Sunday, October 31, 2010

Science blogs are good for you

Science blogs are good for you Khalil A. Cassimally [l’express dimanche 31 October 2010 No. 17419] Science has been molded along the years by man’s intrinsic curiosity and need to understand what is happening around him. It has germinated from our necessity to comprehend how things work and to provide answers to one of the most intoxicating preposition of the English language: “why.” In that sense, science brings together thinking, experimenting and discoveries. In other words, science involves head-scratching moments, sore backside after hours in the lab and rushes of adrenaline after breakthroughs. Breakthroughs occur every day in the scientific world. These past few months, scientists have found the first potentially habitable planet outside the Solar system, discovered a potentially new way to treat cocaine addiction, created an artificial ovary and established that the European brown hare can get pregnant while already pregnant (a phenomenon known as superfetation). This is only but a minute sample of what science has achieved in such a short time. And yet, national newspapers dedicate less than a page (if any) to divulge scientific achievements while the MBC turns a rigid blind eye to news with scientific connotations altogether. Science magazines which are catered to the general public are often overshadowed on our libraries’ shelves by sports and people magazines, and may be too expensive for too many people anyway. Therein lies a deep problem. How can the science enthusiast of today get connected to the achievements of the scientific world? How can those who are hungry for scientific knowledge bypass this as-of-now lack of interest in science of the traditional media? In this era of computers and communication, the answer seems clear. The Internet has brought information at the tips of our fingers and has allowed us to obtain knowledge in an unprecedented way. Plug in the cable cord, double click on your browser’s icon and you are free to become the most knowledgeable person in world history. But the Internet comes with its pitfalls. The Internet is vast and encompasses most of human knowledge – and most of human’s idiocies too. It is a medium which accepts everything and anything: from breaking world news to the latest Paris Hilton scandal, from helpful educational content to traumatising pornography and from the renowned writers’ prose to the dangerous extremists’ threats. The Internet can expose you to anything but it will not guide your hand. In the context of the science subset of the Internet, the duality of content is no different. To the layperson, differentiating the proper from the improper science may be a challenge – but perhaps an unnecessary one. Along comes that movement called “science blogging.” A blog is a platform that allows an individual to self-publish instantly to the Internet. A science blog is simply one where the author (or to be more precise the blogger) writes about science. Science bloggers range from science enthusiasts, students, and communicators to scientists themselves, indeed regrouping all factions of the scientific community. The interesting thing about the science blogosphere (the community of science blogs, science bloggers and readers) is that most science bloggers blog because they love science and they 1 want to spread the word. They are committed to the cause of science communication and may well be an ideal community for the layperson to embrace. Dr. Becca, Ph.D . is the nom de plume of the spirited science blogger behind Fumbling Towards Tenure Track, a science blog which gives an insight on the life of a neuroscience post-doctoral student. She is of the opinion that laypersons should actively read science blogs. “Science blogs are probably some of the best sources of layperson science out there – if only laypeople did more science blog reading. There is so much great science writing out there, but unfortunately most of it doesn’t reach the public.” Science bloggers, not bound by the formal tone of the traditional media, manage to adequately communicate science in a much more entertaining and conversation-like manner. But they strive to be serious with the facts. Most science bloggers engage in blogging during their own time: a testament of their dedication. (Only a minority of science bloggers are paid to blog.) Good science bloggers make it work because they make science as cool as it should be. Ultimately though, they are honest with their readers because they care deeply about their community and about the science they’re communicating. “To me,” says Dr. Becca, Ph.D., “science blogging is about sharing ideas and experiences, and bloggers who don’t appear to value that aren’t going to be all that successful.” “For the bloggers who work in science labs or in the field for their primary jobs, I think they blog about science because they want to share their experiences and enthusiasm with the world. There's also the public service aspect of it, in that the people who are currently blogging about science may feel it is their duty to educate people and dispel scientific inaccuracies.” So says Arikia Millikan, community manager of Wired.com’s science blogging network. Millikan also believes that blogging offers a distinguished advantage over traditional media: “Several of the science bloggers on the Wired.com network have previously worked in print journalism, and I think they now blog as their primary mode of communication because it enables them to reach a much larger audience and receive instant feedback from their readers.” The science blogosphere – actually the entire blogosphere for that matter – indeed allows something very important that the traditional media cannot: interaction. Readers can post comments on blog posts, in effect communicating with the bloggers themselves and with fellow readers. Points of view of readers, inquiries for further relevant information and the occasional “thumbs up” remarks, amongst others, make up a rich and stimulating experience where the reader is no longer passive but can choose to be part of the discussion. Is the dedication and commitment of the science blogger to promulgating science enough to earn our trust though? Do they really provide top-notch scientific stories? In the ever-growing science blogosphere, there are bound to be frauds and fundamentalists. That’s why I would suggest the newbie to initially visit science blogs that fall under the banner of reputed publications. 2 The Guardian has recently started its own network of science blogs while other popular publications such as Wired, Discover Magazine and Scientific American have their own counterparts as well. Nature Publishing Group (a publisher of high impact scientific information) runs an impressive array of science blogs at Nature Networks while its educational division, Nature Education also has an interesting science blog network aimed primarily at high school and undergraduate students. The Public Library of Science (PLoS), an open-access scientific publishing project, also has a growing number of impressive science blogs in its network. Bloggers whose blogs are hosted by such entities have usually already proven their worth in the science blogosphere as being reliable, dedicated and passionate about their respective blogging topics. Or, their blog posts are reviewed by an editorial team to ensure their quality. “If someone is looking for a point of entry to the science blogosphere, blogs that are hosted by publications that are known to have good reputations and practice sound editorial judgment, are good places to start,” agrees Millikan. For the more scientifically inclined reader, a quick search of your topics of interest at researchblogging.org, can present you with a number of high-quality blog posts. The website aggregates a significant number of “research blogging” posts. Research blogging is literally blogging about research. Such posts translate scientific papers into more comprehensible and digestible pieces which may sometimes contain the bloggers’ opinions and views as bonuses. Reading science blogs is of course only one way of using the Internet to enrich your brain with terabytes of information about the natural world. Popular social service, Twitter, is a place where a number of people, including scientists and science enthusiasts, can engage in conversations and share links to articles they find interesting. You only have to sign in and follow some scientists and science enthusiasts to be part of the conversation. In the Internet, science has found a medium where it is not rejected, allowing it to firmly establish itself with its audience. This has allowed online science communication to evolve and science blogs are one of the products. It is now easier than ever for the science enthusiast to be connected to the scientific world; easier than ever for the science culture to spread. And the science culture is spreading: being a science geek is no longer degrading but rather a mark of coolness. In this new trend, science bloggers are the most fashionable geeks around and their readers the coolest ones. 3

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