Of writers and activists – are science bloggers being ambitious enough?

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At the moment, the question that I most often get asked is, “Do you ever sleep?” Until recently, “Why aren’t you doing more?” has always been fairly low on the list, but I seem to be hearing this sentiment more frequently, or perhaps a slight variant of it: “Why aren’t you doing things differently?”

Over the last week, several people have independently raised the idea that writers should also be activists, and that bloggers aren’t being ambitious enough in not canvassing for social change. When Sheril Kirshenbaum started a thread to discuss the “science writing renaissance”, Roger Harris quickly shifted the topic to talk of “support for science funding among politicians”, “higher enrollment in science [university courses]”. He went on to say “My point is that science communicators have insularized themselves, creating a community that while vibrant and expressive, rarely advocates for societal change. A shame, IMO, when such smart, articulate and well-informed people should abdicate their higher purpose to society as a whole.”

This isn’t new. A few months back, following an evening debate among UK science bloggers, Shane McCracken wrote, “I felt that despite the eloquence of the community, their wit, their intellect, they were not being very ambitious with what could be achieved with the medium.” McCracken, whose “background is with govt and civil society bloggers”, called for people to use the web and blogs “to make things better.”

These certainly are questions worth asking. Stephen Curry said that while “advocacy [is] not for everyone”, there is “some introversion in [the] blogosphere, so [it’s] good for people to be challenged”. I’d agree, but there is something about these provocative challenges that leaves me uneasy: they feel patronising. Hidden among these words, there seems to be an implication that we should all be activists and perhaps even that compared to advocacy, the practice of ‘pure’ writing sits on a lower rung on the ladder of worth. As Harris says, these are “the questions science writers should be addressing if they are to aspire to be more than mere hacks”.

In a comment on an earlier post, Darlene Cavalier (Science Cheerleader) wondered if “there’s a real opportunity here for bloggers to move beyond theoretical chit-chat (though there is a place for that) over to the world of the “doers.” Or, move from being problem identifiers to problem solvers.” Cavalier clarified that she’s not referring to all bloggers and I think that there is validity in her challenge.

But as I said in response, we have to be very careful about mapping our priorities onto those of others. Put it another way: if it looks as if people aren’t solving problems, is that because they genuinely aren’t, or because we have not considered which problems they had set out to solve?

The ever-eloquent Alice Bell wrote (in less than 140 characters, no less), “Sci blogging isn’t a benign social entity. Bloggers should be aware of this. Most are. It doesn’t mean social change is their job.” Indeed so. There are already many bloggers and science communicators who tackle big issues of advocacy and social change – the aforementioned Sheril Kirshenbaum, Andrew Maynard, Evan Harris, Martin Robbins, everyone behind the SciVote movement, most members of the skeptic community, and so on.

My goals are different – they are not to change the way research gets done or they way policies are set. I lack the experience, background, energy and time. I can only hope to do what I do best – talk about science in a way that encourages people to listen. My goals are: to inspire people about science by providing good writing (well, communication, but primarily writing); and to improve the quality of science journalism by providing an example and by engaging with the science writing community, at conferences and on social media.

Is blogging the most productive way I could be doing this? Sarah Kendrew asked me this question at Science Online London 2010 (15:00 in the third video), and I thought it a fair one. I can only answer: it is for me (leaving aside the fact that I also try to be active on social media, speak at events, and so on). It’s the best way I can make use of my abilities. If people had infinite time, skills and opportunities, I’d probably tell them to be science teachers; Alom Shaha makes an able case for why our need for science educators surpasses our need for science communicators.  But I am not a teacher; I’m a writer and I’m a journalist.

As a journalist, being an advocate can be detrimental to my job. Dan Vergano from USA Today says, “Science reporting ain’t advocacy. That takes the field in the wrong direction, back to the 1950’s.” Nobody would benefit from journalists who cheerlead for science without holding it to account when necessary.

As a writer, (quoting Frank Swain from his recent talk), “the most powerful thing I can do is change someone’s mind.” I absolutely agree, as do many others. Whether changing minds involves converting someone from creationism to less wrong ways of thinking, or simply convincing someone that science is interesting, there is power in inspiring people (who, after all, include students, teachers, politicians and voters among their ranks). To some, this might look like an understated ambition, but it reflects the ways that I and many others came into science in the first place: through the words and voices of people like David Attenborough and Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins.

There’s also the issue of time. Blogging is something I do outside of a full-time job, and any time I devote to it is time when I’m not sleeping, getting to unwind, or enjoying the company of friends and family. There are now hundreds or thousands of people contributing their passion in this way, not in big sweeping gestures, but in small bursts of minutes or hours. The great strength of new media lies in allowing those small bursts to count for something. It allows people to seize those few precious minutes of free time, to make use of the cognitive surplus that Clay Shirky so elegantly describes. It gives them more opportunities to change minds.

Indeed, new media makes passion the foremost criterion for success, as opposed to experience or qualifications or any of the other factors that matter more in the mainstream. Those who do well for themselves tend to be those who persevere, who make the most effort, who speak most engagingly to readers. And who better to showcase the wonder of science to a broad audience?

So to return to the question of solving problems versus identifying them, I feel that I am trying to solve problems. If people feel that I need to solve a different problem, then I am amenable to this. To be clear, I am not casting aspersions on the motivations of Harris, McCracken, Cavalier or any of the other people who have raised this issue and I’m aware that I may be reading too much into what they’ve said. I’m probably being too defensive about all of this. It is right that we should talk about these things and it is right that I have felt challenged enough to write this post.

My unease does not stem from a feeling that everything’s already perfect, or that bloggers have no role in advocacy; it stems from some of the language that’s being bandied around in challenges. When people blog or do anything out of passion, it is a bit galling to be told that they “could be doing more” without any accompanying suggestions of how to achieve that. That approach risks alienating people while simultaneously calling for them to be less insular! This was exactly the problem behind the Framing Wars of a few years back, and I’m keen to see that history doesn’t repeat itself.

This is why of all the comments I’ve read on this issue over the last two days, one actually made me smile: a post by Shane’s excellent colleague Sophia Collins announcing a “Beyond Blogging” workshop. The goal is to “bring together people from the worlds of science, science communication and engagement, with some of the hackers and doers involved in civil society online engagement, to see what interesting ideas and projects could be sparked off by it.” Their motivation: “We decided that instead of just whinging, we should put our money where our mouth is, and do something to help!”

Bravo! This approach is more than welcome. If you believe that bloggers are being too insular, that they aren’t making the full use of their cognitive surplus to achieve something truly society-changing, that they aren’t having an impact, then please feel free to make suggestions as to how this could be improved. In the meantime, I’m going to continue doing my best at what I do best: analysing, telling stories, writing.

// Image from theparadigmshifter

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