Thursday, August 15, 2013

Hey WIRED, Why No Chemistry Love?

101 Signals, WIRED Magazine's latest compilation of "...best reporters, writers, and thinkers on the Internet" just went live. They've broken down the list, which includes blogs, Twitter, and Tumblr feeds, into chunks: Business, Design, Consumer Tech, Gov't & Security, Culture, and Science.

Here's the Science group. A distinguished bunch, but guess what?
Not a chemist among them!!!

Sure, we've got great, well-known personalities like Ed Yong (Not Exactly Rocket Science) and Randall Munroe (xkcd), Phil Plait and Robert Krulwich. I see plenty of physicists, biologists, astronomers, geneticists, and science writers, but no chemists.
And yet, two Tumblr accounts with the word "f*ck" sprinkled in (Classy, WIRED, classy).

I suppose Maggie Koerth-Baker, who has written about chemistry several times, is the closest we get to full representation. But she's plugged as the BoingBoing science editor / NYT columnist, with nary a mention of chemistry to be found.

So, what gives? Folks on Twitter have suggested a few issues with the chemblogosphere, from "in-reach" in place of outreach, to a tendency to "punch-down," or even (gasp!) that our stuff just doesn't appeal to a mainstream audience.

All valid points. Well, allow me to retort: An aspect of chicken-and-the-egg surely works behind these listicles. Although we haven't fully ironed out all of chemistry bloggers' quirks yet, not featuring our blogs in mainstream offerings just exacerbates the problem!

How can we be part of the solution,* if we can't even get in the door?

In case a WIRED staffer happens upon this post, please consider the following widely-followed, high-quality chemistry blogs to include in your next collection:

In the Pipeline
ChemBark
Elemental
The Curious Wavefunction

*Please don't say, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the precipitate." We've all heard that one.

22 comments:

  1. We all know this is a problem. The question is what do we do about it? The more I see stuff like this happening the more I think Ash's idea about a chemistry lobbying organization might be necessary (http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/the-curious-wavefunction/2013/07/11/wheres-the-chemistry-lobby-on-why-we-need-a-national-center-for-chemical-education/)

    Let's face it - chemists are very bad at PR, but it's not for a lack of trying. There are lots of great chemists writing lots of great things but we just listen to each other; I feel like the message doesn't get out there. I'm still trying to think of the best way to organize a blog carnival or something to force people out of their normal blogosphere habits.

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    1. Chad: Thanks for the thoughts. I, too, am all for Ash's presumed lobby. I disagree, however, that chemists are necessarily bad at PR. Many folks volunteer, do podcasts, radio, design websites and flyers, etc. It takes two to tango; some cultural recognition (not just Breaking Bad) would help us to tune our message.

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    2. We DO those things, but if we were really good at them wouldn't we have better results?

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  2. Whilst those blogs are high quality, they're most definitely not aimed at a mainstream audience. Look at their most recent posts. ChemBark for example on altered TEM images. A non-scientist will read the first sentence and ask:

    1. What's TEM?
    2. Why would I even care?

    Same would go for the others. They're not aimed at anyone without a chemistry degree (with exception of Elemental, but she's at Wired anyway). Hence why they're not in Wired's list.

    I think it's safe to say they're aren't any chemistry blogs squarely aimed at chemist/scientist audience.

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    1. Tom: OK, let's say we send all chemists to a mandatory PR boot camp for two weeks, to learn better communication. How, then, would posts change? Most of us writing here try for pop culture tie-ins, funny pictures, etc, but at the end we're still CHEMISTRY bloggers. To wit, we'll still be talking atoms and molecules to some extent...does that necessarily turn off the mainstream?

      Do we always have to be drugs and big explosions to be relevant?

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  3. You could replace "wired" with "The Guardian" and this post would be equally valid.

    http://www.theguardian.com/science-blogs

    Granted they are very good at taking one-off blog posts about chemistry, but the subject is noticeably unrepresented by permanent bloggers. Physics, nanotech, dinos (of the non-space variety), maths, neuroscience, political science, science history and biology are all well covered but sadly no chemistry.

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  4. NPR had a roundtable of some scientists a while back at the end of march discussing the problem of communicating science to the public these days. "Gripping Science Tales Need Not be Science Fiction" is the name of the piece, on ScienceFriday. The scientists admit in the middle of the podcast that chemistry is severely underrepresented in science's story to the public. Chemistry, they say, is waiting for its "sexy" celebrity. Its waiting for a Sagan, a Nye, a Tyson. When we finally get that, we'll have our moment to shine.

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    1. Food for thought, Joe. Thanks for the heads up!

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    2. What has chemistry got that can compete with vast computers that peer into our lives, emerging viruses that are supposedly poised to kill us all, and sudden asteroid death from outer space. Chemistry has...um...supramolecular structures... bee-killing pesticides... killer plastic bottles... designer drugs... cancer cures 'coming any day now'. Face it: the sexiness of a subject bears no relationship to its true social importance, or even what you and I would consider exciting.

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  5. I'd rather see a site like sciencemadness up there than any blog. In the Pipeline? Other than a few features like "things I won't work with" this site has almost nothing of interest for someone who is not in drug discovery. For example in a recent post "his compound (ATSP-7041) goes after both MDM2 and MDMX"...unless you are in the area, nobody will understand this.

    You need to entertain at the same time.

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  6. Wired has turned a blind eye toward women as well (http://jezebel.com/wired-magazine-doesnt-think-women-have-brains-1150033824). At some point we have to blame Wired for their own myopia.

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  7. I am both a woman and a chemistry blogger who writes for a mainstream audience. I think I have the solution ;-) http://thechronicleflask.wordpress.com/

    One of the leaders at a Guardian Masterclass told me that chemistry was just boring. Sadly this seems to be a prevailing attitude - I've heard Brian Cox say the same thing on the Infinite Monkey Cage. Trouble is these are the people with the potential power to change things, but instead they just think it's quite funny to be anti-chemistry.

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    1. When people in positions of influence make off-cuff remarks, they reverberate, unfortunately for us. We have to convince people we're worth their time, too!

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    2. If chemistry were easy, everyone would be doing it. More correct to say it has a long, steep learning curve. By the same token, every technical field with a steep learning curve is boring to the uninitiated. I can watch computer scientists get all frothy over some subtlety in a million-line block of code, and scratch my head.

      I think chemists make mistakes by trying to lure kids into chemistry with flashy color changes and things that go boom. It takes them about one day in a chemistry class to realize it's not like that at all, and they get a tub of cold water dumped on their expectations. They should be taught that if they want things to explode, they should join the Army.

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  8. to Anonymous at 3:57 pm. Yeah, Jezebel is a propaganda site, not real news.

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  9. In the interest of full disclosure, I am the author of "Fuck Yeah Fluid Dynamics," one of the aforementioned Tumblrs from Wired's list.

    I relate to your frustrations about not seeing your field well-represented in the general science blogosphere. The subject of fluid dynamics is not well-known, and a lack of blogs as well as a lack of general education about the field were motivators for me to start FYFD three years ago.

    I don't think the answer to gaining a larger mainstream audience for chemistry blogging is to wait for a Neil Tyson or a Brian Cox. It sounds like there's a niche that needs to be filled, whether by a single blog or by a blog carnival, and it needs to focus on reaching out. Science outreach to general audiences is not about dumbing concepts down; it's about taking the time to explain terms and even dedicating entire posts to explaining one or two key ideas about any given research paper (or photo or video).

    As far as growing the readership, I think it helps to have a platform with an existing community of users, whether that's Blogger, Wordpress, Tumblr, or wherever. If there's an easy way for new readers to discover the blog, it's more likely to gain followers. Posting consistently and focusing on quality content draws readers. It doesn't happen overnight, but, in time, people notice. YMMV, but that is what has worked for me.

    And, FWIW, if I were making a list for great science online, I would have included the Periodic Table of Videos folks: http://www.periodicvideos.com/

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    1. Nicole:

      Thanks for the thoughtful response. My motivations are similar to yours; I don't believe chemistry should wait for a public figurehead, but I also believe it's hard to get people interested unless chem blogs get some positive public exposure.

      I'll admit I'm outside my realm of expertise, but it's my feeling fluid dynamics doesn't suffer the constant, unending negative press currently afforded to chemistry. We (chem-bloggers and outreach types) are trying, but I think we have to change our vocabulary and devote more time to explanation. As you've said, general audience outreach doesn't have to involve dumbing down, just more explanation and time.

      P.S. Periodic Table of Videos are superstars. I should have included them.

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    2. I think this is the route that Sam and I are wanting to move with our podcast. We've decided to interview more graduate students and other scientists asking them about their research. We're going to stress that they should explain it to a lay audience but without dumbing it down. I think this is the best thing we can do for chemistry outreach.

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    3. Chemistry has more mainstream recognition as a field than fluid dynamics does. And I can see where that may be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you have to fight chemophobia and misinformation, but, on the other hand, you get a lot more name (and, to an extent, concept) recognition from general audiences than my own field does.

      I’ve found a couple of really solid methods for connecting with readers—both technical and lay—and getting them to care about the subject. The first is to highlight the beauty in the science. There are some great visuals in FD and they serve as a way to draw readers in and then teach them about what they’re seeing. I have an entire tag on FYFD dedicated to “fluids as art.” I don’t know the extent to which this is done in chemistry, but the American Physical Society’s Division of Fluid Dynamics has annual contests for the best scientific and artistic images and videos in fluid dynamics, and those are great fodder. For chemistry visuals, the Belousov–Zhabotinsky reaction immediately comes to mind.

      The second is to relate the science to our daily lives. I had this as a choice in my recent reader survey (“Which FYFD content do you find most valuable?” with checkboxes for options) and was shocked that over 53% of respondents picked that answer. Readers like being able to connect the science with their day-to-day lives. And this is definitely an area where I think chemistry blogging and outreach can shine.

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  10. Looks like I'm late to this party, but FWIW here's my two cents anyway.

    This is something I've thought about a lot because I write a blog and from the very beginning I wanted to aim at a general-public audience, not just people in my own field. I think that Wired is looking for blogs that are able to attract a broader audience, i.e. people outside chemistry. In the Pipeline and ChemBark are great blogs if you work in chemistry or a related field. I love both of them, but that's because I work in the field. Aside from the Things I Won't Work With feature, they're not really intended for the general public. Elemental might be a good candidate.

    As Nicole Sharp pointed out: waiting around for the Neil DeGrasse Tyson of chemistry to show up will not help. This is something we have to do ourselves. And in order to do it, we need when blogging to think a little more carefully about what might attract lay readers -- what their interests are and who is our audience. I very much agree with Nicole Sharp's last comment. People need to be able to connect the science with their daily lives. And with chemistry, that SHOULD be easy to do, because all the products you use owe a lot to chemistry. Recent research is something I tend to avoid because it's more difficult to explain why it's important to someone who doesn't work in the field (and often it may NOT be important to anyone outside the field). But everything you buy, everything you eat, all the products you use are chemistry in action. Life itself is chemistry. And if we can find a way to explain that to our readers, that would be a big step towards broadening our audience and maybe doing more "outreach" instead of "inreach".

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  11. I think Nicole has hit the nail on the head. We really don't do a good job of writing for a lay audience. There are some great bits around C&ENews and other ACS related interwebs that the general public could (mostly) digest on a daily basis. But then again, they would have to browse the American Chemical Society to find it in the first place, no? Where are all the posts aimed at "Joe the carpenter and Jane the economist". No. As I see it, chemists write for chemists mostly. As a casual reader, what I see that is really sad is the most accessible write-ups in the blog-o-sphere usual relate fraud or retraction or chemophobia. Its probably not the right metaphor but I don't think that's "putting the right foot forward". It makes us look like a bunch of tools.

    Physicists have given us a great formula: (1) Pretty and informative picture (2) two-three sentences that clearly explain the picture (3) A little (slightly) more technical sentence or two (4) What the impact to Joe and Jane (above) will be that puts the headline in perspective (5) one-two sentence recap and look to the future.

    Basically what a print journalist would do, except make it (chemically) correct.
    I think something along these lines would go a long way towards reaching a lay audience. It would at least be something to build foundation of a more general readership; to which, more and more technical write-ups could be added in.

    Two cents added.

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