vigorous discussion, they need to have some I’s undotted and some T’s uncrossed. They purposefully leave openings, leave stuff unfinished, some lines uncolored, there for the commenters to fill in with their own crayons.

Moreover, one does not need to be an experienced blogger who does this purposefully for this effect to happen all the time anyway. It is in the nature of blogging to take only small chunks at the time. One writes on the fly. Jotting down one’s thought at the moment. A typical blog post does not even try to cover every angle of a bigger issue. Other angles of the same issue are covered elsewhere – in other posts by the same blogger, or in posts by others.

Very few bloggers focus narrowly on a single topic and beat it to death day in and day out. Those are usually activist bloggers of some sort, paying attention to – and responding to – every little bit of the mention of their topic in the media or other blogs, fighting a good fight for their cause.

This narrow focus works for such rare bloggers, but the idea that this is the best way to blog well (and I see that advice given all the time to novice bloggers – to focus, focus, focus) is misplaced.

Most people are not so narrowly focused in their own day-to-day lives. Most people have multiple interests, and even multiple areas of expertise. It is natural, if they are active online, that they cover a plethora of topics in their postings on their blogs or on social networks. Which is perfectly fine – their readers get an even fuller picture of the person, the personality, which helps them decide if they like and trust that person.

It is also natural to comment on stuff one has no expertise on. Out of curiosity. Using a blog as a tool for exploration. Using a blog as a writing laboratory.

A journalist may have to cover many topics – whatever the editor assigns. A journalist on a science beat may have to cover topics ranging from astronomy to zoology and everything in-between.

A blogger has the luxury of picking and choosing topics of one’s own interest of the day. And science bloggers are usually reluctant to go far and wide from their own area of expertise. Biology bloggers are unlikely to write about physics and vice versa. But that does not mean they will stick to a very narrow topic, just the narrow research line they are involved with (or used to be involved with) in the laboratory.

It is natural to be interested in other topics, and to explore them by writing about them: using the blogs as a way to study, to learn, to get feedback from experts in the comments, and to get entertained in the process. Blogging, after all, is supposed to be fun (or otherwise we’d all quit after a week of doing it). One may go through ‘phases’, focusing on a single topic for a while, covering everything one can about it, then, when the topic is exhausted, moving on to something else.

Thus, many a blog post starts with a link or two that connect it to something previously written by the same blogger (see the first three links in this post, for example) or by other bloggers, or occasionally by the mainstream media. These links provide continuity – the blog post is not supposed to be a finished product that can stand on its own. It is dependent on what was said before, and it connects to all sorts of supporting information, opposing opinion, tangential information, and more. It is a part of a conversation. It is one link in a chain. It is one segment of a long series.

I link to you, responding to or following up on or adding to what you wrote. Then you (or someone third) does the same by linking back to me. Conversation keeps going.

Now think about Christie Wilcox’s post in this context. Check out the rest of her blog (both the posts she wrote so far on this network, and the archives of her old blog). How many, out of hundreds of her posts, are about agriculture? One. This one. What are the other posts about? All sorts of other biology, environment, conservation, ecology, genetics, being a scientist and more. Whatever struck her fancy on any given day, within a range of topics on which she feels at least some confidence that she can cover it well.

So, her focus on the myths about organic farming are a one-off intellectual foray into a new topic. Will she return to it one day? I don’t know. Perhaps. Perhaps not. We don’t ever tell bloggers what to write about.

Does she have a right to write about it? Of course, everyone can. If nobody else is writing about your favorite topic to your liking, you have a right to start your own blog.

Does she have to also write about myths about industrial agriculture, for “balance”? No. That is up to her. But why? There is TONS of that stuff out there already. Lots has been written about industrial agriculture, nobody really likes the way it is done in the USA, and there is no need for yet another blog post about it. Her post was a part of a much broader conversation – why would anyone expect her to cover the whole issue in a complete manner? That would take a few books, not a one short blog post.

Christie, in her analysis of myths of organic agriculture, never defended the industrial kind. But for the activists, every critical look at organic is automatically a defense of industrial. Very black and white. So they demand she covers “the other side” (“I want you to write about A and not about B”), they insist she must be paid by Monsanto (heh, it would be nice if they paid for the study of genetics of lionfish), they call her names, and yes, they demand that SciAm removes her post. Sorry, but we do not tell our bloggers what to blog about and how.

When seen as a part of a broader conversation about food, and when seen in the context of what she normally blogs about and her blogging style, there is absolutely nothing she needs to change, or do different, or do in addition (there are no factual errors in her post, the quibbles by activists are mostly about her framing not being 100% pro-organic or anti-GMO). Her audience were regular folks who do not know anything about agriculture and may actually believe, as many do, the myths she was pointing out; her audience were not the activists. She had her say in the conversation. She was impartial, detailed and diligent in her research and writing. You want her to shut up? How undemocratic! And how blind about what blogging is all about.

But this also illustrates something else. Her post can be seen as an Explainer. With a big, fat period at the end. But, because it was an explainer on a very limited topic, it is also a part of River Of News – the constant stream of updates. It can stand alone for a narrow topic. But it is also a part of a bigger conversation on a broader topic. It serves both functions, depending on scale.

And it certainly did not end the conversation with a big, fat period. Several blog posts have appeared in response to hers, some praising her, some attacking her, some dissecting it to death, and some being just plain insulting (I linked to a few of them above). And most do not understand how media and blogs work in the 21st century.

Furthermore, the conversation is not over even on our own site. We will publish a response to her post on our site, probably next week. She may, if she wants to, respond to the response. And I also asked several other people to contribute their angles for the Guest Blog. So the conversation will continue. This is the 21st century and this is how it’s done. And hopefully people will, sooner or later, regain their mental abilities to distinguish, at a glance, between ‘finished’, stand-alone stories and stories that are parts of a larger conversation. And then respond to it accordingly and appropriatelly.

Image source

ScienceOnline2011 – interview with Kari Wouk

Continuing with the tradition from last three years, I will occasionally post interviews with some of the participants of the ScienceOnline2011 conference that was held in the Research Triangle Park, NC back in January 2011. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today I talk to Kari Wouk, Senior Manager of Presentations and Partnerships at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your (scientific) background?

I live in Durham, NC and work at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences in downtown Raleigh, NC. Philosophically, I believe that educating the public on science, and specifically the natural sciences, is the best way to make our world a better place. Educated people make the right decisions, whether to not kill a snake in their yard, or to go to school to become the next groundbreaking scientific researcher.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

After college, I traveled and worked day-to-day jobs, finally settling in the non-profit world. Working in the Museum has been my first “career” job. I have worked on many interesting projects. I was an AmeriCorps VISTA with Habitat for Humanity International and coordinated a initiative called Youth United, where youth fundraise and build a Habitat home. I worked for a computational science education non-profit and was the volunteer coordinator for a free clinic.

Most recently, I’ve worked with educational events at the Museum. I coordinate about 12 educational events per year – the largest, BugFest, gets 35,000 visitors. Right now, concurrent with BugFest planning, I am working with a team to plan the 24-Hour Opening for the Museum’s new wing, the Nature Research Center (NRC).

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

The Museum’s regularly-scheduled events are still happening, in addition to the 24-Hour Opening, where we expect 80,000 visitors over the 24 hours. Most of my time and passion are devoted to these two projects! Additionally, I am working with many outside partners to leverage their expertise to reach a broader audience. Many researchers find that working with the Museum, and the Museum’s excellence in education, helps them achieve their goals of broader impact. These projects are fun and sort of like a puzzle – I get to figure out where their project will fit best with the Museum’s many different programs and then I bring everyone together to brainstorm and make an action plan.

One goal is to continue the Museum’s excellent educational events and to add more with the opening of the NRC. The NRC’s focus is research and is tackling topics (microbiology, genetics, astronomy, technology) that the current Museum does not, which is very exciting and full of possibilities!

I am also striving to refine the process of partnering with outside organizations so that Museum staff is not taxed and the end product is of superior quality. Also, I would like to have science communication training so that researchers can, effectively, communicate directly with the public.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

I would love for scientists to be able to communicate directly with the public without boring them or being too technical. When done effectively, the scientist’s passion is communicated and the audience gets excited and inspired. As important as science communicators are, there is nothing like talking one-on-one with the person doing the research.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook and others? How do you intergrate all of your online activity into a coherent whole? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

Uh oh! Blogging does not figure into my work, unless I’m doing research for interesting topics to add to an event. I use Twitter and Facebook (well, our webmaster does) to advertise our events. I definitely feel that Facebook is a positive but not really a necessity. However, for the Museum as a whole, I DO feel that Facebook is a necessity. I’m still unsure about Twitter. Sorry!

When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any cool science blogs by the participants at the Conference?

I truly wish I had the time to read ALL the science blogs! You sent out that list recently and I read a couple and want to read them all, but then that’s all I would do! I am not very familiar with any of them.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2011 for you? Any suggestions for next year?

I really enjoyed meeting all the participants last year. I am so new to this field of “science online” and am just feeling my way around. Next year, I would like to see more offerings targeted to educators and researchers. Hopefully, the Museum can help with this for 2012.

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, or to your science reading and writing?

I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but I discovered the world of science blogging at the Conference. This is a fun and useful reference for all aspects of my job. It’s such an interesting world of communication that I had never exploited before.

Thank you so much for doing this, and I hope to see you soon down at the Museum (as well as at ScienceOnline2012 in January.

ScienceOnline2011 – interview with Kaitlin Thaney

Continuing with the tradition from last three years, I will occasionally post interviews with some of the participants of the ScienceOnline2011 conference that was held in the Research Triangle Park, NC back in January 2011. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today my guest is Kaitlin Thaney (Twitter).

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your (scientific) background?

Thanks, Bora. I’m Kaitlin Thaney (also known as “Kay”) – and I come from a company called Digital Science, where I serve as the group’s spokesperson for all public-facing activities as well as manage all external partnerships. My background is deeply steeped in open science stemming from my days at Creative Commons, where I managed the science division for over four years. I was brought over to London from my Boston outpost almost a year ago to join the Digital Science team, and help launch the new technology company, which spun out of Nature – the scientific journal.

I’m a technologist at my core, getting into science and infrastructure from a rather unscientific base (I started off as a journalist for The Boston Globe covering crime and the occasional scandal). I had always been interested in making information easier to access, originally from a public sector information perspective, and much in thanks to work with a First Amendment non-profit in Washington DC following a class with a gentleman named Dan Kennedy. Around that time, I met Hal Abelson, a computer science professor at MIT, and began working with him on a research alliance called iCampus – a project between Microsoft and MIT that funded faculty and student projects in education technology. After about a year of that, I found myself sharing an office with John Wilbanks, who had just come down from the World Wide Web Consortium to explore how you could extend the sharing and reuse principles that Creative Commons made so popular in film and in music to scientific research so we could accelerate discovery. And given a very personal pledge I’d made when I was 19 (you can read more about that here) to a friend with a rare disease, I decided to change course and jump on board. The rest, as they say, is history….

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

Where to start. There was breaking a big name scandal as a cub reporter at the Globe that was well … a bit controversial. At Reporter’s Committee (the First Amendment non-profit), there was my first two weeks on the job which happened to coincide with Hurricane Katrina and the Valerie Plame affair (we were the conduit for all statements made by Judy Miller, the jailed New York Times reporter). As an advocacy organisation championing better access to information, we became the hub for all access and information issues – even preserving raw footage from Katrina and locating loved ones – which was entirely unexpected, but exhilarating.

My time at Creative Commons was full of interesting projects, from following our open data work from inception to the launch of CC0 – the public domain waiver; our work with NIke, Best Buy and Yahoo to help them make their patent and innovation portfolios available for reuse for sustainability; to working with Stephen Friend to help create a commons infrastructure for Sage Bionetworks and making some incredibly high-quality data available for reuse.

There’s also my involvement with Science Foo Camp (“Sci Foo” for short), an unconference I help organise with my colleague Timo Hannay, and some absolutely outstanding folks from Google and O’Reilly. The event is now in its sixth year, bringing together 200-300 all-stars linked together by an interest in science – from Nobel laureates and entrepreneurs to postdocs and science fiction writers. It never ceases to leave me excited about science and technology.

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

Most of my time these days is spent on the road for Digital Science, speaking on the current state and future of digital research, from the implications socially, to the technical considerations one must keep in mind in order to ensure they’re building a system of maximum use to their audience, in line with that community’s behaviours and expectations.

Outside of spending time on the speaker circuit – both informally in London and on the road – I organise a number of events, including Sci Foo. While my main passion is to make research more efficient, I also love to connect people, and do so through an upcoming sister event to Science Online NC – Science Online London – as well as a side project I run with my tech partner-in-crime Matt Wood called ‘sameAs’. It’s an informal monthly geek meetup in London set in a pub, where we aim to bring together folks from all walks of life and interests around one set topic. You can find out more at http://sameas.us . There’s a tremendous value found, in my opinion, in conversations at the fringe with those outside of your immediate circle of “usual suspects”. sameAs strives to help facilitate those interests, as well as get people to think slightly differently about topics such as sound, visualisation, impact and reputation and the like.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

Personally, my interest lies a bit further upstream than the communication of science – in how the web can (and should) affect  the actual research process. We still are a ways away (though the technology exists) from having the efficiency that modern e-commerce systems such as Amazon or eBay allow for getting materials, doing better search. We’re getting there, and some disciplines are much further along than others, but we’re still far from having that well oiled machine that really, truly reduces some of the bottlenecks to research and allows for those at the bench to do better science. That’s where we’re focusing our attention at Digital Science – on using technology to help make knowledge discovery, information management and research administration (the “incentives” issue) easier. That to me is the most fascination aspect of how the web can really transform science, and we’re starting to see this already.

When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any cool science blogs by the participants at the Conference?

Peter Suber’s Open Access News (if that counts as a science blog) was my first introduction into this space. On the more sciencey side, I love Derek Lowe’s “In the Pipeline” and Vaughan Bell’s “Mind Hacks” (having had the opportunity to get to know both Derek and Vaughan at Sci Foo). There’s a treasure trove of content here, and I know I’ll forget someone key here if I try to list them all, so … I won’t try. 🙂 Perhaps I should just take a snapshot of my RSS Reader (though that’d likely just show you how backlogged I am with my reading … ).

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2011 for you? Any suggestions for next year?

The breadth of Science Online was staggering – and I tip my hat to Bora and Anton for not only bringing in such impeccable speakers, but really broadening the scope of the event beyond science blogging (where it got it’s start). I always enjoy the opportunity to put names with faces, which I was able to do at this year’s event, as well as finally join the bill (after having to unfortunately cancel a few year’s back). Absolutely tremendous job, guys, and thank you for letting me be a part of it.

Thank you so much. See you soon at Science Online London, and hopefully again in January at ScienceOnline2012.

Introducing: the new Scientific American blog network!

Yes!!! It finally happened! The shiny new Scientific American blog network is now live! We are excited to announce that 39 new blogs joined the network

Check out the press release and the blogs homepage. There are also some changes on the Scientific American homepage – more of those still to come.

I know you are all very eager to see who is on the network. So I will get to that really fast – the entire list is immediately below – and will leave the technical, conceptual and editorial details to the end of the post. But, there are a few people I need to thank first (just like on the Oscar night).

First, big thanks to Mariette DiChristina, SA’s Editor-in-Chief, and not just for having the courage to hire someone wild and woolly like me, but for her vision of Scientific American as a modern, fast, nimble and experimental media organization, not afraid to try new things knowing that some will succeed and others not so much. Without courage to try new things, an organization cannot be entrepreneurial and cutting edge. But with Mariette’s guidance, Scientific American has become exactly that. See also Mariette’s introduction to the network.

The entire editorial team embraced both me and this project from the very first day. But I want to especially point out Phil Yam (Managing Editor, Online) and Robin Lloyd (News Editor, Online) who helped me navigate the labyrinths of workflow in such a large and complicated organization (like nested Russian dolls, Scientific American is a part of Nature Publishing Group which is a part of Macmillan), as well as taught me something new and interesting about the media business and the editing job every day, often in the middle of the night! They are always there to answer my questions, to help out, and support me in my work.

Finally, what you see today could not have happened without the efforts of the amazing technical, design, product and marketing team who usually work behind the scenes without visible bylines on the articles, but deserve all the kudos for doing a great job: Angela Cesaro (Editorial Product Manager), Brett Smith (Project Manager), Nick Sollecito (Senior Developer), Raja Abdulhaq (Development Consultant), Ryan Reid (Art Director, Online), Michael Voss (VP of Marketing), Rachel Scheer (Corporate Public Relations), Jamie Sampson (Senior IT Project Manager), Li Kim Lee (Web Analyst) and Carey Tse (Online Marketing Manager).

And now, the blogs…

Many of you are familiar with the eight blogs we’ve already had on the site for a while (Observations, Expeditions, Guest Blog, Solar At Home, Anecdotes From The Archive, Extinction Countdown, Bering In Mind, and Cross-Check). That number has now grown to 47. Here they are:

Editorial blogs
We now have six editorial (or “editorially-controlled”) blogs – written or edited by Scientific American editors and staff in our official capacity.

@Scientific American is a brand new blog, where several senior editors and managers will provide you with up-to-date updates on everything that is new at Scientific American: from product launches (including apps, books and more) to actions and events, from website enhancements to new issues of the magazines (both Scientific American and Scientific American MIND), from new hires to behind-the-scenes activities, including stories we are working on (and perhaps you can help us with your feedback).

– You might already be familiar with the Observations blog, as it has been around for years. With several posts daily, this busy place features opinion and analysis by Scientific American editors, writers and correspondents.

The Network Central is the blog you are on right now. This is where you will get updates about the SA blog network, including weekly summaries, Q&As with bloggers, updates on all the new plugins, widgets and functionalities, additions of new bloggers, and more. Also, in the spirit of cooperation and sharing, I will also do regular round-ups of the most interesting stories from all around the science blogosphere, including both independent bloggers and those on other networks. If there is breaking news, or interesting events, I will take a look at the coverage by science bloggers wherever they are.

– At the Expeditions blog, we invite researchers, students or embedded journalists to send in regular dispatches from their field work. Currently, we have three ongoing series: Squid Studies on ‘New Horizon’, MSU China Paleontology Expedition and The South Pacific Islands Survey, and we just recently finished the Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife series. Go on a virtual trip to explore the world together with our explorers! Or, if you are about to go out into the field to do research, let me know if you are interested in liveblogging your adventure.

The Scientific American Incubator is a new experiment. The Incubator will be a place where we will explore and highlight the work of new and young science writers and journalists, especially those who are currently students in specialized science, health and environmental writing programs in schools of journalism. There, we will discuss the current state and the future of science writing, and promote the best work that the young writers are doing.

– The Guest Blog has recently become one of our most popular blogs, with daily contributions (some invited, some submitted to us) by a wide variety of authors, in a wide variety of forms and styles, but particularly noted for the prevalence of good long-form writing. It was said that: “Based on #OpenLab nominations, @SciAm Guest Blog is becoming science blogging’s #TED: a place people step up and do their best work. ” And we overheard later: “The @sciam @sciamblogs Guest Blog is an incredible resource: a forest of stories planted by wonderful scientist-writers”. So, dig through the archives (just keep clicking on the “See More” button at the bottom of the page), and then come back to check it out every day.

Blogs by Scientific American editors, writers and staff

There are now six personal blogs written by SA employees. Two are already familiar to most of the site visitors, and the other four are new. There are likely to be more of them launched over the following weeks and months, so stay tuned for the announcements.

A Blog Around The Clock is my own personal blog. There, I will continue to cover both the areas of science I am interested in – circadian rhythms, sleep, animal physiology and behavior, and evolution – and more ‘meta’ topics, like science communication and education, the world of media, and the World Wide Web.

Anecdotes from the Archive. You may have heard that Scientific American is almost 166 year old. That is a lot of archives to go through. Mary Karmelek is digitizing all those archives, and while she does that she often encounters interesting old articles and images that make great topics for blog posts: to see how the world has changed since then, and what we’ve learned in the intervening decades.

Budding Scientist. Anna Kuchment, the Advances editor, will be the main host of this blog. Here, with the help of Scientific American editors, scientists, and other contributors Anna will share ideas for involving kids in science early and often. She will also bring you up to date on the latest news about science education, encourage you to share your own ideas and projects, and answer your questions. This blog will also serve as a hub for Scientific American’s many other education-related ventures, including the Citizen Science initiative, Bring Science Home, 1,000 scientists in 1,000 days, Google Science Fair, and more.

Degrees of Freedom is the brand new blog by Davide Castelvecchi, our math and physics editor, and a wizard at making complex mathematical and physical concepts understandable, exciting and fun. And every now and then, you can expect a brain teaser or a math puzzle – something for you to try to solve.

Solar at HomeScientific American editor George Musser, after using this blog to document his effort to solarize his home will, now that the project is done, broaden his topics to whatever piques his interest including, I am guessing, everything from cosmology and space to energy and environment.

Streams of Consciousness is the brand new blog by Ingrid Wickelgren, an award-winning journalist and author, and an editor at Scientific American MIND. On this blog, Ingrid will explore the brain, the mind, and especially the minds and the brains of children.

Independent blogs and bloggers

Let me introduce the four group blogs first:

Symbiartic is the blog dedicated to the exploration of the intersection between science and art, between nature and the visual representation of it. It is curated by artist Glendon Mellow and science illustrator Kalliopi Monoyios. This is a blog where the two of them act as hosts and curators. They will look around our network and around the WWW as a whole, to find and present work by other artists in a variety of domains of visual art: art, illustration, data visualization, sculpture, architecture, design, cartoons, comic strips, photography, etc. They will conduct interviews with artists and showcase their work, and invite artists to post guest-posts. They will showcase their own work, and also discuss how the widespread electronic communication is changing the notions of copyright in the visual realm. They will write How-To technique posts and then conduct reader critiques and reader contests. They will also help me choose the “image of the week” for the blog network homepage. If your names seem familiar, it is perhaps because you already saw them on our site – Scientific accuracy in art by Glendon, and Art in the service of science: You get what you pay for by Kalliopi.

PsiVid is a blog very similar in concept to Symbiartic – except here, the images are not still but are moving. Hosted and curated by Joanne Manaster and Carin Bondar, this blog will focus on video, movies, television, animations and games – how they present and treat science, and how they can be used in science education and popularization. You may remember that Carin has already published a couple of pieces with us (Apple, meet Orange and Reflections on biology and motherhood: Where does Homo sapiens fit in?). At PsiVid, Joanne (cell biologist) and Carin (evolutionary biologist) will host discussions, interview film-makers, showcase interesting videos, teach video techniques and host reader contests. They will also help me pick the “video of the week” for the homepage.

– At Plugged In, two young scientists – Melissa Lott and David Wogan – and two veteran writers – Scott Huler and Robynne Boyd – will explore how our civilization uses energy, how our infrastructure works, how this impacts the environment, and what can each one of us as an individual do to make a positive impact on the health of the planet. You have seen some of them on our site before, e.g., Melissa (Texas “Tea” becomes the Texas “E”?), David (Power from pondscum: Algal biofuels, Deja vu: What does the Gulf oil spill tell us about the Japanese nuclear and From fuel to film: The story of energy and movies), Melissa and David together (Waste to Energy: A mountain of trash, or a pile of energy?), Robynne (The low-carbon diet: One family’s effort to shrink carbon consumption and Epiphany from up high: Can a suburban family live sustainably?) and Scott (How Does Sewage Treatment Work?). This group blog will have a breadth and diversity of topics, a broad range of ‘reading levels’, a lot of science, and a little bit of everything else. Should be both useful and fun!

Creatology – Every July I will invite a few recent graduates from a science writing program at a journalism school to run a blog here for one year – they will be good colleagues to one another, members of the same cohort in school and living in the same town so they can easily work together and help one another. They will have a sandbox here to do whatever they want, experiment with a variety of media forms: text, images, audio, video, data visualizations, animations, diavlogs, ‘explainers’ and more. The first year, this blog is Creatology, blog run by three recent graduates from the Science Journalism program at City University London. They are Christine Ottery, Gozde Zorlu and Joe Milton. You may have seen Gozde’s name at ScientificAmerican.com before, as well as a number of Christine’s reports. I am looking forward to seeing what they do over the course of the year.

Here comes the long list of individual bloggers and their new blogs:

Anthropology In PracticeKrystal D’Costa is an anthropologist in New York, and a huge Mets fan. She is a writer and digital strategist and her interests include (online and offline) networks and identities, technology, immigrants, and history. And New York. And coffee. And baseball. This blog, continuing where she left off at the old blog of the same name (as well as at The Urban Ethnographer where she will make you fall in love with New York City), will look at the ways the urban environment shapes urban culture and affects the way we relate to each other – both offline (see Hold that door, please! Observations on elevator etiquette) and online (see Weinergate: Private Records in a Public Age). Advice: there is something essential to have when reading Krystal’s posts – a cup of good coffee, so you can sit back, relax and enjoy.

The Artful AmoebaJennifer Frazer knows her fungi! With a degree in plant pathology and mycology, Jennifer decided to become a science journalist and writer. She graduated from the MIT science writing program and worked for newspapers and as a freelancer. And I hear she may have a book in the future. Her blog (see the previous incarnation) looks at biodiversity, especially of critters we don’t often hear about – not whales or pandas, but things like moss-animals, Ediacarans and giant viruses. Important to note: Jennifer’s posts are always a visual treat as well, with lush illustrations (sometimes drawn by herself) and photographs of the alien-looking creatures.

Assignment ImpossibleCharles Q Choi likes to have fun letting his imagination run wild. A long-time blogger and a frequent contributor to Scientific American, Charles likes to ask questions like “what is too hard for science to do?“, or “what is easy to do and why hasn’t been done yet?”, or “what discoveries come straight out of Science Fiction?”, or “what wild place on Earth can I travel to in order to report cool science?” Watching this blog will be a fun ride for all of us.

Basic SpaceKelly Oakes is one of the youngest bloggers on the network, just about to shed the title of “undergraduate student” as she finishes her final year studying physics at Imperial College London. Kelly writes about space and astrophysics, trying to make it interesting to non-scientists and fun to read. Along with the research and studies, Kelly also edits the science section of Felix, the student newspaper at Imperial College. You can also see Kelly’s previous article at our Guest Blog – Habitable and not-so-habitable exoplanets: How the latter can tell us more about our origins than the former.

Bering In Mind is one of the eight old SA blogs you are probably familiar with. Written by psychologist and author Jesse Bering, this blog does not shy away from controversial topics, ranging from science of religiosity (Jesse’s latest book is The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life), to science of sexuality, to science (and personal and cultural angles) of homosexuality. If you are looking for long, active, vibrant discussions in the comments, you are likely to find one or two on Jesse’s blog at any time.

Cocktail Party Physics – Yes! Scientific American and Discover are now officially connected through marriage! I don’t know if her husband, physicist Sean Carroll, checks her science while she fixes his prose, I still think we got the better half – the amazing writer Jennifer Ouellette. If you think it’s hard to make physics fun, think again, but first you’ll have to read Jennifer’s blog, old news reports, or some of her books with titles like “The Physics of the Buffyverse”, “Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales of Pure Genius and Mad Science” and “The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse”. That is fun! As she was, until recently, the Director of The Science & Entertainment Exchange, it is not surprising that there is a lot about movies and Hollywood in her posts, along with the science and its history. I am delighted to welcome Jennifer to the network.

Compound EyeAlex Wild is an entomologist studying ants. He is also a professional photographer with his subjects, not surprisingly, being mostly small, six (and sometimes eight) legged, winged and with hard exoskeletons. It is this latter side of his expertise, the nature photography, that Alex will mainly bring to this new blog. Amazing photographs, technical advice for amateur photographers, and what it all means for promotion of nature and science! All this with a touch of insect taxonomy and evolution on the side.

Context And VariationKathryn Clancy is a biological anthropologist who focuses mainly on female reproduction – from physiology, to medicine, to society, to policy. Her previous blog got on everyone’s radar when she wrote (almost live-blogged) her own personal experience with in-vitro fertilization. That takes some courage! To get an idea what to expect, see also Kate’s previous appearance on out site: I don’t have a 28-day menstrual cycle, and neither should you. Of course, the blogging cycle is much more regular than that ;-)

Cross-Check by science writing veteran John Horgan is a fixture by now on our blogs. You may have already learned that this is the place to go to enjoy John tackling controversial topics, and to jump into lively comment discussions on topics ranging from the origins of war, to evolutionary psychology, to ‘who is wrong on the Internet this week’. His long career in journalism and a huge rolodex of sources also allow John to be fast and accurate when there are breaking news for which the scientific angle needs to be explained before the rest of the media botch it all up.

Crude Matter by Michelle Clement (formerly at the C6-H12-O6 blog) is about all the gunk and goo that makes the bodies of humans and other animals work, all the solids, liquids and gasses that exist in our bodies and are sometimes ejected out of them. In one word: physiology! How the body works can be approached in different ways, from medical perspectives to energetics, from ecology to evolution. Michelle does a little bit of all of it. And she is not afraid to sometimes blog about her own body – what it is, what it does, what it wants, and what it is hurting from. Another recent refugee from the lab bench to the newsroom, Michelle is a fascinating person and an exciting writer. But you’ll see that for yourself as the blog proceeds in the future. For starters, check out her SciAm Guest Blog post What’s the deal with male circumcision and female cervical cancer?.

Culturing ScienceHannah Waters has done research in the field, studying coastal marine ecology, and in the lab, studying epigenetics of yeast ageing, before deciding to move in a very different direction and try for a career in science writing. Apart from the archives of the previous edition of Culturing Science, see also her other blog Sleeping with the Fishes and her previous Guest Blog post Now in 3-D: The shape of krill and fish schools. Every area of biology, from molecules to ecosystems, is fair game for Hannah’s blog, as well as some wise discussions of science education and communication. Welcome to the network, Hannah!

Disease ProneJames Byrne is a PhD student in Microbiology and Immunology all the way in Adelaide, Australia (so he may be sleeping at the time readers from other continents are posting comments on his blog). His interests, well represented in his blogging, include the cause of diseases (human and non-human patients alike) and the history of medicine. James has published two articles with us so far – Bacteria, the anti-cancer soldier and Divine intervention via a microbe, which can give you some idea of the range of his topics and the style of his writing.

Doing Good ScienceJanet Stemwedel is the Cool Aunt of the scienceblogging community. With two PhDs (in chemistry and philosophy), Janet works as a professor of philosophy of science and is a veteran blogger, covering philosophical, sociological and ethical aspects of science with a characteristic cool. Also, as a parent, she is involved in, and often blogs about, science education in everyday life, including her wonderful Friday Sprog Blogging series.

EvoEcoLabKevin Zelnio is a marine ecologist, invertebrate zoologist, freelance writer, musician and a veteran of several blogs over the years. He is one of the editors (and the webmaster) at Deep Sea News. His new blog here, EvoEcoLab, will explore the intersection of ecology and evolution, as well as the way these two disciplines affect us, humans. To get a glimpse of Kevin’s writing, check out his previous SA posts – To catch a fallen sea angel: A mighty mollusk detects ocean acidification and A World Ocean.

Extinction Countdown is one of the eight blogs we already had before the launch of this network, so you may already be familiar with it. John Platt is a journalist specializing in environmental issues and, on this blog, he covers conservation issues, looking at various species (mostly but not exclusively animals) at the brink, their conservation status, the efforts to save and protect them, and the scientific, cultural and political dimensions of the struggle to preserve the Earth’s biodiversity.

Guilty Planet – After taking a year off from blogging, Jennifer Jacquet is back! You may remember her old blogs – the original Guilty Planet or, before it, Shifting Baselines. Her blog bio states that she is “a postdoctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia researching cooperation and the tragedy of the commons” yet what this means is that Jennifer studies ecology, mainly marine ecology, often in a very complex mathematical ways, as well as conservation and the cultural, societal and policy aspects of saving the biosphere, especially the oceans. See her previous Scientific American contribution – Ecologists: Wading from nature to networks.

History of Geology – When the hustle and bustle of busy life wears you down, when you come back home exhausted after a long day at work, when it’s time to put on your slippers and fix yourself a Martini on the rocks – that is a perfect moment to visit David Bressan who will transport you to his small town in Italian Alps and take you to a journey through the slow history of earth science, and even slower movement of glaciers – David’s scientific expertise. You will notice your heart beating slower, and your high blood pressure going down. Be nice about an occasional error – I bet his English is better than your Italian. To get a taste of his style, check out The discovery of the ruins of ice: The birth of glacier research and Climate research in the geologic past, David’s prior contributions to Scientific American.

Lab Rat – A biochemist turned microbiologist, Shuna E. Gould writes about bacteria, bacteria and bacteria at the Lab Rat. And it never gets old – as there are so many bacteria and they do so many wondrous things! Alongside with her blog here, Shuna also hosts the ConferenceCast blog on our sister network, Nature Scitable Blogs. Her previous Guest Blog post is Synthetic biology: Building machines from DNA.

Life, UnboundedCaleb Scharf is currently the director of Columbia University’s multidisciplinary Astrobiology Center. He has worked in the fields of observational cosmology, X-ray astronomy, and more recently exoplanetary science. He is also the author of the undergraduate textbook “Extrasolar Planets and Astrobiology”. His blog explores the research on the origins of life and the possibilities of life emerging on planets other than ours. How does Caleb think about this? See in How to find a habitable exoplanet: Don’t look for one.

The OcelloidPsiWavefunction is the pseudonym for a young researcher in a relatively small but exciting field of Protistology – studying a wide variety of organisms with an amazing diversity of biochemistry, physiology and behavior, that all have a nucleus in their cells, but are usually too small to see without a microscope. As this group of organisms is much less studied than others, e.g., animals, plants, fungi or bacteria, new studies quite often completely reshuffle the taxonomy of the group, or even change the notions we have on the origins and early evolution of Eukaryotes (organisms with cells that have a nucleus). Thus, evolution and systematics are big topics on the blog. As many of those organisms are unfamiliar to most of us, and as images and photographs of them are not easily available, Psi often draws them for the blog posts, and those drawings are really cool.

OscillatorChristina Agapakis is a biologist with a freshly minted PhD from Harvard. She is also a designer, a movie-maker and a writer with an ecological and evolutionary approach to synthetic biology and biological engineering. With her blog Oscillator, with the Icosahedron Labs and the video-making Hydrocalypse Industries she works towards envisioning the future of biological technologies and synthetic biology design. And makes really cool science movies! Check Christina’s Guest Blog post – Mixed cultures: art, science, and cheese.

The Primate DiariesEric Michael Johnson got his Master’s degree in Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke, focusing on great ape behavioral ecology. He is currently a doctoral student in the history of science at University of British Columbia looking at the interplay between evolutionary biology and politics in England, Europe, and Russia in the nineteenth century. His blog, Primate Diaries, has been traveling for a year – Eric exclusively did guest posts on other blogs for a year, before deciding to settle down here at Scientific American. Master of historical long-form writing, Eric has published on our Guest Blog before – A primatologist discovers the social factors responsible for maternal infanticide.

The Psychotronic GirlMelody Dye has a degree in philosophy and intellectual history from Stanford University and is a current NSF IGERT fellow in cognitive science at Indiana University at Bloomington. She is interested in developmenal and cognitive psychology, especially the process of learning language in children. Melody is also a professional photographer. She is also a co-blogger on the Childs Play blog and has published with us in the Mind Matters column, including Why Johnny Can’t Name His Colors (also published in the print version of Scientific American MIND) and The Advantages of Being Helpless.

The Scicurious BrainSciCurious is a neuroscience postdoc, researching actions of neurotransmitters. But on the blog, Sci is fun, and Sci writes in third person singular. With images – some funny images, some weird images, and some gross images. There are posts explaining the basics of how the brain works. There are posts covering the brand new research. There are posts covering old, classical papers. And there are posts covering bizzare research, especially about, erm, reproduction. Sci has published twice with us so far – The antidepressant reboxetine: A ‘headdesk’ moment in science and Serotonin and sexual preference: Is it really that simple?, the latter one going on to win the prestigious 3 Quarks Daily prize.

Science Sushi – Christie Wilcox is a marine biologist working on her PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Hawaii. I once said about her blogging that “When Christie Wilcox dissects a scientific paper or an issue, that is the sharpest, most definitive and usually the final word on the subject. ” I still stand by that statement. Christie is thorough. Yet great fun to read. See for yourself – How do you ID a dead Osama? and Bambi or Bessie: Are wild animals happier?

Science With MoxiePrincess Ojiaku is studying neuroscience at North Carolina Central University, and plays bass in an an awesome band. So it is not surprising that her blog often connects these two aspects of her life, from discussing neuroscience (and other science, like physics) of music perception, to interviewing scientists who are also musicians. Obviously, this blog will rock!

Tetrapod Zoology – there is no science blogging network without someone writing about dinosaurs, right? Well, Darren Naish does it here, and he knows what he’s talking about as he’s named and described a few. But his blog is about much more than just dinosaurs. Darren covers, in great detail, all kinds of living and extinct tetrapods (vertebrates with four legs, or whose ancestors had four legs), their taxonomy, their anatomical, physiological and behavioral adaptations, and why some of them are so hard to find out in the wild. He has published Do Giraffes Float? in the Scientific American print magazine, as well as a three-part post on the new systematics of Iguanodons – The Iguanodon explosion: How scientists are rescuing the name of a “classic” ornithopod dinosaur, part 1, The explosion of Iguanodon, part 2: Iguanodontians of the Hastings Group and The explosion of Iguanodon, part 3: Hypselospinus, Wadhurstia, Dakotadon, Proplanicoxa…. When will it all end?. Needless to say, there are always interesting discussions in the comments, often featuring quite a range of experts in various areas of zoology.

The Thoughtful AnimalJason G. Goldman is a graduate student in developmental psychology at the University of Southern California, where he studies the evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind in humans and non-human animals. On his blog, Jason usually discusses the latest research in animal and human behavior, neuroscience and cognition. I also closely worked with Jason last year, in his role as the Guest Editor of Open Laboratory 2010. Jason has also been quite a regular contributor to our Guest Blog, so you should check out Man’s new best friend? A forgotten Russian experiment in fox domestication, Turkey talk: The social cognition of your Thanksgiving dinner, Impact of the Japan earthquake and tsunami on animals and environment and Digitizing Jane Goodall’s legacy at Duke.

ThoughtomicsLucas Brouwers received his MS in the program for Molecular Mechanisms of Disease at Radboud University Nijmegen. He writes about science for a Dutch newspaper, he blogs and he’s recently reported for us from the Lindau Nobel conference. Lucas covers mainly evolution, usually from a molecular or bioinformatics angle. His previous Guest Blog article was We all need (a little bit of) sex.

The Urban ScientistDanielle N. Lee did her PhD research in animal behavior and she sometimes blogs about it, as well as about evolution, ecology (often urban ecology) and mammals. But her main strengths are in blogging about science education and outreach, especially to women and minorities, and she does it often herself – both at the old version of this blog and in her other project – SouthernPlaylisticEvolutionMusic where she uses hip-hop to explain basic evolutionary concepts. Check out her Guest Blog post – Under-represented and underserved: Why minority role models matter in STEM.

The White Noise – Last on this list due to the vagaries of the alphabetical order, but most certainly not the least, let me introduce you to Cassie Rodenberg. With a degree in chemistry, and love of herpetology, Cassie turned to science journalism and never looked back. After stints in local newspapers and another popular science magazine, Cassie is now interactive producer for Discovery’s Emerging Networks, including Discovery Fit & Health and Planet Green. The topic of her new blog is addiction. Every angle of it: chemicals, brain, behavior, culture, society, policy and more. And yes, personal experiences with addiction involving people around her. That is courageous. Knowing how well she writes, and suspecting how personal some of this will be, I expect her blog to make for some amazing, riveting and emotional reading.

Some more notes about the network

First, let me tell you a little bit how I chose the bloggers, and what is the concept and vision for the network.

Over the past nine months, since I got hired to develop this network, I checked out thousands of science blogs, dug deep into the archives of several hundred of them, then closely followed, day-by-day, about 200 of those, removing some and adding some over time, finally managing to whittle it down to about 42 who I ended up inviting.

Though not absolutely unique in this, Scientific American is very rare in completely incorporating the blogs and bloggers into its website and daily workflow. A blog is just a piece of software. We are trying to eliminate the artificial line between “blogging” and “journalism” and focus on good, accurate writing, no matter what form it comes in or what software is used to produce it. Our bloggers are a part of our team, as ‘continuous correspondents’ or ‘full-time freelancers’. Thus, I made careful choices keeping this in mind – I invited bloggers whose expertise, quality of writing, and professionalism fit well with the mission and general tenor of our organization.

Diversity

The vision for the blog network I have is a collection of people who bring to Scientific American a diversity of expertise, backgrounds, writing formats, styles and voices, who will bring diverse audiences to Scientific American. They differ in typical lengths of posts, in posting frequency, in the “reading level” of their work, in the use of non-textual media, and in their approach to science communication. Each one of them will appeal to a different segment of our readership: from kids to their teachers, parents and grandparents, from the hip-hop culture to the academic culture, from kindergarteners to post-docs.

Another thing I was particularly interested in was to find bloggers who in some way connect the “Two Cultures” as described by C.P.Snow. Some connect science to history, philosophy, sociology or ethics. Many are very interested in science education, communication and outreach. Some make connections between science and popular culture, music, art, illustration, photography, cartoons/comic strips, poetry, literature, books, movies, TV, video, etc. Several produce such cross-discipline and cross-cultural material themselves – at least two are musicians, two are professional photographers, several produce videos, two are professional artists, a couple are authors of multiple books, some produce their own blog illustrations. But there are also commonalities – they all have strong knowledge of their topic, they strictly adhere to the standards of scientific evidence, they are all very strong writers, and they are all enthusiastic to share their work with a broader audience.

When I put together this group, with such diverse interests and styles, it was not surprising to discover that, without really having to try hard to make it so, they also display diversity in many other areas: geography, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, personal/professional/scientific background and more. This is something that is important for science, and is important in the science blogging world.

So, as I expect that several of you are already counting, let me make this easy for you. We have 47 blogs with 55 bloggers. Of those, our editors and staff make up 13 people (8 women, 5 men), while independent bloggers make up the difference with 42 of them (25 women, 17 men). That is a total of 22 men and 33 women writing on our network. The age ranges from 22 to 58, with the mean around 32 and median around 31 (at least when including those who are willing to admit their age).

While geographic concentration in New York City is mainly due to the fact that most editors and staff have to come to our NYC office every morning, the rest of the bloggers are from all over the country and the world (see the map of some of their birthplaces) and also currently live all over the place (see the map) and, as academic and other jobs require, move around quite often. Right now, other urban centers with multiple bloggers are Vancouver city and area (4), Triangle NC and surrounding area (4), Urbana-Champaign, IL (3), Los Angeles, CA (3), London, UK (3), Columbus, OH (2) and Austin TX (2). There are bloggers in Australia, Italy, Netherlands, Canada (5) and the UK (6). And the birthplaces also include Trinidad, Hong Kong, Belgrade (Serbia) and Moscow, Russia (two bloggers).

Size of the network

Will the network grow any more? Perhaps, but not fast, and not by much. This is pretty much the ideal size for a network, and getting much bigger becomes unpleasant for bloggers, managers and readers alike – there is a potential loss of the feeling of community, as well as a fire-hose of posts in the feed. This size is, as Goldilocks would say, just right – neither too small nor too big. We’ll try to keep it that way. As is to be expected, every now and then a blogger will decide to leave and pursue some other career avenue, which will open up a slot for someone new. One of the blog spots is designed to exist only one year at the time. And at least two blogs – the Guest Blog and Expeditions, are here to provide the platform for many others who are not regularly writing for our network.

Commenting

As regular users of our site know, commenting on our articles requires registration with Scientific American. But, for the posts on our new blogging network, there will soon be two additional log-in options: you will be able to log in with either your Twitter or your Facebook ID and password. Providing additional options is necessary to foster conversations and build our community.

We are about to update our official rules for commenting on the editorial blogs. Independent bloggers will have their own rules for what is appropriate behavior in their comment threads. Most, but not all bloggers will moderate comments ‘post-publishing’, i.e., deleting already posted comments that are deemed to be spam or in other ways inappropriate. A couple of bloggers will moderate pre-publishing, i.e., they will first have to approve those comments that will show up on their sites.

I know this post was long, but I hope you at least managed to go and visit all the blogs, and say Hi to the new bloggers in the comments. I think this is going to be great fun for all of us. Subscribe to feeds and keep coming back to see what these wonderful writers have prepared for you each day.

Thank you!

New at Scientific American : Introducing the blog network!

We have an exciting announcement to make this morning. Our new blog network has launched!

To our existing lineup of eight blogs you are all familiar with, we have added another 39. There are now six editorial blogs, six personal blogs written by our editors and staff, and 42 independent bloggers who will write on our platform starting today.

Bookmark the new Blogs Home Page and read the official press release.

Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina, has written a welcome post, explaining what the network means to Scientific American.

And I have written an introductory post in which I introduce all the blogs and bloggers on our brand- new network.

This is a stellar lineup of bloggers. Give them a hearty welcome in the comments of their introductory posts, and keep coming back to read their amazing writing.

The line between science and journalism is getting blurry….again

 

Human #1: “Hello, nice weather today, isn’t it?”

Human #2: “Ummm…actually not. It’s a gray, cold, windy, rainy kind of day!”

Many a joke depends on confusion about the meaning of language, as in the example above. But understanding the sources of such confusion is important in realms other than stand-up comedy, including in the attempts to convey facts about the world to one’s target audience.

In the example above, Human #1 is using Phatic language, sometimes referred to as ‘small talk‘ and usually exemplified, at least in the British Isles, with the talk about the highly unpredictable weather. (image: by striatic on Flickr)

Phatic language

Phatic discourse is just one of several functions of language. Its role is not to impart any factual information, but to establish a relationship between the people. It conveys things like emotional state, relative social status, alliance, intentions and limits to further conversation (i.e., where the speaker “draws the line”).

If a stranger rides into a small town, a carefully chosen yet meaningless phrase establishes a state of mind that goes something like this: “I come in peace, mean no harm, I hope you accept me in the same way”. The response of the local conveys how the town looks at strangers riding in, for example: “You are welcome…for a little while – we’ll feed you and put you up for the night, but then we hope you leave”. (image: Clint Eastwood in ‘Fistful of Dollars’ from Squidoo)

An important component of phatic discourse is non-verbal communication, as the tone, volume and pitch of the voice, facial expression and body posture modify the language itself and confirm the emotional and intentional state of the speaker.

It does not seem that linguistics has an official term for the opposite – the language that conveys only pure facts – but the term usually seen in such discussions (including the domain of politics and campaigning) is “Conceptual language” so this is what I will use here. Conceptual language is what Human #2 in the joke above was assuming and using – just the facts, ma’am.

Rise of the earliest science and journalism

For the sake of this article, I will use two simplified definitions of science and journalism.

Journalism is communication of ‘what’s new’. A journalist is anyone who can say “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.”

Science is communication of ‘how the world works’. A scientist is anyone who can say “I understand something about the world, you don’t, let me explain it to you”.

Neither definition necessitates that what they say is True, just what they know to the best of their ability and understanding.

Note that I wrote “science is communication”. Yes, science is the process of discovery of facts about the way the world works, but the communication of that discovery is the essential last step of the scientific process, and the discoverer is likely to be the person who understands the discovery the best and is thus likely to be the person with the greatest expertise and authority (and hopefully ability) to do the explaining.

For the greatest part of human history, none of those distinctions made any sense. Most of communication contained information about what is new, some information about the way the world works, and a phatic component. Knowing how the world works, knowing what is happening in that world right now, and knowing if you should trust the messenger, were all important for survival.

For the most part, the information was local, and the messengers were local. A sentry runs back into the village alerting that a neighboring tribe, painted with war-paints, is approaching. Is that person a member of your tribe, or a stranger, or the well-known Boy Who Cried Wolf? What do you know about the meaning of war-paint? What do you know about the neighboring tribe? Does all this information fit with your understanding of the world? Is information coming from this person to be taken seriously? How are village elders responding to the news? Is this piece of news something that can aid in your personal survival?

For the longest time, information was exchanged between people who knew each other to some degree – family, neighbors, friends, business-partners. Like in a fishing village, the news about the state of fishing stocks coming from the ships at sea is important information exchanged at the local tavern. But is that fish-catch information ‘journalism’ (what’s new) or ‘science’ (how the world works)? It’s a little bit of both. And you learn which sailors to trust by observing who is trusted by the locals you have already learned to trust. Trust is transitive.

Someone in the “in-group” is trusted more than a stranger – kids learned from parents, the community elders had the authority: the trust was earned through a combination of who you are, how old you are, and how trustworthy you tended to be in the past. New messengers are harder to pin down on all those criteria, so their information is taken with a degree of skepticism. The art of critical thinking (again, not necessarily meaning that you will always pick the Truth) is an ancient one, as it was essential for day-to-day survival. You trust your parents (or priests or teachers) almost uncritically, but you put up your BS filters when hearing a stranger.

Emergence of science and of journalism

The invention of the printing press precipitated the development of both journalism and science. But that took a very long time – almost two centuries (image: 1851, printing press that produced early issues of Scientific American). After Gutenberg printed the Bible, most of what people printed were political pamphlets, church fliers and what for that time and sensibilities went for porn.

London Gazette of 1666 is thought to be the first newspaper in the modern sense of the word. (image: from DavidCo) Until then, newspapers were mostly irregular printings by individuals, combining news, opinion, fiction and entertainment. After this, newspapers gradually became regular (daily, weekly, monthly) collections of writings by numerous people writing in the same issue.

The first English scientific journal was published a year before – the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London in 1665 (image: Royal Society of London).

Until then, science was communicated by letters – those letters were often read at the meetings of scientists. Those meetings got formalized into scientific societies and the letters read at such meetings started getting printed. The first scientific journals were collections of such letters, which explains why so many journals have the words “Letters”, “Annals” or “Proceedings” in their titles.

Also, before as well as for a quite a long time after the inception of first journals, much of science was communicated via books – a naturalist would spend many years collecting data and ideas before putting it all in long-form, leather-bound form. Those books were then discussed at meetings of other naturalists who would often respond by writing books of their own. Scientists at the time did not think that Darwin’s twenty-year wait to publish The Origin was notable (William Kimler, personal communication) – that was the normal timeline for research and publishing at the time, unusual only to us from a modern perspective of 5-year NIH grants and the ‘publish or perish’ culture.

As previously oral communication gradually moved to print over the centuries, both journalistic and scientific communication occured in formats – printed with ink on paper – very similar to blogging (that link leads to the post that served as a seed from which this article grew). If born today, many of the old writers, like Montaigne, would be Natural Born Bloggers (‘NBBs’ – term coined by protoblogger Dave Winer). A lot of ship captains’ logs were essentially tweets with geolocation tags.

People who wanted to inform other people printed fliers and pamphlets and books. Personal letters and diaries were meant to be public: they were as widely shared as was possible, they were publicly read, saved, then eventually collected and published in book-form (at least posthumously). Just like blogs, tweets and Facebook updates today….

The 18th century ‘Republic of Letters’ (see the amazing visualization of their correspondence) was a social network of intellectual leaders of Europe who exchanged and publicly read their deep philosophical thoughts, scientific ideas, poetry and prose.

Many people during those centuries wrote their letters in duplicate: one copy to send, one to keep for publishing Collected Letters later in life. Charles Darwin did that, for example (well, if I remember correctly, his wife made copies from his illegible originals into something that recipients could actually read), which is why we have such a complete understanding of his work and thought – it is all well preserved and the availability of such voluminouos correspondence gave rise to a small industry of Darwinian historical scholarship.

What is important to note is that, both in journalism and in science, communication could be done by anyone – there was no official seal of approval, or licence, to practice either of the two arts. At the same time, communication in print was limited to those who were literate and who could afford to have a book printed – people who, for the most part, were just the wealthy elites. Entry into that intellectual elite from a lower social class was possible but very difficult and required a lot of hard work and time (see, for example, a biography of Alfred Russell Wallace). Membership in the worlds of arts, science and letters was automatic for those belonging to the small group of literate aristocracy. They had no need to establish formalized gatekeeping as bloodlines, personal sponsorship and money did the gatekeeping job quite well on their own.

As communication has moved from local to global, due to print, trust had to be gained over time – by one’s age, stature in society, track record, and by recommendation – who the people you trust say you should trust. Trust is transitive.

Another thing to note is that each written dispatch contained both ‘what’s new’ and ‘how the world works’ as well as a degree of phatic discourse: “This is what happened. This is what I think it means. And this is who I am so you know why you should trust me.” It is often hard to tell, from today’s perspective, what was scientific communication and what was journalism.

Personal – and thus potentially phatic – communication was a norm in the early scientific publishing. For example, see “A Letter from Mr J. Breintal to Peter Collinfoxl, F. RXS. contairnng an Account of what he felt after being bit by a Rattle-fnake” in Philosophical Transactions, 1747. – a great account of it can be found at Neurotic Physiology. It is a story of a personal interaction with a rattlesnake and the discovery leading from it. It contained “I was there, you were not, let me tell you what happened” and “I understand something, you don’t, let me explain that to you” and “Let me tell you who I am so you can know you can trust me”.

Apparently, quite a lot of scientific literature of old involved exciting narratives of people getting bitten by snakes – see this one from 1852 as well.

The anomalous 20th century – effects of technology

The gradual changes in society – invention of printing, rise of science, rise of capitalism, industrial revolution, mass migration from rural to urban areas, improvements in transportation and communication technologies, to name just a few – led to a very different world in the 20th century.

Technology often leads societal changes. If you were ever on a horse, you understand why armies that used stirrups defeated the armies that rode horses without this nifty invention.

Earlier, the speed of spreading news was much slower (see image: Maps of rates of travel in the 19th century – click on the link to see bigger and more). By 1860 Telegraph reached to St. Louis. During its short run the Pony Express could go the rest of the way to San Francisco in 10 days. After that, telegraph followed the rails. First transcontinental line was in 1869. Except for semaphores (1794) information before the telegraph (1843) could only travel as fast as a rider or boat (Thanks to John McKay for this brief primer on the history of speed of communication in Northern America. I am assuming that Europe was slightly ahead and the rest of the world somewhat behind).

The 20th century saw invention or improvement of numerous technologies in transportation – cars, fast trains, airplanes, helicopters, space shuttles – and in communication – telephone, radio, and television. Information could now travel almost instantly.

But those new technologies came with a price – literally. While everyone could write letters and send them by stagecoach, very few people could afford to buy, run and serve printing presses, radio stations and television studios. These things needed capital, and increasingly became owned by rich people and corporations.

Each inch of print or minute of broadcast costs serious money. Thus, people were employed to become official filters of information, the gatekeepers – the editors who decided who will get access to that expensive real estate. As the editors liked some people’s work better than others, those people got employed to work in the nascent newsrooms. Journalism became professionalized. Later, universities started journalism programs and codified instruction for new journalists, professionalizing it even more.

Instead of people informing each other, now the few professionals informed everyone else. And the technology did not allow for everyone else to talk back in the same medium.

The broadcast media, a few large corporations employing professional writers informing millions – with no ability for the receivers of information to fact-check, talk back, ask questions, be a part of the conversation – is an exception in history, something that lasted for just a few decades of the 20th century.

The anomalous 20th century – industrialization

Industrial Revolution brought about massive migration of people into big cities. The new type of work required a new type of workforce, one that was literate and more educated. This led to the invention of public schools and foundation of public universities.

In the area of science, many more people became educated enough (and science still not complex and expensive yet) to start their own surveys, experiments and tinkering. The explosion of research led to an explosion of new journals. Those too became expensive to produce and started requiring professional filters – editors. Thus scientific publishing also became professionalized. Not every personal anecdote could make it past the editors any more. Not everyone could call oneself a scientist either – a formal path emerged, ending with a PhD at a university, that ensured that science was done and published by qualified persons only.

By the 1960s, we got a mass adoption of peer-review by scientific journals that was experimentally done by some journals a little earlier. Yes, it is that recent! See for example this letter to Physical Review in 1936:

 

Dear Sir,

We (Mr. Rosen and I) had sent you our manuscript for publication and had not authorized you to show it to specialists before it is printed. I see no reason to address the — in any case erroneous — comments of your anonymous expert. On the basis of this incident I prefer to publish the paper elsewhere.

Respectfully,

Albert Einstein

Or this one:

 

John Maddox, former editor of Nature: The Watson and Crick paper was not peer-reviewed by Nature… the paper could not have been refereed: its correctness is self-evident. No referee working in the field … could have kept his mouth shut once he saw the structure…

Migration from small towns into big cities also meant that most people one would meet during the day were strangers. Meeting a stranger was not something extraordinary any more, so emergence and enforcement of proper proscribed conduct in cities replaced the need for one-to-one encounters and sizing up strangers using phatic language. Which is why even today phatic language is much more important and prevalent in rural areas where it aids personal survival than in urban centers where more general rules of behavior among strangers emerged (which may partially explain why phatic language is generally associated with conservative ideology and conceptual language with politicial liberalism, aka, the “reality-based community“).

People moving from small hometowns into big cities also led to breaking up of families and communities of trust. One needed to come up with new methods for figuring out who to trust. One obvious place to go was local media. They were stand-ins for village elders, parents, teachers and priests.

If there were many newspapers in town, one would try them all for a while and settle on one that best fit one’s prior worldview. Or one would just continue reading the paper one’s parents read.

But other people read other newspapers and brought their own worldviews into the conversation. This continuous presence of a plurality of views kept everyone’s BS filters in high gear – it was necessary to constantly question and filter all the incoming information in order to choose what to believe and what to dismiss.

The unease with the exposure to so many strangers with strange ideas also changed our notions of privacy. Suddenly we craved it. Our letters are now meant for one recepient only, with the understanding it will not be shared. Personal diaries now have lockets. After a century of such craving for privacy, we are again returning to a more historically traditional notions, by much more freely sharing our lives with strangers online.

The anomalous 20th century – cleansing of conceptual language in science and journalism

Until the 20th century we did not see the consolidation of media into large conglomerates, and of course, there were no mass radio or TV until mid-20th century. Not until later in the century did we see the monopolization of local media markets by a single newspaper (competitors going belly-up) which, then, had to serve everyone, so it had to invent the fake “objective” HeSaidSheSaid timid style of reporting in order not to lose customers of various ideological stripes and thus lose advertising revenue.

Professionalising of journalism, coupled with the growth of media giants serving very broad audiences, led to institutionalization of a type of writing that was very much limited to “what’s new”.

The “let me explain” component of journalism fell out of favor as there was always a faction of the audience that had a problem with the empirical facts – a faction that the company’s finances could not afford to lose. The personal – including phatic – was carefully eliminated as it was perceived as unobjective and inviting the criticism of bias. The way for a reporter to inject one’s opinion into the article was to find a person who thinks the same in order to get the target quote. A defensive (perhaps cowardly) move that became the norm. And, once the audience caught on, led to the loss of trust in traditional media.

Reduction of local media to a single newspaper, a couple of local radio stations and a handful of broadcast TV channels (that said esentially the same thing), left little choice for the audience. With only one source in town, there was no opportunity to filter among a variety of news sources. Thus, many people started unquestioningly accepting what 20th-century style broadcast media served them.

Just because articles were under the banners of big companies did not make them any more trustworthy by definition, but with no alternative it is still better to be poorly informed than not informed at all. Thus, in the 20th century we gradually lost the ability to read everything critically, awed by the big names like NYT and BBC and CBS and CNN. Those became the new parents, teachers, tribal elders and priests, the authority figures whose words are taken unquestioningly.

In science, explosion in funding not matched by explosion of job positions, led to overproduction of PhDs and a rise of hyper-competitive culture in academia. Writing books became unproductive. The only way to succeed is to keep getting grants and the only way to do that is to publish very frequently. Everything else had to fall by the wayside.

False measures of journal quality – like the infamous Impact Factor – were used to determine who gets a job and tenure and who falls out of the pipeline. The progress of science led inevitably to specialization and to the development of specialized jargon. Proliferation of expensive journals ensured that nobody but people in highest-level research institutions had access to the literature, so scientists started writing only for each other.

Scientific papers became dense, but also narrowed themselves to only “this is how the world works”. The “this is new” became left out as the audience already knew this, and it became obvious that a paper would not be published if it did not produce something new, almost by definition.

And the personal was so carefully excised for the purpose of seeming unbiased by human beings that it sometimes seems like the laboratory equipment did all the experiments of its own volition.

So, at the close of the 20th century, we had a situation in which journalism and science, for the first time in history, completely separated from each other. Journalism covered what’s new without providing the explanation and context for new readers just joining the topic. Science covered only explanation and only to one’s peers.

In order to bridge that gap, a whole new profession needed to arise. As scientists understood the last step of the scientific method – communication – to mean only ‘communication to colleagues’, and as regular press was too scared to put truth-values on any statements of fact, the solution was the invention of the science journalist – someone who can read what scientists write and explain that to the lay audience. With mixed success. Science is hard. It takes years to learn enough to be able to report it well. Only a few science journalists gathered that much expertise over the years of writing (and making mistakes on the way).

So, many science journalists fell back on reporting science as news, leaving the explanation out. Their editors helped in that by severely restricting the space – and good science coverage requires ample space.

A good science story should explain what is known by now (science), what the new study brings that is new (news) and why does that matter to you (phatic discourse). The lack of space usually led to omission of context (science), shortening of what is new (news) and thus leaving only the emotional story intact. Thus, the audience did not learn much, Certainly not enough to be able to evaluate next day’s and next week’s news.

This format also led to the choice of stories. It is easy to report in this way if the news is relevant to the audience anyway, e.g., concerning health (the “relevant” stories). It is also easy to report on misconduct of scientists (the “fishy” stories) – which is not strictly science reporting. But it was hard to report on science that is interesting for its own sake (the “cool” stories).

What did the audience get out of this? Scientists are always up to some mischief. And every week they change the story as to what is good or bad for my health. And it is not very fun, entertaining and exciting. No surprise that science as endeavour slowly started losing trust with the (American) population, and that it was easy for groups with financial, political or religious interests to push anti-science rhetoric on topics from hazards of smoking to stem-cell research to evolution to climate change.

At the end of the 20th century, thus, we had a situation in which journalism and science were completely separate endeavors, and the bridge between them – science journalism – was unfortunately operating under the rules of journalism and not science, messing up the popular trust in both.

Back to the Future

It is 2010. The Internet has been around for 30 years, the World Wide Web for 20. It took some time for the tools to develop and spread, but we are obviously undergoing a revolution in communication. I use the word “revolution” because it is so almost by definition – when the means of production change hands, this is a revolution.

The means of production, in this case the technology for easy, cheap and fast dissemination of information, are now potentially in the hands of everyone. When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, we call that ‘citizen journalism.’ And some of those citizens possess much greater expertise on the topics they cover than the journalists that cover that same beat. This applies to science as well.

In other words, after the deviation that was the 20th century, we are going back to the way we have evolved as a species to communicate – one-to-one and few-to-few instead of one-to-many. Apart from technology (software instead of talking/handwriting/printing), speed (microseconds instead of days and weeks by stagecoach, railroad or Pony Express, see image above) and the number of people reached (potentially – but rarely – millions simultaneously instead of one person or small group at a time), blogging, social networking and other forms of online writing are nothing new – this is how people have always communicated. Like Montaigne. And the Republic of Letters in the 18th century. And Charles Darwin in the 19th century.

All we are doing now is returning to a more natural, straightforward and honest way of sharing information, just using much more efficient ways of doing it. (Images from Cody Brown)

And not even that – where technology is scarce, the analog blogging is live and well (image: Analog blogger, from AfriGadget).

What about trustworthiness of all that online stuff? Some is and some isn’t to be trusted. It’s up to you to figure out your own filters and criteria, and to look for additional sources, just like our grandparents did when they had a choice of dozens of newspapers published in each of their little towns.

With the gradual return of a more natural system of communication, we got to see additional opinions, the regular fact-checks on the media by experts on the topic, and realized that the mainstream media is not to be trusted.

With the return of a more natural system of communication, we will all have to re-learn how to read critically, find second opinions, evaluate sources. Nothing new is there either – that is what people have been doing for millennia – the 20th century is the exception. We will figure out who to trust by trusting the judgment of people we already trust. Trust is transitive.

Return of the phatic language

What does this all mean for the future of journalism, including science journalism?

The growing number of Web-savvy citizens have developed new methods of establishing trustworthiness of the sources. It is actually the old one, pre-20th century method – relying on individuals, not institutions. Instead of treating WaPo, Fox, MSNBC and NPR as the proxies for the father, teacher, preacher and the medicine man, we now once again evaulate individuals.

As nobody enters a news site via the front page and looks around, but we all get to individual articles via links and searches, we are relying on bylines under the titles, not on the logos up on top. Just like we were not born trusting NYTimes but learned to trust it because our parents and neighbors did (and then perhaps we read it for some time), we are also not born knowing which individuals to trust. We use the same method – we start with recommendations from people we already trust, then make our own decisions over time.

If you don’t link to your sources, including to scientific papers, you lose trust. If you quote out of context without providing that context, you lose trust. If you hide who you are and where you are coming from – that is cagey and breeds mistrust. Transparency is the new objectivity.

And transparency is necessarily personal, thus often phatic. It shows who you are as a person, your background, your intentions, your mood, your alliances, your social status.

There are many reasons sciencebloggers are more trusted than journalists covering science.

First, they have the scientific expertise that journalists lack – they really know what they are talking about on the topic of their expertise and the audience understands this.

Second, they link out to more, more diverse and more reliable sources.

Third, being digital natives, they are not familiar with the concept of word-limits. They start writing, they explain it as it needs to be explained and when they are done explaining they end the post. Whatever length it takes to give the subject what it’s due.

Finally, not being trained by j-schools, they never learned not to let their personality shine through their writing. So they gain trust by connecting to their readers – the phatic component of communication.

Much of our communication, both offline and online, is phatic. But that is necessary for building trust. Once the trust is there, the conceptual communication can work. If I follow people I trust on Twitter, I will trust that they trust the sources they link to so I am likely to click on them. Which is why more and more scientists use Twitter to exchage information (PDF). Trust is transitive.

Scientists, becoming journalists

Good science journalists are rare. Cuts in newsrooms, allocation of too little space for science stories, assigning science stories to non-science journalists – all of these factors have resulted in a loss of quantity and quality of science reporting in the mainstream media.

But being a good science journalist is not impossible. People who take the task seriously can become experts on the topic they cover (and get to a position where they can refuse to cover astronomy if their expertise is evolution) over time. They can become temporary experts if they are given sufficient time to study instead of a task of writing ten stories per day.

With the overproduction of PhDs, many scientists are choosing alternative careers, including many of them becoming science writers and journalists, or Press Information Officers. They thus come into the profession with the expertise already there.

There is not much difference between a research scientist who blogs and thus is an expert on the topic s/he blogs about, and a research scientist who leaves the lab in order to write as a full-time job. They both have scientific expertise and they both love to write or they wouldn’t be doing it.

Blog is software. A medium. One of many. No medium has a higher coefficient of trustworthiness than any other. Despite never going to j-school and writing everything on blogs, I consider myself to be a science writer.

Many science journalists, usually younger though some of the old ones caught on quickly and became good at it (generation is mindset, not age), grok the new media ecosystem in which online collaboration between scientists and journalists is becoming a norm.

At the same time, many active scientists are now using the new tools (the means of production) to do their own communication. As is usually the case with novelty, different people get to it at different rates. The conflicts between 20th and 21st style thinking inevitably occur. The traditional scientists wish to communicate the old way – in journals, letters to the editor, at conferences. This is the way of gatekeeping they are used to.

But there have been a number of prominent cases of such clashes between old and new models of communication, including the infamous Roosevelts on toilets (the study had nothing to do with either US Presidents or toilets, but it is an instructive case – image by Dr.Isis), and several other smaller cases.

The latest one is the Arsenic Bacteria Saga in which the old-timers do not seem to undestand what a ‘blog’ means, and are seemingly completely unaware of the important distinction between ‘blogs’ and ‘scienceblogs’, the former being online spaces by just about anyone, the latter being blogs written by people who actually know their science and are vetted or peer-reviewed in some way e.g., at ResearchBlogging.org or Scienceblogging.org or by virtue of being hand-picked and invited to join one of the science blogging networks (which are often run by traditional media outlets or scientific publishers or societies) or simply by gaining resepect of peers over time.

Case by case, old-time scientists are learning. Note how both in the case of Roosevelts on toilets and the Arsenic bacteria the initially stunned scientists quickly learned and appreciated the new way of communication.

In other words, scientists are slowly starting to get out of the cocoon. Instead of just communicating to their peers behind the closed doors, now they are trying to reach out to the lay audience as well.

As more and more papers are Open Access and can be read by all, they are becoming more readable (as I predicted some years ago). The traditional format of the paper is changing. So they are covering “let me explain” portion better, both in papers and on their own blogs.

They may still be a little clumsy about the “what’s new” part, over-relying on the traditional media to do it for them via press releases and press conferences (see Darwinius and arsenic bacteria for good examples) instead of doing it themselves or taking control of the message (though they do need to rely on MSM to some extent due to the distinction between push and pull strategies as the media brands are still serving for many people as proxies for trustworthy sources).

But most importantly, they are now again adding the phatic aspect to their communication, revealing a lot of their personality on social networks, on blogs, and even some of them venturing into doing it in scientific papers.

By combining all three aspects of good communication, scientists will once again regain the trust of their audience. And what they are starting to do looks more and more like (pre-20th century) journalism.

Journalists, becoming scientists

On the other side of the divide, there is a renewed interest in journalism expanding from just “this is new” to “let me explain how the world works”. There are now efforts to build a future of context, and to design explainers.

If you are not well informed on an issue (perhaps because you are too young to remember when it first began, or the issue just started being relevant to you), following a stream of ‘what is new’ articles will not enlighten you. There is not sufficient information there. There is a lot of tacit knowledge that the writer assumes the readers possess – but many don’t.

There has to be a way for news items to link to some kind of collection of background information – an ‘explainer’. Such an explainer would be a collection of verifiable facts about the topic. A collection of verifiable facts about the way the world works is….scientific information!

With more and more journalists realizing they need to be transparent about where they are coming from, injecting personality into their work in order to build trust, some of that phatic language is starting to seep in, completing the trio of elements of effective communication.

Data Journalism – isn’t this science?

Some of the best journalism of the past – yes, the abominable 20th century – was done when a reporter was given several months to work on a single story requiring sifting through boxes and boxes of documents. The reporter becomes the expert on the topic, starts noticing patterns and writes a story that brings truly new knowledge to the world. That is practically science! Perhaps it is not the hardest of the hard sciences like physics, but as good as well-done social science like cultural anthropology, sociology or ethnography. There is a system and a method very much like the scientific method.

Unfortunately, most reporters are not given such luxury. They have to take shortcuts – interviewing a few sources to quote for the story. The sources are, of course, a very small and very unrepresentative sample of the relevant population – from a rolodex. Call a couple of climate scientists, and a couple of denialists, grab a quote from each and stick them into a formulaic article. That is Bad Science as well as Bad Journalism. And now that the people formerly known as audience, including people with expertise on the topic, have the tools to communicate to the world, they often swiftly point out how poorly such articles represent reality.

But today, most of the information, data and documents are digital, not in boxes. They are likely to be online and can be accessed without travel and without getting special permissions (though one may have to steal them – as Wikileaks operates: a perfect example of the new data journalism). Those reams of data can be analyzed by computers to find patterns, as well as by small armies of journalists (and other experts) for patterns and pieces of information that computer programs miss.

This is what bioinformaticists do (and have already built tools to do it – contact them, steal their tools!).

Data journalism. This is what a number of forward-thinking journalists and media organizations are starting to do.

This is science.

On the other hand, a lot of distributed, crowdsourced scientific research, usually called Citizen Science, is in the business of collecting massive amounts of data for analysis. How does that differ from data journalism? Not much?

Look at this scientific paper – Coding Early Naturalists’ Accounts into Long-Term Fish Community Changes in the Adriatic Sea (1800–2000) – is this science or data journalism? It is both.

The two domains of communicating about what is new and how the world works – journalism and science – have fused again. Both are now starting to get done by teams that involve both professionals and amateurs. Both are now led by personalities who are getting well-known in the public due to their phatic communication in a variety of old and new media.

It is important to be aware of the shortness of our lives and thus natural tendency for historical myopia. Just because we were born in the 20th century does not mean that the way things were done then are the way things were ‘always done’, or the best ways to do things – the pinnacle of cultural and social development. The 20th century was just a strange and deviant blip in the course of history.

As we are leaving the 20th century behind with all of its unusual historical quirks, we are going back to an older model of communicating facts – but with the new tools we can do it much better than ever, including a much broader swath of society – a more democratic system than ever.

By the way, while it’s still cold, the rain has stopped. And that is Metaphorical language…

This article was commissioned by Science Progress and will also appear on their site in 24 hours.

‘Journalists vs. Blogs’ is bad framing

One of the (many) motivations for writing the epic post about New Journalism last week was to try to end once for all the entire genre of discussing the “bloggers vs. journalists” trope.
I have collected the responses to the piece here and it is quite flattering that the post got hat-tips from people who have studied the topic for a long time, like Ed Cone, Kirk Ross, Michael Tobis, Henry Gee, Dave Winer and Dan Conover, among others.
My SciBling Dave Dobbs wrote a very good post (recommended) in reply – you need to go and read it.
One of Dave’s questions was, to paraphrase, why are there still stories that bloggers ignore?
Short answer – blogging is young and there are not enough bloggers out there with interest and expertise in every topic imaginable. His example of PTSD, while superficially interesting to me, was not exciting enough, or “up my alley” enough, or “within my realm of expertise” enough, for me to do any digging or blogging of my own.
Perhaps at this time in history, there was just not sufficient number of bloggers who know much and care about this topic. But in 10 years or 20 years, when journalism online, including citizen journalism online, becomes a norm, when instead of 1% of people of the world making content online, it is 50% or 80%, then yes, every topic will have sufficient numbers of people with interest and expertise in it to make a splash.
But something in Dave’s post prompted both Jay Rosen and myself to post comments there – the false dichotomy between ‘journalists’ and ‘bloggers’ snuck into Dave’s post. This is, roughly (somewhat expanded and edited from there) what I wrote:
———
This is an excellent response. I want to follow up on what Jay above wrote about ‘Replacenicks’, i.e., people who warn about the impending doom of ‘newspapers being replaced by blogs’.
This is the matter of framing. I know science bloggers are allergic to the F word, but if you could just for a moment forget Matt Nisbet and his erroneous and dangerous use of the term, and remember Lakoff’s (in ‘Moral Politics’ book) understanding of the phenomenon, as in “eliciting a particular frame of mind in the audience’, then you can try to understand what I am getting at here.
When you say “newspapers will (or will not) be replaced by blogs”, you invoke two demonstrably erroneous frames in readers’ minds:
a) that “newspapers = journalism”, and
b) that “blogs = inane chatter”.
Journalism is medium-neutral. Not just in newspapers. Journalism can and does happen on paper, over radio waves, on TV and online. A lot of other stuff also has its place on all those communication channels as well.
The phrase also elicits the ‘opposition’ frame of mind – there are two terms and they are presented as mutually exclusive and opposite from each other. In other words, journalism is presented as exact opposite and fierce competitor of blogs and vice versa.
This ‘opposition’ frame, by defining newspapers as equating journalism, then leaves only the non-journalistic stuff to the term “blogs”. Thus, the word “blog” in the phrase automatically reminds people of inane navel-gazing, teenage angst, copy-and-paste news and LOLcats found on so many blogs.
But, remember that a blog is software, not a style. Thus the first thought upon hearing the word “blog” in the context of journalism should be TPM, HuffPo, Firedoglake, etc., not Cute Overload.
Guess who planted that framing? The journalistic curmudgeons like Keen, Henry, Mulshine at al, in their endless Luddite op-eds railing against the internet.
So, we need to quit using that ridiculous phrase ‘newspapers being replaced by blogs’ and try to engender much more meaningful discussions by using an alternative framing, e.g., something along the lines of “most paper will be replaced by Web”. Journalism will continue to happen, but it will be less and less on paper and more and more online.
It is not a fight between journalism and blogging, but a technological revolution in which journalism is moving from print to Web.
Switching to a new medium will inevitably change the way journalism is done in many ways – the questions and problems of speed/timeliness, the pre-publication vs. post-publication filters, the echo-chamber formation, the ethics, the privacy concerns, the question of expertise, the he-said-she-said format, the linking to sources and documentation, the multi-media approach, the length constraints of articles, the (in)formality of language, etc. All of those will have to be assessed and experimented with until we settle into a new way of doing journalism right.
The journalistic workflow, i.e., the day-to-day methodology of doing journalism, will inevitably have to change with the new times and the new medium.
Of course, much of the noise on this topic comes from the job uncertainty of today’s journalism – the change in the medium is a real threat to jobs and livelihoods of journalists, as internet requires a smaller total number of paid professionals than newspapers do, thus so much talk about ‘business models’. This is the part that, frankly, interests me the least as I am not personally affected, while I am excited about being the witness of a technological revolution and student of the way this revolution will alter the society.

The Open Laboratory 2009 – the excitement begins!

scicurious rat.jpgNow that the Open Lab 2008 is done and up for sale, it’s time to turn our sights towards the next year.
If you read the comments on Sci’s post and my post (as well as some chatter I picked up on Twitter/Facebook/FriendFeed and privately), the pick for the 2009 editor is a Big Hit! I am truly looking forward to the year of collaboration with SciCurious on the next edition of the anthology.
But, as you know, the anthology is a collaborative project of the entire science blogosphere. Thus, we need to get started! That means YOU!
First, you need to go into your blog’s archives and look at your posts since December 1st 2008. Pick one or two or several that you think are the best, that you like the most, that you think are the easiest to transform from the online medium to the print medium (e.g., those not too heavily dependent on multimedia, videos, podcasts, copyrighted images, lots of links, etc.). Choose essays, poems, cartoons, comic strips, original art. Then submit that using this submission form. That is the only way to submit entries for the next year – posting comments here or blogging about it does not work.
Once you are done with your own archives (and yes, start with your own as nobody knows your stuff as well as you do, or understands which posts are you most proud of – or least embarassed of – than you do), move on to other blogs, your favourite reads, hopefully including as many as possible new and not-as-well-known blogs in that number. Pick some of their posts and submit them as well.
Then, spread the word around the Web about this – point people to the submission form from wherever you think is appropriate: your blog, twitter, Facebook, various forums, etc. Let other science bloggers know about this – more the merrier.
I’d also like for someone to volunteer to design buttons (and provide easy-to-copy-and-paste codes) for submitting entries, something that people can put on sidebars of their blogs to always have handy throughout the year. Contact me if you want to do that.
As I did the previous three years, I will occasionally post the links to entries submitted so far, to avoid too many duplicates as well as to give you ideas and motivation to find and submit more stuff. I will start today as we already have these seven entries:
Highly Allochthonous: Is the Earth’s magnetic field about to flip?
Expression Patterns: A Squishy Topic
Prerogative of Harlots: He Blinded Me With Science
Masks of Eris: Mathematics instruction as a fish
Stripped Science: The right pairing (comic strip)
Island of Doubt: Sea level rise a red herring?
Biochemical Soul: Darwin and the Heart of Evolution
————–
Now it’s your turn – here again is the submission form.
————–
Update: More entries have just come in:
Coyote Crossing: Spermophilus
Neurotopia: The Value of Stupidity: are we doing it right?
Mind the Gap: In which I ponder economies of scale
Neurophilosophy: Amnesia in the movies
Neurophilosophy: Brain & behaviour of dinosaurs
Song for jasmine: Charles Darwin’s first theory of evolution

Do you comment on your own blog?

Comment threads on blogs are an important aspect of the blogging culture. But I disagree that it is a defining aspect – there are many excellent blogs out there with no commenting allowed. Such blogs usually have a prominently displayed contact information for direct e-mailing to the author. One can always link to and trackback on one’s own blog in response: blog-to-blog conservation is just as important to the blogosphere as a whole, if not more, than comments on any individual post. Other blogs have their feeds exported to LiveJournal or FriendFeed where one can post comments as well.
See how Dorothea Salo explains (not for the first time) why her blog has no commenting function. John Hawks explains it at the end of this post.
Then, there are hybrids – for instance some posts have comments and some don’t on Leiter Reports. Or, you cannot comment on Talking Points Memo, but you can on other parts of the site, e.g., on TPMMuckraker, TPMDC and TPMCafe.
But if you allow comments on your blog, how do you, yourself, behave in your own comment threads?
This post tries to make a classification of commenting tactics of blog owners. I think I mix them up, using one or another as I see fit, depending on the context, etc.
What do you do on your blog? What type of host’s behavior you prefer to see on a blog’s comment thread? Do bloggers who never respond irk you to no end?

Blogrolling: FYI: Science!

Every now and then I bump into a brand new science blog that immediately grabs my attention for some or other aspect of total coolness (or is it ‘hotness’ these days?). And then I want to promote, promote, promote until everybody and their mother reads that blog. Here is the latest brilliant discovery I made – FYI: Science!
Check out some of the first posts, for instance:
Of pedigrees and people

….But those mutations have to come from somewhere… specifically, my parents.
So my parents had to know about all of this. I sat them down and explained everything to them. I drew them a pedigree of our family history. And, for the first time that I can remember, my mom looked at me and said, “So this is why that biology degree is useful.”
To make a long story short, my dad is a carrier of a mutated gene (meaning he has 1 copy) and my mom also has two copies of the mutated gene. She’s being treated for some of the issues that go along with hemochromatosis and is doing well. I explained everything to my sister, who promptly went to her doctor’s office bearing a copy of the pedigree I’d drawn. (He loved it – he said it was the first time a patient had ever brought him a pedigree.) She, like my dad, is a carrier – she has 1 copy of the gene. Neither my dad nor my sister will have issues with the disease. My mom and I will be monitored, and hopefully that will be enough to let us lead long, healthy lives….

Throw another maggot on the barbie, mate

…..Their hamburgers arrived, and as they were chatting, Brad noticed a large fly some distance away. (Being an entomologist, he noticed these things.) They continued to chat and eat, and he found his eyes darting back to the fly every few seconds. The fly was heading towards them, and as it neared, he found himself impressed by the size of the fly. It was large even for Australian standards. As he lifted the hamburger to his mouth for another bite, the fly flew straight towards him. When it was about a meter away, the fly actually turned around midair – and a giant stream of maggots shot out of the fly’s rear end towards his hamburger.
Seriously.
The Australian scientist was amused, but not as startled as Brad! He explained that this species of fly needed meat in which to lay its eggs. If it did not find meat in time, the eggs would hatch inside the mother’s abdomen and begin eating her from the inside out. This resulted in a certain desperation on the mother’s part, so she’d aim them at anything that gave off the scent of meat…..

PCR – when you need to find out who the daddy is

…..In this era of “CSI” and other crime investigation shows, many people think that forensic science is easy, fast, and available for every crime. Of course, this isn’t the case. Forensic science is neither easy nor fast, and DNA evidence just is not always possible… there aren’t always nice neat bits of bodily evidence that can be used to track down a suspect or victim.
When there is bodily evidence, though, what exactly is it that investigators do with it? Sometimes there is just a tiny bit of blood, DNA, or hair – certainly not enough for investigation, and it’s certainly not as if you can just run to Target to get more DNA!….

So, go there, look around, bookmark and subscribe. It looks like great fun!

New scienceblogs.com blog – White Coat Underground

Can’t say “welcome a new SciBling” because he’s not new! PalMD is now flying solo! He moved out of the fraternity house and rented his own house: White Coat Underground. Go say Hello, bookmark, susbcribe, update your feeds, whatever you like to do, but keep reading Pal.