Open letter to Dr. Royce Murray

You know you’re a blogger when you write your first post about blogging. I guess it was inevitable.

I came upon Dr. Royce Murray’s article “Science Blogs and Caveat Emptor” today (via Chembark via Everday Science, and also covered at In the Pipeline, Terra Sigillata, InSightu, with a great comment by B. Penders, and Science 2.0). Needless to say, it rubbed me a bit of the wrong way, and before I knew it I had typed up a response. Here’s the email that just left my tower and headed for his inbox:

Dear Dr. Murray,

I came upon your article in the most recent edition of “Analytical Chemistry” today via Paul Bracher’s response to it at his website (http://blog.chembark.com). As a student, a scholar, and a science blogger, I was a bit chagrined to read your pessimistic characterization of science blogging as an enterprise (and by extension, of science bloggers as information producers.) In particular, you imply that science bloggers write “without the constraint of truth,” in contrast to more “traditional” forms of public science communication whose writers, you seem to presume, are primarily driven by their noble intentions to impart accurate scientific knowledge to the public. In truth, however, this is a broad mischaracterization of science bloggers, who are for the most part very concerned with the truth and completeness of what they write (and are in many cases disillusioned with the popular press’s coverage of science, which is often sensationalist, vague, incomplete, or downright wrong.)

That most bloggers are not professional journalists, and almost all “traditional” science journalists are (importantly, they professional journalists and not professional scientists) is, if anything, a factor that constrains the world of science blogging more closely to scientific veracity that the world of “traditional” science communication. Because science bloggers generally do not sell their work (in fact, many that I’ve encountered consider this antithetical to the activity of blogging,) they are under little pressure to sensationalize the topics they cover, or to leave out important information that might be considered to complicated or too uncomfortable to include in “traditional” science media. Because there is no other way to assess the qualifications of a blogger, it is a common (though not ubiquitous) practice for science bloggers to be very transparent about their identities and qualifications, as well as their sources. The conclusion that this diminishes the credibility or trustworthiness of bloggers is based on a misunderstanding of how blogs (and blog readers) actually work.

When viewing blogs, readers are encouraged to understand the source of their information (often in the form of links and references to scientific publications) instead of just accepting it as truth because a journalist has told them that it is true. If “traditional” media outlets did this as a rule they would be, by economic principle, damaged; by giving up their place as the public’s ultimate source of information, they give up some portion of the salable value of their services. Science bloggers, on the other hand, whose work is valued in terms of its circulation among readers, its esteem among fellow bloggers, and the feedback it garners from readers, have everything to gain by providing correct information, specifying where they got it, and accurately describing how the scientific method was used to produce that knowledge (and often, how it failed – something “traditional” science communicators stay almost completely silent on.) Because there are few financial incentives to keep science bloggers blogging, the community of science bloggers is made up of people who do what they do because they are committed to providing quality information about science to the public (or some segment of the public.) Bloggers are held accountable to the reasonableness and truth of their portrayal of science, because accuracy and informativeness are the capital of the blogging world. Fact-checking is done by bloggers, and then again by their readers (many of whom are also bloggers.) In the end, sources are provided, so that readers can easily do their own fact checking. It is this attitude, one of healthy skepticism, transparency, and reference to the scientific process, that science blogging engenders in its readers – this contrasts with the general lack of effort in “traditional” media to actively engage their audiences in the knowledge they present rather than maintaining an unquestioned, one-way flow of information from the publication to the reader.

In sum, I support your conclusion – information consumers do need to question the source of their information. I believe, however, that science blogs offer an accessible public forum where information consumers can question the sources of the information that they would otherwise only get in the form of brief, often sensationalized press-release and popular newspaper and magazine articles. As evidence by your support of the peer-review process, you seem to have great faith in the power of transparency and debate to generate reliable information – it puzzles me as to why you are so suspicious of this same process when it is enacted in public, where there are no formal restrictions determining who can participate, and where there are, if anything, fewer competing financial and professional interests than in either the world of science journalism or the world of professional scientific publishing.

I will be publishing this letter in full on my blog ( www.cephalove.southerfriedscience.com ) . If you decide to respond and you would not like your response published, please state as much.

Thanks for your time,

– Michael Lisieski

www.cephalove.southernfriedscience.com
mike.lisieski (at) gmail.com
xxxxxxxx (at) buffalo.edu
(xxx) xxx-xxxx

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