In a field full of complex, technical issues, a whole bunch of jargon and an endless amount of context, scientists have a lot of explaining to do. More and more scientists and science writers are taking these explanations to the blogosphere. The number of science bloggers has grown so quickly in the past five years that a collection of blogging networks and aggregators have emerged to keep track of them all. An influential leader of the science blogging community – and certainly one of its most prolific – is a man called Bora Zivkovic.
“Blogfather Bora”, as some call him, is a scientist by training but a blog and Twitter enthusiast by nature. He is the editor of Scientific American’s blog network, as well as series editor of The Open Laboratory, an annual collection of the best writing from science blogs. For the past five years he has organized the ScienceOnline “unconference,” an intense three-day meet up where scientists, students, and writers share ideas about the changing world of science and the web.
Bora, still reeling from the excitement of the most recent ScienceOnline meeting held over the weekend, agreed to answer a few questions about science blogging and the art of explanation. We’ve condensed his best explanation tips at the end of the article, so skip ahead if you just want the highlights.
Why should we look to science bloggers for insight about explanation?
Explanation comes naturally to scientists who blog; scientists like to explain. When you go to J-School you’re taught a different kind of format, focusing on what’s new. You don’t have enough space or time to do much explaining – you have your 400 words or something like that. You have to figure out how to hook people in, and then say what’s new, and say why it’s relevant to the person reading it. That doesn’t leave much space for explaining how this new paper or this piece of news fits into the context of what we know by now.
Science bloggers are naturally coming from a different perspective. They’re coming from the perspective of science – that’s what they do. First of all they know the literature in their field inside and outside. Also we are teachers, a lot of us, so we like to explain, and we never have to deal with length limits. If you’re excited about a piece of news then you explain how it fits into the historical context, the philosophical context, what’s new with the methodology – all those things. When you’re done explaining, that’s the end of the post. It can be 500 words, it can be 5,000, or even 13,000! Whatever it takes.
Another good thing about science bloggers is that each one of them does what they feel comfortable with as far as reading levels. A popular science magazine will probably go up to 9th grade; a newspaper will be at 6th grade. But bloggers have all different talents. Some are great at explaining things to a little kid, others are great at explaining to other Post-docs, and everything in between. They’re at various levels, and they can link to each other. Once you have a little bit of background from reading the first one, you can read the second one which is a little harder, then you can read a third one with a little more understanding, and then follow a link to the actual papers – dig through the data if you can! I see this as layered reading, which is especially good for the people who for the first time encounter a topic.
What about the format of a science blog post makes it particularly good at explaining?
Blog posts are often unstructured in the sense of not having, for instance, sub-headings. They are often almost like a stream of consciousness. We’re not trained to do a lead or a hook, because blogging is a conversation. Often you’re reconnecting with the readers on a personal basis: “We’re meeting here at this place online everyday, and I have something new to tell you.” It reads well, because you’re usually following the logic; it reads like a story. This is one of the reasons long posts work – because people are unwilling to stop you in the middle of conversation and leave. You’re chatting with them, and it’s impolite to just turn away! Even when they’re discussing serious science, they’re doing it in such a personable way, it’s like you’re standing with them in a room – and it’s really not nice to just walk out. So you read through, you read until the end, because you are a part of the conversation.
For example, take someone like Orac. His posts are all very, very long, but you can’t stop because he, personally, is in each sentence. You just can’t stop, it would be so mean to Orac to stop before you’re done with reading his 10,000 words. It definitely hooks and keeps the readers.
So even in this so-called age of sound bites, you’re saying longer posts are actually quite popular?
There’s more and more evidence that long posts and long articles work really well online. The very brief things, like tweet-length, are great for breaking news and pointing people to other information, but the long ones really satisfy the people who want to go in depth and understand what it going on.
I did an analysis a couple years ago of my posts. Of the top 100 posts, only two are short. Maybe a couple of them had big traffic spikes at the beginning, but most of them didn’t, they just accumulated a lot of traffic over time. Long posts get rediscovered over and over again. I had a January ’05 post that has gotten on StumbleUpon or Digg or Reddit two or three times a year since I wrote it. People rediscovered it and said, “Hey, this is useful. I’ll share.” People share things they think are useful for others, and long posts are useful because they’re chock full of information.
What are some of your favorite explanatory science blog posts?
There are some posts that I think are so good at explaining stuff that I use them in teaching. I teach adult night classes, Biology 101, and there are a couple of posts I use, both by PZ Myers. He’s well known in the atheist crowd, but once or twice a week he actually writes a biology post, and he’s a master of clear writing and clear explanation. He often takes a very complex new paper in Cell, and comes up with a metaphor that explains it very clearly to a very lay audience. His audience doesn’t necessarily have any more scientific background than any other American, but he serves them this absolutely wonderful crystal clear explanation of a process. He has one post, a mapping between genotype and phenotype. I saw it and was like – whoa! What a great metaphor. I asked my students to compare his metaphor to one that came from Richard Dawkins and a couple others and I came up with one of my own, so the students had four or five different metaphors for how genotype and phenotype mapped to each other. PZ manages to take some very complex concepts and using metaphor, distill them into something that is easily understood by anybody.
Could you talk more about the role metaphors play in explanation? It seems like science bloggers use them all the time.
I think a lot of metaphors come as second nature, so we even don’t notice them specifically! Many metaphors come from within our own field, from training in undergrad and graduate school, or from textbooks or papers. Some people do spend a lot of effort coming up with new ones – these are the more journalist types like Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer, who will specifically go out and look for good metaphors.
But metaphors can also be a problem, because you’re so used to the metaphor you never question it. For instance, all of the language that has to do with DNA. Transcription, translation – those are info science and computer science metaphors. You start treating DNA as information, and that puts you into a particular state of mind and affects how you think about basic biological processes within the cell. That can be distracting. I study circadian rhythms, so we talk about the biological clock. I wrote a long post actually questioning the metaphor of the clock. In some cases the metaphor of the clock is useful, in other cases we should rethink the metaphor, maybe another one is better.
A lot of bloggers are getting more interested in how to use visuals – it’s a “picture is worth a thousand words” kind of thing. It’s slowly going that way. Five years ago it all just a block of text, and you maybe inserted an image for fun, to make it colorful, but the image did not have much of a role. But I think more and more science bloggers are starting to think about how to use images to actually explain and to enhance the purely textual explanation. There are a lot of science bloggers who want to discuss a particular paper, and get mad that data is presented in the form of a table. So what they do is they take the data, and make a graph! Which makes everything much easier to comprehend, because you suddenly have a visual of the data.
I would absolutely recommend using more images, and I have to try to do more of it myself! I’ve seen some science bloggers who have more of an artistic bent starting to do that, to actually draw by hand and insert their pictures into the post.
Many science blog posts bring up complications, nuances, and exceptions to any given issue. Is this part of good explanation?
One of the main gripes scientists have with mainstream media coverage of science is that it oversimplifies. It gives the lay audience a wrong picture because of the oversimplification, and people learn to demand simple answers to simple questions. But there is a way to draw the audience into understanding the complexity, if at the same time you include them into the small segment of the population who actually understand the complexity. People like it when they feel that they’ve learned something and have more expertise on a topic than they used to have. They realize “oh, its not that simple!” If they can now follow the entire argument and understand it, they’ll feel good about themselves.
It’s a tricky path, and you can’t overdo it. There’s definitely a danger of going to far, and I’ve seen science bloggers go there. For instance, take a big paper in Cell. Cell papers can be really long with 20 experiments in a single paper, and some bloggers will go into detail for every experiment, and I don’t think that needs to be done. You can still explain, “it’s more complex” than what the CNN articles give you, but you can focus on three of the 20 experiments that are really key. Then go from there to explain what it all means.
As a science blogger, what’s the one piece of advice you would give to people who want to explain complex issues?
Link, link, link! Link is the currency of the web. With journalism now mainly online, if you don’t link, you lose trust. Everything, every statement you make, link to it. That builds trust a lot – a linkless article is dramatically less trustworthy.
Journalists are often limited by space, especially if their stuff is going to go not only online but also in print. Especially journalists who, because of their background or their schooling, or because of the nature of their work, or because they have to cover many different sciences, can’t be experts. And that’s OK. They are experts in journalism; they know how to write well, they know how to contract a lot of complicated stuff into about 100 words. If they could just link to somebody, first go and search the blogs, find somebody who’s explained it well, and then link to it. Say, “Hey, do you want to know more? Do you want to get more detail and nuance? Go here.” That would do the trick – that would save them the 400-word article because it would become useful by containing those links. I think more journalists just have to get into the habit of getting off LexisNexis and going to Google blog search.
Summary : 6 tips for great explanation
- Explain until you’re done, and then stop. Don’t be afraid of length – long posts do well because they are useful, and people will come back to them again and again.
- A personal, conversational tone keeps people reading. Just like you wouldn’t walk out on someone in the middle of a conversation, you read an engaging piece through until the end!
- Metaphors can be useful in explaining complex issues, but it’s important not to get stuck with just one. A combination of metaphors is often the best way to help people understand.
- Images like graphs, cartoons, or even hand drawn sketches help people visualize and see the data. Images are not just decoration – they can convey important information.
- Sometimes complicating the picture is part of explanation. But one must find a balance between the overly simple and overly detailed.
- Explanation is also about sending people away. Articles become useful by linking out to the best information. Link, Link, Link!
Interview by Lena Groeger.