Since I started doing science blogging and skeptical outreach, I’ve noticed that my most popular posts usually involve topics that are considered controversial by the general public, even if they aren’t considered as controversial by actual experts: i.e. genetically engineered foods, anthropogenic climate change, the safety and efficacy of municipal water fluoridation, the importance of vaccines, and anti-science conspiracy speculationism.
Those are all topics I think are worthy of discussion, in part because they are considered more controversial among the lay public than among experts, but also because they all have real world importance to society, and it is my position that normative decision making (including public policy) should be based on the most accurate picture of the facts available, which necessarily means going with the best science.
Normative decision-making inherently entails the involvement of personal values. However, no matter what competing personal values different people wish to bring to bear on any given societal question, it is my view that we should all at least be starting from the same facts. It’s all too common for people to pick and choose which facts they want to believe based solely on the extent to which they are convenient for their opinions, preconceptions, and/or ideologies, which is one of the reasons why I’ve continually advocated for applying a scientific mindset consistently across various topics.
That said, in the interest of setting the proverbial stage for some of the topics I plan to blog about in the future, I decided it would be a good idea to take a short break from writing posts focused on debunking common misconceptions (and/or anti-science arguments) to write a series of pieces covering some important concepts in science.
In the past, I’ve often incorporated mini science lessons within pieces whose central focus was to address some argument or clarify some common misconception about science.
However, a drawback of that approach is that it inevitably makes those posts longer because I’m devoting one or more paragraphs to explaining a concept that I could have just covered in a separate short piece.
This way, I can just include a one or two sentence recap whenever I reference some concept that would take a while to explain thoroughly, and then simply link back to an article in which I unpack it in more thoroughly for readers who aren’t sure what I’m talking about, or who just need a little refresher.
I thought of posting about this idea on my FB page by posing it as a question to get a feel for how my subscribers felt about the idea, but ultimately, I knew that I was going to do whatever I wanted to do regardless of whether public demand was high or low, so I opted to just write this post instead. Lol.
But don’t worry! I’ll get back to the straight pseudoscience busting soon enough!
I do enjoy writing about those topics. However, I also want to arm as many of my readers as possible with as much scientific understanding and credible resources as possible, in part because I think science is inherently awesome and worth learning about regardless of one’s personal career path, but also because that way my readers can understand them well enough to explain them to (and/or more effectively debate them with) various people in their lives, many of whom might never otherwise become exposed to this information.
Notice that this is distinctly different from merely reporting on the latest science news. I think that’s important too, but let’s face it; most people don’t really have enough of a grasp of the fundamentals of any given field of science to really place most science news into proper context, and with very few exceptions, that style of Sci-Comm does little to fill in the gaps in most people’s fundamental scientific knowledge base.
Sure, scientists, engineers, and generally scientifically literate people probably comprise a disproportionate fraction of the Credible Hulk fan-base relative to their prevalence in the general population, but nobody is an expert at everything. There’s always something more to learn, and I want my readers to be better off because of my work in skeptical outreach. I still want to smash pseudoscience down, but I also want to help bring others up.
I also realize that one of the benefits of posting about topics readers like is that it allows me to reach more people, which means more of them have the potential to see some of the more serious science stuff. I’ve occasionally tried to explain to arm chair critics the strategic value in covering a variety of topics with a variety of presentation approaches along a whole spectrum from the simple (or even satirical) to the more rigorous and complex, and everywhere in between.
Furthermore, having different people covering different parts of that spectrum (ranging from generalists to specialists) with different styles and platforms maximizes the likelihood of getting the most people into it. Funny science memes rope in a lot of new subscribers, after which those people are more likely to see the heavier duty stuff (even if the latter remains generally less popular than the former).
I’ve sometimes referred to that tactic as “Reverse Wolfing.” Instead of roping them in with innocuous inspirational memes, and then bashing them over the head with batshit crazy pseudoscience like David Avocado Wolfe, we can rope them in with science humor, then put something in their face from which they might actually learn something.
Misunderstandings sometimes arise because of the difficulty of conceptualizing the bigger strategic picture based on just one or two posts, whose function within the larger strategy might not be so obvious to someone who hasn’t spent that much time thinking about how it might all fit together in the grand design. Sometimes I try to explain it to people, but often it’s to people who turn out just to like to complain for the sake of complaining, and who have no real concept of what kind of strategies might be going on in the brains of science page admins. But whatever. It comes with the territory.
Anyway, I’m hoping to put out a few more articles before the end of this Summer, because I don’t anticipate having as much time for blogging in the Fall.
– Matt (TCH)