Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Science blogging as a discussion board for new ideas

Today, blogger Ed Yong posed the question, "Are science blogs stuck in an echo chamber?" It's an interesting article, and I will let you read it for yourself (to fend off the "chamber? chamber? chamber?" bit) but I wanted to add my own thoughts.

Personally, I believe that science (and the world) is heading in a new direction. I am not saying anything new. The internet has clearly broken down many barriers and has opened new doors and venues for discussion. The problem though is that the world is still stuck in a somewhat "corporate" atmosphere, where people in the back of their minds want to be famous and make money. The best scientist with a fantastic blog can have the greatest idea and there will be a little voice in the back of his or her mind that says "Don't you dare! Patents! Glory! Who knows who will steal your idea?!"

We are scientists; we make careers out of thinking and innovating. There is a lot of great stuff out there, but  I find that most science blogs are, quite rightly, discussing and presenting published and relatively concluded research. Do not get me wrong; this is a fantastic development (ArsenicGate anyone? As tired as we all got of it, it surely was fun!), but we need to start taking it to the next level.

Most scientists these days will probably agree that they are a bit disappointed with the so-called "future" of the 21st century. Where is the alternative energy? Where are the flying cars? Okay, flying cars may be pushing it, but I think we are stuck in a need for smaller, faster, me, me, me motivated by corporations, politicians and anyone else you want to blame.

Have you been lying in bed, about to fall asleep, thinking about life, the universe and everything when suddenly you think you have solved the energy crisis? That you have developed bionic technology? That you have a way to get us to Mars?

Science blogs seem to have strayed from true discussion and innovation to journal reviews, rants and observations of society (online or in person) when really, we should be exploiting the fact that there are some very intelligent people out there. I know, there are a lot of whack-a-doodles to filter out, but why is that stopping us?

Online forums. Telephone conferences. These conjure up horrors of trolls and poorly wired microphones. At scientific public talks and conferences, the existence of "trolls" is much less (though occasional, but those lead to good stories) and I believe that is due to the level of discourse taking place from the questions, the speaker and the attendees at the pre- or post-discussion food tables. Why can't we bring that level here? We can read each others ideas, spread them around to people in that field and encourage intelligent, thoughtful discussion? True, the best discussion may happen over email and not on comment boards, but at least it is happening and there is a chance it will happen on the people who can do something about it. 

This is also an exercise in humility. One has to be prepared to throw a wild idea out there and get a response of "This was done three years ago. The inventor lives in a castle and everyone, including my grandparents know about this, how can you be so foolish?" At least it is out there though, right? You never know what line you drew that has never been drawn before. Worth the risk for some innovative scientific advancement, right?

Massive innovation has (in my opinion) fallen by the wayside. The money is in improving what we have already got, not coming up with something new, crazy and risky. So why should we risk our jobs pursuing something like that? Well, this is what the internet is for, right? In this economy, you cannot expect the government to give you a job to simply think of the next great plan (though they have tried), but if we work together here on this wild and wacky world of the internet, you never know what can be accomplished!

So, who wants to go to Mars? Who wants a C3P0? Who wants an available, affordable zero-emission car? Who thinks they have an idea?

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