Self Reference

I guess every blogger has to blog about blogging at some point. I was on a panel of science bloggers at a talkfest organised by Alice Bell and Beck Smith last week, so it has been on my mind, and this is my self-referential blog. If you are not up for a bit of navel-gazing, move right along. But see also Chapter 1.6 of Smashing Physics.

First – thanks to everyone; organisers, bakers, fellow panelists and audience. Weird but stimulating experience walking into a room full of people 90% of whom you have never met but have exchanged tweets with. Glad to have met lots of you now.

Somewhere between Gospel Oak and Barking, taken by Leon. Something to do with windows also being mirrors?

One, fundamental, question was: Why blog? The answer I gave was that I got into it because of the opportunity and interest provided by the LHC startup, and basically can’t keep my mouth shut. The mouth was probably more obvious in the pub than on the panel, but writing is the point here. I really enjoy writing in general. Writing scientific papers is fun and challenging, and I even try to make them interesting sometimes, but the blog provides more scope for creativity and fun.

I know there’s a continuum, from scientists who blog a bit through to full-time professional writers who report and explain a wide variety of science done by others. I’m near the former end of the spectrum.

On a Mission From…?

Several commenters felt that science bloggers lacked ambition. Don’t we want to change the world?

I do lack missionary zeal perhaps, but I think I underplayed my ambition. What I want to do is to make science a bigger part of the cultural conversation. Events like the LHC startup open doors, putting science stories in places they don’t often appear. But there’s little point opening the door if no-one goes through it. My ambition is to rush through the door, put my feet up in front of the fire and join the conversation.

Who benefits?

Do scientists have a duty to engage and discuss their work with the public, who pay for a lot of it? I think so, and it’s more than a duty, it’s a necessity if we want to have any control over our own destiny. But of course not all scientists have to. People have different skills and interests, we’re sort of used to the idea of specialisation. But as a community, or a profession, we should be open and engaged.

Science will benefit in several ways. Blogs, and events like Thursday, provide a new forum for scientists from different fields to engage with each other. This may be a benefit we understate at the moment. I predict it will grow.

The wider conversation will also benefit. Jack of Kent (celebrated legal blogger and McKeith-baiter) brought this point out, saying that the routine referral to primary sources and evidence is very characteristic of science blogging. I think I took this for granted, but perhaps it is less common in other types of blogging. If science blogging does spread that culture, all to the good.

This also touches on the overlap between science and skeptic blogging. Skeptical blogging is definitely campaigning blogging, as is informed medical blogging. Andy Lewis (and his favourite blog, David Colquhoun’s dcscience), plus others in a similar vein, have certainly had an impact. Evidence, evidence… well, legal reform and the retreat of chiropractic, new guidelines for science policy advice, education of consumers… Actually we could do with a study here. This is a bit ancedotal. Anyone got a good study?

the panel assemble

The Panel: Alok Jha, Ed Yong, Alice Bell (chair), Mark Henderson, Petra Boynton, me, Andy Lewis. (Photo credit Beck Smith)

Science, Skepticism and Denial

The difference between skepticism and denial is tricky one. I think skeptical bloggers in the sense above can help scientists deal with sceptics in the (for example) “climate sceptic” sense. The only way forward is to be more open than your opponents about methods and data, to be more transparent and accountable. If they can’t match your standards, they lose. If they can, then they may have a point. I guess this sounds naive and idealistic to people who are having threats and abuse slung at them daily, but I can’t see any other way. It’s only when the data are out there that science has any claim to be better than dogma.

Who Pays?

Who (if anyone) should pay us? I don’t much care so long it’s done openly. If my interests coincide with someone else’s, and they can benefit financially from my blog, it’s fair I get paid.  Also, the imperative to engage is transmitted strongly by universities, research councils and the Royal Society, all of whom contribute to my salary. So I take them at their word, even though I take responsibility for my own words.

As another example, next week I’ll be doing blogs for the Guardian (cheers Alok & Ian) from ICHEP. Plug plug.

Basically everyone should know who is paying for blogging, if anyone is. And paying to blog is a form of advertising. So long as it’s labelled as such, fine by me.

Rumour and Gossip

Interestingly, in particle physics “blogging” is often perceived as being synonymous with “spreading unsubstantiated rumours in order to seek publicity”. This is the opposite of my intent. But I must say I am quite relaxed about the rumour-mongers, it’s all quite funny if you don’t let it waste much of your time. Hopefully people will learn to distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources eventually.

Ok, now maybe I am being hopelessly idealistic 🙂


About Jon Butterworth

UCL Physics prof, works on LHC, writes (books, Cosmic Shambles and elsewhere). Citizen of England, UK, Europe & Nowhere, apparently.
This entry was posted in Climate Change, Science, Science Policy, Writing and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Self Reference

  1. max says:

    Explain to me a wave, why there is an elastic undulation through a “zero”line. Why is there a frequency and amplitude? You showed up in a LHC driftnet so you’re caught and now have to answer a curious uneducated dimwit.
    What is the repulse and the draw. Shake a bedsheet and a wave is apparent, but it exists as a connect of fabric and the source energy.
    why does light travel for billions of years and yet sound waves fade?

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  3. Peter Zwissler says:

    i think it’s interesting – how the internet was invented to exchange scientific knowledge in the first place… and it seems, that today spreading scientific information, is something not everyone likes to see….

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  6. Good and honest overview of the points discussed so briefly at Talkfest.
    This kind of honesty and idealism is probably common to many of the people that attended.
    In one way or the other, we really want people to notice science, to appreciate its value and to support it. And we blog, tweet, talk and engage in a range of different ways to contribute to that goal – even if in a small, microscopic scale.

    Thanks for a great blog, Jon!

  7. timlshort says:

    Plenty of people ‘want’ to change the world; fewer think it can be done.

    I think the ability of even the well-informed and educated section of the public to recognise good sources does not extend to the capacity to deprioritise people talking about particle physics who have a PhD in the subject and are active professional members of the field but who nevertheless choose to publish rumour-based material not yet signed off by collaborations.

  8. Andy Russell says:

    Apologies in advance but I thought I’d say a little something about your points on climate and link to a few posts from my blog!

    Firstly, none of the prominent climate change “sceptics” have really contributed much to the science. They’ve picked away at the edges and improved some work but generally with the aim of claiming that these issues undermine the whole of climate science. This ( is the current opportunity for them to prove me wrong on this point…

    My blogpost on talkfest covers how I feel about the imbalance between the two sides in this “debate”. In short, some pretty dubious characters get held up as experts without much question. 

    On the data issue, even before the FoI silliness, the people behind the Climate Audit blog already had most of the data and had been open about not actually wanting to do anything with that data. [Look for McIntyre’s comments in the link here.] I’m not defending how UEA dealt with the FoIs but it never should have come to the point that it did. 

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