Tag Archives: science communication

Your Opinion Matters

Legendary Phoenix: Your Opinion

I find myself disturbed by today’s TeeFury special, by Legendary Phoenix. The image shows Rick, a stereotypical scientist in a white lab coat with messy hair, a unibrow, eyes ripe with ennui, bags under his eyes, a pointy nose, and a glum descending (and condescending) mouth. The scientist is saying (in a word bubble), “I’m sorry, but your opinion means very little to me.”

TeeFury: Legendary Phoenix: Your Opinion

I expect some science geeks to jump up and down with glee and say, “You see? It’s not about OPINIONS! Ha! Gotcha!” However, one of the greatest challenges in science communication and science literacy is this perception that scientists are unpleasant, self-centered, passionless, people unwilling to listen or hold a civil conversation within the public sphere. “Your opinion means very little to me” could be “because I really prefer evidence over opinion” or it could be “because I’m socially inept and don’t care what people think” or it could be “because I bloody well don’t think you have anything to offer, and so I’m not listening” Or all of the above (and more).

And however you read it, these imply scientists have nothing to learn from experience, no compassion, no courtesy, no duty to educate or inform or improve science literacy among the broader populace, no understanding of intellectual sharing or community building, etcetera. Of course, real life is actually the opposite, on all counts, but this is the common perception.

This common perception has resulted in dangerous and ill informed policy decisions, reduced funding for research, strategically ill-applied research funding, poor translation of science findings into practice, and ultimately, unnecessary deaths and misery among those (all of us) who would benefit from the implementation of scientific discoveries.

“Scientific literacy is an urgent and important issue. Why should we care? The answer is simple: Our way of life and our survival are at stake.” – G. Wayne Clough, Secretary Smithsonian Institution

Your opinion matters

What I want to say is, “Your opinion matters. It matters because I care about how you got to your opinion, and I can learn from that. It matters because you might have information or resources or data that informs that opinion which aren’t available to me. It matters because I might have information or resources or data that aren’t available to you, and which might help both of us. It matters because if we put together what you have and what I have and more, we might get a picture of the problem or solution that are closer to what we really need. It matters because what how you feel about your opinion and how I feel about my opinion give an emotional context that is important in telling stories and shaping policy. It matters because IT MATTERS. So, tell me what your opinion is, share your sources and stories, listen to mine, and let’s learn together.”

I’m not buying the t-shirt. Or maybe I should, so that I can have this conversation over and over again.

Strategies for Better Science Blogging: Part One, Best Practices & Guidelines

Scientific Communication Word Cloud (I Ching)

Last week, there was a kerfuffle around an IFLScience blogpost about rare diseases, and the responses from the rare disease community. In that post, I mentioned that I’d been looking for guidelines, checklist, style guides, and other similar types of tools for effective and appropriate science blogging, but that I wanted to make it a separate post. This is that promised post.

Before I get in too deep, here is a search strategy I used, and which you can use to poke around more in this, if you wish.

(“science blogging” OR “blogging about science”) (“style guide” OR checklist OR guidelines OR “best practices” OR rules)


Let’s start with the best introduction and brief overview I’ve found, written by Andrew Maynard. In these two posts, Andrew distills the most important lessons learned from years of working with graduate students and collaborating with other bloggers to give feedback on his “Mind the Science Gap” course and blog.

Anyone can blog about science. But it takes effort and diligence to blog well.

When I was teaching the Mind The Science Gap blogging course at the University of Michigan, it became clear early on that, no matter how enthusiastic or knowledgeable you are, there are some basic guidelines that can help make the difference between a great piece and a train wreck (thankfully we never had any of the latter). Over time, these developed into the Mind The Science Gap Good Practice Guide for writing Science Blog Posts.

So you want to write better science blog posts … http://www.riskscience.umich.edu/want-write-better-science-blog-posts/

Good Practice Guide for Writing Science Blog Posts http://www.mindthesciencegap.org/style-guide/good-practice-guide-for-writing-science-blog-posts/

Here is a distillation of his main points in my own words.

Read broadly.
Read quality.
Skim beyond the basics.

Don’t imply expertise you don’t have.
Don’t give advice.
If you give opinions, SAY THEY ARE OPINION.

Stick to the facts.
Include multiple voices & sources.
Report on controversies fairly.
Be generous with credit to others.

Choose images to support the story.
Get permission.
Cite your images, also.

Re-read your writing.
Find a proofreader.
Ask yourself if what you said was fair, accurate, scientifically defensible, and honest (FASH).

If you made a mistake, own it.
If you correct a mistake, say so in the post.
Say thanks to whoever raises useful questions.


Including many of the above, but enriching them with many practical tips from a rich set of interviews with successful science bloggers, this next one is also fabulous. I’d love to see “Blogging Tips” made into an infographic / checklist where I could post it for easy access.

Blogging Tips for Science Bloggers, From Science Bloggers http://www.scilogs.com/from_the_lab_bench/blogging-tips-for-science-bloggers-from-science-bloggers/


There are a lot of people concerned with the quality of science blogs right now. Andrew Maynard (1) has been teaching classes on science blogging. SciLogs (2) had that series of interviews with best practices. And at Science Online this year, there was a workshop devoted to the topic of standards in science blogging. They used the hashtag #SCIOstandards to extend the conversation through Twitter. I’ve picked just a couple example tweets with good points, but really, it is worth going to the #SCIO Standards Storify and reading through the whole thing!

There is a lot more! Here is one of several Tweets connecting to the Storify. There are also many spin-off conversations without the hashtag. You can see these by browsing from the individual tweets, and reading the replies to them.

For more background about this workshop, check out this link.

Background Reading in Science Blogging – #scioStandards http://www.scilogs.com/next_regeneration/background-reading-in-science-blogging-sciostandards/


Given that what started all this were questions of science blogging ethics and how blogging can work (or not) within a community, it seemed appropriate to draw attention to the community guidelines and harassment policy from one of the leading science blogging communities and forums, Science Online. It might seem a bit strange to include the concept of harassment in the context of science blogs best practices, but just think for a moment. What is your goal? If it is to inflame controversy and grab attention, then perhaps harassing people is one way to succeed in that goal. If your goal is, however, to accurately communicate science information in an engaging way, then you want to reach a broad audience and you want them to believe you. Making enemies may not be the best path towards that goal. In the case of last week’s IFLScience upset, it is unfortunate that there is a significant audience that felt persecuted and harassed. I don’t believe that was intentional, but it wouldn’t hurt for IFLscience (and the rest of us) to stop and consider whether or not our posts could be interpreted as willfully contentious or harassing as part of those final steps in our checklist before clicking “post.”

Science Online Community Guidelines: http://scienceonline.com/community-guidelines/

“ScienceOnline cultivates science conversations both online and face-to-face. At our face-to-face events, we provide an atmosphere that encourages creativity, collaborations, connections, and fun. Through social media, we listen, support, share, recommend, and reach out. Through all of this, we celebrate science.”

“Respect. Generosity. Acceptance. Open-mindedness. Compassion. Kindness. Curiosity. Enthusiasm. Humor, Wit. Inclusivity. Collaboration. Open-mindedness, Humility. Support. Sharing. Cooperation, rather than competition. Encouragement, Transparency, Engaging all with science. Inclusive, Encouraging Individuality, Cooperation, Creative, Innovative, Engagement. Critical, challenging, enthusiastic. Passion, Great at connecting the dots in a pattern that makes sense 🙂 Principled, Generous, Profound, Profoundly fun.”

Science Online: Harassment Policy: http://scienceonline.com/scienceonline-harassment-policy/

Harassment Policy:
“Harassment includes offensive verbal comments related to ethnicity, religion, disability, physical appearance, gender, or sexual orientation in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome attention.”


I’ve said many times that my favorite piece on how to respond to negative comments on a blog post is the Air Force guidelines shared by Jeremiah Owang.

Air Force Blog Assessment

That said, while it provides a strong general foundation, there are special characteristics to science blogs that may benefit from a slightly different context or require different types of responses. This is especially true when you consider the community and culture of science, and compare that with the broader communities and cultures in which science occurs. Here is a recent post I found by Juliana Houghton, which discusses these issues from the viewpoint of students blogging about science. It’s worth reading.

Student Post: Science Blogging — A Veritable Troll Bridge for the Modern Age: http://www.engage-science.com/student-post-science-blogging-a-veritable-troll-bridge-for-the-modern-age/

“But when we’re writing about things like science, and especially the parts of science that we individually find inspiring and enlightening, we might not expect inflammatory comments that seemingly come out of nowhere. To complicate matters, in science we are trained to question and to respond to questions. It is doubt and questioning that pushes science forward and keeps us from resting on our laurels. Q&A sessions following scientific talks often contain questions that get at the very fabric of our research. We can (and should!) say “I don’t know” when we really don’t, but we also work hard to think carefully about those comments and not dismiss them just because we might prefer our present point of view.”

I loved that paragraph which placed science blogging in the context and culture of doing science. This next snippet is what echoes the Air Force policies mentioned above.

“Ask yourself, is this commenter presenting an alternate viewpoint or just a personal attack. If the latter, it’s ok to just leave a comment unanswered. Another way is to set up strict commenting rules on your site and follow through with moderating. If your rule is that comments must address the article’s topic and the comment simply calls the author a nasty name, then it never even needs to appear on the webpage (or can be quickly taken down by the moderator, depending on your settings).”


Last but not least, let’s look at science blogging in the broader context of academic and scholarly blogging. There are best practices and courses for those environments, also! Virtually all of what appears in the literature on academic blogging is relevant to science blogging. Jessie Daniels and Polly Thistlethwaite drafted a quite nice overview at Just Publics 365, which provides context beyond much of what has already been said — about the target audience, your readers, differences in writing styles between blogs and professional research venues, and more. They’ve made this available in a variety of formats.

A Guide to Blogging for Academics http://justpublics365.commons.gc.cuny.edu/2014/06/30/academic-guide-to-blogging/

1. Talk to Me: Acknowledge the Reader.
2. Just Say It: Don’t lead with a disclaimer or qualifier.
3. K.I.S.S. : Keep it Simple Scholar
4. Get in & Get Out.
5. No, It’s Not All Important
6. If You Have Something to Say, Say It
7. Don’t Let Perfection Be The Enemy of The Good
8. Scholarly Writing vs. Public Writing

The Academic’s Guide to Writing Online http://sociologysource.squarespace.com/storage/Academics_Guide_To_Writing_Online.pdf

Illustrated Blogging Advice for Researchers

Media Skills for Scholars http://mediaskillsforscholars.pressbooks.com/

Just to connect that back to the science context, there is an older article about science blogging that has some similar insights, and which discusses why scientists blog. I found it interesting and useful to just break out the section headings from that article.

Bonetta, Laura. Scientists Enter the Blogosphere. Cell 129 (May 4, 2007):443-445. http://www.cell.com/abstract/S0092-8674(07)00543-0

Meet the Bloggers
Blogging to E-ducate
What is the Impact?
Why Aren’t You Blogging?
Blogging to Talk Shop
Communities of Bloggers

Closing thoughts

Do you know why you are blogging? Are there any of these best practices that you wish you did better? There are for me! We all have strengths and weaknesses, may be good at one thing and not so strong in other areas. I don’t usually have anyone read over my work before it goes live, and there are likely to be a lot of possible errors as a result of that. So far, I’ve scraped by, and I’m grateful that this is just a personal blog and that I don’t face the kind of audience and attention that IFLScience have. I’m not sure I’d do any better with the scrutiny than they are currently.

I did find many other resources along these lines. These are more the high profile pieces and overall context. I hope to have another post to simply share a lot of links that might be of further interest.