At journal Cell, a focus on blogs and framing

I'm late to this news feature that appeared two weeks ago at the journal Cell, as others here at ScienceBlogs have already posted on the article. Quoted below is the section of the article that focuses on our Framing Science thesis and its relevance to science blogging:

The concept of scientists reaching out to a lay audience is not new. "Scientists are an opinionated bunch and they have given their thoughts on discoveries or events by speaking with journalists, writing letters to journals, authoring commentaries," says Matthew C. Nisbet, a professor in the School of Communication at American University in Washington DC. "Blogs provide a lot more of that commentary, but delivered almost instantaneously." According to Nisbet, blogs written by scientists provide an authoritative opinion on a topic, often within a richer context than, for example, a news article. "Science blogs are important because they continue to engage the attentive public in scientific topics," he says.

Nisbet--whose blog Framing Science ( http://scienceblogs.com/framing-science) focuses on the intersections between science, media, and politics--believes blogs are an important communication tool for the scientific community. "In the digital age, information is found based on availability rather than accuracy. If different interest groups start blogs that attack peer-reviewed science, and the scientific community does not engage in similar communication mode, they will miss an important opportunity to educate the public," he says.

In a recent article (Science 316, 56, 2007), Nisbet and colleague Chris Mooney, a correspondent for the popular science magazine Seed, wrote that "Without misrepresenting scientific information on highly contested issues, scientists must learn to actively 'frame' information to make it relevant to different audiences." In other words, instead of focusing on explaining the technical details of scientific issues, scientists should define arguments in a way that resonates with the public's "core values and assumptions." Scientist bloggers are debating the implications of this approach. Myers wrote in his blog that if he took Nisbet and Mooney's advice "I'd end up giving fluff talks that play up economic advantages and how evolution contributes to medicine... and I'd never talk about mechanisms and evidence again. That sounds like a formula for disaster to me."

What Is the Impact?

As the debate about the Nisbet-Mooney article exemplifies, blogs allow discussions of scientific issues that do not typically take place in the scientific literature. "A scientific journal is not the right vehicle for debate and discussion," says Larry Moran, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Toronto and author of the popular biochemistry textbook Principles of Biochemistry. As a case in point, Moran used his blog Sandwalk ( http://sandwalk.blogspot.com) to start a debate about evolutionary developmental biology. "There's much to criticize in the field of evolutionary developmental biology or evo-devo," leads off his March 30, 2007 entry. It continues "The thing that bugs me more than anything else is the attempt to create a general theory of evolution based entirely on a subset of living species: namely multicellular animals."

But how significant are these discussions if only a minority of scientists read blogs, or write them? "Blogs are important sources for opinion leaders, activists, and journalists. They help create a lot of the discourse out in the world," explains Nisbet. Indeed, many discussions that grab the attention of bloggers have ended up in the pages of The New York Times or in the news sections of science journals. "Blogs are having an impact because newsmakers read them," says Moran. "To some extent we are writing for science journalists. We are saying 'Here is something getting the wrong kind of coverage' or 'Here is something you should be paying attention to.'"

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