Today, our good friend John Hawks asked the above question, wondering what place science blogging and social media has in our discipline. His question is important. What is the role of blogs and social media in our discipline? What are the potential uses for it? Where can it build on current practice in science, and where can it help move science forward? Instead of sending him a million tweets, I figured I’d write something up, instead.
While I believe science blogging has value in a number of different places, one of the areas I focus on is public engagement, something I’ve written about before. Clearly, all of science can benefit from the dissemination of knowledge to the public. I think this is crucial for a number of reasons: first, because our work, regardless of discipline, effects the public in very real and important ways. It’s important for them to know how and why. Second, because there is a fundamental misunderstanding the world about how science works. Public Engagement provides scientists with the opportunity to teach about science, and how we generate results and interpretations. Third, we have an ethical obligation: most of us are funded by public money, be it through scholarships, fellowships, or working for (or attending) a public university. We are obligated to let the people who are paying us to do research how their money is being spent. In some ways, this is no different then other forms of media: scientists write books, publish articles in magazines, and give interviews in newspapers and on television. However, the use of social media can move this interaction forward in a number of very important ways.
Signal and Noise
The Internet is two things: it is the place where most people get their information, and it is full of misinformation. This makes it both an amazing tool for public engagement, but also a place where people can easily access bad information. This was discussed very directly by Shawn Graham in his 2011 SAA paper last spring. Shawn argues that by having practicing archaeologists (read: scientists) on the web, we can distill the amount of misinformation available to the public. Instead of non-scientists discussing science incorrectly sitting atop Google searches, real scientists discussing science correctly will be the first available option for google searchers. In order for this to happen, however, blogging and social media must be prioritized by our peers.
Closing the Gap
Social media and blogging cut down the distance between the public and the scientists. When a scientist gives an interview to a newspaper, it must be filtered through the journalist and editors before it gets to the public. This can lead to misinformation, or the loss of the primary message that the scientist wanted to express. Blogging provides a direct line between the interested public and the scientist: the scientist can provide the information and interpretations of their work in their own language, while the public can read, digest, and ask questions of the scientist directly. This provides both accountability for the scientist, and letsthe public become more directly engaged in what is going on.
This is something that may come more directly from my discipline in archaeology, where the majority of traditional public engagement focuses on the process of data collection: most people what to visit an archaeological site. However, I think this is a critically important part of science in general. It’s by explaining the scientific method to the public that we begin to teach about how science is done, which leads to a better understanding of how scientists get their results, and what the limitations are on our conclusions. Taking the public into the laboratory or into the field provides an opportunity to discuss the how not just the what.
This builds off of taking the public through the process of doing science. Social media and blogging give an opportunity to engage the public in new ways. For example, as an archaeologist, there are many places that I can’t take the public through traditional media, such as into construction sites that I am mitigating, or into a jungle, or the desert. Blogging and social media allow me to do that, and to do it in real time. At the Campus Archaeology Program, our issue was a community that would be interested, university alumni, who were not geographically close to the research we were doing. Social media gave them access to our work, and, it turns out, us access to them. From an ethical perspective, therefore, we were obligated to use social media to connect with those people who had the biggest stake in our research.
Expanding Your Audience
This is pretty simple: the amount of people you can reach on the Internet is almost limitless. Being online, either as a blogger or user of other social media, will expand the amount of people who read and interact with your research, period. Trust me on this one. I gave a conference paper a few years ago to a room “full” of fifteen people. Since it’s been online? 171 views. Is that Double Rainbow type viewership? No. But is it 156 more people then I gave the paper to originally? Yes. And if 171 people had shown up to my paper in person, it would have been the talk of the conference. The bigger your audience, the more people you educate about your work, its importance, and why science is valuable.
These are the main reasons why I have occupied social media. It has helped me grow professionally, by building my professional network, but also has helped me teach more people about my discipline. Regarding science, I think there is little doubt that we have not only an obligation, but a need to do our part to increase the access the public has to the scientific process, and what it is: the climate towards science has not been particularly accepting recently. We have a responsibility to present not only the results we gather, but also how we did it, why we did it, and how it can be applied in our world.
What are your thoughts? How else can blogging and social media be a valuable tool for engagement? What are some things to be cautious about? What are other ways these tools can be helpful?