Unruly Democracy: Science Blogs and the Public Sphere

B/W Ant QueenOn Friday, Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and Chris Mooney presented "Unruly Democracy: Science Blogs and the Public Sphere," a conference that brought together Seed, Discover, The Boston Globe, ClimateProgress, and more. The ScienceBlogs contingent included Joy Moore, Seed Media Group's VP of Global Partnerships, and bloggers Jessica Palmer of Bioephemera and Dr. Isis of On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess. Our two esteemed bloggers did not always agree on matters of civility, so if you want a third perspective, MIT's professor of science writing Tom Levinson live-tweeted much of the event.

Maestro Chris Mooney hasn't put up a full post-mortem of his own yet, but does analyze Jess' extensive, excellent post.

Chris describes the position he shares with Jess (and myself, more-or-less) as "Sunsteinian" after Cass Sunstein. One of the commentators over at The Intersection was looking for an expansion of that term, working off the framework of his most famous book, Nudge. But Sunstein's most relevant arguments come from his work on ecosystems of information and beliefs and the idea of "group polarization", which he writes about in Infotopia, Going to Extremes, and On Rumors. I'll let Jess handle the takeaway:

While hyperpartisan polarization in politics is nothing new (I remember the Contract With America!) it does seem to me to be getting worse (I also remember when everyone watched the 6 o'clock news, and the anchors were not only calm, they were - dare I say it - pretty fair and balanced). Now we have cable "news" networks that feed their partisans exactly what they want to hear. Are blogs really so different? I don't think so. People stumble across blogs in various ways, but they return to blogs because those blogs resonate with them. When it comes to television news, like Goldilocks, we must find satisfaction among Fox (so right!), MSNBC (so left!) and CNN (WTF?). But there are thousands of blogs, so in the blogosphere you can find a near-perfect fit, where you can read and talk with people who think like you do. Cass Sunstein (current head of OIRA) has discussed this "echo chamber" effect in Infotopia and his other writings. (Chris Mooney talked quite a bit about Sunstein's perspective yesterday, juxtaposing it with Al Gore's more optimistic approach to media). A recent study by researchers at the Berkman Center comparing conservative and liberal blogs finds that, along with different political views, they also have significant differences in organization, hierarchy, and the level of user engagement: apparently, people self-sort not only according to the content of their beliefs, but also according to the type of community they find welcoming

Jess goes on to say this trend is generally bad for science and democracy; when there are disincentives for the neutral exchange of ideas and rewards for playing into confirmation bias, we can't progress.

A (hopefully) illustrative aside: About two weeks ago, ScienceBlogs set it's highest one-day traffic record on the back of a very interesting post at Neurophilosophy on the effect of Botox on the ability to experience emotion. I'd like to say it was all due to Mo's great topic selection and lucid writing, but the reality is that almost 100,000 visitors saw this bit of ScienceBlogging due to a link on The Drudge Report. And, of course, Matt Drudge had no interest in exploring neuroscience; he used the link as a punchline of a joke about Nancy Pelosi's appearance. The comment thread of that post is fascinating: two separate communities that are unwilling (perhaps unable!) to communicate with one another.

People blog for different reasons, but I think it's fair to say that a common metric of success is influence. And, galling as it may be, it's hard to argue that Drudge hasn't been a posterboy for blogging's potential to influence the world. Even in the realm of lowercase science blogs, we see places like Watts Up With That and the legion of anti-vaxxers Orac has to contend with have as much, or more, influence than the people who have the science on their side.

Clearly, I wouldn't be at ScienceBlogs if I didn't think that the open, free, and direct communication of scientists to the public didn't have great value, but it's important to remember those qualities are a two-edged sword. I think one of the great strengths we have here on this network is the network itself. We're not homogeneous, as any number of internal SB feuds would attest, but we do have common goals. And while everyone is free to niche-ify their blogs, I'm in a position to bring the somewhat-outsidery perspective that comes from my roots as a traditional science journalist to connect ideas and bridge gaps. I think it's going to take a mixture of old and new approaches to the information ecosystem to really raise the bar for science communication and get beyond simplistic pablum on side and preaching to the choir on the other.

Of course, all of this bloviating comes from second- and third-hand accounts of the event at the top of this post; video of the talks are apparently forthcoming, so I'll link them (and any other accounts) here when the come available.


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