Saturday, January 08, 2005

Blogs and the Future of Science


I have done meta-blogging, i.e., written about the phenomenon of blogs, very, very little. Actually, I found only five posts in the archives that are specifically about blogging. The first three are very early and are entirely about political blogs (http://sciencepolitics.blogspot.com/2004/08/smoke-signals-blogs-and-future-of.html, http://sciencepolitics.blogspot.com/2004/08/deanomania.html, http://sciencepolitics.blogspot.com/2004/08/why-edwards-blog-was-better-than-dean.html), and only the most recent two are tackling the phenomenon as a whole (http://sciencepolitics.blogspot.com/2004/12/blogging.html, http://sciencepolitics.blogspot.com/2005/01/meta-blogging.html). With a new blog being started every 7.5 minutes, and about 2 million blogs in existence right about....now...I want to start thinking about them a little bit more, particularly in the context of my own interest - science. What follows is likely to be an incoherent rant, but I need to write this in order to organize my own thoughts, so bear with me and please post comments. First, a bit of thought about blogs in general, then some thoughts about science, then later I will be putting the two together to try to see the role of blogs in science and how they may affect the way science is done in the future.

Borges's Chinese Classification of Blogs

If you have ever browsed blogs by clicking "Next Blog" on Blogger or using BlogXplosion, you have probably noticed that quite a large chunk of blogs have been last updated in March 2003, and even then, it was just the first, one and only post on that blog, stating: "I am Mike. My friend Amy persuaded me to try this thing called blogging. I guess I will write something about me here later." So, the figure of 2 million also contains quite a lot of "dead" blogs.

Then, an even larger chunk of blogs are frankly too boring for anyone but the owner. Those are expressions of personal adolescent angst, worries about the math test tomorrow, navigating first dates, dealing with mean parents and siblings, hatred of school....that is, if you are capable of reading it at all, as many such blogs are virtually incomprehensible as they are written in some garbled gobbledy-gook version of street English, unrecognizable to anyone older than 18 (http://sciencepolitics.blogspot.com/2004/08/language.html). It is no surprise that such blogs receive approximately three random hits per day, i.e., these online diaries are read about as much as the old leather-bound diaries with a little golden lock and key. Yet, I do not consider these to be "junk blogs" (like "junk DNA"). I think of those as training grounds for the new generation (source of new "functional genes" to continue the metaphor). Teenagers with existential anxieties will grow up to be an army of serious bloggers of tomorrow, people who feel as natural on the Internet as fish in the water, as I certainly do not and probably never will. Of course, some of these personal journals are quite good and have garnered quite a following. Sarah Dessen's blog comes to mind, but she is a professional writer and a professor of creative writing so even when she writes about what she had for breakfast it is interesting, at least for some people. Well-written diaries of people who primarily discuss their sex lives also have a decent audience.

The first, original blogs were mainly collections of links to mainstream media articles with very little editorial commentary. Many blogs today continue with this tradition. While I personally find them a waste of time (if an article is really that important, it will reverberate throughout the blogosphere and I am bound to bump into it over and over again as I visit my favourite places and will, thus, be inclined to give in and click on the link), they obviously perform a valuable function as first morning sources of news that other blogs pick up and disseminate for the remainder of the day. The goal is fast dissemination of information, and these blogs, as news aggregators, are doing a remarkably good job at this. I guess that a subset of this category are various humor, photo, audio and video blogs, as this is information, too.

Political group blogs, forums and campaign blogs are the novelty of this election cycle and serve a completely different function: getting like-minded people together, fostering groupthink which for a political campaign in the middle of an election is an important and positive trait, building ferocious loyalty to the cause or candidate, exchanging information that is useful for campaigning and, most importantly, rallying the troups to actually go out in the freezing weather of Iowa in January and knock on a million doors. It is very much about organization. This is the most usual entry into the world of blogging for most current users (owners/readers) of blogs. My estimate is that for about a half of today's bloggers, the campaign blog/forum is "The Blog", i.e., the main, archetypal kind of blog. They were not around before to read the old blogs as personal journals or news-aggregators. They may not really like the idea of a blog dominated entirely by just one person. For many of them, blog is essentially a collective effort. This mindset is likely to have an effect on the direction blogs go in the future. Just look at the transformation of DailyKos. The rightful owner, Markos Moulitzas aka Kos, insists it is his blog. Others think of it as a group blog (and nominate it as such for Kaufax Awards despite Kos's protests). My bookmark to dKos is not to the front page which I visit only occasionaly and even then rarely read what Kos posts himself. My bookmark is to the Diaries of members. That is where all the interesting action is occuring.

Of course, there are forums, group blogs, newsgroups and chat-rooms that have nothing to do with politics but are connected by a different common interest. Their role in the future of the society depends on their topics, of course. What I find fascinating is that bloggers residing in the same geographic area feel a need to find each other, aggregate their blogs, and even meet in person. The Greensboro, Seattle and NYC bloggers do this, for instance. Ah, the power of place! Isn't this antithetical to what Internet is all about? Not being tied to a place, but being omnipresent? Haven't you all read Cory Doctorow's "Eastern Standard Tribe"? On the Internet, Place is not defined by geography, but by Time.

Blogs I have classified so far probably account for 80-90% of all existing blogs. While they serve their functions in the blogosphere, and some are fun to read, I do not see such blogs as being able to "change the world". They are online versions of personal notebooks, newspapers, coffee-shops, and farmer's markets. They may keep more people better informed faster, but do not seem to be able to change the organization of the society at large. Wait a minute, you'll say, not so fast, and you'll point to the rise of the Monika Lewinsky story, and disgraceful fall of Trent Lott and Dan Rather, as examples of earthshaking events caused by blogs. Yup, but this is local politics. USA is one of 200 countries in the world. Fall of Trent Lott does not and cannot reverberate throughout the world. It will not "change the world" in any way. The rest of the world does not give a damn. The way the world works will not change. It would have to be really big - something on the level of impeachment of Bush, for instance - for this to have any effects beyond our borders.

Which brings me to the last category of blogs in this taxonomy - the expert blogs. You don't need a PhD to be an expert on something, although having one helps (BTW, the good folks at Wampum have posted the list of "Expert blogs" for Kaufax Awards - go vote for Pharyngula like I did). Here again, there are experts and there are experts, and I am not talking just about quality, but also about the area of life in which a person is an expert. A blogger/journalist who is an expert on domestic politics, or a blogger/editorialist who writes very smart pieces about local politics, is going to have just as much effect on the World as the political blogs I mentioned before. All politics is local, so being an expert on politics makes you a local expert with unlikely global consequences of your writing. I am not putting these people down, au contraire - those are the kind of people I like to read the most as I am a local political animal, too. That is why I start every day with Legal Fiction and Total Information Awareness, and read a number of such blogs at least weekly. Also, come of the expert blogs are group blogs, or forums, newsgroups or chat rooms. If the people posting there are experts, then it does not make much difference.

It appears that most blogs were started recently and were devoted entirely to the coverage of the US election 2004. Once election was over, many blogs shut down. Some continue to follow politics. Some are turning into personal diaries. All those are gradually being deleted from my blogroll. Blogs that remain are those whose owners took a deep breath and asked themselves what original content they could contribute to the online conversation, and found their own professional expertise as core strength of their renewed (and often renamed) blogs.

Just look what happened to me today (previous post) - my expert blog, Circadiana, in the first day of its existence, outperformed this, five-months-old, well-respected, general-store blog about twenty-fold in the number of hits. There is a definite need for bloggers with expertise. The Connection@411 site (http://411blog.net/) is an example of an attempt to pool together blogs written by experts, classified by field of expertise. The PhD weblogs (http://www.phdweblogs.net/) is a similar endeavor. I see the rise (and clustering) of expert blogs as the next big development in the blogosphere.

Geography of Science

So, I have finally reached the point of this post where I introduce science. Science is one of those areas of life (sex being another) where nationality does not really matter. Let me be perfectly clear here that I am not talking about technology, engineering, or most of the applied science - those can be quite well kept within the borders of one country (and strictly enforced by patent and property laws, or kept secret within the confines of the DOD). I am talking about the pure, basic science driven by curiosity about the way world works.

The global nature of science is, of course, an ideal not quite yet supported by reality. There are rich and poor countries, countries with rich scientific traditions and those with none, countries in which science is highly regarded and those in which it is frowned upon. This means that different kinds of science are done in different parts of the world.

I always loved animals and science. Darwin's "Origin" was one of the first books I have read in English (after biography of Bruce Lee and "Jonathan Livingstone Seagull") when I was about thirteen. But I was living in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Doing science there means being a glorified technician, told from above what to do research on, then not given supplies to do it, leaving one to spend time gossiping with colleagues in the lounge over many cups of Turkish coffee and cigarettes. Instead, I went to vet school and was on my way to becoming local God of equine medicine, horse training and riding instruction (yup, I was good). I was already eyeing a nice piece of land just north of Belgrade to build my business in the geographical area in which I was already well-known and respected.

Then the war broke out and I came to the USA and realized that there are thousands of equine vets and thousands of horse trainers here who are so much better than me. And it is not just my inner drive to be at the top, but the situation here is so competitive that being at the top is almost a requisite for being able to make a living as a vet or a trainer. Then I thought "When in Rome...." - hey, I am in the USA. This is the place to do science - the ONLY place in the world where one can do really serious science, where it is possible to get to the top without a need to squash competition as there is enough space and money for everyone, and a place where I can certainly be able to make a living. Here, I could do what I really wanted to do all along - be a professional scientist.

When I published my first papers a few years ago, I received only very few requests for reprints from bigwigs at big US Universities. Most requests were from people working at small colleges and, surprisingly for me at the time, from people working in places like Argentina, Algeria and Poland. I was wondering why. Well, it is obvious, big Universities in the States have money to subscribe to many scientific journals. Small colleges and foreign schools cannot afford such a luxury.

Science and the Internet

Over the past five years or so, Internet has dramatically changed this picture. Almost nobody sends requests for reprints any more. People at big schools log into their online libraries and download PDF files. People from smaller places and abroad send e-mails asking for the PDF to be sent as an attachment. Search engines like ISI Web of Science and Medline bring to one's fingertips almost everything published in science practically as soon as it is published. Google Scholar is allowing people not affiliated with big Universities to find literature online. More and more journals are starting their online editions. Even big rich schools, like Harvard, are dropping expensive subscriptions for hardcopy versions of top scientific journals (e.g., those published by Elsevier). Henry thinks that one of those monsters of science publishing will fold this year (http://weblog.blogads.com/comments/P947_0_1_0/), but I think that will take a couple of more years due to institutional inertia, e.g., importance of publication in highly-indexed journals for PhD students and post-docs for future job prospects (evaluated by an old guard not tuned in to the Internet or receptive to the novelty of online publishing). Though, he may turn to be right after all (http://www.ojr.org/ojr/stories/121004ohanluain/). These days I get to read the new issue of the Journal of Biological Rhythms (top in the field) before I receive the hard copy via snail mail. Lesser journals, like Chronobiology International and Biological Rhythm Research are also starting to put their stuff online. The new Journal of Circadian Rhythms does not even exist as a hardcopy - it is entirely an online journal. Online journals, like PubMed Central and PLoS Biology are fast becoming as respected as any print journal in the field.

So, the obvious conclusion from the above paragraph is that, how great and wonderful, researchers in small colleges and abroad can access the literature as easily as someone at Stanford or MIT. Good for them. Now they'll be able to keep abreast with what we're doing here in our big labs at Stanford and MIT. Whoa! Say that again! But first let some air out of your head.

American Science vs. Global Science

Until about WWII the global centers of science were in Europe. Since about the 1950s, the USA had an absolute primacy in the world of science. We are experiencing another shift right now. The number of foreigners coming to the USA to study has about halved in the last couple of years. There are a number of reasons for this. The Patriot Act certainly makes it more difficult for people, especially from some countries, to get visas to study here. The anti-scientific atmosphere in the country is certainly a repellent. Creationist actions in Dover, PA, Cobb Co. GA, and Kansas are certainly not great PR for the state of our science (and science education). Slashing of funding for science (except for defense-related research and the crazy Moon/Mars project) does not look promising for a potential foreign student. Outright ban on some types of research (e.g., stem cell research) has even lured some American-born scientists to move to Singapore and similar places abroad.

But it is not just a repellent effect of today's America that is keeping all those smartest foreigners from coming here. They are also attracted to the new possibilities for success at home. Fall of communism, unification of Europe, lightning-fast economic development of a number of Asian nations, all these factors contribute to a new sense of optimism in so many parts of the world. One can, these days, actually do good science in many countries in which it was impossible a decade earlier. Universities and Institutes are being built, money is coming in, the old ways of doing science business are being rethought and reformed in many places, thus luring many young people to choose countries other than the scary USA for their professional development.

These kinds of concerns have been voiced repeatedly here in the States, and science has been quite politicized lately. Many articles in mainstream media, as well as posts on blogs, have been written lamenting these recent developments. Organizations have been formed (e.g., the Union of Concerned Scientists), and some blogs are almost entirely devoted to this problem (e.g., Chris Mooney's Intersection). However, the scientists themselves are feeling more conflicted. On one hand, being good Americans, they would like to see the US retain its leading role in the world of science. They want to continue being able to do good science in this country. On the other hand, being good scientists, they feel that the globalization of science is a good thing. While most other human endeavors are parochial, science is universal, and the latest trends promise an internationalization of science never before seen in history. The increased communication and collaboration between scientists in many countries, coming from different scientific traditions, will lead to creative cross-pollination that can be only good for the progress of science.

What are the differences between science as done in the USA and science done elsewhere? Every time I received a reprint request from abroad I checked out the person. What is (s)he working on? Can I look at their publications? Invariably, my response to their work was "Wow! This is cool stuff! So creative and smart!". Then, my second thought would be "But there's no way NIH or even NSF would ever fund something like this - it is too risky, too unusual, too low-tech, actually, it is too creative".

My brother once said that the difference between American science and Russian science is that, given the problem, the American scientist goes to his lab, turns on his glitzy Star-Wars-like machines and gets started. After two years and two million dollars he has the answer to the question, although the very complexity of the methodology leaves some people suspicious of the results as the stuff is too difficult and expensive to replicate. The Russian scientist, on the other hand, locks himself in his office with a pencil and a piece of paper. After two days, he emerges with an idea. After two weeks of experimentation that involves some clever use of coathangers and duck-tape, the Russian has the final, definitive, uncontroversial answer. It cost him a total of twenty roubles at the corner store, and the finding goes straight into textbooks.

What he is trying to say is not Big Science Bad, Small Science Good. He is just paraphrasing GWF Hegel about the neccessity being the mother of invention, or in other words, "need teaches you to think" (actually, we had that inscribed on our bathroom door, "need" being an euphemism for what you need to go to the bathroom for, and of course, bathroom being the best and quietest room in the house for deep thinking). American science is expensive science. If you ask for a lot of money to do a lot of high-tech research, you will likely get it. So why bother thinking about quicker, cheaper ways of solving the same problem, when it is much easier to get millions of dollars and employ twenty technicians and students in the lab to do all the busy work. Of course, some questions can be answered only through expensive high-tech research. But most American scientists are not trained to even stop and think if a cheaper alternative is a viable, if not even better, way to arrive at the answer. More high-tech a lab is, less likely it is that the students, and even post-docs, will be allowed to be creative. Too much money is at stake. Advisor's reputation is at stake. In biology, this means that more molecular the lab, more the students and post-docs are just glorified technicians. As one moves away from molecules to oranismal biology, behavior or to field work, more creativity the students are allowed to show, as less money and egos are at stake (http://sciencepolitics.blogspot.com/2004/12/wwdd-what-would-darwin-do-or_02.html). Molecular data are just hypotheses to be tested in whole organisms. Do these molecules really interact in the animal the same way they did in the test tube? We do the expensive part here - we run the gels. The foreigners then take our data and do the creative whole-organism work that really nails the issue down, as well as results in a patentable product.

Warning: here comes another metaphor. US science is like Microsoft. Science in other places is Open-Source. Science in Europe is like a typewriter factory that suddenly realized that their product is defunct, ditches the whole operation and has a chance to start from scratch (and notices that open source is better). US science is like a big company that sells the best product of the day according to the desires of the customers, thus constitutionally incapable of risking innovation into areas for which there is no demand. The demand is set by funding agencies who want to see, at the very beginning of the grant proposal, what practical application the research can have. There is no funding for projects that are driven by pure curiosity, asking novel questions, going into dark alleys that may turn out
to be blind. Jumping on bandwagons (e.g., using the most modern molecular techniques) is the only way to get funded. Bandwagons, though, tend to travel on well-beaten paths. Really revolutionary scientific findings were never produced on a bandwagon. That is why the new and emerging scientific powers in Asia and Europe are producing such exciting stuff, while we produce endless papers with pictures of gels.

US science is the head of the beast, while the science in the rest of the world is the Long Tail (http://longtail.typepad.com/the_long_tail/): fast, cheap and out of control. Think of a lizard. The head is big and clumsy, but the tail is flexible and easily regenerates if it gets injured. Not to mention that the tail is more than half the length of the lizard. Shall I mix some more metaphors? It is not just the whole societies that rise and fall, but also various elements of those societies rise and fall, when institutional inertia prevents adaptation to novel circumstances (http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2005/01/08/jared_diamond/index_np.html).

What Would Blogger Do (WWBD)?

So, what is the role of blogs going to be in the future of science? I believe the blogs are going to speed up the internationalization of science, with positive effects for both American and foreign scientists. What expert science bloggers are doing right now and will do even more in the future is take expensive information and make it free. People with access to expensive journal subscriptions will link, excerpt, and comment on technical papers as soon as they are published, thus making them available to scientists in small schools, in foreign countries, and, importantly to, gasp - blasphemy! - amateur scientists. That is exactly what I intend to do with Circadiana. My scientific colleagues in Algeria, Argentina and Poland can contact me (or each other) and start fruitfull collaborations, not just read an occasional paper two months after its publication.

Science teachers in middle and high schools will have the information at their fingertips. Textbooks will probably become a little less than ten years out of date at the time of publication, I hope. Journalists will know where to go to find correct information about a topic that requires scientific explanations. Random blogsurfers will pop in and see some really cool science-stuff with who knows what consequences - perhaps piquing an interest in science in a kid? The best science bloggers will be able to also write well, translating difficult scientese into ordinary language, thus removing some of the mystique that keeps people afraid of science, as well as demostrating how science works and how controversies and food-fights are the best generators of new ideas and cool findings.

Pharyngula, Intersection, The Loom, Quark Soup, Panda's Thumb,...are just the beginning. While many expert blogs will garner interest only locally within borders of a single country, science blogs by definition do not recognize borders. This blog (as well as Circadiana already!) has regular visitors from EVERY continent. The science-blog node of the Internet, with its own clusters and subclusters, its own blog-journals like The Tangled Bank is growing to be, will be THE place to be in years to come, the home of The Planet Earth, where Knowledge really is Power.

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