Monday, January 31, 2011

A Blog in the Wilderness

                I wonder if Thoreau would have blogged if he had the worldwide web at his fingertips and wireless access at his cabin on Walden Pond?  Maybe in simplifying his life, we would have ditched all things electric or wireless and left his laptop and ipad at home with his mom (and his laundry).  I recently read an article about a professor who gave an extra credit assignment to his English class to simplify, simplify, simplify by leaving their electronic devices with him for the weekend and then writing about the unconnected experience over their unplugged weekend—on paper, presumably.  (I learned about this from a posting of a friend on facebook, so I was glad I had plugged in.)  I suspect Thoreau would have had a blog; he would have been unable to control himself.  But, I wonder if anyone would have read his blog, which would have probably been called something dull like Walden or Beans.  I mean, really, who reads blogs anyway?  There must be millions of people blogging, but I bet most of those go unread.  I know my cousin blogs about her life, which even her own family has very little interest in reading.  (I looked at it once to confirm that the electronic age allows for a new level of narcissism.)  Would we have missed out on Walden, or would the Walden blog have been later published as a book after some insightful reader with connections noticed the literary value in this particular random blog amid all the others?
                For our seminar this week, the discussion hosts picked six very different blogs that are in different blogospheres, which I assume means something like “blogging outlets” but I’m not above using words that I do not understand the full meaning of (which appears suitable for the blogging genre).  It forced me to think about what I would read, what I think the public would read, and whether or not my lab needed a lab blog.  One blog at the New York Times, Scientist at Work:  Notes from the Field (http://scientistatwork.blogs.nytimes.com/), had a great potential to engage the public.  Obviously, the New York Times is an eminent place to have your blog shared—you’re almost guaranteed a readership.  This recent blogs included scientists working in Ecuador following spider monkeys, someone studying urban weasels, and someone working in Antarctica in the last several entries.  So, these subjects would be intriguing to a lot of people from diverse backgrounds whether scientific or nonscientific.  I also really like the idea of the public getting a glimpse into what field ecologists do on a daily basis.  Until someone decides to make a television drama about field biologists, this may be the next best thing.  (However, television would bring more people to the field I suspect.  My hypothesis is that television is the root cause of the plethora of lawyers and doctors.)  I have read this blog in the past and keep an eye open for it on the New York Times webpage.  This blog also had a unifying theme:  scientists doing field research.  So, even though there were multiple contributors, which could have created blogging dissonance, the blog as a whole seems to work.  There is some predictability and expectation of what you’re going to get in this blog, which makes me more likely to read it again. 
                In contrast, Science Friday also has a blog (http://www.sciencefriday.com/blog/), a radio program that I enjoy regularly; I had higher hopes for this blog, but it doesn’t seem like it works effectively.  In recent blogs they had a few topics I was interested (green vehicles) and then other topics I really wasn’t interested in and that didn’t really share much useful information.  There were multiple contributors to this blog with a theme that was too broad, “science,” so it didn’t appear cohesive or predictable. 
                A blog that did seem semi-effective was one unified around parasites (http://dailyparasite.blogspot.com/).  Every day there was a short snippet of info about different parasites.  This blog was by a university professor and he included contributions from other people.  This was cool, because it’s clearly an interest and it’s something he is doing to educate the public.  The downside is that it may be the odd duck who wants to learn about a parasite each day or even once per week.  I liked the theme, but I wasn’t sure if it would have much of an impact. 
So, if you’re going to be a blogger, it would be nice to have a unifying theme that has broad interest.  There are things that I regularly read on the internet, but a lot of them are related to my job.  I enjoy Female Science Professor who writes about life in academics and she’s funny (http://science-professor.blogspot.com/); I learned about this blog from another female science professor, so that may be this blog’s niche.  I also love Ms. Mentor on the Chronicle of Higher Education—she would surely not blog from her ivory tower, but she gives good advice in articles periodically.  So, practical blogging also seems nice, for those with a weakness for self-help. 
                A better gauge for what sort of things the public looks for in science blogs/articles might be best discovered by reading outside of our own field.  So, in that realm for me, there might be politics.  I do not read political blogs of which there must be many, but I do often read David Brooks commentary on politics because he seems like a sensible conservative, so I like to see what he has to say.  He has authority, he’s smart and logical, and often has a little humor.  And because I’m not conservative, I feel like it helps me understand where the more conservative people are coming from.  His opinion pieces and articles are frequently online at the New York Times.  I like to be able to trust my blogger! 
                The tree that will stand out in the forest (for me) will be one that has useful information that I can apply to my life, is innately interesting, is written by someone who is knowledgeable and reasonable, and has some sort of focus.  Those are the blogs I may read if I come across them. 
But, the act of blogging in itself—even if never read by another of the 2 billion Earthlings with internet service—may still be valuable to help us individually coalesce our ideas.  In a world of constant texting, emailing, and general information overload, any time we sit down to think and to expand our thoughts and ideas is valuable.  So, maybe cousin Emily’s blog is at least good for her if it helps her evaluate her life with some thoughtful perspective and reflection—even if her family isn’t enthralled with the minutiae of her life (given we are dealing with the flotsam of our own), it may not matter.  However, I think in our seminar, we’re trying to do something more and reach a larger audience than the self.  We’re trying not to say what anyone can say, but to say something that others are unable to say (Ana├»s Nin)—a quote that a nice Google search turned up—in an interesting, informative way.  Good grief.  

Monday, January 24, 2011

Whatever It is I Want to Say, Let me Say It Briefly


I sometimes feel that scientists, as a rule, shouldn’t consider interacting with the public because we tend to do things like either state things so simply without elaboration or enthusiasm (for fear of extrapolating beyond our data), or bore the audience with minutiae that we find intriguing (the stuff from which we might form more general hypotheses to test).  I recently read Bernd Heinrich’s Mind of the Raven, which is an interesting example by a scientist.  Heinrich covers a plethora of raven behaviors observed and revealed through his studies, and toward the end, he starts to put it in an evolutionary framework.  I thoroughly enjoyed parts of this book; then at other times, I was ready to gouge my eyes out if I saw another anecdote about this raven’s sudden vociferousness or that one’s use of puddles.  I cannot imagine any of my non-science friends reading this book cover to cover, which is too bad because parts of it were fascinating and he also gives you glimpses into the quirkiness of a biologist’s life (the stuff of television drama potentially):  climbing snow-covered trees to carefully collect baby ravens or to place alien objects in their nests to see what they do; visiting urban ravens who rule the roost in a couple’s apartment; setting up a giant aviary outside his cabin to raise baby birds by hand into adulthood; and following behaviors of ravens with wolves to hypothesize a long evolutionary relationship where ravens may actually help wolves find their kill.  You kind of want to read it now, right?  I know!  He’s dedicated, determined, ingenious, and has amazing stories to share, so why am I not handing it out to each of my friends on their birthdays?
                Although many of us have come to believe that there is a benefit of scientists communicating with the public either through the written word or some other form, science training does not prepare us to do this.  If anything, through teaching (something else we’re not formally trained to do) we learn to do this on the fly.  In some ways, scientists are the ideal communicators of their research:  they know the research conducted in the field extensively, they have the inside scoop, they can (often) distinguish a well designed experiment from a poorly designed one, and they know how to weigh different types of evidence.  And, scientists are not boring people, as a rule, so there’s no innate reason requiring them to be as boring as possible.  In fact, I can only think of one scientist that I’ve met in the last 15 years who seemed totally devoid of a life force (but he also does very interesting science). 
                This week in the graduate seminar on communicating science to the public we read two chapters:  “The Wolf Effect” from Douglas Smith’s book The Decade of the Wolf, and “Valley of Fear” from Where the Wild Things Were by William Stolzenburg.  Based on the chapter titles alone, you can probably guess that Stolzenburg is the wildlife journalist (http://www.thewildthings.net/author.html) and Smith is the scientist (although Smith co-wrote his book with nature writer Gary Ferguson (http://www.thewildthings.net/author.html)).  Really, I think Smith & Ferguson’s chapter is beautifully written and may offers some of the best of what a scientist can offer the public:  Smith has a believable voice, he has interacted with biologists and the public over a number of years so has enough experience to write with authority, and he makes some very nice analogies (“For the most part wolves are to bears what mosquitoes might be to the rest of us—pesky annoyances.”).  He also has the scientist’s mind, which is open to new data and a willingness to reinterpret nature based on new data (which we learn from the Stolzenburg chapter).  If there’s a down-side, it sounds like some biological explanations are parenthetically added in, as if an editor wrote in the margins “What’s a trophic cascade?”  On the downside of a scientist wielding his/her pen, potentially a scientist will be overly invested in her/his research to a point where s/he can lose objectivity.  I’m sure Smith loves his wolves and it must be thrilling to see data that support the idea of the wolf acting as a keystone predator.  (However, I never get this sense from anything I’ve read about “the wolf story.”)  In his chapter, you see him grappling with questions and evaluating what other factors could be playing a role in the recovery of pronghorn, willows, etc.  So, he seems to be questioning the reason behind observed effects and is not easily satisfied with an easy or simple answer. 
                Stolzenburg’s chapter on the wolf story is wonderful—the whole book is, really.  He pulls the reader in with a mystery of why the protected park of Yellowstone appeared to be suffering from the rivers, to the trees, to the wildlife.  We are slowly let in on the scientific hunches and discoveries made along the way.  He pulls in points of view from the public and the scientists, he fills us in on the historical perspective (which Smith does elsewhere in his book), he uses the data as the foundation of his story, and he even fits in some poetry.  Stolzenburg has a master’s in biology, so he has training as a scientist, and I think the approach of his writing and his even-handedness demonstrates this (although it’s obviously possible to do this without scientific training).  What Smith & Ferguson do in a whole book, Stolzenburg accomplishes in a chapter and does it convincingly.  This is definitely a book to give to your family and friends. 
Science journalists have survived in their careers via literary natural selection—the dull are eliminated from the writing pool (if not the gene pool).  Scientists with pens, however, have not and if anything our environment selects for straight-forward, unadorned language, which many members of the public may be repulsed by.  Conveying the mystery and beauty in the science may not be our custom, but I think Smith’s book (as well as Heinrich’s) suggests that it can be done if only we can maximize our strengths and expand our repertoire of writing about science.  Succinct is not always compelling.

Monday, January 17, 2011

An Ecological Tithe

Tithing, the idea of giving some amount (often 10%) of your wealth or property to charity and/or those less fortunate, is an idea associated with the Old Testament, the Middle Ages, and many churches today. It's a great idea for us modern folks too--you feel generous and you are supporting something that you believe in. One of my own friends who tithed believed that in giving away 10% of her income, she could expect to be showered by celestial generosity in a greater portion than what she gave. We were both graduate students at the time, and as most graduate students might attest, a little celestial generosity is always appreciated. I thought she might be a little foolhardy in that she couldn’t really afford such a large contribution on such a meager income; and, it seemed ironically selfish (not to mention superstitious) to expect repayment for what was essentially intended to be a charitable act.  But that could easily have been an excuse on my part to be less generous.  I am intrigued, however, by my friend’s expectation of good things in return for her tithe as I think about a “scientific tithe” of donating 10% of my time to communicating with the public.
I’m currently in a seminar exploring ideas of how as scientists we could more effectively communicate with the public. This week we read two articles from Frontiers in Ecology on this subject.  In one article (Pace et al. 2010), the author cites Holden’s (2008) suggestion for scientists to set aside 10% of the professional effort for public outreach.  An exciting and challenging idea!  Pace et al. (2010) outlines some pros and cons of scientists communicating with the public including the potential benefit such efforts can have on public understanding but with some big cons like the tradeoffs in time between scientific pursuits and communication efforts.  The authors indicate that there is typically no means for academic institutions to evaluate or reward such efforts, while government jobs do have some criteria and rewards for outreach.  Academics do evaluate service, which can include public outreach although it is definitely an optional form of service.  But maybe there are rewards such as increased publicity, which can benefit the university and funding efforts. 
Academic life is full.  I find that I love almost all aspects of my job, but I wish there was a little less of all of it.  For me, the rubber has a hard time hitting the road when it comes to public outreach because of time—I do not have enough time even when I’m working 60 hour work weeks to accomplish everything on my to-do list.  However, a tithe sets a manageable goal and could make a big difference. 
We read another article about ways ecologists can interact with the public by Groffman et al. (2010) which asserted that scientists held a great deal of respect in society.  Well, this was a pleasant surprise! And if true, it would suggest that the public would be receptive to receiving information directly from scientists, if only we figure out how to do this effectively. Although not universally true by any means, scientists do seem to have a special capacity to bore.  I have noticed this while teaching introductory biology, when I am being just about as entertaining as I can be, I have still been advised by students to “spice it up.”  It is disheartening to admit that as exciting as I think I can be, this is not a sentiment shared by all or even most of my students.  I have noticed this at scientific meetings where scientists, even forest ecologists, can miss the forest for the trees.  And many scientists seem very confused on what a cartoon is (i.e., Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes are cartoons, a pie chart or flow chart is not). 
Interestingly, the internet is the second most common place people are getting their news (television is first).  So, this means that even blogs could make an impact.  One downside of the internet being a major venue for science information is that “the internet” can mean almost anything—reputable on-line newspapers, unreputable newspapers, scientists, citizens, madmen, or pundits.  Take your pick!!  Jay Allison who edited print editions of This I Believe gave the commencement address at our university this year and he made an interesting comment that people today didn’t really have to listen to each other because there were so many media options—you can easily just listen to people who had similar opinions to you.  Sometimes that may be a relief, but it doesn’t do much for understanding alternative viewpoints and it doesn’t help people with divergent views reach a potentially productive consensus.  The result of that has certainly become disturbingly obvious in politics.
So, we shall see where this semester leads on communicating science to the public.  On the way to the office I heard an interview of Clarence Jones on NPR (http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=132905796&m=132905831) who recently wrote a book called Behind the Dream about his time with Martin Luther King, Jr.  ML King, Jr. had visited him to try to get him to go to Birmingham, AL with him and he had apparently declined, but after hearing his sermon the next day where MLK talked about meeting a talent lawyer who would not go to Birmingham to help.  MLK said in effect that this young man had forgotten from whence he came, as had many in the audience.  He suggested they owed a debt to those on whose shoulders they had stood, those who had given each of them a chance to make it and become successful.  So, the obligation of the successful was to help those who had not made it so that life would be better for them all.  That applies to many of us working in the natural world—we owe our debt to the world that we study to make it known to those who are not so fortunate in hopes they will come to value, appreciate, and preserve it.  May not make it to Birmingham, but we’ll start with a tithe.  


Goffman, PM, C Stylinski, MC Nisbet, CM Duarte, R Jordan, A Burgin, MA Previtali, and J Coloso.  2010.  Restarting the conversation:  Challenges at the interface between ecology and society.  Frontiers in Ecology 8:284-291.


Pace, ML, SE Hampton, KE Limburg, EM Bennett, EM Cook, AE Davis, JM Grove, KY Kaneshiro, SL LaDeau, GE Likens, DM McKnight, DC Richardson, and DL Strayer.  2010.  Communicating with the public:  Opportunities and rewards for individual ecologists.  Frontiers in Ecology 8:292-298.