Tag Archives: blogging

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:
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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
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Now it’s your turn – here again is the submission form.
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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?