Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Whither Geoblogs?

This month's Accretionary Wedge goes a little something like this:

Taking the liberty of paraphrasing, I interpret this to be asking what role the geoblogosphere should play going forward. Should it have a role in disseminating research? Should geoblogging be factored into academic- or business- employees’ evaluations? Can, and how should, the expertise and enthusiasm of geobloggers be harnessed to effectively reach and educate the broader public? In short (again, as I interpret the issue), what do you see as the purpose of geoblogging and the geoblogosphere?

I wonder if this was inspired, at least in part, by "PesiCoGeddon" over at ScienceBlogs (Sb). You can get more on the geoblogs take at the former home of "Highly Allochthonous."

But it does seem as though the general zeitgeist in the geoblogsphere is something along the lines of "how do we move this tool (blog) beyond it's current context (teh internets) and begin to interact/influence the larger domain of geology?" Here are a few things that, as a scientist, I find are important to my job/interests. I've arranged them in a sort of "three-legged stool" that full professors are often fond of using to highlight how we assistant profs should be spending our time.

While the blogoshpere is not the first place for peer-review, it has served as a testing ground for a few ideas. Aydin over at Snail's Tales has used blog posts as the nuclei of several short papers. I think blogging about ideas, or active research can be very helpful - particularly if there are some refinements that can be made to the ways in which the ideas are communicated through writing. If a person can't understand what you're doing as written in a blog post, perhaps it's time to revise the text of your methods section. Not to say that the language of blogging should replace the language of the formal journal article. But practice in saying what you "mean" without the help of hand, body, or facial gestures is always good.

Another bonus is that of connecting with other like-minded researchers. When I started my PhD, I did like any turn-of-the-century grad student did. I searched "teh google" for topics related to my research topic. Not finding much about them on the general web, I though - if I was looking for stuff and didn't find much, I bet there might be at least one other person who's doing the same thing (finding nothing on the internet). Good general information web content often links to the more scholarly work that it was based from. And so, I started blogging so that others might stumble upon my interests and point me in the direction of useful information/people or I may help others find said information/people.

This was back in the mid-early Pleistocene of blogging when the "network" wasn't as interwoven. I say "mid-early Pleistocene" largely because the big, monstrous blogs (e.g. Pharyngula, Ron Schott, etc.) were already there, but they had not yet migrated to their current locations and ecologies. And, it appears that there is a looming blog-pocalypse (that's spelled with a catastrophe "S"), which threatens to force a restructuring of how the different blogs are linked to each other, and the possible loss of some very nice blogs indeed. Plus, "mid-early" is not a formally recognized unit of time, and therefore is not capitalized.

But the concept of a "blog" is less of a "hot, new thing" only practiced by time-wasting grad students. It has shown itself to be an influential medium of communication. I don't see why more active research can't be discussed on blogs. It helps keep people updated, forms the basis of more formally written communications, and it might help refine hypotheses, methods, and conclusions before they go to "press." And with more journals/libraries eliminating their paper stock and going to online subscriptions, more connections to these articles and ideas is not a bad thing.

Two problems I see right away, however. The first is that most University libraries use "hits" off their internal search engines to decide whether to keep renewing a journal subscription. These things aren't cheap. And if no one goes through the Libraries "portal" to get to "Science" or "Nature," then the library might think that those journals aren't very popular, and cancel their subscriptions - leaving those students and professors SOL for that particular journal.

Secondly, is the capability for abuse. Abuse in terms of using the blog as a bully-pulpit to harangue and pour derision over other individuals/institutions - sort of like the "Mann hockey stick controversy," but on a smaller (but more widespread) scale. Also abuse in terms of using the appearance of a "well-reasoned and insightful" analysis to promote a completely false and incorrect set of ideas (a la Andrew Wakefield/Thymerosol/Autism). But silencing speech is anathema to the web - and if everyone has a voice, some of these voices will be spewing BS. But that's where the second leg of our stool enters the story:

The most widely used aspect of the web, blogs and the intertoobz is to reach out to the larger community to share ideas, point out misconceptions, and show people how interesting and fun science can be. In an age of high population density, no one is isolated from geologic hazards. Properly understanding them will be only more important in the future. Do you hear that Gov. Jindahl? VOLCANO MONITORING is important! Having people tell us what all the different kinds of tectonic activities mean, is just as important. In an age of news media hype and extraordinary claims, a calm, reasoned voice is almost impossible (no, make that completely impossible) to find in most news feeds. But the blogosphere can and should take the time to pick apart the reports and the analyses to show what is and what isn't worth worrying about.

Speaking of, the increased prominence of groups like "Answers in Genesis" is a byproduct of everyone having a voice. They couch their biblically literal world-view in the language of pseudoscience. A non-scientist, sympathetic to the concept of a persecuted yet earnest christian voice, can be easily swayed by their arguments. But it takes mere moments to debunk the claims put forth. Garbage In, Garbage Out - but at least we can air out the trash on the web for everyone to see it for what it is.

And, outreach is an important part of our work (at least it says so on our contracts and grant applications). Disseminating ideas, increasing understanding is an important function of modern science. WIth the speed of the internet, ideas travel quickly (e.g. memes: how quickly did it take for "all your base are belong to us" to travel all the way across the world?). In a sense, outreach is teaching without a classroom or formal assessment. Normally, teaching is referred to as the third leg of the stool. But I'll skip that and focus on a slightly different part of the responsibilities of a faculty person at a University.

At the University, "service" is often considered to be serving on committees and general participation within the University community. While there are definite problems with leaking information from closed meetings, or complaining about a particular person/policy at a business/school, how many of us wonder "how they do it?"

How does a professional balance school, life, family, fun? What are some methods of being a professional that allow for us to do what we love and still get paid? Avocation, or vocation? Are we geologists all the time? Can any of us walk past a granite gneiss with huge garnet porphyroblasts and not stop and look at it? Or take a picture cuz it will last longer? But what about other stuff? Are there "best practices" that allow for people to balance work/life? I bet many of us geobloggers have some things that work. And I bet there are just as many that are looking for ways to reduce the demands of "work" without sacrificing efficacy. Sharing ideas is another terribly useful result of blog, which brings me back to the original nub of my gist. Whither the geoblogosphere?

What I see from my dark little corner of this "series of tubes," is that the current 800lb gorilla, Science Blogs (Sb, is having a bad time right now. It may well right itself, but not before the entities that made it successful either move, or take additional steps to distance themselves from the "seed" that started it all (pun intended).

One of the best things about Sb was the localization of good content. It was easy to check to see who had written what without lots of searching around. RSS feeds and Twitter accomplish much of this, but these feeds are separate. The blog diaspora have located at different places. Highly Allochthonous, for instance can be found here now. Ron Schott's blog page has done a good job collating geologically related blogs, but it's such a big list that it's hard to "stay entertained" because finding new and interesting content is still viewer-intensive. Then there's the part where other sciences have interesting things to say. I want to learn about atmospheric dynamics of meso-scale convective systems (big thunderstorms). But few geoblogs cover this. Astronomy, physics, biology blogs are cool too. As are chemistry, nutrition, anthropology and so on... But there are few "clearing houses" where our "one-stop shopping" mentality can be sated.

Unfortunately, nothing in life is free. Sb tried to balance the needs of advert revenue with individually-controlled editorial content, but stumbled pretty badly with the stillborn PepsiCo. "blog." And, of course, each person has different interests and desires. I desire the cosmopolitain content of Sb, but without the annoying ads, banners, and looming potential of "Big Money (tm)" controlling some of the more subversive elements. A college professor is supposed to have some academic freedom to pursue a variety of interests (particularly after tenure). But professors have a helluva lot to worry about, and blogging isn't exactly a zero-time commitment.

Ideally, I'd like to see an independently wealthy person(s) devote resources towards a clearing house of information. Both academic journals and blogs related to the content within and outside of those journals. Comments could be allowable, but for the most part they just prove that if a person has license to say anything, the first thing that comes out of their mouth is usually insulting, inane, or irrelevant (and often all three).

More practically, I hope that Sb continues - it's one model of blogworking that has been successful. But there are plenty of good blogs out there with ideas that don't get the kind of attention they deserve. We can't all have the "impact factor" that Pharyngula has, but it would be nice if there was a place (or three) where interesting content, regardless of topic, was easier to come by. In part to make my time-wasting through the reading of blogs more enjoyable. In part so that those of us more or less grounded in reality can more easily present a united effort against the anti-science, anti-reality crowds that try to sell us their addled opinions. And by so doing, allow us to think critically about our own preconceptions and assumptions.

Perhaps if some of the more motivated bloggers are up for it, using the current idioms of the Blogroll and Carnival, the content can be easier to find, the entertainments will be easier had, and the rational thinking will be easier thought. I'm not sure what I was getting at with that last sentence - I just thought it sounded cool. I would love for more people to read my blog and think that I am as clever as I think I am. But I can't just sit around, type a post now and then, and have it happen magically. I should be part of the solution. Or rather, I should be part of the refinement of the science blogs that I want to see. I haven't updated my "blogroll" in many years. I don't really like the code/format that Blogger offers to do so. But I like Brian Roman's idea of a somewhat regular update of "stuff I read on the blogs" type post. So perhaps it comes back to the individual. Search out good stuff. Keep your own lists/links. Let others know of stuff you think is neat from time to time. And keep hoping that you get what you want.

Because, as with everything about the internet, I want the content. I want it to be easy to find. I want it to be insightful and (if possible) entertaining. And I want it now. I just don't want to have to pay for it, or work very hard to get it. And while I asking, can I have a pony?

Update: I guess the "Geoblogosphere News" portal does this function, although this can be a place for information overload. You know, the look your cat gets when you spin him around in a swivel chair, then dangle a string in his face and shine a laser-pointer on the floor? You just want to run and hide under the sofa for a bit.

Update II: I fixed an unfortunate typo that blamed Michael Welland of Through the Sandglass for the Thymerosol/Autism debacle. Oops. Very sorry about that. Silly last names that end in "W."


  1. Wow! Terrific piece! Not being a "professional" geologist, I've been particularly curious as to the reactions of academics re. blogging. My own position is similar to yours: blogging cannot substitute for the formal and formalized process of peer review and publication, but it can do a great job of augmenting that process, and extending its reach beyond the confines of academic journals. Mainstream journalism frequently attempts this, but the model there, passing through press releases, is fatally flawed. In my experience, the geoblggers know enough to know what they don't know, and do a pretty good job of fact-checking.

    Thanks for the great entry.

  2. I'll second Lockwood ... this is a great post. You touch on a lot, too much to comment about right now. I may have to write my own post.

    One aspect I definitely agree with is what you say towards the end -- because blogs are by definition driven by the community, the community must keep working to make them insightful, useful, entertaining, etc.

  3. Thanks for the post - even if the timing of the Sb-affair is only a coincidence with the timing of the AW topic (we discussed it before the story of Sb came out) it shows how up to date a consideration of blogs and blogosphere are.

    This will be very interesting - Hope for many additional considerations to the AW

  4. While I appreciate being noted as a "monstrous" blog - few know that through grade school my seldom used nickname was "Ronster the Monster" - I have to quibble with the suggestion that my blog has changed location. In fact, it is and always has been located on the web at its current location. If any geoblog has a claim to the moniker "Highly Autochthonous" it would be mine.

  5. @Ron: okay, not all have changed location - some have just greatly expanded their range.

  6. Thanks for the update correction!

    Lots to ruminate on in your piece - so that's what I'll do.

    Michael Welland