Blogs, the Good

There have for a number of years been calls for more access to scientists and current research. One reason for this was the preceived failure of the majority of science journalists to accurately convey current science. To be fair those journalists might point out with some justification that they done what they could within the restraints of their medium and available time and space.

In any case the idea arose that this unfortunate situation could be fixed through blogging and social media. The middle men could be cut out or merely used to alert the public to the stories with the scientists themselves providing details. Letting the scientists directly explain their work ideally provided clarity and increased precision. You could think of this as crowd sourced science journalism. This little entry gives some of my feelings on aspects of this change.

Firstly and primarily it is most definitely a more transparent way of providing public access to science. By and large the public purse funds science so really it is only fair that the public get justification for their expense. Note I did not say gets access I said gets justification. Access to data is important but in itself is extremely overrated. Giving data without context such as storage method, method of acquisition and your derived conclusions is meaningless and can be misleading. 

Even sharing data between experienced researchers in high level research centres in the same fields who agreed on a protocol beforehand is not easy. Anyone who has ever done a multi centred medical trial can testify to this fact. Without exception in my experience, analysis needs follow up questions asked such as “Was the Y column rescaled to account for X?”, “Did you take the X measurement immediately or wait until it was stable?”, ”Is that X really an X ours only goes up to Y?” etc etc. The short point being that access to the data/numbers alone is worth less than you think if it comes without explanation. However providing explanation suitable for the public is very rarely trivial in modern science. 

The general person is not willing to invest months or years of their life just to address every little aspect that pops up in an argument. The blogging model provides a solution to this dilemma. The old model of science communication was to promote science through school visits, documentaries, interviews and the occasional press release. If bits were dropped out of explanations by and large the public accepted that the scientists probably knew best and had just skipped those details. The only way to really resolve a specific technical enquiry was to go to a conference, pen a letter to the scientists involved and hope he could be bothered to reply or undertake a possibly vast self education program.

The modern style of communication extends the old with blogs, forums, social media. funky TV shows and press releases for everything. This has massively increased public interaction with working scientists. This both dramatically changed the number of knowledgeable people you could direct an enquiry to and demystified scientists so you don't feel intimidated asking. Ask twitter/forums etc a technical question and someone with the appropriate knowledge should be able to comment and explain the specifics (or at least direct the questioner to someone else or a related scientific blog). It is actually remarkable quite how responsive the modern scientific community can be.

A consequence of this model is that for it to succeed the scientists must actively engage with social media and make the effort to summarize their work into simplified digestible parts. The 
ability to do this is related to teaching and presentation ability and an individual scientist's ability varies enormously. No one is perfect as it is effectively impossible to reduce years of often tedious work into an interesting series of 140 character tweets without missing out important bits.

There is absolutely no reason to think that a good researcher will be good at explanations to a non technical audience. The history of modern science is full of colourful characters who were famously bad at communication.
Still things change and many scientists have embraced the new model and many science departments have invested resources in supporting it.

In my humble opinion this is a good thing and is the only way forward for science. No longer can a scientist make a serious claim in public and pop back to the lab thinking “well I have done my bit”. Aiming for transparent methodology, public scrutiny of derived results, clear justification of undertaking and free availability of data to all are scientific ideals which are very hard to criticize. However in the follow up to this post I will expand on the serious ramifications and drawbacks of this arguably necessary change.