What is Science Blogging?
Welcome to the SciLogs’ Blogging 2.0 series! For the next few weeks, we are interviewing and inviting guest blog posts from renowned science bloggers and science writers, who are giving us their tips and advice on bringing your science blogging to the next level.
This week is Joe Palca, science correspondent for NPR. Palca comes to journalism from a science background, having received a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of California at Santa Cruz where he worked on human sleep physiology. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. Palca began his journalism career in television in 1982, working as a health producer for the CBS affiliate in Washington, DC. In 1986, he left television for a seven-year stint as a print journalist, first as the Washington news editor for Nature, and then as a senior correspondent for Science Magazine.
Palca has won numerous awards, including the National Academies Communications Award, the Science-in-Society Award of the National Association of Science Writers, the American Chemical Society James T. Grady-James H. Stack Award for Interpreting Chemistry for the Public, the American Association for the Advancement of Science Journalism Prize, and the Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Writing.
Enjoy this post from Joe Palca on the subject of science blogging!
Palca: What the hell is a science blog, anyway? Or to be more positive about, what the hell should a science blog be? I’m not sure if I have the answer, but I have some ideas.
I give a lot of talks to grad students and post docs, and there is usually complete agreement among the admittedly self-selected sample that I have the best job in the world, something I’m totally willing to cop to. I get to travel the world, talking to whomever I want about whatever I want. What’s not to like?
When I give these talks, there are inevitably a few people who come to me afterwards to say they thinking of leaving science to pursue a career in journalism, and they are eager to know what I think their chances are of finding a job. Naturally, answering that question varies a lot by individual, and I misplaced my crystal ball long ago. I have to tell them that finding a job like mine will be tough, especially a job like mine that pays relatively well. But finding an outlet for science writing has never been easier. Start a blog. Start a vlog. Start an alog (is there such a thing as an audio blog?). The up-front costs are negligible. The problem is that the pay sucks, at least at the start, but never mind that for now.
But what should a science blog be? Is it a chance for disaffected graduate students to rail against the science establishment? Is it a place where chemists can delight other chemists with the latest goings on in chemistry? Are science blogs supposed to be for scientists, or non-scientists, or can they be for both? I’m hoping the latter.
When I do a piece for NPR, I have to assume that my audience has no a priori interest in what I’m about to say. The sex life of the bdelloid rotifer is not on the minds of most people. So if I want to write a piece about that, I have to find a way to make it interesting to people other than microbiologists. How do I do that? I tell stories. I use familiar analogies or amusing anecdotes that I hope will entice people to listen to the entire piece. Now you might say that by appealing to non-scientists I either will bore or turn off scientists, since by necessity I leave a lot of the heavy-duty science out of most of my stories. But that doesn’t seem to happening. I don’t simplify the science beyond all recognition, and I think microbiologists can appreciate that people don’t really need that much detail about the sex life bdelloid rotifers.
I used to be a news writer for Science, and before that, Nature. I liked writing for an audience that I knew was interested in what I was writing about. But I like even better writing for an audience that doesn’t know they’re interested in what I am writing about until I convince them they should be. I know people disparage the sizzle and only want the beef, but as a former psychologist, I can tell you that hearing that sizzle makes you enjoy the beef that much more.
So bloggers, especially scientists who turn to blogging, should always remember to write for the people who have no intrinsic interest in what they have to say. Doing that will make even specialty blogs more appealing, and will keep science blogs from becoming like wedding planning blogs, read only by devotees to the genre.