I’ve been thinking about the relationship between science and news. As I went through the process of identifying a research interest, I turned to several different channels to update myself about the field. I read blogs mostly, although the news and press releases pages of government agencies, colleges, and journals were useful, too.
What I found searching for the latest and greatest ecology news is that some sites cover science in general, some cover a subject in detail, and that good writing is key to drawing attention. Two of the very most respected and interesting blogs are hosted by Discover Magazine: Carl Zimmer’s The Loom and Ed Yong’s Not Exactly Rocket Science. These two cover science in general with more-or-less a biology emphasis. Both writers are active on Twitter (sometimes I feel the bulk of science communication in cyberspace goes through Twitter) and have an uncanny ability to stay on top of an amazing variety of topics. They are also engaging writers and fun to read. There are other blogs I love that deal with a more specific range of topics. These have more of the flavor of a journal (a personal, not a scientific journal). I am thinking of the Oikos Blog, which covers ecology from the perspective of the journal’s editors, The Tree of Life, evolutionary geneticist (ok, that’s my best shot at describing phylogenomics) Jonathan Eisen’s blog, and Evolving Thoughts, John S. Wilkins’ blog on the philosophy of biology. The posts you find there are not as journalistic in style, although I find them to be very readable.
Clearly there is a big distinction between the two styles of blog, one that leads me to wonder about the relationship of news to biology. By news I mean the kind of thing one might find in a newspaper due to eminence, prominence, universality, relevance to large portion of the reader populations, etc. (i.e., the criteria for newsworthiness I learned in journalism class). It is the nature of science to discover and report on discoveries, the convention being to report them through journals, but science is not just discoveries. These discoveries are part of broader stories that influence our thinking, that contextualize our findings. We call these stories theories or paradigms. Evolution is one, and in the other sciences, quantum mechanics is one.
So, as an aspiring scientist, I am in an interesting position to draw from all these channels of information, and I have some drawbacks. For the first kind, the news-type post, I love the clarity of the storytelling and the way the stories can be “oh wow” cool, but I miss the methodological discussion that frames these findings. For the second, I am fascinated by the inside-baseball aspects of the discussion, but not well able to understand them, not having the background in philosophy or modeling, for example.
Why are we interested in what we are interested in? That is one of the central questions of this blog. My observations above about science blogging are relevant to me because they were part of a course of self-study that I chose to undergo, and maybe some others would be interested in following that course. I want to pose these questions because I am interested in explaining science to others and raising the profile of the field. At the same time I am always aware that when you look into the aquarium, the aquarium looks back into you. My sense of self is activated and motivated by my awareness of my interest in fish and biology – in a way I have always been most aware of myself when I have my forehead pressed against the glass walls of an aquarium display. So I discuss my subjective experience of science as a way of explaining science to others. I am busy writing scholarship applications and I find the tone of them has creeped into the language of this post, so excuse me if I come off a little self-centered.