On science blogging and mainstream science writing…

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In which, having largely stayed out of it, I wade into the ongoing rivalry between bloggers and more mainstream forms of science writing…

The latest round in this seemingly endless debate was a review by New Scientist of Open Lab 2008, an anthology of the best science blogging from the last year. Others, including Brian Switek and SciCurious, have touched on the specific criticisms levied by the review, but I wanted to pick up on the more general issue it raised – namely the relative merits and pitfalls of science blogs compared to mainstream science writing.

I am increasingly uneasy with the entire nature of the journalists vs. bloggers “debate” and not least because I vaguely straddle both worlds. Pitching the sides against each other, as others have argued, is too contrived and it brings out the unfortunate tendency of everyone concerned to rely on mass generalities. We launch our attacks on straw-man caricatures of each other, with bloggers being portrayed as scatter-brained loudmouths while journalists are labelled as lazy or incompetent. In defence, both sides tend to highlight the best of their field as exemplars, while causally ignoring the worst elements. The effect is like trying to argue whether plays are better than novels by comparing Shakespeare to Dan Brown or Dickens to Lloyd Webber.

Take for example this quote by blogger John Hawks, cited by the New Scientist review: “If we’re going to compare the entire blogosphere with The New York Times, in terms of how much is worth reading for the average non-professional interested in science, the blogosphere is worse by an order of magnitude.” It’s a false and uninformative comparison, in that it pitches the entire blogosphere against the NYT, one of the top echelons of newspaper journalism. The blogosphere also has a variety of different audiences from the “general public” to more specialist readers. 

Often, shared weaknesses are portrayed as being singular to one or the other. Both sides have dark corners. For every Carl Zimmer or Mark Henderson, there are plenty of hacks churning out one inaccuracy after another, and for every Laelaps, Neurotopia or Mind Hacks, there are plenty of blogs that lack interesting content, decent writing skills or both.

Both channels attract readers who want to reinforce rather than challenge their views – it’s not a problem unique to blogs. As a middle-class liberal, I am unlikely to be abandoning the Guardian for the Daily Mail or the News of the World any time soon. Good scientists like controls – where is the appropriate one here? It’s no shock that people gravitate towards media that fits with their own biases and likes, but that’s true online and offline.

Both sides practice churnalism from time to time. Journalists are often accused of cutting and pasting press releases, but many bloggers do the same by highlighting posts with a copied paragraph and not much besides a link (and often the paragraph comes from a mainstream story, a press release or an aggregator like ScienceDaily).

To me, both blogging and traditional science writing have much to offer anyone interested in science communication and I would personally recommend people to have a shot at both. In many cases, their strengths complement each other and in ways that are often ignored amidst the mutual entrenched sniping.  

For instance, writers from both channels receive tremendously useful forms of feedback that are largely denied to the other. Bloggers get theirs from reader comments and retorts from other bloggers. Critiques can be brutal and unrestrained, but they can help you to write more accurately, and pick topics more selectively. Feedback on my blog has taught me to be wary about certain kinds of studies (evolutionary psychology and overuse of fMRI as examples). It teaches you about balance between finding a good story and critiquing the science behind it. Hopefully, it means that I will end up selecting fewer duds to cover. You get a better sense of the detail that your audience requires. If you paint your story too broad a brushstroke, people notice and they’re keen to point out missing details and flaws in reasoning. This level of bespoke, on-the-fly feedback is invaluable.

In more traditional science writing, the feedback comes from editors and focuses more on delivery rather than content. Editors can mangle a piece but at their best, they can help budding writers to hone their skills, draw out important narrative threads in their work, correct clumsy phrases, and mould a lumpy, rambling article into a svelte, streamlined one. It’s a service that I’ve only ever received through freelance mainstream work. While blogging gives me tips on content, mainstream writing helps to hone the delivery.

Writing for a mainstream outlet is a great crash course in tailoring your stuff for a general audience and it offers the challenges of working within a word count and to a tight deadline. Blogging, with its more freeform nature, allows people to be a bit more creative, to let their individual voices shine out a bit more. It would be a mistake to believe that writing a feature-length article for a publication like New Scientist, in a way that would be truly accessible to a non-specialist, is at all easy. Equally, it would be foolish of mainstream writers to write off more informal styles or the abilities of those who use them. Abbie Smith at ERV epitomises chatty LOLspeak writing but she also wrote this incredible piece on endogenous retroviruses.

To summarise, I believe we need to accept the mutual limitations of both formats and to recognise the ways in which their strengths can work together. Dabbling in both blogging and mainstream writing allows you to soak up their strengths and gives you firsthand experience of their weaknesses. It’s not surprising to me to find that a lot of the best writing happens at the intersection (no pun intended) of the two disciplines, from the hands of writers who have experience of both worlds.

I personally hope that each of my experiences in blogging, mainstream writing, and media work (limited though they are) is making me better at the others. My blog gives me continual practice at describing complex science with precision and more critical savvy, which I can hopefully bring to freelance pieces for traditional media in an attempt to avoid many of the mistakes that I myself cringe at. My freelance work teaches me the power of brevity, fluidity of language and tight narratives, which I hope I can bring to my blogging. Interviewing people for said piece tells me about how people react to being questioned and what makes a good response – knowledge that I can use when I do interviews myself. At Cancer Research UK, I interact with journalists on a regular basis to give interviews, talk about new research and provide a wider context for the most recent findings. That helps me to remember what journalism actually entails and how to work within the system to get my message across.

Shun any one of these experiences and you risk becoming unaware of the full breadth of science communication. I don’t actually think that’s a problem, unless you claim that any of them are pointless or inferior, in which case, you are unaware of the full breadth of science communication. My two cents…