28 February 2009

I’m tryin’ here

Nature exhorts in this week’s editorial:

(R)esearchers would do well to blog more than they do.... there are societal debates that have much to gain from the uncensored voices of researchers. A good blogging website consumes much of the spare time of the one or several fully committed scientists that write and moderate it. But it can make a difference to the quality and integrity of public discussion.

I agree with the time sink comments, and sympathize with the thought that it impacts on the quality of discussion on science. This is one reason why, in the last 15 months or so, I’ve really tried to step up the level of writing in this blog, with more frequent and substantive posts.

On the other hand, Chris Mooney wrote of blogs in Slate:

The science blogosphere is, of course, booming—but... the blogs are unlikely to reach very many citizens who aren't already science lovers. And what would be the effect if the blogs did get to a wider audience? The semi-finalists in the recent “Best Science Blog” of 2008 contest were a site that questions the reality of global warming and PZ Myers’ Pharyngula—ground zero for a potent mix of pro-evolution advocacy and uncompromising criticism of religion.

I'm getting mixed signals here.

To head back to the Nature editorial, some comments can be found here. I think the biggest obstacle to scientists blogging is when colleagues say things like this (from commenter Michael Nestor):

We all need to get back to finding the cure for cancer instead of talking about finding it.

Translation: Waste of time. Go back to the lab. Get data. Build the better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.

But I don’t think all science works that way. Nor should it.

The example is telling: “Cure cancer.” Yes, that’s a worthy goal, but it’s an extraordinarily unusual in the amount of public interest about it. What about all the other science? Is there a hint of, “If people don't care about your science, it’s your own fault for not choosing the right research questions?” Or am I being overly sensitive in detecting a little philistinism in such arguments?

If we’ve learned anything from 400 years of organized science (and it is the 400th anniversary of Galileo looking through a telescope, as good a place as any to mark the birth of science), we rarely know in advance what the right questions are.

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