Monday, March 07, 2005

Blogs and Science

Chris at "Mixing Memory" has an excellent post with advice for bloggers (and others) on writing about cognitive science issues; and I think it applies to writing on any scientific matters. It's advice that's occasionally a bit difficult for us laymen to follow, particularly in a blogging forum, but excellent advice. I think it does show a quandary the lay public is in, and has been for a long time. Lay society is simply not set up in such a way that it can keep pace with scientific research; the lay public is not well-equipped for distinguishing real claims from crank claims; it is continually receiving misinformation it has only limited resources for filtering, and so forth. It's a fascinating problem; in part because it has no obvious solution. In my very limited experience, Chris's #3 is dead on. I remember reading Mendel's Demon by Mark Ridley (it has a different title in the U.S.; I forget what it is), and about halfway through the book realized that I had no real clue what he was intending to convey, nor why he was intent on conveying it. For all I really could tell he was trying to say something about snarks and boojums (literally, since he talks at great length about snarks and boojums when dealing with mitochondria; I understood that stuff, probably better than he did himself, but what it really was supposed to say about mitochondrial DNA, I don't rightly know). Biologists who already completely know what he's talking about might enjoy it. But my thought was, "How is somebody who doesn't already know about this subject supposed to distinguish the metaphor from the reality it is being used to describe, the guesswork and speculation from the established fact, the basic biology from the absurd little flourishes this author apparently thinks constitutes a literary writing style? How can someone without all the background knowledge needed to filter through all this - in short, much of the book's actual readership - come away from this without having been entirely misled?" How does the lay public both take advantage of scientific work and do so in a way that keeps reasonably up to speed, so as to deal with the obsolescence of scientific information, and avoid being misled and do it all in such a way that it can manage it even given all the other claims on its time, interest, and resources? As Sergeant Pluck says, ""That is a great curiosity, a very difficult piece of puzzledom, a snorter."

In any case, Chris's posts suggests to me one of the potentially valuable things about blogs (and in the case of blogs like his own, actually valuable), since they can answer a need that otherwise isn't really met: putting at least part of the lay public in touch with the most recent relevant literature, correcting the most obvious common misunderstandings, etc. We'll see how far the blogosphere helps in matters like these; but it's at least promising.

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