Question for Educators/Lay Public

Nov 16 2010 Published by under Synaptic Misfires

Hey Y'all,

So Sci is helping to moderate a session at the upcoming Science Online 2011 (woot!!), on blogging science for the lay public ("lay" meaning, like, not a scientist by trade, I suppose).

And I was wondering...in what ways do you think I succeed in blogging science for teh peoples? In what ways do I fail? Any ideas on how to improve?

What do you think? I was going to try a survey, but the free plans only take 100 responses and that sucks. 🙂 So I was wondering if people would be willing to answer any of the questions below:

1) If you are an educator (please say), do you use my blog in your teaching? Why or why not?

2) Do you find my writing easy to understand, and if so, why?

3) What parts of my writing do you find helpful, and what parts unhelpful?

4) Do you have any ideas on what I can do to improve how I talk about science to people who don't know much about it?

Let me know! Sci is curious! And it will help our Sci Online session!! Do it for teh peoples.

16 responses so far

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    Where you succeed is by infusing your blog with humour and banter and slightly crazed pictures. The science you write about is often pretty high level, and isn't necessarily easy for people outside the field to understand.

  • Craig says:

    I'm a behavioural neuroscience/psychopharmacology grad student (rat-based, currently working on mephedrone) who teaches 2nd and 3rd year neuroscience to psychology undergrads. I normally recommend your blog (along with Ginger Campbell's Brain Science Podcast) to my students in the first week of each semester...

    Why do I recommend your blog? Several reasons:

    I) Enthusiasm. You're obviously passionate about the subject and excited by what you're writing about. These qualities are essential for good teaching, whether in person or in print. You can't do anything well if you don't really care about what you're doing.

    II) Scepticism. You always make a point of mentioning the weaknesses of the research you're discussing, rather than just uncritically cheerleading. It's especially good that you do this even with research that you like, instead of saving the critical chainsaw just for the stuff you disagree with.

    III) Language. Without dumbing-down the science, you manage to convey what you're saying in non-technical, informal language. Rather than phrasing it as jargon-laden pronouncements from on high, it's more like explaining an exciting new idea to an intelligent layperson you met at the pub.

    IV) Humour and irreverence. Science is fun, and scientists are just as silly and contradictory as any other people. Good science communication doesn't obscure that. Plus, the occasional bit of slightly risqué humour or language is good for keeping students/readers awake, especially when you need to present a big chunk of more complicated material. It's an anti-zoneout pressure valve.

    All of these are things that I try to do in my own teaching, and they work. The student feedback I get tends to be overwhelmingly positive, and it's generally based around those four points.

    The only thing I see here that I can think of criticising at all is that sometimes the figures you present aren't quite as clear as might be. Given that you're generally importing them from other sources, you've got a good excuse there, but a bit more in the way of figure captions and keys occasionally wouldn't go astray.

  • Ed Yong says:

    The thing I think you do really well, which does make your blog stand out among a lot of others, is to write as if you're having a chat with someone. It reads very differently to traditional science writing - your style reads more like a transcript of a very excited lecture.

    That's good in the sense that it's original and I think it works - the tone is very accessible in itself. It also means you can do stuff that other writers can't get away with. I'd normally say that it's a really bad idea to say things like "This is cool" because if you're not conveying that in the writing and explicitly have to point it out, you're not doing your job. But of course, your conversational style totally allows for saying stuff like that. It breaks the mould.

    The only drawback I see is that people used to reading in a certain style might find it jarring. Likewise with the third-person thing. I don't personally. Others' mileage may vary.

    As others have pointed out, you're funny, irreverent, incredibly enthusiastic, and very mature in your analysis. These are all massive strengths. You're not (and don't come across as) arrogant, or overbearing.

    My only critical points are: occasional overuse of technical language (although you're far better than most in this respect); and sometimes, I find the intros to be too long. I don't mind so much, but I'm a regular reader who knows what to expect. A new reader might be put off by a rambling beginning.

  • ryandake says:

    hi sci!

    i am a non-scientist (sorry, not an educator tho). i read your blog because you're always interesting--you choose research that's not yet made it to the mainstream. i can't say i always understand what you're writing about (i simply lack the background), but you explain things clearly enough that i can get the gist even if i don't always grasp the technicalities.

    plus, you're just waaay funny. please don't discount that! sometimes the funny keeps me reading even when i don't quite get it. style matters, big time.

    last, you always make your conclusions (the big, big picture stuff) clear and in non-jargon-ese. so if i don't get it reading thru, i can still always get what your point is. and then if i am so motivated i can re-read until i can follow the logic chain.

    one thing i find especially useful in your blog is your explanations of the charts & diagrams. i imagine for scientists, looking at these is pretty self-explanatory, but for laypeople, they're not. they're usually very info-dense and not well designed. so your exegesis of them is particularly useful.

    you do a great job, sci! lucky Science Online folk!

  • christine says:

    So I'm not your typical educator, I teach 3rd grade in a private school and tutor all grades. But I am very interested in science and so are nearly all 3rd graders if you go about it the right way.

    Sooo...

    1) I do not specifically use it in my teaching but I have been able to use your blog posts as a springboard to other ideas and internet research personally, which then leads to more interesting things in the classroom.

    2) Usually easy enough due to enough college courses in science, what I don't understand I can pretty much figure out what the deal is. If I can't oh well.

    3) The humor and personal human elements are helpful. To me links to more info really aren't helpful because I can't understand it in proper scientific form. But that is helpful to the real scientists.

    4) An opening paragraph of a very basic overview of what you're talking about beginning to end. Yeah, a spoiler, but helps people like me know if we care to read on.

    I think maintaining the integrity of a well laid out science blog overshadows the need to make it overly easy for lay persons to understand. I really enjoy the blogs at Scientific American. They're written for the rest of us. If there was a way to keep your humorous approach and scientific validity, then combine it with slightly more dumbed-down common language, it would be EASIER to read. It's extremely POSSIBLE to read now but it takes effort on my part to follow. Some posts are much easier than others.

  • chezjake says:

    I think you do a pretty good job getting things across to the intelligent, curious layperson. Your style is fresh and comfortable, and your humor helps keep our attention.

    Your Basic Science posts are quite good for layfolk, so maybe if you think you are having a hard time explaining something in one of your regular posts, it may be time for some new Basic Science.

  • scicurious says:

    These are all great comments!!! While I do love the praise (hee), I especially like the ideas. I'm actually trying to get a little AWAY from the bio 101 posts. It's mostly because I think they are often the go to for bloggers, and I feel like we feel we HAVE to write them to explain something. I've been trying to explain things a little better in my normal posts instead, though it's often really nice just to have a link to a 101 post handy so I don't have to explain the serotonin system over and over. But if people feel the 101 posts are the best, why? The reason I want to get away from them is because they often lack context, it's all just "here's reproduction" or something, with very little about WHY this is important and what it's being used for.

    So do you all think it would be more useful to have basic 101 type posts which are then linked to? Or more basic but longer explanations of stuff in the regular posts? There are ups and downs to each. The more basic I try to get with my explanations...it means I can't cover the harder science papers, I have to cover things that are in smaller, easier bites of science. This doesn't always represent the field very well, and it also makes a lot of the bigger findings which get press attention harder to REALLY explain (as those papers tend to be chock full of a lot of science). On the other hand, if I write basic 101 posts and link to them, does anyone read them?

  • Chris says:

    I'm a lay-reader, and I love your humour and enthusiasm as well as the way you lay out the strengths and weaknesses of the studies you discuss. I don't teach, but I do pass on things you've posted about to my husband and kids, so you're breaking it down well enough for me to paraphrase without a science background.

    I like the idea of linking to 101 posts, so if I need a more basic explanation, I can find it easily. Sometimes I just skim over the heavy stuff, but it would be nice to know where to look if I want to dig deeper.

  • ryandake says:

    ditto chris: just link to the 101 posts. those who need or want to read them, can; those who don't can skip it.

    i think this puts your blog in a very accessible space both up and down the scientific-expertise ladder.

  • Craig says:

    I think I've mentioned this before, but a permanent link on the homepage to an in-order index of the Sci101 posts wouldn't be a bad idea.

    • scicurious says:

      If you did, I totally missed it. 🙁 But that's a great idea! It's there under the categories, but I could make a separate widget, maybe...worry about taking up too much space on the sidebar tho.

      • Craig says:

        The (minor) problem with the current link to the basic science posts is that they're listed in reverse chronological order. Because many of them are multi-part posts, you really want 'em the other way around, so that a reader can start at the top of the page and work their way down without getting things out of order.

        At the moment, if you want to start at the beginning you need to scroll down and then hit "older posts" several times over.

  • Kirsten says:

    Hi I'm an educator that just discovered your blog while home on maternity leave this summer. I have not explicitly used your blog in my teaching (high school biology to juniors and seniors -inverted science curriculum, they take bio last after physics and chemistry) but I do use the info I learn to elaborate on my explanations and examples in class. Your blog sits at a happy mid point for me, just enough new science to be stimulating and just enough explanation for me to understand it. I did a 2 summer stint in a neuroscience lab as a teacher researcher and so really enjoy seeing what's going on in the field. I also don't have the time to really dig in and dissect journal publications, so having you do the hard work and get the point across to me makes me very very happy. I've definitely considered using your posts directly in my teaching, but would probably mostly start by using your Bio 101 posts. Your writing is very much in the style that I use to dialogue with my students and so I think they would enjoy reading it, particularly my honors students. I like the Bio 101 posts as you include a good amount of the details (more than the textbooks I use) and so it helps to remind me of the specifics that I don't always recall. I do like the idea of continuing to present the research and linking in the text to explanations you've written previously. I think you should always be heavier towards the new research, but a regular (once a quarter?) bio 101 post would be nice too.

    I agree with a previous comment about the charts and tables I do find them hard to read but also understand that you've had to scan them or copy them from another source so there is a limitation to how clear they can be. That being said, I think for me personally the charts and graphs are the hardest part for me to analyze, I truly think there's an art to understanding them. So the more explanation, labels, and dissection of each part of a chart is always very appreciated.

    I truly enjoy reading your work and don't underestimate the humor either, it is for sure why I keep reading through a post that may be above my head or beyond my scope of interest.

  • drugmonkey says:

    After reminding myself never to ask Ed to critique my blogging style, I will go beyond what he wrote and point out that behavioral momentum is key. This also addresses Zen's point on your subsequent post, vis a vis, why retread what can be found in Wikipedia.

    A: Because you work hard to use blog personality to retain consistent readers.

    This may not be good if you are looking for a general purpose, drive by audience. That is important too, and we're all glad we have quality writers like Ed who can handle all of the above. It can work very well, however, to build an audience that likes your voice, cares abut your woes and keeps coming back to read whatever you write. The reason is that they will cruise past the lengthy intros or spend a little bit of effort to understand the more technical stuff that you didn't make super easy to understand. The consistent audience has that extra bit of trust in you that gets them past writing "flaws" that might lose a more disinterested reader. Or perhaps it is less like trust and more like an obligation to *you*. Whatever, it works.

    It may not be the *only* goal in a blog but it is one very effective tool whithin a whole shed full of equipment...

    • Depends on the purpose of the blogge. For those who are trying to educate people on shitte that those people care about, trust is essential. For those who are in it for the lolz, not so much.

      BTW, I have already e-mail Ed and contracted with him to provide a detailed critical assessment of your blogging style.

  • Ewan says:

    I teach junior-senior behavioural neuro. I don't exactly use your blog *in* my teaching, but what I *do* value very much is the spur that it often provides to look at a topic, an interesting recent paper [this especially], or a slightly different context than I might otherwise have defaulted to.

    I agree that there's a very clear blog-voice, whether it's your full-time personality or one that emerges specifically here; the biggest strength other than that, for me, is that there's a willingness both to praise and criticise, so that the analysis comes across as balanced and thoughtful.

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