Evolution blogs: What are they good for?

I have tried to avoid too much navel gazing here during the past few months, but a new paper published in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach by Adam Goldstein has raised the question “Of what use are evolution blogs?”

Before we can answer this question, of course, we have to ask “What is an evolution blog?” There is not a simple answer. Goldstein considers an evolution blog to be a science blog that is intended “to provide information [about evolution], steering away from the controversies over creationism and intelligent design.” The extent to which a blog must “steer away” from discussions of creationism to be considered an evolution blog is not made clear, but it appears that any science blog that routinely features discussions of evolution removed from the creationism culture war would fall under Goldstein’s definition.

On to the paper itself. Much of Goldstein’s article acts as an introduction to what blogging is and what differentiates it from Twitter and Facebook. This is probably old news for most readers here, but given that more and more scientists are becoming engaged with science blogs in one way or another, it could be a useful primer for those who want to know what all the fuss is about. Trying to quickly and accurately describe the science blogohedron* is as easy as getting a firm grip on Jell-O that has been left out in the sun, but overall I think Goldstein provides a pretty good summary.

*[I prefer the term “blogohedron” to “blogosphere” because it invokes something that is many sided with pointy bits, not smooth and uniform, which I think better captures the nature of the science blogging landscape.]

One point that I object to, however, is the characterization of science blogs as being off-the-cuff and written in a stream-of-consciousness manner. Goldstein writes;

Entries are not polished, the idea being to reflect what’s happening at the moment, often written in the voice of an unreflective first person or as a set of notes to one’s self. … Many blog entries are intended to be provocative, and they may reflect a view that is extreme even for the blogger, who may be seen as experimenting with new ideas.

This may be true of some blogs, but it is not true of this blog. These days I usually spend between an hour and a half to three hours on any substantive post about evolution (like this week’s posts about fossil elephants). I compose a rough copy, edit once, insert pictures, edit again before I hit publish, and edit again once I see the finished product on the web. My tone may be informal, yes, but I do try to polish up what I write to some degree. The blogs Tetrapod Zoology and Not Exactly Rocket Science are even better examples of great care being taken by writers to present a more polished final product to readers. As Darren points out in the comments, as well, there are also ever more niche blogs containing specialized, well-referenced information written by scientists. These blogs are a far cry from what Goldstein describes.

Writing techniques and style varies widely across evolution blogs, though, and this is evident in some of the sites Goldstein picked as examples. Some (like the homepage of the NCSE and Evolution Diary) I would not categorize as evolution blogs at all**, and others (like Why Evolution is True and The Loom) more closely fit the image of what I think of when I hear the phrase “science blog.” As I stated before, however, determining what a science blog is or should be is a squishy issue and the categories Goldstein creates are interesting.

**[The NCSE homepage presents news, press releases, and announcements about the organization and does not allow comments. Evolution Diary, likewise, simply reproduces press releases and does not feature original material. Both may be interesting sources of science news, but I would not call them true science blogs.]

First are the “Professional” evolution blogs. Most of these are related to Allen MacNeill’s college courses at Cornell, with Olivia Judson’s “Wild Things” blog thrown in to boot. Goldstein links these together because they are “devoted almost entirely to explaining
evolutionary science” with little expression of “personal preference, anecdote,
and first-person narrative”, but I think some of MacNeill’s blogs and Judson’s blog violate this rule. They may be devoted to evolution with no extraneous lolcats, but they can be just as personal (if not moreso) than other “non-professional” evolution blogs.

The next group is composed of “Instructive amateur” evolution blogs. This blog would probably fit into that category, as would most of the blogs focused on evolution that I can think of. These can be written by scientists, journalists, students, enthusiasts, &c., and are grouped together as they “take a lighter, less formal approach to the topics
they know and love.” Again, this is a squishy definition, and these blogs might best be described as “personal” in that they are not directly affiliated with a business or academic institution. They are not being edited by part of a larger media company or being cleaned up for use in a college course and can be more informal. The bloggers have the freedom to write about whatever they wish.

Then follows that sole entry in the “Apostalic” category, Pharyngula. The popularity and content of Pharyngula make it difficult to group it with other evolution blogs, and it’s popularity seems to stem more from interest in PZ as a writer than the actual scientific content being presented. (I would imagine that any blog that gets the kind of traffic Pharyngula receives would have a strong personality behind it.) As Goldstein notes, Pharyngula is more of a hub for readers to follow and discuss culture wars than to learn about actual evolutionary science.

The “Imaginative” category contains two of my favorites, The Loom and The Flying Trilobite. Goldstein places these together as they “look at evolution and related science from
the point of view of the disciplines of visual art, music,
or writing”, although I think The Loom is a better fit in the “Instructive amateur” category. Again, this is attributable to the varying nature of blogs and the unavoidable consequence of creating “paraphyletic” assemblages if we try to cram individual blogs into set categories.

The last category covers “Networks” (though Nature Network is not mentioned, which I find odd), but what is all this categorization leading up to? I’m sure we could spend a lot of time creating our own categories, proposing blogs we feel were overlooked, &c., but the bigger question Goldstein wants to get at is “Of what use are these various types of evolution blogs to researchers?” He writes;

What role might a blog play in someone’s research process? In keeping with my caveat above (“Caveat lector: Beware the blogger”), blogs are not the best source for authoritative information about evolution. For this, reference works, textbooks, and peer-reviewed articles in professional journals are the best source. … Amateur blogs and regular columns such as Olivia Judson’s also explain ideas, facts, and discoveries about evolution, and such posts are excellent sources of information. They are not, in general, the best source for information about evolutionary science, however, because they are not systematic–posts concern just the topics that the blogger finds interesting–and their main scheme of organization is chronological, not topical. The researcher would be better served by reference works and the other kinds of resources mentioned above for in-depth study.

I found this conclusion a bit strange. Naturally an evolutionary scientist would naturally go to traditional sources (peer reviewed literature, conferences, &c.) to find “authoritative” information about evolution. In fact, if anything is a problem in this context it is the relatively low estimation of science blogs by some academics. It is just another facet of the general unease some scientists have towards popularization (but that is a monster of an issue I will skirt around for the moment).

And are science blogs written to be authoritative? The answer to that question depends on the blogger and what they want to accomplish. Writing a blog is something like standing on a crate in the town square and starting to speak; what you say, and how you say it, is entirely up to you. There have been some attempts to accurately define core scientific concepts, but as far as I am aware many evolution blogs are more conversational and geared towards educating the public. There may be some exceptions, but evolution bloggers in general focus more on popularization than reiterating technical information for experts.

(There are some instances of original research appearing on science blogs, however. Perhaps it is not presented in a formal fashion, but there is more to evolution blogs than popularization of previously published technical information and opinion pieces. Furthermore, blogs can be made more systematic through the use of keywords.)

What concerns me is that Goldstein’s criticisms will cause some researchers to further discount science blogs. This would be unfortunate, especially since I think a lot of fine blogs (see the links to other blogs included above) were overlooked. In fact, we can question what makes the writings of a scientist “authoritative” in a peer reviewed journal but unreliable when posted to a blog. Peer-review is not perfect, mistakes are made in the formal literature, and (as I stated above) many science blogs are more than personal opinion columns. Not every blog is a reliable source, but neither can it be said that evolution blogs, as a whole, are not good resources for professional researchers to learn about evolution.

Goldstein does identify the positive role blogs can play in terms of inspiration and communication, however. He writes;

Research and learning require more than coming to understand a topic, collecting facts, or making and evaluating interpretations. One must discover terms and
concepts with which to pose questions, identify areas of uncertainty and interest to practitioners of the field of inquiry, and generate one’s own questions and sketch their answers. Blogs can play an important role in these stages of the research process.

Science blogs can be excellent communication tools. Not only are scientists reading blogs, but they are writing them and voicing their thoughts in comment threads, as well. The comment section of my recent post on the fossil primate Ganlea is a good example of this; three well-known researchers appeared in the comments and engaged in a detailed discussion about the fossils I had summarized. A popular summary facilitated a more detailed debate among experts.

Indeed, one of the most valuable aspects of science blogs is the development of community. Blogs can help researchers keep up with what is going on in a given field and network with other experts, the latter being especially important to young scientists. For enthusiastic non-professionals, such as myself, blogs provide a way to connect with scientists to discuss ideas, gain valuable advice, and perhaps even contribute something to more formal scientific discourse. The acceptance of my first peer-reviewed paper and the development of several other projects I have been working on would not have occurred had I not been active as a science blogger.

Given the forum in which Goldstein’s paper was published (an academic journal about evolution) it is not surprising that he considers evolution blogs in terms of their relevance to professional scientists. Given this chosen context, however, it is a little odd that evolution blogs are characterized as not being “authoritative”, “systematic”, or reliable on the grounds that the presentation is too “informal.” Given the general disdain some academics have for blogging I do not think they need to be warned that a blog post is not the same as a peer-reviewed paper, but it should also be remembered that some original material is presented on science blogs and could even be citable. Whether this would be acceptable within scientific circles is another question.

A more fruitful topic for discussion might be how professional evolutionary biologists are actually using science blogs. Are they using them to popularize details of their own work? Are they using them to engage other experts in their discipline? Do blogs help open discourse and allow for collaboration? With the involvement of many professional researchers science blogs are becoming increasingly influential in academia, both in formal and informal capacities. (See this post of the “Aetogate” controversy for an instance of the former.) I think these are more interesting issues that require input from scientists who blog.

Goldstein’s paper is a fair introduction to the basic nuts and bolts of science blogging for those who know little about it, even if I disagree with the paper about how scientific authority is being defined and measured. I hope it helps to bring more evolutionary scientists into the discussions going on here and elsewhere on the web. It will not quell the arguments over the popularization of science among professionals, but perhaps it will convince a few that science blogging is a powerful way to engage the public and other scientists.

Post script: There was something I forgot to mention. Last year I conducted some interviews with paleontologists on this blog (see here). I tried to make sure some technical subjects were covered along with the more standard interview questions, and the entries featuring Bob Bakker and Jack Horner are especially interesting in that they cover particular scientific debates in paleontology. From correspondence I have received since I posted these interviews I know people are using them to understand what these particular scientists think, so this is another case where an evolution blog can be of use to professional researchers.

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