“Conversations We Need To Have”

I think my favorite part of the day at the Science Blogging Conference was when Dr. Free-Ride gave her talk. It was titled “Adventures In Science Blogging: Conversations We Need To Have, and How Blogging Can Help Them”. I am hoping she will turn this into a paper and publish it somewhere so I don’t want to steal all her thunder. But I do want to share just a bit of what she talked about.

Dr. Free-Ride talked about the need for community and communication as key ingredients for human beings to flourish. She also drily noted that since, when she last checked, scientists are still human beings, we do have that need for community and communication!
Scientists have, Dr. Free-Ride noted, many traditional means of providing communication within an established scientific community; some are more fleeting (discussions at the poster session of a conference) and some are much more lasting (the written communication of peer-reviewed journal articles). There seems to be an inverse relationship between the longevity of a form of communication and the speed with which it takes place. You don’t need me to tell you just how slow getting a paper published can be. The rapid-fire back-and-forth at a conference is much more exhilirating, but often later it’s hard to remember exactly what was said.
I’m looking over my conference notes from the Science Blogging Conference and already, some of what I wrote down is making me think “Oh yeah! I totally forgot about all that!” Glad I took notes! But how much that I didn’t write down did I forget???? I am sure that many of the brilliant ideas I had with Bill Hooker over dinner about completely revamping the entire institution of science as we know it are gone like so many dandelion seeds into the wind. (Hmmm….perhaps, like dandelion seeds, they will have taken root in someone else’s mind and will spring up elsewhere! Bill, I do remember that I promised to conduct a self-study course on the blog….more about that later, Zuskateers.)
Clearly, Dr. Free-Ride thinks that blogging can be – already is – an important part of community and communication among scientists, or at least among a subset of scientists. The timescale is shorter than journal articles, but the medium is longer lasting than a conference conversation. And it has the potential to draw in to the community people from many different backgrounds and places for communication. Real communication, she says, is a conversation. And to have a good conversation, we have to ask ourselves the following:

  • What do they already know?
  • What do they want to know?
  • What do I want them to understand?
  • What can they help me figure out?

That seems to me like a very good set of guidelines for any science blogger to keep in mind. When conversation on this blog is working really well, it seems all those questions are, implicitly, being addressed. I know I am going to try to keep them more explicit in my mind from here on out. I was going to say that there’s never a problem with “What do I want them to understand?” and that it’s the other three that need working on, but then I stopped myself. I think figuring out clearly what it is you want to communicate is at least as difficult, quite often, as figuring out what your listeners want to know, or what they know already, or what you can learn together. If this were not true, couples counselors would be out of business.
Dr. Free-Ride scored major points with me for quoting one of my long-time heroes, Helen Longino, to emphasize the idea that science is a process not a product! Knowledge production requires good communication with other scientists. Communicating with non-scientists is also a good thing – helping them understand what and how we know.
Clearly, I see the benefits of communicating with non-scientists in that I believe it is important to recruit young girls and women into science and engineering. And communicating what and how scientists go about producing knowledge – what the process is like – is an effective way to do this. What role blogs can play in this effort was the subject of a whole other session at the conference.
But that’s a topic for another blog post, on another day.

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  1. January 25, 2007 at 12:46 pm

    I do remember that I promised to conduct a self-study course on the blog
    Good, that means I don’t have to nag you. 🙂
    I just added Longino’s monographs to my wish list, since both you and Janet are such fans of hers.

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