You normally wouldn’t think of satisfying your jones for political and cultural commentary by visiting a “science” blog.
But a small network of writers at scienceblogs.com are trying to broaden scientific discourse by editorializing about everything from gay actors playing Christian characters to the embryo-worshipping antics of one Senator Fetus Fondler, more commonly known as Rick Santorum, Republican of Pennsylvania.
“Science doesn’t get a lot of comments,” said PZ Myers, a biologist and professor who runs the popular Pharyngula blog. “No, it’s the occasional post on atheism that gets people riled up.”
Scienceblogs.com was launched last January by Seed Media Group, publishers of SEED magazine. Seed recruited 15 of the best known independent science bloggers, offered to compensate them based on traffic, and set them loose to blog about whatever they wanted.
The result has been an idiosyncratic glimpse at our culture through the eyes of one philosopher, one physicist, a few writers and biologists, a former Senate staffer, a computer scientist, and various and sundry academics and science-minded lay people.
“[Seed] got the idea that blogs can’t work with restrictions,” said Myers, who is known for his humorous vilification of creationists, conservatives, and anyone who traffics in blatant idiocies. “There hasn’t been a peep from the editorial desk.”
Since its inception, the network has since grown to 19 bloggers.
Science + Religion + Politics = Controversy
There’s no shortage of pure science content on ScienceBlogs — comments on the disease vector Aedes aegypti and its role in the spread of the Chikungunya arbovirus, anyone? And there are several blogs, such as Afarensis and Gene Expression, that tend to stay away from cultural and political commentary altogether.
But a brief review of recent posts on some blogs reveals titles like “Science guy harshes creationists’ mellow,” “Your morning dose of unintentional creationist humor,” and “Keep your Prayers to Yourself!”
A first-time visitor to scienceblogs.com might assume the network was a bastion of liberal-only, anti-religion commentary, where the bloggers preach to their choir. But the bloggers, for their part, say there are a few conservatives who visit every now and then.
Ed Brayton, who writes Dispatches from the Culture Wars, said that his blog gets more conservative readers than other ScienceBlog destinations.
“I am a libertarian, which essentially means that conservatives think I’m a liberal and liberals think I’m a conservative, and they’re both wrong,” he said.
Tim Lambert, who writes the Deltoid blog, said his posts about the war in Iraq, especially, incite arguments. “When you have people disagreeing with you vehemently in comments, you sure don’t feel like you are preaching to the choir,” he said.
Tara Smith, who posts to the Aetiology blog, said anything that she writes about AIDS draws a wide range of dissenters, including people who deny the disease’s existence. She said the best she can hope for is that people learn from what she’s writing, whether they agree with her or not.
The conversation and arguments the bloggers generate seem to be working. The network is garnering anywhere from one to three million page views per month, according to editor Christopher Mims, who manages the blogs from the Seed offices in Manhattan.
The Benefits of Networking
More traffic means more money for the bloggers. But while the compensation can be a useful supplement, it’s certainly not enough to make a living on.
“It paid my cable bill,” said Smith, who works full-time as an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Iowa.
Brayton said he was attracted to the blogging network because Seed takes care of the technical details. Prior to joining ScienceBlogs, he maintained his own site and server.
Brayton was concerned, however, about the editorial policy. He spent a few days negotiating his contract to ensure he had editorial carte blanche.
Smith and Myers also had concerns about editorial control, but were assured that Seed wouldn’t interfere with their posts. Both were attracted to the idea of Seed managing the technical aspects of blogging.
Another benefit of networking: increased visibility.
“I think the collective nature of this project improves traffic,” said Brayton, who said he’s seen the number of visitors steadily climb to about 4,500 hits per day.
Lambert said his traffic has increased 50 percent since he began blogging for scienceblogs.com. He ascribes that increase to the quality of all the blogs combined.
The network effects extend beyond the sites themselves. Many of the bloggers knew each other, either professionally or through blogging, before starting to write for scienceblogs.com.
Whatever success the bloggers have had so far, they’ve managed it without a big marketing or advertising push from Seed, which has allowed word to spread via the Web. Seed has run a few house ads in the magazine, and they took advantage of an ad exchange with the journal Nature to promote the blogs.
“We’ve seen a very positive response from the advertising community,” said Michael Tive, general manager of Seed Digital Networks. “We’ve seen a willingness to understand and explore blogs as a subset of digital media.”
Currently scienceblogs.com is running Harper Collins ads, and has run ads from other large companies, such as Subaru. Tive said the blog format attracts young, educated readers who can be a very appealing audience for advertisers.
Seed expects to hire a full-time blog editor soon, and they’re considering a redesign of the pages.
As for the bloggers, they say they plan to continue blogging at scienceblogs.com for as long as the domain is active, and as long as it doesn’t become too much like work.
They credit scienceblogs.com with helping to make science more accessible to a wider community. Blogging, they say, hasn’t penetrated the scientific community to the same degree that it has technology and politics. But blogging at professional journals and magazines, such as Nature and Scientific American, is helping to legitimize the practice among scientists.
“In the scientific community, blogging is growing. It’s still kind of a fringe activity, still associated with teenagers and not really regarded as a professional pursuit,” said Smith.
“But it’s getting attention.”