Yarn Versus Science: Who Wins?

A couple readers have emailed me asking what I think of the recent Nature article on blogs by scientists. I agree with Revere that it’s great that Nature (and specifically, Nature reporter Declan Butler) is paying such close attention to blogs in science. The top 50 list they provide is a good launch pad for rocketing off into this realm of the blogosphere.

But I’ve always loathed the newsiness of lists. Put a number on a cover, and you sell copies. There must be some weird psychological weakness we have for lists. I noticed that the headline on the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly is “113 PEOPLE AND THINGS WE LOVE RIGHT NOW.” Poor 114. Not quite enough love to go around…

Lists also have an annoying way of coming off as objective, when they almost never are. Butler explains that he looked for blogs by scientists and then plugged them into Technorati to get rankings. In the process, not surprisingly, he missed some blogs by scientists that really ought to have made the list. His rules about who is and is not a scientist also seem a bit esoteric to me, but perhaps that’s because I am not nor have I ever been a scientist. And as far as I can tell, Technorati’s system for ranking (or even recognizing) blogs is a mystery of mysteries. [Update: Declan Butler offers some of his own comments on his methods here.]

If the results do reflect reality at all, I don’t feel all that comforted by them. Scientists don’t get all that much respect. Our own PZ Myers–(Hey! That’s Professor Number One to you kid!) tops the scientist blog list at 179, but he freely admits that much of his success may come from his habit of wandering off onto many topics. And after Pharyngula it’s a steep drop to 1647 with Panda’s Thumb, and so on down. The top blogs, at least according to Technorati, are about politics and consumer technology and yarn (yes, yarn). Surely the wonders of the cosmos can compete with yarn!

Of course, the truly titanic, mind-blowing, world-changing part of Butler’s piece has been completely overlooked: his side survey of science writers. The Loom comes in at #3, at a rank of 1,557. I should point out that there are several reasons to dismiss this ranking as utter nonsense. Butler puts me 90 notches above Panda’s Thumb, which is an indisputably big old monster of a blog with millions more visitors than I’ve ever had. I find it also suspicious that it gets the exact same rank as science writer blog #4, Scienceblogs. And #5 doesn’t make much sense either: Bad Astronomy, which is written by a self-described scientist.

Remarkably, however, I can still bask in the glory while fully aware of its dubiousness. Self-deception is a wonderful thing.

While I have not trawled Technorati myself for evidence, I do have a sense that blogs by science writers are on the rise. More and more people who make their money writing about science rather than doing it are starting blogs of their own–either as freelancers or as extensions of their publications. Another sign of the times is the fact that I’ve been asked to talk about blogging at meetings of science writers, as well as science-writing classes at journalism graduate schools, such as Columbia, Boston University, and New York University.

The favorite question I typically get from these classes runs something like this: “How many millions of dollars do you make an hour by blogging?” There’s nothing quite like the sight of a crestfallen j-school student!

Still, despite the lack of hedge-fund-level wealth, blogging does seem to be pushing its way into the life of many science writers. And some of them can spare some good stuff for the blogs, even as they try to pay the bills with words. I know of no centralized source for science writer blogs. Here are a few, in order of random recall…please remind me of the ones I’ve neglected:

David Berreby
David Dobbs
Rebecca Skloot
Jessica Snyder Sachs
Kathryn Brown
Joel Shurkin
Henry Gee (Okay, I know, he’s an editor at Nature, with a Ph.D. But still, he does write books, and good ones at that. Check out his post chronicling his attempts to get creationists to stop misquoting him.)
The staff of Scientific American
Michael Lemonick
Phillip Ball (infrequent, but worth waiting for)
Steven Johnson (Is he a science writer? Hell, I don’t really know. All I know is that when I took a look at his manuscript for his new book on cholera and sewers in manuscript, I could tell the guy loves bacteria, so he’s all right by me.)
Michael Abrams
John Horgan (who mainly likes to blog in order to kick other science writers in the rear–rightly so)

Plus my fellow scienceblog science writers:
James Hrynyshyn
Chris Mooney