Science scholars, science blogging and boundary work

The October 12 editorial in the journal Analytical Chemistry, written by Dr. Royce Murray, strongly argues that the “the current phenomenon of ‘bloggers’ should be of serious concern to scientists” because they do not have a stable employer who monitors qualifications and facilitates fact checking. Several others have commented thoughtfully on the misconceptions represented in the editorial, also noting that the editorial’s final conclusion, caveat emptor, is instead a sound policy when reading, listening to or watching any source.

What struck me most (and Egon Willighagen too), however, was that Murray seemed to engage in exactly what I must assume was his criticism of bloggers – using rhetorical strategy rather than evidence to strengthen factual claims. The first line set the tone for what the strategy would be: boundary work. “If you are a science scholar, you hope that all scientific articles that you read are grounded in fact.”

I suspect that anyone (not reading fiction of course) hopes that what they are reading is true. Some people are more diligent than others in checking to see if that is the case, but to say that only science scholars hope that what they read is grounded in fact is a far out claim. So why make it? – Because it defines ingroups and outgroups. The reader is directly addressed (“you”) and the author attempts to make a bond we them, essentially saying “You and I are science scholars and we have shared values of truth”. The second thing that this statement does is then cast “the other” – everyone who isn’t a science scholar – as not sharing this value of truth. The important thing is not that the readers are actually science scholars (because they probably are – this is a specialist publication and Murray is a prominent science scholar in every regard), it’s that he’s used this characterisation to frame his argument within a context of  “us” and “them” – those who share his value of truth and those who do not.

So who are they, this “them”. They are the “lay public—those with some to no science education”. There is a clear boundary set here – those who are scientists and those who are not. By defining them through their formal science education (using the nonspecific “some to no”) the boundary is set between those who know and those who are to be educated and presumably protected from misinformation. Aside from continuing the emotional valence created with the reader (defining the other in a way that is far from how the reader would see himself or herself), this statement makes the predicament seem more dire. There is no room in this argument for anyone in between, which in reality is a lot of people – those who might be called the interested public, those actively engaged in science education, science journalists, and most people who work in science related fields but are not scholars (e.g., engineers, many industrial scientists, technicians, and nurses). With a public that is already active and interested in science and science policy, the argument would have to be much more nuanced. This also ignores that scientists are sometimes argued to be lay in areas far outside of their own specialities, relying often on simplifications of others’ research. But instead of a nuanced argument, this editorial presents the simplistic statement that “We science scholars should care a great deal about how well the general public is served with reliable science news.” “We should protect them

The second piece of boundary work, is this clear dividing line that Murray proposes between “bloggers” and “journalists”. Bloggers have no qualifications (or least no one checks their qualifications) and they use the internet like a megaphone. Journalists work for reputable companies that fact check their work. As others have pointed out, this isn’t a line that really exists, especially in science blogging where many prominent blogs are written by established and emerging science journalists (e.g., David Dobbs, Maryn McKenna, Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong).

More importantly, although it’s not explicitly said, the real boundary that I see being created here is between those who do the science and those who communicate it, as evidenced by the following statement “The traditional pathways have been popular science monthly magazines, a few television and radio programs, and science columns in public newspapers. The quality of this flow of information, I believe, has been mostly high—as judged by its producers’ attention to factual reliability and impact.” Science scholars are not science communicators, that is the job of science journalists.

The question I’m left with is: why? Boundary work is typically seen in situations where science and scientists are under some threat and where they will benefit from a clear distinction. The term is attributed to Thomas Gieryn, published in a seminal paper in 1983 where he challenged his contemporary sociologists and philosophers, who were at the time searching for objective ways to demarcate science from non-science, by saying that it wasn’t the task of sociologists and philosophers to demarcate – scientists do it in practice all the time. He explained boundary work as a rhetorical strategy whereby scientists attribute “selected characteristics to the institution of science (i.e., to its practitioners, methods, stock of knowledge, values and work organization) for purposes of constructing a social boundary” (p. 782). The selected characteristics would change depending on what was most advantageous in the context. He describes John Tyndall’s work in Victorian England to distinguish science from religion and from engineering (seen at the time as a non-theoretical pursuit). Tyndall chose his words and his arguments carefully to ensure the impression of maximum difference between science and either religion or engineering. Both were threats to his efforts to have science given the public recognition and support he (and others of course) felt it deserved.

In another example, Sarah Parry illustrates the way that stem cell scientists engage in boundary work in public forums to, in some instances scientify their work to reduce sentimental reactions from the public (e.g., carefully defining blastocysts as masses of cells to defuse public perception of embryos as possessing fully human characteristics) and in other instances expressing solidarity with the ethical concerns the audience had regarding adult cloning. They worked hard in their speech to maintain cloning as a political and ethical issue – and one that does not involve them: They are not cloners. They set a clear ingroup of respectable stem cell scientists and a clear outgroup of renegade unethical scientists.

In both of these examples, the boundary work helped the scientists involved to protect their work from an external threat (to be clear, I’m not proposing these as negative or deceitful on the part of the scientists. It may not even have been conscious but it had the desired effect.)

What’s the threat here? Why must the public be cast as so unknowledgeable? This not to say that public scientific literacy isn’t an issue to be addressed, but casting all those who are not science scholars as an uneducated public is also to misrepresent that issue. Why must scientists be separated from those who communicate science? To me, that is one of the biggest of the most promising aspects of science blogging – scientists and graduate students communicating directly about their work. Why engage in boundary work that separates the two?

I might be naive, but I can’t imagine that the findings in Analytical Chemistry are being flagrantly misrepresented by unscrupulous bloggers bent on spreading misinformation. I would imagine this in not the threat – so what is? Hank Campbell at Science 2.0 offers some possible explanations in the opening of his post, suggesting blogs are a threat to traditional monetized publishing industry. But in the world of academic journals, I don’t think it’s the editors that make the money so I’m not entirely convinced that that’s it.

Is the threat just the possibility of scientists beginning to communicate their work directly to the public?

References:

Gieryn, T.F. (1983). Boundary-work and the demarcation of science from non-science: Strains and interests in professional ideologies of scientists. American Sociological Review, 48, 781-795.

Parry, S. (2009). Stem cell scientists’ discursive strategies for cognitive authority. Science as Culture, 18, 89-114.

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7 Comments

  1. gaythia

     /  October 19, 2010

    I think that the ideas expressed here about boundaries and perceived external threats are quite intriguing, and something I plan to investigate and contemplate further.

    I think that communication between scientists and the public is vital, especially in a democracy where it is ultimately the public, as voters, who decide on funding and thus the future directions of much of scientific based policies as well as scientific research.

    I believe that even unknowledgeable people are not necessarily anti-science, and outreach is possible. I have had a number of fruitful conversations that start with a seemingly inane question, such as an attempt to enlist my aid as a chemist in helping someone find a product “without any chemicals in it”. This has the potential to expand from the concept that chemicals are all around us, to concepts of what distinguishes “good” chemicals from “bad” chemicals and when and if this has a relationship between “natural” and “man-made”.

    Reply
  2. One of the things I find odd about this whole thing is that a lot of science blogging happens on large brands – big institutions that worry about reputation. Collectives might say the same thing, as the way people left scienceblogs, I think showed (not that scienceblogs was a collective, but the walk out was, at least in some respects)

    Yes, science “communication” as boundary work. Long history. The threat is the old chesnut of of professionalisation, surely? Have you ever read Bucchi – Science and the media (Routledge, 1998). I think he’s interesting on these sorts of boundaries. There’s also the classic Hiltgartner paper – “The Dominant View of Popularization: Conceptual Problems, Political Uses,” Social Studies of Science, 1990. Maybe a bit crude/ out of date for blogging though. Fyfe and Lightman’s book science in the marketplace is interesting as a recent attempt to argue against the assumption that sci com’n is largely a matter of articulating professional boundaries – I don’t know if you’ve read that?

    Reply
    • Thanks Alice – I’ve read the Hiltgartner but not Fyfe and Lightman’s book. I will definitely check that out. And you’re right, science communication is by its definition boundary work. I was most interested here though in boundary work in the very classically Gieryn sense – as a rhetorical strategy. It just seemed to me that the tone of the editorial had been chosen very specifically for that purpose and I wondered (still wonder…) why.
      As for professionalism, that is certainly ever present. But why in a specialist publication engage in boundary discourses to establish or maintain professionalism? It just doesn’t seem to fit for me. Any thoughts?

      Reply
      • Kim

         /  October 19, 2010

        I’m not an analytical chemist, so I don’t know what might be going on in this case. But I’ve seen a couple similar arguments against blogging by geoscientists, and in both cases, the authors had issues with a specific blogger or group of bloggers. One was an opinion piece in the journal Nature Geoscience; in that case, the author and his work had been criticized in a prominent climate blog (Real Climate). Another was a guest post on a blog by a respected retired geologist, who wanted to warn bloggers about the dangers of working in the same medium available to creationists. In both cases, the writers had specific reasons to be doing boundary work. I don’t know if there’s any such reason for analytical chemists to have disputes with bloggers, though.

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    Reply
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